I recently got to talk with John Ringhofer of Half-handed Cloud about travel, raising a family, and some upcoming projects of his. Read on …
EJ: You’ve probably been asked countless times what your stage name means, but what does your own full name mean? What is its etymology?
JR: Oh wow, neat question. My wife says that “Ringhofer” means something like “round yard person.” It’s an Austrian name, and I’m the eighth John Ringhofer in a row in my family, although they were called Johann Ringhofer back in Austria.
A couple years ago, when my wife had her first post-doc in Belgium, we took a brief road trip through Europe, and went down to visit the little village where my paternal grandfather is from, Grodnau, Austria. We found the actual house where he was born, which felt mind-blowing.
Grodnau is so super tiny—maybe 100 people live there? Lots of them are Ringhofers. There’s one school, one church, and a creek with a cobblestone-paved riverbed. The houses are mostly arranged along this creek. In front of the church is a plaque listing the war dead from WWI and WWII. There are three Ringhofers on the plaque, all named Johann.
EJ: You’ve moved all over the place, intra-nationally and internationally. How do you think this has affected your art?
JR: I made most of the demos for Flying Scroll Flight Control in Belgium, and if I listen to those songs, especially the demos, it smells like Brussels to me: long walks around the city, the people we became friends with, museum culture, art deco architecture, Tintin, the library where I checked email, the trams, the chocolate, the church we went to, the human snow globe acrobatic display. It’s all there and it can’t help it.
I like how living in a new place can encourage and season the art we make.
But moving can be pretty disruptive, too. It breaks momentum. When I was 20, in college in Chattanooga, I was getting ready to take a year off from the university to go teach 3rd grade at a elementary school on an island in Micronesia, and my college art professors were really trying to discourage me to travel out there because it would disrupt my studies. I’m glad I went to the island, but maybe my teachers were right—interruptions from travel (etc) can really derail a sense of focus. To some extent, that happened to me—I returned to Chattanooga feeling adrift and unsure how to approach art again or even who I was anymore.
In regards to making songs for Half-handed Cloud, I sort of feel that way now, here in Finland. I don’t have a separate facility to record music in like I did at the Berkeley, CA church (for a full decade), and now that I have a family, it’s much trickier to find time and space to create music.
Sometimes the only time to write songs is when our son is asleep, yet if I make musical sounds in the small apartment, the noise will wake him up immediately. So barely any songwriting happens for months. And my familiar music-making devices haven’t arrived on the boat from California yet.
I’m hoping that what seem like obstructions will become opportunities. It’s so hard when I’m not able to work on music for an extended period of time, but I haven’t reached despair. We just moved to a place with more rooms, and our son will be starting part-time daycare soon, so things are looking up.
EJ: How do you think all the moving around has affected your relationships, both with God and with other people?
JR: It’s been good to meet new people all over the place—my wife and I enjoy making friends. Right before our moves, we’ve felt a little antsy, as if there’s a new season for us, beginning somewhere else. One thing about God is that he’s omnipresent—he precedes us into each situation. There’s not a corner of the earth where he can’t be found. So we try to trust him in looking for new community.
EJ: What are some recent musical inspirations?
JR: There’s a few compilations that document BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960’s—I think the one titled BBC Radiophonic Music is my favorite so far. They made early, mostly pre-synthesizer electronic music, with fun melodies and arrangements. I’m interested in hearing more from Delia Derbyshire—I like a lot of the first White Noise album that she was involved with.
The most bizarre non-Beatles music that Apple Records (or Zapple Records) released wasn’t George Harrison’s Electronic Music, Brute Force’s obscene “King Of Fuh” single, anything by Radha Krishna Temple, or even the experimental and sometimes amazing sound collage/screamo albums by John & Yoko (and that’s saying a lot). It was a modern classical record about the biblical Jonah—Apple’s 1970 release of The Whale by John Tavener. Features Ringo shouting during the “In The Belly” section.
The recent 2010 Apple Records CD re-release of The Whale includes John Tavener’s second record for Apple, Celtic Requiem, which features the exquisite “Nomine Jesu.”
My wife found an album for our son that we’ve been playing around the house—it has classic ‘50s/‘60s pop arrangements: Lucienne Vernay Songs in French for Children.
The Helsinki Public Library system seems pretty unbeatable in their quest to collect all sorts of historical, obscure, and interesting music. So I’ve been checking out expanded reissues of early R.E.M. albums, Sparks, The Velvet Underground’s Loaded (with bonus disc), that recent box set by The Smiths (their entire catalog, remastered), some Jean Sibelius, The Beatles MONO box set, Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Money 3-disc set which collects everything that has to do with his two most brilliant albums (although the second disc is awful), Emitt Rhodes’ old band The Merry-Go-Round, The Cyrkle, plus compilations of early experimental noise music.
And I’ve also been listening newer artists like Those Lavender Whales, Benjamin & The Bible, The Drums, Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, and Angelo De Augustine.
EJ: One of my favorite things about your music is its child-like nature. How has having a child affected your approach to music?
JR: Our son loves singing, listening to music and playing around with musical instruments. He’s nearly two now—he’s so much fun. I’ve found myself making up songs spontaneously as I play with him. Little songs like “Who needs a bath?” and “Señor Sweetie-poops.” I still keep a handheld tape recorder with me to document melodies for things like that, to maybe even eventually recycle as a Half-handed Cloud song. We’re expecting another child this summer.
EJ: What is a favorite meal of yours, and what’s a memory that you associate with it?
JR: I am so nuts about my wife’s cooking. We eat at home way more often than going to restaurants—because it’s cheaper, but it also happens to taste better and be more nutritious. So everything she makes is my favorite meal.
We like to eat outdoors when we can—our new place has a little deck, and we got to share a porch with our neighbor in California. Those were great meals. A neighbor would be walking by and I’d have to get them to try something my wife made, as in, “Get over here and put this in your mouth! You would not believe how good these parsnip french fries taste!”
EJ: What is an experience in your earlier days of making music that you regard as being a critical point in your career? Why do you regard it as such?
JR: In the first days of Wookieback (one of the earliest bands I was involved with), something clicked when I switched from using guitar chords to begin a tune, to utilizing vocal melodies to dictate a song’s direction. It changed everything. All of the sudden the songs I was writing seemed much more interesting than the attempts I’d made in high school.
EJ: Have you ever had a notably awkward or uncomfortable experience in your musical career? Were you able to learn anything from it?
JR: Awkwardness is an intrinsic part of Half-handed Cloud. What I learned is we’re not perfect, let’s not kid ourselves—we’re a mess. We don’t have it together. We’re a total wreck. Can anything be redeemed in the wreckage? Let’s see!
EJ: If you could personally thank anyone from the past, living or deceased, who would it be?
JR: Mister Rogers.
EJ: What else has Half-handed Cloud been up to since last year’s Flying Scroll Flight Control, and what do you have planned for the future?
JR: The record label Sounds Familyre has been planning to release a follow-up to 2013’s Familyre Messiah Christmas compilation, and asked its artists for submissions for the Messiah’s second part that deals with The Passion. I recorded a version of “All They That See Him, Laugh Him To Scorn” in March, while we were down in South Africa, using an upright piano and a massive wooden organ at the local Afrikaner church (with remote help from my buddy Brandon Buckner on drums, in Tennessee) and submitted it from Pretoria that month. I think the original plan was for Familyre Messiah 2 to come out in time for Easter 2015—I haven’t heard the latest about when it will eventually be released, but here’s a link to Handel’s original of “All They That See Him, Laugh Him To Scorn.”
I also got a commission from Henningham Family Press (a British husband and wife printmaking team) to set parts of An Unknown Soldier, their epic-length poem about WWI (etc.), to music. It will be for 4 voices and occasional pocket instruments, the kind that could be carried by soldiers. The text is a mixture of old English, German, and some made-up language, and by my count it’s got about 40 different musical segments. I was able to do some work on that in South Africa, recording demos for the four voices with GarageBand. I’m maybe almost halfway through those demos, but also have to make some revisions. They’re planning to tour England, performing the poem before the centennial of WWI is over. We’ve collaborated a couple times before, here and here.
Jacob Graham from Cascading Slopes, one half of Brooklyn band The Drums and co-owner of the Plastiq Musiq label, gave me an oldish analog synthesizer last fall, so I’m interested in trying that out on some recordings now that our shipping crate has arrived from California.
We would like to give a huge, huge thank-you to John for taking this the time to give such wonderful and thoughtful answers to our questions. Be sure to check out his music and pick up some vinyl at the following links.