Analogue Music | Eric Hutchinson

Eric Hutchinson

By Matt Conner

Eric Hutchinson needed a round of nostalgia.

After nearly 20 years of writing and recording albums, Eric Hutchinson says it's important for him to have a reason to write—a purpose, a focus, a vision more specific than just culling together another batch of songs. For his latest album, Class of '98, the cues came from a trip down memory lane.

Hutchinson's latest studio album hearkens back in all the right ways to the decade's most earnest rock acts. They're rock anthems with acoustic centers, emotional numbers that move you inside and out. For Hutchinson, it was an interesting sonic assignment that allowed him to explore his high school years—stories long forgotten over the last two decades.

We recently spoke with Hutchinson about the decision to take on the nineties, what he discovered along the way, and how it all came together.

Analogue: This ability to "unplug" your songs on Class of '98. What was behind that?

Eric Hutchinson: Almost all of my songs start with me and an acoustic guitar. I feel very strongly if the song doesn't sound good that way, it probably won't sound good when I add a bunch of extra stuff to it. So it's always a test to me if I can play a song on the acoustic guitar. Do I like it? Does it feel good?

With this album, I was recording demos with an acoustic, but I was running it through a distortion thing, so it was electric-y but somewhere in between. Then I was planning to play electric in the studio, but when I was really studying so much of this '90s music that I was trying to emulate, so much of it had acoustic guitar in it, whether that was Weezer, which was my North Star for this record, or Green Day or The Lemonheads or Buffalo Tom. So much of what I was trying to get to had acoustic guitar in it, so I ended up playing acoustic, and then our other guitar player, Justin Sharbono (Soul Asylum), ended up doing all kinds of amazing electric playing on top and we blended it together.

So to answer your question, it was sort of straightforward to go into the studio and record a bunch of versions of just me sitting there playing the songs. I started learning guitar in high school right around the time these songs were taking place in my brain, so to me, it's what I would have sounded like if I'd been singing back then.

Analogue: How many of those bands were part of your actual high school soundtrack and how many did you learn to appreciate after the fact?

Eric: That's interesting. I love all kinds of music and all kinds of '90s music. I could have very easily made an album that was a tribute to '90s R&B and hip-hop and done Boyz II Men and Jodeci and SWV and TLC. I was listening to a ton of that as well. I listened a lot of Tribe Called Quest and Notorious B.I.G. and Cake and Sublime. But this was a specific type of music I really love and it felt very nostalgic to me. Some of it maybe hasn't graduated to the current time, but it felt very dated in the '90s for me.

So there are bands like Weezer and Radiohead that I've always loved. Then there are other bands that took me a while to appreciate, either from getting a little bit older or more nostalgic—bands like Dinosaur Jr. or Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam has kind of grown on me. When I first sat down to make this album, I thought, 'Okay I'm gonna do a '90s album, so it's gonna be like Pearl Jam or Nirvana,' but those weren't really my bands back then. They were too angsty and intense. I liked some of the music but I related a lot more to Weezer and Green Day, these punk nerds kind of. That was sort of my M.O.

Analogue: I'll talk to artists at times who describe putting an album together as gathering the snapshots they've taken. But you're describing a different route of coming up with a theme or vision and then writing toward that end.

Eric: I think as I get older, the idea for the project comes altogether. It gives me an idea of what the songs should be about and what they should reference and what subjects I want to cover. So this had a lot of purpose behind it. I've written a lot of songs, so I need to have something that I haven't done before for me to sit down and want to work on it. For this one, this album was the one I'd made in the mid-'90s if I'd had the wherewithal to do that.

Even within that, I would write a song and there are certain songs... you don't always know what you're writing, so you come to a song like "Cooler Than You" where I was just writing to a faceless bully. Then I finished it and realized it was to a specific person I wasn't aware of but that was my bully reference. I guess I feel like there's the album I'm trying to make and the album I end up making and the last few albums, I feel they're closer and closer together. But there's always something intangible for me.

Analogue: The bridging of that gap... do you think that comes with experience?

Eric: I do, yeah. Sometimes I'll have to check myself, because I'll have an idea and I'll know how to put it together. I know the musicians to call and who to mix it. I'll know how to make it but I'll need to ask myself, 'Do I actually want to make this and put it out?' So lately I've been streamlining and really enjoying making the albums that way.

Credit: Shervin Lainez
Credit: Shervin Lainez

Analogue: A project like this seems like it would come with some tensions of maybe sounding dated while staying modern or not becoming too gimmicky. Did you wrestle with those?

Eric: A little bit. It's an homage to the '90s but I still want you to be able to listen to it now and be able to rock, that it would feel big against anything else you might listen to. The guy who mixed the album is Paul Kolderie and he was amazing. He worked with a bunch of '90s bands. He was working in that time period and had all these stories about these guys and how they were micing their guitars and a lot of inside baseball kind of stuff.

We had conversations about what makes recordings sound the way they did. A lot of it was looseness. This was before Pro Tools. They were doing full tapes and maybe a little bit of editing, so it would have been a lot sloppier. So it's basically the sound of a band rocking out in a studio, and we tried to do that as much as possible.

I didn't want this to be a novelty. I wanted it to be relatable. I even did an interview with my high school newspaper and I was anxious to talk to them because they weren't even born when I graduated high school. I was anxious to hear if the subject matter still rang true. They said, 'Definitely.' High school will always kinda be this time to sort through personas to see who you are.

Analogue: Were you surprised by what came out?

Eric: I was surprised by how much I remembered and how many characters came out—specific stories and memories. I felt like I was mining a journal that I never really kept. I found that the songs actually came together kind of quickly.

"I felt like I was mining a journal that I never really kept."

Analogue: I want to go back to the creative prompt idea. Has that always been the best way for you to work?

Eric: It took me a while to figure that out, but I do need to have some parameters to give me focus. If I just sit down knowing I could make any kind of song and record it in any kind of way and write about anything possible, that's paralyzing to me creatively. But if I need to sit down and write a song about high school, that gives me a place to start from. So yeah, I enjoy having something that sets the rules and I can work within them.

Analogue: When was the last time you felt that way, that paralysis?

Eric: I haven't actively felt it in a long time, because I've learned to not pursue things when I'm not feeling creative. In the early days, I would just sit there and bang my head against the wall. I would try to write every single day. There's something valuable to that, but there's also a lot of frustration. Writing a not very good song is frustrating to me. That can still happen if I'm working on songs now. I can be frustrated and that's why I started cooking more. I found when I was writing songs and couldn't finish it, I'd get frustrated. But then I'd come home and cook something and would feel like I completed something that day. I'm a completionist. I like to feel like when I start something, I can finish it.

So in the early days, I felt like I was writing 200 songs for an album and then picking from that. Now it's more like I write 15 songs and pick from that. I think I've just learned to focus better and collect ideas better. So when I sit down, I have purpose. I'm also a dad now and I'm married, so I have responsibilities. I don't have all day to just sit and write. When I do, I like to be productive here.

Analogue: I know “Never Ever Over You" is the new track included on the deluxe version of the album. What's the story there? What kept it off the original?

Eric: I really liked it, but I ended up not recording it because it's the only song I wrote that takes place looking back on high school. All the other songs are in the high school experience. This song didn't fit that. This is more looking back, so that's why it didn't make the list. But I like the song. I like playing it. I think it sounds nice on the acoustic, so when I was in the studio, I started to do it to see how it came out.

VISIT: Eric Hutchinson