The resurrection of Black Happy

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When the band Black Happy broke up more than 20 years ago, their fans refused to let them go.

Through Facebook groups, crowd-funding campaigns and enduring memories, Black Happy loyalists keep finding ways to bring them back. The latest effort will bring the band’s first two albums, “Friendly Dog Salad” from 1991, and “Peghead” from 1993, to vinyl for the first time.

With roots in North Idaho and an eclectic “rock-plus-horns” sound, the eight-man band became a hot ticket throughout the Northwest in the 1990s. They had a good thing going - two popular albums and an ever-expanding touring net.

They were a band on the brink, until the guys started drifting apart.

“If you ask every member of the band, it seems like we all have different memories of what happened,” said bassist Mark Hemenway. “It was hard to do anything with eight people. We couldn’t decide where to eat breakfast.”

Hemenway said the realization happened mid-tour, though the guys tried to regroup in the studio to record their third, and ultimately final, album.

“Just to me, it had run its course,” Hemenway said. “It was obvious. Some guys were going in one direction, others in another direction.”

Hemenway, his brother Paul Hemenway (vocals/guitar), Jim Bruce (drums) and Greg Hjort (guitar/vocals) immediately started another band, going back to their pre-horn, hard rock origins.

“What was funny was we were playing markets that Black Happy had never played, but there was always that one dude that would tell us we suck,” Hemenway said. “They’d yell, ‘Bring back the horns!’”

Eventually, everyone went in different directions - new job opportunities, marriages, children. As the years passed, the idea of Black Happy ever getting back together grew more and more unlikely.

Then in 2010, someone started a Facebook group demanding that Black Happy reunite. More and more people joined the page, and eventually the band couldn’t ignore it.

Greg Hjort was stunned by the response online.

“We sold a pretty decent amount of records, we played a lot of great shows in some of the best venues… but I didn’t expect anybody to remember that or expect that we could draw a crowd,” Hjort said.

Hjort, the Hemenways, Bruce, Jay Carkuff (trombone), Daryl Elmore (saxophone), Mike Hasseries (trombone) and Scott Jessick (drums) eventually decided to reunite for concerts in Spokane and Seattle.

“We were very tentative, let’s see what happens, and we booked the Knitting Factory and it sold out, then the same thing in Seattle,” Hjort said. “That was super flattering.”

The concerts themselves were a thrill, he said.

“People were singing songs sometimes louder than we were playing,” Hjort said. “It was some of the best times of my life.”

A campaign for vinyl

Successful as the reunion shows were, the reality of eight different musicians leading different lives made it impossible to keep the band together permanently.

But now in 2017, an Indiegogo.com campaign is launching another Black Happy resurrection.

The band was approached by Seattle-based Latent Print Records to launch a campaign to remaster “Friendly Dog Salad” and “Peghead” and press the albums to vinyl.

In addition to the remastering and production fees, the band must also pay to license their own music.

“It turns out we don’t own any of the rights to any of our material, Sony owns it,” Hemenway said. “We have to lease it from them.”

“You can get us on iTunes, we have our own Pandora station, but we’re not getting a dime of it,” he said.

The band also didn’t have possession of the master recordings, and Hemenway said Sony couldn’t find them either.

“We got together the best versions we had,” Hemenway said. “There is so much technology now that they’ll be able to take it and remaster it, and it may even sound better than we had before.”

The campaign has a $15,000 goal to be reached within two months. The campaign hit the halfway mark in just over a week.

“We’ve been floored by the response,” Hjort said.

There are a number of packages to claim as part of the campaign. A $20 commitment gets you “Friendly Dog Salad” on vinyl, a $30 contribution yields “Peghead” on deluxe 2LP vinyl, as well as packages for both and other perks and swag..

Hjort said the campaign isn’t about making money.

“I want those two albums on vinyl; just one is all I want,” he said. “We’ve all dreamed of just having a copy and seeing what it sounds like when you drop a needle on it. That was the way we listened to music.”

The (next) return of Black Happy

To celebrate the vinyl release, the band plans to reunite in the Northwest for a couple performances next summer, including in Spokane. The anticipation has inspired some talk of new material.

“We’ve got a group text thing, and we’re using our little voice recorders, and we’re sending things back and forth,” Hjort said. “If we have the time and we can pull it off, Paul has a lot of new songs, we’re gonna try to get a couple new things rolling for these shows.”

“Don’t hold my feet to the fire,” he added.

As if being apart wasn’t enough, the band’s unique makeup makes the process of creating harmonious music even more challenging, said trombonist Jay Carkhuff.

“The keys guitars play in are not necessarily the same keys that brass instruments play in, so there has to be some compromise, Carkhuff said.

Hjort said it’s that creative challenge that allowed Black Happy to make such an impact in the Northwest more than 20 years ago.

“We asked, ‘What if we put some horns on a speed metal song?’ and the rest is kinda history,” Hjort said. “When you add the horns, girls actually came out to the shows.”

“I don’t know if girls actually came to our shows,” Hjort continued. “If you look at the pictures, it looks like a lot of guys. I take it all back..”

Gender tally at the shows aside, Hjort said the band owes its success to Coeur d’Alene, and he singled out former North Idaho College band director Terry Jones for their musical awakening.

“He had a major impact on us and on NIC in general,” Hjort said. “He’s a pretty legendary guy.”

However the fans bring Black Happy back together, Carkhuff said he’s grateful to be reminded of what the band was in its best days and is again when they reunite for shows..

“The strong family relationship in the band was important to me,” Carkhuff said. “Sometimes being forced together creates a new bond.”

For more information, and to contribute to the campaign, visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/black-happy-friendly-dog-salad-peghead-vinyl#/

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