Since moving home to Ohio from Austin, Texas, Christman Hersha has made the switch from the synthesized ballads of his former band The Story Of, to the “powerful minimalism” of bluegrass and folk. And with the help of Heartlanders member Chris Sutton, he’s been rediscovering his love of music and taking inspiration from the landscape of Ohio.
In fact, Hersha, who studied music production at Ohio University, has gone so far as to record the band playing out in the woods, under bridges, in old houses and their garden.You were originally in The Story Of, a band that had some success when it moved from Ohio to Austin. Now you're back in Ohio with a completely different type of musical project. Can you tell me a little bit about that journey?
We decided that we wanted a little bit of an adventure. I don’t want to look back and be like, "That was a bad decision," because I really enjoyed Austin, and all of us did. But it was really difficult being there, because it’s not entirely our scene, you know, at least with that band and especially nowadays.
Austin is very image-based, especially as far as the music that comes out of there. It was a little hard for us, because I guess we’re all kind of reserved and dorky, so it was kind of a challenge to fit in to that.
Kind of the reason that we stopped playing is because we got hooked up with some management that helped us out and got us some really great opportunities, but they were kind of pigeonholing us into this scene that we weren’t quite comfortable with. What kind of scene was that?
I don’t know, I’m trying to figure out how to articulate it. You know, we would play these shows and do some of these bigger festivals, you know, Red Bull and South By (Southwest). Those were great and everything, and our manager was really cool. But her connections were the California connections, so she’d always want us to go network with these bigwigs of this and that, but these basically weren’t our people. They weren’t kind-hearted or sincere.
So it would be like, “Hey come to this after-party at 3 a.m. to network or whatever or you won’t be able to play this festival or this or that.” It kind of turned us off to the whole thing, because it seemed like opportunities in this scene were not based on merit, but on how willing you are to kiss somebody’s butt.
You know, I don’t delude myself into thinking that being in the music world that’s not always part of it. The whole thing is a game and a kind of performance in a lot of ways of speaking. But as far as the bands we were hooking up with and the other musicians, they weren’t bands that we would typically listen to or would excite us creatively. So it felt like we were in a downward spiral and getting burned out. Alex (Huff), the other song writer in The Story Of along with me, we both kind of had been working on our own stuff. We played this show in Colorado, and I called Alex up—we still have a good friendship—but it was just kind of like, "Let’s pull the plug on this.” At this point I was going back and forth from Ohio to Austin. They were flying me down for shows. (My wife is up here getting a grad degree at Miami….and we needed a change from Austin.)
So I started writing songs—I guess you can call them Heartlander songs—in that time when it was one foot in Austin and one foot in Ohio. I had a lot of connections down there through The Story Of, like people at press outlets, and our manager was still really cool with hooking me up with people. So once I formally decided to stay in Ohio, I met this dude Chris. He’s a total sweetheart and a great guy. He’s from Washington, and I’d played with several musicians from Cincinnati, but didn’t find a common ground with them, but then I met up with Chris. How did the two of you meet?
It’s kind of funny. I played flag football—you don’t really think of musicians doing sports, but I decided that it would be fun, because a couple of people I hadn’t seen were playing and it was co-ed too, so it wasn’t really intense. But one of the dudes on the team, his brother was Chris. He moved here—he was actually doing farming in Mexico and doing stuff all over the place. You know, he’s a little younger than me, but he’s got so much life experience—it’s funny—he seems older than me.
Pete, the percussionist, the guy on the football team was like, "Hey, my brother is trying to meet some people, he doesn’t really know anyone in Cincinnati yet.” So he introduced us and it just worked out. We’ve been going at it pretty hard since then. Can you tell me a little bit about how Ohio and Appalachia influences you?
Oh yeah. We kind of brought that down with us into Texas (with The Story Of), being as most of us grew up in that region—either Southeastern or Southwestern Ohio. Myself, I grew up in this area. I guess a lot of the cultural elements, the way musicians and artists approach their work seems to be unique to the area.
I think that’s probably why Austin didn’t fit me, or any of us in The Story Of, because the motivations are just different down there. I don’t want to generalize the artists in Austin (because most of them are not from there). But as far as the folk and bluegrass stuff, which I obviously didn’t write much when I was in The Story Of, I wanted to try something new and distance myself from that, because I was soured on it all.
So creatively, I wanted to do something that was more powerfully minimalistic and I’ve always liked bluegrass, so I wanted to try to do that and to migrate over from synthesizers to banjos and slide guitar. Chris was a real blessing in that regard, because he’s very good at that style….He’s kind of new to this area, but he’s definitely heard about Athens and Appalachia and some of the groups that have come out of there like Southeast Engine and stuff. Obviously the Austin scene really brought you down, did you ever get to a point where you thought, you were done with music all together?
Yeah. I sure did. When Alex and I agreed to set aside The Story Of, we both kind of stopped playing music for a while and had to rediscover what role it was going to play in our lives.
That’s what I like about this project. For one, there not as many cooks in the kitchen to please. I ran The Story Of like a complete communist regime, where everyone’s input was equal. So creatively, that really slowed us down, which is why we would come out with an album every year and a half. So working with less people is fantastic.
But also the motivations, like what we want out of music, have drastically changed, because for one, I don’t think I’m as naïve about the possible outcome. Neither Chris nor I have this delusion of wanting to get rich or famous. That’s absolutely not why we do it.
As far as opportunities for us, the licensing thing has worked out fantastic. We can sit in a wood shed and be introverted and make our own music and people can hear it via that. Obviously, we like to perform for audiences, but that’s just one part of it, and this allows us to pick and choose. Where can we hear these licensed songs?
We have a few songs with that New Belgian Brewery—they don’t distribute in Ohio, ironically. They’ve licensed a few songs for their commercials. Let’s see, the Discovery Channel in some new documentary series that they used part of a song for. Stuff like that. Most of these aren’t big things like, “Hey featured song!” It’s more like, here’s a twenty second snippet of music and it just happens to be our stuff. And that funds our situation with recording costs and distribution costs.