By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of John Ringhofer.
Half-Handed Cloud is an intriguing anomaly within the genre of Christian music. Helmed by California-based musician John Ringhofer, who has collaborated with such notable artists as Sufjan Stevens and Danielson, three of the project’s seven albums were recorded within a church. Yet far from organs, gospel, and preaching, Half-Handed Cloud manages an inventive pop aesthetic and breathy, impossible-to-resist tempos that even a staunch atheist can appreciate, if they love music.
Half-Handed Cloud traditionally explores texture and tone in a cascade of short songs (usually no more than one minute long) but in his latest album, Flying Scroll Flight Control, Ringhofer ups the ante with an ever-whirling amalgamation of instruments and effects. The arrangements are energetic and hooky, with delightful soundscapes that showcase an expert ear for mixing. BTR caught up with Ringhofer to ask about how recording in Church can effect the perception of sound.
What’s your background as a musician, and how did Half-Handed Cloud come to be?
Back in ’95 I was living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I was working on my BFA in painting/drawing at this school there. A couple of my art school friends and I had little recording projects we worked on, and they often had different themes. There’s one band that did songs about ‘70s and ‘80s TV shows, and there was another band that did one about outer space and childhood heroes. Another did songs about weird people that came to work, and another band did songs about inside art school jokes, so like instead of using drums we’d hit drums with like paintbrushes or something. When I first started getting involved the recording process was a huge mystery to me, but eventually I ended up getting my own recorder and decided to start my own project, which was Half-Handed Cloud. Even when I was doing the other projects I was kind of thinking this is leaving out a huge part of who I am and what I’m interested in. So this was sort of another theme band, which started around fifteen years ago.
How has your sound evolved over that time?
Well each release I think has it’s own particular sound. I’m still interested in a lot of the same stuff, like pop melodies, and trying to really use the recording process as a kind of laboratory for different sounds and arrangements, so that’s always the same, but they do come out different. There’s an album called Halos and Lassos that came out as sort of cheesy 1980s aerobics music medley…
That’s the one you use the omnichord quite a bit, right?
Exactly, yeah, it was sort of a springboard for the rest of the album. So stylistically it’s much different from say the album, Stowaways, which is more of a rock album. At least so far as what Half-Handed Cloud can do. So this latest album, Flying Scroll Flight Control, is a little more…I mean I’m interested in sort of a lot of different things, but sound collage plays a much bigger role in this new one.
Album artwork for Flying Scroll Flight Control.
What was the recording process like for Flying Scroll Flight Control?
A lot of times I’ll make demos of songs before I start working on the proper album, so those were mostly made in 2011. My wife and I moved to Belgium for about six months for her post-doc, and I wasn’t allowed to work because it would be too tricky to get a visa. So I worked on songs there and I would record into a computer but like through a cassette player. I made quite a few songs there and then ended up with these demos for basing a lot of the songs on that eventually became Flying Scroll Flight Control. Recording was a slow process because it was recorded in this church that is used by a few different denominations, but was also used at the time by a depression and anxiety clinic, and so I had to be real careful about when to record. Because I didn’t want to disturb a sad session going on downstairs by banging on some drums or playing the church organ, it could ruin their concentration, or just be rude. It ended up taking a very long time because of those considerations.
You’ve recorded in a church before right?
Sure yeah so this is the same place where the last album Stowaways was recorded, and then also the third album, Thy Is A Word. That was released in 2005, but at the time I was living there in that church and could use it more often.
That’s a really interesting common thread, how has that influenced your music?
The space itself is a pretty large room, so, the arrangements and sounds can have a lot of natural reverb if I want them to have that. For Stowaways I had my buddy from Chattanooga, Brandon Buckner, come out and record the drums and we did a whole album where the two of us would play at the same time and we miked everything close up with four or five mics in a smaller room, but then we put another mic out in the big sanctuary that picked up the room sounds — so we could dial that in any time we needed to when we were mixing. I think that’s an interesting way to record because you have different possibilities for sound.
What about constraints to genre, being in a church?
Well yeah there is the other element like here I am in this sanctuary, so does that mean I should record only a specific type of song? But I think it doesn’t really matter, because God is sovereign over all kinds of music so the world is its own kind of sanctuary. So I don’t think it confines the genre, if anything what it does is wakes me up to how things really are. Like, if I’m thinking about how I have to be careful of this sanctuary, I’ll then realize ‘Hey wait a second, everything’s that way, so I should think about that all the time.’
What are your inspirations and influences?
I was always singing Beatles songs from a time when I was very very little, my parents would always play the records, so everything starts there for me. I didn’t grow up going to church for a long time. I mean, I knew sunday school songs but for the most part that’s where things started. One thing that encouraged me to start singing pretty openly about God and matters of faith was there was this movement back in the early ‘70s called the Jesus People Movement, and there’s a lot of incredible records from that time. I don’t know how much people know about that stuff generally, but I was really interested in it and that gave me a nudge in that direction.
So you just released Flying Scroll Flight Control, any plans to tour?
I don’t know, my wife and I have a one year old son and my wife often plays in the band. We’ve talked about doing a West Coast tour but it gets tricky with the baby since my wife would probably have to take off work in order to take care of the baby, or maybe we would all travel together and then that has its own challenges, too. We’re not really sure. As far as recording, though, I’m kind of going through some notebooks and trying to see what comes up with the next project. There’s a label that’s asked me to do an EP for them, but that won’t be out this year. I also have sort of a sound collage recordings that aren’t really songs as much and sometimes I think about putting them out, probably just on the internet. So I guess we’ll see how that goes!