A Chat with Perpetual Groove’s John Hruby

Words by: Eric Bell | Images by: David Shehi

As keyboardist Matt McDonald returns to Perpetual Groove, we talk to departing keyboardist John Hruby, who plays his last shows with PGroove at Center Stage in Atlanta on 12/30 and 12/31. Find full Perpetual Groove tour info here, and check out Eric Bells’ earlier conversation with Albert Suttle and Matt McDonald discussing the changes in PGroove here.

John Hruby by D. Shehi
JamBase: When you came into the group I know the guys probably gave you an iPod or something full of music, and I guess you had to learn several dozen of their old songs in a short period of time. Tell me a little about the process of getting up to speed on all the older material.

John Hruby: When I first started, I was pulling a lot of things off the [Live Music] archive, mostly because that's where the band's live material is available. Basically, what I did was I'd bring up the music file on my computer via Pro Tools, and that way I could stop, start and play certain sections over and over again. It was a good two or three weeks of full time work for me to get a good chuck of the material under my fingers.

JamBase: Now that you've been playing that material for a few years, what kind of influence has it had on your musicianship and playing in general?

John Hruby: I'm more of a percussive player, and I like using organic sounds. The PGroove sound with Matt was very spacey with lots of ambient sounds and a fair amount of live looping. Initially, it was difficult for me to adjust to.

How so?

My old band, Guest, played at tempos that were much quicker, and so one of the things I've really enjoyed is that when I came to this band I had to slow myself down. I had to learn how to stretch things out, learn to play less, and so I went back and listened to a lot of early Pink Floyd, too. Essentially, I had to learn how to create tension in a very simple but creative manner, and I had to ask myself, “How am I going to get to this point without repeating myself over and over again, and also how am I going to make it interesting?” So, I would listen to a lot of early Pink Floyd because that stuff was really vampy, playing on one particular chord or progression, and there is a sense of building, and that's what the PGroove sound really got into me.

John Hruby by D. Shehi
How has your musicianship evolved over the past 3 1/2 years?

Being able to get back out on the road and play tons of live shows has been great for my technical abilities. The longer you're on the road at a given time the better you play the material. I'm not the best keyboard player in the world - no one is ever going to be that - but the challenge for me each night is to execute the songs as best as I could and if I did that I felt really good about the show. I know my abilities and I know when I'm playing well, so for me it's all about execution. I like to step outside my comfort zone a few times each night and push myself, but that's not my ultimate goal.

What has it been like to work with Adam?

Adam is a great songwriter, or maybe composer is a better word. Anyway, he's insanely talented in that department. Also, he plays the bass like a lead instrument, and his [bass] lines have a lot of melody in them. Working with him really helped me find my place in their music. I have a lot of respect for him both as a person and as a musician.

What has it been like to work with Brock?

I've really come to enjoy and appreciate his vocal work. It seems to me that lyrical content is becoming a lost art form, well, at least in the jam band community. Good lyrics are really what draw me to music in general. I have a lot of respect for Brock as well.

I've been around the band for about eight years now, and of all the guys, Albert's playing has improved exponentially. Meaning the stuff that Albert is doing today is light years ahead of where he was at when I first started seeing them. So, I'm just curious what it’s been like to play with him on a regular basis. I would be in heaven to have a drummer as good as Albert playing behind me.

I agree with you completely. I first started seeing the band a long time ago, too. Actually, it was probably around the same time as you, and from then until now it's like a complete different person. Albert is a rock. He works so hard, and he's the complete antithesis of any other rock and roll drummer. Every experience I've had with rock and roll drummers is that they are crazy, wild, and generally unpredictable - more or less the wild card in the band - but Albert is solid, both musically and professionally. He's basically the road manager, and he takes care of anything on the business side of touring. He books hotels, and if the band needs an oil change he takes care of it. He collects all the receipts for the band's bookkeeping responsibilities. That's just that part of it, and the fact is he’s probably the most technically proficient person in the band. He's always practicing and working at his craft. I really enjoy playing with him. It's great to have a constant like Albert. I know that every time I'm going to play with him I can count on him, and it's a real pleasure to play with him.

John Hruby by Chad Smith
Talk a little bit about your background on your instruments. Were you a jazz or classical player at some juncture?

In the beginning, I was like everyone else who starts playing piano in elementary school. I took lessons from an instructor, and played mostly classical pieces. However, I was never really keen on reading the music, and so I memorized everything. At one point my piano teacher started putting cardboard over my hands - so that I couldn't see them - which forced me to look up at the music. I do read music, but I'm pretty slow. I got off the piano in fifth grade and moved to the trombone for five years, and then I switched to the drum set. I played in my high school jazz band, marching band, and all the rest of those different things. I went back to the piano in college, and picked it up again because I wanted to start writing songs. And that's when I came up with my own method of playing. It's kinda like a very percussive stride method, to where I'm playing stride piano but I'm using the rudiments I learned while playing percussion. So instead of using my two hands, I'm using my fingers to play these kinda percussive movements with my fingers. The piano is a percussive instrument, and I like to treat it like one.

Do you listen to Thelonius Monk? He has the oddest style of playing piano. He plays with spliced fingers, and he would jab them at the keys. It creates a very percussive sound, and it's one of the things that made his playing so unique.

Yeah, I listened to him some, but like I said earlier, I was very interested in speed when I was younger so I listened to a lot of Art Tatum. He plays these insanely fast runs, and so I used to listen those albums and really try to understand how he was playing that fast. A lot of my early work was just trying to play as fast as I could [laughs].

Art was a legendary improviser. Tell me a little about your approach to improvising.

I've been improvising since I went back to the piano and started writing songs. I have a pretty good background in theory as well as how to compose. I went from recording on like a Fisher Price tape recorder to a Task M four-track tape to an eight-track tape to a 16-track and eventually to Pro Tools. Mostly, I've been interested in production and composition, and improvisation is a big part of it. I've written so many songs, and I didn't really bring too many of those songs into PGroove, but improvising has been very...it's been there from the start, and it is a huge part of who I am. I like to just sit down at the piano and play, and that's my therapy.

Since you just mentioned the composition process, could talk about the songs you helped develop during your tenure with the band?

Perpetual Groove
I think the best representation of what we did as group was “Cairo.” It was released on Honey Cuts, which was like the outtakes [of the last studio album] Heal. That song has a little bit of everything that I really wanted to do, and it's probably the best thing we were able to produce. Also, I brought a tune I wrote with Guest called “At The Screen,” and that was cool playing it with different musicians. They were able to do their own thing on that, and subsequently the song took on a whole new life. It became a nice dance number that people really enjoyed live.

With a song like “Cairo,” how does the compositional process work? Does someone bring a line and then you guys get together, and you start working on it? Or did somebody bring an outline of the whole song and then you guys start building things harmonically based off the song structure?

I guess Adam had an outline of the song, and then he gave it to me and I helped put some structure to it. I took his outline and put it into Pro Tools and chopped it up... Here's your beginning, here's your middle, here's your end. That in a sense gave the first real rough draft of it. Then, I gave it back to him and he wrote a bridge for it. At that point, we handed it off to Brock and he wrote the lyrics, and then he and Albert added some loops to it.

Did it continue to evolve once you guys started playing it live?

Absolutely, especially the last section. We decided to vamp out on what we were doing and from there it’s grown exponentially. I might get up and walk over to Adam's Moog and start playing a bass line with him. Plus, Brock added lyrics into the end jam from a couple different tunes like “The Cave” from Mumford and Sons, and then we'll go back into the main song.

I've just always been curious about that because I know Adam spends a lot of time in the woodshed developing things, but I've never really asked anybody how the process works. Thanks for sharing.

No problem.

Let’s talk about the upcoming New Year’s shows. How’s that going to play out? What can we expect from you guys?

This will be my last performance with the band until Matt completely takes over, and he'll be sharing some time with me just like at the Georgia Theater show. The New Year’s gig is going to be pretty special. It’s just a confluence of events -the year coming to a close and this chapter of the band coming to a close as well – so I’m sure that we’re going to have some big plans. Plus, I know we’re going to have a lot of friends there. The Georgia Theater show was really special. It was sold out, and just across the board it was a really emotional night. I’m really happy with the way that gig turned out, and I’m expecting New Year’s [shows] to be pretty emotional, too.

What is it like to perform with Matt onstage?

Matt and I have been friends for a long time, and there has never been any type of rift, strife or anything like that. It’s been nothing but amicable, and we’ve known each other so long that it’s just kind of like you’re playing with your friend up there, and for me that’s a really enjoyable and natural experience.

Why are you leaving the band?

Honestly, I just need a break.

So, this is your decision?

Yes. I just need a break. There wasn't any internal conflict, behind the scenes drama or anything like that. Sometimes things just run their course.

In that case what's next for John Hruby?

I'm not really sure yet. After New Year's I'm going to regroup and kind of catch my breath, so to speak, and then I'll start making some decisions about my future.

Fair enough. Is there anything you'd like to say to the fans or the band or just in general?

Yeah. I want to make sure and thank the band and the fans for an amazing ride. It was an honor. Truly.

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[Published on: 12/22/11]

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