Hayden Pedigo :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Leave it to Texas guitarist Hayden Pedigo to confound. On the cover of the 27-year-old’s latest album, a pristine collection of carefully played and beautifully arranged solo acoustic guitar called Letting Go, Pedigo stands adorned in black-metal style corpse paint in front of a big rig. Absurdist humor has been one of Pedigo’s trademarks since emerging in the early 2010s with albums like Five Steps and Greetings From Amarillo. But in 2019, the fledgling guitar soli practitioner made national waves as an aspiring city council member in his hometown of Amarillo. His wonky campaign ads didn’t win him the race, but the bid did end up resulting in a fully fledged documentary film, Kid Candidate, which was released earlier this year. By the time the campaign was over, Pedigo and his wife L’Hannah had left his lifelong home in Amarillo and headed to Lubbock. It was there, in a new town, working a new job he was uninspired by, he decided it was time to quit banking and devote himself fully to music—and to reconnecting with his estranged family. Letting Go was born out of his inward reflections, part mission statement, part olive branch, part open-hearted examination of his roots as a minister’s kid. Recorded with producer Andrew Weathers, its gentle acoustic compositions were fleshed out by contributions from cosmic pedal steel player Luke Schneider and synth wizard Rich Ruth, but nothing ever commands attention away from from the intimate (instrumental) storytelling. Joining us from Weathers’ studio as he was preparing for a run of live performances, Pedigo dug in, discussing the familial ties at the core of the album, discovering underground music while being home-schooled, and how his faith exists in conversation with his art. And yeah, we discuss the corpse paint. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: Your sense of melody is foundational to your records, but this one feels feels like your most inviting record yet. Could you tell me about the intentions you brought to this set of songs? 

Hayden Pedigo: For one, I wanted to make a pure guitar record. In the past, my playing wasn’t up to par in my eyes to do that kind of album. I wanted to make a record that one day people would go, “If you’ve never listened to Hayden Pedigo, Letting Go is the one to start with.” 

AD: John Fahey remains a touchstone for you, but I hear a lot of Leo Kottke in this too. There’s a precision and a cleanness to the playing that doesn’t come at the expense of feel or vibe. Is what we hear on this record a reflection of kind of acoustic guitar music you would have heard growing up in Amarillo?

Hayden Pedigo: Yeah, for sure. My parents had a cabinet with CDs and a Leo Kottke [greatest hits collection]. He has that weird split where his Takoma stuff and his Capitol stuff are never featured on the same record. So it’s Kottke from Greenhouse onward—his nicest, his cleanest playing. That was my introduction to solo playing. I had always heard people like Chet Atkins, but I never understood how they were playing those rhythms. For whatever reason, that Kottke album was how I figured it out. And in the liner notes of that compilation, it said the name “John Fahey,” so that’s how I found him. 

AD: What was the first Fahey record you got your hands on? 

Hayden Pedigo: The Yellow Princess. I grew up in a pretty religious household. Home-schooled, pretty cut off from everything. I had the library and limited internet use at my parent’s house. But I would always go to Allmusic and scour those reviews. A lot of those Fahey reviews were written by Eugene Chadbourne. His review of The Yellow Princess said it sounded as if the listener had taken up residency in the sound hole of a giant acoustic guitar, and that’s what made me buy it at 14.

AD: Did you have much of a frame of reference for the more contemporary artists exploring the solo guitar style, people who are now your peers? 

Hayden Pedigo: When I was young, I was into prog rock. Then I found more ambient, Tangerine Dream-type stuff. Stockhausen, weird shit. Then I found Fahey. I just started mashing all this weird shit together. I wasn’t really in the know on a lot of modern music. I was 17 when I got a Facebook account, so I started finding modern players then. I friended Daniel Bachman when I was in high school; one of the earliest shows I played was with him. I used him as a reference on what to do. I copied him a lot. He’d released a tape called Funny How Plans Change on a little tiny label called Marmara out of Austin. I got my Facebook account and messaged them, “Hey, can I do a tape with y’all?” So we did Seven Years Late. Daniel was like, “Hey, I also release with this Seattle label called Debacle.” They released Five Steps. So early on, I was mimicking his path. He was younger, someone I could ask, “Hey, how can I do this? What do I do?” 

AD: Five Steps featured you playing with people like Mark Fosson, Chuck Johnson, Fred Frith, Charles Hayward from This Heat, and others. That was also the result of you just reaching out to those players on Facebook, asking them to be on the record?

Hayden Pedigo: Facebook and Gmail. That album was made with a Zoom recorder, one microphone and GarageBand. That’s it. 

AD: So what kind of music did you hear growing up around the house?

Hayden Pedigo: I didn’t grow up in a very musical household. Glen Campbell, The Eagles—that’s the kind of stuff my dad would listen to. My mom’s the reason I got into guitar. She’d play CDs of Santana in the car. She listened to Van Morrison a lot, and that made me a lifelong Van Morrison fan. It was more of the ‘80s, New Age-y version of Van Morrison. Hymns to the Silence-era. Because my parents were very Christian-oriented, I was limited in what I could listen to. I owned Dark Side of the Moon for five minutes. I was 12. I walked out of a store in the mall and my mom looked at it and said, “That’s druggy music, take it back.” So I had to return it, but because of that, it changed how I listened to music. I thought, “The weirder I get, the less they know about it, the less reason they have to take it away.” I couldn’t listen to Pink Floyd, but I could listen to Tangerine Dream. It started going on this downward spiral. If my parents would have let me buy Dark Side of the Moon, I probably wouldn’t have found Throbbing Gristle. It kind of backfired. 

AD: You’ve been pretty open about how your current period follows one of estrangement from your parents, and how this record was part of your way of reaching out to them. What made you want to reconnect? 

Hayden Pedigo: I think I always had a strained relationship. I was trying to do stranger music, and we butted heads about it. When I reached my early 20s, it reached a breaking point. I went three years without speaking to any of my family. During that period of time, I ran for city council [as documented by Jasmine Stodel’s 2021 film Kid Candidate] which made it even weirder. Then I left my hometown and moved to Lubbock, so my wife could get her degree. I felt separated from the place I was born and raised. It was a long period of deep internal reflection. At the same time, I started writing new songs and there was this underlying feeling of brightness and hopefulness [in the new music]. It drove me to keep creating, finish the record, and start taking with them, to try and find some mutual understanding between us. It ended up being really beautiful.

AD: You’ve mentioned your parent’s religiosity. Did they feel like the path you were on was at odds with their faith?  

Hayden Pedigo: I was raised Christian and I still am a Christian. But I think where it got weird is that my parents viewed it in a very strict sense, a “light has no fellowship with darkness” type deal. They would hear me listen to This Heat and be like, “That’s bad stuff, you need to be careful with music, it’s evil.” That was always the conversation growing up. “Why are you doing make experimental noise? That’s not normal, you shouldn’t do that.” I was always interested in things on the fringes. My parents did not like that kind of stuff. I was homeschooled the entire way. I didn’t go to public school. We lived out in the country and my dad was a preacher at a truck stop. I wasn’t around any other kids. I moved out right when I was 18, and I was very eager to do a lot as fast as I could. I felt like I’d missed out on a lot of stuff. 

AD: I love that the album cover features an 18-wheeler—one similar to one your dad might have been preaching in front of. But also: your record of reconciliation and forgiveness also features you in corpse paint on the cover. I like the idea of reconnecting, but not abandoning your rebelliousness and playfulness.

Hayden Pedigo: Solo guitar music, to be frank, it’s such a stuffy genre. People pose for their press photos wearing a tweed jacket with their guitar on their lap. I’ve done that too. But I’m willing to not take myself to seriously. 

AD: So many of the people you cite as influences—Terry Allen, Tim Heidecker, Harmony Korine—these are artists who very often use humor as a mode, but it’s never just humor. Life is not just one mode. I’ve had funny things happen at funerals. That’s who we are.

Hayden Pedigo: I always say, “Try to be open to looking dumb.” I’ve done a lot of things that risked looking silly and stupid. That’s why I look to people like Harmony Korine. Solo guitar music can make you very shielded; there’s not a lot of room to look dumb. You make a record and put it out and it just is what it is. I want to take it further. I don’t have lyrics going on, but I think there’s a human element. It begins right when you look at the cover. You have to subvert expectations. I think a black metal fan might buy the record and be surprised what the music is. I think an older person might put the record on with a feeling of distaste about the cover and think, “Oh, this is really nice.” It needs to flip expectations, no matter who’s putting the record on.

AD: Kid Candidate probably opened you up to people to your music. And the other way around, people who dig your music might not necessarily get what’s going on with that movie. Your bid for city council started as a lark. What is it that happens in your head when and idea seizes you and think, “I’m going to do this”? Is there a moment where things click into place? 

Hayden Pedigo: The city council thing was a really specific situation. When I made the fake city council ad, that was made in a series of hours. Me and a friend shot it on a cell phone, put it up on Facebook, and it got a lot of traction. I started to see the attention it was getting and thought, what can I do with that that’s more meaningful than “funny video, I was just playing with y’all.” I grew up in Amarillo and had a lot of problems with the city. So screw it, I’m not going to just let this be a joke. The most lethal joke every is a funny video that ends up exposing corruption on a city council. At the end, it’s not funny, but it’s that Randy Newman thing: the funniest jokes are rooted in dark truths. 

AD: You left Amarillo for Lubbock last year. What do you miss most about your home town? 

Hayden Pedigo: I miss the comfort and familiarity. I grew up there. I know the place. It has a lot of great food. But I felt like I had to leave. I felt like I’d done all I could there, musically and in a lot of other ways. It was terrifying leaving. But it was something necessary. I couldn’t have made this record without leaving Amarillo. 

AD: Why not? 

Hayden Pedigo: I needed to be scared more. I needed to have more desperation in my work. I think that translated into more genuine songs. 

AD: You left your job too. Was that part of that do or die inspiration?

Hayden Pedigo: When I got to Lubbock I was working a standard bank job, like I always had. A crappy job in a cubical. I’d just finished the city council race and I didn’t have any new songs written. Everything just came to a halt. At my bank job, I looked at my phone and saw that North Americans, Patrick [McDermott], announced he’d signed to Third Man. Nothing against him, but I was fucked up over it. It wasn’t anger, but in a competitive way, I was like, “I gotta do something.” I knew I needed to make a really good record. I talked with my wife L’Hannah and asked her if I could quit my bank job to work on a record. I’d never done that. She was like, “Do it, now.” I gave my two weeks notice and started writing. 

AD: Did you feel charged up right away? 

Hayden Pedigo: It felt different than anything I’d written. My playing was better. There was a spark in it. And it all came naturally. I do work in a competitive way. I need competition to move me. It’s not the healthiest way…but I just knew I needed to step up my game. 

AD: Let’s go back to the truck stop a bit. Would your dad preach at multiple truck stops? 

Hayden Pedigo: My dad would preach at one single truck stop. In Amarillo, there’s a Petro and a ministry called Truckstop Ministries. Truck stops will have chapels at them, and at this one, it was a converted 18-wheeler trailer. So every Sunday, we’d go out there. Every week it would be different people. 

AD: When you think back on it, do you have pretty early memories of being at that place? 

Hayden Pedigo: When I was a kid, my dad preached at a homeless shelter. By the time I was 13, he’d taken on preaching at the truck stop. And this wasn’t my dad’s job—he didn’t get paid anything to do it. He had a graphic design agency he’d run during the week, and on Sundays, go preach there. During my high school years, it was a big part of my life. I met a lot of incredible people. Truck drivers face a really depressing, bleak existence sometimes. They’re out there by themselves on the road. They turn to those chapels for hope. They need fellowship with people and they’re looking for light. I saw a lot of grim things. People suffering from addictions, people who were suicidal. People from all different cultures. I think so many people have a mental picture of a truck driver as a white-haired, 50-year old white guy with a beer gut, when there are so many people who are truck drivers. 

I remember this was this one guy was from Pakistan, I don’t remember his name. But one Sunday he came up after my dad finished preaching and said, “Hey can I come back to your house and make y’all lunch?” My dad said sure. He made us food with what we had. “Do you have beef? Do you have a mint plant?” We actually did have a mint plant in our backyard. So he picked mint and cooked with it. I met a lot of interesting and intriguing people through the truck stop. A lot of weird people, a lot of fried people. It was strange. 

AD: It probably prepared you well for the world of independent music to some degree. 

Hayden Pedigo: I didn’t have a lot of experience talking to people my own age. It was older people talking to me, and they were usually pretty intense conversations. Arguing religion, life, politics, things like that. So I wasn’t as intimidated about reaching out to people. I was used to talking to random people. 

AD: Was there every a point when you weren’t a Christian? 

Hayden Pedigo: There’s never been a point I went through where I didn’t believe in Christ. I think there was a point when I drifted away. I didn’t want to touch it. But I was never an atheist. I never denounced it. I think I was upset, feeling like it was forced upon me, just because of my upbringing. I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. So I had to back away and re-approach it on my own terms as an adult. 

AD: At this point do you feel like your music and your faith overlap? 

Hayden Pedigo: In the simplest terms, if there’s a linkage between the two: it’s looking for positivity, hope, and light in a time when it’s very difficult to find that. They serve an intertwined function. I read psalms a lot when I’m in a grim place. Music serves that function. That’s how they are intertwined: seeking hope and peace when you’re low. 

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