The name is novel but the man behind the children’s performer going by My Friend Christopher is actually long time Hamilton independent rocker Christopher Eckart.
Some two plus decades ago, the local indie scene was swelling with a new crop of upstarts looking to make a name for themselves. Rallying around the lightning rod of Hot Tub Dave (Kuruc, who’d later be instrumental in the development of James Street North with his Mixed Media retail store) and Hot Tub Records bands like Sarah Somebody, Big Brother, Subdominant, Dylan Hudecki and Graham Walsh’s Moonkarma, and Zildo Ildo made many a musical note for this column.
Twenty years later — rumours suggested Kuruc was planning a celebration of those special years in Hammer-Rock but everybody’s MIA or married with children for most of the bands. Although Steve McKay, Hudecki and Walsh, Dan Snaith, and a few others continue on their musical journey if you’ve been paying close attention to this colunm. And this weekend, for the first time in 14 years we chat with former Zildo Ildo/Escape Goats frontman Christopher Eckart about his journey that leads him back into the clubs albeit with a different perspective.
“Zildo Ildo ended when I went overseas with my now wife Margot and when we came back relationships change and some people started doing other things but I reconnected with Chad Ingles and we looked around to see who was around was a couple of guys from Zildo — Hugo Fischer and Jesse Lewis — and we formed Escape Goats,” recalls Eckart on some of our last conversations on his musical journey. “That’s when really our label Put On Your Drinking Cap really took shape and a lot of people started being pulled into the gravity of that and we ended up releasing a lot of great albums.”
The Drinking Cap label would release Escape Goats, The Deviance, Steve McKay, Billy Holmes, Matt Paxton and more over nearly a decade and an archive remains online for fans of that part of Hamilton’s musical history. But the bands and musicians are mostly doing different things as of late.
“These days I’m a high school teacher,” says Eckart. “After I released my solo album back in 2005, me and my wife went out west to Vancouver Island and I started my teaching career. We’d eventually come back to Hamilton but I kind of feel like we never left. We bought a home, we started a family and I’ve been teaching for the last 14 and a half years. I stopped doing music for about 10 years but as the kids got older, I kind of got back into songwriting over the last 18 months.
“I always had a guitar around and I’d play for my kids but kids are a tough crowd and they didn’t think it was as great as I did,” adds Eckart. “Having kids keeps you busy so I didn’t have a lot of time to make music and with the kids older, I have a little more time available. I had a little audience to see if we could have them pay attention to music and maybe that’s where the impetus came to make music for kids. Earl Kitchener School had its hundredth anniversary celebration back in 2014 and they invited parents with a musical background to help put together a CD. The leader of that project was Steve Pitkin of Elliot Brood. I recorded “The Rain Song”, a family friendly song good for kids and I guess that was the beginning to a committed effort. After that song, things started to take shape.”
Recorded with producer Michael J. Birthelmer, My Friend Christopher’s album isn’t necessarily what you’d expect for an album for children. It’s an eclectic blend of blues, jazz, pop and more inspired by the likes of Tom Waits, Leon Redbone, Randy Newman and Doc Watson but also the likes of Shari, Lois and Bram. Eckart hopes that the music is fun for kids and funny for parents.”
“Songs like “Get Dressed” are practical songs and it’s a thing I yell a lot of times,” says Eckart. “Rather than saying it the same every day, we have a song that incorporates the kids and becomes a therapeutic process for me. I knew the song was a hit because when I played it live at a couple of gigs on Locke Street it really seems to connect with kids and it’s based on Dixieland jazz so that makes it interesting to me.
“When I came of age in the mid–nineties grunge scene, I was deep into that but Tom Waits creeped into that and then Leon Redbone and Doc Watson — tapes that I took out from the Hamilton Public Library,” adds Eckart. “I can still go back and listen to those songs these days but it’s been twenty years since I listened to Pearl Jam’s “Ten” and I don’t really want to. People like John Prine that I’ve learned about more recently and similar artists really showcase the art of storytelling; it could be short and funny or sad and heartfelt but there’s a whole range of songwriting that drives me to keep making music now.”
A long time musician, educator and father of three — all of Eckarts life threads come together to formulate the project My Friend Christopher. And while the bio quips, Eckart is quitting his day job to do music again, it might be a possibility.
“These are songs to share my experiences to live in a family so I don’t know if they’re for kids but they’re about family life so they might be of interest to kids and definitely of interest to adults experienced in family life.” says Eckart. “It’s important music because a lot of the music out there for kids is hooky and instant but there isn’t a lot of meaning to sift through, there aren’t layers or conversations or different perspectives. While that has a place, I’m hoping my music will find an audience with kids who want some complexity and want to be challenged before they jump ship into the world of pop music.
“I’m putting my heart and soul into this music and literally that song is played on my last track by my daughter,” adds Eckart. “But my family and I are going on a trip come February when I take a break from teaching. We’re going to travel to New Zealand and visit some friends and family and then to Australia and Europe. We’ll be travelling the world but I’ll be taking my guitar and I hope to get some gigs wherever I might be on a street corner if need be. It’s been 14 and a half years of teaching which is a bit of a long time and with music coming more into my life maybe there’ll be the opportunity to do both part–time. We’ll have to see about that. The independent rockers of yesterday all have kids these days and I’m hoping people like Steve McKay and Billy Holmes and others will come. But anyone who is a fan of some authentic roots music and good songwriting will enjoy the show. It’s not just for kids. The songs deal with family life so there’s a heightened urgency for that but I hope my music appeals to any fans of great roots music.”
My Friend Christopher celebrates his debut album this Saturday January 11 at The Staircase Theatre. Doors are at 10am and tickets are $5 at the door or $15 for families.
Click on myfriendchristopher.ca