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Whiskey Shivers’ Guitarist Jeff Hortillosa

Illustrious Hippopotacorn spins off a spidery solo debut

By Abby Johnston, 4:20PM, Thu. Oct. 24, 2013

Whiskey Shivers’ Guitarist  Jeff Hortillosa

Local buzz-saw bluegrass quartet Whiskey Shivers currently preps its third LP for a December recording at Houston’s Sugarland Studios with Robert Ellis producing. With his band busy writing, Jeff Hortillosa still had an itch. Just in time for Halloween, Return to Spider Island shows off the guitarist’s “artistic yackety-shmackety.”

Austin Chronicle: Been busy?

Jeff Hortillosa: I just got done giving guitar lessons. I used to work with the Boys and Girls Club and I worked at the Ann Richards school down south. I stepped down from my full-time position so I could tour with the band and stuff last year, but they still let me come in and give guitar lessons to some kids. I’ve got practice in a little while.

AC: Tell me a little bit about your solo album, Return to Spider Island.

JH: It actually started out when I was in Corpus with my girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. We tried to find a restaurant, and one of the things that popped up in Google’s auto-correct was Spider Island. I was like, “Holy shit, that’s hilarious. I love that name! I’m going to go home and make me an album cover.” So I Photoshopped the album cover, then thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I made an album?”

I always have a long bank of songs that I don’t do with the band. I just have them because they don’t really fit anywhere, you know? I just like to write songs, and I literally have hundreds of these songs that I don’t do anything with. But I had some microphones, I had some time, and I thought I might as well make an album. I’d booked a solo show at the Buzz Mill before I had the album. Then two weeks later, I threw together the album.

AC: Did you have anyone else helping with this project?

JH: All the songs were songs I wrote. I played all the instruments. I did four of the songs completely by myself, but when I put on Facebook that I wanted to make an album, my friend Eric Witthans [of Mother Merey & the Black Dirt] offered some nice microphones and this mobile studio. One day he came over and we drank some beers in my garage, then he pulled out these four nice microphones and this little desk made up for his computer. It really was a mobile studio. So we hammered out four or five more songs then.

AC: You mentioned some of these songs don’t quite fit with the band. What’s your writing process like with Whiskey Shivers?

JH: We’re working on a new album that we’re recording in December, and we all brought in stuff. A lot of the stuff I do is trying to find the tempo or mood of the songs. Often times someone will have a lick or something that’s not fully-formed and we’ve got to figure out what to do with it. That’s why I like exploring my role in the band, my artistic yackety-shmackety. Whiskey Shivers is definitely more group processed.

This solo stuff started out when I had [laughs] I guess you could call it a project I started last year called the Illustrious Hippopotacorn. With that I would just spend one day and write as many songs as I could. I did that a couple times and came away with 10-15 single tracks with smaller ideas that weren’t fully developed. One or two of those have become Whiskey Shivers songs.

AC: If anything, you’re great at coming up with names. The Illustrious Hippopotacorn!

JH: That’s my bathroom tag. I’ve been using that for a while.

AC: So you had the Buzz Mill show before you had the album out?

JH: Yeah. We’re writing so much that we’re paring back our live shows so we can focus on writing and getting this album ready. There’s the itch to go play shows, and if right now our management team doesn’t want us to play a whole ton of shows, no one’s going to say that I can’t, by myself, go play a coffee shop. I used to do that before the band. I would do a open mic every once in a while.

AC: Any plans for another solo album or is it too soon to ask?

JH: Oh, totally. I mean, the album is just burned CDs. I bought labels and printed them out. The whole thing is just a DIY, tongue-in-cheek thing I did for my friends. It’s kind of a crossover thing for being creative with Whiskey Shivers and not getting caught up in one thing for too long and not being able to breathe. I am constantly writing new songs. I guess I’ll make another album when I have another funny idea for a Photoshop.

The next one – I’ll go ahead and give you the inside – is going to be Horti Canta Espanol. I’m just going to do a bunch of Spanish songs and be super sleazy and drink wine on the cover. Then I’ll print it out and give it to my friends as well.

AC: What creative muscle are you flexing differently with your solo stuff than with the band?

JH: With the band we’re really pivoting on our live act. We’ve got a great live performance. Not to discount the songs in any way, but the music comes first and the music is all good with Whiskey Shivers. The live show is just pulsing, energetic.

A lot of the quieter, slower songs I do for myself. A lot of times when I sit down to write a song I’ve got this road map in my head. It’s got to have these parts and these components. When you’re working with other people, it’s good to have those things. When I’m by myself, maybe the entire song needs to be only two sentences. To convey the emotion I’m feeling, maybe I only need to say a handful of words and then make a song 30 seconds.

When you’re with a group, you say, “Hey guys, I’ve got this idea for a song: It’s going to only have two words, then I’m going to blurt out this lick and that’s going to be it.” When you’re alone, you’re accountable for that stuff. I don’t want to hold the other dudes accountable for my dumb, kind of artsy whims.

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