Wired for Sound
Whatever I went through—not to be corny—I always had my music,” says Ralph Huntley ’89, reflecting back on his years at Reed. After a brief sojourn as a social scientist, Huntley has made a career playing music in Portland. Among his many and varied gigs, he leads the house band Ralph Huntley and the Mutton Chops for Live Wire, an edgy new variety show replete with musical acts, interviews, and sketch comedy . The show is recorded live at Portland’s Aladdin Theater and airs monthly on local public radio station Oregon Public Broadcasting (to download a podcast, go to www.livewireradio.org). In addition, Huntley plays piano and composes for the Portland-based Do Jump! Theater—“a homespun version of Cirque du Soleil”—which had a week-long engagement this spring at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Huntley also is a founding member of Klezmocracy, a Portland-based jazz-klezmer group.
Growing up in Iowa City, Huntley took piano lessons as a kid (and like all good “practicing” musicians, he still teaches to help pay the bills). During high school, he played in rock bands. He came to Reed and ended up majoring in psychology, but he also continued to take piano lessons, studying jazz and improvisation. He thanks his thesis adviser, emeritus psychology professor Dell Rhodes, for “kicking his ass” academically. But it was the piano that saw him through the doubts and turbulence of Reed. Sitting at the piano, he says, things just “made sense.” The music provided him with a “secret little pillar of identity.”
After graduation, Huntley worked for psychology professor Allen Neuringer in his rat lab doing variability studies. “It was cutting edge for behaviorism, and it was great,” Huntley says. “I felt like, here I am on my career path to psychology.”
That path, however, required a lot of time sitting in front of a computer screen, “collating thousands of columns of numbers in dreary Excel spread sheets.” Huntley came to feel no passion for the work. “I guess I was just still young enough not to be worried about the implications of ditching my career path. So I just ditched it. I quit, got a job at a crappy restaurant, and started playing in bands.”
Huntley, who is married to fellow-Reedie Lora Romero Huntley ’90, credits two things for his success: a willingness to take risks, and the fear of not eating. “The biggest anxiety in a musician’s life is over-booking, double-booking, trying to take everything you can,” he says. “You get into this mentality where you know what the famine is like so you’re doing everything you can to avoid a dry spell, which means saying ‘yes’ to a lot of different things.” There’s also his distinctive tonsorial style to help him along: he sports big bushy muttonchops—“an old sort of Chester A. Arthur look,” is how he puts it. “It never quite seems to come back in style, which I love.”
Live Wire is Huntley’s most ambitious project yet, in part because leading the house band is only a small aspect of the job. He is one of Live Wire’s co-founders, he helps write the comedy routines, and he also does a wide range of voices and sound effects as one of the performers in Faces for Radio Theater, the show’s sketch comedy troupe.
“For me it was a bit weird being on the mic, and having the expectation that I have to turn on the funny,” he says. “I’m lucky. I’ve always got the piano. It’s my secret little buddy. I think I’m covered.”
—Laura Miller ’92