Hiatus Kaiyote: Choosing Their Own Weapons

Hiatus Kaiyote are navigating a sea of sold-out US shows and rave reviews on the first leg of a world tour promoting new album Choose Your Weapon. I sat down with the band before they left to talk about self-producing some of the hippest music around, juggling hectic touring and recording schedules and the creative value of knowing nothing…

Hiatus Kaiyote’s sophomore album is an ambitious seventy-minute opus. In a market saturated with the musical equivalent of McMansions, Weapon feels like a Gaudi-designed cathedral — intricate, inventive, beautiful and uncompromising.

A heady brew – but one that’s proving surprisingly user-friendly – Weapon debuted at #3 in the US on Billboard’s R&B albums chart and #1 on the Heat Seeker chart, with the band’s profile in Australia steadily growing.

It’s been more than two years since Hiatus Kaiyote’s debut album Tawk Tomahawk.
As the band started to blow up in the US – receiving the taste-maker blessings of luminaries from Erykah Badu to Prince – they found themselves somewhat time-poor. This meant recording and mixing Weapon‘s 18 tracks took more than a year.

“The next time we make a record we have to make it faster,” says bassist Paul Bender.

“Our time management is horrible — everyone was asking us to do things and we’d be like ‘Okay!’…but then you have to go do those things and it —”

“It fucks with your momentum,” states vocalist Nai Palm.

“It was broken up between touring as well. It was hard to come back from a tour and be in the same headspace,” adds keys player Simon Mavin.

“We’d have an Australian tour, go away to Europe and come back and have a week of jet-lag and get back into it again,” he continues.

The process was extended in space too, with sessions in various locations around Melbourne and some in the US.

“We tracked the band in various places,” explains Bender.

“Different songs go through a different process depending on what kind of track it is. Sometimes we’d have to rework whole sections because you want it to sound like it’s inside a game console or to have more of a hip-hop style production, layering things up to create different effects.

“So it changed all the time, but we did a lot here in Coburg — lots of overdubs and experimenting.”

Other locations included studios in Mount Eliza and Nunawading and Soundpark Studios in Northcote, where standout track Breathing Underwater was captured. Palm also tracked some vocals at the Miami home of producer Salaam Remi, who signed the band to his Flying Buddha label in 2013.

The album’s long turnaround time was also a result of Hiatus Kaiyote’s approach to recording. They self-produce their music, only bringing in outsiders for special jobs – such as Phillip Noye, who captured most of the drum sounds on Weapon – or occasional engineers for tracks that need the whole band playing live.

Self-producing allows the band to experiment with recording techniques.

“When you have a producer and an engineer involved in the project heavily it’s hard to go outside the way they’ve learned to do it,” explains Mavin.

“You might want to try recording the drums with the mics in unconventional places and they’ll be like ‘No, you can’t do that, that’ll be shit.’

“It’s like every person you add in has another concept on it,” adds Bender.

“To sit down with someone and explain exactly how you want it to feel is really difficult — we prefer to just take the time and figure out how to do it ourselves.”

According to Palm, self-producing also brings a cohesion and unity to their music, as they are all involved at each stage of the process from writing to release.

“I prefer it to be our imperfect child than somebody else’s,” she says.

“We all really like rawness and you’re more likely to get that by bastardizing the recording process. Maybe the message would be obscured if we got somebody external.”

Between them the band have some impressive musical credentials to bring to the task, but they put more value on an open-minded approach to making music than any body of knowledge.

“Just try shit,” says Bender.

“Just put your ear near a thing and figure out where it sounds good, then put a microphone there and try it.”

“Explore different mics as well,” says Palm.

“Maybe you’ve got a snare mic, but that might sound really awesome for vocals — try mixing it up.”

“Don’t be afraid to fuck up,” says Bender.

“Fuck up over and over and make really shit sounding stuff over and over for a long time. You’ve just gotta use your ears — eventually you’ll find it.”

Hiatus Kaiyote are also experimenting with their live sound. The band always wanted more electronics on stage, but spent the first couple of years “just trying to play the songs good.”

“Everyone’s got electronics going now,” says drummer Perrin Moss.

“I’ve starting using the SPD drum machine. We haven’t done a gig with it yet so I’m pretty excited for that.”

“I’ve flipped my whole on-stage set up,” says Bender.

“I used to have a laptop midi-controller, but I was doing fuck-all with it. Now I’ve got two SP-404 samplers and the Novation Bass Station.

“The SP-404 is so simple and reliable — it’s just hitting buttons and it sounds great.”

Palm – who says she is generally “anti-gear” – fell in love with Roland’s 1973 creation Space Echo while recording Weapon. The Space Echo uses a combination of tape loops and spring reverb to create a wide range of organic echo effects.

“I usually prefer to try to work out ways of articulating effected sounds live, but when we were recording all the backing vocals the Space Echo was really cool because there’s this really beautiful, haunting reverb that brings out another character in me when I’m coming up with vocal ideas,” she explains.

As well as creating pop hooks and zigzag melody soundscapes Palm is a dedicated lyricist. She has a penchant for peppering her songs with unusual and significant words, another layer of complexity for the listener to unlock.

“There’s a lot,” says Palm.
“Like Tuareg – that’s on Breathing Underwater – they’re a nomadic people who live in the Sahara and they make my favourite jewellery. They’re amazing silversmiths and musicians.

“There’s a lot of words like that, which people won’t recognise from the get-go, but if they look into them they’ll be exposed to something new. I don’t dumb down my lyrical content, or our music, because people want to be challenged — people want to be stimulated.”

If an ever-growing list of sold-out shows across the US is anything to go by, Palm is right. Audiences are falling fast and hard for Hiatus Kaiyote’s complex vision and it’s hard to imagine the love affair cooling off anytime soon. It’s always encouraging to see originality and experimentation rewarded. For Earth-bound musicians it’s also nice to know that our counterparts in the stratosphere sometimes still fumble in the dark to get things right.

This article originally appeared in Melbourne Guru Magazine. Photograph © Wilks.

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