Listen to this track by Midwestern psyche-pop masters Hushdrops, made up of John San Juan, Joe Camarillo, and Jim Shapiro. It’s “Divine” a sumptuous Brian Wilsonesque tune featured on the group’s 2003 album, Volume 1. The song reveals the band’s love for the Beatles and the Beach Boys, along with heavy dollops of late ’60s chamber pop, so much so that the Webb Brothers (sons of Jimmy) covered one of the songs (“Summer People”).
When it comes to “Divine”, this is one of those songs that you don’t so much hear, as be enfolded by, taken up to some sonic high place via strings and ah-ah backing vocals, along with drummer and co-writer Joe Camarillo’s plaintive lead vocal.
Yet, this isn’t the whole picture with the band, who regularly played shows that demonstrated their live rock chops. As such, the group seems to live quite comfortably in the ‘slash’ in pop/rock.
Well, I talked to the song’s co-writers, multi-instrumentalist John San Juan and with drummer and singer Joe Camarillo, via email about this song, about the record, about that slash between pop and rock, and about ‘making the listener feel loved’…
The Delete Bin: This song “Divine” sounds like one of those optimistic mid-to-late ’60s tunes and perfectly captures that chamber-pop musical aesthetic. But it strikes me as a poignant love song in the here-and-now, too. What is it about this period in pop history that attracts you?
John San Juan: Oh, any number of things. Broadly, there seems to be a richer emotional content to that period of music than I’ve found now or at the time the song was written, which was 1993 if I recall correctly. Something in the chords and melodies then – I’m thinking of things like the Kinks, Love, Beatles, and specifically the Beach Boys – the actual compositions suggested so much in terms of mood and feeling.
Joe Camarillo: It’s mostly the quality of work done in that particular era (in general). Arrangements and production were a performance in themselves. That’s a truly lost art.
JSJ: My own definition of psychedelic music has never been about effects or gimmicks, but more about a certain delivery in the actual songwriting. Certain types of chord changes and melodies that just…you know, THAT’S where the real impact lies. The Syd Barrett Pink Floyd songs seem like a good example of this sort of “internal psychedelia”.
JSJ: The song itself addresses the intent/impact of someone like Brian Wilson, very deliberately designing these combinations of song and sound that would (in his words) “make the listener feel loved”. As a songwriter/music maker, that fascinated me (and Joe, I’m certain) endlessly. It just seemed so selfless and generous, and, you know, what better reason to make music? “Divine” I suppose IS our version of that.
JC: I was trying to hang with real songwriters by way of smoke and mirrors. It must have really worked, because the melody and chords (for “Divine”) hung around in the band for a while before I was convinced the other guys, including John, really liked it. Initially, all I had was the opening chords and melody. John solidified everything else; his chorus, his structure. It wasn’t until later that I did the final lyric. It was like a ‘Stairway to Heaven’ story, but I wrote it at Red Lobster – with a bib on!
DB: I’d describe the arrangement on this as being lush, with strings and layered vocal tracks. Tell me about the production on this, about how you conceived it, and how it was realized in the studio.
JSJ: It had been attempted several times before the final version was recorded. My initial conception of the track was to go very sort of slavishly faux-Beach Boys, which I tried to do. Typically, as with these type of endeavors, the end result ends up being very much “not-as-good-as-the-person-you’ve-decided-to-copy”. But, you’ve got to try things, right?
JC: Caroline Englemann was the one who made it all happen with the strings, bless her. It took on a whole new dimension as you can hear. We’d recorded this song several time over our career, but that was the defining moment for the song.
JSJ: I’d hired Carolyn to arrange a string quartet for another song and then only asked for the “Divine” arrangement as an afterthought. It’s a wonderful arrangement, and I can’t imagine the song without it now.
DB: What were some of the other incarnations of the song before Carolyn’s arrangement?
JSJ: As a live act then, as now, a three piece: guitar, bass, drums, we’d played it in a very heavy arrangement using the tools we had to hand. The melody, chords and harmony carried it just fine. But, it never really seemed satisfying when we recorded it that way. We’d done one version as a demo when we briefly had “wealthy management” , when during a very odd moment in time NEARLY anything with a guitar and drumkit from Chicago seemed “saleable” in some way.
Somewhere between our desire and directive to play simply and powerfully in a sort of in concert type arrangement, and our then-engineer’s impression that he was making “our masterpiece”, we ended up with something that sounded like, I dunno, Def-Leppard-goes-grunge.
DB: Did you guys think it was your masterpiece as well?
JC: It’s very hard for me to look at these things that way. I know I am very proud of it.
JSJ: You know, I think both Joe and I considered it the best thing we’d ever written.
JC: In a million years, it’ll be proof that we existed!
JSJ: There was some puzzlement that we couldn’t get it recorded in a suitable fashion. Other things had come together very quickly in the studio. By the time we got around to recording the version on the album, the song had been around for about 7 years, and there was no real reason why a third approach should work any better than the first two.
DB: What was the inspiration to get it off of that more “rocky” track and closer into its present form?
JC: I believe it was the fact that we had a great studio in which to do work and the fact that we were out to try and make a real musical statement. There was never really any outright discussion of this. We knew we had a good shot at doing it. We took our time in getting sounds together before a take was even committed. Lot’s of musical experimentation was going on in the studio, and hangovers were down to a minimum. Priorities were set. Neal O was a real sonic Saint as well, bless Him.
JSJ: I do remember being fascinated with a Robbie Williams record that was out at the time (“She’s The One”) which had this almost “Imagine” like simplicity [Ed: that song recorded by Williams, was written by Karl Wallinger of World Party. Makes complete musical sense! ]. I think the idea to record it with just piano and drums was certainly born from that. The layering of the strings and vocals just followed naturally. We’d always had a two or three part harmony for it, and it just made sense – in the studio – to develop that layering with even more shading and finesse. The bare-bones arrangement opened it up to strings; something I normally wouldn’t have considered.
JSJ: It’s not something you really want to think about too much. I mean, people like Neil Young , My Bloody Valentine, Black Sabbath and The Who always seemed to wind up with these very visceral performances. And yet, the material always had as much melodic impact as anything you can think of. I think I went very quickly from trying to write “pop” songs into just allowing something a bit more unfiltered to emerge. Who knows how you get there? Maybe for me, I had to wear a couple of really ugly shirts before realizing that solid colors or stripes or something worked better.
JC: As a drummer, I dig writing songs that don’t need drums. I like the sound of well-recorded acoustic guitars. Nick Drake was a real revelation to me. Drums are kind of noisy, and show-offy in this day and age. There’s no heart, or groove, or swing of it lately.
DB: The song is the opening track on the sole record under the Hushdrops name. Do you feel it represents what you had in mind for the band as a recording entity? Were there any pleasant surprises for you at the end of making the record?
JSJ: The real major pleasant surprise was that I liked the whole thing from start to finish. We’d been around for ages by the time we started the record. Some of our geographical peers had executed entire careers, come and gone, before we started the project. So, we may have gone into it with some experiential learning that doesn’t always exist when you start your first record. And, obviously, a deep well of material.
JC: I’m happy to be discussing the album today! A real treat!
DB: Was there a philosophy in place for you when you went into the recording process for this particular project?
JSJ: I’d worked on a very high profile, expensive record with a major label act somewhere between the beginning and middle of this project, which undoubtedly influenced a lot of the decisions and approaches. I sort of felt like a witness to this very wasteful and indulgent process in which things as simple as getting a good performance weren’t really prioritized. I know that impacted my intentions going back into our record; the feeling that you could do something yourself on a shoestring and deliver a better work than something done for twenty-times the cost.
JC: We knew we had the songs and the chops to pull it off. If ever there was a philosophy in this band it was just to be ourselves and let it all happen the way it’s gonna happen. If it’s good music, people will find it. Gary Higgins/Red Hash comes to mind…
DB: Since you’d been on the scene a while before recording your first record, what kind of pressures were there on you to meet up to the expectations of your peers, as well as to your own?
JC: I truly believe we began work on that album at just the right time. This was all mere months before a series of mishaps that sidelined me. If there were any pressures at all they would have been self imposed by the both of us and no one else. We just knew that if we were gonna do this thing, we were gonna do it the way we always talked about it happening; no compromise, a genuine entity, solid music, all killer no filler.
JSJ: I know there was a personal incentive to go as “broad” as possible. I’d been deterred by a friend/colleague from the notion that one’s first record could be one’s White Album, in terms of variety. This of course only fueled my determination. Again, a very sort of youthful and arrogant pursuit, that we could come along and show “everyone else how to do it”, and I suppose there was a feeling that our peers were making these very one dimensional statements.
I mean, it’s hard to remember taking myself that seriously and not laugh. But I think those intentions ultimately led to a certain breadth of sound and style. I do remember playing it when we were done, and again a few years later and sort of feeling that we’d done it musically. I know that doesn’t always happen. So, I guess that’s something to feel lucky about. You get within a mile of your goal, and hooray!
DB: Right now, you’ve both formed a new band; The Royal We, or renamed more recently, John’s People. Does this mean that there will be no follow up record to Volume One for the Hushdrops?
JSJ: John’s People is such a different thing entirely. It’s more of a blowing-off-steam exercise; covers, ’60s garage, and psych. It involves different roles, and different results. As for another record? Who knows. It’s written. We’ve got dozens of songs that we perform, all intended for a second LP. It’s just different not having the energy and momentum of youth on your side. People get married, start families, and the pyramid of attention gets horribly diffused. There’s something to be said for the fact that you only get one first album. I can’t imagine ever having that much to prove again. Even organizing the money for a recording project, the incentive isn’t anywhere near what it was a decade ago.
But, there’s always a chance. I know Joe’s big contribution to the next record was a suggestion that we emphasize our live sound/chemistry. So, you know, it would be something like early Led Zeppelin or Van Halen, where you’re getting a performance with virtually no window dressing. We’ve recorded a few tracks with that imperative, and it certainly feels like a promising direction.
JC: All I can say is don’t cancel your subscription to the revolution yet, good people!
DB: I have to ask; there’s a shot of you on the cover of MOJO magazine. Tell me about that!
JC: I’d already done Playgirl, so ..
JSJ: I’d say, let me know if you ever find a copy!
John and Joe are active as musicians in the Chicago area. If you live there, or are visiting, make sure that you become a fan of Hushdrops on Facebook for news and for upcoming John’s People shows.
Hushdrops will be performing at Liar’s Club (1665 W. Fullerton Ave. Chicago, IL) on March 9th at 9pm.
For more music, check out the Hushdrops official site.