The years have seen countless ups and down for Thunderhawk, who plan to release five studio albums in one day later this year. Josh Hall, frontman behind the Muncie based indie rock band, has always obsessively followed his passions though.
“I think I went to see The Boredoms play in Philly instead of going to my senior prom,” Hall recently told NUVO, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “I grew up about 10 miles north of Philadelphia,” the six-foot-five singer/songwriter continued, later explaining that he ended up heading to Ball State in 1998 on a volleyball scholarship. “I ended up at Ball State because they have both a good music engineering program and a really good men’s volleyball program. It’s the only school in the country that has those two things.”
Building to Gravity
For starters, a drummer named Doug Market must be mentioned. He’s six-foot-nine and, yep, they met on the Ball State volleyball courts. “Real early on [Doug and I] discovered that we liked a lot of the same music — bands like The Pixies, Tragically Hip, Guided by Voices and The Beatles,” Hall explained. “We immediately started Thunderhawk. Doug’s a good guy and a good drummer who is good at fishing. He is 30 going on 40. He’s just this old soul, like Tom Waits. On the other hand I’m 28 going on 18.”
But around 20 years ago — long before two tall, athletic musicians decided to start a band with an instantly questionable name — there was a boy in a basement.
“When I was about eight or nine I remember my mom asking me if I wanted to take piano lessons,” Hall said. “She asked me as if I was going to run away screaming and crying, but I got really excited. So I started taking lessons and about three years later could play the complete works of Scott Joplin on piano from memory. I think my parents and music teachers thought I was going to be some kind of piano prodigy at the time. Indie rock pretty much destroyed that. I had some older friends that were in high school and they got me into The Pixies, Ween, Sebadoh, Beck and punk rock.”
Hall quickly took to Ween, who lived just a skip away from him in the Philadelphia area. By age 12 or 13 Hall noticed that Ween —who were then big news on MTV — recorded using only a Tascam cassette four-track. “I bought that same exact four-track and lived in my basement recording songs.”
“He went in the basement and never came out,” Hall’s dad, known only as “Major Dude,” once told me at a show. Talk about a kid ahead of his time.
Though Hall recorded three or so albums while attending Ball State, it wasn’t until 2005 that he — armed with said drummer at his side — really hit his studio stride, recording and self releasing Thunderhawk IV, a 22-song indie rock classic of the need-to-know-basis sort. It’s as good as, say, Guided by Voices’ Alien Lanes or Pavement’s Brighten the Corners, and appropriately, Hall and Market shared a great appreciation for two men: Guided by Voices honcho Robert Pollard and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, who Hall claims to be a dead ringer for when on stage. (They share an aloof, cooler-than-you swagger that manages to never seem pretentious.)
Not that the album or band impressed locals.
“Thunderhawk never caught on in Muncie,” explained Hall, who still lives in Muncie but works in Indianapolis. “Back when we started playing I don’t remember there being one other indie rock band in town. None of the other bands seemed to like us.”
Despite their peers’ rejection, the 2005 version of Thunderhawk stayed in high spirits, playing shows regularly in Indianapolis. They had a website, T-shirts, an album they believed in — the whole nine.
But, according to Hall, “Basically everybody in the band quit sometime around 2006. It just seemed like things were going nowhere. We had played all over Indianapolis and hadn’t really made any fans.”
Refueling in Fort Wayne
“I had been working on the next Thunderhawk album the whole time by myself,” Hall continued, referring to the band’s most recent release, Gravity Wins! “I wrote all the songs, bought a drum set, got a trumpet and saxophone for Christmas and just kept on recording.”
Sounds simple. Not so much.
“Right out of college I started working at a recording studio doing a lot of sound editing,” Hall said. “I really liked working there but it didn’t pay very well. After about two years the studio started to go under, so the owners had to let two of us go. I was living out of my van for a while, so Gravity Wins! was recorded in at least six different places.”
Dark days, for sure. Hall went on to explain how he spent one particular weekend during this time slamming cans of PBR, skateboarding and, in his words, “fucking losing it.”
“I started throwing stuff off the third floor balcony of our apartment — chairs, lamps, food. I threw my computer monitor over and it exploded all over the parking lot. At that point I guess my roommate stopped me. The guitars or the computer were next to be thrown. Gravity Wins! — which I was at the time recording on my computer — was very close to being smashed in a parking lot and then hauled to a landfill somewhere. The recordings on my computer would have been irreplaceable. I have since quit skateboarding.”
“The last seven or eight months have been really good,” Hall said. “About eight months ago Doug sent a copy of Gravity Wins! to a writer in Fort Wayne. It got into the right hands and Fort Wayne saved Thunderhawk. Out the blue I was being asked to play shows and do interviews and radio shows and TV shows up there. I started receiving e-mails claming that the whole thing was a hoax and that I wasn’t a real person.”
The new attention brought the band — Hall, Market, guitarist Drew Sexton and bassist Justin Darrow — back together after a two year break.
Yep, five albums in one day
“I’m hoping to get five albums done by the end of October,” Hall said when asked what was next planned for his band. “It’s the 10th anniversary of Thunderhawk, so I just want to do something kind of big. Also, I got tired of hearing about bands doing EPs of five or six songs, or waiting three years for the next Radiohead CD that only has 10 songs on it. So I’m trying to put 60 or 70 songs out all on the same day, none of it being demos or throw-away songs. My head is a busy and confusing place. I’m just trying to capture what’s going on upstairs on these albums.”
The main album, Hall explains, will be called Thunderhawk Six. “It’s a fake compilation with different fictional bands taking credit for the songs,” he said, further explaining that there will be three albums billed to the fictional bands and a fifth CD that is actually the first ever Thunderhawk CD.
“The first Thunderhawk CD — originally written in 1998 and 1999 but never released — is one of the five albums I plan to release,” Hall said. “The other CDs are all very different. Black Label Summer is bordering into country and more folky songwriter stuff. Cigarette Lifter is bordering into punk and much, much heavier stuff, and Killer Robots From Space has a psych-pop feel.”
Hall laughed when asked what he would say if he had three minutes with someone from Sub Pop or Matador Records, two labels who used to consistently put out music in Thunderhawk’s chosen sub-genre.
“I don’t think anyone is going to really ‘get’ Thunderhawk in three minutes,” he said. “It would take me two minutes just to explain why the name is so dumb and doesn’t fit the music. Honestly, if I had three minutes with a Sub Pop guy, I wouldn’t even know what to say. I’d be better off punching the dude in the stomach and yelling ‘Thunderhawk!’ At least then he’d remember me and try to track me down to pursue a lawsuit.”