Music Preview: Veteran indie-rocker Karl Hendricks comes back strong with 'The World Says'

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Karl Hendricks is one of the hidden gems in the Pittsburgh music scene, in the sense that he doesn't play as much as he used to and he's not out there noisily promoting his record.

The Karl Hendricks Rock Band -- Jake Leger, Karl Hendricks, Alexei Plotnicov and Corey Layman -- are at the top of their game on "The World Says."
Click photo for larger image.

Karl Hendricks Trio

With: Centipede E'est.
Where: Brillobox, Bloomfield.
When: 9:30 p.m. Friday.


But it would be a shame to overlook "The World Says," his first album since 2003's "The Jerks Win Again." It's a sublime guitar-rock record -- highly recommended for fans of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill -- with Hendricks squaring off in long, torrid jams with Alexei Plotnicov (who also raises hell in Midnite Snake).

"When we started playing together I didn't know what kind of style he wanted from me," Plotnicov says. "But he let me find my own voice for what I played to his compositions. And strangely enough I found we were more like Dickey Betts and Duane Allman. I feel like I brought a Southern rock angle to the material which none of us expected. Maybe it was left over from my country music days with Local Honey. I thought they would all shoot it down and tell me it wasn't indie rock. But Karl said to keep it up and that he liked the Allman Brothers. So that was really awesome that he was so open-minded and let me really explore his songs in my own way."

Unlike a lot of indie-rock records, the songs themselves demand attention. Hendricks, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh, is a thoughtful lyricist who fills his world-weary songs with subtle bits of wisdom and humor. In a song like "California in October," Hendricks captures some of the discontent and paranoia of the times as he stares over the ocean cliffs, pondering life and death and how "every day's another stupid miracle."

This is the eighth record for the band, which formed in 1991 and garnered national attention in the '90s while signed to Merge Records. Teaching and family life has slowed Hendricks' pace since then, as there have been just two releases in the past nine years.

"The World Says" came out in April, but Hendricks will give it a re-launch with a CD release show Friday night at the Brillobox in Karl Hendricks Trio mode with the always ferocious Centipede E'est.

This is your first record in four years. Were you writing much during that time?

Like the previous record ("The Jerks Win Again"), the space between albums is mostly about how busy I am with the other parts of my life. I suppose I wrote the songs on the album in about a year and a half, and then everything else (recording, mixing, mastering, preparing it for release) just happened very slowly, with long breaks in between. But I haven't written many new songs in the past couple of years. It's difficult to begin a new record until the one we're working on is finished.

The guitar work is amazing here. This isn't new ground you're treading, but how do you bring new life to it?

Well, Alexei's playing on the album really has a lot to do with it. His style is different than mine -- he's definitely technically more accomplished but also looser. And his playing on the record is more lyrical than what I might have added in, say, overdubs. So that really adds a new dimension to what I've already been doing. Also, I think we kind of inspired each other a little -- some of the best parts of the record are when we solo right next to each other.

What sparked the song "The Last Uncompromising Hardcore Band"? Do you think angry music is silly now?

I'm not saying anger is silly in today's world or anything, but the atmosphere of technological consumerism that seems to surround most of our experiences tends to polish away the rough edges of our expressions. And so sometimes I get the sense that emotions, especially anger, just feel quaint to the majority of people. And I am not excluded from that -- I often make myself numb to the events of the world just to get things done in my life. But I guess the one area I have which isn't touched by that is my songs ... so the song is about something like that.

Was "California in October" based on personal experience?

Sort of. I did begin writing the lyrics when we were on tour in California in 2003, specifically driving up the Pacific Coast Highway, which ended up being a slightly harrowing experience in a van full of equipment (I was the one who suggested we do it). But I suppose the song is "about" a theme I think a lot of my songs end up being about, sort of a love/hate relationship with existence.

I think my possibly favorite lyric of all time is from a Black Flag song: "I wanna live/I wish I was dead," and that's what the song on the Jerks album is about ("Chuck Bukowski Was Confused").

"California" and maybe most of the other songs on "The World Says" kind of continues that, I don't know, discussion. There's a feeling, I guess, that the world is so corrupt and you just desperately want to cut yourself loose from the rottenness of everything but something (the brief moments of beauty, friendship, happiness) keeps sucking you back in. So, that's sort of the experience I think I'm describing there.

When you're not teaching, you work at a record store. Do you still get inspired, excited, by the new music that you hear? Or do you tend to lean back on old favorites?

I would say that there are new things I hear all the time that excite me, but by 'new' I mean new to me. But one of the wonderful things about working at the store so long, and helping to order the stock, is how it has pushed me to consider kinds of music I might have overlooked otherwise. In terms of what inspires me as a songwriter or guitarist, it does tend to be old favorites, though on each album I like to push myself past my point of comfort a little. That has a lot to do with some of the extended guitar passages, on 'Jerks' even more than the new album, kind of pushing a song past the point of where it's easily digestible, for better or worse. That is what I think a lot of my favorite music does.

There's been some discussion here lately about how supportive or non-supportive the Pittsburgh music scene is. What has your experience been like here?

Hmmm, that's a hard question to answer. So many of the reasons that I haven't had the 'success' (which is also hard to define) that I would have liked to with my music are personal. My family ties me to home, and having a family also sets financial limitations on what is possible in terms of touring. Also, my somewhat perverse nature (those long guitar solos) kind of prevents me from aiming at what people seem to like.

Connected to that are some rash decisions I made when I was very young. A number of major labels contacted me in the post-Nirvana frenzy and I basically told them to get lost. Who knows if that was the right decision? Being on Merge for the time we were was good, but who knows if being on Capitol or DGC, even for just one album, wouldn't have given us more momentum.

Ultimately, the one aspect of playing music in Pittsburgh that has hit home with me is the fact that so many of the band's members have left town over the years. Not being able to have a lot of continuity on that front has been frustrating. There has been a different line-up for each of the last five albums. At the same time, I've really been thankful to everyone who has put their time and effort into playing with me. The best friends I've ever had are the people I play with. So that's a good thing.


Weekend editor Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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