Behind the piano

Behind the piano: A Spot On the Hill

What’s your real name?
My name is Dan Cook.

How did you come up with your artist name?
There’s a hill behind the office building where I work. If you get to work early enough, you can get a parking spot on the hill; if you don’t, you have to walk all the way up the hill. I found myself saying that phrase — “a spot on the hill” — frequently, and it got me thinking. 

In the most literal way, “a spot on the hill” was just a parking space. But I started to think of it as a metaphor for anything mundane and ultimately meaningless that we nonetheless strive for — not just a parking space. In that way, it becomes a reminder not to strive after things that don’t matter. 

A spot on the hill can also be a place of contemplation, a place where you can survey the landscape around you or look at the clouds above. To me, that’s the meaning that ties most directly to my music.

Thirdly, a spot on the hill can be a place of privilege; think of the big houses on the hill of a city, looking down on everything else. In that sense, the name is an acknowledgement that I am extraordinarily lucky to be someone who can make music in my spare time. That’s not something everyone can do.

Where are you from? And where do you live?
I’m from the United States. I was born in Indiana and spent most of my childhood (age 5 to 18) in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. Since then, I have lived in Columbia, South Carolina. 

How long have you been playing the piano?
I grew up with a piano in the house and took lessons very briefly when I was 7 or 8, but piano was never my main instrument. I have always loved the sound of the piano, however, and in 2016 I bought a digital keyboard and starting writing piano-based music. I bought my first piano — a $125 instrument from a thrift store — in december of 2017.

Do you play other instruments as well?
Yes, my main instrument growing up was violin — I played in orchestra and in a string quartet. From the violin, I went on to learn bass and guitar when I started playing in rock bands as a teenager. 

At this point, the piano has become my main instrument for writing, but I’m not proficient as a player — that’s not really my goal, honestly. 

Tell us about how you started playing music. 
There have been so many different starting points. After a year or so of piano, I switched to violin around age 9. The really formative years, when I began to understand that you could form a group and write your own music, came a little later — first around age 14 as a member of a string quartet, and then around age 16 in a hardcore group called Kids for Cash. After that, I played in the indie rock band Lay Quiet Awhile and the Slowcore band The Verna Cannon.

I see A Spot on the Hill as a natural evolution for me musically from both classical and slowcore, bringing together elements of classical minimalism, ambient and postrock, all with a DIY approach that’s rooted in punk rock.

How long have you been making piano music?
I started writing piano-based music in 2016 and released my first piano-based album, “The Tenth Wave,” in July 2018.

Tell us something about that moment you realized you could make songs yourself.
For me, there wasn’t a single spark, but more of a very long, slow build of music-writing ability and confidence over the course of decades.

The first songs I wrote were for Kids for Cash — just bass lines that songs were built on in a couple of cases, and also lyrics for one of the songs. Then I was more of a contributor in Lay Quiet Awhile, again just bass parts that songs were built around. The Verna Cannon was the first band where it was really my aesthetic driving the sound, but again I just wrote music, not lyrics, this time mostly starting with guitar parts.

It wasn’t until A Spot on the Hill that I was creating all of the music — writing and playing every part (except drums in one case), and not collaborating on the composition and arrangement. To put out music that is all you — as opposed to you as a member of a group — is an amazing feeling, but also a very vulnerable one.

What are your favorite artists in this piano genre?
There are so many. To name just a handful: Goldmund, Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Dustin O’Halloran, Max Richter, Kyle McEvoy, Dakota Suite, Slow Meadow, Federico Durand. And of course so much of all this music flows from earlier pioneers, like Philip Glass and Brian Eno. Glass and Eno are two of the people who made this whole musical world possible. Arvo Pärt, Low, and the ECM label, too, are also so important in having helped carved out space culturally for slow, meditative music — not piano per se, but contemplative music more broadly.

Is there one song you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano? Your own or someone else’s?
There isn’t. Sometimes I warm up with Hanon finger exercises, but more often I play my own music because I’m not a trained pianist and I don’t have a repertoire of other piano music that I know. I sometimes gravitate toward my song, “What if I was wrong?,” the last song from my first album. It’s a very simple piece, but I just like the way it feels. It can put me in the mindset to play and to write.

What song inspires you the most when you’re making music? Can you name just one song/composition?
For me, inspiration doesn’t work quite as directly as that. I’m more inspired by a general aesthetic that’s shared by a lot of artists than by a specific song or composition. When I write, I’m trying to enter a certain headspace; it’s a headspace that a lot of other artists can put me in, but I’m trying to create something of my own that puts me in the same space. 

Tell us something about your latest release.
“The Tenth Wave” is a full-length album released in July 2018. It is all instrumental, with piano, violin, acoustic guitar, digital piano and other digital instruments. The piano serves as the foundation for most of the tracks on the record. I build the structure with the piano, and then layer other instruments on top. It’s very slow and contemplative; a friend of mine says the best time to listen to it is at 2 a.m. in the dark, and I think that’s good advice. It’s not really a daytime record, although I’ve also heard it’s good for concentration or studying.

What’s happening next?
I’m well into working on another record. I’m hoping to have it out by the summer of 2019.

Where do all your songs come from?
Somewhere deep inside. Sometimes they come out easily, and sometimes they need a lot of shaping and crafting. 

Anything else you want to share?
I just want to thank Johan Eckman for doing his Behind the Piano series and letting me be part of it.

Well, YOU ARE WELCOME DAN! Glad to have you onboard.

Please check out these links to learn more about Dan and A Spot on The Hill.
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