Graham Hunt finds the bright side of the end times
Milwaukee’s music scene will always be able to claim guitarist / singer-songwriter Graham Hunt as one of its own. Even after a (sort of) recent move to Madison, where he lives with members of indie rock band Disq as housemates, Milwaukee is the place where Hunt first made a name for himself with Midnight Reruns.
The members of that rock band were all barely out of high school around the release of their first record and progressively just kept getting better and better, eventually going on to work with legendary bass player Tommy Stinson. Hunt then jumped headfirst into hardcore with punk quartet Midwives before easing into his own style of “baggy” music. Heavily indebted to Creation Records-era styles, he started playing on a mix of power pop, grunge and slacker rock before exiting Milwaukee for Madison.
Try Not To Laugh is Hunt’s latest full-length and, as he reveals late in our interview, part of a continuing trilogy. It sees him toeing the line of his prior projects, laying down that shuffly skate-appeal — a bubbly, feel-good sound set on top of a solid rock ‘n’ roll foundation, tempered with darker lyrical observations that should be screamed but are instead sung simply in Hunt’s emphatically sincere style.
Released in December, Try Not To Laugh gets its own Milwaukee release party at Cactus Club this Saturday. Before coming to town, we caught up to talk about first bands, first shows and positive things that can come out of society’s collapse (like human cooperation).
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So, remind me, are you originally from Milwaukee? I can't remember.
Yeah … well, pretty much. I was born in Madison, but my parents moved to Milwaukee when I was about 6 years old — or the Milwaukee area. We were in Wauwatosa.
Do you remember the age you were when you first joined or started your first band?
I think I was 12. That was probably the first real band where we actually ended up playing a couple shows. But prior to that I had been sort of attempting to start a band and trying to play with other kids in their basement and stuff like that. I'm not sure if those ones count because we never came up with a name or we never played any shows, but there were several attempts before that, too.
That's cool though. I mean, I don't think a lot of 12 year-olds would have the wherewithal to start a band or start playing like that.
It was sort of an obsession. Definitely around that time it was sort of all I was thinking about and like wanting to do in seventh grade — seventh and eighth grade.
Were there any people you looked up to where you were like, “I want to be writing music like that person or play guitar like that person?”
Yeah, there were a few moments like that. I guess this was a little earlier, but in sixth grade one of the teachers played guitar and was in a band when he was younger, and he somehow got the school to let him do an after-school club for people who wanted to play guitar, play in a rock band or whatever.
It didn't last very long, but there were one or two meetings, and I remember he brought in his son's band who were in high school or something. They were probably like 16, and they played “Say It Ain't So” by Weezer in front of everybody. And I remember being like, “Whoa, I want to be like that.”
So it was a Weezer song plus the fact that these kids were playing it, and you were like, “I can do that!” Kinda like a healthy competition sort of thing?
If I was in sixth grade, I think I had seen maybe a concert before? My dad took me to see Paul Simon at Summerfest when I was like eight or nine because I saw him on The Muppet Show. I had the old VHS's, and my dad said he was coming to Summerfest, and so I wanted to see him.
This is sort of going off on a tangent, but it's just funny that Brian Wilson was opening that show, and I didn't know who he was. I was just kind of like, “Come on! Get to the guy that I saw on The Muppet Show!” He was playing for a really long time, and I was tired of it. But you know, I would have appreciated it a lot more now. I wish I would have paid attention to it.
I mean, 20/20 hindsight, right?
Yeah, so I don't know if I'd really seen any other or many concerts up until that point. It was just like the energy of having these people and, you know, drums and bass and guitar just like right in front of you. They weren't even on a stage. We're just in the same room as them; it was like in the band room or whatever. And it just sounded so powerful.
I remember it deeply affected me, which is weird because I actually really love Weezer now — well, at least the first two records and like some other stuff. I feel like a lot of people, they were such a huge influence on them around that age, and I didn't … really go back and give them a chance until I was like 19 or something, which is really weird.
So it wasn't even that it was a Weezer song, really. It was just that it was these older kids just rocking out really hard in front of me. It was a very transformative experience.
I never had that in high school or middle school or whatever. But yeah, it set you on a path — lifelong musician, etc. Do you remember the first song that you wrote, and do you remember if it was lyrics that came first or was it more like you're noodling around on guitar? How did that happen?
That's a good question. I remember my band when I was 12, we would do a lot of Green Day covers and stuff, but then I did start writing a couple songs. I think the first couple songs might have just been more like democratic collaborations sort of just stemming from jamming or something.
Sam Reitman was in this band too. He played in Midnight Reruns and plays with me for my solo stuff sometimes, too. But I do remember one specific song that if it wasn't the first song I wrote, it was one of the first when I was around that age. I don't really remember what it was about or what the rest of the lyrics were, but I remember it was called “As The Crow Flies.” I remember hearing someone say that and being like, “Ooh, that sounds like a cool song title.”
Prior to that, I think the idea of how to write a song — like where to start from the idea of that — was very overwhelming, and I didn't really know how to do it. But I just remember that specific moment being like, “Oh. Well, that could be a place to start from. I got a cool title, and then I can just go from there.”
Lyrical inspiration — it takes you somewhere real quick sometimes.
As a full-blown Madisonian again, do you feel like you're fully integrated into the Madison music scene by now? Because for a while you were a working musician in the Milwaukee scene. But do you feel like you're fully a Madison musician at this point?
Uh, I don't know. I mean … sort of. I feel like the scene in Madison, just in my little world, feels kind of small. It’s just like my friend group, and I know that doesn't necessarily represent reality. There's probably a lot more going on here musically than just in my little bubble, so that makes me feel like I'm not necessarily integrated into it in maybe the same way that I felt like I was in Milwaukee. But I don't know.
That's been kind of nice because my focus is narrowed a little bit where I don't know. I think maybe in Milwaukee I spent a lot of time and energy really being like, “I need to get in the scene,” or whatever. These days, that's less important to me, and I just spend more time just recording stuff and writing songs and doing that side of it.
Thinking about your style of music that you write as a solo artist, the Midwest is really full of guitar pop. So who are some faves you grew up listening to? You mentioned Paul Simon, of course, but were there any power pop artists that you were drawn to during your formative listening years?
Yeah, for sure. My parents used to play Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend around the house a lot when I was a little kid. So that’s some of my earliest musical memories of just being a small child and being affected by music where I'm like, “Ooh, what is this? Why is it making me feel good? Why is it making me feel like this.” And I feel like most people would put that in the category of power pop, you know? Firmly.
I feel like just that experience probably somewhat shaped everything that I've created since then, musically perhaps. But obviously that's hard to say. My parents had eclectic music taste when I was growing up, and a lot of it was great pop music.
Like I heard ABBA around the house a lot, too. I was born in ’91, so this was probably one of the last years my parents were keeping up with new music, but they bought Nevermind, and I remember hearing that a lot as a small child. I feel like that's maybe not by its purest definition, but it's power pop in the sense that it's pop music, and it's loud and hard.
You think about Kurt Cobain’s biggest inspiration, the Vaselines, who are like a pop band, you know? I think your sound is a good cross-section of that Matthew Sweet / Nirvana thing. You've got some grungier moments and some super anthemic moments. It all comes out. You also label your sound as “baggy” on your Bandcamp page, which I thought was really funny, but it kind of speaks to that whole “slacker rock” vibe, too — kinda like a baggy, skateboard kind of appeal, right?
Well, I was just thinking of more tags to put, but that sort of comes out of… You know Sahan [Jayasuriya], of course. When we played in Midwives together, that was sort of an inside joke where we would just yell “Baggy!” at each other because we would nerd out about music a lot.
We really liked a lot of that Manchester, like Creation Records, Factory Records, sort of when dance music was colliding with guitar music in late ’80s England or whatever. We just thought the idea of the genre being called “baggy” was really funny. So we would just yell that at each other in a British accent.
It was a joke, but we actually really liked the music. And he would always encourage me, like, “You should make a record that's just fully that.” And that’s sort of my output, as of late. That’s kind of been the catalyst because he actually sent me a drum loop. My last record was kind of started because of that, and it definitely didn't turn out fully like that, but it was nice to have that as a jumping off point / inspiration to get me on the road with it.
I also really like on this record of yours that you have some fluffier instrumentation, like violin and horns and stuff like that, and you've got like a whole pile of friends who contributed to various songs. It feels like kind of a fun project. How did you go about assembling your crew for recording and deciding what instrumentation would go where? ‘Cause it feels like a lot of moving parts, but it all comes together really beautifully, sonically.
Thank you! I would say it's just totally serendipitous. My living situation currently is, there’s a studio in the basement, and that's where this most-current record was made and the last one, too. I'm just like going down there, plugging away at stuff, and people just happen to be around, you know?
My roommates are both musicians. So they just come down and hear me work on something, and they're like, “Oh, what if I added this, here?” Or, I'll ask him, “What if you played some piano here or whatever?”
Our house is also just people coming in and out all the time, I feel like. There’s a lot of musicians around, so if I just happen to be working on something and somebody is there that has an idea, I'll be like “You should just lay it down.” Or maybe conversely, I will be like, “Well, I'm bad at piano or drums or whatever, so can you do this? Because it's not going to be as great if I try.”
You mentioned Sahan Jayasuriya, who is a Milwaukee-based drummer. He contributed, and then members of Madison band Disq, who I'm assuming are maybe your housemates?
Yeah, Isaac and Logan are.
You had quite the good cast of characters. You mentioned working on it kind of like piecemeal. How long exactly did it take you to put this full record together? Was it months, or was it longer than that?
Let's see. I remember the last one — the one before [Try Not to Laugh] — I finished probably spring of 2022, and then I think that there were a couple months where I didn't really write or record anything. So then maybe like summer of 2022, I started working on writing again. Then I started recording probably around September, and then I finished the record .So I guess it'd probably be about a year? Probably about a year of going down there a couple times a week for a few hours, you know?
It seems like a painstaking but super positive experience. So I guess I would like to talk a little bit with you about the subjects or the themes on the record because it felt like a very “posi-dystopian” / “everything’s burning down but that's okay” kind of vibe. What were some of the things circling around your mind when you were writing the lyrics of these songs?
I think I was thinking about how everyone we know has gone into existential despair about climate change sort of stuff and whatever else. I was having a weird couple of months for a while where I was really interested in what positive things could come out of collapse or horrible things, just seeing the potential for human cooperation in times of turmoil or whatever, and just seeing people building things or making things or having new ideas when things collapse. I felt really interested in that. Or the potential of new ideas that could come from that.
Obviously, it's weird to try to put a positive spin on something so horrifying, but yeah … I was in that headspace for a couple of months, for sure. And it probably was around the time that I was writing songs for this.
Where can people find your record? I know it's on Bandcamp, but will you be doing a physical copy? Also, can you talk a little bit about your big show that you've got planned at the Cactus Club coming up on Feb. 3?
Yes. Physical copies, you can get from my label, Smoking Room Records out of Oakland, Calif. I think they've got like a Big Cartel or something. Just Google it; you can find a physical copy there. You can get it from me at my show at Cactus Club on Feb. 3 with Rustbelt. It’s also his EP release show, too, which just came out recently, and it's great. Shontrail is playing, too. I think that was pretty much it?
So you’ve got your record on Bandcamp, Big Cartel through Smoking Room, and then your big show coming up on the third at Cactus. Do you have tour dates or anything planned? What’s the next thing after the third?
I'm gonna tour later this year in the summer, but I think I'm gonna have a couple months where I’ve just got a bunch of new material. These last two albums are the first two in a trilogy, so I'm gonna hopefully dive into the third one and have that all recorded by the summer.
Heck yeah, that's cool! Got something to look forward to.
Well, Graham, thank you so much for talking to me today. Everyone can check out the record on Smoking Room Records. It’s called Try Not To Laugh. You can also catch Graham at Cactus Club on the third. Thanks!