INTERVIEW: Todd Hildreth on Music, Music Education, and Pro-Wrestling!

You may recognize the name Todd Hildreth as the man behind bands like The Java Men, Liberation Prophecy, Squeeze-bot, and the Todd Hildreth Trio, or as a member of King Kong or any number of other projects that he has contributed too. Seriously, he’s been busy. You might recognize him as a member of the faculty in the Bellarmine Music Department. This weekend, you can recognize Hildreth’s work with King Kong, who he’ll be joining as part of the Outsized Influence Festival at Bellarmine alongside a ton of other awesome bands. You can listen to a King Kong track below and check him out this weekend. We caught up with Hildreth to ask about his music, his teaching, and whether or not the Duke Boys will make it?

Never Nervous: Why music? Did you ever want to do anything else or was that always there? 

Todd Hildreth: When I was a kid, whenever I heard any band playing any kind of music, I was fixated. It would stop me in my tracks. When there was no music playing I would walk around and think of bands and ensembles that I could form and all of the amazing things we would do. I didn’t necessarily think, like a lot of my friends did, about getting in a band that would play all the hits and get all the girls. I thought about bands that would make sounds that people hadn’t heard before.  Of course, I’ve played in all kinds of bands and situation since, and it’s all been great. I don’t think it’s ever been in question that music had hold of me from a very early age.  

NN: What was the first instrument you picked up? What do you play most often and how did you gravitate towards that? How have you evolved as a musician?

TH: When I was about 10, I decided I wanted to be a musician and told my parents so. They asked what instrument I wanted to play, but I didn’t want to go with piano or guitar, because everyone I knew who played was playing piano or guitar.  So my parents said “Well your aunt has this old accordion in the attic upstairs…” I said “yes! An accordion!” I didn’t even know what an accordion was. I just knew that I had never heard anyone say the word “accordion” before, and then I would be doing something new and exciting. So they brought the accordion down from the attic and I started playing it.
“My parents said ‘Well your aunt has this old accordion in the attic upstairs…’ I said ‘yes! An accordion! I didn’t even know what an accordion was. I just knew that I had never heard anyone say the word ‘accordion’ before, and then I would be doing something new and exciting.”
Two years later, I saw Jerry Lee Lewis on TV.  By that time, he had done his schtick at least 1000 times: kicking the stool behind him standing on the piano, pounding it with both hands, but it was the first time I had ever seen it!  The accordion went back in the case, and though I still occasionally would play it, I was a piano man from there.
I went to Bellarmine originally to be an English teacher. I had thought of myself at that time as the guy who could liven up a party with his piano skills, but didn’t really have any interest in being a professional. On breaks in between classes, I would go into the practice rooms and play boogie-woogie. The teachers heard me and encouraged me to get into a jazz combo. I thought I could just show up in this jazz combo and tear it up, since I had all these boogie-woogie chops, but it was so very different, and my mind was blown again. From then on, I embarked upon a serious dedication to jazz piano which continues today.
But I never lost my interest in other kinds of music. I’m still that little kid who can get stopped in his tracks whenever he sees a really great musician or compelling performer in any genre,which explains the diversity of the musical situations I’ve pursued.

NN: What was your first band? How did that start and end?

TH: Ha ha! Well my first band was a neighborhood band, who did a rock ‘n’ roll version of Heart and Soul.  I’m not sure how or why we broke up, but it was probably over something really dumb.

NN: How do you engage the genre? Are your compositions loose and subject to improvisation, or are they tighter and more orchestrated? Which do you prefer and why?

TH: With any composition or arrangement, I generally have a very specific idea of what I’m going for. I always ask the musicians I’m working with to try their best to understand and execute my original idea with all the details I have in mind, but I also understand, that they will naturally bring their own personality into everything, and the final product could be quite different than what I was thinking to begin with, and which is a good thing, and often a great thing, because the more invested everyone feels in any particular piece of music, The better for the music.

NN: How did the Java Men start? How has it evolved over time?

TH: Years ago, pretty much straight out of college I had the idea of forming a trio which would play all original jazz and jazz related genres. I worked with several different musicians, but no one was working out. At the same time, Craig Wagner and I we’re just jamming around. I didn’t really think much about using a guitar in the trio, I was thinking traditional piano trio with bass and drums. But every time I would show Craig something we were working on, the next time we got together he had it down better than I did!  That’s when I thought about doing the bass myself in the left-hand, so Craig could be the third member. I heard a Jimmy Smith cut on public radio not long after that and decided to go the Hammond organ route.  We played with several drummers, but eventually settled on Ray Rizzo. We were together as a band 12 years, writing, rehearsing, recording and touring and it was an amazing time for me.

NN: What’s going on with the Java Men? When should we expect a new album or show?

TH: We’re not really a functioning band anymore in the sense that we’re not coming up with new material or looking to push into new territory. We get back together for a show anywhere from 1 to 3 times a year and it’s always great. We fall back into it immediately, sometimes with no rehearsal at all before we hit the stage. What’s amazing is between every show each one of us has been out doing other things in other musical situations, and we always feel free to bring something new into the mix, sometimes right at the spur the moment and it doesn’t matter who does what, the other two are right there with them. It’s the same repertoire, but often radically new treatments.

NN: Were you always a member of King Kong? How did you come to that project?

TH: I’ve been in King Kong for 20+ years, but I was not an original member. I joined the band just right after Funny Farm was released. Ethan was washing dishes at Twice Told coffee house, where Java man were regular performers. He asked Craig and I if we could help him do an upcoming show in New York City. We were both really into the idea. Craig stayed in the band a few more years, but I’m still a member. I played on Me Hungry and Kingdom of Kong, but not on any of the subsequent albums. I’m still in the group for most live shows and it always feels a bit like a family reunion.  We toured Europe twice in the states quite a few times, so we’ve been through a lot together.

NN: How do you attend to the stress part and parcel to collaboration? Any tips for younger folks about how to maintain a long term project?

TH: Trust and affection. Collaborate with people you trust to do the job and truly like playing music with. Don’t get hung up on the small things. But don’t let the small things build up until they become a big thing. Constant communication, constant reaffirmation. Don’t let a disagreement make your band mate an enemy. Understand that both of you want the best for the group at all times. And… there’s no shame in moving on amicably when things just aren’t working out.
“Collaborate with people you trust to do the job and truly like playing music with. Don’t get hung up on the small things. But don’t let the small things build up until they become a big thing.”

NN: What should people expect from the Outsized Influence Festival this weekend? How did you become involved in that?

TH: I had the conversation several times with various people regarding the amount of artistic talent that had come through the halls of Bellarmine, but it was this one conversation this one particular day with Will Ford, who was a student at the time, that led us to the idea that a festival celebrating that talent would be amazing.  The first year we did it, it was just three of us: Will, Ben Aguilar, who is an alumni and current staff member, and myself.  Now we have a really great team of students behind us, and the festival gets better and more interesting every year!
Expect to hear great music. Expect fantastic art.  Expect booths from community businesses that include people who’ve come through Bellarmine. Expect amazing food and refreshing beverages, and expect to run into some of the coolest people in Louisville, because that’s where they’re all going to be. 🙂

NN: Relative to that, how did you get into music education? Where did you get your degree? How do you like working on the faculty at Bellarmine?

TH: When I graduated from Bellamine in 89, I went straight into the world to be a working professional musician. I did that for about 12 years, then I got the call to come back in and teach. Since then, I’ve taught jazz piano, jazz ensembles, jazz harmony, and pop culture. It’s been amazing. Many of the students I work with have become friends and we’ve stayed friends years after they’ve graduated. We’re able to see exactly what strengths and weaknesses the students have, and we can work with them according to their own interests. It’s been an amazing experience.

NN: Do you find that formal training as a musician has in any way hampered your ability to compose? Do you ever find yourself thinking about theory or anything like that, or can you just turn that part off and just write?

TH: It’s a myth that theory becomes a hindrance in the creative process. The only people who become less creative after learning theory were never creative to begin with.  

NN: What is our favorite thing about Beyonce and why?

TH: Fun fact: Ray Charles once told me to shut up.
“Fun fact: Ray Charles once told me to shut up.”

NN: Will the Duke Boys make it if I can’t tune in next week? I’d hate to find out that I’m putting them at risk.

TH: I always kind of rooted for Enos, that he would finally win Daisy’s heart.  That’s why I kept turning back in. Those Duke boys could drive face first into a ditch for all I cared.

NN: What non-musical things get you motivated? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning lately?

TH: Fun fact:  I’ve loved pro-wrestling all my life.

NN: Last but never least, what have you been listening to lately and why?