DFW Music News

Dan Hicks on His Band the Hot Licks and Playing with Tom Waits

Since the early 1960's, Dan Hicks has been creating his interesting hybrid of folk, jazz, country and pop. Hitting his stride with 1971's Where's the Money?, the singer-songwriter formed the first version of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. The unique, drummer-less five-piece quickly found a niche market based on Hick's humorously sly songwriting and deft arrangements.

Hicks' current version of the Hot Licks still performs an amazing amount of shows each year and still specializes in blending an array of musical styles. Speaking from his home in California ahead of a visit to Dallas' Kessler Theater this Friday, Hicks talked with DC9 at Night about his long career in music and how if he wasn't singing, he'd be a sports announcer.

DC9 at Night: Have you had good experiences in Dallas over the years?

Hicks: I've had some great experiences in Dallas. I know that I am playing the Kessler and I know that I've played there before in the recent past. I don't remember the place per se because it's one of many gigs. Once I get there, I remember it. We usually have good shows and good turn outs when we come there.

With music like yours, is it important to have a good sounding venue?

I think so, especially because it is all acoustic. It does depend on the sound system. It's not loud, so you can't beat it out of the people. You have to finesse them. Yes, it's important for us. The better the sound, the better we play. It gives us the freedom to swing it.

What size of a band are you bringing with you on this tour?

There are five of us all together. We have the two lady singers, a guy that plays violin and mandolin, a lead guitarist and me on rhythm guitar.

Are you using the Hot Licks moniker?

Oh yes, it's the Hot Licks. I've been doing it this way since 1999. That's when I started using the name again.

Why use the name again? In 1974, you claimed to be sick of it.

Even though I said that I didn't want to be a band leader anymore, I ended up still being a band leader anyway with different people. I used mostly male singers as opposed to females. I used different names like the Acoustic Warriors. In 2000, I met this guy named Dave Kaplan who owned a record label and was a fan of the Hot Licks since he was 12. He wanted me to get the girls to sing again. Well, he wanted female singers, not the ones I used before. He wanted me to use the name again because he thought it was a magical name.

Didn't you receive your degree in broadcasting?

That was 1965. I was in the broadcasting department at San Francisco University and I just kept going. I had some tenacity and I kept taking courses. I got my BA degree. The week I got my degree, I went off with a band. I was playing the drums. I never really got into the radio and television field per se. I've worked in both, done ads and made appearances. Somehow I fell into the music thing and kept going. Music was my true calling.

If music didn't work out for you, would you have gone into broadcasting?

I probably would have found something. I would have had to improve my announcing skills. I was interested in broadcasting since I was in junior high. I was in the radio guild in high school. I did some shows on a local station. I was definitely interested in that stuff.

You mentioned that you started out as a drummer. Why switch to guitar?

I started on the drums when I was about 11. [Then] one of my friends in college started playing guitar. It was folk music. That kind of inspired me. I kind of liked to sing, but I didn't consider myself a singer. I had played ukulele, but nothing too involved. But I finally got a guitar when I was 19. I taught myself chords and started really getting into folk music. I had two loves: jazz and folk music. I started combining the two and that's how I got the Hot Licks sound.

Many consider your work in the late '60s and early '70s to be your pinnacle. Do you agree?

I think it really started happening when I moved from Epic Records to Blue Thumb. Those guys were more independent. It was all based around Mill Valley. We did the album Where's the Money? in 1971 and I think that's when things started rolling. Nothing had really happened before then. The band hadn't traveled anywhere and was in a state of flux. I finally settled on some people and we went out and did a five-week tour.

How have you been successful integrating so many seemingly disparate styles into one sound?

It's sort of just what comes out. I have good people play with me. It's not exactly intentional. I try to make some songs sound folky and some have more of a swing thing. To me, it's just what I come up with.

In 2000, you released Beatin' the Heat, an album that featured Elvis Costello, Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits.

I had never done duets before. I met this guy at another label, Surf Dog. We got a new band together and went into a studio in L.A. I had not collaborated before nor had guest vocalists. It was always just me and my band. We decided that it might get some attention to have guest vocalists. I took the songs that I had already and I adapted them into duets. I figured that I could do that. I made a list of people I thought were in a mutual admiration society. Most of the people, I found their phone numbers and called them. Tom Waits said he didn't want to miss out on something like this. That was a pretty good compliment.

Dan Hicks performs with Carsie Blanton on Friday, June 20, at the Kessler Theater.

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Darryl Smyers
Contact: Darryl Smyers