Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Last fall, your group, Run Downhill, released a unique and extraordinary set of augmented reality postcards that combined visual and musical storytelling. For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the postcards and the intended reader’s/listener’s experience?
TJ Hill: I refer to this project as an Augmented Reality Micro-EP. There are four individual postcards in the set, drawn by three different artists, each corresponding to a piece of original music. I intended these pieces to serve as vignettes, self-contained scenes that illustrate a facet of a character’s personality or temperament.
A bit of background: Run Downhill is both the band and the comic book, our story taking place in a fictitious town called Kilbourn, a small farming town (set in 1870s U.S. Post-Civil War reconstruction period) is receiving a railroad spur for the very first time, and experiences some growing pains. The workers brought in by the McCallister Railroad Company take advantage of the town and its resources, and while excavating coal to fire the rail equipment, they unearth something they should not have.
My goal with “The Lord, the Lady, and I” was to develop the internal world of some of our characters. Each card acts as a trigger for additional content that can only be accessed through a free Augmented Reality app called HP Reveal (formerly known as Aurasma). Each card can be scanned through the app to reveal an “aura” overlaid on the card. We took each postcard’s original artwork and partnered each with a new song from the band, basically short music videos; when scanned through the app, the postcard morphs and comes to life. The idea was to create new ways to interact with the physical object, to reveal easter eggs and hidden content, and find new ways to get people listening!
BD: What inspired you to take on this trailblazing project, and what can you tell us about the members of your creative team?
TJH: I wanted to bring our audience closer to us and am always seeking new ways to release music that keep the focus on the physical object of the art form; in other words, I want audiences to be active in the experience, and one way to ensure this is to have them participate in the reveal. This is one aspect of this project that continues to manifest as the work continues: it’s all about the audience interacting with the external, to stimulate a mostly internal, emotional connection through song and story. I grew up playing with ViewMaster’s and read-along story albums: their ability to draw the audience inside the content as though it were our own personal exploration, with our imaginations filling in the spaces between. There is great power in that interaction to learn and self-reflect, and this aspect of the work is something I’m actively trying to amplify.
Over the past few years, I’ve connected with a number of different artists and comics creators through conventions, LCSs, and other comics-focused events; additionally, I’m a member of The Comic Jam, an online collective of comics creators, creating one-page self-contained stories based off a selected weekly theme. I asked fellow Comic Jam-mates Claudio Ghirardo and John Horsley to contribute an image (Claudio ended up illustrating two postcards), and Scott Angle (who has been a long time associate and RDh contributor) contributed one postcard and the cover image.
The amazing thing is the fact that we are all spread out across North America: Claudio is a comics professional living and working in the Toronto area, John lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, and Scott and I are both in southern California. But, there’s the magic of the internet: we’re able to connect, discuss ideas, send thumbnails back and forth, all very easily! I was quite amazed with the speed and clarity of each artist’s work: the entire project took about 8 weeks to complete, from the inception of idea until we received postcards from the printer.
BD: What can you share with us about your creative process in creating the postcards, as well as their music and imagery, and what have been some of your creative influences?
TJH: I wanted a highly interactive album; I’ve been working with AR music/comics works for a few years now (some of our previous works also have AR elements attached to certain pages), and it seemed a logical way to connect this new project to our preexisting body of work. I thought about interactive stickers, bookmarks, something tangible…but the idea of being to mail people a song through a postcard sounded very cool.
I had a few new pieces I had written that were a slight departure from the rest of the RDh repertoire, most notably “Dreaming of a Fire,” the fourth postcard in the series, illustrated by Claudio. This was the first of the four I wrote and executed: the musical idea came first, after which I scripted the comic, the narration was written last. I then recorded the music, and sent a rough mix to Claudio as inspiration while he worked with the script.
In contrast, the first postcard, “I See You,” also Claudio’s illustration…I had the story idea come first: these two characters (Henrietta and the Bull) have a history, and I wanted to develop this relationship further. The script came fast, and then I created a short, moody instrumental piece to accompany it.
Especially in these four postcard pieces, the biggest literary influences are Grant Morrison and Haruki Murakami: my goal is to not only blur the lines between the natural and supernatural, but to break the borders of the comics medium itself, and these two writers have had the most impact on me over the past 7-10 years. Recently, I’ve been reading more and more historical non-fiction: my goal as a writer is not to create stories that “seem real,” but more to create situations and interactions that the reader accepts as being real, for that moment, despite their absurdity.
Musically: my head is all over the map. Everything from Beach House to Nikhil Banerjee, from Merle Haggard to Tortoise, from Slint to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…all these elements end up mixing in here and there. Recording aesthetics greatly influence a song’s impact, and for me they are as essential a compositional tool as any chord progression or melodic device: the tone of the guitar or voice, the creak and rattles of a wooden floor board beneath a microphone stand, all lend themselves to the intimate, highly personal nature of the work.
My musical compositions behave much more like sculpture: the more each element of the song is chiseled down and refined, the more the final shape reveals itself to me. I record works in progress, listen back and edit healthily; the important thing is to take my time. I’m never at a loss for new ideas, but I take my time letting those ideas simmer and slow cook until I see/hear what I’m intended to.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from your work?
TJH: First and foremost, I hope that readers/listeners agree to be brave: to sit down and agree to read a comic book, or listen to an entire song, is a tall enough order…but to ask audiences to engage in both and not become overwhelmed is a challenge! I hope to engage audiences in the quieter parts of their mind, those that focus on place and the relationships we build with the physical environment: it’s a vastly different experience to listen to a recording than it is to see that music performed live, though our modern-day entertainment experiences generally try to convince us that both are equal qualitatively.
I hope readers will take time to enjoy this work, as well as our other repertoire, to let it slow cook in their own sensibilities. There’s a deep sense of longing built into these works, and while that translates easily enough, it’s broadly metaphorical: this EP in particular, there’s no real beginning or end, just scenes, and in between each of the postcards is space and closure…here the mind’s eye fills in the rest, if audiences are patient to allow that natural composition to take place.
BD: Do you have plans to expand the postcards into additional projects or volumes?
TJH: I’m currently working on a much larger work, most likely a full-length album with a 48 to 60-page graphic novel, each page fully interactive. I’m not sure when it will be completed, but I’m to the point where I can start commissioning artwork and creating final recorded versions of all the songs…hopefully somewhere early- to mid-2019. My goal is to release this on vinyl, which would be extremely satisfying in its own way!
BD: If given the opportunity to expand your series into other entertainment mediums, in what format do you hope to see it adapted?
TJH: I think a natural evolution of this would be to serialize it as music cartoons, with full-on 24 fps animation and a fully refined style template, and make each album a “season.” I’ve always thought this would work well on a program like Adult Swim, playing different 3-5 minute Song Comics in between the random bits and pieces that make up that show.
I’ve spent a lot of time discussing archival (recordings, comic books, albums, etc) aspects of this work, and have not addressed live performance: this is still a band, after all, and when we play live, we project these videos alongside the performances. This creates (universally, by the way) a hypnotic immersion into the material: at this point in our evolution, we all understand how to see a movie at a theater…we take our seat, we don’t talk, and we focus on what’s happening immediately in front of us. I try to recreate this immersion when we do live shows, and video makes that possible, for better or for worse. As a band, we tend to vanish onstage; the videos are so dense and often require the audience to read dialogue bubbles, their focus is really where it should be…on the action!
I’m currently redesigning the live show to be a bit more robust and immersive. It takes some time and effort to produce one live event, so it’s something I’m hoping to formalize and package to take it out on the road.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
TJH: Aside from the new RDh work I already discussed, I continue to publish works with The Comic Jam; we release new themes every Wednesday, and folks can find us at thecomicjam.com. We are currently formalizing our first printed anthology, which should be ready Fall 2018.
One of my favorite comic stores, The Comic Bug (located in Torrance, CA), is including one of my stories in their upcoming anthology, Awkward Romance. Created with artist Z Gosck, it’s a light-hearted story of an argument gone totally awry. I’m very excited to see this one in print, Z’s artwork is incredible, and it includes works from a ton of really great local creators!
Musically, one of my long-time groups, Partch, has finished recording our most recent album, and should be out late 2018 or early 2019. I’m gearing up for solo tours to China and (hopefully) Europe in late 2018, and if all goes accordingly to plan, there will be some solo RDh appearances in there as well. I’ve recently started writing new material with Persian vocalist Mamak Khadem; the Aegea Ensemble (traditional and contemporary Greek music) has been making some waves around Los Angeles recently, so we probably will need to record an album in the next few months!
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Run Downhill?
TJH: The official Run Downhill website is rundownhillmusic.com. Fans can order “The Lord, the Lady, and I” postcards only from our online store; it’s not available through any other outlet or marketplace! We have a $1 special: We will mail any single postcard to any address in the United States (If you live outside the U.S., let us know and we’ll figure out how to make it work!) for just $1! All of our other previous works are available, as well.
You can also find links here to our Spotify artist site, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and other platforms.