Bug Hunter: Some of My Best Friends Are People

w/ The Narcissist Cookbook | 07.15.23, 7:00pm | Lucas Schoolhouse, 1220 Allen Ave. | All ages | $25 (sold out)

“I don’t see myself as a musician or performer; I see myself as a songwriter,” Bug Hunter, frontman and songwriter for the eponymous indie pop band, confides to me midway through our interview. While he claims that “90%” of his talent lies in his songwriting, the band’s upcoming summer tour with The Narcissist Cookbook would show otherwise, with there being a much higher demand for tickets than they anticipated. All 18 shows are sold out, and some were even moved to larger venues, and sold out again. So, while Hunter’s songwriting is no doubt part of what brings them there, his performance skills are what keeps them coming back.

Hunter and the band have managed to bring in enough people, in fact, both to live shows and via Spotify listens, to allow him to leave his job in software to be a full-time musician. After this summer’s tour, the band will release their fourth album, which met 221% of their original goal on Kickstarter. This is a long way from the band’s first album, 2017’s Torn Between A Couple, which was recorded in Hunter’s closet. The next two albums, 2018’s The Rough Draft and 2020’s Bigger Than Myself, were funded through Kickstarter—with the most recent having seven times the number of supporters as the first.

These successes were part of what prompted Hunter to take the leap to being a full-time musician about a year and a half ago. While leaving the corporate world can be freeing, it can also make what started as a hobby into a much more complicated undertaking. Still, Hunter felt it might be a death-bed regret if he didn’t go for it when the chance arose. When explaining his decision, he told me that he realized, “I’m going to regret this the rest of my life if I don’t go after this because people don’t get this opportunity very often.” So far, trading in code for chords has proven to be the right decision.

Bug Hunter

That said, leaving a job in tech hasn’t meant his computer doesn’t play a large role in his current job. Hunter uses spreadsheets to help him with the songwriting process. Hunter describes his system as, “the Venn diagram between data and creativity. It’s right in my sweet spot.” Hunter ranks his lyrics line by line based on criteria like how it contributes to the song and whether the line has the right sound to it. On the 1 – 10 scale, anything measuring below a 7 is red.

“It can take a year to fix them,” he clarifies. “It’s not that now that I recognize that there’s a problem doesn’t mean I know how to fix it right away, but at least I know where to put my effort.” He admits people generally respond to an explanation of his system with something along the lines of, “wow, that’s something,” with an expression somewhere between impressed and aghast, but it has worked for him for the last three albums and is no doubt helping with the upcoming fourth album.

Like Hunter’s songwriting spreadsheets, his music finds an intersection, this time of gravitas and humor. His songs range in topic from suicide attempts (“Take It Back”) and abusive relationships (“Deserve Me”) to interacting with a neighbor convinced his house is haunted (“2 Bed, 2 Bath [and a Ghost]”) and his sweet relationship with his wife, “Lady Bug” (“Be Glad I Love You [Go To Bed]”). Despite the array of topics, they all manage to sound like Bug Hunter songs. The lyrics, while not being repetitive at all, share a common thread of wit and accessibility. The songs about his parents and his wife aren’t saccharine, nor are his songs about times he felt undervalued (by himself or others) whiny or melancholic. His goal with the new album is to continue down the path set by the first three albums. “I really just want this album to fit in,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be the best set of songs I’ve ever written. I just want it to exist on the same plane as everything else.”

Both in his music and in conversation, Hunter doesn’t come across as overconfident, but he also doesn’t possess any false modesty. He did laughingly confirm he had a pretty rough time in high school but also says it has had benefits as an adult, since he now feels ready for anything. His family moved every three years, including between his sophomore and junior year when his family moved from California to Arkansas. Every move brought not only having to leave friends behind but trying to make new friends when the culture was often very different. The ability to be comfortable in whatever situation he finds himself in has had an impact some 15 years later, even beyond his music career. “I moved to Virginia two years ago with my wife and it was her first time leaving the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle area, ever. And I was just like, ‘Cool, let’s get the U-Haul. Let’s go.’ I will find a place and it will be nice and I will like it and maybe I’ll like it better than the last place, or maybe I won’t, but that’s fine.”

Touring is another area where lessons learned from past experiences have been important. He doesn’t come across as mercenary when talking about the logistics of being a full-time musician but more aware of the realities of the ramifications of things like sold-out shows than most people would be. When I congratulated him on the sold-out shows, he agrees, “It’s good in a way,” and he admits it looks great on a poster, but explains that it also means that a larger venue would have allowed the band to sell more tickets. Ticket revenue is what allows them to tour in the first place, plus as Hunter puts it, it would be great if “everyone who wanted to come see the show got to see the show.” They’ve also been “notoriously bad” at estimating the amount of merch they’ll need, but they’ve learned from it. He says that for the upcoming tour, they extrapolated what they thought they needed for t-shirts—and ordered 200 more. St. Louis is the last stop on the first half of the tour, so we will see if they made the right choice.

The fact that Hunter does enjoy touring, despite being self-described as shy and “a silly introvert,” is largely because of who he tours with. The primary person for him is his road crew chief—his dad. In the last two years “Papa Bug,” as he’s referred to by fans, has only missed two shows, due to a fishing trip. He and his dad Facetime multiple times a week about logistics and once they’re on the road, his dad drives the van, greets folks at the shows, and helps sell the aforementioned t-shirts and other merch. “We’re a total team,” he tells me, adding, “It’s very special and valuable time and I don’t take it for granted.” 

Bug Hunter

Touring is also more enjoyable now because they limit it to 10 days at a time, allowing the band (including bandmates Kyle Hodgkinson & Jesse Gallaway) to get a break to sleep in their own beds. Hunter has also frequently toured with The Narcissist Cookbook (also known as Matt Johnston), a musician based out of Scotland. They met when Johnston messaged Hunter out of the blue to tell him he liked his music—and to let him know that Spotify considered them similar artists. They’ve become close friends and toured on both sides of the Atlantic. “I went from having a very normal, structured life, to this thing where people are getting my signature tattooed on their arm. I can’t just go to my friends and be like, ‘You guys know when people tattoo your name on their arm?’ But I can talk to Matt about that. Matt and I can have that conversation.”

Not only does “Papa Bug” play an important role on the road, we also have him to thank for starting off Hunter on his journey to be a musician. Unlike many who eventually are able to do music full-time, Hunter didn’t play in bands in high school and college, or even own a guitar. It wasn’t till his 21st birthday, when his parents gifted him a ukulele, that he started moving in that direction.  Almost a year later, as he graduated from college with a degree in computer engineering and readied himself to start his first post-college job, he bought his first guitar. “I just decided it was time to upgrade. I had figured out all the basic chords on the ukulele and I thought I could handle two more strings.”

He has learned to handle the other two strings well, though he says that as he’s attained more success in his career, it has made approval from others more important—not less. As he explains, when he was writing the first album, Torn Between A Couple, “no one was listening.” “Approval from who?” he asked with a laugh, “I was just making music.” With the second album there was more pressure because it was released after the success of his first song to hit 1,000,000 plays on Spotify—“Dear McCracken.” It was a song based on a true story wherein he side-eyed an e-mail the woman sitting next to him on a plane was writing to a man she was clearly in love with, though she was trying to hide it.  

The ending of the song is ambiguous – does her e-mail win over McCracken and they’ve married in the seven years since the flight or did it end up going unanswered? Hunter himself doesn’t know how it ended—he never saw her again after their flight. When I asked him if he wanted to know how the story ended, he said with a laugh, “I super don’t, no.” That’s not the point of the song though, as Hunter explains. “The song is about the unknowns and the things that you don’t say, and if you’re not willing to put yourself out there.” He continues, “I think knowing is better than not knowing your entire life.”

That sentiment is much like the one that brought Hunter where he stands today. However, also like the ending of “Dear McCracken,” Hunter is aware he has no idea what the future will bring. Next year’s shows may be at bigger venues—or at smaller ones. “Maybe people will have moved on. They like K-Pop now,” he says with a chuckle. He says more seriously, “I can’t take the longevity for granted. I’m doing as much as I can with the time that I have.” So far Hunter has been using his time wisely, and it seems like he is ready for whatever the future brings. “My songs are my songs and I dive deep into me and who I am,” he tells me, which shows that, the learning experiences of the last year aside, Hunter has already learned the most important part of the job. | Teresa Montgomery

For a complete list of upcoming Bug Hunter tour dates, click here.

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