Welcome to our content series called Undercover Musicians. In this series, we talk to friendly humans who have everyday jobs – accountants, nurses, and lawyers – and who also have previous or current careers as singers, songwriters or musicians.
Thomas Hatcher is next on the list for this series. By day he’s an Adjunct Professor in Literature at American University. In his spare time, though, he plays bass guitar with the D.C. band Dr. Yes and tweets at @_om_atcher?. Read our recent interview with him!
You’re currently an Adjunct Professor in Literature at American University. Would you say being a musician makes you a better professor?
Yes. My years of playing and teaching music have given me concrete ways to discuss abstract theories. I find a lot of similarities between music and writing. I’ve actually developed a class called Music (and) Writing. We discuss writing concepts such as audience, genre, and style through the lens of music. Some students may not understand how different texts can be meant for different audiences, but when a student mentioned the difference between Snoop Dogg and Snoop Lion, I knew I was on to something—Snoop wanted to sell records to a new audience who usually doesn’t listen to hip-hop! I’ve found relating writing directly to other experiences helps students as they try to learn this most difficult craft.
Is there a connection or common ground between writing literature and writing songs?
Poetry has almost always been connected with music. Poets create long written hymns, lyrics, ballads, and odes, all of which are inspired by music or require music accompaniment. There were also the traveling troubadours who played music and told stories in meter. They used rhymes to make their stories easier to memorize.
Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature certainly affirms there’s still a strong connection between literature and pop songs. In his acceptance speech, he highlighted the literary works that inspired him most. When I was a graduate student studying poetry, I noticed many 19th century poems had a sing-song feel to them including the Fireside Poets, such as Longfellow, who wrote when poetry was at peak popularity.
Dylan worked with and learned from Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg. In my last week of grad school, one of my professors asked if there was a poet who defined our generation, and I could only think of Dylan. He pointed out that pop music had indeed replaced poetry in a way—most people can’t recite a poem from memory, but can sing hundreds of songs from our pop canon. And then came hip-hop, which might be the most explicit link between literature and music. Like the greatest literature, hip-hop gets people thinking about the words we use and the nature of our world and ourselves.
Tell us how you got your start in music. When did you become a musician?
My brother Bill showed me how to play his guitar when I was nine. He taught me how to read tabs, and then I started learning Led Zeppelin riffs. Shortly after that, my cousin Matt started to play, and we wrote songs together. We’ve been playing music together ever since and have played some of the biggest venues in the D.Cc area, including The Fillmore, the Howard Theatre, the State Theatre, U Street Music Hall, and the Black Cat. Our latest project is Dr. Yes. We recorded our EP In the Dirt with Alan Evans of Soulive, a band that inspired us ever since we first started playing.
?Describe the first time you fell in love with music.? Was it a certain song? A musician you saw play for the first time? A common interest in your family?
Oh, I really can’t pinpoint a moment. But I know it was with my dad. When I was young, he would play his favorite music for me—The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan. Then my brothers got me into the grunge coming out in the early ’90s. Seeing Dave Matthews Band at Farm Aid ’99 was a defining moment for me. From then on, I was like a sponge with music. There’s so much great music, I’m continually finding something new that inspires me. I’m always rediscovering music.
What’s special to you about the bass guitar?
There’s nothing better to me than the warmth of playing bass. It’s a simple instrument that sounds good no matter what you do. I love the possibilities a bass can offer. Whether it’s a driving blues line, a hypnotic funk groove, or a club-like bass drop, my Fender Jazz bass holds up to any task. Bass is the glue to a band that feels like the guitar, but pulses like the drums.
Was there anyone in your life who told you to focus on something aside from music? If so, how did you handle it?
Some people might have questioned if music was a sustainable source of income, but I don’t see how stopping playing music would have created better opportunities. Even if it isn’t making you lots of money, music is its own reward. Some people just don’t get that.
?Did you have a mentor or anyone who encouraged you to pursue your interest in music despite your other career goals??
My poetry professor and mentor David Keplinger plays guitar in his office, in class, and at parties. I’ve even had the pleasure of playing and improvising with him. He’s affirmed a life in music and literature is the perfect match.
Who’s your favorite artist/band of all time? Who is your favorite artist/band that we can expect to hear on the radio today?
The Beatles, Kendrick Lamar or Sia.
What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?
Play the music that rings in your ears at night.
?What advice would you give someone interested in playing the bass/guitar??
You need to break in your fingers like a baseball glove. If playing hurts your fingers, you’re doing something right. You need to develop a firm grip with your left hand. When playing, push firmly onto the string with your left hand. Pick softly with your right hand. If you want to go up a whole step on a string, use your index first, then use your ring finger two frets up. Keep your index down like an anchor. Don’t slide up and down with just your index finger. If you want to go another half step, add your pinky. Keep all three fingers down and let your middle finger insult everyone.
Why do you support music education? More specifically, why do you think organizations such as The MusicianShip are needed?
I wish I had grown up with the access kids now have to music education. The MusicianShip gives students a place to achieve their full potential. So many things are possible with music—but first you need access to instruments and excellent instruction.