By Devon Legér
Felix Hatfield’s been making madcap art and surrealist music in the Northwest for twenty-five years now, and his new album, False God, coming October 23, 2020, shows that he’s got a Buster Keaton taste for the absurd, an affinity for the trickster in every folk song. As a teenager, he hitchhiked out Route 2 in Vermont, looking for and finally meeting Pete Seeger and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on the road. Discovering a new language in folk music and folk art, he landed in Eugene, Oregon, playing coffeehouses, making dadaist silent films, and writing songs in graveyards. He’s in Portland now, where he’s been living for over a decade in a basement apartment off Division Street crammed with art, cardboard props, and instruments, always creating something out of nothing. Maybe he learned this from his cosmic book collection of rebel poets, his long phone calls with Antonia Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders, or maybe he learned it while hanging out with Portland’s best musicians and creating crazy cardboard art for his project the Cardboard Songsters. He came up with Baby Gramps, the beloved hobo kingpin of Seattle that inspired a generation to become street performers in jugbands. He came up with Michael Hurley’s Have Moicy band of pranksters, played Pickathon back when it was just a wild picking party on a dusty farm. He fell in with Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas, and formed his own legendary street jugband, The Kitchen Syncopators, some members of which would go on to join Old Crow Medicine Show (Hatfield wrote songs, along with Bob Dylan, for OCMS’ 2015 Grammy award winning album, Remedy).
As a songwriter, he seems perpetually inspired and he loves to share the thrill, welcoming those who have been pushed to the edges. “Songwriting is one of the most mysterious and magical forms of art. It’s like having a blank piece of paper and some crayons. You don't have to be the best, you just have to be brave enough to explore and bold enough to court the unknown."
The songs on Hatfield’s False God are “greatest hits” taken from his collection of nearly 500 original songs, and were all recorded in his basement studio, “The Batfield Library,” over the past few years with friends dropping in and out. Jolie Holland joins him on the Twilight Zone-inspired “Walking Distance” and adds hobo boxcar harmonies on “Nobody for Me.” His good friend Esmé Patterson (they met when his punk band Oscar Fang and the Gang opened for her) joins him on the sweetly sublime “That Kiss.” Hatfield’s songs range from an eerily prescient ode to a pandemic (“Sick with the Flu”) to a possibly bitter take on our current dumpster fire president (“False God”). His songs are for those who’ve been pushed to the edges, left behind, outcasts and underdogs who are looking to find their own voices again. “It's okay to think outside the box,” he says. “I built some robots out of junk. Come talk to them about how to create your own fun and carve out your own world. Don't conform. Colour outside the lines, listen to that voice and trust those visions."
Felix Hatfield’s from the old, weird Northwest, before anyone wanted to live out there, back when Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and Chuck Palahniuk were still roaming the streets. If his new album, False God, feels like a victory lap, that’s because he’s earned his place in Portland’s hall of loveable mad geniuses, of those who made the city great before the condos came.