By Dave Herrera
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From romance and politics to UFOs and God, songwriters cite all kinds of inspiration for their music. Hunter Dragon, though, brings a far more fundamental influence to bear on his quirky, head-scrambling new album, Weight & Measure. "I was settling down for the first time in a long while," he says. "I had a job and a place to live. I had food on my table."
While the starving-artist stereotype is mostly an exaggeration, Dragon has walked the walk. The Denver songsmith wrote and recorded Weight — which is being released by local record label Bocumast at a show at the hi-dive this week — in his home. But during an eight-month period prior to that, he didn't have a home in which to lay down his tracks — or his head.
"Even from the time I was a teenager, I always wanted to travel and go on adventures," says Dragon. "A couple years ago, I quit my job and hopped a train out to the West Coast. My thinking was, if I was going to be a couch-surfer and not have a home for a while, I needed to go where I wouldn't freeze to death if I was outside. I know people do that here, but I'm not that hard-core. I thought I'd just bum around in California, find places to stay, find food where I can."
It was far from the first time Dragon had uprooted his life and ridden the rails, relying on the kindness of strangers and grassroots resources like Food Not Bombs to get by. "I've been to all 48 continental states," says the shaggy-haired 28-year-old. This time out, though, he had a revelation.
"This past trip I took was the first time it didn't feel like an uplifting experience," he admits. "It felt a little too forced. I felt really low about the whole thing. Before, it seemed people were really generous, and no matter what happened I'd be looked after and survive. But there was none of that this time. There was no time to make music. There was only time to find a place to stay or something to eat. I got to feeling so crappy about not being able to afford my own room. I just wanted a room with some electricity and some musical instruments. For the first time, I was like, 'Maybe this isn't the life for me.'"
Dragon's unease was personified by a new friend named Gene, a homeless man he met in Berkeley. "I remember one night talking to my friend Gene," Dragon recalls, "and he was telling me how he was on the streets because he'd been persecuted by the FBI. It really hit me that there were people out in the world who weren't homeless because they wanted some adventure. They had to.
"Gene couldn't tell me how old he was," notes Dragon. "He couldn't remember his age. He was separate from the rest of the bums. He was a drinker, but he wasn't living it up and going crazy. He was trying to build a life, but he didn't have much of anything to build it on. He was a very interesting, very articulate man. But I was afraid that I would be him in forty years, and I didn't want that."
So, after a quick trip up the coast to Portland to record a few songs and do a short tour with noted singer-songwriter Adrian Orange, Dragon returned to Denver in spring of last year. He hung out at Pablo's Coffee on Sixth Avenue so long that they offered him a job, and that led to a place of his own for the first time in months.
Accordingly, Weight is one of the most deliberate, intricate records Dragon has ever produced; while past discs of his, including his self-titled debut for 2006, have boasted plenty of loops and odd snatches of instruments to bolster his surreal, shaky songs, Weight is a folk album telegraphed back from the post-apocalypse, gushing every kind of emotion, confusion and melodic mutation imaginable.
The songs are so anarchic and unique, it's hard to believe Dragon got his start playing drums in a St. Louis pop-punk band — that is, while serving in a church band alongside his father, a non-denominational pastor.
"I had to go to church every Sunday and Wednesday night up until I moved out of the house," Dragon recalls. "I drummed in the church band, and my dad was the leader. We had plenty of fights about religion while I was growing up, but what made me quit the band and stop going to church was a fight with my dad over music. He kept telling me to speed up and slow down, but I couldn't hear him. So I told him to follow me. He was like, 'No, you need to follow me.' So I set my sticks down and walked out. I was done with it."
Ultimately, things didn't go any better with his punk band. Originally called the Cartwrights before switching to the moniker Hated Nixon, the outfit seemed at first to be a great launching pad for Dragon. But after a few years, the cracks between his bandmates' professionalism and Dragon's own idiosyncrasy began to widen.
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