Munson-Hicks Party Supplies is a collaboration between John Munson (the New Standards, Semisonic, Trip Shakespeare), who does most of the singing, and Dylan Hicks (Dylan Hicks), who writes the songs. Like Ella sings Cole, broadly. Munson and Hicks, who play bass and piano respectively and sometimes respectably, are joined by guitarist Zacc Harris, drummer Richard Medek, and, on the group’s self-titled debut album, enough guests to field a softball team. John and Dylan recently sat down to talk about the project with an apparently laryngitic journalist who might not have listened to the record.
JOHN: I think the question has to do with origins.
DYLAN: That’s my sense from the gestures.
JOHN: First off, I’ll say that Dylan is a wonderful songwriter, and also inspiringly prolific. I learned that over the course of working on Ad Out, the record I produced with Dylan a couple years back. I also came to realize that he’s a big conceptual thinker in terms of his art. Not every songwriter will conceive a record as written by a fictional figure, like his Sings Bolling Greene, this companion piece to one of his novels. There’s a nuttiness in that approach that I really appreciate.
DYLAN: I also have a lot of fictional fans.
JOHN: A few. So we enjoyed working together enough that after finishing Ad Out we cast about for another project. Initially that was going to be a musical based on life in the Minnesota music scene in the ’90s.
DYLAN: Princess Pam, centered on a young and rebellious heir apparent to the British throne who flees the palace, goes incognito, and forms a rock band in Minneapolis. Frankly, we haven’t seen a great many musical comedies, but this seems like something that might happen in one.
JOHN: But the thing is, we like a challenge, and producing musicals is so cinchy—
DYLAN: You pretty much just rent the theater—
JOHN: —Hang flyers in laundromats. Anyway, we decided to take some of the songs we had demoed for the musical and have me sing them, and the Munson Sings Hicks idea sort of evolved from there. I think in part because Dylan wrote these songs for characters in a play, letting a few of them float my way felt okay to him.
DYLAN: I typically write in character, and I guess I’m usually aiming for something emotive but not directly self-expressive. For me, hearing John sing the songs furthers that: it creates another layer of distance between me and the songs, and I think it helps realize and enrich the characters. But even before the musical we had bandied about this idea. John recorded most of his background vocals for Ad Out alone in his studio, but a few times I got to monitor in a cushy control room while John sang into one of those old German microphone whose replacement would cost about as much as a new Toyota Corolla with moonroof. Those parts would ultimately be nestled under my lead vocals, but they were foregrounded as we tracked, and a pleasure to hear even with the melodies and harmonies out of balance. John has an expressive, resonant voice, canny interpretive instincts, and a very good ear. He’s also warm, smart, funny, and charismatic—fun to be with, in other words—so while we were listening back to one of his harmony parts, I impulsively suggested we make an album of him singing my songs.
JOHN: My first thought was Nilsson Sings Newman, the record Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman made in 1970.
DYLAN: I don’t want to talk about it too loudly and invite comparison, but that was one of the models. It’s funny, in my frequently supernatural musical fantasies—these might involve time travel, transmigration, instant virtuosity undiminished by age or sloth—I’m often in a role neither spotlit nor entirely behind the scenes. I might be a group’s principal songwriter but not its lead singer, someone like Bob Gaudio in the Four Seasons.
JOHN: It’s not completely unfamiliar territory for me to sing songs not written by myself. In Trip Shakespeare, Matt Wilson handed off several songs to me. Dan, Matt’s brother, also wrote for me in Semisonic. There are amazing bands where the writer is not the principal singer. The Band and Robbie Robertson come to mind, and what an amazing group of singers he cultivated. Again, these are not comparisons I would benefit from making, but you get the point. It’s not a current approach. Maybe it’s a bit of a throwback, even. But it’s been a fun musical challenge to get inside Dylan's songs and maybe bring something different out of them.
DYLAN: I knew from being a longtime fan of John’s work that he could inhabit a song whether he’d written it or not. Of course, pop music is largely an interpretive art, but in the territories I’ve skulked in—singer-songwriter, indie-rock—the benefits of that division-of-labor approach are probably underutilized.
DYLAN: Right, the musical: so we started with a couple of the show’s more autonomous songs, “Only Smoke” and “Damascus,” and a significantly revised version of one written for the musical, “Write It on the Water,” which we’d sadly shelved from the draft ’cause it didn’t really tie in.
JOHN: And as time passed, because Dylan is so prolific, he wrote several more songs that were not intended for the musical—
DYLAN: Written instead for this album. In the end only three of the songs have roots in the show. I love writing on deadline with a specific project in mind, though leading up to one session I took a bunch of freelance work, then got sick, and showed up kind of light on material. Though we did get a favorite that time.
JOHN: So we decided to divide those additional songs between the two of us and include them on what we wound up calling Munson-Hicks Party Supplies.
JOHN: Well, it sounds better to have my name first. Just a rhythmic thing.
DYLAN: I privately did some test marketing, and he’s right.
JOHN: Of course, my favorite songs are the ones Dylan sings.
DYLAN: Because I’m a native Texan, it fell to me to sing the country-inflected numbers.
DYLAN: I mean, I was definitely walking before we moved.
JOHN: There’s some sort of vestigial accent or affectation, I think …
DYLAN: But I’ve loved writing songs with John in mind. While I’ve dreamed a lot about writing for other singers, I haven’t done much of it, and I’m habituated to writing songs built to some extent around the idiosyncrasies and limitations of my voice. Working with John, who’s vocal instrument is more powerful and flexible than my own, opened up some different possibilities, and it gave the material a desired … oomph—I think that’s the technical term—beyond my reach. At the start, I admit I was sometimes too attached to how I had demonstrated the song and hampered John’s ability to interpret, but I loosened up—I’ll always have ideas about how phrasing effects meaning, but I also learned from how John read the songs. He sang (and played!) beautifully throughout, was always open to ideas and stocked with his own. He has sharp editorial instincts, too; he might say, “I love the song, but I think the third verse isn’t as satisfying,” and that might spur me to revise. Working with him and the other players has also helped me improve in terms of groove. We’re both kind of fastidious about music-making but in different ways, and I think our strengths are complementary. And, of course, the whole band is crucial to realizing and refining arrangements. Richard Medek is a deeply pocketed drummer. You started working with him, John, on Wits?
JOHN: Yes. That show introduced me to so many musicians! My god. Incredible experience that way. And yeah, Richard played drums. A great groove, a quick study, and always ideas about how to make things work musically. Zacc was new to me. It’s been great to work with a guitarist who comes more from a jazz background. When we just talking about the record, I kept suggesting we call Larry Carlton or Pat Metheny. We got Zacc instead—and he actually fulfilled my fantasies of guitartistry. That’s another technical term.
DYLAN: He’s great, just continually inventive, harmonically savvy. It’s a very talented and companionable group—and then we had all these guests!
JOHN: I couldn’t get Rick Derringer, but I was able to get Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor to sing on about half the record. Kelly sang for years with Neko Case, and both Nora and Kelly have toured steadily with the Decembrists, among others. They have a fantastic group in Chicago, the Flat Five. Kelly is an old friend from back in Trip Shakespeare days and our many gigs in Atlanta, where she was then, playing in bands and working at the cool record store.
DYLAN: So cool to have them on the record. And everyone should come over sometime to listen to Kevin Gastonguay’s organ parts in isolation.
JOHN: Talk about a quick study. That session was over in a hurry!
DYLAN: Let’s see, the enormously versatile John Fields brightened the disco ball on “Write In on the Water.” Jeremy Ylvisaker heard us play “Only Smoke” at a show and asked if he could add something. Yes! Ken Chastain joined in on “Pennies on My Eyes.” Stephen Kung, JC Sanford, and Aaron Hedenstrom perfectly, uh, dialed in “Landline”—sorry, we’ve reached the punning hour.
JOHN: Yeah, it might be time to wrap up.
DYLAN: Seems like the interviewer stepped out anyway. Come to the shows, people! They WILL happen eventually.