Half-Handed Cloud: Interview
More Than a Friend of a Friend

The
first time I met John Ringhofer it was at the Festival of  Faith and Music at
Calvin College, where he would not only play guitar, banjo, and trombone as a
member of Sufjan Stevens' stripped-down pre-Illinoisemakers quintet, but would
also frantically switch from acoustic guitar to piano to harmonium during his
first solo show as Half-handed Cloud. Though few in attendance knew much of
Ringhofer's less famous recording project, his energetic set of cleverly
constructed, one-minute pop songs quickly won over the mixed crowd of
middle-aged moms, college professors, and indie hipsters, leaving him to be
regarded as the event's biggest unexpected breakthrough. 

After the show, as a crowd formed at his merch table, Ringhofer was nowhere to
be seen.  CDs were sold and buttons were pinned to thrift store cardigans, but
the man of the hour didn't reappear until well after the crowd had dispersed,
when he emerged sweaty and panting from outside, having just finished an
extended game of jump rope with a group of children who had apparently skipped
out on the night's less entertaining acts.  John Ringhofer isn't particularly
shy; he just would rather jump rope than hear people tell him how great he is. 

A few months later, after a Sufjan Stevens' show in Cleveland, Ringhofer is in
similarly great spirits.  He has a preview copy of the new Danielson album,
Ships
, and he's eager to let me hear it.  As Danielson leader Daniel Smith
gave Half-handed Cloud a few of its formative pushes, releasing Ringhofer's
albums on his Sounds Familyre label and having him play on Danielson releases,
Ringhofer is fiercely loyal to his mentor. "You can hear Deerhoof on this one!"
he says as he shuffles through the tour van's CD player, mentioning that friend
and Deerhoof guitarist Chris Cohen has introduced him to the music of Japanese
avant-garde artist Maher Shalal Hash Baz. "This album has 35 songs in about 35
minutes," Ringhofer grins as he reaches to change the CD to that band's Blues
Du Jour
.

Though no Half-handed Cloud album has had 35 songs, most of Ringhofer's songs
run about a minute in length, and his entire four-album catalog could probably
be listened to during an afternoon to grandma's house. And yet few albums
feature as much content, with arrangements unpredictably stacked with wildly
swerving tempo changes, giddy melodies, and richly layered orchestration, with
Ringhofer lurching into the next song just before you start to unravel the
previous one.  His latest, Halos & Lassos is no different, with Ringhofer
using an obscure 1980s instrument known as an Omnichord to add an adventurous
amalgam of drum machine beats and synthesized textures to his normal layers of
trombone, banjos, and pianos.

Traveling across the country on tour, Ringhofer had the idea to do an interview
while he waited for his bus.  Unfortunately, I didn't hold up my end of the
bargain.

Sorry I missed you in Pittsburgh.  How long were you in the city?

John Ringhofer:  I was there in the bus station for about an hour,
hour-and-fifteen minutes.  I guess that was my longest layover.  It was kind of
late at night.  Have you ever traveled by bus?

No, I haven't.

Well, there's always this one guy who... is sort of a big guy, and he'll sort of
cut in front of everybody and you can't do anything about it.  That happened
there and some other places.  And you always worry, "Uh, am I going to be able
to get back on the bus?" I've had that happen to me before, where I was trying
to get back on the bus, and I couldn't because all the space was taken up
because some guys had cut line.

What did you do?

You just wait for the next bus, which can take quite awhile.

Oh man... So this new record centers a lot on the Omnichord.

Yeah.  A lot of it came out of discovering that instrument, and pretty much
every song has it on there.  There's still some acoustic guitar songs, and it's
not a dance album by any means.  We have a lot of instruments on it besides the
Omnichord.  It isn't that completely.  I was interested in trying something a
little different.  There was a song on the first Half-handed Cloud album called

"Petered-out" that had a drum machine and vocals in a way that was almost a
little like white-boy soul, and I was interested in trying to do some more of
that. It's not completely a serious thing, and I realize that it touches on
cheesiness, but I wanted to try that. 






"Yeah,
we put up fences to make things more understandable for us, and I don't think
God really works that way. He's about including."







When were you first introduced
to the Omnichord?

Oh... I don't think I knew anything about it until I played this show in
Cleveland, Tennessee, and there was a band there that had someone playing an
Omnichord.  And I was like, "What is this sound?  What is happening?"  And I've
been on the lookout for one ever since.  About two years, I was in a music store
in Tennessee where my mother lives, and it was, like, $100.  I talked him down
to $70, which isn't bad.  It works fine.  They can be kind of temperamental.  I
don't know too many people that have one.  Even now I expect people to know what
it is, but Asthmatic Kitty made these promotional postcards, and there's a
picture of somebody holding one, and people are like, "What is that?  Is in an
autoharp?"  I guess it's still sort of obscure. 

It's basically the same principle as an autoharp, right?

Yeah, but the keys are arranged pretty much the way an accordion is arranged. 
If you have a C chord, the chord on one side is an F chord, and on the other
side is a G chord.  On the other side of the G is the D.  You can't go wrong;
you just hit these buttons that are next to each other (laughs).  It's more
interesting to see what an A-flat minor sounds like, since those are chords that
you don't play on the guitar too much.

I think the progressions have the possibilities for more things, because there
are so many buttons, and sometimes when you hold down more than one button it
will make diminished chords.  So, yeah, it was a good tool for helping me think
of new progressions that I wouldn't normally think of if I was writing on guitar
or piano.  I feel like these kind of cheap, 1980s sounding drumbeats and preset
functions are associated with 80s music, even though I don't think it sounds
like 80s music.

And it has a touch pad that you strum the rhythm on?

Oh yeah.  There's a strum pad. There's also a drum machine built into it. 
There's several different voices where you are able to make the strum sound like
a piano or a banjo or a synthesizer.  There's a couple that are better than
others.  It has a little vibrato button that you can push, and it garbles
everything up.

Neat.  So how did using this instrument influence how you wrote these songs?

Well, I think mostly it was choosing these other chords.  It just was like,
"What would happen if I push this button?"  And it has a good selection
of drumbeats.  What it did also was make me want to sound like Michael McDonald
or Hall & Oats or Kenny Loggins or something – just that Top 40 music that I
grew up with.  I don't know if that comes across.  A lot of times I was doing
this, "Ooh, ooh!" stuff.  It's kind of silly.  (laughs).

So you would say this is more of an 80s pop record?

In a sense, but I don't think that describes it completely.  I didn't set out to
make an 80s pop record by any means.   I just wanted to do something new.  It
just happened.  I was writing these songs on the Omnichord for a song fast, and
they all just started turning out that way. 

How long was the song fast?

I stopped in the middle of it.  It was supposed to be 50 days, and I did 35, and
19 songs from that ended up on the album. 

Was the idea from the song fast that you would write an entire song in a day?

Yeah.  I don't know if that's a strange thing.  It feels healthy.  One song a
day.  I was reading through scripture at the same time, the Psalms, and that was
a starting point for a lot of the songs, too.  There's this way that you can
read through the Psalms in 50 days, starting at 1, then 51, and 101; you read
three a day.  And, somehow, they go together, too.

Wow.  That's kind of strange.  So you took the themes for the album from the
Psalms?

Yeah.  I guess I'm quoting some of it directly, but I don't know how much one
would be able to tell, even if they were real familiar with the Psalms.  There
isn't "The Lord is my Shepherd" or anything like that.

Does the song fast have any rules?  Can you leave a song incomplete from one day
to the next or does it have to be totally complete?

I just try to get 50 songs done in 50 days.  For the song fast that I did a few
years ago, it was 40 songs in 40 days, and I worked on one song for two days.
For this record, there was one time I was behind at and had to write two in one
day, but it went pretty well as far as getting one done every day.  It isn't
that strict, I guess.

Is it hard to work under those self-imposed constraints?

It can be.  I can't go and hang out with friends as much, and I feel kind of
silly telling people that, too.  "Oh... sorry.  I probably shouldn't go to that
show with you.  I have to stay home and write a song."  In some ways, it feels
really selfish, and I think that's why I had to stop after 35 days.  I had some
things to do, and I couldn't do everything at once, so I had to take a break. 

Did you hear Lambchop's last two albums?  I think they used that approach,
but I think Kurt Wagner wrote for something like 90 straight days.

Seriously?  That's incredible.  That's a serious chunk of time. 

Yeah, they put out two albums on the same day, and he says he left a ton of
songs off the album.  He says they were total crap, though...

(laughs).  Yeah, it's true.  I feel like it's hard to write that many good
songs.  There were songs from this album that will never see the light of day.







"We'd
hear a fragment, and say, 'That's weird!'  And we'd make a song about that
fragment, and at the end of the song, there would be a quote, like, 'A feat
unparalleled in space exploration.'  And then we'd write another song based on
that quote."







So, what was the process for your last album, Thy Is a Word?

A lot of those songs were written around the time of the second album [We
Haven't Just Been Told, We Have Been Loved
], but they didn't seem to fit on
that album for whatever reasons.  I had this demo called "Bible Verses with a
Bad Name," and that was going to be an EP or something.  It developed into the

Thy album, and was re-recorded because “Bible Verses…” didn't seem to
flow together as well as I had wished it had.  Thy was recorded over
about six months in this church sanctuary.  At one point, a group of people came
over, and we had a party and some food, and we sang these group vocals.  Yoni
and Josiah from Why? are on the demo, but they didn't make the final cut because
Sufjan did all the drums and it made sense to have everything sound the same.

Where did the idea to use the seamier tales from the Old Testament came from?

I don't know.  I was just reading through those things at the same time as the
song fast.  I hadn't paid much attention to those books, and I only knew the
more popular ones.  To keep my mind on the song fast, I was reading scripture at
the same time.  I didn't know what was going to happen with it.  I sent it to
some people at Asthmatic Kitty, and I got a response that there was something to
it.  It was about an EP length at the time, and I didn't feel like it was good
enough to release.  It was always in the back of my mind that I needed to finish
those songs in a way that I was happy with, and then I could move on to
something new.  I had the order of the songs all figured out ahead of time, and
I recorded the songs in order--it even ran together on the tape.  It was almost
like the whole thing is one song on the tape, and when we mixed it, we broke it
up.  I had a much bigger room to work with in the church sanctuary.  It has a
larger sound.

Did you have to find times when there was nobody hanging around to record it?

Oh yeah, there were times when I'd have everything ready to go, and then someone
from the church would show up, and I'd have to put everything away.  I tried to
make sure that there was nothing going on with the pastor, but things would come
up despite that.  That whole experience sort of taught me to put other people in
front of me.  It became a challenge.

Daniel Smith says that it's your first record that he can't let his kids listen
to.

Yeah (laughs).  I  have pretty good friends that have said there are songs that
they'll skip because they can't let that stuff into their minds.  Those stories
are scary.  True.  Initially, a lot of the songs seem more bizarre than they
really are.  When you get down to what's in the story and why it's in the canon,
it makes more sense and loses some of its shock value.

Did those stories take you by surprise when you got into the stranger details?

Yeah, I think they all did.  That song about the quail coming out of people's
noses... that was a shocker (laughs).  I think people think I wrote that because
I don't eat meat and that the song is all about vegetarianism, which it isn't at
all.

So that was the first album where the songs were a little more stretched out.

Yeah, some of them, for sure.  I think some of the reason for that is so the
whole story can be told.  Some of the longer ones, like, "Disaster Will  Come
Upon You, and You Will Not Be Able to Conjure It Away"  -- it's a scripture
song, and the whole thing quotes from this one chapter in Isaiah, and I felt
like it all needed to be included.  That's the case with that one.  The new
album has some longer songs, but there are still quite a few that are around a
minute.  I'm not afraid of letting things go a little longer if there's a reason
for it.

Is it different to write multiple passages within the same arrangement when
you're using an Omnichord?

Yeah, sometimes we'll just stop it and let something else carry the song.  The
thing that's cool about the Omnichord is that you can turn off some parts and
let other parts go, so if you want to turn off the chords and still have the
drum beat, you can.  It's fun, because there are a lot of possibilities.  I
think I might try to do something else with the Omnichord in the future.  But it
is an awkward instrument.

From the people that I've talked to, your performance at the Calvin festival was
the definitive Half-handed Cloud show.  Do you agree?

(laughs).  Well…  I think a lot more could have gone wrong.  It was maybe the
only time that I tried to do something without a minidisk or a band behind me. 
There's always a moment in a show where it's just one person switching
instruments, but I've never tried to do a whole set like that.  I don't know if
I'd want to do that all the time.  It was a gift to have a piano, and I don't
know if it would have worked if I'd had an air organ or something.  I think
there was one place where I missed up and said, "Sorry!" 

What did you think of the reaction from the crowd?

I think sometimes people wonder whether they should laugh or not, and it's fine
if they do.  I don't mind.

It was interesting, because when you played solo, I could hear the pop
structures really clearly, just because there wasn't a lot of stuff overlaying
them.  You could hear how excellent they are as pop structures.

Oh, man.  Awesome.  There was a tour with Danielson in the fall of 2004, with
Daniel Smith and Josiah from Why?  And we'd all play together at Danielson, and
then for Half-handed Cloud, they'd help for the first song, and I'd do some
songs by myself, like maybe ten or fifteen minutes worth.  And then they'd come
back and finish the set with me, like three or four songs.  That was a
privilege.  The shows were in clubs, and the response was pretty positive.  We
played two shows in San Francisco, and I remember that the all ages show was a
lot happier with the set than the over 21 show.  I guess I was a little freaked
out by that.  Or maybe a little bummed, but I've forgotten about it until just
now, so it couldn't have hurt me too badly.

What do you attribute the difference to?

I don't know if it has something to do with alcohol?  I would guess not.  That
show was with Danielson and Deerhoof, and it would seem that everyone that would
come to that show would be a music fan... I'm not sure I have a good theory
about what happened.  Maybe they just thought I was stupid (laughs). 






"What
it did also was make me want to sound like Michael McDonald or Hall & Oats or
Kenny Loggins or something – just that Top 40 music that I grew up with."








Have you ever experienced the
kind of backlash that Danielson experienced?

Yeah, I think I have.  Here and there.  I don't know how much Daniel has
experienced.  I think mostly I've gotten more of a bad reaction from
non-Christians.  It was mostly like, "You're kind of perverting pop by adding
these believing messages."  Something along those lines.  But when they say
that, they usually say something absurd that makes me wonder if they're being
serious, like, "I hate Half-handed Cloud, and I hate Google."  I don't know how
that got linked together. 

That's very strange, especially the idea that your music is subverting pop
music.  That almost suggests that pop music is like a dogma, which would be the
opposite of what I expect.

Yeah.  No kidding. 

Do you think there is such a thing as a Christian independent music scene?

I guess I would say yes and no.  In a sense I hope that it doesn't exist,
because I feel like all music is created by God.  I would say that all of it is
Christian.  I feel like it has probably been going on, but I just wasn't aware
of it.

So you feel like your music sort of inhabits two different worlds, with the
Christian world and the indie rock community?

I don't know that I see it as two different worlds.  At one time I probably
did, but even then I probably would have said that it's good to be included in
both.  Now I think I'd say that they aren't really any different from each
other, and it's time to stop looking at them as different worlds.

So you think it's an error in perception?

Yeah, we put up fences to make things more understandable for us, and I don't
think God really works that way. He's about including. 

At what point did you discover The Danielson Famile?

Oh, I was going to art school in Tennessee, and my friend Brandon Buckner, he
and I shared a studio, and we ended up working at a record store in
Chattanooga.  He had [Tell Another Joke At the Ol'] Chopping Block,
and he'd play it in the store, which was a used CD and book store.  He'd play
it, and as soon as he'd put it on, people would come and ask him to turn it off
(laughs).  Mostly from the book side, because they just want to hear something
that they can listen to while shopping for books.  So he brought it in to the
studio, and we were listening to it.  I don't think I really liked it at first,
but I put it on, because I thought it was good for me.  I didn't really
understand it.  Over time, just figuring out the humor and how incredibly clever
the arrangements were, I started getting really into it.  Then Alpha came
out, and I got to meet Daniel after Omega came out.  And then I got to
meet him again when a band Brandon and I were in called Wookieback opened up for
Danielson.  Then I sent him Learning About Your Scale, and I didn't hear
anything back from him.  I sent-off for Lenny Smith's album a few months later,
and included my phone number. Daniel called me back the next week and said he
was listening to the album.  It was really encouraging.

It must have been a pretty big thrill when he decided to put out the record?

Yeah.  He was on the answering machine, and I didn't understand what he was
saying.  The answering machine was of questionable quality.

So what role does Daniel play in the Sounds Familyre family?

I'm really thankful for his input when there's a new Half-handed Cloud demo or
something like that.  Like the demo for this new album, I sent it to him and the
three guys at Asthmatic Kitty.  He's one of the people whose reaction I'm
interested in and whose opinion I respect.  I feel like Sounds Familyre is a
community first, but it's also a record label.  He has a couple roles like
that. 

Did you set out to write about your faith when you started Half-handed Cloud?

No.  I was writing songs for Wookieback, but I was seeing more and more of God
bringing himself up in my life at the time.  I didn't set out to do that,
though.  I don't know how long this will last, either.  I always see it as a
gift.  I don't know if I'll be writing this way forever. 

Was the songwriting in Wookieback totally different?

The songs were about outer space and heroes.  There were three of us – me,
Brandan, and my friend Matthew Vollmer – not to be confused with the band
Vollmar, who I'm touring with.  He and I were childhood friends.  We used to
play with toys together, and I was always interested in science fiction, so that
was what was happening.  We were listening to science fiction stories on record,
and we'd tape that onto cassette, and then stop it.  We'd hear a fragment, and
say, "That's weird!"  And we'd make a song about that fragment, and at the end
of the song, there would be a quote, like, "A feat unparalleled in space
exploration."  And then we'd write another song based on that quote.  And we'd
keep going like that, and some of the songs made it on to Wookieback albums and
some didn't.  There were songs about G.I. Joe and things like that.

How many Wookieback albums were there?

There were two 20-minute cassettes, which are pretty much albums because
there's 15 songs on each of them.  And there's an EP of ten songs, and those
were released on a 10-inch record.  It's like two albums and an EP.  At some
time, we hope to put it all out on a CD and sell it at shows, because I still
like those songs a lot.  We could fit all three of those releases, plus ten
bonus tracks in less than an hour.  That's asking a lot of a listener, though. 
It's hard to listen to something that's longer than a half hour (laughs).

Do you find yourself as that kind of listener?

Me?  Yeah.  Sometimes.  Unless you're on a long trip or something, it's a
challenge to listen to a 70-minute album in one sitting, unless you just can't
go anywhere.  I guess most albums are about 40 minutes, and I can usually do
that.

Do you think you have a short attention span?

I don't know.  I enjoy listening to a whole album, if it can happen.  I like
doing things for a reasonable period of time.  I don't think I've ever been
diagnosed with ADD or anything.

I only ask because when your first few records came out, people were saying that
it was "pop music for people with short attention spans."

Yeah.  I know.  I feel weird about that.  I don't know if it's true.  It could
be.  I feel like it's always one long song.  That's what I'm going for.

Is that the way you conceive your albums?

Yeah, especially Thy is a Word and Halos & Lassos are like that.
Everything fits together in a certain order. I couldn't move one song. I
couldn't change any of their places; they're all set because they run into each
other like one large song.

So what has it been to watch Sufjan's music blow up?

Yeah, it's been great.  It has made me really happy.  I feel like he just keeps
getting better, too.  He keeps growing and pushing himself and making
interesting music.  I think, in a sense, it can be a little overwhelming for
him.  He's happy, I think, just to be able to do his music and be able to hire
musicians who are able to recreate the records on stage.  And he can live off
what the albums make.  I think it wears him out, pretty easily.  I think he
tries not to read too much press.  If people give him clippings or whatever, it
will freak him out a little bit. It's a lot of fun when he asks me to play in
his band, though, and afterwards people seem to be really grateful for his music
and are thanking everyone in the band.  It's good to be included in it.  It's
humbling.

What was it like being on tour with him?

That was really exciting. The fans are incredibly generous. There are people
that will dress up as cheerleaders, and there were some people who made us
little pennants that said "Illinoise."  It was really great, and Europe was
great, too.  It was funny – the crowds in Switzerland were a little less crazy,
and that was actually kind of exciting, because there were other times when
Sufjan couldn't go out and put away his stuff after the show while there were
people out on the floor.  I think he's really sensitive, and he's pretty
protective of his privacy and that kind of thing.  But when we played in
Switzerland, the club was less than capacity, and it made us really relaxed. 
Those we were really good shows.  He was just walking around, and nobody was
mobbing him or anything.

Did the attention ever become overwhelming?

A little bit, but the energy helped us, and we were definitely excited by it.  I
think the Cheerleading suits that Sufjan made were helping us, too, because we
were acting like we could do cheers and stuff.  All of that was really helpful,
especially for the more poppier/rockier songs.  But for the somber songs, it was
always a little weird to be wearing a cheerleader uniform.