Conversation with Henry Bogdan, Part 1

Henry Bogdan is one of the few players of the modern era who has embraced the National Tricone resonator as his main instrument. His playing with The Moonlighters was particularly influential (especially to myself) in the resurgence of traditional string bands featuring ukulele and steel guitar, and with the Moonlighters he recorded several CDs. He also performed and recorded with Hazmat Modine, a unique NYC band led by the eclectic and multi-talented Wade Schuman. However, Henry is best known for his career as bassist for the band Helmet, an influential alternative metal band, all through the 1990s. These days, Henry resides in the Portland area, where he has been involved with a band called The Midnight Serenaders, continuing the marriage of his Hawaiian stylings with their Jazz Age swing.

Henry told me that after all these years of playing his Tricone, he was putting it away to pursue his latest passion, the Puerto Rican Tres, which is a stringed instrument with 9 strings in 3 courses. So, if you are in the Portland area, don’t miss the opportunity to see Henry perform with his Tricone while you can.

The Moonlighters – It Isn’t Goodnight Yet

Mike: I’ve noticed the phenomenon of musicians who’d previously played Rock music and Punk gravitating toward Roots music.

Henry: Yeah, it’s really true. I kind of saw it as somewhat of a synchronicity to the end of…for me it was the end of Punk. It was the end of the road. I didn’t see that there was any other direction to go.

M: I figured that people who are playing “cutting edge” stuff already, they’re really at the precipice and you have to wonder “where do you go from there?” It must be exhausting to be at that point and constantly be trying to move forward all the time. At some point, it almost seems inevitable that people are going to begin to look backward….

H: Yeah, to get more substance. It just gets sort of totally diluted and you’re not doing anything if you’re trying to be modern and unique and not sound or play like anyone else before you. I always felt the idea was to be unique and not do anything traditional. For Helmet, it just seemed like it was the end of the road and it was up to the next generation to combine their influences and do something new.

Most of my friends continued on with Rock, but I did know a lot of people who were just putting down their instruments and not playing at all. That’s when I met Bliss (Blood) with the Moonlighters and I knew what I wanted to do was create kind of a traditional Hawaiian-sounding band. I didn’t see myself as a “jazzer” and she was coming from a Rock state of mind and not from going to Jazz school or that sort of thing.

M: So, what was your introduction to Hawaiian music?

H: I would say first off that I’ve always been interested in steel guitar, from my mid-teens hearing it in Rock bands like Neil Young, the Eagles—a lot of stuff like that was popular here in Portland and on the west coast. The first time I got to see one up close was actually when this Gospel/Southern-Rock band played at my high school. There was a guy playing a Sho-Bud and I just totally flipped and I went up and I talked to him for a while after the gig. It just seemed like such a cool instrument—very magical looking.

M: Did he show you how it worked or explain it to you?

H: I can’t remember, but he probably said that there’s pedals and knee levers and all these kinds of gadgets. It was pedal steel that I heard first. Then a few years later I got pretty devoted to Punk and Underground music and I thought steel would be a good instrument to mess around with in that format. So, first I bought a lap steel at a pawn shop—Dickerson, pearloid model that I wish I still had—but I couldn’t get anything out of it because I didn’t know any tunings. It just sounded like Blues guitar kind of stuff.

M: I think we all kind of go through that same experience. You were a bass player at the time?

H: No, I didn’t even touch the bass until a good 10 years later, but I’d always played guitar. From age 10 I took guitar lessons—I took 5 years of Classical guitar lessons all through high school. I pretty much knew I wanted to play music, ideally, in a professional setting.

So, I couldn’t get anything out of my lap steel, and then I bought a single neck pedal steel. Still I didn’t know the tunings—it was probably an E9 guitar. I borrowed a Sneaky Pete Kleinow book from the library here that had some tunings and basic technique, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure it out, but I played it in a band on a couple of songs, just getting sound effects, like picking behind the bar. I wasn’t really interested in any hardcore Country music until a few years later.

Anyway, so I put the pedal steel in storage and moved to New York. Subsequently the steel was stolen. I ended up not doing anything in New York for about 5 years, just trying to break into the Underground scene until I answered an ad in the Village Voice for this band that needed a bass player (Helmet). I happened to have a bass, so I thought, “What the hell? Everyone played guitar—I might as well try to break in as a bassist.” I really enjoyed the bass, certainly in that context.

It was right around the middle of the Helmet career, probably early ‘90s, that I got more interested in traditional Country and Western Swing music. I’ve always had one foot in the Country door, in some sense, but I was getting into more traditional stuff like Buck Owens, George Jones, Ernest Tubb…basically as a diversion to what I was doing in Rock—you know, super-macho, tough guy, tattoos. It was kind of stupid at a certain point and what I liked about Country music was that it wasn’t so concerned with being modern or cutting edge. It just had a certain relaxed soul to it and it was good-natured.

M: Yeah, and it’s also a humble—even if it’s not completely sincere in its humility it still has that humbleness to it.

H: I agree and I certainly appreciated that coming from a super Agro world of Rock which I didn’t always identify with. It was fun playing the music, because it was very physical, kind of like sports.
I saw Junior Brown’s first gig in New York at the Lone Star and he totally blew me away.

M: I think I was at that show, too.

H: It was just phenomenal. He was the first guy I’d ever seen play lap steel and he had “that sound” which turned out to be the 6th chord. So, I pulled the lap steel from under my bed and looked in the Village Voice the next day and found this guy David Hamburger. Have you had any contact with him?

M: No, although I’d certainly heard his name and I had some friends who played in a band with him, but I heard he moved down to Austin.

H: Yeah. I started taking some lessons with him and he set me up with G6 tuning and he was also the one—at the time I was mostly interested in Honky Tonk and Western Swing—but he said, “If you really want to devote yourself to lap steel, you should check out Hawaiian music.” Like most people, I never thought of Hawaiian music at all—I thought it was all just like Don Ho. So, I just bought some CDs and at the time I was buying everything that I could that had any kind of non-pedal steel on it. I called up Scotty’s Music and got Jerry Byrd’s “Steel Guitar Hawaiian Style” and the 2 Sol Hoopii CDs, but it was the Jerry Byrd that was the life-changer for me.

M: I was kind of like you in that I probably bought 30-40 CDs and LPs a month from the age of 18 to 30—that’s all I did, was buy music. It was like I was always searching for something that I knew was out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I could feel when I was getting closer and closer to it, though. I probably bought most of the same CDs as you—the Sol Hoopii, etc. I had that long before I really got interested in playing.

When I finally got interested in playing, there were almost no resources, except for the occasional book, which didn’t tell the whole story. I can tell you one thing, though—I knew right away that it was some serious shit! It became apparent in the beginning that it was serious and I don’t think I had what it took at the time to devote myself to it.

H: I would agree that it is some serious shit! For me, it was like when I first was discovering Punk and Underground: there was this whole world of great players and great tunes and great singers and it was deep. It had a lot of substance. I would also have to point out that it had a lot more steel guitar than the Country stuff. Even still to this day I want to hear Joaquin Murphey playing through the entire song—I don’t want to hear just one little break. You know, that’s what kind of the drag of that music and what’s so great about the Hawaiian music. It’s there behind the vocals, there during the solo, intros and outros.

M: There is a real art to the backing in Hawaiian music and also they’re playing in a smaller group.

H: Yeah, I would love to hear Joaquin in a smaller band. I would say that from the beginning it was the electric steel, Jerry Byrd in particular, and a year later I got more interested in the acoustic stuff. I listened to that Jerry Byrd CD over and over when I was still in Helmet, and I would take my lap steel on tour and just mess with it on the bus. I got Jerry’s book (Instruction Course For Steel Guitar) and was messing with tunings just trying to play something that sounded like music.

M: Did you get through the whole book?

H: Oh my God, no. I would say I didn’t even scratch the surface. I bought all the books that there were, but I’m not a book guy. I totally just play by ear. I don’t even know what chord I’m on or necessarily what key I’m in unless it’s written next to the song title on the set list. [laughs] I’ve always thought of it as, “Where’s my I? I is on the 3rd fret, there’s my IV and V” and I have my little boxes—my riff boxes—and I have my little gimmicks, my octaves and playing thirds and whatnot. I totally play by ear and at this point it’s a huge drawback. I wish I could go back and start over from scratch by learning scales and sharps and flats….

M: Do you know any of this with regards to the guitar?

H: No, I don’t at all. I mean I had theory back in high school when I was studying Classical guitar but Classical guitar is very impractical to playing Pop music. You don’t learn how to read chord charts—it was kind of a mistake. I wish I was more interested in Jazz at the time—it would have been much more practical, even in the Rock world.

M: I have to say, I’ve enjoyed your playing on the Moonlighters recordings and I would say they inspired me. When I bought my Tricone, I said to my wife, “OK, honey, I promise I’m going to go out and find a gig” and it just so happens that I found the only gig in existence. So I want to thank you for that. [laughs]

H: No problem and thanks for saying that. It was a lot of fun working on that stuff. Bliss turned me on to more of the Jazz side of things and I was probably the Hawaiian side of things.

M: Let’s face it, how many other bands were out there playing that kind of music?

H: Well, there a band called the Do Hos…they kind of disappeared. But, yeah, there really weren’t any people doing that and that was kind of fortunate for us–certainly fortunate for me. [laughs]

M: A good thing about the band was that there was original music. I’ve always felt that Bliss is an excellent lyricist.

H: Oh, yeah, she’s a great lyric writer.

M: I always thought the band had a solid foundation in the traditional sounds and, yet, it was always reaching forward….

H: Maybe some of our other influences sometimes can’t help but come out. Bliss really was the one into doing original music and it was a good thing for the band and probably opened some doors that we probably wouldn’t have had if we were just aping the old shit, which I probably would have been fine with also.

M: You were involved with some other projects while you were in New York, too….

H: Oh yeah, when the Moonlighters started I was also playing with Howard Fishman. We started playing in the subways in Brooklyn. And I was playing weekly with Greg Garing and his Alphabet City Opry. That was actually the first situation where I was playing steel guitar—slightly pre-Moonlighters. That was a weekly gig for about a year. I quit to rehearse and work on tunes, instead of just playing tunes that I’d never heard before. It was fun playing with Greg, but he would just say, “This is in C, follow me.”

M: I have to admit, that’s what I live for. You did some stuff with Wade Schuman and Hazmat Modine, too….

H: I did some gigs with them and recorded some songs on their first CD.

Who Walks In When I Walk Out – Hazmat Modine

At this time I was planning on moving to Hawaii…I was hoping to get some lessons with Jerry Byrd. That was sort of my dream at the time but once I got to Portland I had read that Jerry was sick and had stopped playing and I ended up getting some gigs with The Yes Yes Boys in Seattle and I would take the train up to Seattle a few times a month for about 3 or 4 months. Del Rey is truly amazing–a great player. I think a few months later Jerry died. He was most of the reason I was headed to Hawaii—even though I probably wouldn’t have hooked with him, I could have taken some lessons with Alan Akaka or John Ely. I didn’t really have any work skills once I left New York and the thought of working at Hertz Rental Car for minimum wage, trying to afford a studio apartment in Honolulu….

Go to Part 2

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