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Chris and Johnny are back -- and bigger than ever

By Elizabeth Child
August 25, 2007

To an avid fan there is nothing more heart-wrenching than the break up of a favorite band. And nothing more exciting than the moment when the band members realize their "mistake."

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John Hermanson (left) and Chris Cunningham.
When Johnny Hermanson '93 and Chris Cunningham '94 split up in 1997, casting the band "Chris and Johnny" and its soulful, original folk-rock ballads into the digital archives, many Oles mourned the passing -- especially St. Olaf students who had heard their melodic voices in the Pause student club or at the Grand in downtown Northfield.

While Chris and Johnny's audience was small in comparison, the breakup, to their fans, was not dissimilar to that of Simon and Garfunkel, whose harmonious style can never be rendered by any other pairing.

After a four-year hiatus to find their separate voices and carve stable, adult lives (including spouses and, for Johnny, children), the duo started where it left off in 2001. They renamed themselves Storyhill after a favorite hill in Bozeman, Mont., where they both grew up.

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Although the band already has 13 CDs, Red House released a namesake "debut" album this year. Another album will be released later this year.
Now they've been picked up by Red House Records, the Twin Cities label that distributes legendary folkies like Greg Brown, Tony Glover and Ann Reed. Although the band had already cut a total of 13 CDs, Red House released a namesake "debut" album this year. Another album will be released later this year.

"When we're together, there's something else that happens that's bigger than who we are that we're not in control of," Johnny said recently over coffee in St. Paul. They've given in to their merged identity once again, but they've also hung on to separate careers -- Chris in Bozeman and Johnny in St. Paul. They continue to hone their musical talents and writing skills separately and together. Between the two of them they now play piano, guitar, trumpet, violin, harmonica, bass and accordion.

The beginning
Their alliance started in seventh grade, when Chris and Johnny were first paired to do a geography project on the Bermuda Triangle (an artifact that Johnny still keeps). Later they sang together in the high school choir and auditioned to perform an original tune they wrote for a pops concert. It was so well received that they continued penning and performing songs.

As the date of their high school graduation loomed, they each made plans to spread their wings in new directions. Chris was about to fly off to Spain for the year and Johnny was heading to St. Olaf to study violin performance (he later switched to a self-designed, nonmusical major in the Paracollege). It seemed that what they'd created together was ending before it really got started. To memorialize their collaborations, their parents gave them each $200 for a few hours in a studio to record their music.

At St. Olaf Johnny played coffeehouse-style gigs in Kildahl lounge and at the Pause, and sold out of the tapes he and Chris had created in high school. When Chris returned home from Spain, Johnny convinced him to come to St. Olaf. Through their St. Olaf years they wrote, performed and recorded several CDs, including Shape Shifting and Different Waters.

They also met a cast of characters who became important in their musical future: Eric Fawcett '92 manages Storyhill and drums on their records, Alex Oana '92 engineered and coproduced two of their first professionally produced CDs and Brian Roessler '93 played bass for the band. David Weeks '93 and Andy Carlson set up an indie label called Peppermint Records, where they sold Chris and Johnny CDs. The support Chris and Johnny had from Oles in the industry -- not to mention their loyal Ole fans -- kept them humming. It even foiled a plan to leave Minnesota winters for sunny L.A.

After Johnny graduated, he and Chris looked beyond Northfield for gigs. While Chris was finishing his senior year they made forays to other colleges on long weekends. The college circuit turned out to be a great way to make a living. The duo played Gustavus Adolphus, Luther, St. Scholastica, the University of Minnesota Duluth and other colleges and universities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Montana.

But, says Johnny, "St. Olaf was the place where we were able to hone our skills and play for a very accepting audience." Even after Ole fans graduated they would still come to see Chris and Johnny on tour, often as graduate students at universities where the duo was booked.

Their audience multiplied. They toured mostly in the West and Midwest, but in 1997 they toured from Seattle to the East Coast over five months, riding in a van, loading and unloading equipment until, Johnny concedes, they just grew tired of each other's company.

On June 3, 1997, after a performance in Bozeman, they called it quits. Chris packed up for Pennsylvania to build low-income houses for Hosanna Industries. Johnny moved to the home country of his Norwegian wife and college sweetheart, Bettine Hoff '93. Today, back in Bozeman, Chris writes and produces music. Johnny, who now lives in St. Paul, has teamed up with Eric Fawcett to create Fiction, a company that produces music for commercial and noncommercial distribution. He also leads the band Alva Star and cowrites and plays several instruments for the Hopefuls, another band started by Oles.

While Chris and Johnny were at a fork in the road, their band still kept growing its audience through Peppermint, which retained distribution rights. In fact, they actually sold more albums than then did when they were touring. After a few years apart, Johnny remembers hearing one of their songs covered by a girl band and thought, "Hey, we weren't bad." Chris had the same revelation after gaining distance and perspective, and the twosome joined up again in 2001. And thanks to Peppermint they had an instant following.

Dream come true
The second time around is not only different, it's better, Johnny says. "We have Eric as our manager. We have distribution all over the world. We have a reputation that precedes us, and Red House Records is able to get us all over the country. With all this support our focus is just on the music." In addition to the label, he credits a loyal network of Oles and other college graduates for their comeback success. They currently boast a mailing list of 10,000 and have sold 45,000 CDs.

Touring is done in five- to 10-day stints with a week or two off in between. Johnny and Chris also keep their individual voices strong through other projects. "Now that we have the confidence of who we are, we feel free to surrender to the duo when we're together. We no longer have fears about giving up too much," Johnny says. "Getting back together is a dream come true."

Listen and learn more at storyhill.com.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or gonnermd@stolaf.edu.