Dillon Hodges and his band firekid played at the 2015 Hangout Music Festival and will release their debut album on the Atlantic label this summer. The music is a new direction for the left-handed singer/songwriter from Muscle Shoals who played Ricky Skaggs and G-runs in high school talent contests and now mixes electronic sounds and a Gameboy into his songs. We talked with him the day before his show at the Hangout Festival on May 17.
“I started playing guitar when I was 11 to impress girls. My music instructor, who was my neighbor, got me into bluegrass and instilled in me a love for music,” says Hodges. “I was horrible for the first two months when I was playing right-handed. My instructor told my parents it was not going anywhere and questioned if I should keep pursuing guitar. We flipped the strings and made it a left-handed guitar and that was it. Now I am getting to play at the Hangout Music Festival. It doesn’t even make sense but I am so excited to be here.”
TSR: How did your music grow beyond bluegrass?
Hodges: I listened to bluegrass most of my life and didn’t listen to pop music or electronic music until the last three or four years, but when I heard that music for the first time, the light went off in my head. It has given me a chance to be more expressive and creative than I could be with bluegrass music.
I went to college at the University of North Alabama and did an Americana project to establish myself as a songwriter because I wanted to branch out. I made the Rumspringa record two years ago with a Kickstarter campaign. Before I could put it out, friends in L.A. invited me to write with them. We wrote two or three pop songs and I put everything else aside and started what would become firekid. I kept the two projects separate, but the name firekid sounded like a rebirth to me, which is what I was going through.
I put out a single, “Bullet for a Broken Heart,” and the B-side was a cover of “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorrilaz. I wanted to do a banjo/mandolin version but it sounded empty. I was working with James Gregory and he laid down some vintage drum machine samples on his iPhone and it was amazing. Hip-hop drums over solo banjo music and it was like nothing I’ve heard before. We put it out that way. I keep going back to that happy accident. On the new album, I worked with producer Sam Hollander and hip-hop was his specialty. I learned a lot from him.
TSR: Describe your playing style. It is more than pushing and pulling guitar strings.
Hodges: I am a flatpicker. It is not a common style and playing with a flatpick is usually associated with bluegrass music, not pop music. I used to teach music lessons to kids and I tried to expose them to bluegrass music and they had the coolest reactions to flatpicking. I want to give flatpicking a wider audience. It is more rigid with a lot of eighth notes and it is often associated with speed. It is a good foundation for adapting to playing other styles of guitar.
(Dillon was the 2007 National Flatpicking Guitar Champion, the second-youngest person to win the title).
TSR: How did you get a record deal with Atlantic?
Hodges: It probably seems like it happened quickly, but on the inside it feels like it has taken forever. We made a few demos for the project and had some label meetings. I was meeting with Atlantic when the Muscle Shoals documentary came out. The documentary mostly focused on the relationship between Jerry Wexler, Rick Hall, and Atlantic. At the same time Sam Riback from Atlantic and I were having great meetings. Working with a label is giving me opportunities with a great team that I wouldn’t have on my own.
TSR: What changed when you grew from a solo musician to playing with a band?
Hodges: The band came together seven months ago with drummer Josh Kepplan and multi-instrumentalist Luke Richards. I have had my head down working on the live show. Some of our first shows were opening for JJ Grey and Mofro and Moon Taxi and we are opening for the Mowglis for a few weeks this summer. Those parts feel like it is moving fast and if I think too much about it I get overwhelmed.
I have watched a lot of YouTube videos about playing with a band and weird little things like learning how to play to a drum click. I hadn’t played with drums before. A lot of the electronic sounds in the show are mine. I DJ with my feet during the live shows by triggering samples with a launch pad.
TSR: Tell about some of the songs on the new album.
Hodges: “Die for Alabama” is going to be the first single. It was just the opening song for the Talladega race, which is funny because ten years ago I played as the opening entertainment for the race when they had a last-minute cancellation. I had to play an hour of patriotic music for a hundred thousand race fans. Ten years later my song was on the commercial.
I want people to take their own meaning for “Die for Alabama: I like to think that it is about there being two sides to every story and my hope that people don’t live in the dark.
“Lay by Me” is the first song I wrote for firekid. “When we are only dry bones/sleeping under two stones/Lay by me” is about the hope of an afterlife with someone you love or living your whole life with the person you love.
I wrote “Americana Dream” as a joke but it made the album. It is the pot calling the kettle black. I was playing bluegrass licks at talent shows when everyone else was listening to Limp Biscuit. I got a lot of flack for it until college in 2010 it became popular and the people who gave me the hardest time started playing banjo and mandolin. I am no fan of modern country music but no one is calling out the Americana folks for their elements of farce. Skinny jeans, truckers’ hats, working boots that have never seen dirt–that is my wardrobe too. I have a beard to cover my ugly face, but there is always the tortured artist who has to play slow and in a minor key. I know some of these people on a personal level and they are happy people in real life.
They sing about the devil/They sing about the Lord/They made a full-length album without a single major chord/Living in the past with their vinyl time machines/Everybody’s chasing the Americana dream.
TSR: Where do you want this music to take you?
Hodges: I want the freedom to make music on my own terms with the option of not making music. I want to make an instrumental flat-picking record. I had an active role in the production of the album. I did some programming and electronic elements. Eventually I would love to produce.
I still have a few private music students in Florence. One of my students is graduating and starting to play around Muscle Shoals. I want to keep teaching because I can’t describe how good that feels to be a part of helping someone else become a musician.