I first became acquainted with the soulful, sweet pedal steel guitar styling of J. Tom Hnatow pretty recently, whilst listening to, loving and obsessing over the last These United States record, released earlier this year. As I like to say- I may be late, but at least I made it to the party. Hnatow is skillful on the pedal steel, playing with nuance, subtlety and heart, but can also totally rock it out, and plays many other instruments as well. He was with TUS for seven years (starting out in DC), five albums, and about a thousand shows, living mostly on the road. He has recently left the band, moved from North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky, and is now on tour playing guitar with The Mynabirds (another band with DC roots- front-woman Laura Burhenn lived many years in DC.) Amidst his busy tour schedule he took some time to chat with me on the phone about music, icons of the pedal steel world, leaving These United States, and more. You can see Tom play with The Mynabirds this Friday, October 26th at Black Cat!
Alexia: So how did you first start playing music?
Tom: I was forced to take piano lessons when I was a kid, like 8 years, and I hated it! Absolutely despised it, and, I think my Mom said something like “When you turn fifteen you can quit.” So I was like “Ok, cool, I’m out!” And then I sort of stumbled into playing guitar and thought that was pretty cool, and kind of went from there.
Alexia: And how did you get into pedal steel?
Tom: How did I get into pedal steel? I think I stumbled into it, because I played banjo and I played lap steel for a long time, and realized that what I was doing on the lap steel, there were a lot of things where I was trying to imitate a pedal steel, so I thought “Oh, this’ll be really easy! How hard could it be? I can play slide guitar!” And I learned rapidly that was not the case! I’m just sort of stumbling my way through it.
Alexia: Um, for stumbling you’re doing a pretty damn good job! (laughs)
Tom: (laughs) It’s smoke and mirrors! It’s an illusion.
Alexia: Was there any artist or album that first made you fall in love with rock & roll?
Tom: Yeah. Well, I didn’t listen to rock & roll as a kid much. I wasn’t that into it, and it wasn’t that my parents banned it, but we just weren’t allowed to watch MTV, and I just really was not exposed to rock & roll. My Dad’s like a real jazz guy. So, for some inexplicable reason, and I still don’t know why he did this, when I graduated from junior high school he bought me the Led Zeppelin box set. And I don’t think I’d ever heard a note of Led Zeppelin, other than, you know, of course “Stairway to Heaven”, and I was just floored by the fact that this music existed! So I was like “I’m going to play guitar,” so of course my first band was like Led Zeppelin riffs played even stupider. (laughs)
Alexia: Are there any people in the pedal steel world who are inspirational or icons to you?
Tom: Yeah- there’s a guy named Ralph Mooney, Waylon Jennings’ long-term sidekick, and he is just absolutely one of my favorites. And Ben Keith , I think he’s the only steel player who played on any Neil Young records, and I just love his playing. It’s just like so simple and beautiful and perfect. You know, any Neil Young song you hear the steel and it’s just like, it just couldn’t exist otherwise.
Alexia: How did you make the jump to being a full-time musician? Or have you been one forever?
Tom: No, I actually haven’t been forever, I’ve only been for probably five years now. I got really lucky because the job I was working initially let me travel, I could work on the road, so I would just take my laptop- I was like the stressed out guy in the back of the van with the laptop and headphones on, wanting everyone to shut the fuck up. So I would work during the day, and that would fill the van ride, and then play shows. And they were very cool about it for a while, and then my boss changed, and they were not as cool about it. So it was kind of one of those situations where it was like “Well, you can either stick around here and actually work an office job, or you’re going to have to leave.” So I was like “Alright, I guess this is the time, now. I might as well make this jump and give it a shot.”
Alexia: So you were in These United States at that point, right?
Tom: Yes, I was.
Alexia: And were you also doing session work at that point, or how did you get into that?
Tom: Actually before I was in These United States I was playing with a ton of bands and did a bunch of recording for them. I guess I was almost doing session stuff first, and when These United States started touring really heavily that was kind of the impetus for “Ok, now I’m a full-time touring musician.” And then as time went on it was harder to schlep the pedal steel somewhere, so I just sort of got into recording, and built a cute little home-studio for guitar overdubs and kind of got into session stuff that way. So now I can mail people stuff from my pajamas, which is nice. And they don’t have to pay to fly me and a steel somewhere.
Alexia: That’s awesome!
Tom: Yeah, it’s super cool.
Alexia: So the last These United States album I thought was so amazing, and I love it so much…
Alexia: And I will say I was pretty bummed to hear about the dissolving of the band. I don’t know if you want to talk at all about that? What happened?
Tom: Yeah, I mean the nice thing is, you know, most bands, when you split up, there’s that classic band blow-out where everyone’s bringing up things from five years ago. Like “There was that one time you ate my granola bar!”
Alexia: Is that what it was? (laughs)
Tom: (laughs) Yeah, that’s what it was. It was really over my granola bar, seven years ago. It was just kind of, you know, we’d made five records, I’d been in the band for seven years, we played a thousand shows. It’s always been difficult, for me, personally, because the band is such a road band, there’s really not a lot of time off, and the schedule is not very flexible. And so I’d been lucky enough in March to be able to tour with The Mynabirds, and to be able to do some of these really cool projects, but it had always been under the caveat that something may come up at the last second and you’re going to have to change your schedule. I guess I sort of hit a point, and our other guitar player Justin, who does a lot of session work and a lot of producing work, both of us kind of wanted to be able to head out in that direction a little more, just sort of to be able to say “Ok, well I’m not going to be able to tour in March. That’s how it’s going to be, because I have this thing I’ve booked.” So, you know, just time to set off and have new adventures, and all that kind of stuff. It’s actually kind of ironic, because most of the time when people leave bands they’re like “I want to settle down and do less touring.” or whatever, and I want to tour just as much, I want to do just as much silly adventures, but I think it’s a good time to kind of branch out.
Alexia: So how did you start playing with The Mynabirds?
Tom: I knew Laura (Burhenn) from when she lived in DC. I played with her before they were The Mynabirds, sort of just as Georgie James was splitting up she and I started playing together. We’ve always kept in touch, and I played steel on the first Mynabirds record, it just kind of came up, and I recorded the other singer, Rebecca Miller- Justin and I recorded and played on her forthcoming record. And she said “Oh yeah, well our guitar player for The Mynabirds has quit- it’d be super-cool if you were available and could do it.” And I was like “Well yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” And then it came February, and I was like “You know what, that would actually be really fun.”
Alexia: Is there any music you’re listening to right now that’s really awesome?
Tom: The new Godspeed You Black Emperor is great, because that band is great. There’s a guy in Richmond named Matthew E. White, who we played with when he was in a band called The Great White Jenkins. He has a record that just came out that’s just really, really fantastic and almost old-school soul music. That last Damien Jurado record for some reason stuck with me a lot. I’ve been listening to, you know I’ve been trying to relearn these Mynabirds songs, so what I’ve really been listening to a lot is The Mynabirds songs, trying to reacquaint myself with them.
Alexia: I hear you! I get it! I’ve been listening to nothing but Black Hills for a month! So it sounds like you have so many exciting things going on…what’s on the horizon, besides everything?
Tom: There’s a new Vandaveer record that I played on, that we did in Lexington, that’s really cool. It’s all like traditional murder-ballads. I think I play almost all acoustic instruments on it, I play a lot of dobro and a lot of guitar and then pedal steel on a couple songs, and this buddy of mine from North Carolina who’s a banjo virtuoso plays on the record. It’s really cool and dark and spacey. I think that’ll be out in February, I think that’s the target release date at the moment. And then I’m settling in to Lexington (Kentucky), getting into working at the studio there, and I don’t know, looking for new ways to stay off the streets and out of trouble and all that stuff.
Catch Tom onstage this Friday, October 26th with The Mynabirds at Black Cat!
AC Newman (of The New Pornographers)
$15 Adv/$18 day of show
Black Cat mainstage/Doors at 9pm