Living on Contradictions
An Interview by Andrew Collins
Dillon Hodges was into bluegrass before bluegrass was cool. Hailing from a small town in northern Alabama, he had his musical coming age playing bluegrass with musicians four times his age and at the tender age of 17 accomplished his life goal of winning the 2007 National Flat Pick Guitar Championship. From this pinnacle, surrounded by musicians in their forties and fifties, the only musical direction for Hodges to go was to get younger, and so firekid was born.
Creating and performing under this youthful moniker, Hodges’ freshman self-titled album, released last fall, stays true to his southern roots. Firekid is heavily flavored with notes of nostalgic Americana, boot-stomping bluegrass and soulful gospel, but it fuses these spirited traditions to that fresh, energetic synthpop that is all the rage with kids these days. The result makes for a worthy addition to any spring soundtrack.
Firekid’s lyrical themes mirror this confluence of the young and the aged. They challenge the traditional with the emerging and line up old gospel refrains alongside humanistic graduation anthems. Hodges, who is still in his twenties, doesn’t come off as an old soul (he hacks old Nintendo Game Boys for fun), but he’s clearly spent plenty of time with them.
RedFence caught up with Hodges while he was on tour with Kaleo at Washington, D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel.
RedFence: You have your music roots in bluegrass and old time. How did that come about, and how did you get into music in general?
Dillon Hodges: I wanted to play guitar when I was like 11 years old, and my parents didn’t want to invest in a guitar or lessons. But I kept asking and my uncle heard, so he gave me a guitar, and my neighbor offered to teach me lessons for free for my birthday. He was a friend of the family. So I went to the local guitar store and bought what I thought was instructional materials, which was a songbook of Creed: Human Clay. And so I showed up at the guitar lesson with the Human Clay songbook and said “This is what I want to learn,” and he said “Not if you want to take lessons from me. As it seems right now I’m your only choice, and I’m not going to teach you that,” and he threw it in the trash. He taught me bluegrass because that’s what he played, and he was in a position with his work where he was able to spend all day with me. As long as I could stay over at his house, I could take lessons from him. So I would ride my bike over to his house every day and stay until dinnertime, and I’d eat dinner with him and his wife, and then I’d come back. I’d do my homework over there sometimes. But that’s why I started playing bluegrass and roots music. He also took me to these bluegrass competitions on the weekends, and my family took me there too. I would be competing against people four times my age usually, because I was 11 and people were usually fifty years old. But it turned out the more I was in this culture the more those people were my best friends. So I was this 11 year old kid who hung out with all these 50 year old guys.
RF: And this was in Alabama?
DH: This was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, yeah.
RF: What was it like growing up there? It’s a small town but obviously has a rich musical history.
DH: The Muscle Shoals area is Quad Cities. I grew up in Florence, Alabama, which is where the original FAME Recording studios were. There’s a crazy musical heritage that exists there for soul music and such, but I had no idea it was there until I was a junior or senior in high school. What I was involved in was bluegrass, which isn’t what the area’s known for. I guess I just took for granted for the longest time what a supportive musical community the Shoals is. It wasn’t until I traveled elsewhere that I realized, “Oh, every small town doesn’t have thirty or forty local bands.” There aren’t record labels in every small town in America. There’s not an active songwriting scene in every small town.
RF: You won the National Guitar Championship for flatpicking at the tender age of 17 – the second youngest person to win it. First, for the folks reading back home, what exactly is “flatpicking”? And how did you go from that to the music of firekid?
DH: The definition of flatpicking just means that you play acoustic guitar with a flat pick, as opposed to finger style, which is what Chet Atkins and Lindsey Buckingham did – that’s finger-style guitar. Flatpicking just uses a pick, so you’re not really playing. Your right hand is not plucking multiple strings. It’s a funny thing, flatpicking as a name like that, because it’s what I grew up playing. It’s the style of guitar, largely associated with bluegrass and jazz music. When I won the national flatpicking championship, it had been my life goal. I thought I’d be winning it when I was 40, but I won when I was 17, and then it was like, well, where do I go from here? The question ended up answering itself because I was so excited. I was on the front page of the local news, and I told all my friends, “Hey guys, I won the national flatpicking championship” and they were like “What’s that? What is flatpicking?” I wanted to show them what flatpicking was by presenting it in a language that they could understand, which turned out to be firekid. It turned out to be pop music. It’s oddly a strange vehicle to introduce flatpicking into, but it makes a lot of sense.
RF: Your music has this sound that feels both deeply rooted in southern musical traditions like bluegrass, folk, and gospel, but it also fits within the broad stream of indie-pop music that’s so popular these days. You’ve called it “metropolitan mountain music.” That’s an awesome description, but it also kind of sounds like a contradiction of terms.
DH: I think the music is a contradiction. It’s not that we’re creating something new – though maybe we are – but I feel like rock and roll was sort of a contradiction. It’s like mixing urban and rural music, and when you put them together you realize they’re not so dissimilar anyway. I think our music is really just roots music with pop production, fronted by a bluegrass guitarist. It’s hard to describe it sometimes without it sounding jarring. I think you have to hear it to understand it.
RF: What about the moniker “firekid”? Where did that come from?
DH: The name firekid directly came from all these old guys calling me “kid.” They probably even called me “firekid” as a nickname, but when I went out and started working with my producer Sam Hollander, he called me firekid too. It was just a nickname, but it ended up sticking because it was kind of what I’d always been called anyway.
RF: There are a couple tracks on your album that stood out to me that I’d like to ask you about. First, the opening track, Magic Mountain, is about addiction. That’s an interesting inversion of how the mountain metaphor is usually used. Usually the mountain is something you want to climb. What gave you that thought?
DH: It was one of the first songs we wrote for the project. When I say “we” I mean my producer and I. We were out in California, and there’s the Six Flags Magic Mountain park. I’ve never been there, honestly, but when I was driving by it has this grime to it. It looks like after dark some pretty interesting things could go down there.
RF: Yeah I grew up in California not far from Magic Mountain. I can see that
DH: Yeah it seems like after dark it might be sort of an interesting place to visit. It felt like a nice contrast to what mountain means in bluegrass and folk terms. We were talking and we’d been having this conversation about addiction and those three themes sort of all came together to paint this picture that is Magic Mountain, which I felt like was always going to be the introduction of this project. It was the first one that really came alive in production.
RF: To continue with this idea of contradicting expectations, you’re songs are pretty fun and upbeat, but, like Magic Mountain, you listen to the lyrics and they can have a darker, more serious side.
DH: There’s a duality to them, for sure.
RF: Your song Gospel, for instance, captures this search that is at times disillusioned and angst-filled. Does that go back to your bluegrass and gospel influence? Those genres can be filled with spiritual turmoil and dark confrontations.
DH: Yeah, the song was originally inspired by this traditional song that I love called Talk About Suffering. It was one of the songs that I played in my bluegrass days. We actually quoted it in the bridge: “Oh can’t you hear father, and don’t you want to go leave this world of trials and troubles here below?” So we sort of went off that and wrote a modernized version of it with a more universal meaning. So it’s not necessarily about a Scripture or anything like that. It’s about what you’re really searching for, which can be something other than Scripture. Scripture is one of the things people use to fill the hole.
RF: Yeah at times it definitely sounds like your subverting tradition there. In your song Movin’ On, the chorus goes “If you’ve found the truth won’t set you free we can fly away singing oh glory.” That’s of course an inverse of the famous biblical line “the truth shall set you free.”
DH: I feel like that song also can sum up the record. In that same bridge it goes, “It takes more than fate to make our way to happiness. It takes more than faith to find where heaven is.” I think that’s one of the main themes of the album. It’s funny you asked about that, because most people hear it and they think “oh you’re very spiritual,” but it’s more than that. It’s about what “spiritual” means. What appeals to everyone? What are the real questions that we need to ask?
RF: If you don’t mind me asking, do you have a religious background yourself?
DH: I usually don’t talk about it, but I grew up Southern Baptist and my grandfather was a southern Baptist minister and owns one of the largest bible ministries in the world. So it was very much a part of my life growing up. I played in church bands, and so it was always around, but these days…
RF: You mentioned that hole earlier. For you, what is that new spiritual idea or entity that you use to fill the void?
DH: I’ve fallen in love with people that I’ve met. I’ve sort of decided that I believe in the human race, and I think that being on the road and seeing the country has given me faith in us as people more than anything. *laughs* Getting deep!
RF: That’s what it’s all about!
DH: And really the record, a lot of it is about my struggle with becoming who I am from how I was raised.
RF: Let’s talk about the last track on your album, Americana Dream. As you were saying earlier, basically you were into bluegrass before bluegrass was cool.
DH: I still can’t believe that happened. I still can’t believe that bluegrass is cool – like it’s cool to do that now – because I had prepared myself. I was telling myself I can always wear cargo shorts when I play. All my friends are gonna be in their fifties forever. And then something happened in the last part of the 2000s where it was cool.
RF: Is that what inspired Americana Dream? That song sort of calls out music artists who try to appropriate Americana vibes without being true to who they are.
DH: You know, there are a couple things that play out here. I’m very grateful for bands, like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, for popularizing the music that I love. I can’t hate on that. I’m really grateful for that. But I think it was more personal than that for me. It was more about growing up in the Shoals in a town where people love soul music. There was also a metal scene in the Shoals when I was growing up, and that’s what all the young musicians were doing. And I got bullied a little bit – nothing too serious because I didn’t associate with a lot of people. I was sort of in my own corner. But what bothered me was the kids that were playing metal and were giving me a hard time for playing bluegrass were [now, suddenly] wearing overalls and playing banjos and saying “Well I’m from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.”
RF: Let’s talk about what you like to do when you’re not performing as firekid. You’ve become something of a minor viral sensation with your chiptune covers and compositions [created by hacking the aforementioned old Game Boy units to play new tunes in their 8-bit voices]. Do they ever make appearances in your live show?
DH: You’re at a show tonight and I will do a song. I guess using chiptune originally came from people always asking us to do acoustic performances. It’s hard for me because when I do an acoustic performance I just sound like a bluegrass guy. What really makes it firekid is the elements around me. I make it too but it’s a combination of me as a roots musician accompanied by electronic elements, and I feel like when I play acoustic I just sound like a bluegrass guy. So I wanted a way to do these acoustic performances but still sound similar to what we sound like. When you go into a board room there’s not a lot of options. You can bring little toys and stuff and play on them. And I thought, toys. I was at my parents’ house and I remembered “Oh I have a Nintendo Game Boy down there. I think I heard one time that people can hack their Game Boys to play music,” so I did and I just got way into it. We premiered it at Hangout Music Festival for this session and it was a huge hit. So I decided “Well, people like it. I should get really good at it.” We started doing covers and it got out of control.
RF: Can we ever expect a whole album of chiptune songs?
DH: Maybe. The chiptune community’s really small. The biggest chiptune artist in the world is still someone very approachable and kind. So there’s a few chiptune artists I’ve thought about reaching out to do a collaboration with because they’re much better at it than I am. I just happen to not just have the Game Boy. We have roots instruments that we can use along with the Game Boy that make it weird and unique.
RF: Aside from chiptuning (is that even a verb?), do you have any other interests or hobbies that inspire you?
DH: Yeah, I love to travel, which is good because we tour a lot. So when we’re on the road I’ll try to find the weirdest things I can possibly find. I just Google “weirdest thing to do” in whatever area we’re in. We were driving through Arkansas recently. In a place called Fouke, Arkansas there’s this urban legend of a southern Sasquatch, and they’ve made this whole area in town of monuments of the Sasquatch. There’s statues of him, and there’s a general store with a giant sasquatch clutching it. So we’ll make stops like that and buy merch. In the middle of nowhere Tennessee there’s a guy who bought all this land in the middle of a downtown square. It’s probably an acre, and just filled it with trash – organized trash as a monument to his deceased father. And so of course we have to go see that. Anytime we have even an hour to spare we will be doing weird things, because that’s inspirational, like trying to find out why this guy wanted to use trash to make a monument for his father. Why does this town have monuments to this Sasquatch sighting from the sixties?
RF: My last question is one that we love to ask artists at RedFence: we have an ongoing series of articles that recommends certain type of beverages as the best thing to pair with a certain activity (for example, the best tea for playing chess). What is the best activity to pair with firekid music?
DH: Firekid is the best music for a rave in a cave. That’s probably not what you were looking for, but if you wanted to have a rave in a cave, this is the music for it.
RF: Can’t say I was expecting that, but I like it. Thanks so much for your time Dillon!
DH: Thank you very much! I really appreciate it.