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The Last Town Chorus
Hickey's older brother was a hip-hop, free jazz, soul music junkie while she favored new wave MTV bands like Culture Club. As her musical curiosity grew, she backtracked to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles and reggae. In college, she started collecting obscure vinyl and listening to her mother's classical albums. "I willfully kept my ears open to a broad range of music," she explains. "In sixth grade I was given a bass guitar and a used Fender amp. I have a picture of myself in my graduation dress holding a big bass guitar. I was always a huge music fan; I tinkered with the guitar while I was still quite young, and played a bit of piano sitting beside my mom. I always wrote the occasional song, but I was never thrilled by any sentiment I expressed to the point I was ready to change my life and start a band.
"I was the leader of the new wave kids in my town and hung out with the suburban punk rock wannabes. There were half a dozen at every high school in the city and we'd hang out together at radio station parties and dance to the Cure, Yaz, the Cult and hardcore electro-new wave music. I was a sarcastic cerebral alterna-teen and an honors student. I still straddle the light and dark sides. Musically my first real influence was Jimi. After I got my bass, I played along with him to learn how play and I'm still moved by powerful soulful music. I was a major Beatles fan, but for me influences happen by osmosis. I never aspired to be a ranking member of a generic rock band and hated alt county in particular.
"Mostly, I played along to cassette tapes on my boom box, never playing with any massive agility. I was a hack who played for the joy of playing. In college at the University of Pittsburgh, I tangled with poetry and painting and other creative pursuits while I studied a hodgepodge of cultural studies, anthropology and communications. I had two majors and two minors. I was a highly curious human being, but I didn't want to have a doomed life in academia. I didn't have the patience or the focus. Above all, I longed to have a musical outlet, but I couldn't find an instrument that allowed me to be expressive. I tried everything and collected a lot of instruments over the years. I have a 1978 Les Paul electric, Yamaha FG 441 S acoustic, Wurlitzer electric piano and a Conn faux pipe organ that I play at home and use to write songs, but I don't play any of them in public for the benefit of the common good. I wanted to find some magic in the music, the way Hendrix had a magic relationship with his six-string and Vladimir Horowitz had with his piano. I never had it, but I kept trying and looking."
In her waning college days, Hickey played bass in a rock band, but when her brother moved to New York City, she joined him in his Brooklyn apartment. In 2001 she decided to get serious and started Last Town Chorus. She met guitarist Matt Guy through a mutual friend and exchanged e-mails with him before they had their first band meeting. When he showed up to rehearse, he brought along an Oahu "Diana" Lap Steel Guitar he'd found in a pawnshop.
"I was intrigued by the sound of it and taught myself to play. I still don't know how to use it properly but it opened up my songwriting and my creativity. I never picked up the bass again. I sat for hours and played it through new wave era effect boxes -- mostly delay. It creates an expansive sound that's very oceanic and never ending. In the '80s, synth pop was rife with flanges, reverb and delay, so it was a sound I had an affinity for."
Hickey's guitar dates to the '40s or '50s and was made by the Oahu Publishing Company of Cleveland, OH. It's solid wood and she mostly plays it with a Line 6 DL-6 Delay that gives the instrument a lonesome, ghostly sound full of trebly overtones and dark, scratching bass notes. It's a sound quite unlike the smoother, mellow tones of the pedal steel. It was used in country music in the early days of electric instruments in the late '30s, but today it's not a commonly used instrument. There are very few companies making lap steel guitars today. It's mostly relegated to use in Hawaiian bands and a narrow niche in old-timey country.
Last Town Chorus began playing as a duo, with friends sitting in to fill out the sound. Their first eponymous album had some bass and organ overdubs, but was essentially a duet for lap steel and guitar, marked by Hickey's startlingly original approach to the instrument and her forlorn vocals. They released it on their own label in 2003, with some local distribution by a few smaller companies. In January of 2005, Paul Smith, head of England's Blast First logo, a label dedicated to extreme music from acts like Sonic Youth and the Grey Area, heard a Last Town Chorus track on a sampler CD and contacted Hickey. He put out the Last Town Chorus on his new Blast First Petite label and the British music press went wild, giving the album four star, half-page reviews. Hickey and Guy began toured heavily in the U.K. until Guy moved to Japan. Hickey continued on with a revolving cast of supporting musicians, garnering more favorable press for performances that alternate between ambient, dirge-like passages and shredding volleys of primal noise, all held together with her emotive vocals and dark, introspective lyrics.
After conquering the U.K., Hickey came home to record and produce album two, Wire Waltz, mostly in her Brooklyn apartment. "I love having the freedom to evolve the songs as they're recorded. I can try out concepts and ideas and explore sonically, but by the same token, I like to put it aside at times and focus on my performance. For the next album I'd like to have a producer and work with my regular touring band. Too much freedom and too much constraint, in life and music, has its dangers. The trick is finding a balance. Making Wire Waltz was like being a divorcée. I needed to make an album where I was in complete control of every dimension, but now that I've done hundreds of live shows and played with a real band, I'm eager to share the reins with another person."
Wire Waltz came out in England in October of 2006, and Hickey and her band returned to England, building on the momentum she'd already achieved. The music on the album flows together with individual tracks merging to produce a haunting, melancholy experience. Just before the album was released in the US in 2007, ABC's Grey's Anatomy used her cover of Bowie's "Modern Love" on an episode, which considerably boosted the album's commercial potential. Hickey's planning to release the next Last Town Chorus album in spring of 2008. As for the band's enigmatic name: "It's evocative of the spirit of the project. Two people at the edge of a small town, a dusky sundown desert kind of feeling. The chorus is the spiritual aspect; we had the idea of being a core of two with a choir of people drifting in and out." ~ j. poet, Rovi