by Michele Zipkin
Few Philadelphia bands are as dynamic as Hezekiah Jones. So many players have come and gone from the group in its first few years of existence, that many of their early albums do not quite reflect the sound that they have come to hone when they perform as their current set of characters.
To use the word ‘they’ or ‘their’ would imply that the group has been one cohesive unit from the get-go. This is not the case. Raphael Cutrufello, the one constant and the man responsible for starting the band, initially planted the seeds of the project by capriciously inviting people to play with him when he first started performing.
“I had a hard time being on stage by myself, it was very nerveracking for me,” Cutrufello says. “So I would just invite people up- even if it was somebody I had just met. For a long time it was…just friends and strangers I would have on stage.”
But only in the last few years did Cutrufello find a group of musicians that he has clicked with, and those six players became steady band mates. They include Kiley Ryan, Phil D’Agostino, Kevin Killen, Matt Helm, and Brad Hinton. For Cutrufello, playing with the current group has cemented what he feels his songs are supposed to sound like. However, the overarching sound differs from that of the initial records, each of which features a variety of instrumental contributors. “We’ll get finished a gig, and people will say- what sounds most like what you just did, and I have nothing to represent that,” Cutrufello says.
In order to rectify that small disconnect, the band is currently recording some of their older material to make their performance sound matches their studio sound. However, at the end of the summer they will begin recording new song-stories in the form of a full-length album. Contrary to an instrumentally diverse and elaborate album like Have You Seen Our New Fort, Cutrufello plans to revert back to the stripped down, character-driven stories that permeated his earlier output.
Additionally, he has been having fun with writing instrumental pieces for film soundtracks. “…To focus on melodies and movements of the songs instead of thinking- this is a verse, this is a chorus. It’s nice to get away from that.” Beginning in the fall they will begin work on a soundtrack for a civil war movie, The Walk.
Let’s rewind to focus on an older, but no less noteworthy song of Cutrufello’s called “Borrowed Heart,” based on the film The Bride of Frankenstein. In its infancy, the song consisted of just Cutrufello’s gritty Americana voice and bouncy acoustic guitar strumming. But he and the band had joined forces with Brian McTear, who recorded and produced the song. He featured parts of that process in his short documentary series Shaking Through, associated with Weathervane Music.
As stated in the documentary, McTear’s idea of what constitutes a genre is an overarching drum rhythm that runs throughout a song. “Borrowed Heart easily could have had this chugging along, choo choo train brushes-on-a-snare beat,” McTear says in the footage.
But Cutrufello’s openness to experimentation in the recording process led him to shy away from that typically folky approach to percussion. “That did a lot to take it out of that particular genre, and made it more difficult to put your finger on what kind of song this was,” McTear says.
As such, “Borrowed Heart” transformed from a bare bones folk tune into a lush, haunting, atmospheric, stylistically ambiguous song. The producers and the band recorded percussion, bass, violin, vocal harmony and a seven-person background chorus. Clips of the footage from the film serve as the video that accompanies the song.
Thematically, Cutrufello wanted to expose where the monster was coming from as an outcast living among humans. “This poor guy… I felt bad for the monster,” he says. The movies omit a few key qualities of the monster that are found in the book. For instance, what we don’t know from watching the films is that he is able to read and speak, and spoke quite eloquently at that. “He kind of comes off as a dolt, but he’s not. He’s actually a really intelligent monster,” Cutrufello says.
One scene in the movie that Cutrufello found particularly poignant is the one in which the monster happens upon an old blind hermit living in the woods, and the two befriend each other. “The man is teaching him how to talk, how to drink booze, how to smoke cigars- just being friends,” Cutrufello says. “And then the hunters come and ruin everything for the monster. He’s about to have a friend, and start to realize that maybe this isn’t all bad…”
Catch Hezekiah Jones at Johnny Brenda’s Thursday night, June 26th. Local band Lover’s League, started by seasoned Philly musicians Dani Mari and Reverend TJ McGlinchey, will be celebrating the release of their debut self-titled album. The Spinning Leaves and New Sweden will also take the stage that night. The music starts at 9 pm.