If you went to a Sufjan Stevens show recently, perhaps you noticed the rather exuberant trombonist in the backup band. This “Illinoisemaker” is John Ringhofer, who, in addition to backing 2005’s critical golden boy (Soof-yawn), is the creative force behind his own buzzworthy band, Half-handed Cloud.
Ringhofer, a church custodian in Berkeley (when he’s not touring or recording), was kind enough to chat with RELEVANT recently before leaving on a 32 city tour to support his new album, Halos and Lassos.
RELEVANT: How did you come to be the trombonist for Sufjan Stevens’ band?
John Ringhofer: Sufjan and I were pen pals back in 2000, and we traded first albums. Sufjan’s album was released by a label that he and his ex-stepfather Lowell founded called Asthmatic Kitty Records. Sufjan encouraged me to send Lowell Learning About Your Scale even though we’d only known each other for a short time, and they decided to reissue it as Asthmatic Kitty’s second release in 2001.
So far Sufjan has mostly tried to assemble bands from the people he knows, I think … his circle of friends, or friends of friends. By the time he started touring with a band, we’d known each other for a few years and had played some shows together back in our “solo” days. So that’s probably how I was asked to join the Michigan Militia, and the Illinoisemakers after that.
RELEVANT: Why did you start Half-handed Cloud? Why the name?
Ringhofer: In college my friends and I had a few different bands and recording projects. Half-handed Cloud happened when some songs I’d been writing for one of the bands turned-out to be something else. It was almost as though God had written himself into these new songs, so I turned them into the beginning of my solo project, and decided to call it Half-handed Cloud, naming it after the way that Elijah’s servant measures clouds in the distance (with his hand).
RELEVANT: What is the inspiration or theme of Halos & Lassos in your mind?
Ringhofer: Other than just the regular overall theme of the band, I’m not sure that there’s any more specific theme to Halos & Lassos—at least I didn’t set out to make a concept album. If there is a theme, it will probably show-up more in time. Most of the songs used Psalms as their starting points, so that may be a unifying element. Also, the album is sort of bookmarked by mentions of The Garden of Eden. In the first song we’re banned from Eden, but by the second-to-last song we’re replanted. The album title comes from a lyric in one of the songs, and its meaning is a little open-ended. I can think of at least one instance when lassos and halos are the same thing, but it’s sort of a joke.
RELEVANT: Halos & Lassos is even more gleeful in its worship and wonder of God than your previous albums. Pitchfork critiques this “relentlessly upbeat exploration” of faith by describing you as having “the willful naïveté of
a Sunday School lesson planner.” How do you respond to the criticism of displaying a sugary, “no problems here” faith?
Ringhofer: Well … I don’t know. I’m thankful for reviews (even though they’re always sort of terrifying), and of course reviewers are entitled to their own opinions, but sometimes what they write confuses me. It seems like that particular review was basically good, but that the writer is mostly just having a knee-jerk reaction to certain lyrics, and then overlooks others that were intended to give another view.
A lot of the Psalms that are referenced by these songs are asking questions like, "What about the unbelievers—they’re doing great without you God, but I’m a believer and my life is still rotten," you know, "I can’t figure this out," and that’s not exactly a self-satisfied theme. I mean, if you’re looking for a theme, that’s one that pops-up enough to count for something. So I’m a little disappointed when people overlook details like that. A walk with God can get pretty complicated—it isn’t just black & white. Believe me, the Psalms are full of this stuff, and I’ve got my own problems.
RELEVANT: There is a lot of biblical allusion and theological patchwork on the album. Some presume this is all just a hipster-irony thing, or, as Pitchfork describes, “tongue-in-cheek theology.” But I sense there is a lot more earnestness to your music.
Ringhofer: Yeah … well … yes, there are jokes, but I’m not really joking, you know? I’m serious, but I’m trying not to take myself too seriously.
RELEVANT: Did you grow up going to church?
Ringhofer: My Great Grandparents were "Music & Art Evangelists", and they traveled around the country doing revival meetings in the 1920s, I think. Even with that heritage though, I didn’t really start going to church regularly until after my parents divorced and my mom moved us kids to North Carolina (to live near this Great Grandmother) when I was about seven. I knew some Sunday School songs thanks to my mom, but we didn’t really go to church much early on.
RELEVANT: If you had to pick your top three favorite Bible stories, what would they be?
Ringhofer: Oh man … this question is too hard. Yeah, even though the last album (2005’s Thy is a Word, & Feet Need Lamps) was mostly narrative songwriting based on Bible stories, it seems like I respond more to Paul’s letters or the Psalms, so those aren’t exactly stories, but my favorite narrative parts are probably the four gospels.
RELEVANT: Your music is more overtly Christian and worshipful than a majority of “Christian” music … And yet I’m not sure that many Christians know about you or that any Christian music retailers carry your albums. Who do you think gets the most out of your music?
Ringhofer: Audience, hmmm. I think that maybe the people who’d appreciate Half-handed Cloud the most are those who aren’t afraid of someone writing about things in an honest, largely personal (but not necessarily autobiographical) way. And it helps if they also enjoy semi-complicated pop melodies and arrangements that might have a slight bent towards experimentation in sounds and structures.
RELEVANT: Are there Christian artists (musicians, writers, visual artists, etc) dead or alive that you particularly admire or look to as a model of how best art can interpret the wonders of God and faith?
Ringhofer: There’s James Hampton’s enormous sculpture "Throne of the Third Heaven …" at the Smithsonian, and painters like Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Henry Darger. These people were great about making the most amazingly beautiful objects with hardly any sort of "respectable" materials. Then there are people like Andrei Tarkovsky, Fred Rodgers, Dallas Willard and Francis Schaeffer, who come across as a little saner, but no less inspired.
As far as music goes, friends and labelmates of mine are doing exciting things: Danielson, Soul-junk, Sufjan Stevens and Lenny Smith for a start. Then there’s Maher Shalal Hash Baz’s Blues Du Jour, June Panic’s Horror Vacui, and Vollmar’s albums. Larry Norman also comes to mind. His Upon This Rock (1969) is a masterpiece. I’d say the same about Phil Keaggy’s first solo album What a Day (1973). There’s quite a bit of "Jesus Music" from the early seventies that I really enjoy. Sometimes I have a little bit of a taste for sort of obscure artists from then like Canada’s New Creation, or New Hampshire’s The Messengers, or Derek & Bodil Morris’ Taste & See album.
RELEVANT: What is the reasoning behind the brevity of your songs? The whole “blink and you’ll miss it” factor is a distinguishing mark of your music.
Ringhofer: One way I like to look at these songs is to see them all as brief movements in a much larger song. They run together—I’ve got track marks set-up at the beginning of each section so that the listener can navigate the albums a little better if needed, and these sections are usually performed at shows out of context, but yeah … the albums are arranged in such a way that they’ll be listened to in one sitting, so the albums aren’t even very long. I want to make sure each section "counts", so I’m careful to edit-out unnecessary parts. I’m not interested in repeating a chorus for the fourth time if “extending the song” is the only reason to do it. There has to be a real reason.
RELEVANT: What are your long-term aspirations?
Ringhofer: I hope to keep making Half-handed Cloud songs as long as I’m allowed. If it still seems to work this autumn or a year from now or something, then I’ll be making some more recordings. Otherwise, I’m open to whatever’s supposed to happen next.
I’ll probably always help other people with their bands or recording projects as long as it makes sense. It’s really fun getting to play with Danielson and Sufjan. I think that all the Illinoisemakers will be assembling to play the Sasquatch festival in Washington State this May, but I don’t think it’s really going to be an actual Illinoisemakers show. Supposedly, after the Amsterdam show last year we retired the cheerleading uniforms. It will be fun anyways without them, though. And after that, I don’t know what Sufjan’s plans are. I have the feeling he might want to get a real trombonist instead of me, which would probably serve the songs better.
RELEVANT: Besides making and performing music, what are your favorite things to do in life?
Ringhofer: Reading; I like to walk a lot but don’t care too much for hiking (it’s okay), making photocopy art, you know, listening to music and record shopping … um … hanging-out, eating a good lunch, hearing a timely message from the pulpit, making lists, playing a tag game named Darebase, catching-up with friends, traveling, laughing, seeing films, riding bikes, going to museums, helping people. I love water slides with fresh water and snorkeling with salt water, but those don’t really happen too often. Oh and it seems like I drink a couple gallons of water everyday, but that’s more like an addiction.