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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.
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