The multi-faceted Madison-based guitarist talks with us about a reinvigoration brought on by self-recording.
For over 20 years, Jason Hartman has made a name for himself within Madison music and beyond. Vanishing Kids remains Hartman’s best-known project, having cemented its reputation as one of the region’s best heavy acts across multiple releases since forming in 2000, boasting a style broad enough to include blistering metal, contemplative post-punk, and otherworldly ambient textures. At various points from 2013 to 2017, touring as a guitarist in the similarly diverse hard rock act Jex Thoth provided another avenue for Hartman to showcase his undeniable talent as a guitarist. Diati, a solo project that’s only released a few tracks for some scattershot compilations, hinted at a creative restlessness that Hartman has all but confirmed less than halfway through 2022.
Over the last several months, Vanishing Kids has completed tracking a record. Two new Hartman solo projects, Old Spirit and Night Eyez, have both released self-titled records. A second Old Spirit record has been sent off for mastering. And there’s more in the works. Hartman has kept busy.
A good deal of Hartman’s recent foray into prolific release patterns can be attributed to the songwriter’s newfound affinity for self-recording. “GarageBand makes it such a different thing, where I can have a draft or a part and I can go through this journey of adding layers, taking things away, and then rearranging the actual parts. It’s different. It’s pretty exciting to be able to do that. A lot more of my ideas come to life that way. It makes it a lot freer,” Hartman says. “I can go through [GarageBand] and try things. I think it makes it more exciting and maybe more thought-out. It’s more tried-out. The end result might be a little better that way too, you know? It’s been super fun for me.”
While Hartman’s more musically productive than ever, he admits writing lyrics still gives him a bit of occasional pause. “I’ve been thrown into the singer role because there’s nobody else to sing,” he says. “A lot of [my lyrics are] just abstraction and words that I like. [The lyrics] are pretty vague.”
Whether Hartman realizes it or not, the music he’s been releasing in 2022 has been some of the most purposeful of his career.
Old Spirit‘s lead-off single and opening track, “Snow Leopard,” pulls no punches. From the jump, “Snow Leopard” sprints at full-force as a spiritual homage to ’80s thrash and hesher intensity. All six of the tracks on Old Spirit’s self-titled find Hartman in a state of blissed-out aggression, wielding his guitar like a flamethrower and treating the paths the songs chart as if they’re gasoline. Even when Old Spirit‘s pace slows, as it does on “Feel The Stars,” there’s a sense that some unknown threat is just around the corner, allowing Hartman to weaponize the atmospheric tension before unleashing another inevitable detonation point.
While Old Spirit‘s penchant for gonzo wild-eyed riffage goes largely unchecked, Hartman’s first Night Eyez record takes a different approach, offering a gentler reprieve.”Peregerine,” the brooding, hulking centerpiece of Night Eyez, invokes early ’90s emo, John Carpenter, and late-career Jim O’Rourke, corralling it all into something surprisingly understated and unmistakably disquieting. For all the emphatically morose moments across Night Eyez, Hartman meticulously selects counterweights to regain a sense of balance via playful guitar or synth moments, keeping the record unpredictable, varied, and engaging.
Hearing Hartman cut loose has always been a treat, and that’s never been clearer than it is in 2022. Old Spirit and Night Eyez can be viewed as integral pieces of Hartman’s ongoing evolution, both standing as testaments to the sheer force and vitality of personal creativity. Tone Madison caught up with Hartman at the start of May to find out more about his recent output, the inherently symbiotic nature of his current projects, and what comes next.
Tone Madison: Could you give us a brief overview of the projects you’re currently working on?
Jason Hartman: Well, my main thing is a band called Vanishing Kids, that I’ve done with my wife [vocalist and synth player Nikki Drohomyreky] for 22 years now. I guess. Since the year 2000. It’s easy to remember that way. I’ve done a lot of solo stuff lately just because I’ve finally caught up with being able to record myself. I used to try with 4-tracks over the years but it always sounded very sub-par [laughs].
I finally caught up with technology. I’ve always been afraid of it because I never thought I would be able to make a good-sounding recording. I’ve always gone to recording studios, you know? Since I’ve found friends that have been able to record pretty good-sounding stuff just on their phones, over the past few years I’ve been starting to record a lot on GarageBand, but GarageBand sounds pretty good these days, to my ears.
I had a lot of metal songs over the years that I’ve been kind of recording or piecing together and that’s the Old Spirit stuff. All my projects probably have too many genres. I stuff a lot of stuff [in there]. It’s kind of like putting them into folders. In all my different bands, probably. I think it’s interesting that way, though. I try not to make it so that it’s super crazy, the amounts of different stuff. But I also like albums that have some variety. It’s hard for me to go to a show with four speed metal bands or four punk rock bands. I do like a mix. If something’s too far off, it goes into another folder, to another project.
Night Eyez is another one. Those are the two albums that I just recently put out. There’s some crossover but for that one, I tried to put more of the post-punk-y electronic stuff. There tended to be some metal influences in there too. That’s kind of how I divide it up. Vanishing Kids is another thing and I have another thing that’s more hard rock-based called Diati but I’ve just put a few songs on comps for that. I don’t have an album out for that one or anything but I’m working on it [laughs]. Lots going on.
Tone Madison: From your phrasing, it sounds like you were pulling from a backlog of riffs or ideas for Old Spirit. Was Night Eyez also a culmination of stockpiled material? Did the projects have distinctly separate starting points or were they naturally intertwined?
Jason Hartman: These first two albums that I put out this year, they were both… there were tons of full songs, there were a few. I’m also finding as I go through and record stuff, it’s really easy for the songs to almost put themselves together for me. Layering things, moving things around. For the first two albums most of it was pre-planned but as I’m going through and doing more recording, I’m finding that it’s pretty easy to have a riff or two and then have it come together on its own.
Tone Madison: Are there riffs that naturally lend themselves to one project over the other or do some get consideration for both before being worked one way or another? Are they their own distinct ideas before they go to the project?
Jason Hartman: Not necessarily; it’s kind of been both ways. There have been a few songs that could have been interchangeable between the projects and I had to decide which one made the most sense with each project and what [stylistically] goes with each album. In general, I’d say that the more guitar-based [ideas] will go into Old Spirit and the more keyboard-oriented will go to Night Eyez. There are a few exceptions to that, though.
Like I said before, I want there to be some variety. So if something seems like [a better fit] after I put vocals on, then maybe I’d switch it over to the other project [laughs]. I’d say the most natural one for me is Old Spirit because I’m mostly a guitar player. I write riffs. The synth stuff is really fun but I just dabble in that, I’m not really a pianist. I just like working with sounds on the synths and am just finally getting into MIDI. I’m very behind on technology. I should have had 100 albums out by now, really [laughs]. I’m just now figuring out how to make it sound good enough for myself.
Tone Madison: You spoke to this a bit already but Night Eyez highlights the importance of atmospheric consistency and plays around with softer textures via synths and keys while Old Spirit is more emphatically riff-driven. Both projects seem to be expanding on different stylistic elements of Vanishing Kids, maximizing the impact of the projects’ narrower melodic strains. At this point are you more interested in extending those boundary points further or remapping the midsection between soft and heavy?
Jason Hartman: Vanishing Kids has had a lot of variety in it. We’ve put out an album every few years and half that music is written by my wife, Nikki. I think that every album we push the boundaries out a little bit further but I feel like there’s definitely stuff that wouldn’t fit from these projects. I’m trying to do both. I still think we’re cramming a lot into Vanishing Kids but there’s still stuff that doesn’t fit that I’ve wanted to do.
A lot of times, over the years, I’ve had another band on the side to get some of that music out as well. It’s so much easier to commit. I can go into my office and record whenever I want instead of putting a band together, practicing every Thursday night, endlessly, counting on everybody to be there, and get their parts down and everything. It’s made it so much more efficient. I do miss the camaraderie of band stuff. That’s my social outlet, for the most part. My sports team. I miss that part of it. I do have a lot of the influences from Vanishing Kids spilling over to these other projects but then it’s more than that, even, if that makes sense.
Tone Madison: You’ve got the two most recent solo albums. Vanishing Kids recently posted about having finished tracking a new record. You mentioned you were working on more Diati material. With all of those projects moving forward and the feeling of invigoration that’s been brought about by unlocking the potential of self-recording, are you tempted to start even more new projects or will you be focusing on the existing four?
Jason Hartman: [Laughs.] Well, between these four things, I think everything that I’m writing can fit into one of those boxes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something in the future that doesn’t fit into all of this and then I do a fifth project [laughs]. For now, I’m pretty full with these four projects. If anything, I think that I would branch off and join somebody else’s band instead. I do miss working on other people’s songs. It’s another fun, creative way to be. I mean, I love being in total control but at this point, where COVID is creeping back, which is another reason I haven’t been doing a lot of “real” band projects. I am feeling more comfortable, so that might happen at some point. Some side project thing. Somebody else’s project where I can add something to it. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Tone Madison: At this point, the next Vanishing Kids record has been tracked. You just put out an Old Spirit record and a Night Eyez record. You put out a music video for each of the solo projects. What comes next?
Jason Hartman: Well, the Vanishing Kids album is in the mixing process right now. Do you know who Randall Dunn is? He’s mixing it. He’s done a lot of Wisconsin stuff, strangely, among other things, but he’s worked with Zola Jesus a lot and Jex Thoth. I played in Jex Thoth for a while and the drummer in that band [Nick Johnson] actually plays on the new Vanishing Kids album. [Dunn’s] name came up for mixing. We’re just fans of his work, too, and I think it fits with our style. We’re waiting for him to mix it. And everything takes so long, that I don’t think anything else will come out this year. Hopefully he’ll get it mixed in the next month or so. The last one came out on Svart Records so I assume that’s what will happen again. It’ll come out next year, maybe, then hopefully do some shows again.
I already have another Old Spirit record that’s getting mastered right now. I just sent some files over before I talked to you [laughs]. That’s eight songs. And it’s [getting mastered by] the guy that did [2018’s] Heavy Dreamer, the last Vanishing Kids album, Brad Boatright. I’m gonna shop that around [to different labels]. For these last two [solo project records], I put them out myself. Partially because I’m so anxious to get stuff out [and] feeling like I should have a lot more out by now. I just wanted to get them out quickly. These next ones I’m going to shop around a little bit and see if I can get some more help with them. Especially since I have so many different projects, it gets expensive to start putting them all out, especially if you’re going to do vinyl.
The other thing is that vinyl takes a year to make now. I put in the order for these two on vinyl a couple of months ago but I still don’t have the vinyl. It’s been since August. Going on nine, 10 months and I still don’t have the actual record. It used to be four months and now? It’s a crazy wait. By the time it comes out, I’ll be pretty over it, you know? [Laughs.]