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Hap Henniger is his own musical man
I had no idea what a weird and surreal journey I was embarking on when I sat down to interview Hap “Happy Feet” Henninger. A loquacious man of few words, Henninger is something of an enigma; shrouded in mystery, wearing a T-shirt. I had met musicians before who claimed to be chasing the psychedelic dragon but they generally turned out to be average, middle-class trust-fund types who managed to learn a few “obscure” Pink Floyd tunes like “Wish You Were Here” and “Comfortably Numb.” Not so this cat, who is by all accounts professionally weird.
In truth, I have had the pleasure of meeting some incredibly talented musicians but rarely have I met one as eclectically talented as Hap “Happenstance” Henninger. Adept at all the usual rock ‘n roll instruments (guitar, bass, sousaphone, drums, keys) Hap additionally has a penchant for “found” instruments, including children’s toys and plain old junk and manages to coax some really interesting music from unlikely sources. He has also expressed an interest in circuit-bending, an activity that mainly involves young people buying electronic devices and breaking them so that they sound like faulty electronic devices.
Hap (from the Middle English for “an occurrence” and in current parlance a quilt or comforter) has an approach to music that one might describe as whimsical, if one were prone to using such words. His fundamentals are rock solid; he is as skilled a musician as anyone in the scene. But rather than lining up behind some particular style or genre, Hap takes the far more daring (and potentially rewarding) path of experimentation, not so much testing the boundaries as refusing to acknowledge that there are boundaries. Let me be perfectly clear, I believe the preceding statement to be a fair and accurate description of Henninger’s work, but I must differentiate it from other so-called experimental artists in this fashion: It’s good. It is actually entertaining and rewarding, a very clear distinction from the 95 percent of experimental music that is more akin to a band of meth-addled gorillas deconstructing a hardware store.
Through the use of multiple effects, toy keyboards, a good ol’ guitar and keen sense of sound, Henninger manages to tease the music out of what would otherwise be chaos—and the result is psychedelic music in the truest sense of the word. Indeed, having reviewed the demo Hap “Happy Go Lucky” Henninger provided me with (appropriately recorded on an analog machine with a bad channel under less-than-ideal circumstances), I couldn’t help but recognize the kinship not only to Syd Barrett and the boys, but to elements of John Lennon, Jeff Beck and Steve Winwood in his Traffic days. His lyrics are…well, they sure are! Surreal at times, an occasional dip in to stream-of-consciousness and clever wordplay, Hap writes like a writer, a suspicion that was confirmed when he acknowledged he was a lyricist long before he learned to play guitar.
If there is a single defining quality to Hap “Hap-Along-Cassidy” Henninger’s work, at least from my perspective, it is that underlying the soundscapes and “Beat era” lyrics there is a pervasive sense of…fun? Happy? I don’t doubt that the man has had bad days just like the rest of us, but whether by design or not, there is some positive, upbeat quality to his music that led me to use the word whimsical as a description. Perhaps it is that as much as he clearly loves music, he refuses to take himself seriously, or maybe it’s just some indefinable quality of the man but I haven’t heard a Hap tune yet that didn’t make me smile, no matter what it was about. You want a classical comparison? Have a listen to Pink Floyd’s “Free Four,” as cheery a tune about growing old and dying as you’re ever likely to hear and probably Roger Waters’ most successful attempt at trying to sound like Hap.
Although the discussion has been primarily about Hap’s solo work, it is worth noting that he is a founding member of the Owls, a current member of the Phugoids (with Robbie Bivin who is partnering with Mitch Wood at Soundscape Studios) and has recently embarked on a project with local artist Tony Mraz called Charley Work, a group that is seemingly the love child of the work Frank Zappa did with Wild Man Larry Fischer. Actual “you can buy ’em” recording projects are in the works for most of Hap’s projects, but for the moment your best bet is to catch him live at JJ’s Bohemia or every Thursday at 9 p.m. at The Office, where he runs a “Hap-tastic” open mic (though many in the local community prefer to think of it as “Hap-tacular”). So listen up, kids, if you’ve had enough “singer/songwriters” crooning passionate tunes about deep observations most of us made before we were properly in our twenties, if you aren’t thrilled by angry guitar heroes who seem so annoyed to be on stage that they’re likely to start beating up audience members, and if you’re tired of covers, Hap “Hap” Henninger just might be for you.