J.R. Hill Exists; Your Argument Is Invalid

By Taylor Burgess


In his disorderly Wolseley basement named the Mortfell Oktorium Studio, J.R. Hill has been focusing on recording and playing shows here in Winnipeg. “I don’t really wanna go on tour again unless I know that I won’t lose thousands of dollars, because I can’t afford it,” he said.

Guitar pedals, a stuffed monkey, a pink flamingo, cardboard houses and utter amounts of crap looked like they were going to fall off the tin shelves at any minute. “Like in the summer, I lost, like 1,500 bucks. I just finished paying it off last month.”

The math didn’t add up: back in November, J.R. Hill undertook the psychotic challenge of making a 20-minute album by himself in just two days—and then he released it on his website, free of charge. And after that, he did another six albums with the same expediency, all of them also free. Together, the seven albums are known as Malphor: Mono Octopi. They are download-only, and are currently up on Hill’s website.

“The whole thing just started off on a whim. I recorded an album in two days, because I wanted to try and do it,” Hill said. “Well, I have tried to do it many times before, but this is the first time when I feel like my abilities have caught up to what I have had in my head.”

But why would he give so much music away for free when there’s a potential profit to be made? “I dunno,” he said, his back to the wood-paneled wall, “no one buys my records anyway.” The statement stings, but it’s a painful and slow world for Winnipeg musicians who aim outside of the established folk, punk, and metal scenes.

Back in November, J.R. Hill played with his backing band the Oktars in the University of Manitoba’s Art Barn, and the crowd was eating it up, flailing their arms and losing their composure over the band’s wild crescendos and the windups of tempos.

“Aren’t they blowing your mind?” asked an acquaintance. They were. They did.

“Who are these guys?” asked a stranger. “Are they from here?”

The out-of-control set was some crazy art-rock smoothie that any fan of Devo, Butthole Surfers or Ween could dig. It was really refreshing to see a Winnipeg group so well practiced, so vastly improved over time, and so tightly together that they pretty much smacked everyone in the room across the face with their talent. With the current line-up of the Oktars, it’s certainly a level of chemistry that Hill hasn’t had before. “If we stop talking in a jam for one second we’ll just start jamming for like ten minutes, and it just happens super automatically, which has never happened with any of my other bands before.” In the band, his brother Jesse Hill of Right Through plays guitar, his friend of nearly ten years Steve Basham plays bass, and the Upsides’ Toby Gillies is on drums.

That being said, the Malphor: Mono Octopi series was recorded and performed only by Hill, between midnight and 5 a.m., after coming home from work. (That is, except for the Oktars’ Christmas album.) Even though the albums were all created within a couple weeks of one another, Hill had a concept of what he wanted each to be. COW-wow uses strange tunings and loads up the wacko bedroom experiment sounds. With Figurine is his acoustic album, which teems with intimacy. “I like some of these songs, a lot,” Hill says. His pause speaks for the rest of the songs, and then about them he says, “I need to keep things more simple.” Granted, not every song’s a keeper, but from the sheer amount of material, you’ll be able to find something for some mixtape for some friend of yours who likes Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Sly and the Family Stone, or whatever.

But of course there’s always a catch, even with free music coming directly from the musician. “I’m taking them down soon, so that if people want to hear them, they’ll have to download them now.” Y’hear that? Even if you’re curious to hear these albums, you’ll have to go to www.jrileyhill.com just to listen to them.

You can catch J.R. Hill with Ultra Mega at the CKUW FUNdrive Kickoff party on Thursday, February 4 at Platform Gallery. See him with his band the Oktars at Ragpickers on Saturday, February 6. Malphor: Mono Octopi will come down shortly after that.