Clay Hughes grew up in Waverly, Kansas, a small town near enough to Lawrence that he could pick up the tail end of heyday-era KLZR 105.9 (the Lazer) on his radio dial.
"Hearing bands like Nada Surf, Spacehog, Ben Folds on the Lazer in junior high, that was when I first really got into music," the 28-year-old singer-songwriter says. "That station was all we ever listened to. I think everybody sort of has a story about when it changed formats overnight and went Top 40."
Hughes is tall and solidly built. In a February 2001 Topeka Capital-Journal high school basketball article — in which he's recognized as Player of the Week, averaging 20.7 points per game with an impressive 96 blocks on the season — he's listed as 6 feet 9 inches, which means he's likely closer to 6 feet 8. His imposing physical presence would be more daunting if not for his humble demeanor and his gentle, low-toned accent, both of which can probably be traced to his country roots.
He has owned a guitar since his 16th birthday, but he didn't start playing music seriously until about five years ago, after a roommate urged him to start gigging as a way to pay rent. Judging by the music Hughes has written and released since, it would be fair to assume that in the years following the Lazer's changeover, he took in a steady diet of easygoing stoner folk music. His vocals evoke a kind of mellow melancholy that's much more Pacific shore than Midwest rural blight.
"I really like singer-songwriters like Ray LaMontagne, Amos Lee, Martin Sexton," he says. "But, you know, I like a lot of different stuff. Old country. Hip-hop. There's a lot of current hip-hop that influences what I do."
This essentially is what sets Hughes apart from other sensitive folkies lugging acoustic guitars around town. His recent album, The Whether Machine, is a collaboration with Rich Lester, a producer who goes by the name JKR70. It fuses Hughes' California coos with a variety of hip-hop beats and samples. Lester first saw Hughes perform at Davey's Uptown Ramblers Club, with his band, Clay Hughes & the What — Hughes on acoustic guitar, Zach Haddock on bass and Tony Baldassarre (Tony Beats) behind the decks — and the two soon began sending each other tracks they were working on. Eventually Hughes asked Lester to produce his new album.
"We approached the writing from a lot of different angles," Hughes says of the album, which also features guest spots from local rappers Mac Lethal, Irv Da Phenom and thePhantom*. "I would write something and send it to him, and he'd cut it all up and change it around. Or he'd have samples, and I'd write music on top of that. He puts samples together from 15, 20 different beats. It's crazy watching his process; he has, like, 2 terabytes of samples he's pulled off the Internet. I've never seen anybody work how he works."
"Lots of times, Clay would send me an a cappella version of a song he'd written to a basic metronome, and I'd craft a beat around it," Lester says. "And then, through my interpretation of his vibe or where I felt like he was coming from lyrically, I'd try to best back him up."
Lennon Bone, a drummer who recently started the local label Sharp County Records, met Hughes a few years back when his band, Ha Ha Tonka, played in Emporia with Clay Hughes & the What. They became friends, and Bone has played drums on some of Hughes' recordings.
"I knew his material with Rich was strong, and I knew that the band was willing to hit the road, so it seemed like a perfect idea to have the first band on the [Sharp County] roster be good friends who write good tunes and who would be willing to put up with getting this whole thing off the ground," Bone says. "Clay and those guys are as much staff as they are a band on the roster."
It is easy to see why somebody who runs a record label would be interested in signing Hughes. His sound hews closest to singer-songwriters like Ben Harper and Jack Johnson — festival-headlining millionaires. "Clay's demographic is pretty varied. It can go over well with a lot of different people, but I see a lot of college-age kids at his shows," Bone says. "He and Rich made something very special together, for a first attempt — hip-hop, pop and even 'indie,' whatever that means nowadays."
Hughes' touring ambition is also considerable. He has more than 20 shows — both solo and with the What — scheduled through the end of the year, and he'll spend the entire month of January traveling up and down the West Coast in a large, modest, gray van that almost seems an extension of his personality.
"Honestly, I think Clay is still honing in on what's going to fit him best," Bone continues. "That's a really exciting thing to see and be a part of as a friend and as a business partner. He already writes some really strong tunes, but I think he's got some even better ones coming down the pike."
"I'm always trying to find new ways to approach my songs," Hughes says. "And I just end up mixing a lot of things together, I guess."