In the four years since last we heard from Henry Kammerer and John "Lord Buckets" Johnson, the duo behind Hillstomp didn't exactly disappear. Since their last album, vocalist-guitarist-banjoist Kammerer and drummer Johnson each had children. Kammerer played solo shows as Henry Hill, and Johnson co-founded garage combo Hong Kong Banana. The duo never left the city in which their legendarily ferocious country-blues act first formed around the turn of the millennium, but they've found the Portland of their memory harder to find.
"We're kind of orphans," says Kammerer. "Not too long ago, we did an interview with somebody in Montana asking about our community of bands and named three or four. Afterward, John says, 'Yeah, but they're all gone.' In some ways, we're the last band standing."
If wistful reflection has descended on a duo famed for attacking their instruments with the passion and volume of bands three times their size, Hillstomp's new album, Monster Receiver, benefits from the nods to maturity. This week, the band is holding a two-night residencey at Doug Fir in celebration of Monster Receiver's release. For all the stripped-down hell-for-leather hill country blues explosions, the album's most affecting moments come when the tempo slows and the roster swells—guests include vocalist Amora Pooley Johnson, harmonica-adept Dave Lipkind, pedal steel whisperer Erik Clampitt, and even Johnson himself on bass for one funk-laden track.
Monster Receiver's embrace of a more expansive, burnished loveliness might suggest a new direction for Hillstomp. Kammerer believes the sheer amount of time between Hillstomp recording sessions led to a more thoughtful approach. But the frontman has rather different plans for the other 40-some songs he's compiled over the past few years. "I'm happy with the results," Kammerer says, "but I really hate the process of making a record. With the next one, I want to make a Replacements record—go in and record everything live in one day as fast and loud and raucous and fucking punk-rock as two 40-year-olds can make something sound anymore."
During their extended hiatus from the studio, an odd turn of events opened up, however briefly, a worldwide audience for Hillstomp. After landing a song on the third season of Sons of Anarchy, local label Fluff and Gravy made the licensing rounds with the band's fifth album, Portland, Ore, to little effect. But one advertiser had evidently been listening. In 2016, two years after the record's release, its typically breakneck final track, "Meet Me at the Bottom, " was chosen to soundtrack the globally broadcast trailer for the star-studded Coen brothers' comedy Hail Caesar! Shortly afterward, Yeti reps came calling to hawk coolers via Hillstomp's rhythmic backdrop. "Funnily enough," Kammerer mused, "they used the same music. So, maybe, we just have one very licensable song."
Despite a welcome post-ad-blitz bump in their Spotify royalty checks—"we could buy a nice dinner instead of a postage stamp," sniffs Johnson—nothing much changed for Kammerer and Johnson. The pair have largely accepted their apparent destiny as a regional band, the 10th-best-known in Portland and Seattle and a dozen other small cities around the Northwest that makes their money at the door. Their live performances have built a devout following, and though no longer keeping up the 150-shows-a-year pace, Hillstomp concerts readily justify the devotion of crowds that have continued to grow throughout their 17 years onstage.
"Not everybody seeing the band when we started still goes out to clubs," Johnson laughs. "But there's always new blood, which I really appreciate. Way, way back, probably 2003, we're playing Saturday Market. It's 10 in the morning, we take a set break, and this little kid–literally, maybe 4 or 5 years old–comes over to say that he really likes our music before running back to hide behind his mom. Then, some 19-year-old kid with a blue Mohawk and what looked like a bone through his septum tells us how much he was enjoying our set. Afterwards, it was somebody old enough to be his grandma."
"We've kind of a weird niche," adds Johnson. "But, in terms of ages, we also have a pretty broad appeal."
SEE IT: Hillstomp plays Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., dougfirlounge.com. 9 pm Thursday-Friday, Oct. 18-19. $12-$15. 21+.