By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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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.
"I started writing songs myself and bringing them to the band, like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I didn't play drums on this song, but I sang and played guitar?'" says Dragon. "But the singer was like, 'No, I play guitar. And you shouldn't move to another instrument until you've mastered the one you're playing now.'
"That was a big moment for me," he confesses. "I was like, 'Whoa, I think a little differently than this guy.' There were all these rules associated with playing music that I didn't know about. With that band, there was this idea of following a pattern. We needed to make it. We needed to spend this amount of money on this studio and this gear. It just sucked the heart out of it. We'd go on tour, and I'd get as drunk I could just to get through the set."
A big schism in personal taste helped precipitate Dragon's defection from the group — not to mention the direction of his own solo work. "He started getting into Fall Out Boy," says Dragon of his old band's frontman, "and I started listening to Radiohead. Around that same time, Björk came out with Medúlla. I thought that was really cool. I realized it didn't have to be like, 'Okay, you're in a rock band, and you have to have a lead singer and a drummer, and you've got to get fancy gear.'
"I definitely don't believe that you have to go through all these steps before you can make music," he adds. "I'm not very proficient at anything, but if I just play everything a little bit and maybe do it all at the same time, it'll be me. I also started experimenting with the cheapest mikes I could find. I always wanted to use the cheap stuff, because I knew that's probably what I'd always be working with."
Soon after, Dragon fled the nest, moved to Denver and started playing music on his own. A chance meeting with Nick Houde and Chuck Potashner, then of the scrappy local indie-rock outfit Transistor Radio Sound, emboldened Dragon, who soon recorded a song for inclusion on a compilation released by Transistor's own imprint, Still Soft. From there, Dragon began playing solo shows around town, mostly at DIY venues like Rhinoceropolis, though his ragged appearance and ramshackle approach to music often confounded his audience — not to mention the venues involved.
"The hi-dive has always treated me pretty well. They treat me with more respect than I maybe deserve sometimes," he says with a laugh. "I used to go in there with two dollars and a weird mood, just loitering and creeping people out. I remember playing a show there one night and going over there with a shopping cart full of musical equipment. They were like, 'What are you doing?" and I was like, 'This is my gear. I've got to bring this shopping cart inside!'"
Now that Dragon has put down roots, reconciled with family back in St. Louis and settled down a bit, he probably won't be pushing a shopping cart again anytime soon. But true to his scavenger aesthetic, he's quick to point out that there's no instrument like a found instrument.
"I found a really nice guitar in the dumpster, a $300 guitar that missing one string," he says, his face lighting up. "The Rhodes I play on [Weight] was sitting in my dad's church for ten years, untouched. People have given me guitars before — some $75 piece of crap — and it winds up being the most beautiful thing to me. It's priceless.
"I can pick up this violin that's got two strings on it, and I can plug that sucker in and make these songs that are beautiful to me without any technique or training or anything," he concludes. "You just put yourself out there, and the instruments will find you."