Kevin Hufnagel has spent the last 30 years doing the unexpected, whether as a member of Dysrhythmia, Byla, Vaura, Sabbath Assembly or Gorguts. Along with those outfits, Hufnagel has issued a series of solo outings. The latest of those, titled Messages to the Past, finds the music veteran nodding to some of his earliest musical influences. There are flashes of early progressive metal on this recording, moments that might remind listeners of Mercyful Fate, Ozzy’s first quartet of studio recordings and the various guitar ballads that populated any number of six-string centric LPs in the late 1980s.
Still, it’s not purely homage nor is it mere pastiche. Hufnagel’s voice emerges from the first moments of the album opener, “Pulse Controller” and remains steadfast until the closing “In Our Time”. The LP was tracked by his longtime collaborator Colin Marston at Menegroth, the Thousand Caves and features artwork from Bryan Olson.
In addition to this new solo effort, Hufnagel and Marston’s project Byla has recently reissued its 2007 effort with Jarboe. Messages to the Past can be ordered here, while Byla and Jarboe’s Viscera is available here.
What can you tell me about the genesis of this album?
Most of my solo stuff so far has been more abstract and ambient and basically about trying to make guitars not sound like guitars. I love that stuff but I thought it would be interesting to do something that was opposite. I grew up on a lot of music that was guitar hero-ish. Some of that stuff I grew out of for a while. Some of it I’ve always loved and was going back to in more recent years. At some point I thought, “I could do my own version of this. That would be cool.”
There were times where I’d really like one song and wish the whole album had the same vibe. Some of that stuff got a little too cheery. A little too upbeat. I just wanted my own record to sound moodier.
When I first saw the cover art I thought it captured a certain moment, like the ’80s Shrapnel releases.
It’s funny because I loved all that stuff. But it was so shred-y and over the top. I’m not a shredder. I can’t pick fast like Paul Gilbert. But a lot of the music I’m writing doesn’t call for that stuff anyway.
Your rhythm work is incredible. Rhythm is something that often gets lost when people think about guitar playing.
I was equally interested in lead and rhythm playing from the start. In high school I was in a metal band where the other guitar player was older than me and better than me. I learned a lot from him. But he was a great rhythm player so I picked up a lot of technique from him. In Dysrhythmia there’s hardly been any guitar solos; it’s always been a lot more about rhythm. I guess it makes sense that it would translate to this.
Did you start with electric guitar or acoustic?
I was given an electric guitar first, as my own guitar, but my mom had a classical nylon string guitar lying around the house before I got my own. So that was the first guitar I picked up and played. Those guitars are harder to play, especially when you’re a kid. They have a wider neck and thicker strings. I started taking classical lessons a few years into playing, learning fingerstyle, all that.
If you’re like most kids you probably heard KISS or something like it on the radio and then found classical which opened up other possibilities.
When I think back to my earliest musical memories and music that I loved the sound of it’s classical. That came through records my mom would play around the house, so learning classical guitar was nothing I was forced into. I was interested in that even though I loved shred guitar. I was also lucky to have guitar teachers, right from the beginning, who were really open-minded.
I had one teacher in high school where one week we’d work on a jazz piece, the next week he’d show me a classical guitar piece. It was all over the place, but I kind of liked that. I was basically into learning as much as I could from every different style.
So, I’m trying to take all the things I like most about all these different techniques and make my own thing with it.
What was it like when you started to hear progressive rock?
I was into heavy metal as a kid and I think that as I got better at my instrument I wanted to hear music that was more complex but still sounded heavy. You could say something like Master of Puppets had some of those elements. But pretty soon I wanted something more advanced. I got into bands like Queensrÿche, that was a gateway band for me. Then I got into crazier things like Watchtower. That made me go back to the ’70s and check out Yes, King Crimson, Rush, though I was pretty familiar with Rush because they were on the radio.
I got into the contemporary bands of the time first because that was what was on MTV or reading about in magazines. And of course, I wanted to figure out who they were influenced by.
When you started Dysrhythmia did you have a pretty clear vision of what you wanted to do or was that stuff that was just coming out in the rehearsal room?
The only thing I knew at the time was that I didn’t want it to be a Shrapnel Records kind of thing. I was anti-solo, almost anti-riff. Just weird riffs. Nothing diatonic. That’s still my approach with Dysrhythmia. It was all going against whatever people thought of as typical instrumental rock. There really weren’t even bands like us that we were inspired by. We just liked anything that was dissonant and angular. Tense.
But it’s funny because soon after we put out our first record, I started to see reviews that would mention Don Caballero, the Fucking Champs, Breadwinner. That was the first time I heard the term math rock.
Do you write all the time? If you’re thinking about Dysrhythmia and stumble on something that wouldn’t necessarily work for that, do you set it aside and say, “This is more like something for a solo record”?
Really rarely. But sometimes it does happen with one of the bands where I’m writing something, and then it doesn’t work for some reason so I say, “Maybe I can fit in over here.” With my solo stuff, I always know. Probably because I usually sit down and have a concept. Lately, I’ve just been having concepts first before I have any material.
With this album, I knew the moods I wanted to get across, so the material for it really just came to me. I already have one piece started for the next solo record. I’ve wanted, for years, to make an album that’s all prepared guitar. So that will be totally different from this new one. That’s what keeps it exciting for me.
Was there a piece from this new album that started you down the path?
I think the first one I wrote was “A Flame to Guide”. When I listen to the record now, I hear that as the simplest song, the most straightforward.
Do you have to work with a guitar in hand or can you write with paper or a notation program?
I always have a guitar in hand when I’m writing. I haven’t done much of the other. I’m usually in front of my computer so that I can record it right away. But my memory isn’t what it used to be. When I come up with an idea, I have to document it right away, or I’ll just forget it.
Do you have a sense of your audience? Is it largely the Dysrhythmia audience or is it distinct from that?
I wouldn’t say it’s too different from the audience I have with my bands. I haven’t done a ton of touring as a solo artist, so it’s not like I’m meeting a lot of the people that buy my solo music. Of course, I’m always reaching for new listeners. Ashland, the baritone ukulele record, could have a really different audience that would never be interested in Gorguts.
You also teach guitar. How much of that is face-to-face vs. online? Do you have a wide range of skill levels?
It’s mostly face-to-face, although I do do some video lessons as well. I prefer the in-person stuff because it’s a little bit better to be there. It’s certainly easier to play together that way. Most of my students are in their twenties and thirties although I have had students in their seventies. I have advanced players and beginners too.
I’m still learning a lot from them. Everyone learns differently and understands things differently. I’m constantly fine-tuning my way of conveying information in the way that’s easiest to understand.
When I was taking lessons I think there were a lot of things that went over my head; then they totally made sense to me much later.
Have you ever been approached to do a super high profile gig? Is that something you would ever consider?
I’ve never been approached for something like that, but I have thought about what I would say if something like that came. It would be great to tour with an established, really great singer-songwriter. I couldn’t do a gig where I didn’t like the music. I wouldn’t want it right now necessarily, maybe when I’m older.
In Byla you made an album with Jarboe, Viscera, that’s recently been reissued. How did that initially come about and do you have any specific memories of the sessions?
Colin Marston and I have always been big Swans fans. Around the time we did the first Byla album Decibel did one of these call and response columns with Jarboe. Someone on staff would play the music, and the musician would comment. They picked one of our songs, and her comments were really positive. She might have even said, “I could imagine singing over this.” We thought that was cool.
Around the same time, she came through Philadelphia, where I was living at the time. I went to the show and introduced myself afterward. I reminded her that I was in Byla. We eventually struck up an email correspondence, and Colin suggested we asked her to sing on an album.
I have pretty specific memories of her track vocals for the third song on that record, “10:58”. She sings super guttural on it. She basically did that all in one take. I was sitting with Colin when she did that. It was really intense. When the song started she was standing up and by the time the song was over, she was on the ground, dead. She had a bucket next to her the whole time and had been spitting into it. It was really intense.