Eric Howell’s King Mixer at the Sunset Concerts: Starring Again at Turley Park

Eric Howell’s King Mixer at the Sunset Concerts:  Starring Again at Turley Park
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Who: Eric Howell’s King Mixer
What: Sunset Concert Series (progressive guitar pop)
When: 2017-07-06
The next Sunset Concert marks a homecoming for Eric Howell, whose band, King Mixer, will play Thursd
Chris Wissmann
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words by Chris Wissmann

pictures by Vincent Svandra Photography

The next Sunset Concert marks a homecoming for Eric Howell, whose band, King Mixer, will play Thursday, July 6 at the Turley Park Gazebo.

Howell’s Carbondale group, the Reform (which included drummer LeRoy Jones, guitarist John Riley, and bassist Mike Waggoner; Brian Waggoner later replaced Riley, and all members contributed exemplary original songs), is still the best band this writer has ever seen. Equally inspired by the Beatles and loud alternative rockers like the Replacements, the Reform wrote lyrics that beautifully captured the angst, alienation, and anxiety of SIU students in the late 1980s. But the band married those lyrics to hard-edged, guitar-based pop songs with creative vocal harmonies and unforgettable melodic hooks. They went down like honey.

And with their electrifying performances, the Reform became one of the most popular local groups during an incredibly rich era in Carbondale music. With an appeal that ranged from punks to greeks, they would pack the Hangar or Gatsby’s (the current location of Traxx) on consecutive weekend nights.

They were the obvious choice to grace the cover of the first edition of Nightlife in March 1990. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Nightlife taking off in the first without the Reform inspiring such devotion, which spread out to local music in general.

“One of our first gigs in the Reform was at Turley, up in the gazebo,” Howell tells Nightlife. “That was a long time ago. This upcoming show isn’t about any kind of reunion show or anything— we’re very much rooted in the now. But it is not lost on me that I’ll be back in that same gazebo in Turley Park, some thirty years later. The mind boggles.”

After the Reform broke up in May 1990, Howell returned to Chicago. There he’s led a series of bands, produced hilarious Beatles and Chicago baseball parodies for WXRT (Howell is a flawless mimic), and labored endlessly on intricate but potent solo recordings.

The first of them didn’t come out until 2007, but Greatest Hitch Volume I was an amazing tour de force. The CD came with a feature-length documentary DVD, Beneath the Music, which gave a somewhat fictionalized account of Howell’s life in music. (Full disclosure: This writer was an interview subject in the film and shot some of its footage.)

The film shows that the Reform’s immense local popularity didn’t come close to vaulting the band out of poverty. That and other issues with which Howell struggled made his Carbondale years less than idyllic.

Looking back, however, “I feel great about it,” Howell says. “My time in Carbondale was pretty challenging, but context and time are a funny thing. I was just beginning back then and learning a lot— a student not of SIU, like my contemporaries, but I was attending the University of Hard Knocks for sure.”

Many songs on Greatest Hitch and 2016’s stupendous Hang On continue to take their inspiration from depression and unhappiness. (But with fierce, sweet melodies, they still go down like honey.) Howell says that’s just rock ‘n’ roll tradition and human predisposition, however.

“[I]n the rare moments when we’re feeling true joy, who wants to risk breaking the spell by putting pen to paper?” Howell says. “It’s such a good buzz, but a short-lived one, that breaking open Pro Tools to get it down feels a bit like trying to describe a great dream you just had. The more you talk about it, the more you can feel it slipping away.”

Howell’s writing, then, isn’t necessarily an indication of his mood, which he says is pretty good these days. And not all of his songs refract the sunshine away from the lyrics. Howell buoys Hang On with “Forty-five,” a joyous song that by all rights should light up summer radio waves across the nation. Using the little records with the big holes as a metaphor for how life spins ever faster with age, Howell belts out an exultant survivor’s tale: “I can’t believe I’m still alive/I can’t believe I’m forty-five.”

“There’s a lot of ‘there but for the grace of God’ in King Mixer music these days,” Howell says. “Mind you, there are definitely a lot of things worth getting one’s ire up nowadays, certainly on a national and planetary level. But, you know, personally, day-to-day, it takes a lot more to rankle me at this stage. So the line is long and loud first thing in the morning at Starbuck’s. Relish it. I wake up every morning thinking, ‘I made it!’ That is literally the first thought in my mind every day: ‘I made it another day.’ This is not guaranteed to any of us.”

The King Mixer band that will rock the Sunset Concerts will include drummer Colin Rambert, bassist Justin Loftus, and a horn section. “I also hope to bring a special guest or two to Turley as well,” Howell teases. “Time will tell if everything lines up in that regard, but I’m hopeful.”

As did his idols the Beatles, Howell definitely uses the studio as an instrument, painsakingly layering instruments, vocal harmonies, and effects on his songs. That, of course, begs the question: Can King Mixer capture all of those subtleties when they play live, or do they need to work around them somehow?

“That is a question that can only be answered from the vantage point of a gazebo,” Howell says. Then he quotes one of his other idols, Paul Westerberg of the Replacements: “Can’t hardly wait.”

Meanwhile, check out <>.

who: Eric Howell’s King Mixer

what: Sunset Concert Series (progressive guitar pop)

where: Turley Park Gazebo

when: Thursday, July 6

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Here’s a long response Howell gave to a question about songwriting. Dave Schultz, to whom Howell refers, was a member of the great 1980s Carbondale band October’s Child.

You don’t feel as if you need to be in a bad place emotionally to write great lyrics?

Regardless, no, I don’t think one needs to be in a bad place emotionally to write great lyrics. Not at all. But where that notion might arise is that what happens is you need to be tuned into “where you are” and really be in touch with sensations, colors, detail, and how you are feeling in order to accurately reflect your “truth.”

Generally when we’re in a bad place, you know it. You’re living it day in and day out, and you can’t escape yourself or get away from it (“wherever you go, there you are” kinda thing). And with that comes a certain understanding that can typically only come from an acute awareness that you are not all right or that things are not playing out as you would like them to. Your inner reality does not match the outer reality. That creates conflict within— and often manifests itself into the outside world in damaging ways, unless you can turn your pain into art. So yeah, I’ve been there in my own songs, sure. And I’ve used music as my outlet to save my own life.

But as a very wise and brilliant songwriter named Dave Schultz once told me, “Songwriting is not therapy. Don’t tell someone how to feel in your music.... Make them feel what you’re feeling by paying attention to what you’re describing. Focus on the sensations.”

Brilliant. And true.

All the best songwriters do this. It’s why you can hear a Bob Dylan song at a certain period of your life and suddenly the lyrics resonate so clearly you’d swear the song is without question about you. And then, years later, having moved on with your life, you reconnect with that song, thinking “God, I haven’t heard this in years...” and as you listen again in your new, modern life, you realize that the song is still about you, in your new world. As a writer, that’s quite a trick if you can pull it off.

But to address the converse: Can you write great lyrics when you’re in a good place? Absolutely. Or, if not lyrical, you can certainly tap a vibe and capture it on record. All the best rock ‘n’ roll songs are less about lyrics and more about vibe. “Tutti Frutti” can, at times, have just as much relevance as “Like a Rolling Stone.” But the ratio may be lopsided in favor of darkness equals great lyrics, because in the rare moments when we’re feeling true joy, who wants to risk breaking the spell by putting pen to paper? It’s such a good buzz, but a short lived one, that breaking open Pro Tools to get it down feels a bit like trying to describe a great dream you just had— the more you talk about it, the more you can feel it slipping away.

So there’s that angle. But the truth is, neither extremes are necessary to write great lyrics. Again, listen to Schultz on this one. It’s about “how brilliantly can you describe an experience?” And I’m still working on that one! My strength has always been an apparently innate ability to nail the vibe, both music and words working together to create a mood, which luckily for me, people seem to instantly understand. Typically, music or hook [comes] first, followed soon after by whatever lyrics I’m sounding out as I work on the song. Sometimes it’s instant, but in more recent years, it’s been music first. I have tons of demos of just melodies— it’s ridiculous. I’m waiting for a filmmaker to approach me for rock-inspired instrumental beds.

But in general, King Mixer’s appeal seems to be that my music is familiar to you without being specific or too gratuitous in reference, whatever the vibe may be. There’s a mashup of influences at work, sometimes multiple genres within the same song, certainly within the same album. You know when you see a movie and you can tell where the plot is heading but you don’t mind? You’re not rolling your eyes, you actually see where it’s leading and you enjoy it. Hopefully, King Mixer is the musical equivalent, I suppose. There’s layers both in vibe and lyrically. A lot of my best work makes for terrible poetry if you just put the words out on paper. But that’s why there’s proper poetry versus rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll can be poetry, but it’s hardly a requirement, right?

“Shama Lama Ding Dong” is poetry to me. “You put the ooh-mow-mow (uh oh, uh oh) back into my smile, child/That is why (that is why) that is why, you are my shoody doody do (yeah!)”


That is deep.