John Johnson walks on stage with only his roll of duct tape. Then he continues to casually take his shoes and socks off and rolls his jeans up to his knees.
The older man anxiously hovering behind me asks, “Do you even know who these guys are?”
Henry Kammerer mysteriously struts on stage with his banjo, his hooded sweatshirt, and his shades. The lights dim and he takes his hoodie off. Out come the fringed leather vest and his metal slide on his left pointer finger; the crowd howls.
It’s not blues. It’s not Americana. It’s not punk. It’s not Appalachian. It’s ass-shaking, foot-stomping, danceable energy brought to the room. It’s Hillstomp.
Twelve years ago, Henry Kammerer and John Johnson couldn’t tell you they were about to release their fourth studio album, go on tour and be playing in front of their wives and children in their hometown of Portland, Oregon.
The blossoming of Hillstomp begins at Newport Bay Seafood Restaurant at the Washington Square Mall in Tigard, Oregon. “We embrace our lack of coolness,” says Johnson.
“We never intended this to be a professional band. It was entirely for fun and it was just to entertain us a couple nights a week. It just kind of morphed itself into something else. It’s amazing,” says Kammerer.
One night, Kammerer’s coworker and punk rocker John Johnson decides to take a crack at jamming alongside Kammerer’s newfound skill of slide guitar.
“I grew up playing saxophone, piano, various instruments. Then I picked up a bottle of booze and a bass and went down that rabbit hole for a good 15 years. Then I met up with Henry and started doing Hillstomp,” says Johnson.
Johnson never played drums in his life. All he had were buckets, cans, a cheese grater, some spoons, and other recycled materials. “I stole shit from the restaurant. Like a big soup pot, a grill, that kind of stuff to bang around on,” says Johnson.
What started out as a productive way to let off steam from annoying customers every night ended up being the start of their careers. Kammerer’s passionate and lifelong interest in blues music, specifically the slide guitar, ignited the fire to Portland’s beloved duo.
“I’d try to mimic artists with my headphones in, but at my failed attempts I stumbled upon some pretty cool things of my own. Not a lot of research; just with my ears,” says Kammerer.
Kammerer brings the blues and melodies, but Johnson gives the band a wholesome presence and a backbone with his makeshift drums.
“I grew up listening to rock and post-punk. It’s not that it’s necessarily in our music; it’s the energy of it and the simplicity and minimalist aspect of what we do. That’s where the blues in our music comes through, too,” says Johnson.
“Blues and punk: both of those are primal and basic and that’s what we do. Raw,” says Johnson.
Once they developed their sound, they found their energy. They kept being asked to play all over the Portland metropolitan area. After saying no for so long, they finally started saying yes to every possible gig. That’s when Hillstomp first found their stomping ground right here in Portland.
The duo started off playing covers of Robert Lee Burnside and “Mississippi” Fred McDowell. “This band wouldn’t exist without R.L. Burnside,” says Kammerer.
The five covers they started out with turned into an 18-song set list. Through mistakes and Kammerer’s exploration of open tuning on the guitar came their original pieces.
Soon, tours in Europe turned into shows all over the United States.
Hillstomp’s first studio album, One Word, was released in 2005.
After ten years of touring, stomping, recording, and mixing three studio albums and one live album, the duo split up for a year.
After taking a much needed break, the duo reunited to write their brand new album, Portland, Ore., released this March 2014 with Fluff & Gravy Records.
“We spent a long time trying to recreate our live sound on our records. But we can’t do that. Every show is a moment in time. It’s never going to exist on a record. This is the first time we’ve ever created a record that isn’t an attempt at a live show; it stands on its own. It’s a record to sit down and listen to,” says Johnson.
“There’s suddenly a slower heart rate for us. Maybe it’s because I have a baby and John’s got a pregnant wife. We’re into our 40’s and facing beyond that,” says Kammerer.
The highs and lows of being caught up in the hurricane of Hillstomp took a toll on the band. But after the break, it brought back a completely different sound.
“There was a panic and tightness in us before. That’s eased in both of us and it comes out in our music. And that’s just starting. Right now, for whatever reason, this seems to be a band not on its decline,” says Kammerer.
They are dipping their toes in this new sound. The two actually find themselves wanting to listen to their own music after making this record. Hopefully, their diverse fanbase will agree.
Their assorted crowd is what keeps Kammerer and Johnson on the stage after all these years.
“We’ve had shows where I’ve been thanked by a child, a twenty-year-old with a mohawk and bone through his nose, and a grandmother—all within five minutes of each other,” says Johnson.
It’s not the quantity that matters to Hillstomp, it’s quality.
“We don’t have a big crowd. We have a lot of small crowds. The hippies come, the trucker-hat tattooed guys come, the tucked-in shirt blues guys come, and all these small crowds get along. It’s beautiful. I’m moved by it every time,” says Kammerer.
With raising their families here, knowing and loving each quirk of the city, Kammerer and Johnson know that Portland is home. There’s something different about the music scene here including the crowd and fellow musicians.
“We’re all very supportive here. We root for eachother. We like eachother. That’s amazing with a city this size and a growing reputation. You can feel the city huddling around trying to protect itself with the onslaught of Portlandia,” says Kammerer.
When Hillstomp gets on stage, it’s not music that they’re playing. It’s an energy that fills the whole room and the crowd doesn’t have a choice—they have to stomp their feet and shake their asses.
It seems like it’s two guys, a guitar, and a bunch of buckets. But no, it’s a slide-guitarist and banjo player who has a raw voice which slides into the crackling, old microphone. It’s “Lord Buckets” duct taping his instruments together, slapping his spoons on his washboard. It’s an experience that forces the movement and dance right out of you.
These two pour out their souls into their sound, generously including us in who they truly are on stage. There’s no classification for this music: it’s just Hillstomp.
For more stories on your fellow Portlanders and neighbors, check out the link: Poppycock Magazine