Published on September 10th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Hartwell Littlejohn Reflects on the Former Chord & Pedal Scene
Singer/songwriter Hartwell Littlejohn does his twangy rock ‘n’ pop thing in New York City these days, but his roots run deep in the Charleston indie scene. Every time he travels from his Big Apple digs to the Charleston area, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll homecoming of some sort — gig or no gig. This week, he’ll return with guitar and amp in hand along with a pile of new original tunes and a box of independently produced CDs.
It’s probably safe to tag Littlejohn as an indie rock veteran of the Lowcountry. He started banging around with garage bands while attending the College of Charleston in the early 1990s. After a post college stint in Chicago, he returned to Charleston in 1998 and swiftly formed two bands — Sleeping on Bonneville (with Jack Burg, Bradley MacLean, and Nicole Antonacci) and the oddly spelled Aamerican Tenants (with Kevin Hanley, Kevin Taylor, Aaron Taylor, and Wayne Goodwin).
The guitar-driven Aamerican Tenants was among the first local acts to assemble as a like-minded collective under the name “Chord & Pedal.” With this band, Littlejohn recorded and performed with a revolving cast of musicians that also included Kevin Gaskins and the late Joey Wallin. They released two full-length collections in the late ’90s: Tenant Rites and Late City Final. In 2001, Littlejohn left town and eventually landed in Nashville where he formed a rock quartet called the Ex-Lovers with fellow singer/guitarist Will Eskridge, After a strong run, the band called it quits in 2006, and Littlejohn headed up to New York.
As a solo singer/songwriter, Littlejohn performed and recorded his countrified music over the last few years. His latest offering is a self-titled, 10-song album tracked at the Manhattan-based studio N.Y. HED.
Metronome Charleston caught up with Littlejohn this week as he prepared for his trip back to Charleston.
Metronome Charleston: Tell us about your first musical experiences in Charleston.
Hartwell Littlejohn: One of the first people I met was Kevin Hanley [a longtime Charleston musician, currently of Here Be Dragons! and Edwardson, Hanley, Slay & Associates], and he was among a group of people who would convene in the old band shell in Marion Square, come midnight or so. But I really wasn’t writing or playing out. I tried the music program at the College of Charleston, but when I had to write a fugue, that was it for me — not because I wasn’t interested necessarily, but I just couldn’t do that.
Metronome Charleston: How would you describe the local band scene in general during the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Hartwell Littlejohn: It was pretty cool for a while. There were good places to play downtown, and there seemed to be something happening with original music. The old Cumberland’s, when it was actually on Cumberland Street, was great a lot of the time, and that place went back years before I was around. The Warehouse on East Bay Street was a scene for a minute. The Horse & Cart was a wonderful mess in its prime. You could get away with a lot at that joint, and we did. So did lots of people I reckon.
There were a good many punk/hardcore shows, as I recall, and I remember a lot of mixed bills with “indie,” or whatever you want to call it, and punk bands. I can’t speak too much about the cover bands … didn’t seem to be much of a crossover. But as much as there seemed to be something kind of cool developing, it seemed to sort of fizzle out. To me, at least.
Even though you would get some bands coming through, I don’t think Charleston was the destination city then that it is now. A lot of bands would skip Charleston, and I feel this had a negative effect on the original bands and whatever “scene” that might have been developing … I’ll probably catch shit for that.
Metronome Charleston: What did the Chord & Pedal bands have most in common, musically and otherwise?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Well for one thing, personnel. The Hayloft Saints, Kevin Gaskins’ main project, shared its roster with at least three or four other bands, the Aamerican Tenants included. I think Zonea, Doug Robertson’s band, is still playing. I’m trying to remember who else was on that Chord & Pedal compilation…
I don’t know how much anyone had in common style-wise, but there was a minute there when we felt something was taking root. People were putting out 7-inch records and all that. But that was almost pre-Chord & Pedal. I think I was gone or on my way out when Kevin Hanley decided to give all this activity a place to call home.
Metronome Charleston: These days, the Chord & Pedal website is down, and the collective has scattered, but many of the musicians who were a part of it still cross paths, collaborate, and support each other. Have you stay connected with many of the old colleagues? And do you find that there’s still a sense of camaraderie that stems from the Chord & Pedal heyday?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Well, I don’t hear from too many of them. I’m in touch with a handful of people. I think a lot of fun was had during that time, so when paths do cross there’s a sense to want to try and kick out the footlights again, so to speak.
Metronome Charleston: Tell us about your early music experiences in New York City. Did you hook up with some key musicians right away? Did it take a while to get settled into a productive routine?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Well, you’re talking about a mere five years ago. One of the first people I met was the drummer I’m playing with now, JD Hughes, but then I only knew him as one of the bartenders at Lakeside Lounge. At first I was paying people to play, but who the fuck am I? James Brown? That didn’t work.
The first year or so, I was working at a guitar store on the weekends, so I got a good feel of what was going on. And I had some other friends here booking bands and stuff, so I met a lot of people, but it was hard finding people who liked my songs enough to want to play them.
One of the best things to happen was to discover this studio, N.Y. HED. Engineer Matt Verta-Ray, one of the partners there, has been great to work with. Only now, though, do I feel like I’m even beginning to have a good formula. Working on a new set of songs with what appears to be an actual band. I think we’re getting good, playing shows.
Metronome Charleston: How and when did the songs on the new album take shape?
Hartwell Littlejohn: So some of those songs are old, and some are from the last couple years. JD Hughes signed up early, and Matt Verta-Ray, in addition to engineering, agreed to play bass. Sergio Sayeg, the lead guitar player on those songs, was part of the Brazilian band Garotas Suecas, but he left them to study here in the U.S. We rehearsed for a while at our apartment, and then we went in early 2012 to record the basic tracks. Finishing it was a chore, and it took most of last year. It shouldn’t have taken so long, but it did. Some of it is, perhaps, overthought.
Metronome Charleston: How do your latest songs compare to what you were doing with more indie-rock style bands like the Aamerican Tenants and the Ex-Lovers? More twang and soul, or something close to that?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Well, the very latest songs are sounding a lot more like those bands you mention. But you’re talking about the self-titled release. There are definitely some country influences at work there, but there always have been, sort of. Perhaps they just weren’t executed properly. Wait, did I say my influences were executed? Don’t meet your idols, or you’ll want to execute your influences
I did try to make a quieter record. Honestly, there are things on there that didn’t quite come out the way I intended. But you’ll have that. Whether it worked or not, I was just trying, if you’ll pardon the cliché, to get out of the way of the song.
Metronome Charleston: What’s your main artistic goal heading into the rest of 2013 and beyond?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Playing on Letterman.
Metronome Charleston: What do you most look forward to doing in Charleston this weekend?
Hartwell Littlejohn: Seeing friends, hanging out, and checking out the pawn shops.
Hartwell Littlejohn will perform at the Tin Roof with Punks & Snakes (a.k.a. Jack Burg) and Bradley MacLean on Fri. Sept. 13 at 9 p.m. Admission is $5. Visit soundcloud.com/hartwell-littlejohn or check out Littlejohn’s Facebook page for more.
“Come Down To County”
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