ELWOOD SNOCK & THE LAND OF LO-FI
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PRODUCTION STILL OF MICHAEL HURLEY by Amy Annelle

Amy Anelle



MICHAEL HURLEY Musician


Michael Hurley keeps his own pace, as he always has. The albums he’s offered up to the world are many—over twenty now—some in connection to widely known musicians, others recorded as home-made cassette tapes, but all of the same strong cloth. He conjures up songs that go beyond the sometimes silly nature of their words and into a space of longing so familiar it feels comfortable while evoking lightness in looking at the darkest aspects of our nature. Michael’s music has always intertwined with his devotion to visual art—watercolor paintings and line drawings of his many characters can be found in graphic novels, on most album covers, and as the background of a number of his songs.

Traveling by classic car or killer van to gigs all over the country has been a way of being for Michael since he started off so many years ago, and that, along with his lo-fi attitude, has made him an example for unyielding, alternative types. Snock’s vision is a complete thing, and he plods on at the center of his own set of words, characters and colors with a taste for oysters, oatmeal, Polish food and a well-honeyed cup of black tea. To a younger generation he’s become an inspiration, but the Snockophiles of several decades look on with the quiet knowledge that this level of creation has been the mainline for Michael all along.


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It seems there was never a time when Michael Hurley was not creating . He was the leader of invention amongst his four siblings and the nick-namer of all in their home in Bucks County, PA, where they moved after he was born in 1941. It was here that they all began the floor prone dance called Measling and learned to sing harmonies with their musically inclined parents.

Michael first art form was visual—“I drew before I musick-ed,” he's said of the comic characters and stories he began creating as a kid. Before there were established underground comics, Michael was putting together drawings of his characters and projecting them using a simple bulb and mirror device to create nighttime showings for his sisters and brother. Associating himself with the Indians rather than the Cowboys, he was permitted to get a traditional Mohican hair-cut for good behavior. Always listening to the blues, country and American traditional musicians, his desire to play guitar followed. The world of his drawings naturally made its way into his songs, later including his standby dog duo Jocko and Boone.

Bucks County was home to a number of creative types at the time Michael was growing up. He recounts his first experience drinking tea, a lifelong love affair started at the home a friend’s mother who was considered bohemian and did yoga. The atmosphere produced several music-bound teens at the time. Michael was making the rounds of local gatherings where musicians would party and “wail” together for night long stretches. It was then he first met Robin Remaily and Steve Weber, who later became part of the Holy Modal Rounders. Around the same era, Michael encountered the folklorist Fred Ramsey Jr. who picked him up hitchhiking with his guitar. Ramsey recorded and produced Michael’s first album First Songs, after which he played his first official gig in Carnegie Hall as part of the New York Folk Festival, sharing a bill with Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and Buffy Sainte-Marie. He was 21.

At the time First Songs was released, Michael was in and out of Greenwich village, where he spent time with Pete Stampfel and met Marjorie Stark. Michael and Marjorie orbited elsewhere, living teepee style in the famed Delaware Valley Cook (as in "kook") Camp and making their way to Mexico, then back to Pennsylvania and onto Massachusetts where they lived in Brookline with their three wee ones. Michael, who nicknamed his wife Pasta and called himself Snock, was making music all the while but without another album release. He became involved in the macrobiotic movement in the Boston area, working with Michio Cushi and helping to build the first Erehwon store, pioneering organic food in America.

A good piece after his first release, Michael came out with Armchair Boogie in 1971 and Hi-Fi Snock Uptown in 1972. With the support of his childhood friend Jesse Colin Young (of the Youngbloods) those albums were released on the Warner Brother subsidiary Raccoon Records. Armchair Boogie was the first of Michael's albums to feature his artwork and characters on the record cover, and each one since has followed suit. Michael traveled to California to record the second Raccoon release and started making swings up to Vermont, eventually parting ways with Pasta, who moved west. After a spell on Martha's Vineyard, he moved to Vermont where he lived with girlfriend Kim, who he called Big Duck, and their son. His mother and siblings were living nearby as well, including sister Jeanne, who was married to Robin.

In 1975, Rounder Records released Have Moicy!, a collaboration with Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones and the Unholy Modal Rounders. Rolling around the"Insanity Belt" in his 1940 Chevy The Hulk and roaming "Hipster Hill" with Gary Sisco, Robin, Dave Reisch, John Cassel and Mr. Whiskerwits, Michael released Long Journey in 1976, Snockgrass in 1980 and Blue Navigator in 1984. He took a job working with a lady named Annie who had a food stand and later became Annie's Organics (yes, she of the Goddess Dressing and fancy mac & cheese). A few moments of a later Vermont gathering were caught on a video recording made around this time, by lady friend Betsy Hanzimanolis.

Pulling away from Vermont, Michael hit Richmond, Virginia where he made his home for some years, always with jaunts back up the coast for gigs and radio shows, some of which were organized by WFMU radio host Nick Hill. Richmond brought on the appearance of a new character to the scene, a green mutant named Kornbred who began partying at Michael’s place when he and girlfriend Mora would go out of town, wrecking the house with his other mutant pals. Snock started making home made tape recordings, including the wonderful Growlin’ Bobo and Woodbill Brothers, released in the first years of the 1990s. He was doing it his own way—with no labels involved—before that seemed even remotely like a regular way of operating. Michael also became enamored with 8-track tapes and their repair, which he still loves to discuss (he recently re-released Armchair Boogie in that format). Nick Hill, whom he had continued to do shows with, brought Michael to SXSW and released the 7-inch Wildegeeses and the album Weatherhole in the 90s, bringing him round to new fans.

Snock has long had admirers in Europe, and he was well received when he finally made his first appearances there. The Scottish Island of Scoraig, “known for the growth of plots of remedial herbs, and a tree nursery,” has been home to a particularly high number of Snockophiles (due to an imported recording some time ago) and the German label Veracity released Wolfways in 1994 and Parsnip Snips in 1995. Those connections lead to Michael's lovely album Sweetkorn in 2002—featuring tracks inspired by living in Portsmouth, Ohio—and Down in Dublin in 2005. He continues to make hops to the continent, sometime with Dave Reisch, for well-received adventuring. The Japanese have also had the pleasure of his visit, being, of course, savvy enough to appreciate his work.

Michael’s slow crawl westward turned into a leap with the coming of the new century and landed him in Portland, OR, which quickly led to a pad in Astoria where he has lived many years. He has continued playing local gigs and making his cross country jaunts. The cycle of generations has brought new listeners to Michael’s music. Filmmakers have added his songs to their work as well, including tracks in Hamlet, the Oscar winning short The Accountant, and Deadwood. Devotees have been developing out of recent psych-folk music movements, and the still unusual and touching qualities of his songs hit the same mark now as they did when they first rang out. Ancestral Swamp, 2007, was released on Andy Cabic and Devendra Banhart's Gnomonsong label, and Michael collaborated with the members of Ida in 2009 for Ida Con Snock over some recording sessions in Levon Helm’s barn. He's often been included in gatherings of this next wave, recently touring and playing with bands such as Espers and Vetiver—both of whom have recorded covers of his songs—and young musicians Jolie Holland, Alela Diane, Meara O’Reilly, Amy Anelle, and Tara Jane O’Neil, among many others. Cat Power has recorded "The Werewolf," making her own haunting version of that long loved song. As Michael has noted, the age of his crowd seems to stay much the same. The last years have brought another album, Blue Hills with new songs and a reinvigoration of the amazing "Tea" song, as well as the birth of his second daughter and a move inland to a new home.

MAKING THE FILM

Elwood Snock & The Land of Lo-Fi has been collaborative from the get go. When Michael first considered the offer to make a film, his response was that he had, indeed, been thinking about making a movie and had a few ideas of his own. He was amazing in taking us along on adventures and gigs and pulling out old photos for the camera to see, hanging out for days in his home. Always directing by the actions he presented to the camera (and those he did not), Michael soon became interested in the shooting itself. In January of 2006, he asked to try out a small camera during festival in Big Sur. Having gotten hold of the thing he promptly disappeared, resurfacing some hours later with the camera still rolling. When asked how it was going he held a finger up to his lips and whispered: “I’m making a movie.” And so he was.

The first tape Michael handed to us was a near perfect thing in itself. The shots were all very clearly his vision of the world, and he had spent a good portion of that night shooting, narrating and interviewing as he went along. From that point on Michael immersed himself, finding ways to document his own life at home and on the road—showing the camera his house, taking it on walks while musing out loud, placing it on the dashboard as he drove and sang in the car, and using it to capture the characters in his set of friends. The quality of his footage was repeatedly astounding, and could (maybe should) by all rights be presented in a pure form. After three years of shooting and thirty-odd tapes, we have had the painful task of finding ways to condense and present some portion of what he created, though it will always feel to us like not nearly enough.

 

 
       
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A FILM BY Lisa Foti-Straus & Susannah Morse WITH Michael Hurley ANIMATED BY Drew Christie