Frank Hill Runs His Own Company, Manages The Likes of Fair to Midland and Ha Ha Tonka
Frank Hill's story is essentially that of a music scene kid who, gladly, let his enthusiasm for bands run amok.
With humble beginnings as a jazz performance major at the University of North Texas, it wasn't long before his attention started to wander to the behind the scenes side of it all -- first, with an interest in audio engineering at school and, later, with a special promotional performance that happened at the place where he waited to tables to make ends meet.
The place was Gameworks at Grapevine Mills Mall, and, as Hill was working, Vertical Horizon was setting up to perform a special stripped down set. It was here that he met Dallas-based BMG marketing rep Michael Starr.
Not one to waste a narrow window of opportunity, Hill made his enthusiasm known to Starr. And, by the time the band had finished singing something about a guy who's "everything you want, everything you need," Hill had secured himself an internship with the label.
Impressive, passionate work.
Starr assigned Hill intern duties at Time Bomb Records, working promotions and releases from artists like Sunny Day Real Estate and Reverend Horton Heat. Hill worked hard, and moved up the industry ladder quickly, doing time for Interscope/Geffen/A&M records, BMG and at Sony's Red brand of music distribution. A few months after he graduated, he landed work as an artist development rep for a couple different labels, working bigger acts like Blink 182, Eminem, Jay-Z and Fall Out Boy.
Nowadays, he's enjoying manning the helm of his own operation, FH Artist Management, out of New York City. His first, and longest standing artist relationship, is his ongoing one with Fair to Midland. Since working with them, he's added two more artists to his plate: indie whizzes Ha Ha Tonka, and more recently, a Nashville band called Heypenny.
And, despite being based way up in the Apple, his heart seems to remain largely here in the Texas pastures, as you'll read after the jump.
Back in the day of you being locally-based and doing street-level record label stuff, you could be seen just about everywhere; at a lot of local music shows. Tell us a little about the memorable part of that phase of your career.
Man, where do I start? I guess I had just turned 17 and my parents had let me go down to Deep Ellum, which was at least an hour's drive on a school night, to see The Ugly Americans (Bob Schneider's old band) at Trees. I was blown away and hooked on live music immediately. It was a special time in Deep Ellum -- the end of the '90s/beginning of 2000s. One Ton Records was still around and a whole slew of amazing bands were still killing it like Doosu, Jibe, Ben Kweller's old band Radish, Caulk, Valve, Chomsky, Flickerstick, Slow Roosevelt, etc. Several Dallas area bands were signing with major labels like The Feds, The Secret Machines and Sugarbomb. It was really an exciting time in the Dallas music scene.
Did you grow up around here?
I spent my entire youth in a small town about an hour northeast of Dallas called Princeton. We had a Dairy Queen, a doughnut shop and a skating rink. Not a lot to do to say the least. In junior high, I began playing football as most boys in Texas do, but I also joined the school band. Being barely 5'5" and just a tad over 100 lbs, I found myself sitting on the bench for most of the football games. By high school, I had quit the team and decided to focus only on band. My first choice of instruments was percussion but, in junior high, it seemed to be the first instrument to go, and I missed out. My parents were quite happy about that. I ended up with my second choice -- trumpet. Besides percussion, it was the loudest and most obnoxious instrument in the band. That was the one for me. Besides the marching and concert band, I ended up joining the jazz band as well. But it was the end of my sophomore year that changed my life forever. A kid named Jeff who was an amazing trumpet and guitar player moved to our school. He had a killer electric blue Gibson Les Paul. I had never touched a guitar before. In a town of 2000 people, there were not a lot of guitar players. One day, he allowed me to play around on his guitar and I was hooked. That Christmas, I was the owner of my very own Fender Stratocaster.
Was being so immersed in the local music scene a major factor in the beginnings of your relationship with Fair To Midland?
Sort of. I actually met a guy named Newman at a restaurant one night. He asked me what I did for a living and I mentioned that I worked at Universal. He was like "You have to see this band Fair to Midland. They are amazing." I had heard the band's name around town but I more or less blew him off. He thankfully was persistent and talked me into going to see the guys at the Curtain Club. I was really impressed with the band's performance. I remember thinking how weird and different it was, but how special it was at the same time. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that I liked it. I met with the band briefly after the show and then later that week for dinner to see if we liked each other. I guess the rest is history.
What did you start out doing in the FTM family in the beginning? Were you managing the them?
I had approached FTM with the intent to be their manager. It was something that I had dabbled in for a while with several other local bands and, with FTM, I was ready to take it more serious. I came in right after they had demoed six to seven songs for inter.funda.stifle, which was their second independent release. We spent a week or two tracking the instruments and then about four to five months finishing vocals. We only had a half of a day here and there to record. It is all that we could afford at the time. I was in the studio with them almost every day of recording that record. We planned fundraisers to pay for the record and tour. We planned the CD release show and our first tour dates outside of Dallas. I wanted to take what they were already doing and amplify that -- not only in Dallas but across the country.
Tell us about the early FTM adventures with the band. Traveling and such. It must have an incredible time in your life.
It was incredible. Sometimes it was incredibly good and sometimes incredibly bad. [Laughs.] I remember one time, we were driving through the middle of nowhere Texas, and it was around 9 p.m. on a Saturday. We were on our way to a show. [FTM guitarist] Cliff Campbell was driving the RV when, all of a sudden, the fuse box underneath the dashboard burst into flames. [Vocalist] Darroh [Sudderth] grabs the fire extinguisher and rushed toward the front seat, trying to get the extinguisher to work. All of a sudden it goes off right in Cliff's face almost blinding him as we came to a stop. Once all the craziness ended and the fire was out, we realized that Darroh was wearing a volunteer fire dept shirt. We all had a laugh at that. Then there were all the good times hanging with the other bands such as Dir En Grey and Flyleaf. Those I will never forget.
Has your relationship with FTM evolved into something even more grand now? It would seem so from an outside perspective.
It truly has. We are by far more than business associates. We are brothers. You don't always get along with your brothers but at the end of the day you love them and only want the best for them. [Laughs.] We have taken this entire journey together from playing small clubs in Dallas to the main stage of a German festival in front of 30,000 people. It's had its ups and its downs but we have stuck together through it all.
At this point, you must have had a lot of artists reaching out to you wanting you to help them too! What made Ha Ha Tonka stand out for you?
I do receive a couple submissions a day. I get a ton of "hard rock," "prog" and "metal" bands reaching out because they know I manage FTM. The fact is that I love all types of music from jazz to country to hard rock. It is hard to say what I see in a band that makes me decide to take them on. A band must have great songs, an amazing live show, a good image, a great work ethic and they must be good people. Plus, they must have that special something that gives me chills. Ha Ha Tonka has all of those things. They are truly a special band. Hipsters like them, but so does my grandma. That is really important to me.
Elaborate on your passions for Ha Ha Tonka, and share some significant moments working alongside them.
The HHT boys have come so far in such a short amount of time. I came into the picture just before their second record, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, was released. They were playing headline shows to 50, 40 and sometimes 20 people. That was just a little over two years ago. On April 5, they released their new record Death of a Decade. The album debuted on the Billboard Top 200, No. 3 on the Heatseakers Charts, appeared on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations and MTV's The Seven. And they ended up selling out eight shows on their U.S. CD release tour. I really have high hopes for this band. I can see them being the next R.E.M. or Bruce Springsteen. They are a perfect mix of art and commerce, blue collar and rockstar.
So, now you're in NYC and running your own artists management organization. Tell us about getting that operation off the ground on an official level, and the subsequent change in scenery.
I moved to NYC to work for Esther Creative Group (Lou Reed, Against Me!) at the beginning of 2007, and brought FTM with me. It wasn't the perfect fit for me, so after a year I left and started my own management company, Frank Hill Artist Management. FTM came with me and I picked up two other great artists, Ha Ha Tonka and Heypenny. I've been going strong now on my own for almost four years. Honestly, getting the company up and running wasn't too big of a deal. I set up my LLC and opened a business banking account. Besides that, I just kept doing what I was doing. I actually did my own US tour. I hit LA, Chicago, Dallas and Austin to re-connect with old contacts and to make more. I spread the word that I had set up shop and that I was ready to make big things happen. The business is really built on relationships and I have to say I have met some of the best friends and colleagues in the business. Shortly after I started FH Artist Management, I found the Ha Ha Tonka boys. A year later, I found a killer indie-pop rock band from Nashville called Heypenny. They are currently unsigned, but touring the US relentlessly. They are incredibly creative and one of the most fun live shows I've seen. As far as NYC is concerned, I live it. It is now home and I have great friends here. I probably wouldn't have had the success that I have without being in this city. Not sure if I want to live here forever but it has been an important part of my journey.
What's on the horizon for you? I do know about a new FTM record coming this summer. Care to elaborate? What else is coming up in your world?
I can't tell you how excited I am for the new Fair to Midland album, Arrows & Anchors. It's in stores on July 12. It will be a bit darker and heavier than their past work. It has been a tough couple of years and it comes out in the music. But it is also some of their best work. It is a bit more commercial, but still has that strange FTM-ness about it. With FTM, you will always get FTM. They will be touring relentlessly for the next year. They have a CD release show at Curtain Club on July 12, and then they head out for a week of CD release shows, a west coast tour with Dredg and then the Inked Magazine Music Tour with the Damned Things. Ha Ha Tonka have a full schedule with a huge fall headline tour and several festivals, including Austin City Limits Fest, Wicker Park Fest and the Denver Post Underground Music Showcase. They will actually be playing a free show at La Grange in Dallas on September 17. Heypenny will be touring the Midwest and east coast with Tommy & The High Pilots (ex-members of Ludo) and Stamps (ex-members of Hush Sound), who are both excellent. They also just filmed a new video for the song "Purple Street" which is off their new record, A Jillion Kicks. Expect to see that Bohemian Rhapsody-esque video around the end of August.
Are you still able to keep up with Dallas music much? If so, who are some newbies that you love?
I do my best. It is tough from across the country but I do try to keep up. I know that the music scene has recently gone through some tough times, but seems to be on the upswing with clubs like Trees and Dada re-opening, plus a whole bunch of new venues such as La Grange opening. Also, the re-emergence of Acoustic Chaos at Liquid Lounge is exciting. I use to play there with Tony Edwards back in the day under the moniker Disconnected in '73. I miss those days. As far as bands go, I'm digging on The Phuss, House Harkonnen, The Virgin Wolves, and I hear that Blessed the Broken have a reunion show. Rock!