With a laugh, Billy Alletzhauser fields the compliment that his band The Hiders’ new album, Forever at the End, will cement his reputation as a master of mid-tempo, sad-bastard Americana. He then admits to a bit of pre-interview planning prior to our meeting in his studio, dubbed the Belfry.
“When I brought you up here, I was going to say, ‘This is where the tragic happens,’” he admits.
The Hiders have indeed been making the tragic happen since the band’s spectacular 2004 debut, Valentine. Alletzhauser and gifted harmony vocalist Beth Harris, the two constant Hiders in a rotating roll call of stellar talent, have assembled an impressive canon over the past decade and a half, and all without the questionable assistance of a label structure.
After Valentine’s release, Alletzhauser adhered to a loose intention of putting out a Hiders album every two years, but 2017’s Unsheltered Storm came after a three-year gap and, at four years, Forever at the End represents the longest wait between studio albums. It’s natural to assume the new album’s progress and release was slowed by last year’s quarantine, but in fact, the opposite is true.
“Without the pandemic it might have taken longer,” Alletzhauser says. “Seriously, I don’t know if it would even have come out.”
He says he began writing and recording again, grabbing drummer Todd Drake for assistance on the demos.
“During the pandemic, when we felt comfortable getting together, Todd and Jeremy Pittman, who was playing bass with us, and I would get together, with Beth and sometimes without her, just to do basic tracks,” Alletzhauser says. “There wasn’t any big plan.”
Harris seconds that assessment. Her in-demand abilities extend beyond her role in The Hiders, most recently as a backing vocalist on tours for Cincinnati-spawned Rock band Heartless Bastards and for its lead singer Erika Wennerstrom’s solo project. Harris’ frequent absences necessitated a lot of piecemeal recording.
“We’d cram in some recording because we can’t not, and Bill had been getting some base tracks done while I was gone,” Harris says. “Things were coming together but it was still just a bunch of stuff we’d recorded, and Bill finally said, ‘What are we doing with these songs?’ And I said, ‘We need to finish them and make an album. Put it out digitally, just get them out.’ So finishing them was our pandemic project.”
The album coalesced around Alletzhauser’s songs that dealt with inevitability, destiny and time, particularly the title track “Forever at the End.” It’s one of the oldest Hiders songs, dating back to the sessions that produced Valentine, and somehow it never wound up on an album until this one. The song revealed its perfection in hindsight.
“Beth really liked it. She’s probably responsible for keeping it alive,” Alletzhauser says. “It might have been the patience we had because it’s a more complicated song. It has a lot more layers and curveballs and maybe the extra time we had because of the pandemic let us settle into it. I knew I wanted to title the album Forever at the End, mainly because it’s a cool title, but it’s also the oldest song.”
“After I mastered the album, I was making a folder to send to press people with the bio and stuff, and I abbreviated the name on the folder so I could see it clearly,” he continues. “The acronym for Forever at the End is F.A.T.E.”
Fate has played an important part in The Hiders’ history. After his departure from legendary local Indie Rock band Ass Ponys, Alletzhauser organized regular songwriting/performing salons at his basement “Batcave” with local stalwarts like Chuck Cleaver (Ass Ponys, Wussy) and Ed Cunningham (Comet Bluegrass All-Stars), among many others. When The Hiders began to solidify from those informal jam sessions, Alletzhauser realized how much he enjoyed having a singing partner, which had previously included Niki Buerig from Plow on Boy and Lisa Walker from Wussy.
Alletzhauser and Harris had actually met during a local theatrical production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch around 2001, and when he was looking for a regular co-vocalist for The Hiders, he thought of Harris and asked her to join. Neither one of them points to a specific moment of clarity when they sang together for the first time, but Harris, who grew up in a church-based atmosphere with a gifted musical family in Arkansas, notes that her first time in the studio with Alletzhauser was a revelation.
“I had a theater background but I always had this secret dream of singing in a Rock band,” she says. “I loved the theater but it wasn’t fulfilling whatever passion I had that I didn’t know what it was yet. When Bill asked me to sing with The Hiders, it took me a minute because I was trying to find my place in the Rock world. When we went to record the first album and I could relax a little, it was my first time in a studio and immediately it was like, ‘Ooh, I could live here.’ Hearing it so close in the headphones, it just hit me that I’m going to sing with this person for the rest of my life.”
The effect of two vocalists achieving a single sonic presence is typically linked by a genetic bond and is often referred to as “blood harmony.” Ironically, Alletzhauser had written a song with that title for this album but it was cut at the last minute. Regardless, he clearly recognizes the rarity of his connection with Harris.
“I never take it for granted,” Alletzhauser says. “I wouldn’t have The Hiders if it wasn’t for Beth. She’s the yin to my yang, and her favorite word is ‘yes’ — sometimes to her detriment. ‘Hey, you want to play a coffeehouse for no money?’ ‘Yes!’ She’ll come back from playing Red Rocks and then play a pizza place with me, and it’s just as cool. She’s been there always, as much a friend as a bandmate. She’s my best friend.”
“I get Bill more than anyone on the planet, and I think vice versa,” Harris agrees. “It just dawned on him recently that The Hiders were me and him, and everyone else changes around us. He said, ‘It really is just me and you, right?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. Der. It’s been that way since I joined the band.’ We’re a constant. We always will be.”
That devotion could be viewed through a romantic prism, but there has never been any Fleetwood Mac-like drama in The Hiders because Alletzhauser and Harris have never been emotionally involved beyond the music they make. Harris notes that many of Alletzhauser’s previous relationships had been strained by his connection to Harris, but his fiancee Sarah completely understands what they do and why they’re together.
“Billy is one of my lifelines, as far as people I need in my life,” Harris says. “Thank God he has a fiancee who understands that. She’s like, ‘Oh, you besties. I’ll leave you to it.’ His relationships before were not so understanding and it made him miserable. You can’t make music as well if you’re miserable. Musicians think they need to be miserable to make music, but they don’t.”
Learn more about The Hiders and listen to a song from Forever at the End at thehiders.com.
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*A previous version of this article stated that Billy and Sarah are married; they are engaged to be married. Jeremy Pitt's name has also been corrected to Jeremy Pittman.