Showing Off The Skills; An Interview with Keith Hanlon

All of us wished that we could be so lucky to have the resources like Keith Hanlon did growing up.  Before closing down in the late 70s, his father worked at RCA’s tube factory.  On several occasions, the elder Hanlon brought home a reel-to-reel tape deck from work, which Keith took full advantage of.  Recording friends and using the house garage as an echo chamber allowed Hanlon to find a passion for playing music.  After studying audio production at Ohio University and interning at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, Hanlon dove into a variety of projects, one, in particular, Ohio’s own The Black Swans.  

These days, Hanlon works out of Musicol Recording Studios in Columbus, Ohio.  The musician also opened Secret Studio, an art gallery/recording studio/event space.  He has also started the record label Scioto Records which just re-released surf rock instrumental group The Original Onions’ Grill Skills on vinyl.

We caught up with Hanlon to hear more about his background and his work with the label.

What was the most influential moment you experienced that got you into music?

I became interested in music at a very early age, thanks to my oldest brother, who is a jazz musician and arranger. I heard him playing around the house… sax, Fender Rhodes, bass… he was multitalented and brought home a drum set that I took to immediately.  But there are two instances of recorded music that stick with me to this day. I remember listening to WABC out of NYC when I was a young child in New Jersey, and they played “Shining Star” by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Even on my crappy little AM radio, when I heard the acapella outro to that song, I couldn’t believe it. It sounded like they were right there in the room with me.

The other moment was walking into my brother’s room and hearing “Hello Goodbye” by The Beatles, blasting out of his hi-fi. I never knew music could sound like that.  These are the early experiences that led me to become a musician and recording engineer.

What were some of your fondest memories about the early days of The Black Swans?

My time in the Black Swans was quite sporadic. While I play on every full-length album, I wasn’t always playing shows or touring with them. That changed around 2008 after I recorded “Don’t Blame The Stars,” as we found ourselves losing a dear friend and bandmate, Noel Sayre. That brought us together. As for fond memories, I feel thankful that I experienced as much as I did with that band. I always loved touring with my friends because it felt like a vacation more than work.

Being formed in Columbus, I can get a sense there’s a Midwestern blue-collar feel to The Black Swans.  Is that a fair statement to say?

I didn’t analyze that aspect of The Black Swans when were together. Jerry Deccica, the leader of the band, is a prolific songwriter, and his influences are quite varied. That’s a question best asked of him.

I was sad to read about the tragic passing of Noel Sayre.  If you don’t mind, could you share one of your favorite stories involving him?

He was a beautiful, strange man that I knew for over a decade. He was living in Huntington, WV for a long time, but I had it in my head that he was in Charleston. I had bought some recording gear on eBay and asked him he’d pick it up for me in Charleston, which was over an hour away from his house. He agreed and didn’t even mention it to me. He was so generous to do that.

He also played violin on The Original Onions album, credited as Noel Onions. It never took many takes for him to play something not only appropriate but quite beautiful. He took all those influences from classical and folk music and distilled them into something very special.

With Noel passing away, did the band collectively wonder about moving forward as a group?

Maybe for a moment, but music helped our grief. We had to keep playing together.

Will we see another Black Swans album soon?

The Black Swans released their last album in 2012.

What got you to venture into running a record label?

I had made a couple of alternate mixes of songs from The Black Swans’ Don’t Blame The Stars album, and pressed a 7” single so that we had something to sell on the road (“Joe Tex” Acoustic Version and “Blue Bayou” Mono Mix). The thrill of picking up a box of records at Musicol Recording here in Columbus was enough to make me want to continue putting out records.

What’s the vision of who you want to sign?  Are you looking to stay towards one genre, or do you want to have an assortment of sound?

I just want to work with artists that create music on their own terms without consideration of current trends. 

What was the deciding factor towards choosing to re-release Grill Skills?

The Original Onions was a band I played with back in 1999/2000. All the music was instrumental guitar rock (or as some might label it, “surf rock”). I had more fun playing in that band than any other band I’ve ever played in! We loved playing together, but we didn’t take it seriously, so there was no pressure. I always love playing music with friends.

We self-produced a CD-R called “Grill Skills” that was sold at shows and local record stores. However, we also put the album online for free, first on and then Bandcamp. Suddenly, the record started showing up as soundtracks to videos on YouTube, and in the Top 10 on the internet radio station Surf Rock Radio.  We always wanted the album on vinyl, and with its 20 year anniversary, thought it would be quite appropriate.

What’s the future hold in terms of releases?

Jovan Karcic (Gaunt/Scrawl) has been putting out digital EPs featuring remixes and outtakes, and my remix of his track “Shadow and Echo” was released last week on our Bandcamp site and streaming services. The song features The Brent Fischer Orchestra (Brent and his father, Clare Fischer, worked with Prince and many other artists).  The reissue of John Stuart Mill’s Forget Everything continues to be a great seller. JSM is an alias of John Schmersal of Brainiac and Enon fame. He recorded that album right after Brainiac disbanded, and before he formed Enon, and it’s a lo-fi gem. It had never been issued on vinyl. We were able to access the original artwork and create a beautiful minimalist package for the album. The next release on Scioto Records will be a cassette from drone artist Mike Shiflet called Six Sunsets, due out in May.

(Photo courtesy: Kris Misevski)