Let’s talk about the beauty of soul music. The movement served to be the focal point for black artistic expression in the ’60s and ’70s in places like Washington D.C., Detroit, Philadelphia, Mobile, and Memphis - and the beauty of it was its ability to adapt and be the voice of struggle in movements all over the world. That common theme of pain, of love lost, of anguish and despair has throughout time been an integral part of soul music. Globalization specifically through the guise of the Internet has allowed us to witness a pivotal moment within the history of music in which artistic communities all across the world are connecting to this source simultaneously and translating it to listeners with their own accented filters.
Hiatus Kaiyote is a perfect example of the beautiful results of this moment in fusion. Born out of the Melbourne’s eclecticism, the soulful Australian quartet has been able since 2011 to transform the ethos of jazz, funk, and gospel into a high energy sound and feeling completely alien to anything heard before, while native to the spiritual reawakening one encounters when being exposed to the revival they are spearheading throughout the world. They’ve already been co-signed via Twitter by Prince, performed with the likes of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and recently been sampled by Chance the Rapper.
Since capturing the attention of the world with their hit “Nakamarra” and their ensuing dazzling debut Tawk Tomahawk, the influential group has signed onto the Flying Buddha label ran by producer Salaam Remi (of Nas & Amy Winehouse fame) and have knocked us off of our feet once again with their recent chart-topping Choose Your Weapon album. We got the chance a little while ago to sit with lead singer Nai Palm and bass player Paul Bender in Austin before a show at SXSW to chat about similarities within foreign strands of music and its roots and trolling unprepared interviewers.
SENAY KENFE: So first time I heard about you guys, a buddy of mine named Kelsey told me that him and Shafiq were working with these Australian people and he was like, “Yo, this is the most soulful band I’ve heard in years, man.” He was like, “You have to check out this video,” and he showed me the “Nakamarra” video. I was like, “Whoa, these people - this is beautiful!” Visually, it’s beautiful, but also I was like, “This is amazing, this is not what I was expecting.”
NAI PALM: We have the element of surprise. Whenever people ask me, they think we’re a punk band aesthetically. Especially the fact that “Nakamarra” blew up is really beautiful because “Nakamarra” is an indigenous skin name from central Australia; a tribal name. The song is about a friend of mine who was working out there and it was a name that was given to her. That’s why the film clip - the boys have never been out in the desert before; it’s so beautiful.
That’s where they shot Mad Max and stuff.
I just know Melbourne from the graffiti side of things and I know it’s very eclectic and very colorful and diverse. Can you talk about the music scene there and how it’s shaped you guys to be Hiatus Kaiyote?
Nai Palm: That’s the thing though, you’re hip to our city through the graphic community, but the arts and all elements are really potent there. The music scene and the visual arts scene. I feel like that’s because there’s no strict heritage to adhere to, so everybody is just kind of working it out. The cool thing about the Internet is it’s exposed everybody around the world to a lot of different cultures and information.
Us as a band - I was born in Melbourne, but [Paul] Bender the bass player is from Tasmania, Perrin [Moss] is from the Blue Mountains, and Melbourne is kind of the cultural hub of Australia. So, it’s cool, we just all fermented there in Melbourne and try to explore our creativity and trust each other as musicians.
PAUL BENDER: It’s a really big country with so few people, so you end up with a lot of people just doing the shit that they want to do because there’s no reason to not do that… There’s no real competition. And you kind of have that weird thing where people are really into different shit, but they’re so far away from the source of where that comes from. So it gets reinterpreted in a different way.
A lot of people try to differentiate you guys or people who aren’t necessarily within the fold or tradition of what we find to be soul music. They try to say, “Oh, this is a future soul or alternative.”
Nai Palm: It’s a replica - what is the soul? The soul is who you are and the origins of that - for example, the blues. The blues movement in America, the origins of that is the Sahara. Like Ali Farka Tour'e and shit, that’s where it stems from. People are like, “Well, this is the origins here.” Well, you can always trace shit back and it doesn’t validate what comes next because the whole point of art is that it grows and is immortalized through people re-representing it in their era.
That’s why I definitely wouldn’t separate you guys, I willingly would say you guys are a part of the same family.
Nai Palm: It’s a frequency and you’re tapping into that. And if you’re sincere, then you can tap into that. That’s what timeless music is, that patience and understanding to realize that - it’s not coming from a place of ego, you’re not depicting a sound or trying to re-represent something. You’re tapping into a sonic dimension that has existed since the beginning of time. It reinvents itself, but essentially, the source is the same. And that’s why people can empathize with it.
I feel where you’re coming from.
Paul Bender: Different people have different ways that they unlock that thing in themselves. For some people it’s sitting down and closing their eyes and listening to someone play some jazz improv. Their key is to hear it and feel it in a really still way and process it with stillness and intellect. But for some people it’s like the exact same thing can be unlocked through getting crazy sweaty in a mosh pit and going nuts. Everyone has a different thing that accesses that central point of who they are that they need to feel.
I saw that on your site you describe yourselves as “multi-poly-rhythmic…” -
Perrin Moss: Oh, was it multidimensional polyrhythmic gangster shit?
Nai Palm: [We say that] because people look at me like, “What genre are you?” So we just make some shit up like, “It’s this, it’s whatever.”
Perrin Moss: That was from one of those times where we were like - maybe that’s when we were driving back after the Nakamara shoot. We just get shot all these email Q&As and whenever someone emails with interviews like that, we just try to have as much fun with it as possible. Like not so much now, but back then we used to just lie a lot.
Nai Palm: You can tell when someone’s done their research. We fuck with them hard; it’s a lot of fun.
Perrin Moss: If we get a bad Q&A, we fuck with them a lot… You can do at least five minutes of research. Probably should spell the band’s name and the album name properly. We did one recently where they spelled the band name wrong like five times. Like, “So your album Hawk Tomahawk,” and it’s just like, “Oh my god, why?” We troll the shit out of them. “Why did you call your album that?” “We all really like the word ‘hawk’ and one time someone saw a hawk in the sky and it turned out to be a kite and he got really mad so he cut the kite string and got arrested,” or something like that.
Speaking of that album, how do you guys go from making Tawk Tomahawk - this album that you did on your own - to now being on a label and keeping the energy and intensity of the first album and the EPs that followed it into Choose Your Weapon and being on Salaam Remi’s label?
Paul Bender: It’s totally the same mentality. When we signed with Flying Buddha, the main thing was that we kept total creative control over the music and that we were going to produce it ourselves. All of the production is under our control because we can’t really - it’s already crazy enough, the four of us trying to navigate that.
It’s awesome, but it’s also challenging. You’re always getting really excited about what each other is putting in, but you’re also like, Ahhh. There’s always the comprise, you’re always trying to make the thing the four of you feel the most. Which sometimes doesn’t like that thing that you did, so you have to pull that back. It’s important for us to have that control because we’re always trying to do something very specific sonically and structurally. I mean, yeah, it was kind of a similar process, but a lot more material.
I guess the thing that was probably the most different about it was when we did Tawk, we had been together for such little time. We got together and started rehearsing and it wasn’t long after we started playing together that we started also making the record. [It was the first recording] so all the stuff was so new to us that it could kind of be whatever. It’s like when you go into the studio just to make something, but you don’t know what it is, you can go in different directions really easily. For this record, there’s a lot of material that we’ve been playing since day one. And that was kind of the challenge in a way, capturing stuff. We’ve got so used to playing live because, in a way, that’s a bigger challenge to set out to do a specific thing rather than just get in the studio and be like, “Oh, I can just go where it feels like going.” It’s having that control to steer it in a particular direction. That was probably the main difference in a way - just having history with stuff.
Because there’s a familiarity at that point.
Paul Bender: Yeah, we’re so used to doing it live and it has to capture some of that thing that you’re doing live, but still be fresh in a way.
Nai Palm: It’s always different. Even if you’re familiar to playing a song live, as soon as you go to track it, you have to reevaluate it because the thing about capturing something is that it has a mind of its own. Molecules act differently when they’re being observed, and it’s the same thing with recording. We perform some shit live and the energy is the same, it’s like, How do we capture that energy? And you think, We’ll just try to create a format where we play it live and capture it. Then you’re like, Why isn’t it what it should be? Because it’s elusive and it’s about having the patience to try and think outside the box to really understand what it is that you’re capturing. Sometimes it’s reevaluating the sounds and the way you go about things.
Keep up with Hiatus Kaiyote on Facebook and Twitter. The band is currently on a worldwide tour, so check here to see when they’ll pass through your neck of the woods next. They’re playing the Brooklyn Bowl tonight, June 2.