Late last year, Hans Chew quietly released his fourth album, Open Sea. He’s known for his work with Endless Boogie, Jack Rose, Steve Gunn, Hiss Golden Messenger, and others, and the record caught our ears in a big way at Aquarium Drunkard. “While digging into Open Sea, Hans Chew’s latest/greatest LP, your imagination may conjure up some dream rock combos,” Tyler Wilcox wrote in his review of the record. “Leon Russell hiring Television to be his backing band in ’77? Joe Boyd producing the Allmans? JJ Cale jamming with Crazy Horse?”
It’s a record that feels lived in, by a guy who’s lived an awful lot. Backed by the Rhyton rhythm section, Chew provides boogying piano and guitar along with lead guitarist Dave Cavallo, bearing his heart over a set of deep grooves. “Who am I/to forget it?” he pleads at the start of “Who Am Your Love,” singing like a man with a lot on his mind, summarizing, “The one who cares will not be spared/from the tender.”
That sense of tenderness and care was evident as we called Chew up in New York to discuss the record and the long road he took getting to it. The conversation’s been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aquarium Drunkard: There’s always a big question when it comes to music that engages rootsy textures like yours about “authenticity.” Open Sea blends and mutates a lot of styles, but what ultimately makes it yours? What does authenticity mean in the context of your music?
Hans Chew: A big part of my entire life has been sorting out and kind of finding my way in the world, growing and maturing…I really don’t feel like I got my act together until I was in my late 20s. I was probably about 28. I went down a dark road for a while…I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s always been a question for me of, you know, when people say “just be yourself.” It seemed like such a simple statement and I got what it meant. I understood the gist of it, but for the life of me, that was–that’s always been the question, I mean still, to this day, to a large extent, I still ask myself, “What does that mean to ‘just be yourself?'”
I mean, there’s all these other people out there. I would love to be like that person and that person. [You ask] what kind of singing voice should I try to have? What kind of style should I try to do? And then I guess I got to a point where I realized, I could try to scream into a pillow every night and try to get a voice like Tom Waits, or I could try to do some kind of Nick Cave/David Yow/Iggy Pop impersonation, you know, swallow the microphone, but then I was like, you know the limitless well of inspiration that I have is my own uniqueness of a human being. I know we’re all humans, and we’re all 99.9% the same. But everybody is also unique. There’s nobody else who’s had my exact existence, as far as I know. Maybe the anti-matter Hans or something in some parallel universe.
So I realized if I could just be myself and draw on my own experiences, you know, that’s at least going to be something real that I have. That’s an angle that I have that no one else has. But it’s easier said than done. I still think, “Am I forcing this by trying to be a songwriter? Is this natural?” I kind of touched on some of those things on the record like that. The first song on the record, “Give Up The Ghost,” it’s kind of like that line: “the horror of a borrowed fantasy.”
I haven’t overtly thought about authenticity in relation to music. Is Merle Haggard more real than some Americana guy that’s wearing a cowboy hat and has a beard? Who’s more authentic in terms of that? Does Hank Williams ride a mule and pull a plow…does that make him more authentic than Gary Stewart, who worked at RCA? I think, for me, that it has been a question about “Who am I?” and “How can I express who I am?” For me, it’s always gone hand and hand with “being myself.”
AD: Do you feel like you get to yourself through the music?
Hans Chew: I’ve always felt deeply and I’ve felt magic in the world. I’ve had intense emotions, and I’ve always wanted to be able to express that, because I know I feel that when I listen to the music that I love. Something is being communicated there that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck, and it makes me feel like there is something going on in this existence, and if I could just figure out how to express those feelings that I’ve had from time to time, maybe I could turn someone else on. If I can get at that, maybe I can get at, I guess, my authentic self.
AD: Open Sea is a rock & roll record, but it’s a deeply layered one, stylistically. You’re pulling from roots music, blues, country, jazz. How does the particular combination come together?
Hans Chew: I had had a handful of lessons when I was a kid, but [when] I kind of got serious about getting my life together in my late 20s, I got a piano and started learning to play. I put out my first record by writing my first songs probably. I was into my 30s when I made my first record, and so yeah, I was trying different things. My first record has a certain sound, and my second record definitely had a different sound…I’ve been through different trips, right? I think I’m going to be one of those people that might just keep experimenting. It might be I need to do a solo piano record. I might want to get back there again and try to do my “James Booker at the grand piano with the microphone” record. ‘Cause I know that feeling that he must be feeling when he’s up there belting out those vocals and running those fingers across the keys…it’s like, “Man, what does that feel like?” [Laughs]
So I don’t know where the music is going to take me next, but I definitely am a rock ‘n’ roller at heart. When people ask me like, “You’re a musician? What kind of music do you play?” I say, “It’s basically just rock ‘n’ roll.” But that said, what is rock ‘n’ roll? It’s hillbilly music…it’s blues…it’s all that stuff, you know…from Scott Joplin in ragtime up to the tail-end of jazz into the early boogie-woogie, into the early jump blues. I like all that stuff.
AD: You mentioned you didn’t start playing music professionally until your late ’20s. When did it start to click? When did you say, “OK, this is what I do?”
Hans Chew: Everybody goes through stuff in their life, right? I had an intense childhood…when I got into my teens and in my 20s, I got mixed up into drugs pretty badly.
AD: How badly?
Hans Chew: About as badly as you can get. About as badly as you can get without, you know…I was able to get it together before I lost my life. So I was about 28 and I kind of had an epiphany. I was like, “Either I’m going to wind up in jail, or I’m going to wind up dead. Because that’s what was happening to the few remaining people that would hang out with me.
AD: And you turned to music?
Hans Chew: I started out as a drummer [and] I had a handful of piano lessons when I was, like, five or six years old or something, that my mom made me do. I hated it [laughs]. But then my dad got me a drum kit when I was about 12 or 13, and I think I had a band for a few months when I was about 12 or 13. And I played a little bit in high school, maybe a band or two, but nothing serious. And then the music just fell by the wayside, basically, until I picked it up again when I was 28. I decided I was going to try to put my life together and really make an effort to be a musician. I had thought it was always going to come natural to me. I thought, like, I was this specially touched person that felt so much from music that I wouldn’t have to try. I was a special person and I was going to be Lou Reed without even thinking about it, right?
AD: Sure, you’d just be there by force of will.
Hans Chew: [But] I realized, “Okay, I’ve gotten nowhere. Maybe you actually have to put in a little work.” I had an epiphany [around that time]. I said, “I’m going to really give it a shot.” I bought a piano, bought some sheet music…around around that time, my friend David Shuford, of No-Neck Blues Band, of Python, of D. Charles Speer & the Helix…we had gone to high school together in Atlanta, and he had been back in touch with me and said, “I have a band.” I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but it was, like, “Hey man, can I come up and I’ll play piano in your band? Can I move to New York City?” And he was like, “Absolutely.” I came up and we made the After Hours record. I quit my job. [I thought] “I’ve got some money and a 401K, I’m going to move to New York and I’m gonna give it a shot.”
He introduced me to Jason Meagher; he was our bandmate and engineer in D. Charles Speer, and I got enough songs together, and Jason helped me make my first record Tennessee and Other Stories. Jack Rose was a huge fan of mine for whatever reason, he took a real shine to me. He took me under his wing, and through that connection, I was able to get on the radar of people like John Mulvey at Uncut, and now at Mojo, and my first record got quite a bit of acclaim for just a first record. I figured, “Wow, this is happening for me. I should keep doing this, you know? Everything I touch is going to turn to gold.” And then my second record it was, like, crickets [Laughs].
So then the third record, now this is my fourth record, and I don’t know…I guess I’m never going to stop making music, you know? I think I’ve always known I’m a musician. I think for a while I was trying to make money with it, maybe make a career out of it. Now I’m kind of more in a place where I’m just like, “Well, I’ve got a good day gig and I love making records, and I have the time to do it. Let’s just keep doing it for doing its own sake and enjoying it. Maybe other people will turn onto it.
AD: It sounds like making music is what feels most natural to you.
Hans Chew: 100%, yeah. That’s the only thing that’s ever felt natural to me, playing music.
AD: You took a huge leap moving to NYC, just diving into it. What inspired that confidence?
Hans Chew: [Sighs] I guess…you know when people talk about dreams…”What is your dream?” I think I just got really honest with myself and looked really deep inside and [asked], “What do I want to do?” Like, “If I could do anything, what do I really want to do? What do I love? What’s going to make me happy?” People talk about doing what you love, [not worrying] about making money. If you really want happiness, do what you love. And so, the answer for me was, “I would be a musician. I thought, “Somehow, I could just seek out a modest existence doing that because that’s what I love doing.” I got to that place where I had gotten sober from being, essentially, a drug addict and I was faced with, “Now what do I do with my life?” I thought, “Now’s the time to reinvent myself.”
AD: Did playing music help with the process of dealing with your addiction?
Hans Chew: I think it was that process. It was kind of like the sobering up and the quitting using drugs and all that sort of stuff that was just like, you know…it was a gratitude thing. Getting back in that headspace again, I kind of felt like it was a little quid pro quo thing. I think I can remember at one point going through the physical withdrawal from the drugs, and just kind of praying to whatever god was out there that, you know, if I could be given a second chance, that I would be diligent, and I would take that opportunity and that I would not disappoint. For whatever it’s worth, if that’s corny or whatever, I felt like I was given a second chance. I felt like I had a newly found life, you know? So I really had to try to do this thing.
AD: Obviously, some time has passed…do you still feel driven by that initial impulse?
Hans Chew: Yeah, I think so. I feel like maybe I’ve mellowed a little bit, but I do feel like any time I’m on stage or given an opportunity…yeah man, I definitely get that adrenaline going. I feel like even if there’s nobody in the room…if I’m in Lexington on a Tuesday night, it’s almost like it’s even more compelling to just play your heart out and sweat and go for it.
Yeah, it gets me going. It’s like a drug, it’s vital, it’s ritualistic, it’s food for the soul. An opportunity to play music, you know? It’s an incredible gift. Yes, I still feel that intensity. I definitely do, even though maybe I hadn’t put my finger on it, but absolutely. I had a gig last night, you know, we played at the Knitting Factory here in New York and, man, it was so cathartic…It’s magical, you know? words/j woodbury