Hiatus Kaiyote Talk Jamming With Owls, Avoiding Madonna Features & 'Choose Your Weapon' Album
Melbourne's Hiatus Kaiyote blew minds right out of the gate with their 2013 debut Tawk Tomahawk, filled to the brim with (as they put it) "multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit." After earning endorsements from everyone from Prince to Pharrell, a Q-Tip remix, and a Grammy nod, the quartet returned to Australia to work on their sophomore album.
The highly anticipated release, called Choose Your Weapon, debuted at No. 1 on the Heatseekers chart upon its release earlier this month to great critical acclaim. HK is currently supporting the album on a sold-out tour through the U.S. and Europe, but they took a little time during their visit to New York to visit the Billboard offices, and speak with us a little about how they keep things interesting.
With the new album, what was the writing and recording process like?
Simon Mavin (keyboards/synths): It was a pretty long process -- a lot of the tunes we've actually been playing for a couple of years now in our live set. It was a joint thing of a lot of Nai's stuff that she's written -- some of them were even written before the band was formed.
Nai Palm (vocals/guitar): Like [when I was] 16, 17. I was like, "We're not putting these on the album," but they were like, "Nah, it's good." The timeline's weird, because it's like songs that are really, really old for me, but then also things that we made like a couple days before we were going to get it mastered, from scratch. Plus all of our touring, and people getting familiar with the material we already had.
SM: It's the most amount of songs we could fit on a record, pretty much.
NP: They wouldn't let us put any more.
Paul Bender (bass): First record was too short, this one's too long -- next time we'll get it right [laughs].
SM: There are seconds left on this record, pretty much. We were like, "OK, this is how much time we've got -- we've got 30 seconds, we can do something here, and then we've got like 5 seconds where we can do something here -- it was crazy.
PB: We didn't cut any songs out. There were moments where we were thinking about it, but then we didn't.
Perrin Moss (drums): Everything we planned to put on there we kind of did, plus some little extra bits.
NP: People are so familiar with a lot of our stuff that wasn't documented yet. There's like a cover band in Norway, and they cover our shit -- shit that's not even recorded. We were like, we should probably document our shit before someone like releases f---ing "Building A Ladder" and is like, "Hey, it's our song!" We had to just kind of get in there.
But then, you've gotta keep it interesting. We're constantly challenging ourselves in writing and reworking shit too.
Was there any sort of guiding idea for the album, since a lot of the material was written at different points?
PM: I guess one thing would be a really good friend of ours, Phil Noy, who recorded "Nakamarra" on the first album. Once we heard the sound that he could create with his equipment and his ears and stuff, we were like, "We've got to utilize this a lot on this next album," to get a sense of continuity with this certain device that he owns and knows how to use really well.
NP: That we shan't disclose.
PM: Everything else is trying to match that mix-wise.
NP: It happens naturally -- by accident, though. Even the way we write, it's like, "I've got this thing over here that's from this, and this from over here" -- and then you fuse them together. It could sound really schizophrenic, but somehow, because of the way we listen and interact with our parts, it somehow locks in in this way.
The same from song to song -- the songs are very different, but you just kind of keep working at it, and eventually, because it's an extension of who we are, it naturally has this common thread through it even though the themes might be dramatically different than the songs before.
On top of that, when we were putting the songs in order, we were coming up with little interludes to help thread a song to another song, so that it has like a proper lineage.
PM: It's like the icing on the cake. It's my favorite thing to do on records, the last bit.
Keep it cohesive.
NP: Yeah -- I guess the overall theme was to just be happy with it -- that's it. If we like it, as a four-piece, then it is what it should be. That's the evolution of the band -- we tend to keep workshopping things until everyone feels comfortable with their parts. That's kind of a consistent thing. We always want to challenge ourselves. You may work it to a point where everyone's happy, but then you kind of grow as a musician and you've got to change shit up a bit.
That, I feel like, is the driving kind of ethos behind what we do.
And it really stays just the four of you -- you weren't bringing in any other producers or collaborators?
PB: Only engineers, really.
PM: A couple musicians, percussionists and stuff.
SM: And a trombone player that lives with us.
NP: And a cat, and an owl. And my friend Charlie, who's a bird.
SM: We have strong direction in what we want, and there's already four people. It's harder to bring in another person to be like, "What would you do here?" When we collaborate with percussionists and stuff, we definitely have a good idea of what they're going to do. But they also bring their own flavor, absolutely.
NP: We have Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who's this really talented composer and arranger of strings. He's worked with Seu Jorge and Flying Lotus and stuff, and we've always really loved his work. We wanted to steer away from buzz collabs.
We want it to be an honest depiction of what we do -- any collaborations had to be kind of tasty, and more instrumental, rather than something random like getting Madonna to say some spoken word...
Or make out with you.
NP: Yeah, you can just hear it in one of the layers -- we're actually making out [laughs].
When you guys first started, the whole alt-R&B thing was very nascent, whereas now I feel like it's almost status quo. Do you guys feel like you're a part of that at all?
PM: The thing that kind of bores me about that particular scene is how often it's shows where it's just one person standing with a computer, which is just the most boring shit in the world for me. The only thing that could go wrong is just if the computer crashes. It's not an interesting mistake.
I think we're all in the same boat where like, there's no limitation on genre -- with any kind of music that exists, there's like the cream at the top and then there's like everything else. We all appreciate that fine layer of stuff that's exceptional, from wherever it comes from.
NP: As long as it's sincere you can kind of tell. It's quite often that there will be an explosion of a certain style, and then everyone's like, "Oh that's cool, I want to do this thing now." Even though that happens, it's not like that's passé. There's still good shit within there.
We did this European tour where we were on a bill with Grace Jones and Massive Attack at this festival, and the next night we were playing in Paris with this like 70-year-old Ethiopian jazz composer. It's cool that, somehow, our music can make sense in such different environments.
I think it's cool that mainstream culture is getting a lot more contemporary -- or at least, it feels like it is, because there's no middleman anymore, because of the Internet.
It's interesting how this slightly jazzier, more improvisational, more eclectic kind of pop music has broken through, and I think you guys were kind of on the front edge of that.
NP: Like the Kendrick Lamar album [To Pimp A Butterfly] -- that shit's crazy! And it's like mainstream.
PB: It's broken all these Spotify records, [yet] there's all this weird jazz shit on there. Really thematic kind of things.
NP: It's about time. There was this weird grey area, when you think about the fact that Stevie Wonder and the Beatles used be like pop radio, and then it when down the 'N Sync train, where everything sounds like a f---ing ringtone. And now it's starting to swing back to actual people that are artists.
How has it been working with Salaam Remi?
PB: It's been good -- he's made so few demands of us in terms of our creative stuff. He's never asked us to change anything. Our song "Breathing Underwater" -- we actually recorded it 3 times. He was just like, "You guys always play this song faster, why are you doing it so slow?"
SM: But he never really even said that -- he was just like, "Are you guys feeling Breathing Underwater?"
PB: "I always thought it would have a little more snap, a little more..." So we were like, "I think he's asking us to go faster." So we did it faster, which was totally the right decision. You listen to older versions and it sounds like a tranquilizer dart thrown at you.
NP: You're so hyperaware. You listen back to live shit and you're like, "Oh that was so fast!" So you overcompensate.
PB: [Remi]'s never really asked us to change what we're doing. He's always just encouraged us to try doing things different ways. He's never told us what those ways are, it's just like, "Record different versions, try different things, experiment until you find something really cool." He gives us kind of geeky studio tips, but he's not like, "Hey, this song's not working." He's not that kind of dude.
NP: When I went to his house to record, it's just littered with platinum records. I was like, "Well this isn't a little bit f---ing intimidating!" He's pretty much said to us that he's at a point in his career where he can just find music that he likes and push it. It's really rare to have that creative freedom but still be linked to a major label -- we're really lucky.
Do you guys have favorite tracks off the album?
NP: My favorite section is the middle section of "Borderline with My Atoms," just because...it's really magical. And when I was writing it, I always imagined it to be really magical, and then the guys just took it to a whole other level of magic. It's one of those triumphant moments of like, "Yes! It's doing the thing that it always was supposed to!"
PM: I reckon that's one of my favorite sections as well, and one of the middle sections of "Atari." They both have kind of similar vibes. I think that vibe in general, whatever that thing is -- it's a weird cross between a lot of different inspirations. Electronics and old-school records.
SM: There's kind of an element of organic-ness too, to the sounds? Some of the sounds that we captured sound like nature to me. They have this really human element to them, when they're [actually] synthetic.
NP: Actually, the jam I had with an owl. I changed my answer. Purely because it was just like crazy weird that that happened. It was at the studio, and Bender just happened to capture it.
There was an owl in the room?
PB: No it was outside.
NP: We were having a break, and I was trying to lock in with it for ages. It kept changing its time and pitch. But what Bender captured was like the 13 seconds of it actually locking in. I just like that it's this random nature cameo that wasn't planned. We're all into watching nature documentaries and stuff like that so it's cool to actually have an element of that in there.
PM: You can't think about that stuff -- you can't say, "On this record, I'm going to do a song with an owl." We record a lot in my bedroom, so the window's open, the house is full of people...there's a lot of the ambient noise coming through. On pretty much everything we record there, there's birds outside. So there's birds throughout the whole record -- not necessarily like in the mix or anything, but...
NP: There's heaps of birds on the album. There's the birds at Pez's (Moss's) house, there's Charlie, my friend who's a bird.
Does Charlie have a guest credit?
NP: Yeah, he does.
PM: So does Benny the cat. He's got the loudest meow, it sounds like a baby. Every single person who comes over is like, "Have you got a baby in the house?" He's on the record as well -- you'd be recording like, "Cool, no one's moving," hit record, and he's like [meows loudly].
PB: It's a really sad sound.
SM: We actually captured it with a vocoder.
NP: Yeah, in the intro song -- it's going through all these different animals making all these sounds, and we're using synths and guitars to try to emulate the animal sounds. Benny just went off in the cat part...so we were like, "Let's put that through the vocoder."
SM: He was going for the gold.
NP: I hope we don't have like PETA emailing us or something...
No animals were harmed in the making of this album.
SM: Next record we're actually going to go to a zoo.
NP: We're going to go live in Alaska and record everything out in the wilderness.
PB: We're going to live with wolves for a year and become part of their family.