Q&A: Paul Hunton and Sydney Counce
By August Edwards
The new single "Stars" from Dust City Opera is caked in cyanide and saccharine.
"Stars" is rich in ambiance, a dramatic flourish created by the band - Clara Byom on clarinet, Travis Rourk on trombone, Scott Brewer on bass, Jared Putman on guitar, Greg Williams on drums, and vocals and guitar by Paul Hunton. Hunton's voice is strong and somewhat rigid, like he's trying to entrance you with his hard-edged timbre.
Below, Hunton and band manager Sydney Counce discuss what is to come of the upcoming EP Stars, the affect of COVID on the trajectory of Dust City Opera, and what music can mean to somebody. Please watch the gorgeous music video to "Stars," filmed by Chris Walsh. Stream the song on Spotify, and visit the band's website!
ABQGR: Tell me how you got on the path to music and music business? What are some things that helped you along the way?
Paul: The real spark was hearing Soundgarden and Metallica when I was 10 or 11, just trying to figure out those sounds. And then that evolved into Pink Floyd and Tom Waits, and then the Handsome Family, but never losing that aggressive-edged, kinda morbid influence.
Do you think that you make morbid music? Or is that just what inspires you?
Paul: It’s a little twisted. Yeah. Occasionally not. There’s occasionally something sincere and pretty in there. A lot of it is kind of a sardonic joke. Or not. Sometimes it’s just gruesome revelry.
I would say that your songwriting contains a lot of whimsy. I was wondering, is your songwriting process formulaic? Or is it pretty free?
Paul: I never really approach it the same way. It’s always kind of a miracle that anything gets done. I never know what to expect or how it’s gonna come about. I kinda wrestle until something is done, and then I have that to look at. It’s always a surprise.
Sydney, how’d you get interested and started in music business?
Sydney: It really happened by chance. Paul was always gonna be the musician, and I had my own career going on. And then we had August, our son, and I fully expected to go back to my corporate career. When we realized it wasn’t going to be attenable for me to have this newborn and keep working my job in the capacity they wanted, I had to step away from that. I think Paul and I were sitting at our kitchen table that weekend, and I just said, ‘Why don’t I take a stab at managing your music?'
I had no experience with the music industry, I sort of jumped in blind, and I absolutely love it. I’m always, always learning. I’m surrounded by some of the smartest, most creative people, and it’s just such a cool job to have. I love everything about it. I don’t think I could ever go back to corporate America again.
What’s something really valuable you’ve learned along the way?
Sydney: Relationship building is everything. I think that’s a skill that I certainly built in my past careers, but this industry is really about who you know and how you treat other people, and I value every little piece of advice I’ve gotten along the way, I’ve built myself up on people’s advice, so I really value that.
What’s been the best part of you two working together so closely?
Paul: What Sydney’s been able to do with whatever silly stuff I happen to come up with. I just think it’s amazing that she finds people that wanna listen to it and share it. The music motivates her to try to work as hard as she does. It’s really encouraging to me. Without her, I’d just be putting songs on Soundcloud and having five people listen to them. I’m just amazed what she sees in it.
Sydney: He makes my job easy. Because I’m never ever going to be a singer-songwriter, and I see so much potential in what he’s doing, what the band is doing. I feel strongly that if I work hard enough to get this in front of the right people, it will take off. I believe really deeply in the music.
I think we compliment each other. He does a lot of the creative stuff, he really sets me up to be able to be successful in pitching this and doing the marketing and doing the stuff that I’m comfortable doing. I think we fill in each other’s gaps when looking at this as a business.
Tell me a little bit about the process of putting together Stars, the album.
Paul: I think we did most of the band recordings sometime in 2019.
Sydney: It was end of 2019.
Paul: I’ve been doing the final vocals at home, so we got all the tracks put together and I’ve just been polishing stuff up over the last year, just at home here, sitting right where we are with this thing [Paul pulled down a microphone from behind the computer]. And yeah, just editing those together and sitting with them for a while, and revisiting them and sending them off to our guy Matthew to polish them up and send them off for mastering.
This is the final group of ancient songs that I have. Just lining them up, put them out there and move on. I started writing a whole bunch of new stuff that’ll be on the next thing, but this is sort of retrospective. Just catching up everything that hasn’t found a home yet.
Sydney: And when Paul says catching up, some of these songs are like, a decade old.
How does it feel to finally be releasing them and letting them go?
Paul: It’s good. At this point, I want to be done. I want to put them to bed and move on. It’s great to wrap it up.
What does the album mean to you, being that it’s so tied to you?
Paul: “Stars” the single is kind of the big triumph for now. That’s kind of the heavy-hitter of the bunch, that’s had a lot of weight attached since I wrote it eight or nine years ago. I’ve had a lot of positive response from people and I wanted the recording to live up to the song, for it to reach its potential. That’s what’s taken so long, is being able to sing it the way it needs to be sung, and have the right treatment of it, the right arrangement, the right people, the right recording. It’s been a long journey from putting the first notes down, first chords down, to having this final product here.
And you think it’s reached the level you wanted for it?
Paul: Yeah, I’m pretty satisfying that it has the grandeur and weight to it that it was supposed to.
It does, it feels very David Bowie to me. For both of you, has the absence of live music, the entrance of the virus, all of that, affected or changed your views on creating music or the music industry at all?
Sydney: Certainly the pandemic derailed some major plans for us. Going into 2020, we had put together a comprehensive plan, an annual plan with some important mentors from the music industry who helped up map out what our trajectory would look like. Had things gone as planned, we would have released two full length albums last years, and had two major tours, and be onto new things now, and what did happen was we got out two singles and that was it.
With that, we have, well he’s not a newborn anymore, but we have another baby, so it’s just these layers of challenges. Being isolated at home, having young kids, not being able to see the band. It’s so different. Not being able to plan for the future, not knowing when thigs are gonna reopen. When we release the EP this summer, Paul already has new material to work on, but we can’t really solidify plans yet because everything is still uncertain. That’s my perspective.
Paul: We did put out a few singles. I guess we’re learning about keeping people engaged with those somewhat consistent releases, rather than a full album every year and a half. Just keep that flow of songs, working individually then grooving together in the end. But, we have our friends in the Ordinary Things, two of which play in our band—they [recorded] like two albums during this. But there’s only three of them, so they have their own bubble—
And two of them live together.
Paul: Yeah, they’ve been able to just keep working through this, where we had a baby in April, and there’s like five to seven people that play with us, so we haven’t gotten together just for safety concerns all around. It’s been more of a break for us, where some people have been able to be really busy. We’ve been on parental leave. Though I have done a fair amount of writing and editing. Just less with rehearsing and producing.
Have you found much luck with your writing through this time?
Paul: Yeah, I was in a class for a while that was motivating me to finish little projects. That gave me a lot of stuff to finish.
Sydney: I think you ended that class a week before Shia [their new baby] was born. I think he was getting a lot of momentum just for his songwriting, and then that ended and we thought he was going to have time, and then Shia came early. So it was a major shift. We were getting used to the pandemic, and then the baby was born early—a massive shift in our lives that we’re still adjusting to.
Paul: So all of those songs are kind of on hold, and now that our kids are getting a little more independent, and this EP is wrapping up, I’ll be able to dive back into all that unfinished stuff and start rolling all those out to the band.
What’s the best part of the creative process for you?
Paul: Having something that didn’t exist before. When I commit to writing something, I go in the back and close the door and it’s usually just a full day affair, where I start with nothing and then six or eight hours later there’s a more or less finished song that didn’t exist before, and that’s exciting to have this new landscape that I haven’t seen or conceived up before but now exists as its own little world. I’m always intrigued buy what comes out when I commit to making something. Its always a surprise and its always new and interesting.
What’s something you two would like to see more of when shows come back?
Sydney: I just can’t wait to see people. I think that’s a hard question. It would be great to have some sort of renaissance, a deeper appreciation for the arts and entertainment industry because we’ve been deprived for so long. Both as entertainers and consumers. I so desperately just want to go see anybody perform right now, not just Dust City Opera. I’m sure a lot of other folks are feeling that way. I think it would be nice to see a deeper appreciation and respect for the arts if we make it out the other side of this thing.
Paul: I think there will be a lot of enthusiasm. I’m hoping for a celebratory atmosphere at the outset, first couple of shows that happen I imagine I’ll just meet a bunch of people that just want to get together and celebrate and revel in the crowd and the noise, the drinking. A party when it’s all over.
What’s your favorite part about Albuquerque musicians and music?
Sydney: For me coming in so, I would say, late—I’ve only been in the scene for a few years—everybody’s always so supportive. It doesn’t ever feel like a competition. It just feels like a family. Everybody helps everybody else. Everybody helps attend each other’s shows and promote each other’s music, and pats on the back and supportive feedback when new songs come out. I think that was something really unexpected for me when I came in—just the amount of support and guidance I got for my role, the gratitude I get from folks for what I feel like sometimes is very little, what I’m doing. I just always feel so welcome. And I think that’s pretty unique to Albuquerque. I just adore our little scene we have here.
Paul: Just like the party atmosphere whenever somebody puts something out, where there’s just like a big lineup at one of our favorite places. Something big goes down at the Launchpad, or Canteen [Brewhouse] for more of the folksy stuff. Everybody shows up, all the familiar faces and everyone there to have a good time and celebrate each other.
I’ll leave off with one question that might be a little difficult—why might we need good songwriters? Why do we need good musicians in our community?
Sydney: For me, as a non-songwriter, I can’t even describe the feeling when I come across a song that resonates with me so deeply that I’m like, 'I can’t believe somebody else feels the same way that I feel and was able to express it in a way that’s so relatable.' I’m just struck by some songwriters, at their ability to get so deep inside of me, or bring up an emotion for me. Like with Paul, if he shows me something I haven’t heard before, maybe something he’s working on, I almost always instantly have a really strong emotion or visualization of oh, I can picture where the song is. It’s really visual and photographic for me. For somebody to be able to paint a picture like that, without picking up a paintbrush, is beautiful and mind-blowing and I can’t do it and I’m in awe of people that can.
Paul: I feel like songwriters map the nuances of experience. There’s always something familiar in a new song that hasn’t been magnified before. It’s just a little pocket of emotion that already exists in everybody but somebody’s found a way to distill it into an experience that you can have over and over at will. Why that is necessary? I don’t quite know.
Sydney: Well, I mean, I think it bonds people. Sharing music is such a personal experience. And I love seeing how people interpret the same song completely differently. Like with “Stars,” when we were looking at hiring a director for the music video and we shared it with a handful of videographers in town, seeing the feedback from the same song from different people and how they interpreted the message blew my mind. It was just so cool to me like, ‘wow, you just listened to that song and that is the visual that you got from it, which I never would have thought of. So that’s really exciting to me.
I’m so excited about the music video. I think the interpretation that Chris Walsh, from [the band] Prism Bitch, who’s doing the music video, the interpretation that he has of the song and the storyline that he put together is the coolest thing to me. I can’t wait to see it come to life. I think that comes back to the songwriting. I could hear a song a hundred times, and then see the music video to it, and go like, what?! Oh my gosh. This has a new meaning to me now. It’s just exciting to me, that kind of art.
Anything I missed, anything you’d like to add?
Sydney: It’s really exciting to see this music coming to an end of a chapter by having the release of this song and the EP this summer, and I can’t wait for what opportunities open up from this and what kind of space this gives Paul to write new music and sort of who’s hands the music winds up in and how that can change our trajectory and momentum as we hopefully come back to playing together—maybe this year, hopefully next year.