Hang Dog Expression performing at South Bay Customs in El Segundo. Photo by Dawn Von Flue.
As an outsider having come to know and enjoy this band well enough to share good laughs and cold beers in between sets over the years, I’ve absorbed sufficient perspective to determine that Hang Dog Expression is a total labor of love; but with considerably less emphasis on the labor than the love.
By no means are they lazy or anything; in fact, their work ethic is of the finest caliber. Nor is it a “too cool for school/delusions of grandeur” type thing. It’s just that they kind of don’t really care, in a classy way, while caring very much. It’s more about doing it right, when the time is right. Their music’s their music, and it’s good. They play when they feel inclined enough to play, or when the moment manifests itself serendipitously. And it’s all for the music and any man, woman, or child who digs it.
On one hand, aligning with their suave approach to being a band that’s more like a brotherhood of beer-drinking musicians –with Nichlaus Von Hulsebus (guitar, vocals), Neal Von Flue (banjo, musical saw, vocals), Brett Hall (guitar, xylophone), Tony Goodreau (bass, vocals), Robbie Ford (mandolin, harmonica), and (Sister) Kate Nugent (vocals and knitting needles)– this El Segundo folk outfit formed around 2002 and has in their decade plus only produced a handful of rusty demos, an EP, and finally an LP. On the other hand, they’ve transferred years of heart, soul, life, love, patience, and commitment into their debut full-length record Windmills and Giants, dropping Feb. 23 with a CD release show at South Bay Customs.
Windmills and Giants, the debut long player by Hang Dog Expression. Original cover art by Neal Von Flue.
Reflecting on the process leading up to the eventual album, Von Hulsebus says, “It was so great putting this album together. We played lots of local shows for our friends and family; and as that circle grew, they supported us by coming to shows and donating money to help us put it together. We played a bunch of 4-hour sets at The Patio in town, and took any show that would have us. We even played to a room full of cops and had the chance to play inside the library. It was all so much fun.”
Von Flue continues. “We recorded this album with Dave Copp at Tonehendge studio in El Segundo. He recorded our first EP [The Black Album] years ago, and it was a great experience. After that EP, we all went back and learned a lot about playing and recording, and were determined to make this one better.”
“I can’t deny the huge exhale from having this thing finished,” says Hall. “Scheduling conflicts aside, there was a lot to overcome during the recording period and it all just makes this whole experience more meaningful.”
Goodreau concedes, “The process was lengthy, because life really got in the way. I’m very proud of what we did.”
“It took us just about 2 years [to record the album] from start to finish,” says Von Flue. “…There was very little pressure to create a deadline.”
Hall says, “The record release show will be special in its own right. We not only get to celebrate this milestone at a place we consider home field, but we get to do it with all our friends and family who have supported us to this point. That’s very special to us.”
From 4-piece to 6-piece and year to year to year, Windmills and Giants is the current culmination of Hang Dog’s more than a decade journey, which has hardly come without growth and change.
“I’ve noticed a maturation,” says Hall. “Learning how to play as a group is not as easy as it seems… I think we’re at a point where we’re learning to refine our sound a little.”
“I feel like we get smarter about how to play together,” agrees Von Hulsebus. “We are always trying to figure out new things we can do with harmony and rhythm and dynamics… it’s important not to be a one trick pony, unless it’s a really good trick.”
And with a new(est) pony in the mix, Von Flue says, “I think the addition of Sister Kate [Nugent] was a huge shift towards the better. A lot like when Brett [Hall] got involved, things clicked together real smoothly and we all knew it felt right… Kate just filled in when she could the last couple years, but now we don’t know what we’d do without her!”
With an air of wistfully joyous relief worthy of the soul-soothing, spine-tingling brand of Americana-folk music they’re plucking out, Hang Dog looks around the bend. It’s not their style to look too far down the road though, but it’s hardly necessary when good things are riding shotgun with you.
“We’ve definitely been basking in having completed the album,” says Hall. “Outside of that, it’s week to week. We practice when we can all get under one roof; and when that happens, good things usually do as well.” Just as Von Flue had alluded, Hall reveals, “We’ve got a new batch of songs that I can’t get out of my head at times. I’m very excited for them to become set worthy.”
Rounding it out, Von Hulsebus says, “We have been writing a lot, we already have enough material for another album. We’re also looking for shows to play in new places and get the album out there… We are excited to do another recording, but we have some work to do first – time to play some shows and start saving to do it all over again.”
Von Flue adds, “I think some of us have a vague notion to make enough bread with this CD to pay for taking it out on a short tour. That’d be pretty hard since most of us are parents and family men (and women), but it’d be awesome to take it on the road for a short time. But, it definitely seems like another record is brewing; so we may just stay in El Segundo and record another!”
Aside from their release party and performing The First Annual Easy Reader Beer Experience and Froth Awards at Saint Rocke on Saint Patrick’s Day Sunday, Mar. 17, Von Hulsebus says there’s nothing else booked for now. “Generally, we just wait to be asked to play somewhere. It’s worked so far.”
Hang Dog Expression’s CD release show takes place at South Bay Customs in El Segundo (located at 115 Penn St.) Saturday, Feb. 23 with opening support from The Motorboats. All ages, no cover, doors at 7 p.m. They’re also performing at Easy Reader’s Beer Experience and Gastropub Challenge: The Froth Awards at Saint Rocke on Mar. 17. You can listen to Hang Dog Expression and The Motorboats on DirtyHippieRadio.com, tuning you in to the independent music community.
*Originally written for print in the Easy Reader newspaper by Jeff Vincent, DHR.