TalkNarc: Interview with A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes

Last week, Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk and a Hacksaw (and previously of Neutral Milk Hotel) was kind enough to sit down with Noise Narcs for a lengthy interview. Multi-instrumentalist Barnes and violinist Heather Trost just released their sixth studio album, Cervantine on their new record label, L.M. Dupli-cation. They are currently on a West Coast tour, ending in Albuquerque on 3/12. Barnes reflects on fixing cement with river sand, his introduction to Eastern European music, whether a Neutral Milk Hotel reunion would be possible, Trish Keenan’s death, and the new album.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw, “Espanola Kolo” by NoiseNarcs [Buy]

You’re living in New Mexico now, where you were born. But you’ve lived a lot of different places…
Jeremy Barnes: Yeah… Chicago and Athens, GA. I lived in Denver. France. Then England. And then Hungary.

How do you like living in New Mexico. Was that a homecoming of sorts?
Yeah. After living in Europe, it’s the only place I feel like I could live in the US. I guess it’s home. We grew up here. I just love it. But I had to leave it to understand. When I graduated from high school, I immediately got out of town, and I never wanted to look back, you know? Completely fed up with New Mexico. When I was gone, I realized how great it is.

I read a piece you wrote for Quietus in 2009 about how you had been struggling to make a house out of cob. I was curious, what ever happened with that?

As far as what’s going to happen in the future [with Neutral Milk Hotel], that’s not really my… Well, you know, you’d have to talk to “The Boss.” I’m happy that he’s playing again, I’m really excited for him, and I think he needs to see some of the enthusiasm and excitement he’s created for the people who love his music.
Actually one of the reasons we moved back was to figure out some kind of housing situation, like a real home. When I wrote that piece I was kind of conflicted with the excitement of building my own house for cheaper than a stick frame structure with the apprehension of building codes. The more I looked into it the more I realized that it was a scary situation in a lot of ways. It’s still my dream, and I want to do it. But I realized I wouldn’t have the right funds, and it would take a lot more time than I had. We actually decided to buy an old house near the Rio Grande river, and we’ve been kind of fixing it up. We have an acre of land with apple trees and fig trees and pear trees and grape vines. So instead of going the route of building a house, I decided to buy a house and fix it up. That’s actually what I’m doing right now, I just went out to the river to harvest some sand because I’m sealing a crack in the concrete that’s so deep that I’m going to fill it with sand first and then fill it with some concrete-filler stuff.

Do you have a lot of building experience or is it something you’re just picking up?
No. Not really. I have done some work on straw bale houses and cob. I don’t have traditional building experience, carpentry and stuff like that. I’ve just been feeling my way through. For the most part doing minor stuff.

So what’s your songwriting process? At first, you were in the band by yourself. But you’ve been working with Heather Trost for many years now. How do you do it collaboratively?
Well, it depends. We don’t have a specific process for every song we’re working on. Sometimes Heather will come up with a melody. Or I will. There’s just different way that that happens. We try not to have one specific process. We do a lot of learning older songs and then coming up with notes from that, working with a scale or a rhythm, and then coming up with songs within those parameters. And sometimes we just play together and something just comes out collaboratively. Sometimes one of us will hear a melody–I’ll just be driving around Albuquerque and a melody will get into my head and I’ll present it to Heather and we’ll figure out chord changes or figure out a way to make it to work. Initially I was a drummer, so sometimes I will start with drums. When we’ve got a song going, sometimes the way the drums are put down affects the arrangement. Stevie Wonder records that way sometimes, I guess. Because he was also a drummer. Of course, he was one of those guys who played everything.

You played drums in tour, briefly, with Broadcast. Trish Keenan’s death this year was such a shock to me.
It was a shock to me, too. I played with them for about six months. I didn’t do any recording, but it was while I was living in England. And we toured Europe and the US. They’re an amazing band. It was very interesting, and I really enjoyed seeing the way they work, and talking to them about music and everything. And I was really… sad and shocked to hear about her death. It seems like there’s so much more; she could have continued into old age. She was one of those very creative people. I felt like there was so much more in her. It’s really unfortunate.

Let’s go onto less morbid things. How’d you first get interested Eastern European music? What was the catalyst?
Well, there were a few moments that you could say were catalysts. One was in 1996, the first band I was playing with was on tour, we were driving around Texas listening to Bulgarian music. I was 18 years old, and something about it hit me really hard. And it was at that moment when I was beginning to look beyond the normal things that I heard through friends. In those days the ways you found music was different than the way you find music now. It was a cassette tape in a van stereo that really blew me away. And then later on in Chicago I lived in the Ukrainian district. And everyone who lived in the building with me was from Poland or the Ukraine or Serbia, and everybody was speaking in their native tongues and cooking crazy stews. It was like this whole other word in this apartment building, and I was pretty much the only person born in the US. And I started buying records at a local thrift store, especially Romanian music. The real epiphany was when I first heard certain styles of Romanian music. I was kind of at a dead end in what I was listening to, and it just opened up a whole new world for me. And that was in 1999, I guess. For a while it affected me and the way it looked at my music, but I was still playing drums in bands, and it didn’t seem like something I should pursue. You go through these fads or trends as a listener, where you’re really into something for a month and then it changes. But with this music, it’s been now twelve years or more, so gradually it seeped into everything that I do.

There’s a wonderful story about Django Reinhardt, that I’m at least 50% sure is apocryphal. Up to this point, he’d only played Roma guitar; he’s never really heard jazz. And an acquaintance sits him down and plays him a Louis Armstrong record. And Django reaches out and grabs the man’s arm and makes him keep putting the record on over and over again. It’s just destroyed his musical world; at the moment, he’s been totally given over to a wholly new music.

I’m sure that’s a probably a true story. He was one of those interesting people who’s considered, I guess people call it gypsy jazz, but what he created, being a Roma and coming from that very strong culture of being an outsider and not blending with the culture at large… It’s very interesting that he took American jazz and created something new out of it. I find him to be very intriguing. I guess, in many ways, that’s what Roma musicians do. That’s why the whole idea of calling something “gypsy music” seems so ridiculous to me. I mean, what is it? Because the music of the gypsies is different in India or Spain or Hungary or France or England; there is no one identifying aspect of it.

Then maybe this is a good time to talk about your new record label, L.M. Dupli-cation, that you’re both recording on and bringing out other acts on. The press release describes it in part as an ethnomusicological record company. But in so much of your music, you love playing with traditional music and combining it with the music of other cultures. And many ethnomusicological records see their mission as preservationist, making sure music doesn’t get lost. How do you see your record label with those conflicting impulses?
Well, I do think that there are two ways of looking at what I would call, for the lack of a better term, folk music. One is to think of it as something that needs to be preserved and put into a museum. Because it’s the music of our forefathers and a different era. And the other side, is to look at it as a living thing, constantly evolving and changing, affected by travel and war and famine and whatever’s happening at the time. I’m interested in both, I guess, but what really interests me as a musician is the idea of it being living and seeing it evolve. Like in Romania, where they’re playing a lot with synthesizers, and they’re doing these crazy combinations of voice, saxophone, and synthesizers with shitloads of reverb. And a lot of people hate that, You’re pissing on your own culture, your destroying thousands years of beautiful culture with these terrible cheap instruments. But to me, for me, question number one is, does it sound good? But it’s also interesting to analyze it along the lines of something that’s changing. The availability of synthesizers in Romania has a huge effect on Euro music now; that’s an extraordinary thing.

But there’s also the possibility that all the world’s music will grow into a homogenized thing. Is that something that worries you as someone who cultivates so many different musical styles?

In Bollywood music you might hear riffs that are stolen from Stevie Wonder or something, but at the same time it’s so inherently Indian.
Well, yeah, that’s very interesting because I think the way that people respond and think about music in different places is so much a deep down part of who they are. Like in India, they way see rhythms. Like how they all know the rhythms, how they’re all marking time to these incredible tabla beats. They just know it. Even little kids, and the little kids can sing the melodies. And they hear our music, and they think it’s really strange. I think there are influences, like in Bollywood music you might hear riffs that are stolen from Stevie Wonder or something, but at the same time it’s so inherently Indian. And you’re right, there is an element of coming together, but I don’t think it will be fully there. I think things will break apart before that ever happens.

So what do you see releasing though your label?
Going back to the idea of those two branches. A lot of the music I listen to is old recordings from pre-World War II bands or ’70s stuff. I’d like to reissue some classical stuff from moments in time that are no longer available. And I’d also like to do some things that reflect on how things are going now. We don’t have anything to announce yet, partly because we’re broke from just releasing the Hawk and a Hacksaw record, but we’re talking to some artists and we should be able to release something in the fall if everything goes well.

Talking about being broke, releasing a record, seems like it’d be a good time to talk about that wonderful new record of yours. There are a ton of collaborators on this album. Who all played on it?
Well, Stephanie Hladowski and her brother Chris, who are both from England. Chris plays the bouzouki, it’s like a Greek lute. Chris has been playing with us for about three years; he lived with us in Budapest, and we’ve done a lot of touring with him, and he’s great fun to play with. And his sister has a great voice, and so we thought it’d be fun to have her sing on a couple songs. One of them is a very traditional Greek rembetika song. And the other is a Turkish song called “Üskudar.” It’s a Turkish song that’s traveled very well, and you’ll find it in Klezmer music and Serbian music and Bulgarian music. And it’s one of those melodies that, well, talking about things coming together, about how music can travel, and everybody thinks it’s theirs. Bulgarian people says it’s a Bulgarian song, Jewish people that it’s Jewish, Greek people say it’s Greek, Turkish say it’s Turkish, but in the end, it’s just a beautiful melody and anybody should be able to play it. Stephanie sings it in Greek, but we named it after Üskudar, the district in Istanbul. It’s one of those interesting things, the Turkish and Greek things that come together so easily. It’s just another example of how there’s all this tension between Turkey and Greece but yet their cultures are so similar. People who should be brothers. It’s almost like your closest brother who you hate.

I really liked Üskudar, but I think maybe my favorite “Espanola Kolo,” a traditional kolo named after a New Mexican town and with New Mexican influences. That’s an interesting combination.
Espanola is one of those things that’s great about being back here, traveling up to northern New Mexico. Espanola’s kind of this gateway to this whole magical world, and we just wanted to dedicate a song to it. And the kolo is just this huge thing in the former Yugoslavia. It’s funny, because after the 1950s, Yugoslavian music was being heavily influenced by Spanish and Mexican music. And a lot of that was coming from soap operas on the TV and this whole idea of Spain and sun.

Wow. So Eastern Europe was immersed in telenovelas?
Yeah, and you see that now. The first time I went to Romania, I stayed in a Roma village for two weeks. They were so excited that I was New Mexican, and they all wanted to watch Mexican soap operas, especially the women. And coming back to how you mentioned how things are coming together, it’s amazing how much things are already together. I don’t consider myself an anthropologist or a ethnomusicoligist, but the more I look into things, the more confusing it gets and the more questionable it is to find purity: is this purely a Romanian song or a Klezmer song? But anyway, getting back to the song, a lot of the kolo music and a lot of brass bands from the former Yugoslavia started using Spanish and Mexican music in their songs. It’s not rare to hear Spanish music in a kolo. So unfortunately it wasn’t my idea, you know they already did it. [Laughing] We just tried to bring in our own style and flavor.

One of the other Spanish-flavored songs on the record is “Cervantine.” You got the name of your band from Don Quiojote, but I always got the impression that the name was mostly because you just like the sound of the phrase. But now you’ve named this song and record after Cervantes… What does Cervantes mean to you? Is it a continued influence in your life?
It is a continuing influence. I was reading that book when I recorded the first Hawk and a Hacksaw record, and I was living in France and recording in a little garage. And more and more of this Romanian music was getting into my head. I was listening to a lot of Romanian orchestras from the ’50s, and it felt odd to be sitting in France listening to this stuff and aspiring to be like it. But then I started reading Don Quijote, and here’s this old man in Spain who wants to be an English knight and march around on a horse. And I kind of felt an affinity for that. Well, I’m never going to be from Romania, this isn’t who I am, but if something is going to come out of this, I’m going to have to follow this wandering path. I guess I just gained support through reading book, that I wasn’t stupid, wasn’t throwing everything away for a stupid reason.

I’ve never actually seen you live, unfortunately. But everything I’ve read or Youtube makes it seem like quite an experience. Are you playing just as a duo now?
No, on the West Coast tour, we’re going to be a quartet. It’ll be [violinist] Heather Trost and I, and then Samuel Johnson, a trumpeter, and a doumbek player, George Rawler.

At one point you were a one man band, and even more recently as a duo, you played a lot of instruments at once. How’d you learn to do that: was it a gradual process like learning to rehab old houses or…?
Exactly. When I was in France, when I was doing the first record, I started practicing playing the accordion and drums at the same time. And it took a long time to get it going. And that’s another reason why I felt I could understand Don Quijote, because it feels like riding an old mare that’s past its prime. The whole thing was pretty rickety. And even after finding Heather, we toured for a while like that. And a lot of the things that I was doing, like hitting cymbals with my head, after a certain age you should stop before serious neck or back pain. So when I turned thirty, I decided to start focusing just on the accordion. Which, of course, is also a pain in the back.

Talking about touring, you haven’t played Philly in a while…
Yeah, it’s sad. I think we might play there in September.

You are playing, as a Philadelphian would say, “down the shore” in September at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Ashbury, NJ.
Yeah, so we might play Philly around that time.

I’m almost sorry to ask this question, but obviously a lot of buzz around ATP is “Jeff Magnum’s playing.” I know this must be kind of a drag for you, being asked about a band twelve or thirteen years after you played with them, but obviously people have a lot of attachment to that record. How do you feel about it all?

At the time, there wasn’t a lot of buzz about what we were doing [in Neutral Milk Hotel]. And we were working in this weird little world. where we didn’t have managers, we didn’t have music people bugging us. And once we stopped, that’s when all that stuff started.
I’m really happy that people love that record. It’s just… amazing. I was nineteen years old when I joined that band. A lot of the things that I’m doing now wouldn’t be possible if I hadn’t had that experience with those musicians. It really started everything for me. And now I’ve been playing music for 15 years. And it’s pretty amazing that Neutral Milk Hotel is something people are still talking about. I’m just glad that I was part of it, it was definitely a magical time. We all felt very strongly about the music. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of buzz about what we were doing. And we were working in this weird little world, where we didn’t have managers, we didn’t have music people bugging us. And once we stopped, that’s when all that stuff started. So it’s kind of bizarre to even consider doing it again, because it would be so different for us than it was then.

Do you ever talk to Jeff?
I consider him a good friend. I’m friends with everybody in the band. There never was a falling out where we hated each other or anything. We all just went separate ways. The main reason for the band was Jeff’s songs, and he stopped writing songs, so at that point, the band couldn’t continue. As far as what’s going to happen in the future, that’s not really my… Well, you know, you’d have to talk to “the boss.” I’m happy that he’s playing again, I’m really excited for him, and I think he needs to see some of the enthusiasm and excitement he’s created for the people who love his music. I think it will be really good for him to do that.

So something you wouldn’t necessarily close the books on, but, you know, you have six different albums of music in a very different direction…
Yeah, but again, like I said, if it wasn’t for Neutral Milk Hotel, I probably wouldn’t be doing this. So I owe a lot of what I do to that experience. And our music is very different, but that band inspired me to keep going and work hard on my own music in my own way. Who knows? As far as are we going to play again? We’re certainly not going to be play again anytime soon. Jeff’s going to be playing solo. Which, I’ll be very excited to just sit and listen and enjoy. I’m glad that I don’t have to be setting up my drums or anything, and I’ll just be able to enjoy.

So back to Hawk and a Hacksaw, obviously your travels influence your music very much. Do you have a future destination in mind? Do you go to places thinking, I’m going to go and learn about this music and experience it?
Sometimes… We do so much traveling as a band, that except around New Mexico I don’t travel a lot when I’m not touring. But this year we’re gonna be playing Bucharest. I’ve been to Romania a bunch of times, but we’ve never played there, so I’m really excited about that. And we’re going back to Turkey to play. I’d love to explore more of the music of southern India and Azerbaijan.

We like to ask people we interview a silly question. If you had a time machine, and you can only go back in time to see only one act, whom would you see?
That would change from day to day, you know? I would love to see Captain Beefheart, circa 1996. Live in Lancaster, California. For today, that would be my wish.

Would you want to get up there and play drums with them?
I would just want to learn from Drumbo. He’s one of my favorites.

Cervantine is available now via L.M. Dupli-cation. [Buy]. You can find them now on tour on the West Coast:
Tues March 8 SALT LAKE CITY, URBAN LOUNGE
Wed March 9 HI-DIVE, DENVER
Thurs March 10 EL RITO (NM), EL RITO LIBRARY
Fri March 11 ALBUQUERQUE, OUTPOST
Sat March 12 ALBUQUERQUE, OUTPOST
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3 Responses to TalkNarc: Interview with A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s Jeremy Barnes

  1. Pingback: Exit Music (for a Blog): Thanks and goodbye from Noise Narcs | Noise Narcs: A Philadelphia-Based Music Blog

  2. Ron Pen says:

    Fascinating interview…love the eclectic and world music intertwined with the recording and performing. A good interview that reveals a portrait of an engaging musician.

  3. Dylan Wexler says:

    Barnes seems like a really honest, thoughtful guy. Saw him and Trost perform in Berlin at the Hausungarn (have the poster right here to my right) and I was blown away, as was my friend to their playing. A Romanian by origin, she couldn’t believe how amazing the music was, and she recognized many of the marches, melodies and rhythms from growing up in Bucuresti. The amazement in large parts came from the fact that she realized her former classmates would have laughed and derided her for attending a concert with traditional instruments, traditional melodies, and so forth. That stuff just, to the youth, isn’t cool. What Barnes touched on here, about Roma/Romanian musicians using synthesizers, reverb, and saxaphones, that’s what’s “cool” in Romania right now, it seems. It’s called Manele. It’s really stigmatizing though, it seems like half the Romanian population hates it, and half, the youth, love it. Even if they pretend to hate it. Well, my take on it is because it is played by the Romani, and thus non-Romani despise it for that reason.

    Good interview. I’d love to hear more of this discourse. Also, check out their new album if you haven’t. My copy is in my friend’s bookshelf in Bucuresti, waiting for the next time I or her am around, to go another spin. For me, it is the soundtrack of her neighborhood– of the market down the street, of the large Titan park with swans and trees and churchbells and amplified prayers going on at every hour, and of the traffic whirring, the friendly streetdogs barking, the silent neighborhood cemetery at night. Bucuresti was for me, over the summer, an absurd city. Most of the people I encountered seemed to be in a rush, but then the dogs were happily chilling on the street corners. There’s so much history, and it’s referenced orally so frequently, I wonder if anyone is actually writing it down. But it can be found, in the city and in the music.