In Pound For The Sound, Phoenix New Times get technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature tones.
Hot House Orchids keyboardist John Luther is a passionate human being. The man has been a part of the downtown Phoenix music community for around a decade now, and he has continued to evolve in a scene where the competition is fierce, and gigs are becoming more at a premium. And when you watch him perform, or just hang with him in general, he exudes an aura of genuine love and happiness. He is all about the people.
Luther was born in Toledo, Ohio. His musical journey started as a very informal love affair, but the affair was strong among all those in his family and community. As a boy, his family would participate regularly in neighborhood block parties where almost every family on the block would gather, blast all the hits from the 1950s and 1960s, and sing their hearts out. He would also tinker around on both his grandmother's organ and piano, as she was a regular musician at her local church. Not a ton of formal music instruction yet, but a lot of highly influential moments in his early life. He then went on to start playing percussion at his middle school.
Luther eventually started playing electric bass and learned to play guitar on his father's acoustic guitar, using his dad's book Guitar For Dummies. He still jokes to this day about how he would print chords from songs he liked in the book, and learn them. Luther also started jamming with his high school friends around this time as well.
Luther then decided it was time to leave Ohio, setting his sights on Las Vegas, because he loved playing poker. In Vegas, he landed a job working for a political campaign call Project Youth Vote. He then serendipitously was asked to come to Phoenix to set up a new location for the campaign, a position that became permanent. He found his way into the music scene by answering a Craigslist ad posted by what eventually became the Haymarket Squares, a punkgrass band. He played acoustic guitar with The Haymarket Squares for eight years before departing in November 2017 to focus on Hot House Orchids.
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Luther and the band have a show Sunday, June 10, at Valley Bar. The show will also sport a pretty sweet lineup including longtime Arizona staples Fatigo and Slwly. With the show coming up, New Times was able to get some words in with Luther via phone and email about his gear, his love for the Valley, and his band's upcoming performance. Here is what he had to say.
Phoenix New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
Luther: I would say the secret weapon of the band’s sound is the mixture of musical styles brought forth by the members of the band. Mike Logan brings the New Orleans party music, Gabe Santillan brings the funk, Aaron Hjalmarson brings the jazz drum precision, and maybe I bring the retro rock. We also have so much fun performing together that it comes through in the sound and the live show.
The secret weapon of our recorded sound is Bob Hoag. Bob, with his 1948 ribbon mics, Studer analog tape recorders, vintage Rogers drums, brilliant instrument additions, and great producer direction has made these songs into works we are all really proud of.
What's your favorite piece of gear and why?
My favorite piece of gear in my collection is … ummm. Well, the most sentimental piece of gear I have is a purple Ovation guitar, which was given to me as a birthday present from my parents when I turned 19. The sentimental attachment definitely outweighs the sonic talent of that beat-up guitar. I am really loving my Yamaha MM8 keyboard for all the cool patches and drum patterns it can make.
Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?
Well, this is more of a silly accessory to gear, but it always makes me smile when I see my telecaster. It has a sticker I got at Bonnaroo in 2004 of Homer Simpson holding a guitar and making a funny face. Also, I used to really beat the heck out of my Seagull acoustic during Haymarket Squares shows. I slowly eroded away the sound hole, which culminated in an even bigger hole being busted open while playing “Let’s Start a Riot” at Long Wongs. I was kinda bummed to not have that guitar for a few weeks, but fortunately Mark Allred was able to patch it up. I ended up playing with sound hole protectors on that guitar after that.
Just listened to your well-done demo for “Just Want To Party With You.” Great song, has such a fun, summer vibe. Your work on what sounds like piano and organ on the track certainly caught our ears. How did you about conceptualizing and recording this track?
The concept behind the song is the idea of having to go out into the world and take care of business when all you want do is “party” with a special someone. This can apply to different life situations, though. For example, I remember being on tour in Colorado, and having to turn down a free ticket to watch Neil Young at Red Rocks because I had to play a show myself that night. I didn’t care how crazy our show was going to be that night ... I just wanted to party with Neil.
Lyrically, the events in the song are true stories. Meeting Sharon Jones was memorable. Sharon and the Dap Kings were hanging out after their show at a radio station in my hometown of Toledo. I remember looking through the radio station records with them and commenting how Cannonball Adderly was a great name, but I had no idea who he was. One of the Dap Kings gave me shit for not knowing my jazz, to which Sharon came to my defense and said “be nice to him, he’s just a baby!”. She continued to give her bandmate shit for “picking” on me. I thought she was a total sweetheart and class act. I was probably 20 at the time, so yes, I was still a baby.
As far as recording “Party With You," Bob added in the Hammond B3. We had Ron Foligno add background vocals on the chorus. Danny Torgerson provides the peppy trumpet solo in the middle of the song.
You had said during our phone conversation that you were supposed to be living in Las Vegas, but you fell so in love with Phoenix for so many reasons that you decided to make the Valley your new home. What was your reasoning behind deciding to stay here as opposed to the Vegas life?
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When I first came to Phoenix from Vegas, I was welcomed with open arms by various groups of artists, musicians, activists, freaks, and other great community members. All these welcoming and active community members were seemingly nonexistent in Vegas, but in Phoenix they were everywhere (I was fortunate enough to have worked my first job in downtown Phoenix, and thus was exposed to the “cool” side of the city). Within the first few months of being down here, I had stumbled easily on now-legendary acts like What Laura Says, Dry River Yacht Club, and Fatigo. Phoenix city culture was the part of my life that I didn’t have in Vegas. Las Vegas is a fun place, but the culture of the city revolves primarily around spending money and expensive entertainment. When I was there, I found it difficult to find a local music/arts scene. It’s like all of the good musicians get sucked up by the casinos to play in '80s hair-rock cover bands or they end up busking the sidewalk to inattentive Strip-goers. The casino scene is so dominant in Vegas’s identity that the city’s cultural growth in other areas is unfortunately stifled.
Hot House Orchids have a show this Sunday at Valley Bar. Any words you wish to share with readers about your upcoming performance?
This is going to be a party for sure. Hothouse Orchids will also be shooting a music video at this party … it is gonna be so much fun! Also, Fatigo (yes, Southwest legends Fatigo!) will be playing for the first time at Valley Bar. Mike Babcock, genius behind the Welcome Diner, will be premiering his new band, SLWLY. And, there is a comedian! This is a big deal!!