Strip Kurt Cobain of his grunge, leaving him with only MTV Unplugged and you’ll be close. Tear away Morrissey’s protective glam and you circle even nearer. It’s in this dark, acoustic half-light that you’ll find him — the poster boy for high school journal keepers everywhere — with a guitar and a song. He’s Hayden and he’s the loneliest boy in Canada.
The world has changed for Hayden. No longer is he the indie kid wailing forlorn tales out of his parents’ basement. His new album, The Closer I Get, breathes of polished, yet simple musicianship. Now on a major label (Universal in Canada, Outpost in the U.S.), Hayden’s sound is bigger, as is his budget, but he seems just as sad as ever.
The Biggest Change
“I never want it to feel like its my job,” says Hayden from across the table at Toronto’s Gypsy Co-op. His hair is sprouted and a little messy, no longer the easily identifiable closely cropped mane. Bundled up in what looks like three shirts under a sweater, he answers all his questions slowly, carefully. His casual pursuit has become his livelihood, and that’s made him wary. It’s the biggest change in Hayden’s life and he doesn’t want to lose the spirit of the music he’s created.
“The music going from something I did in my spare time as a hobby to trying to keep that element of it in my life,” Hayden says. “But it’s actually my career now, too. That’s a pretty huge change.”
We’ve been doing some amicable verbally jostling for the better part of a half-hour at this point — Hayden plays his cards extremely close to the vest — so to obtain this admission amounts to a minor victory.
I Don’t Wanna Talk About It
Hayden doesn’t discuss what he writes about. You’d think someone who bares their soul with every song might be willing to share the ideas while separated from their guitar. But that’s not the case.
“I don’t really like to talk about the lyrics much,” he says. “The main reason is I want to hear what other people’s interpretation of my songs are. I mean, if some thing’s obvious to me — and I would think pretty straight forward — it’s still amazing to hear what people think something’s about. I love to hear what people think my songs are about.”
“Memphis,” from the new album, is pretty obvious. Not veiled behind a wall of metaphor, or hiding any cryptic message, it’s a strange sort of Elvis tribute. However, trying to figure out “Bullet,” the most poignant and disturbing song on The Closer I Get, is a different story. A humourist might speculate he has a gambling problem from the line, “I found a bullet outside my door/I think it was me it was intended for.” Then again, Hayden doesn’t sing the line with much humour.
“Ah, it doesn’t matter,” he says, brushing off a request to explain it. “There’s a lot of songs that I listen to that I’d hate to know what they’re about. Songs I’m really, really into. I remember hearing a rumour about ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins. You know that song? I remember hearing a rumour… It was about him watching someone drowning and the person who was supposed to save the guy didn’t save him or something.
“Every time I hear it I focus on that story and I miss that great drum solo.”
Drums And Wires, Optigon Illusions
The Closer I Get is markedly different from Hayden’s previous albums, Everything I Long For and Moving Careful. The songs are still down-hearted, stripped down and decidedly Hayden. There’s just that something, like the music is operating on some extra level.
“Well, I think a lot of it [the earlier sound] had to do with just going from a four-track,” he explains, “which basically limited how many instruments I could put on each song. I’m kinda glad I did that, because it made me aware of only putting what I needed onto a song. So it would be like an acoustic guitar, a vocal, a harmony and then there would be one more space for what I though was really needed onto a song.
“You know, I loved doing that at the time — and I’ll probably go back to doing that — but this time around I had the opportunity to have 24 tracks. So with 20 new tracks you could definitely fit drums [in]. I was into inventing with drums and different drummers, just seeing what that would do to the song.”
The drums are there, so is an organ or two, a harmonica, and even an infectious guitar riff on the first single, “The Hazards Of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees.” Perhaps one of Hayden’s best works, “Hazards” is that half-inch more inclusive-sounding song which could hook new listeners. It’s a more complete, more layered song than most of what he’s done before, and it truly shows a growth above and beyond the usual — which sometimes amounted to simple whining with an acoustic guitar.
“The reason why there’s a lot of different layers of instruments and music is because of how I went about recording it,” says Hayden. “A lot of the times I had the drums and the main instrument, whether it be the bass line or the guitar line… in each situation I tried to set up instruments all over the studio to play back to the drums and just play on different things. And I’d figure out which instrument sounded better.
Hayden hopped around to record this one: Out of the basement, he took full advantage of the resources available to him. His experimentations with organ alone put Hayden beyond any Gen X/Neil Young comparisons. He also recorded in Seattle, Toronto and Bearsville, New York with different producers, studios and equipment. It’s obvious this approach has helped.
“When I was working in Seattle, one of the reasons I was into working with a particular guy there – his name is Steve Fisk – was because he had mentioned his large vintage keyboard collection,” says Hayden. “And if we worked in Seattle he would be able to use all that stuff.”
It’s pretty obvious he enjoyed tooling around with all the equipment. When we discuss the gear, it’s one of the rare moments Hayden springs to attention during our conversation. Experimenting with exotic instruments isn’t exactly the wildest of all possible innovations; Still, some of the choices were less obvious than a harmonica.
“A theremin, a mellotron,” says Hayden. “It’s not to say that these instruments aren’t showing up in various recordings right now, but it’s fun for me to be able to experiment on them. Rhodes piano, optigon – which is this thing that Sears sold – it’s like this , it was marketed to people who, even if you couldn’t play music you’d be able to play this instrument. Like that’s how they sold it.”
“The bongo sound on ‘Hazards,’ that was done with an optigon,” he says.
I Say Pencil, You Say…
Psychologists use ink blots; in the world of rock reporting, the preferred method is word associate. It’s simple, easy to read and kinda fun. It’s also a slightly deceptive way of gaining some insight into a person’s character. When I ask Hayden whether he wants to do some associating, I get a half-playful “Oh no,” but plod along, oblivious.
Sonic Youth’s Goo vs. Neil Young’s Harvest? “Neil Young.”
Basement vs. big studio? “It depends. It depends what state I’m in and how I’m feeling.”
Slide guitar vs. harmonica? “Harmonica.”
High school sweetheart or supermodel? “Oh god. I don’t think I could handle a supermodel. I don’t really have a high school sweetheart either. How about a high school sweet heart who became a supermodel? Although we broke up before she became a supermodel.”
Youthful naiveté or all-knowing wisdom? “I don’t know. Somewhere in-between.”
Check The Music, Not The Label
Hayden is getting to play with all the funky instruments because of his newly-elevated status as a member of the Universal Music family. Obviously, with a major label signing, there’s money to indulge a bit more musically than before.
Unfortunately, along with the financial rewards, there’s been some controversy. As usual, when any big indie star jumps to a major, cries of “sellout” ring out fast and furious. Exclaim, a free alternative monthly, was critical of Hayden. Heck, even Chart put its two cents in.
The root of the problem is the perception that Hayden is abandoning Sonic Unyon, the label/distributor that was responsible for getting Moving Careful and Everything I Long For out across Canada. Sonic Unyon is continuing to distribute those albums, but the immediate impression is that Hayden left the label in the lurch. He says the truth is somewhat different.
“My feelings are that I was never signed to Sonic Unyon,” he says. “I was signed to Hardwood Records — which is my own label — and they distributed it. And I think they’re great guys and I’m still working with them. It’s just a decision had to be made about this particular record and this particular record isn’t coming out on Sonic Unyon.”
On a callous level, there’s still no shortage of indie pop pricks who’ll scream “sellout” with the new album. On a more intimate level, there’s thousands of kids out there who may feel they’ve lost their Hayden — you know, the one who was sad in his bedroom just like them; the one who only wanted to sing their lives.
“Well, I would hope that those people out there respected my music for the music, not which company I released my music on,” says Hayden.
“That they would still appreciate my music because they like my music,” he adds, somewhat irked by even having to address the subject.
“I would like to think that people who bought my first record wouldn’t care. There’s definitely no need for a back-and-forth thing: You know, Sonic Unyon saying something, me saying something, because we’re working together,” he says. “I would hate to think that anyone would not like my music because of what company it’s on.”
You May Say He’s A Dreamer
Fleetwood Mac is playing on the speakers over our heads; It perks Hayden up again.
“I like this song,” he says.
“I was more into Stevie Nicks’ solo work,” I reply. Then, like the suspiciously spot-on soothsayer he is, Hayden says, “You mean you had a crush on her?”
He cut straight to the truth.
Only moments earlier Hayden was swirling the cubes around in his iced tea. Not bored, but obviously not into explaining himself either. The realization hits that he’s a dreamer. It explains the sad songs and the subtle melancholy; the music is his way of expressing it.
As quick as the revelation comes, it also explains why everyone can relate to at least something of what Hayden says. He’s creating the soundtracks for all the lonely bedroom rock stars, for the people who find that the DJ says nothing to them about their lives.
“I wasn’t the most outgoing kid,” Hayden says. “Although I remember a few days – there was a few days I was pretty outgoing. I had a good week one in a while…
“I tend to forget about most what went on in high school. The one major memory — something that got me through my high school years — was being in a band.
“That got me through a lot.”
…But He’s Not The Only One
Hayden apparently helps others get through things, too.
“People say really nice things,” says Hayden of those who write to him.
“Sometimes people, relating to what I’m talking about, say they’ve experienced similar things. Or I’ve helped them get through a certain period in their life. You know, that kind of thing’s amazing,” he says.
Then, exhibiting his dry humour, he adds, “You know the stuff: my loss in the bowling tournament.”
Sometimes cryptic, sometimes aloof, Hayden is at best tough to figure out. You could probably dodge and weave with him for hours and still not get him to open up. But there is a way figure him out, and it’s Hayden himself who actually tells you how.
“It’s in the record,” he says. “All those hidden messages.”
This story originally appeared in the June 1998 issue #96 of Chart Magazine.