Corey Hagstrom/ Noah Gokey
What’s in a name?
Corey Hagstrom strikes a promotional pose.
Photo by Stephanie Dubin
Singer, guitarist, and writer Corey Hagstrom was born thirty-nine years ago in Jamestown, N.Y., and now lives with his wife and three children in the University Park neighborhood, home base for his thriving DIY career(s) as a novelist, a solo acoustic musician, and the frontman for a rock trio in which he is joined by bassist Steve Hawley and drummer Andy Bastiano. In many of his endeavors he uses the name “Noah Gokey,” leading to a certain confusion that he clearly relishes—so I started our discussion there.
Is “Noah Gokey” a stage name (like “David Bowie”) or a band name that doesn’t refer to an individual (like “Blondie”)—or something in between (like “Alice Cooper”)?
I'm not sure. In the past it was sort of an alter ego, I guess, but it grew to become the band name. I originally conceived of it as an album title, but then it came to represent the whole project, which was solo from 2004 until 2010. After some variations it became the band name, but I also used it as my radio handle during the many long years of my podcast, Noah's Ark, a show about local bands with some terrible attempts at humor. People variously call me Noah or Corey; I'll answer to either without offense, unlike Hootie. I heard he gets upset if you call him that, but of course everyone does anyway. I say go with it.
Why “Noah Gokey”? I’ve seen a photo of what purports to be the original NG on the band’s Facebook page; what’s the story behind him? How did the name come to you, what does it mean to you, and so on—assuming you are okay revealing the mystery, that is.
Indeed that is the real-life historical figure Noah Gokey on our FB page! In the third grade, my class put on a play about the founding of Jamestown. Everyone picked parts out of a hat. The big parts were James Prendergast (namesake of Jamestown) and Governor Fenton (fun fact: one time member of the oxymoronically named Liberal Republican Party!). The part I drew was Noah Gokey. He owned a shoe factory in Jamestown that made an innovative style of boot, combining Native American moccasins with European boot leather. He sold them from Jamestown up and down the Mississippi. (The Chadakoin river that runs through Jamestown eventually connects to the Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi rivers, a geographical advantage that helped Jamestown to grow rapidly as a manufacturing center, mainly of furniture.) Noah helped to found the Jamestown Board of Public Utilities, a city owned power company that provides low cost electricity to residents. There is still a Gokey Building in downtown Jamestown. I knew some Gokeys growing up. Hopefully they're not upset.
What can you tell us about the other band members?
We have all been in other groups, together! About ten years ago I played with both of them in a previous project, Blood Orange. After that split we all went our separate ways. I made Noah Gokey into a full band and after a few lineup changes (these things happen), I was in the market for a drummer. Andy Bastiano and I had kept in touch over the years and he happened to call me the very day I was planning to call him to ask if he'd be interested in joining Gokey. We played together for a year or so and then found ourselves in the market for a bassist (these things happen a lot), so we gave Steve Hawley a call to see if he'd be interested in saddling up with Gokey. Reuniting under the Gokey banner has been a revelation and I'm very happy with the lineup as it is now. I've put a moratorium on any further lineup changes, so this is now the permanent lineup of Noah Gokey and cannot be changed.
Your latest albums with the band sound and feel quite different from the solo acoustic sets of yours I’m familiar with. That could be a factor of the situation, but: Do you approach writing and performing differently when you’re part of the band than on your own?
I do, but there is a lag. Some of the songs on Reason & Rhyme (our 2018 double album) were written to be solo tunes but turned out better as band tunes. The intent doesn't always agree with the result, but every song has its own journey from conception to recording to performance. Sometimes it changes quite a bit as we play it and hear it and talk about it. I generally write the songs by myself in full, but they can evolve in tone and feel as we assimilate them into the band. I might write a song to be solo but then we jam it out and turn it into something bigger. Flexibility is the key to optimization. I just want to treat the song the way it wants.
"Bloom" is the first single from the all new Noah Gokey album The End of the Beginning
How are the books you’re writing connected to the music you’re releasing?
Sure, I've had grand delusions of creating a sci-fi rock opera, but who hasn't? While I haven't gotten to that just yet, there are a few songs with lyrics directly inspired by concepts from the books. Testing an idea lyrically can be a great way to gauge its emotional power, or discover another angle in the translation.
What similarities and differences do you find between writing books and songs?
There's an element of poetry in both. I like prose that is lyrical and poetic. But they each satisfy different creative urges. Music is primal and universal, but also very subjective. I feel like writing is a more formal way to express concepts and a less complicated medium. Both have unique and special ways to touch the reader or the listener. I like exploring both and the occasional synergy between the two.
You seem drawn to extended, multi-part projects—a trilogy of novels, a two-CD set, longer songs that sometimes evoke prog rock of bygone eras. Meanwhile, we find ourselves in an era that is all about the quick take: the single, the tweet-length post, etc. Do you feel any tension around that—like you’re bucking the trend—or do you sense an audience for longform work?
I sense that is the trend, but I don't think I'm purposely bucking it. I'm not sure if there is an audience for longform work. But I've always enjoyed art that makes you work a little harder; the payoff is more fulfilling. And there's no way to properly build that foundation without a longer, more subtle and nuanced journey. A lot of singles can be great for a few listens but they get stale fast. Art with a longer buildup and more thought-out climax tends to be better for repeated enjoyment. I've done many songs over the years that are very short as well. But to me they are a part of a bigger picture and more enjoyable as one piece of the puzzle. And it goes beyond just one album or one book. There are interrelated concepts spread across all of my creative endeavors. Many of my lyrics refer to other songs I've written, maybe years and several albums apart. There is a science, a formula, to the big single or quick hit. There are boxes to check. The longform is more of an art. It's deeper. And that touches the mystical yearning I think all people have. And that to me is the real goal of any great art.
Can you recommend a less-known artist (musician and/or writer) or two (local and/or international) that you think readers ought to check out?
Just in general I'd say give opera a chance. It's gotten a bad rap but I really love it. Romantic era, Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti are all amazing composers. My reading tastes are mostly confined to nonfiction history, so not a super popular choice either but again, I'd say give it a shot! I recently read a great biography of Winston Churchill.
Speaking of Churchill, what about them inspired you to look to him and James Joyce as rock muses?
Pure serendipity. When the Universe speaks to you in the voice of Winston Churchill or James Joyce, you must listen. There's a history of reversing phrases in this project, with albums like The Doubt of the Benefit and Reason & Rhyme, and songs like “Tense Past,” “Words Back,” and “That's Far Too.” I noticed the famous Churchill line (the intro track to The End of the Beginning) and then I started hearing it everywhere. Maybe it's confirmation bias. But as Ronson said, once I heard about confirmation bias I started seeing that everywhere too. Also, last year I read Ulysses and I found it inspiring. It was a reminder and wakeup call that it's okay to smash boundaries, leave convention behind, and let the art take you wherever it wants to go. That's the end of the beginning to me. For us it represents a new beginning to a different chapter, fearless and determined.
Do you have a favorite venue or performing situation?
Busking. It's the ultimate test. There's just nothing better than standing on a street corner with only the instrument in your hand, trying to impress complete and total strangers who are busy doing other things. I've busked all over Buffalo and Niagara Falls as well (the international crowd is another level of challenge). When someone stops on the street to listen to you, you have five seconds or less to blow their mind. If they throw a penny in your bucket and say, “Good job!,” or even just listen for a few minutes, that's a nice feeling. The quick hit meets deeper resonance on the street.
I’ve long associated you with both the Infringement Festival and Porchfest, and you have a long history with both by now. What is it about such annual events that you think has made them such big parts of Buffalo’s cultural landscape?
I think people in this area love to come together to support events that showcase so many parts of the arts community you might not see or hear about every day. Part of that is just that it's fun to walk around and say, hey, wow, there's a lot of great musicians and artists in this town. But another part is just that good neighbor community focus we have here. Back in my radio days I'd always ask people what they liked about WNY, and they'd almost always say the people. It's easy to take for granted but also rare and beautiful that we are such good neighbors in Buffalo and the greater Niagara region. These grassroots festivals empower and celebrate that at the same time. We're a loveable rag tag group of misfits in WNY and we revel in it.
Have you got any upcoming shows or readings you’d like to plug here?
Sure! I'm doing a solo set at Hot Mama's October 26th. And we'll be in Albion November 15th at a great little spot called 39 Problems. We're always adding new shows so follow us socially to stay tuned. I don't mean social media. Literally follow us around in public until you hear things.
What’s the best way for readers to find out where you are playing next, hear your music, buy your books, etc?
Besides the aforementioned stalking, noahgokey.com is updated with all new releases, but for more details and inside scoops on shows and projects you can follow facebook.com/noahgokey and facebook.com/coreychagstrom. My music is available at all major retailers and streamable for free. The books are exclusively on one website, but I'm not sure if I should say it. It's huge. It's bananas. It's Besozanas. Search engine that if you like.