Billy Alletzhauser displays a quietly cautious manner when answering questions. It might be a natural byproduct of his experience in the Ass Ponys, when the Cincinnati quartet became a hot industry prospect only to be dropped by A&M after two albums.
Alletzhauser finds lightning striking twice as his new Americana aggregation, The Hiders, bears the enviable -- or perhaps unenviable -- tag of "the hottest unsigned band in America." And while Alletzhauser has entertained label queries, notably from Bloodshot and Rounder, he's been through this process before and is a little wiser about the label situation these days.
"They want you to have done all the work," Alletzhauser says from the Batcave, his studio/rehearsal space in the basement of his Clifton home. "Plus there's not really a leader out there. They kind of need someone telling them, 'Yes, this is awesome, this is worth it.' Some people get lucky and get their band together and somebody's got a van and they play a bunch of shows and they get a song on a soundtrack, and then it's OK for people to go, 'Now we can check out this.' And then they take all the credit once they do."
With The Hiders' excellent sophomore album, Penny Harvest Field, about to be self-released, Alletzhauser is confident in proceeding along the independent path he's been forging since the band unofficially came together nearly eight years ago as an acoustic outlet for Alletzhauser, Plow On Boy's Niki Buehrig and journeyman Dave Gilligan.
The Hiders' 2006 self-released debut, Valentine, was a marvel, produced by Nashville veteran Brad Jones and championed by former WNKU and now WXPN Program Director Dan Reed, who passed the disc to World Cafe host David Dye, who in turn was captivated enough to add several tracks from the album into the syndicated public radio program playlist.
"I went into it with a pallet in mind," Alletzhauser says of Valentine. "I wanted to make a smooth, clean sort of Country/Rock album. Stuff I had in mind was like Willie Nelson's Stardust and Neil Young's Harvest, that was the sound I was picturing. It turned out, well, a little better than I intended."
Since Valentine, The Hiders' lineup shuffled slightly with the departure of drummer Todd Drake nearly two years ago and bassist Victor Strunk last year. Since then, local drumming powerhouse Tony Franklin joined Alletzhauser -- they had been together in the late '80s with Grinch -- as has former Afghan Whigs drummer Michael Horrigan, who almost immediately filled the bass slot after returning to Cincinnati from a stint in Detroit. (Beth Harris provides harmony vocals.)
"We'd been in correspondence for the past few years," Horrigan says.
"We were just waiting for the opportunity to get something going together," Alletzhauser says. "It was like the same day. I had talked to Michael and he was thinking about coming back and Victor had called that same day and said, 'I don't think I can do it anymore.' "
For Penny Harvest Field, Alletzhauser says he contemplated using other producers but ultimately chose to return to Nashville for another go-round with Brad Jones (with some local help from Ultrasuede's John Curley on a couple of tracks).
"Every time I thought I had something else set up, it would come back to Brad, for a couple of reasons," Alletzhauser says. "People were way more excited than I thought they'd be (about Valentine). That made me a little nervous about this one. So I felt like if I went to Brad, I knew what I was getting into and we'd be on the same playing field, at least."
For both albums, The Hiders came into the recording sessions with close to 30 songs demoed for Jones to hear. The first time his schedule was open enough to consider all the options. But this time his schedule was so tight that the band needed to be a little more prepared when it came to the final track list.
"I think we decided at least the top 13 songs before we went down there," Franklin says. "We weren't on Hiders time ... Play a tune, let's have a drink. Brad's 'Go' button is unbelievable."
Although Valentine earned an impressive response, Alletzhauser was not particularly concerned about how he would approach The Hiders' second set. He was content to let the album's material develop organically as the band evolved.
"In the process of playing with these guys -- and nothing against Todd and Victor -- music is what they do," Alletzhauser says of Franklin and Horrigan. "Music is what they do, and everything else comes second. When we started playing together, it really started to feel a little more passionate and we started feeling more cohesive as a band. Valentine sounds nice and clean but it sounds a little safe and easy compared to other things. I think we just started to sound like a Rock band so I wanted that to come out. I knew I wanted it to be a little more aggressive and a little more intense."
With the addition of Franklin and Horrigan, Alletzhauser found his songwriting taking on a slightly different bent, which gives Penny Harvest Field a discernably different presence than its predecessor.
"I tried to not write a batch of songs where I didn't edit myself too much," Alletzhauser says. "A lot of times I'll write a song and I'll think, 'This isn't me,' and I'll toss it because I worry that it's too this or too that. This time I tried to not do that to myself."
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