Brian “Snackie” Hillman remembers being mesmerized as a kid when hearing The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for the first time. He always toyed with friends’ musical instruments as a youngster and has vivid memories of his father, Milton, playing tenor saxophone with a big band.
But it wasn’t until surviving a car accident at age 18 and going through a two-month recovery period that Hillman grabbed a guitar, and music established a prominent place in his universe.
“Those are very dark years, ages 14 or 15 to 20. I was very alone. I didn’t know anybody,” says Hillman, alluding to his family’s move to Baltimore City from Reisterstown and Boring, Md.
Now at age 50, Hillman’s world revolves around music. He’s a well-connected and much-loved local performer, teaches about 25 students weekly at The Music Lab studio based in his Medfield home, and is founder of the popular jazz cocktail lounge band The Swingin’ Swamis.
His musical history, like the Swamis’ performances, is eclectic. In his 20s, Hillman took courses at the Peabody Conservatory and Towson University, studying music theory, guitar, piano, drums and vocals. “I got a vibe for what I needed to do,” he says.
Hillman spent rock ‘n’ roll stints in Seattle in the early ’90s and later in New York City. Both moves happened in the name of love (which didn’t last) but were musically beneficial.
In Seattle, Hillman composed feverishly and launched the band Pornflakes (the name was actually hatched at Baltimore’s Mount Royal Tavern). But things really took off when he returned to Charm City 18 months later and assembled an accomplished (though what would be revolving) roster of band members.
Pornflakes recorded four albums throughout its six-year, roller coaster existence with such popular numbers as “Cow Pokers,” “Coffee” and “Naked.” The band played locally and toured regionally, and crowds ate up their smart, colorful lyrics, big sound and quirky theatrical antics. They received lots of attention and broke lots of rules, and then went out with a bang in 1996.
The Swamis took off in ‘97, and they’ve kept at it ever since. With a musical diet that ranged from The Kinks and David Bowie to the Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, it was Hillman’s fervent attraction to the retro, artsy exotica album covers he found at thrift shops that introduced him to the sound he came to embrace with the Swamis.
“Exotica music is a hybrid of jazz and a variety of other elements,” Hillman says. “Polynesian, Middle Eastern, Egyptian music — basically taking other styles of music, other world rhythms, and infusing them into jazz.”
Celebrating 20 years together in January, the Swamis stay busy on the receptions and special events circuit. Hillman, on keyboards and vocals, serves as band manager. Filling out the group are Chris Bavaria on guitar and vocals, Chris Hipster on drums, John Dierker on tenor sax, Kerra Holtgren as vocalist and (nearly) original band member Eddie Chabot on bass and vocals.
“[Back in the Pornflakes days] Snackie was an inspiration to me,” Chabot recalls. “If it weren’t for him, [the Swamis] would probably fall apart. So many people know him and he’s made a big mark on the music scene in Baltimore. He’s collaborated with some of the best musicians in Baltimore.”
Hillman, who has a 7-year-old son, Jude, records and composes in his home studio, surrounded by wood-paneled walls and a dropped acoustic ceiling. Framed Beatles photos and musical regalia fill the walls, along with displays of ukuleles, a gong and an enormous poster of Bob Dylan. The desk is covered with electronic equipment and computer screens for composing and editing.
There are also two keyboards, a pair of guitars, a sound mixing board and a turntable with a stack of vinyl albums. “It looks like an 18-year-old’s basement,” Hillman says. “It’s a comfort zone for me. This is where I can feel like I’m in my teens again.”
Hillman says he has no plans to stop making music anytime soon. “I love the music, I love to perform,” he says, adding with a laugh, “and it helps pay the bills.”
Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Shown here in 2013, the Swingin’ Swamis are (left to right) Chris Bavaria, Eddie Chabot, Brian “Snackie” Hillman, Kerra Holtgren, John Dierker and Zak Fusciello. Courtesy photo
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