Fans have dubbed him "the psychedelic cellist," but he's more aptly a guerrilla, tearing through the jazz/gospel/country-colored fabric of Lyle Lovett's shows to lob a musical Molotov and then duck back into camouflage: starched and sober stage demeanor, painstaking posture, politely arranged face.
Whatever the label, John Hagen has found himself at the cellistic vanguard, highly visible thanks to his long association with Grammy-getter Lovett, and highly notable thanks to his own peculiar sensibilities.
"When people come to me and say they have the perfect cello song, usually I'm not interested," he says. "Because it's just going to be a plaintive melody, and cello is capable of so much more."
In jazz and classical arenas, that's a given. But when pop deigns to give cello some play, he says, it's typically as part of a string section, rather than as a solo instrument. The options have been limited, the instrument's been pigeonholed: background buzz or schmaltz.
Not so on Lovett's stage. There, cello gets to stretch its schizoid self, going variously gritty, flitty, creaking, eerie. One minute it's chicken-fried as a cheap steak, rivaling fiddle as the country string of choice. The next it's shrewish enough to shout down a screaming Strat.
"This is not a wimpy instrument at all," Hagen confides, and it's a point he proves at every stop of the tour bus, without the aid of complex effects. "I use acoustic equipment. It's not like I'm using gadgetry, gismos or changing the sound that much."
So how does he manage the mood swings?
"I think it's more in the ear," he offers. "I mean, you could play country music on a tuba if you got the right person doing it. Or on a piccolo. Somebody could make it work."
And when it comes to strings, that somebody happens to be Hagen.
@body:How he hears is who he is: a product of the West, raised in the reaches of Wyoming, then dragged off to Huntsville, Texas, by his conductor father, who'd gotten a job at Sam Houston State University.
"He was going all over trying to recruit strings for his orchestra, so he wasn't gonna let me get away," is how the story goes.
When the bachelor's degree was done, Hagen went up to the University of Texas for his music master's, managed to drop out three hours shy of finishing. It wasn't necessarily a dumb move, considering the drop zone: Austin, the self-proclaimed "live-music capital of the world."
"I used to just drag my cello in every chance I could to whatever club and see if I could sit in," he says. Most musicians were too curious to do anything but let him.
Among them was singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. In 1978, Hagen recorded on her first album, There's a Light Beyond These Woods. Soon after, he joined an eccentric (banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, cello), electric string band with a solid statewide following. By the time Texas A and M student Lovett met him in 1980, he was nothing short of a sonic jigsaw.
"Lyle asked me if I would be willing to transcribe his songs, cause he didn't read or write music, and he knew that I did," Hagen says. "This was, of course, way before any record deal. And we still do some of those songs."
"Well, the first song I ever heard him play was 'If I Had a Boat.' We still play that."
Apparently, some things don't change.
@body:And lots of other things do.
"When I started with Lyle back in 81, we'd play little folk clubs in Houston, Austin, coffee houses, you know, where maybe 15 or 20 people would show up, there'd be no cover charge." Last year, Lovett's 14-piece Large Band played 4,000-seat theatres, 10,000-seat amphitheatres, 50,000-seat stadiums. The current tour, which began June 4 and won't quit til mid-August, puts the cellist on more than 50 stages in the U.S. and Canada.
At 42, Hagen considers himself a lucky man, claims humbly that if it weren't for chance, he'd hardly be making a living as a musician. While that's tough to believe, it's true that if not for chance, he wouldn't have appeared in Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins' 1992 film about a rabidly right-wing, folk-singing politician.
"That happened because of Lyle's participation in The Player," a year earlier, Hagen says. "[Director] Robert Altman was giving this Fourth of July party for a lot of the people involved in that film, and he asked Lyle if he'd play at his house, you know, out in Malibu. So we went out there just as a duo and set up a little, tiny PA system and played a few tunes. And Tim Robbins was there. . . ."
As Hagen recalls, it hadn't occurred to Robbins to add a cellist to his film band, not until the party at Altman's.
Which could prove it ain't what you know, it's who . . . except that wouldn't take into account Hagen's skill, or his long years of work, on the road and off. And on again. Fact is, he's been rode pretty hard, playing not just Large Band gigs and the odd command performance (one inaugural ball included), but also Lyle's duo, trio and quartet bookings both stateside and in Europe. Time off the road--time at home in Austin, not performing--is no vacation, either, involving up to five practice hours a day.
"It's a great time for me to remember that I do play cello," Hagen deadpans. "Or to remind me that I don't . . . and that I need to."
The punch line is trademark: He's way tougher on himself than his audiences are. Still, his several-minute-long solo on Lovett's "You Can't Resist It" is so regularly the stuff of ovations, the kudos should be cracking him in the head.
That audiences go unmitigatedly nuts for it no longer surprises him; why they go so nuts does puzzle him. "It's not that unusual," he insists--insisting, of course, in the context of "early-20th-century composers like [Zoltn] Kodly, who were writing amazing cello works."
When the context is the sleepy body of pop cello, he will concede that the solo is "unconventional"--still a tame description for a semi-improvised soundscape that opens with what Hagen himself calls "screaming" harmonics. Following which it plows a few waving walls of sound, reverts to a brooding blues, climbs ear-clawing pitches, and even dumps the audience into stone-dead calm.
"That's an interesting moment," Hagen allows. It's a challenge, he says, "not to fill up all the spaces," to know when not to play, to make silences as purposeful as the music.
As for the whole of the soundscape? Its function? Its significance in the pop scheme of things?
He thinks, shrugs. Eventually, he speaks.
"Basically," he says, "it's having fun with noises."
@body:"I don't feel revolutionary at all," is his take on his work. "It's hard to, after so many years of doing this, it's hard to view myself as doing something unusual anymore. I used to go out onstage apprehensive about how people were going to react to the cello. I mean, I was doing it and I thought it was unusual. It always felt like I was on uncharted waters."
Now, Hagen thinks "the cello is on the verge of making a big breakthrough."
"It's really an amazing instrument, it'll do so many things. You can play bass lines on it, you can do bass solos and then pluck up a little higher than a bass, you can bow the blues or jazz, you can cover the midrange, you can cover the upper stuff. . . .
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I wouldn't be surprised to see somebody come up who really can blow jazz on a cello, like a Coltrane or somebody. I mean, why not? Certainly, you can get around on a cello like that, classical players do it. It's just a matter of someone really coming along and just work, work, work until they work their fingers to the bone."
Is he going to be that someone?
"Ah. . . . It's too late for me."
He laughs, and it's hard telling whether the statement's just another self-effacing sneeze, a sideman's automatic reaction.
"I can accept the spotlight for short periods of time, but I don't know that I'd want to be the focus," is his bottom line, at least for the time being. Lovett's become a close friend as well as a steady employer. And his shows give Hagen a rare, delicious chance to tweak the public ear, coming as he does "from the underdog position of being a cellist" on a pop stage:
Unexpected. Underrated. And entirely, boneheadedly, underestimated.