Songsmith Kevin Hunter Scans His Track Record

SAN FRANCISCO — Kevin Hunter, lead vocalist and guitarist for Wire Train, lives amid a sundry clutter that practically screams “struggling young artist,” but three fixtures sum up his existence far better than any words. Over by the door, leaning precariously against a blandly painted wall, a battered old acoustic guitar. On a small shelf directly above a hastily placed floor mattress, an expensive Sony reel-to-reel tape machine. And next to it, framed with an almost Quistian reverence, a large blow-up of folk minstrel Bob Dylan.
In anyone else’s home, such a triumvirate might only spell music fan. But in Kevin Hunter’s Wire Train headquarters, they mean, in no uncertain terms, “Do Not Disturb — Songwriter Perpetually At Work.” Not only does the 25-year-old composer constantly churn out compositions for his group to possibly record, but he also feeds the remainder of his work into the CBS song-publishing house.

“That picture was a gift from CBS,” says Hunter of the photograph of his biggest influence, Dylan. And the shiny new Sony? “A gift from CBS, too,” he laughs. “They were tired of getting all these cassette tapes of my songs that I’d recorded on my Walkman.” The weathered six-string has seen him through most of those tracks, from Wire Train’s sloppiest early numbers to the glittering jangly jewels that adorn the band’s latest album, Between Two Words. And somewhere along that five-year path, Hunter grew up.

“We never had any intentions of getting a record contract,” he recalls of Wire Train’s 1980 genesis. “We were just having a great time.” What Hunter terms a “great time” would most likely send your average artist straight to the loony bin. After meeting rookie guitarist Kurt Herr while studying poetry in SF, Hunter set up shop in the basement where he worked — a sleazy Market Street bargain theatre. Utilising a plethora of short-lived bassists and drummers, the duo became known as The Renegades, and, according to Hunter, they had so much fun they rarely found time to sleep.

“Kurt and I would be up at 9.00 am for college,” he outlines, “at school ‘till 4:00 then into work at the theatre from 5:00 until midnight. At 1:00, we’d all meet in the basement at our little studio we’d built and practice until about 3:00 in the morning. “Then we’d go home, sleep two hours, and get up to do it all over again,” the never-say-die musician laughs, still amazed at sacrifices made in the name of rock and roll. “We really wanted to be good.”

During their formative years, The Renegades didn’t take part in much outside frivolity. Hunter insists he hung out with no one, spending any spare moments he had alone in his flat. “I spent a lot of time learning how to write songs in that period,” he says. Venturing out into the world wtth a new divine purpose and a solid rhythm section of Federico Gil-Sola (drums) and Anders Rundblad (bass), the budding songwriter was surprised to find that the Bay Area powers-that-be were already hip to his band.

A demo of a Renegades track called “451” was receiving heavy airplay on local college stations. Howie Klein, president of the trend-dispensing new wave label, 415 Records, wanted to sign the band, and knowledgeable producer David Kahne wanted to turn the knobs. But The Renegades, who changed their name to Wire Train after signing the 415 contract, didn’t slacken their pace just because a few good deals had come their way. In fact, Hunter was constantly dreaming up ways to make money, and he laughs when he remembers his most notorious scheme:

On the Rolling Stones infamous Tattoo You tour, the well-known British outfit was scheduled to play two arena shows in the Bay Area. The listed dates were a Wednesday and a Friday. but the group was also gaining a great deal of press for their unannounced tiny club dates in several major cities. When a hometown rock critic speculated that the Stones might play the minuscule Mabuhay Gardens, Hunter saw his chance. With a handful of underground musicians, Hunter booked the night-spot for the Thursday in between Stones concerts, then quickly checked into a rehearsal hall to take a crash course in Rolling Stone oldies. Would the scam work? The makeshift group, billed as Tattoo, found out when they drove down to the venue on the night of the show.

“When the big white Cadillac we’d borrowed pulled up,” Hunter chuckles wryly, “there were 25,000 people on Broadway. The police had roped it off, and there were even banners that said ‘Tattoo is a local group—This is not the Rolling Stones,’ but that didn’t stop the club manager from charging $20 a pop.”

And how did the crowd react? “With a hail of beer bottles and vegetables,” answers Hunter. “I don’t know how people did it—they forked out twenty bucks and brought tomatoes!” Hunter raked in a whopping fifty dollars for his part in the fiasco, claiming the club made more like $2,OOO. But money, even when it started to roll in from Wire Train’s first album, In A Chamber, has never fazed the performer. ‘When I have a hundred dollars I suddenly start worrying about not having a hundred dollars,” he explains; “When I don’t have anything, I don’t worry.” Hence Hunter’s modest Mission district digs.

Quitting his full-time job totally after In A Chamber’s singles (“I’ll Do You,” “Chamber Of Hellos” and ‘Never”) began generating country-wide response, he readily cops to worrying about getting his rent paid. When “Chamber” peaked at a humble 50,000 after a national outing with Big Country, he realized that most of his life-saving royalty checks were coming from his publishing company, not the actual label itself. Songwriting had become a booming business in Los Angeles, and countless up-and-coming hands were desperately searching for songs that could launch their careers.

“You’d be surprised at who doesn’t write their own material;’ Hunter muses; adding that today his songs are “going out all the time, but I really have no idea who’s playing them, Somebody out there must be; because my contract was just renewed.”

After setting his ideas down on paper and then Reel-to-reel, the tune-smith points out that no corporate ears hear a single note before the other main members of Wire Train do. New guitarist Jeff Trott, bassist Rundblad, and (Gil-Sola’s replacement) drummer Brian MacLeod all get the chance to pass on any of Hunter’s ditties, making Wire Train music theoretically the cream of the crop. “I’ll keep my extra song-writing going,” says the front-man, “‘as long as it doesn’t hurt the band. They’ll always get first crack at what ever I’m doing. But the idea is that that’s my job, yet that’s only one facet of Wire Train.”

“I don’t take song-writing as a business too seriously, because the other members are equally proficient at what they do.” But many contemporary artists do take Hunter’s skills seriously. Like Christina Amphlett of Australia’s Divinyls, with whom be penned a tune while munching on hamburgers at a sirloin pit in LA. Or Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s, who needed assistance on her upcoming solo disc and immediately rang up her Bayside buddy. Calling the song he co-wrote with the peppy Wiedlin “a personal interest,” Hunter doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge the power of collaboration.

“Somebody like Prince, as great as he is,” he sighs, “is starting to sound a little thin. That’s because it’s one man’s vision, and I think the whole concept of Svengali is absurd. If you start thinking of yourself as the horse that’s pulling the cart, then you lose sight of the original idea, which was to do something great.”

Hunter learned to apply this theory to Wire Train as well. “It occurred to me that if everybody in the band wasn’t equally represented on the records, it wouldn’t be nearly as complex and interesting as it could be, because everyone has something to add. Anders wrote a great song on the new record called ‘Home,’ and we were all just knocked out by it. He did practically everything on it.”

Hunter’s excitement over his hand mate’s success is not feigned. Rundblad’s track had to pass tough inspections by all the Wire Train voters to separate it from the other 34 cuts recorded for Between Two Words . In addition, Words features Hunter’s best efforts to date with the smashing “Last Perfect Thing” and the hyperkinetic “Skills Of Summer,” whose hook-filled chorus was also recorded in French for Wire Train’s European cult. As a song- writer. Hunter has matured into a craftsman par excellence, displaying an uncanny knack for guitar sculpting and riff construction only hinted at on In A Chamber .

But part of the reason Wire Train sounds so much more cohesive these days is new producer Peter Maunu of Group 87 fame, who mastered Words in Vienna, Austria, last summer. Vienna itself was quite an experience for Hunter and company. They found it to be “a very quiet city with only one nightclub. When you walk down the street, you don’t hear any noise. “But you could hear us, though,” he adds with a snicker. “Hear us for blocks! We even played that small nightclub, and everyone stood around and watched us quietly and politely. About halfway through our set, I started to notice certain schizophrenic qualities in their personalities — they started throwing their fists in the air, screaming and dancing.” But the most entertaining moment during their Viennese vacation? “Watching American films in the cinemas — Eddie Murphy in German was fantastic!”

Wire Train’s label toyed with the idea of employing surreal video designer Stevie Price (Sisters Of Mercy) to capture the essence of “Last Perfect Thing” on tape, but Hunter nixed the project. “Why should we spend $30,000 when we’re not even going to be on MTV?” he rails. “Nobody gets into heavy rotation anymore unless they’re as big as Phil Collins. The Top 20 videos you see these days were all platinum albums before they hit MTV.”

“Do you know what $30,000 will buy you?” the cost-conscious singer continues. “It’d buy you 5 seconds of a Phil Collins Video, 3 seconds of a Michael Jackson video or about haIf a minute of a ‘Til Tuesday clip. Most new bands end up spending about $50,000 on a demo tape alone!”

Hunter prefers his relatively basic reel-to-reel for his demos. Whether or not they sell or not makes no difference to him, says the songwriter with “hundreds of songs laying around” — all he wants to do is keep on writing. But suppose someone disregarded all the out-ward signs that proclaimed “Artist At Work” and barged into Kevin Hunter’s abode, demanding a song?

“Well, first of all, I’d ask them if they wanted one now,” he says, quite deadpan, “or in a couple of hours.”