Hometown: Berkeley, Calif.
Members: John Ringhofer, plus various touring and recording lineups
Why they’re worth watching: Half-Handed Cloud mastermind Ringhofer is a touring member of Sufjan Stevens' Illinoisemakers band, and a talented bandleader in his own right.
For fans of: Danielson Famile, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa
For John Ringhofer’s final series in art school, the sole persona behind Half-Handed Cloud created a mixed media project featuring illustrations from children’s books and electronic schematics fused onto oil paintings using lacquer thinner. And if his music was to have any sort of visual counterpart, nothing could be more fitting.
Half-Handed Cloud’s avant-pop evokes the light-hearted, attention-challenged pages of a kid’s book, but also radiates a spiritual urgency not unlike the gravitas of appliance schematics.
“I think that I approach music making in a visual way,” says the soft-spoken, 31-year-old Ringhofer, “in the sense that the instruments and the layers of tones interact, like in the way a painter would build up layers on a canvas, but also work on compositions in a subtractive way too.”
Half-Handed Cloud’s latest album, Thy is a Word & Feet Need Lamps—released on Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty label (Stevens plays drums on the album)—is a collection of songs themed around grim, lesser-known Old Testament stories. Ringhofer has traded Sunday School felt boards for vignettes like “Grandfather Foreskin” and “Animals Are Cut in Two.” But instead of treading in kitschy irony, the multi-instrumentalist deftly illuminates tales of dead concubines and human waste, highlighting the gothic significance in both the haphazard and the holy.
Most of the songs on the record grew out of a 40-day, 40-song “fast” Ringhofer undertook in 2001 at the suggestion of his friend Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile (who also mixed the album). “The whole idea was to have narrative songs,” Ringhofer says. “I just noticed this common theme and expanded it, according to what I had seen already. They were just stories that were either confusing or horrifying. There’s an odd redemption in these songs, but it is in places you wouldn’t normally look for them.”
In many ways, the eccentricity of Half-Handed Cloud’s songs reflect their unconventional author. When he’s not touring, Ringhofer works as a janitor at a Berkeley church that, in return, gives him a place to live—in the basement. He’s also spent time as a third-grade teacher in Micronesia, not to mention helmed bands with names like Wookieback and The Regal Beagles.
Another Ringhofer quirk: a fascination with oddball instruments like the melodica and omnichord. In fact, Ringhofer is so enamored with the latter that his next album is largely based around his relationship with the instrument. “The omnichord does have some things that are really crazy about it,” he says. “It has a strip where you can make sort of a keyboard gurgle. I also think some of my affection for it has to do with its portability. It’s kind of a one-man band machine. So, that’s why I got it,” says Ringhofer.
In writing the album, Ringhofer attempted another song fast, aiming for 50 songs in 50 days. However, he gave up after 35 days. While he has hopes to complete the final 15 days, he’s busy with all things Sufjan. In addition to touring with Stevens’ Illinoisemakers band, Ringhofer is prepping a Half-Handed Cloud 7” for an October release on Asthmatic Kitty. The five piano-based songs were written in 2002 and feature production, engineering and performance work from Stevens.