Humans of the Keweenaw: Interview with Bob Hiltunen
"I know that all places have their characters and stories, but I love the people of Dollar Bay. There is a palpable sense of community that just seems more ‘realistic’ to me than other places... Oh and also, there are Unicorns.”
This is the seventh in a series of planned interviews highlighting humans in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties who are working to improve our community’s quality of life.
Interview conducted on 8/11/17 by Kyle Krym
Photos provided by Bob Hiltunen, Daniel Bennett, and Belinda Mattfolk
Please, tell us a little about yourself.
“I am Bob Hiltunen. I grew up mostly in beautiful Dollar Bay, MI. I am a professional musician. I play a variety of instruments in a variety of musical styles. I also repair instruments and teach private music lessons. I like to cook for friends. I enjoy helping people be happy.”
Why is Dollar Bay the greatest place on Earth?
“Dollar Bay is where I grew up. I know that all places have their characters and stories, but I love the people of Dollar Bay. There is a palpable sense of community that just seems more ‘realistic’ to me than other places. Also, the school system there has a lot of great teachers that can devote a lot of energy to minds with a passion for ideas. Of course, I’m totally biased. Oh and also, there are Unicorns.”
How do you give back to your community?
“I try to give back in the limited capacities I have at my command. I can often be seen performing music at various fundraisers and functions. A little more indirectly, I try my best to fan flames of musical interest in people that seem willing. I believe that one person can make a whole community a little more colorful if they try to share their joy with others. I don’t really have a lot of financial power, nor do I have a lot of interest or focus to arrange big events, so I try to keep a steady trickle of positivity going around me.”
When was the precise moment you decided you didn’t want to become a Contracts and Financial Compliance Manager and instead pursued a career in music?
“I don’t think I can say there was a precise moment when I made the decision to become a musician. I’ve ALWAYS loved making music, before I even knew what that meant. I guess you could liken my journey more to an experiment. I just keep trying to find ways to keep myself alive with the bounties that music offers. I have to say that I feel pretty lucky to live in a place where so many people still enjoy and support live music. I am so grateful for the culture of music we have here.”
How many different bands have you played in? Can you give us a rundown of names?
“Oh boy. I don’t really keep track of the numbers. I’ll try to recall as many as possible. There would be TBSP. That’s the first group. Just my brother and me making noise and making each other laugh. As I got older, I started playing in performing bands. The Breakers Blues Band, Variance, Bob and Dave Show, Pasi Cats, Outlaws (now Outlaw’d), The Backroom Boys, The Humidors, The Dave Brotherton Band, Uncle Pete’s All-Star BBQ Blues Band, Discoball Chandelier, The Garden City Hot Club. There have also been countless solo performances and a lot of fill in work or accompanying jobs with say Tom Katalin, or the Clown Band etc. I know I’m probably leaving out some important stuff, and I preemptively apologize to anyone I forgot.”
You’re returning to play at Keweenaw Brewfest on Saturday, August 26. What can we expect from Funky Brewster?
“Funky Brewster is comprised of some fine musicians. In addition to me singing and playing guitar, we have Dan Fuhrmann on keys and Tim Havens on bass. Paul Wightman will be on drums. I have to say I’m excited to play with this combination of musicians. They all play with their ears and are great improvisers. We will be playing together for the first time that day and I wouldn’t have it any other way. You can never tell how someone will interpret a groove and take the whole thing in some other exciting direction. I’m sure we will have guests join us again. Andy from Blackrocks is cordially invited if he reads this. The musical selection is going to be a variety of things from pop to funk to blues to jazz to reggae. If you’ve seen me play solo shows, you’ll recognize most of the music, but it’ll be in a fresh new skin.”
Where did the idea for gangstaccordion come from?
“Gangstaccordion… it really makes me chuckle that that silly title is catching on. It came about initially on a flight from San Diego where I had just played Finnfest with the PasiCats. Pasi Lautala explained how the Finnish Chromatic Button Accordion is laid out. I became enamored with the instrument and Pasi generously provided me with one. After a whole lot of frustration and torturing of my girlfriend at the time, I learned to play a little. I think it sounds so beautiful and I feel it’s really underused in modern music, and I wanted to learn nontraditional tunes on it. I was originally trying to work out a Finnish version of ‘Between the Sheets’ by the Isley Brothers. It dawned on me that a lot of popular rap songs sampled that song, and I’ve been ‘novelty rapping’ for years, so it only seemed natural to go for it. I’m currently writing some of my own raps so I have a little more variety.”
Who were some of your greatest musical influences growing up?
“My musical influences are VAST. I tend to get obsessed with different things and move on to something different. I sometimes follow the influences of my influences. I was into Sublime. That led me to Bob Marley and Others. Stevie Ray Vaughn led me To Jimi Hendrix. They both led me to the older Blues masters. I absolutely adored the Misfits. I love the theatrics and the rawness and the power.
But most influential for me are the people I’ve gotten to play with first hand. I used to play with Tom Katalin a whole lot back in the early days. He taught me a lot about being a performer. Ray Francis from the Virgin Islands really taught me a lot about Caribbean Music. Oren Tikkanen has given a lot of wisdom and opened my eyes to a lot of great songs. Steve Jones of course has shown me a library of jazz information. Lee Sterbenz and Kenny O’Connor showed me some authentic country flavor. Duncan Price knows how to make a guitar sound absolutely gorgeous. And of course the MAN in copper country music, Mike Irish, has been like an ocean of musical understanding for me to draw on.”
What are some of the most profound ways in which your parents have helped you along your life’s journey?
“Oh man! They have done so much good work. I am very fortunate to have parental support like I do. My parents at a young age taught me the value of community service and hard work. Also, they were always pretty much blindly supportive in my young years and infinitely tolerant of any kind of ‘musical’ noise I was making. They would buy me recording gear, or drums, or whatever I needed, even when their means probably weren’t quite enough to provide such tools. My mom used to sit and show me how to play songs I liked on the piano. As I’ve grown older and have had really had some struggles, they have been there to help me. Now they are at performances all the time and supporting the businesses that support my business. I couldn’t be more fortunate in the parental scenario.”
What advice do you have for local youth who may want to become the next Bob Hiltunen?
“My advice for the young people is simple. If you love something, do it. And do it a lot. Be brave. And prepare to fail, and accept that failure is a majority of the path to knowing the right way.”
If you had the chance to tell everyone in the world one thing, what would it be?
“If I could say anything to the world, I suppose I’d have to say thank you. Thanks for the help, support, and lessons and colors in life.”
For more information on Bob Hiltunen, like and follow his Facebook page HERE.
Through philanthropic services, strategic investments and community leadership, Keweenaw Community Foundation helps people support the causes they care about, now and for generations to come. For more information on Keweenaw Community Foundation and how to give, explore our website at www.keweenawgives.org.