October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
Half-handed Cloud is an interesting phenomenon. John Ringhofer, the man behind the namesake, is as joyful and frugal as his music. An economical thinker, Ringhofer prefers the subway over a taxicab, is a recycler of plastic, a compulsive note-taker, and a habitual optimist. He doodles in the margins of National Geographic magazines, carries several different colored pens, and continues to use an antiquated CD Walkman. When not on tour solo or as the trombonist for Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers, he lives rent-free in Berkeley California in exchange for his services as a custodian in a church. His music encapsulates his struggle to make sense of his life and his passions. In Half-handed Cloud, this is expressed as an all-consuming search for God. Like Brother Danielson, Half-handed Cloud is able to ensconce complicated theological concepts into playground song without condescending to his subject or to his listener.
The Other Journal’s Josh Golden and Chris Keller were honored to interview John over email early this fall.
Josh: Where does the name come from?
John: It’s a way to measure clouds–to judge their distance by comparing the size of a cloud to the size of a hand. We find Elijah’s servant doing this in the 18th chapter of 1st Kings, and that’s where I got the idea.
Josh: You use a lot of instrumentation in your recordings. When I’ve seen you play live, you tend to play by yourself or with only one other person and you’re constantly switching instruments on stage, even in the middle of songs. Do you write with this in mind or is this more of something you decide to attempt later?
John: As far as the recordings go, I guess that all this comes from my love for pocket-symphony arrangements, and my rudimentary playing-knowledge of a few instruments. I’m still trying to figure-out if I’m embarrassed by both of these things. It sure is easier to play the parts for recordings (as opposed to performances) just because I can try lots of takes until I get something that I’m happy with. And usually, when writing, I try not to be too concerned about how the songs will be fleshed-out during a future tour, because I want to serve the song without letting anything else interfere. Probably it was a little easier to recreate some of the songs for Halos & Lassos in a live setting than it might have been for other albums, because… well, there aren’t any cellos on this album, for one. It seems like no matter what, I make new arrangements for the performances—and to me, that’s a hugely rewarding part of touring. Also, each player is going to bring some new life to the parts.
Here’s something: I love switching instruments at shows, especially in the middle of songs. Really. There’s a great element of danger—everything has the potential for falling apart. It’s incredibly satisfying to navigate a tough musical passage successfully when I’m thinking about lyrics, instrument notes, singing, the logistics of getting a banjo off of my lap or a trombone to my lips (etc.) all at the same time. And… it seems like when other bands have me play as a member, I get to do the same thing for them to a lesser degree—it’s sort of natural for me to want to multi-task for some reason.
Josh: You perhaps write the happiest songs I’ve ever heard recorded. It’s not that the content always concerns happy subjects, but they still come across that way to me. Could you comment a little about where that comes from?
John: Wow thanks, it’s a little bit of a mystery to me though, honestly. Seems like maybe I’m the only who thinks that Thy is a Word, & Feet Need Lamps is a “dark album.” It’s more than likely just the way that I work with melody. I mean, I certainly have a Hope, and the Joy that comes with being brought back to life by our Creator, but I haven’t always been intentional in trying to make sure people can hear that in the mood of the music or whatever. Mood can sometimes be irrelevant to me. What do you think it is?
Josh: I agree with you. At the risk of being simplistic about it, I think the happiness and joy in your songs ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s interesting that you don’t feel intentional about expressing this. Actually, it’s exciting for me to hear you aren’t intentional about creating a certain mood because that would indicate to me that you are giving more creative control to something outside of yourself, like the Creator or the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you are at a point in your faith and your songwriting where you’re experiencing a freedom that brings joy organically without trying to manage or manipulate it. Is this something that resonates with you?
John: Oh yeah, sure. There are so many times when it doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with me. I mean, it’s almost like even when I’m making an effort to get away from crafting something that sounds “joyful” (because it would serve the song better, or because I’ve picked-up on Half-h being described that way, etc.) joyfulness will somehow be perceived by the listener anyways. For some reason I can’t escape it—there it is again: joyfulness haunting me. Great, just great. All of this is hilarious.
Chris: Mood is a sort of underlying status, perhaps a bottom line that drives the craft, maybe in theological terms it could be likened to an ontology. In the case of Half-handed Cloud I feel there is an ontology of joy—joy that does not map a commonly North American ethic, but one that has to do with being known by a creator and enjoying being a creature.
John: Well, that’s the thing, and everybody can have an experience like this—a space for joy has been carved-out for every one of us to exist in. This reminds me of a conversation that I once had with Dan Smith (Danielson) where we were talking about the difference between joy and happiness. I mean, you can be grounded in a realization of yourself as a child of God and your relationship with Him, receiving joy as a byproduct, yet still grieve, wrestle, question, and pray impolitely.
Josh: Does the joy of being a creature and being created play into your songwriting? Is joy necessary for your faith and your creativity?
John: It seems like the joy of being a creature couldn’t help but make its way into the songwriting because it’s here… mostly in the form of a grateful acknowledgement, but I haven’t consciously tried to you know, “work-joy-into” the songs or anything. I don’t even really think about joy at all, and… I wouldn’t single-out joy as a necessary component of faith or creativity. There should be a balance—I feel like a fair spectrum of human emotion is represented on these albums, and lately in my mind I’ve been hoping that the extremes of the spectrum would kind of cancel each other out. The idea is that, the end-result might look less like Expressionism, and more like Formalism.
Josh: What projects are you currently working on?
John: I made a 7-song EP this summer from songs that were left-over from the writing sessions that produced the Halos & Lassos LP and the Harp That’s Hung-up in the Tree EP, and… I feel like it turned-out better than I expected but I’m going to sit on it for a while. Maybe it will turn into a tour EP? Lately I’ve been working on some compilation songs. One is for this Italian label named My Honey—the song has to be related to bees somehow. And one compilation song each for the US labels Happy Happy Birthday To Me, and Ought Implies Can. Just submitted a 3-part song for one side of a Cassingle release that will be out on Sanitary Records in October. Half-handed Cloud and Ariel Pink are supposed to be doing a split 7” single for Asthmatic Kitty next year, and I’m starting to think about that some. At one point there’s going to be a Half-handed Cloud 1-sided LP on Burnt Toast Vinyl.
Josh: Do you spend much time preparing to play shows and do you have any more plans to incorporate performance or props into your show to help express your lyrical themes?
John: Yeah it seems like it takes us a good bit of devoted practice time. It’s almost like it’s just as hard preparing for an occasional show as it is for a whole tour; we might take a break from performances for a few months. I used to have props with me back when I did solo shows with instruments and a mini-disc player, but now I’ve kind of been seeing the instruments themselves as props, although they don’t really “point” to lyrical themes. I don’t know, maybe that could happen again in the future?
Josh: Are you working on songs for another record?
John: I’m beginning to gather melodies and ideas for a new album, yeah. Not really sure what it will look like yet… it’s hard to say right now.
Josh: What else do you do besides your job and Half-handed Cloud?
John: Sometimes I get to do special things like play in my friends’ bands, so this November/December it’s a European tour as the bassist/vocal/marimba-player for Danielson, but right before that I’m getting to go on an early church history trip to Turkey and Greece. We’ll be touring a lot of the cities that the Apostle Paul visited/wrote to in his epistles. Good grief.
…This might sound a little ridiculous, but lately I’ve been interested in going ahead and trying to live a truly human life. I don’t necessarily mean ordinary or simple, I mean truly human, as in how we were originally made to be. It seems like I can have a hard time with this, and… probably we all do. Let me explain: I’ve been taking this class (which is more like an experience than a class) at a local Presbyterian church and the teacher has been talking about this sort of thing, about how we tend to either do one of two things instead—we either try to be super-human by loading our plates with too much or think that we’re God, or we give ourselves permission to live as an animal by letting our passions get the best of us. We expect too much or too little from ourselves. I’m sort of trying to find a kind of balance, but I’m also going for something that I haven’t seen demonstrated that often. So lately I’ve been thinking about what a human life is meant to look like, and have begun to experience the freedom that comes from all of that. I don’t know if that’s what you were asking exactly, though.
Chris: It seems lots of more independent artists are kind of able to be what they are faith-wise, write music with Christian themes while maintaining enough of a nuance to their writing that keeps listeners guessing. This tends to be done in the name of making “good art”. Certainly this way of approaching music has been refreshing (to me) in the wake of an industry such as CCM, but Half-handed Cloud seems to be able to be authentically connected to the indie culture, and you can be authentically Christian, with really blatant Christian themes in your music. Why do you suppose you have that freedom while still being accepted when others might be ridiculed and dismissed?
John: Well, I don’t know if Half-h deserves to be commended for being more artful than CCM or anything like that. I could see CCM having a place too, so I don’t have a flat-out prejudice towards what you’re talking about. But, generally, I’m not a fan of a lot of what comes out of that industry and feel like CCM can sometimes play things a little too safe, so maybe that’s a turn-off to some folks.(?)
It’s hard to speculate as to why Half-handed Cloud would be given a “break” when other bands that sing about the same sorts of themes are passed over or mocked. I have a feeling that Half-h receives its share of ridicule too, but for the ones that are willing to give my songs a chance, I guess they can see that if there’s any preaching, it’s usually aimed at myself—an audience might recognize that I’m not very far from where they are about these same sorts of issues.
Josh: Have you ever experienced some type of prejudice because of your song themes?
John: Yeah maybe, but it might have more to do with misunderstandings. Here’s an example: A few years ago, Half-h was on tour with Mt. Gigantic in New England, and there was a venue that, after the show was booked, wanted a lyric sheet from the bands to make sure we didn’t sing about raping people, or other hateful things. So I just photocopied the lyrics out of the booklet for the second album, and sent it there. A week later I received an email from the booker that made me think that he was kind of discouraging me from playing because of my lyrics. It was a considerate letter… he basically just said that Half-h could play if I really wanted to, but that the people are not going to like me. It felt like he was asking me to reconsider. I was pretty hurt, and a little confused, but just decided to go ahead and play the show anyways though, and… it turned-out fine. The crowd even sort of danced around, the booker there was a super-nice guy, and said he enjoyed it. I look back now and just think that maybe he was only trying to give me a heads-up about everything, or maybe he had some rough personal experiences that he’d attached to God, and worried that some of that would come rushing back.
Josh: Do you sense a change in the listeners or the industries that might be opening up new avenues for the Gospel to be considered? (I am thinking of the time you played at The Dearborn House in Seattle…the folks there seemed to embrace and love Half-handed Cloud, and though it’s only my assumption, they love you while likely having great disdain for what you were actually singing about. What is closest to your heart could be very far from their own, etc.)
John: I’m deeply grateful for people that can appreciate artists working in mediums they can connect with, that are honest about their identity, no matter what the content is.
Josh: A couple of years ago I remember asking you if you’d thought about writing songs for children. I seem to remember you responding that you had done some of that through either camps, or youth groups and it had sort of run its course for you. I bring this up because Chris commented that there is a kind of Sunday school, child-like approach Half-handed Cloud has to being sons and daughters of God. One seems to lose that innocence when they get older, perhaps because they tend to buy into buying what defines them… but you seem to resist that with Half-handed Cloud… and it’s kind of weird because we’re not used to that.
John: Oh yeah, I worked at summer camp for a really long time. I think it was seven summers. It was all really-really great, but they had anybody who could play guitar up on the stage leading-out and, you’re right, after doing that for so long, and playing at the nursing home every Saturday, youth groups, playing for various Bible studies and things over the years, I’m not all that interested in leading song-service anymore. But I don’t think that’s what’s got me reluctant about making a Half-handed Cloud children’s album. I guess that at this point, I don’t quite understand a huge need for one of those because people write me and say that their kids enjoy these songs anyways. This goes along with what Chris said: we look to our Creator as a kind of father. So, in a sense, I’m sort of already making this kind of music because I recognize myself as someone who needs to be provided for, taught, and cared for, as any child would. If I get to have children of my own someday, maybe I’ll be inspired to make a more deliberate children’s album?
Josh: That makes a lot of sense to me, and I think your point about children enjoying the songs you write already negates the need for anything specific… the albums already cater to adults and children alike as they stand.
John: I’m thankful, it’s kind of a rare gift that some of these songs could appeal to both.
Josh: I want to return to what Chris was talking about before. He comments that Half-handed Cloud seems to have an inherent innocence that many bands or songwriters lack. It seems important to ask you if you had any thoughts about why that might be the case.
It’s interesting that you mentioned Daniel Smith because I feel like Half-handed Cloud and Danielson share something interesting related to innocence. Both bands present the audience with songs that are joyful and lyrics that aren’t cynical. Both point towards the virtues of innocence and the consequences of ignoring God. Perhaps one listener feels uncomfortable and another comforted. That’s not so much a question as much as something I’d like to hear you talk about.
John: I think that Daniel has been a little more deliberate in linking his songs and concepts to childhood and innocence than I’ve done with Half-handed Cloud. At least some sections of his work deal with childhood a little more directly–early-on, before they grew-up, half of his band actually consisted of children. There’s also the sort of thing where Danielson is sometimes being compared to a high-school marching band, and at one point they used a good bit of toy piano, so there’s also this musical connection to youth. I would say that both of our bands are interested in being playful a lot of the time. The first Half-h album had songs that sampled some of those “talking story books” and used a few cheap keyboards, toy noisemakers, and air organs, but… I feel like that was more about being a part of thrift store culture than trying to reference childhood. Even the toy piano parts on later Half-h albums were from sessions recorded at Dan’s studio in New Jersey—it was either his or Sufjan’s idea to use that. To be fair though, the primary instrument on this year’s Halos & Lassos was an Omnichord, which was made by the Suzuki Musical Education company in the 1980’s. Does that count?
In my mind, Half-handed Cloud hasn’t really been about exploring innocence, not that intentionally at least. Going along with this though, it seems true that we’re all little children–some are aware of it, and some aren’t. Some of us are in severe trouble, and all of us need help. We’ve been intimately acquainted with evil. We need a way out. And when the way-out finds us, we see ourselves loved and provided for. We get a new life. We get a new start. I guess there’s a sort of innocence that’s included in a new God-centered life. We ask a lot of questions because we realize that we don’t have the answers, but we’ve been embraced by someone who does. So we rest in that. In fact, naps are even encouraged now.
And here’s something else: if I really step back and look at where I’ve been led, my interests, and creative work over the last 15 years, I recognize that there actually has been some sort of childhood theme throughout. In addition to summer camp, I got to work as a 3rd Grade school teacher in Micronesia for a year. My final painting and printmaking projects in art school sort of had to do with comparisons between school children and schematic drawings. In Chattanooga, we had bands that wrote songs about childhood heroes, or TV shows that we loved when we were kids, or Christmas, etc. So… yeah, I see this thread running through these past years, especially in the things I just mentioned, but I don’t really know how to talk about any of this or explain it, especially when it comes to Half-handed Cloud. I feel like that has somewhat less of a connection to childhood themes than my visual art or old bands did. On one hand, I want to disassociate myself from any of these connections, but on the other, I suspect that I still want the option of playing with these associations behind everybody’s back, especially as I begin to figure-out more about what this is all about.
Read more about Half-handed Cloud at www.halfhandedcloud.com
 This Intro is taken from the asthmatic kitty website and can be found at http://www.asthmatickitty.com/musicians.php?artistID=3
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Josh Golden is a physical therapist, musician and dance machine. He lives in Seattle and has played with bands such as Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado.