"The world I've seen is alive and interesting, not because it's perfect and pretty and eternal. But because it needs fixing. I need fixing." The recited quote, an excerpt from one of the many letters written by the legendary Woody Guthrie, establishes the underlying theme and defines the inspiration and context for the songs that are about to follow. An expansive wall of electric guitars immediately transitions the listener into "Love Will Heal You," the upbeat, optimistic opening track to The Uncounted Blue Jillions - the debut album from Milwaukee-based indie rock outfit The Hatchets.
The band consists of Justin Otto on guitar and vocals, along with guitarist James Sauer (L'Resorts, Ladders), bassist Allen Coté (Peter Mulvey, Lyric Advisory Board) and drummer Nick Lang (Buffalo Gospel, countless others). The album also features an expansive cast of local and regional musicians, including Milwaukee icon Caley Conway, who reads several excerpts from Guthrie's pen. While all the members of The Hatchets are longtime veterans of the Milwaukee scene and have played together in other iterations, they are launching the current lineup and moniker along with the album release.
Recorded at The Midwest Sound in Rockford, IL and The Chair Company in Milwaukee, engineered by Ian Olvera, and produced by Lawton Hall, The Uncounted Blue Jillions is a concept album based around the life and work of Woody Guthrie, the legendary folksinger who in the later years of his traumatic life suffered from an inherited disease that robbed him of many aspects of his identity. Guthrie died from complications of Huntington's Disease on October 3, 1967.
While it might seem like an obscure topic for a rock record, the musical journey of The Uncounted Blue Jillions serves as a lens through which to examine how the complicated legacy of American history is in our blood. The record is an attempt to grapple with that legacy, ultimately asserting that even as the ghosts of the past live on, hope proves equally durable. The album's fresh, intense sound, coupled with Justin's earnest and passionate vocals, makes The Uncounted Blue Jillions a captivating musical journey that strikes a bittersweet balance between hope, reflection and discontent - a compelling and powerful listen.
Coinciding the release of The Uncounted Blue Jillions, SoundThread Music Blog caught up with The Hatchet's Justin Otto to chat about the band, the making of the album, and the first single releases.
Congratulations on the release of The Uncounted Blue Jillions! Can you tell us a bit about the album and how the songs emerged in their current form?
I wrote the songs about a fictionalized version of Guthrie in the middle of his physical, mental and professional decline. That version is more interesting to me than the flannel-clad killer of fascists better known to the popular imagination.
The backstory of the record is that we all went to Rockford, IL a couple years ago to record these songs live at a house studio called The Midwest Sound. I rented out the studio for a long weekend and we all stayed there the whole time. When we left, the band thought the album was done, but I planned to sneak in some strings and horns. That led to a lot of other stuff, which is why it took me two years. The guys in the band were pretty surprised to hear what it sounded like when I sent them the finished product.
Can you tell us how the album's title was chosen?
The title of the album is taken from an essay Woody Guthrie wrote that I really love. A fellow Milwaukee musician (and genius, check her out!) named Caley Conway recited various Guthrie quotes throughout the album. I asked her to read them because after finishing the songs I felt there needed to be a through line that tipped the listener off to the fact these songs were all part of a larger idea. I originally swore to myself I wasn't going to discuss the way Guthrie inspired the whole record, as I figured anyone could google the quotes and figure that out if they wanted to. I've since broken that rule on several occasions.
How did the the band name of 'The Hatchets' originate?
I was at a show with a friend, and this friend asked what my band was called. I said I wasn't sure yet, so she volunteered to name the band. I told her if she could pick a name that wasn't awful and didn't already exist on Spotify, I would take it. She chose "The Hatchets," and I told her I guaranteed there would be at least 1000 bands with that name. Turns out there were zero. So I took the name. And coincidentally, one of my first songs was called "Hatchets," so I figured there was at least a modicum of personal significance there...but that's it.
Can you tell us about the first single ("Don't Let Me Go") and the two different versions that were recorded (i.e., the acoustic album version and the full-band single version)?
I didn't have the song "Don't Let Me Go" quite ready for the band before we went into the studio, so it got left off those sessions. Shortly afterwards I finished it, and recorded it solo acoustic for the album. We had a rough idea for another part to flesh out the sound but weren't sure what instrument to do it on, so James (our guitar player) just played a scratch version of the part with an app on his phone. That's what we ended up using on the track. As it came time to pick a few songs to release as singles, I realized most of the candidates on the album were 4+ minutes--a little long for the radio. Also, the strings and horns on the album make the songs sound so huge, so I thought it would be good to offer an initial impression that sounded a little more like something a 4 piece rock band could perform live. So we recorded a full band arrangement of "Don't Let Me Go," which turned out pretty radio friendly. We're also releasing "Love Will Heal You" online this week though, so people shouldn't be too taken aback when they hear the record.
The band recently performed for 91.7 WMSE's Local/Live segment, and premiered the single release of "Don't Let Me Go" on 88nine Radio Milwaukee on July 12th. The band's Milwaukee album release show takes place at Company Brewing on Friday, July 19. Be sure to check that out if this is your neck of the woods!
According to the band, a video for the album's opening track "Love Will Heal You" is slated for release this Fall, along with a tour to support the album. $1 from every album sold will be donated to The Woody and Marjorie Guthrie Fund to assist people with Huntington's Disease.
Head over to the band's official website to read some of Justin's recently penned thoughts about Woody Guthrie. Coinciding with the late icon's birthday (July 14), Justin's words provide additional context to what the record is about. For more information about The Hatchets, follow the band on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and find their music on SoundCloud and Spotify.