with Charles Hoffman of Fetal Pig
Name: Charles Hoffman
Bands: Fetal Pig, Why Make Clocks, Distant Trains
Websites: centipedefarm.com, whymakeclocks.net, fetalpig.bandcamp.com
Listen to “Underwater Ghost Choir” by Distant Trains
Listen to “In Your Head” by Fetal Pig
Listen to “My Secret Service” by Why Make Clocks
QRD – How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a professional musician?
Charles – Oh, I think I had all the same fantasies any kid has about becoming a famous rock musician, but at some point I decided that wasn’t likely & maybe not even desirable. But two pastimes I got really into & passionate about as a kid were programming computers & making music. Some time in high school I got it into my head that all the years I’d spent teaching myself computer programming were wasted because they were phasing out Apple II computers. It sounds dumb now, but I didn’t know any better ? I just got disgusted with how the computer industry was advancing so fast that it seemed to be carelessly discarding its past, so I decided that I would pursue music instead. At the time I figured the way to have a career in it was as a composer & in particular I wanted to compose on the experimental edge like John Cage & folks like that, so I decided my college major would be music composition. It didn’t go all that well.
QRD – What are a few highlights of your musical career?
Charles – All those years of relentlessly cranking out tons of weird 4-track stuff with a bunch of kids from Cedar Falls in the late ‘90s was one long highlight, just this extended outpouring of fun & creativity & art wackiness even if it went nowhere in terms of popularity. Touring as Samuel Locke-Ward’s bassist along with The Teddy Boys in the summer of 2008 was huge too; I had such a great time traveling & playing & just experiencing all of it. The pace has picked up since moving to Des Moines at the end of ‘08. Releasing the Why Make Clocks album in 2009 was great, even if it was already all recorded before I was in the band; that release show & the show with the Meat Puppets were especially fun times as well as the biggest crowds I’ve ever played for. Playing in Fetal Pig & making this record has been really neat all-around; it feels neat to have something out on vinyl that’s so nicely put together & that people are responding so positively to.
QRD – At what age did you decide you wanted to become a father?
Charles – I don’t think I ever exactly decided I wanted to, so much as realized that I was at a point where it wouldn’t be an unwelcome development. So that was probably around 24 or so, about the same time Leah & I got married. It took a few more years before it actually happened.
QRD – What are some positive & negative impacts your family has had on your career? What are some positive & negative impacts your career has had on your family?
Charles – These are odd questions for me because it asks me to speculate what one would be like if the other was different or nonexistent & I’ve always had a hard time with that kind of counterfactual. This is only the first & last time I get to live this life. For negatives, there are the obvious things I suppose, like having a family puts a damper on possible touring, although I think that’s largely by choice. I’ve had very little negative effects in either direction that I could point to. For positives though, there’s something about having a kid, this person in your life who loves you just because of who you are & that you love them & you don’t have to try to impress them with how cool you are (at least not until they get a bit older!), that really gives you a different perspective on how you interact with people & which people really deserve your time. It can really sweep certain insecurities out of the way if you let it, & that will definitely affect how you go about your career in a good way. I don’t know whether it was Wes being born or moving to Des Moines, they happened around the same time, but late in my life as it may be in coming, the past couple years I’ve finally begun to really feel like I’m living like my real self instead of putting up fronts for people.
QRD – Have your children effected the music you make &/or listen to?
Charles – Not really. I definitely get more kids’ songs stuck in my head now, so maybe that’s subconsciously sneaking into my music somewhere; but I haven’t changed my style or genre or listening habits over it.
QRD – Have you had problems with the lack of steady money from a musical career providing the security you feel necessary in your household?
Charles – I haven’t made music my main source of income; after several years of getting by on delivering pizza & such, I got back into computer programming. I realized it still fascinated me, I still had a knack for it, & that it would probably pay better & be a little more secure; also I figured that because of the developments in business & technology, it had the potential to give me a lot more flexibility to keep music activities going than most other careers would, which was good because I couldn’t see myself giving that up. After a few more years of low-wage gigs while working on a Computer Science degree & still playing music, I started working in web applications, but I still had some trouble getting that flexibility & partly because of that there have been some rough times being out of work. But now I’ve got a job that’s working out real decent.
I’m not sure what’s “steady money” anymore though. You don’t have the assumed life path of getting hired at the local factory straight out of high school & staying there until you retire with a nice pension. That concept of security is an illusion now & has been for quite a while. So while professional musicians like to dwell on this point in order to, I don’t know, get sympathy out of people, I don’t think it’s such a special predicament. I’ve got friends who have it just as tough, supporting a family on whatever semi-skilled labor they wound up in, getting laid off & fucked over all the time, taking extra part-time jobs or working an art thing on the side. If you can make ends meet at all purely on music I count you pretty lucky. You’re also probably living in one of a few big cities ? try pulling it off in Iowa.
QRD – Given the limitations having a family has on being a touring musician, would you have toured more earlier in life if you’d known?
Charles – Oh yeah definitely. & it’s not like I didn’t know it would be a limitation, but there’s a whole lot of “if I’d known then” kinds of things. I could have used more sense of the urgency; it would have probably kicked me in the butt a little.
QRD – Do you think being a father or a musician has a greater impact on your community?
Charles – So far I think it’s the musician. It seems to be the main context people know me from, though they’re usually aware of my being a father too & ask me how Wesley is doing. As he gets older & starts to have more involvements of his own with other people & other kids in school or elsewhere, that could change.
QRD – Would you rather see your son eventually become a musician or parent?
Charles – I hope it’s not an either-or proposition. I just want Wes to be someone who truly enjoys what he does. What exactly that is I’m not going to concern myself about much. I do feel though that regardless of whether he becomes a musician, I want him to understand & love music.
QRD – Both family & music seem like things that will take up as much of your time as you’re willing to put in. How do you end up dividing your time?
Charles – I just play it by ear, really. If I feel myself missing one or the other… I give that my attention for a while.
QRD – What does your son think of your music?
Charles – Wes is only 3 & I don’t think he really knows my music apart from anyone else’s if he hears it on the stereo or something. He’s really just starting to show signs of getting into music, now that he’s getting the hang of talking too, I think there’s something strongly correlated there. He’ll sort of atonally phonetically chant along to lots of songs he knows now, mostly stuff used as background music of monster truck videos on YouTube. When he sees me playing though, he wants to get up in it & get involved, starts grabbing at the strings. I learned to play a couple of his favorite kids’ TV show theme songs on guitar & sang them for him, he loved that. I kinda hope that for a while yet he just thinks playing music is something everybody does.
QRD – Do you think you could ever do a musical project with your son?
Charles – When I see dudes who make up bands for themselves out of their kids, or who horn in on their kids’ musical projects & join their band or try to promote or manage it for them, it bothers me -- sort of creeps me out. But if Wes or any hypothetical other kid of mine yet to be born comes to me with the idea of us doing a music project together, I would be honored & would be all about it. I do hope we will at least jam a bit sometimes. I guess we already do, in a way, Wes & I had this great jam going one time on this keyboard he has that looks like a cat.
QRD – Any words of advice to young people?
Charles – What you really want to do, if you care about it more than security or money or comfort or taking it easy, then you have no good excuse not to jump in & go for it. Don’t be afraid to fuck it up ? nobody gets things right the first try. I’m happy & proud of what I’ve done & what I’m doing, but I definitely think that if I’d had that little bit more guts years ago I could have done a lot more with music by now. Booking & planning a tour & all the business stuff that goes into working music, it all looked like this big rat’s nest of a problem that I had to figure out how to do it right before I could do it & that’s not an attitude that works -- school fucks you up that way, makes you think that success means having the answers, but that’s not how you really learn. Time will slip away. You will never be totally 100% prepared for anything, even once you think you’ve got it figured out, it changes on you, so just pick it up as you go. Improvisation isn’t just a musical skill. You’ll fail at first, but what’s the worst that will come out of it? Be broke a lot? Look like a dumbass once in a while? That’s all going to happen anyway. You can also apply pretty much this whole paragraph to parenting, actually...
Also, get organized. If you’re going to do interesting things, & we’re fast losing any remaining shreds of a world where you get by on just doing what you’re told, your projects are going to have a lot of parts & information for you to keep track of. If you try to keep it all in your head you’ll forget it. You’ll need a system. It should be as simple as will work. Something like carry around a little notebook & consult it every time you ask yourself what you’ll do next. Break up your awesome ideas into plans, then don’t be afraid to change the plans, but make sure you can always figure out a next step.
QRD – 2015 update - Any new insight from three more years of fatherhood?
Charles – Any new insights? Well there’s a lot of change from having a 3-year-old to a 6-year-old plus a baby -- Isla turns 1 in about three weeks, the day before I turn 40. But things are a lot the same only more so -- it’s harder than ever to fit the time in. It’s a continuous sequence of things in quick succession, with no gaps, from the time I get home from work until I’m ready to just crash, even as I think to myself, “Ah shoot, I wanted to work on that song today.” Even the weekend ends up that way. I’m trying to find ways around it, but it gets frustrating lately. Having a number of evenings out of the house for rehearsals or gigs is a common point of tension with Leah too. I wouldn’t be able to do it without her, but that doesn’t mean I ought to take advantage.
With Wesley in school now I find myself caring a lot more about educational things & even though it ends up being another thing to try to cram into my time & energy, I started volunteering as a mentor in a technology education thing for high school kids; I hope for things like that to be available for Wesley once he’s ready for them. & with music education being cut or downplayed in schools so much these days, I feel really fortunate that Wes’s school keeps art & music as major parts of the curriculum.
Wes has more of his own opinions about music now & it surprises me how little influence I have over them. He has yet to see me play live, but I think he would enjoy Fetal Pig; he loves hard rock music, probably because of all the monster truck & motocross videos he likes to watch on YouTube. I read him this book at bedtime once called “Pete the Cat & his Four Groovy Buttons” in which this cat sings a song about the buttons on his shirt; Wes told me he didn’t like the song the way I sang it (kind of lounge-swingy & a little bit beatnik) & said he wanted it to sound more like a rock band, & as an illustration he did a little AC/DC imitation. I work on & listen to a fair bit of experimental & “noise” music these days as well, & that stuff usually seems to confuse him or annoy him a little. I was listening to something the other day & he told me it wasn’t really music because there was no singing (“There’s no ‘yow!’, just the ‘rarr!’.”). He talks about wanting to have a band & be a drummer, but he also talks about being a motocross rider & about a half dozen other things. However irrationally, I wish for him to be able to do all of them.