From early days as a force among the North Carolina indie scene to a productive major label stint to current work with ELO offshoot The Orchestra and a respected solo career, Parthenon Huxley has spent his entire adult life in motion.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Call him Parthenon Huxley, or simply P. Hux for short. The former Richard Willett Miller formally changed his name in honor of two lifelong influences — his love of Greece, where he grew up, and writer Aldous Huxley, who he read frequently. Now the latter is the banner for a musical career that began nearly 30 years ago and has continued to flourish ever since.
Upon landing in the college town of Chapel Hill, NC, in the late ‘70s, Hux soon found himself a part of much-loved bar band The Blazers (at the time he was known as Rick Miller, although soon enough another Rick Miller began making waves with a local group called Southern Culture On the Skids). He went on to form The Dads and also cut a solo record as Rick Rock. [Fun Fact: He was also a rock critic of some regional reknown, subsequently advising a certain future BLURT editor to marshal his own writing talents and pursue a life in music journalism. Thanks, Rick. – Ed.]
Hux’s career kicked into next gear as touring guitarist with singer, songwriter and producer Don Dixon, and subsequently blossomed when he was signed to Columbia Records in the late ‘80s. A subsequent album, Sunny Nights, overseen by veteran producer David Kahne, received rave reviews but failed to sell, ending his tenure at the label prematurely. He then went on to produce albums for Eels frontman E and work with fellow power pop practitioner Kyle Vincent before forming his namesake band P. Hux and again reaping acclaim from the critics. [Below: P. Hux band promo photo]
Hux continued to record under his own aegis, as well as with a side project known simply as Veg, but he notched up more mainstream attention when he joined Electric Light Orchestra Part II in 1998. Then in 2000, co-founding member (and original ELO drummer) Bev Bevan retired and sold rights to the ELO name back to co-founder Jeff Lynne. The remaining members of ELO Part II subsequently formed The Orchestra (Starring Former ELO Members), resulting in an album of original material entitled No Rewind in 2001. Hux left the band briefly in 2007, allowing him to resurrect his solo career, moved to Maryland, and started a family. He currently splits his time between his individual efforts, which have yielded a dozen albums to date (including his latest, Live Deluxe, a 1996 recording of the original P. Hux lineup captured live in Durham), and touring with The Orchestra, which currently includes original ELO members Mik Kaminski on violin and Louis Clark on keyboards, along with vocalist/keyboardist Eric Troyer, drummer Gordon Townsend and vocalist/bassist Glen Burtnik, all seasoned musical veterans in their own rights.
Hux himself remains a dedicated musical devotee, and when we recently caught up with him on the third Moody Blues Cruise, featuring the Orchestra as one of the special guests, we found him quite enamoured with the other acts onboard. “I’m part of a second generation, so I get to see some of my heroes here,” he exclaimed. “Seeing Mark Farner is a really cool experience. And he’s a terrific guy. I’ve brought my copy of Grand Funk’s first album from him to sign. Chuck Negron is here and we played together a year or so ago and had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. So I get to connect with him again. John Waite is a really good friend of Glenn. They’ve written songs together. Carmen Appice has been around for 50 years and I’ve never gotten to see him play and he’s incredible. I’m also seeing Rod Argent for the second time. He’s someone you’d never get to meet, and now he’s almost a regular acquaintance.”
Of course, Mr. Hux has his own admirers, and he chuckled while recalling the reaction he gets from some of his fellow passengers. “I don’t like to have breakfast until I’ve been told I’m awesome at least three or four times,” he jokes. “It’s funny. You’re in the buffet line for breakfast and you’re just barely awake and somebody is yelling, “You’re awesome! You killed it!”
BLURT: While you’re a major player in The Orchestra, you also have a prolific solo career. So let’s go back to the beginning. What inspired your pursuit of music in the first place?
HUXLEY: My musical awakening began with the British Invasion and Motown on NYC radio when I was six or seven years old in New Jersey. I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan and my life was changed forever, not that I knew it then, but it’s pretty obvious to me now.
In 1966, my Dad threw a curveball and moved the family to Greece. We sailed from NY to Athens on a small Italian ocean liner. I started writing songs on that ship. It was my first taste of communing with the mysteries of songwriting, and I loved it to death.
I lived in Greece from 5th to 12th grade. My exposure to music was filtered through the ex-pat American community. The older kids were pretty hip and we were into all the cool albums of the period, from Beatles to Cream to Hendrix to Zeppelin to Bowie, etc. Armed Forces Radio had Top 40 stuff but no one listened to it. New kids would arrive at the school and “What albums do you have?” would be among the first questions asked. I was turned on to the Stooges by some kids from Detroit, for example.
Being in Europe we also got wind of groups like The Move, Golden Earring, Taste, Gun and others long before they were well known in the States.
So when did you start making music of your own?
I played original music in various bands throughout high school in Greece. It was small potatoes, light years from anywhere relevant, but we were very creative over there (no TV or malls to distract us) and we had tons of fun.
When I returned to the States in 1974 for my freshman year at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, I was a stranger in a strange land to say the least. My bands in Greece might’ve been pretty good, but we were miles from being professional. When I saw the level of talent that routinely passed through Chapel Hill’s music clubs I was blown away. “I’ll never be that good,” I remember thinking after watching a long-haired, big-amped cover band from Georgia do Aqualung note for note!
It seems that living in Chapel Hill had a profound effect on your musical trajectory.
Chapel Hill had several fantastic record stores and I noticed there was a lot of promotion for an album called Prolepsis by a group called Arrogance. Turns out they were local, which intrigued me greatly. I’d always felt like music came from Somewhere Out There, certainly not from people you might actually know. Arrogance played in town a lot and I became a huge fan. Anyone who knows their story can testify how great they were. They had two lead singers and songwriters — Don Dixon and Robert Kirkland, both brilliant.
Cut to late spring 1979. On my last day of college I was unsure what to do with my Journalism degree, but I did have a gig with a band I’d joined the previous year called The Blazers. They were primarily a covers band, but I helped change the band’s culture by integrating my own original tunes into the setlist. Our gig that night was with none other than Arrogance, and Don Dixon heard my songs at our sound check. He approached me and said, “You write good songs. We should make a record.”
And you did?
We recorded The Blazers: How To Rock at TGS Studios outside of Chapel Hill. The album featured six of my songs. It took about a week to record and I got my first taste of being professionally produced. It came out on Moonlight Records and got some local radio play. I was at work one day — I took part-time jobs to supplement the Blazers income — and one of my songs came on the radio. Everyone said, “Is that YOU?” It was a glorious moment!
And you pursued music journalism at the same time?
Around this time a new weekly arts newspaper appeared called Spectator Magazine. Every city has one now, but in 1979 it was a cool new thing. I was asked along with a half dozen other musicians to write about the Best Unheard Music. I wrote a glowing piece about Dwight Twilley which the editor loved. He offered me a job as music critic. I did have a journalism degree so it was kind of up my alley.
My job as Spectator music critic got me in to any and every show there was to see: Iggy Pop, Police, Go-Go’s, David Bowie, Richard Hell, R.E.M., Ramones, Brave Combo, Riders In The Sky, The Clash, Jason and the Scorchers, and on and on.
My mantra as a music writer was to figure out what an artist or band was trying to accomplish and then fairly judge how successful they were. I didn’t get into sexy angles or controversy (I probably would’ve been more widely read if I had). The tricky part was reviewing local bands, since I was in a local band myself. I’m proud to say I never caught shit from any of my brethren. Everyone felt they were treated fairly in my reviews.
Were you able to still pursue your music career concurrently?
Interviewing and writing about musicians of every stripe taught me a lot. I’d been in a few bands post college — after The Blazers I formed The Dads with Matt Barrett, my childhood friend from Greece — but I wanted to try something that was uniquely my own.
I found a bassist and drummer — Andy Church and Chip Shelby — who I really liked and went to work. I wrote songs like a madman and we rehearsed for nine months before performing in public. We called the band Rick Rock after a nickname given to me in Greece, and we made our recorded debut on a compilation album of new North Carolina bands called Mondo Montage. Rolling Stone magazine loved our tunes (“Buddha, Buddha” and “Sputnik”) and Rick Rock soon created a buzz in local clubs.
It appears as if you were really hitting your stride at that point.
We were a great little band. Our set was crazy good since we’d worked on it for nearly a year. We opened for The Romantics, Berlin, R.E.M. and other bands of the time. Then my ambition got the better of me. We played dates in Dallas, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Chicago and Lincoln…maybe in that order! Our van broke down, and, long story short, the more sensible guys in the band called it quits and headed back to their jobs in Chapel Hill before we got any further in debt. I went underground in California and Chicago with my girlfriend for five months to lick my wounds and figure out my next move. I had no idea what to do.
So what did you do?
I ended up back in Chapel Hill and made an arrangement with TGS Studios to record two songs during their off hours. It took months, but I ended up with a demo that was the best I could do. I sent it to seven or eight major labels and got especially good responses from Island and EMI. I ended up doing a demo deal with Island. They didn’t sign me, but I added more songs on my demo reel. On a visit to New York City in 1985, I handed my tape to an artist manager named Michael Solomon. He loved it and asked if he could shop it around L.A. “Sure, why not?” I said. A month or so later Michael called me and asked if I’d be interested in a publishing deal with MCA Music. I said, “What’s a publishing deal?”
Michael explained that MCA would basically be paying me to write songs. In other words, since I already wrote songs all the time, I would be paid to exist. I liked the sound of that! Rick Shoemaker and Scott James from MCA met me in NY and we hit it off. Rick was a huge Beatles guy and we bonded mightily.
The deal with MCA took me to California. Their studio was in the basement of their headquarters in Universal City, and the artist/writers were tasked with recording during eight hour sessions on 2″ 16 track tape with pro engineers. It was a whole new world for me. After my first year MCA took my new songs around to the labels and eventually we got some interest at Columbia via A&R man Jamie Cohen and staff producer David Kahne.
I did a demo deal and Kahne worked me over pretty good, asking for loads of rewrites on one song in particular. We liked working together enough that he and Jamie offered me a deal and I became a Columbia recording artist.
So that jump started your solo career which is still ongoing. In addition, you’re now part of a band that could be considered a super group of sorts. The guys in your band each have remarkable individual histories. While your focus may be on playing the music of ELO, has the band ever given thought to making an album of original music?
If we all lived in the same time maybe. The logistics of creating something you have to rehearse together are pretty difficult. But I like that you said that. It’s an amazing band. If we all lived in New York or London and we were inspired to do something like that, then maybe we would. But as it stands, some of us live in London, some of us live in the States.
You could send tracks back and forth over the internet
Yeah, but I hate that. It’s got nothing on the energy in a room when you’re all together. Not to put a damper on it, but what label would take a chance on a record by a bunch of guys our age?
But you each have proven track records. You’ve have solo albums, hit songs… that should count for something. And these days, you really don’t even need record companies.
That’s true. I’m making my records. Eric’s making documentary films. Glenn does his special ‘60s tribute concerts. So we’re all busy. I’m raising my kids, so I have to wonder if another band would be a good idea. Would I want to be on the road any more than I am now? I love the idea of that, but I’m not sure about the practicality of it.
What you do with the Orchestra has to be a labor of love. It’s clear that you love this music.
It’s not so much a labor anymore. I’ve played these songs over 500 times. I know them pretty well at this point. [Below: with The Orchestra’s Mik Kaminski]
Do you get any opportunity to add your voice to these songs, or do you consider it strictly a faithful note for note replay?
I think we do. We’re not trying to copy the music exactly. We don’t replicate the vocals to sound like anyone but ourselves. We have a respect for the music so we do pay attention, but I play guitar like me and everyone plays their instruments in their own individual ways. We have our sound, even though these songs sound pretty close to the way they’re supposed to be. [Below: The Orchestra live in Chile in 2005. Hux notes, “It’s one of my favorites. It’s from the Vina Del Mar festival in Chile, broadcast live to all of South and Central America. There’s a live audience of 17,000 fans known as “The Monster.” The Monster has the option to applaud you and award you a trophy…or boo you off the stage if they don’t like you! (We got the trophy.) The song is “Jewel & Johnny,” one of my songs from our No Rewind LP. And, to top it off, this performance happened at 3am!]
What are you currently working on?
My last studio album, Thank You Bethesda, took me four years to complete. I would visit the tracks every few months and add overdubs and tinker with things trying to get the songs to be perfect. I didn’t have a deadline, so there was never any pressure to finish. It was only when I got up the courage to do a Kickstarter campaign—which to my shock and surprise, netted me about $15,000— that I finally had a release date.
I swore to myself I would never dilly-dally over a record like that again. So just last month, after just a handful of quick rehearsals with the bassist and drummer from my local band The Suitors, I went into the studio and cut basic tracks for ten new songs in two days. We didn’t use a click track. We relied on feel and the energy in the room. I’m really excited with what we got. The music reminds me of all my favorite records from the ‘60s and ‘70s that are peppered with little mistakes and tempo changes that no one ever gave a shit about. I have to remember that I was never mad at records for being imperfect–in fact I’ve always loved records that just felt good, warts and all. This new record feels like that. Now all I need is a deadline, so I’m thinking of doing another Kickstarter campaign!
Finally, the other project I’m excited about is a record I’m producing for two guitar students of mine. They’re both 15 years old. They are great songwriters and singers. We just started this week and it already sounds amazing. They are talented beyond their years.
Hux on the web: http://parthenonhuxley.com
Go HERE for Hux music, including free downloads.