John Ringhofer’s onstage persona is not what you’d call “stoic.” As archbishop of the Berkeley cheese-pop band Half-Handed Cloud, he essentially conducts Vacation Bible School for They Might Be Giants fans, spinning Bible-themed ditties in a cheery, childlike yelp. He often wears a beat-up Boy Scouts “Webelos” cap and surrounds himself with noisemaking sheep toys, which he plays with, intermittently, mid-song. Furthermore, he plays five to ten instruments per ninety-second tune — strum on the guitar, pound on the piano, honk on a horn, pause for a sheep-toy interlude. The accumulated result is like Pet Sounds on Noah’s Ark.
The gentleman is no Leonard Cohen. Still, the handmade cheerleading outfit took a little getting used to. “We all wore those,” Ringhofer enthuses. “I thought it was great. They’re sweats, so when the stage temperature is pretty warm, that’s a little bit of a challenge. It just makes us look like we’re really working out, you know, all the sweat.”
John, you see, has hitched his fire-engine-red wagon to an even more prominent Christian-overtoned multi-instrumentalist enigma: Sufjan Stevens, this year’s breakout indie-rock star. Sufjan first ascended in 2003 by announcing his quest to write a concept album for each of the fifty United States, beginning with that year’s sprawling, ramshackle Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State. But it’s this year’s appallingly titled Come on Feel the Illinoise that’s turned him into an NPR-set darling — big-time sales and a big-shot tour to match, with six to eight backing musicians necessary to replicate its epic bedroom orchestra ambition.
Thus Sufjan has convinced some old buddies to don “Illinoisemakers” cheerleading outfits, conduct a few cheers, and pound out catchy ditties such as “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” (He’s got a serious song title problem.)
Enter Mr. Ringhofer — Half-Handed Cloud has opened a few dates, and John accompanies Sufjan full-time on trombone, banjo, Wurlitzer, percussion, guitar, and alto Melodeon. “Lately he’s had me wear a headband and some wristbands,” he notes of Stevens’ stage direction. “The girls have pom-poms. … I usually just wave the flags.”
Aspects of this are so cutesy as to be insufjarable. Illinoise often overreaches and overclutters — the banjo, quietly, is the most pretentious instrument in the modern-rock canon. Meanwhile, in interviews Sufjan adopts an ultra-erudite professorial tone, grimly discussing Saul Bellow and the depths of his research into Illinois arcana as though uncomprehending of the ridiculousness of it all. (“He’s really sarcastic,” John notes of Sufjan’s off-the-record persona.)
Stevens deflects any religious questions immediately. Can’t really blame him for that, though. Back when John and Sufjan met online in 2000, everything was a bit simpler. “We were pen pals,” Ringhofer recalls.
The two hooked up after admiring each other’s early MP3s, and later exchanged debut albums while chatting amiably about both music and spirituality. Together with the Danielson Famile — an even stranger crypto-Christian collective that turns sincere faith into sincerely disturbing art-rock — they soon unwittingly developed a scene of godly inclined and sonically inventive folk-pop, which Sufjan now personifies and transcends. Avoiding the dreaded “Christian rock” tag is a most dangerous game, and Sufjan and John’s discussions in that realm aren’t usually public record. “I think that Dan [of the Danielson clan] would say that the music has a healing power, or at least points to one that has a healing power,” John explains. “I wouldn’t say that’s true — I’d say that’s possible. Sufjan might say it actually doesn’t happen at all.”
John and Sufjan remain frequent collaborators — Ringhofer added trombone and vocals to Michigan, while Sufjan drummed on Half-Handed Cloud’s third record (this year’s Thy Is a Word and Feet Need Lamps), in addition to a prominent role in HHC’s new 7-inch, “What’s the Remedy?” due out later this month on the artists’ combined label, Asthmatic Kitty. In the meantime, John spent the last several months as a nation-trotting Illinoisemaker, and now the whole gang’s on to Europe.
While Illinoise‘s dizzying high points (the somber ballad of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, the soaring anthem “Chicago”) make Sufjan’s ascension understandable, this hopefully raises Ringhofer’s star a bit as well. He’s onto something interesting, less epic but more carefree, with a much lower profile that permits him to balance his Beach Boys and Jesus allegiances without Magnet overanalyzing every word. Thy Is a Word and Feet Need Lamps is a Bible verse pun, after all, and HHC’s best songs — “We Don’t Know How It Grows” the current apex — are goofy hymns that celebrate childlike wonder without getting all hung up on who’s responsible for it.
“I would actually say that I hope I’m not religious,” Ringhofer notes. “I would make a distinction between that and ‘spiritual. ‘” The result is celebratory without being pretentious or preachy, and though John speaks softly compared to his increasingly famous friend, he probably breathes easier.