There’s no grass for cows to eat and there are big skies
There’s no grass for cows to eat and there are big skies
How does one describe A Hawk and a Hacksaw?
On record a changing collection of musicians spearheaded by Jeremy Barnes, who plays a variety of instruments including piano, drums, jews harp and accordion. Others play a variety of brass and string instruments including a cumbus, an oud (and yes we had to Google it) and who knows what else?
Live the band is a two piece with Heather Trost who plays violin (and a little bit of melodica) and Jeremy singing, playing the accordion, the drums with his feet, a cowbell with a drumstick taped to his knee and a cymbal with another stick tucked into a customised hat. All at the same time! It really has to be seen to be believed.
Originally from Alberqueque, New Mexico, Jeremy is a veteran of Neutral Milk Hotel, which is currently being talked up by everyone who’s everyone after the re-release of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on Domino. At the core of AHAAH, he has lived and recorded in the Loire Valley, Prague, various places in the United States and in England (where he recorded in a church.)
This roaming nature shines though on AHAAH two quirky CDs to date, which are atmospheric, folky, cinematic, melodic, multi-textured and interesting at all times. Defying genres the albums gently take you around the world by throwing around elements of klezmer, American folk, waltzes, mariachi, ragtime piano, Romany gypsy tunes, bird noises and more besides.
Realising that merely describing these records is really doing them no justice and having more questions than answers, Incendiary caught up with AHAAH’s idiosyncratic driving force, Jeremy Barnes, on the UK leg of their recent European tour.
Incendiary: You’re often described as nomadic and we especially like the way that your environment seems to somehow seep into your CDs. Is that something you do consciously?
JB: No, I think any musician will be affected by where they are living. Look at the Bronx in the 1970s and hip-hop. I guess if you move about like me, then you can’t help but be affected by experiences. I do feel it helps me as a musician to expose myself to as much as I can. That said, I’ve done a lot more travelling by putting records on turntables and listening. The wonderful thing about music is you can sit in your living room and hear amazing sounds from Rajistan or Pakistan or wherever.
IN: In that sense music is like reading novels – a gateway into a time or place you’ve never been before…
JB: Exactly. It’s like 78 records and being able to hear traditions of people who are long gone. I find that very inspiring.
IN: So you’ve no plans to go to the Arctic Circle or a South Sea Island to record your next record, to see if you can get the place to influence the sound?
JB: No, I never really plan like that – things just happen. I don’t really expect things to turn out how they did. I was expecting to go to France to record an electronica album. Sometimes you can’t help how things turn out.
IN: What kind of music do you listen to?
JB: Basil Kirchen, an English drummer who did a lot of library music. I’ve been really getting into him recently. World music from all over the globe. Volcano the Bear – I’m a big fan of theirs. Taraf de Haïdouks, a Romanian orchestra is my favourite of all time.
IN: So you don’t sit down and play the Beatles then?
JB: Yes, I do. On this tour we’ve been to Cambridge, so we’ve been playing Syd Barrett a lot. I love the Kinks. Ray Davies is my favourite songwriter of all time. I also like a lot of jazz, particularly early jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Willie "the Lion" Smith.
IN: There is an obvious Eastern European melody in your work with borrowed Transylvanian melodies and part of the second album being recorded in Prague. Do you have links to Eastern Europe?
JB: No links at all. I just love the music. I went to Prague as I needed a break from touring and stayed there quite a while. I love a lot of Czech culture with Milan Kundera and Kafka, for example. Czech music is really good and there is a lot of interesting Romany culture, architecture, art nouveau, artists, design and people like Jan Švankmajer the film director.
IN: We also enjoyed the link to the Polish film poster site on your website. Reminded us of posters we had seen from Cuba recently. Must be something about socialism and creativity…
JB: They are amazing aren’t they…it must be social realism and how the artists got around the society they lived in was to create an incredibly surreal world of their own.
IN: We also spent a little time on your site learning a little bit more about Slovenj Zizek. Not many bands name-check radical Slovenian philosophers. Can you explain the thinking behind that?
JB: Glad you’re exploring all of these nooks and crannies. The song, For Slovenj, was written before we decided to dedicate to it to him. At the time I was reading his writing, and watching the film about him, which I wrote the music for, over and over again, so he was seeping into my brain. On the film (simply called Zizek!) there was something he said about love that’s why the song has the lyrical motif "I love you, I love you." He talks about love being a violent and selfish act. You are willing to do something for this thing but nothing for something else. In this way love is an arbitrary thing. I like to do that in my songs. You might not know who Slavoj is and whether I’m singing to him or about him but if you want to investigate further you can.
IN: Music is always a subjective thing, working on many different levels often. But you can enjoy the tune without knowing anything else.
JB: I like that too – music having different levels and grey areas. If you like the melody of my songs, then that’s great too. But it is just music in the end. The number one intention is for people to take it in through their ear and enjoy it.
IN: The sleeves are a bit of give-away with the flowers and the mountains. You include bird song and animal noises on your records – are you a fan of the rural life?
JB: With the cover art, I’m more interested in the surrealism. I’m interested in what is real and what isn’t. That’s the intention with the music – what is traditional and what isn’t? What is a real instrument, what is a bird and what is an electronic sound? I’m always looking for the grey areas in between things – to create a new world using bits and pieces of this one. Like the cover of the second CD where you have flowers flying around mountains. I do believe artwork is 50% of the record. I know most people don’t, but I think if you have good artwork, then you are halfway there.
IN: Your music has a very cinematic quality. I read one reviewer who describes one of your songs as being like the theme music from a Charlie Chaplin chase scene. Would you like to write a film score?
JB: I love soundtracks and chase scenes and the music from old-time cartoons. There are filmmakers I would love to work with, like the Brothers Quay, who make incredible animated stories. It is a hard area to get into, making soundtracks – much harder than just putting out a record. In fact I wouldn’t even know where to begin with it.
IN: There are not many bands we can mention who use the accordion. We’re fascinated with it. Is it a tricky beast to tame?
JB: I initially started playing it when we recorded the first album, so it’s been about 5 years now. At the time, I played an old organ but during recording it was becoming more and more out of place. It needed something more sensitive and organic sounding so I thought I would give the accordion a try. I bought one and it slowly became an addictive thing. It can be difficult to play. It is a big lung and you have to give it air. Like anything else it comes down to practice.
IN: Your live sound is very stripped down compared to how you sound on record. Are there any plans to expand the live show?
JB: Part of that is so we are able to tour, which we couldn’t really do with many more people. Touring is based on portability for us. Besides I don’t really want to replicate what we do on an album. When we are live it changes all of time. If we had a big band we would lose some of the intimacy we create live. I guess if we had more money, we could get a horn section or I could just play the accordion.
IN: Which segues nicely into the next question – you currently play the accordion, cymbals with your head, drums with feet and a cowbell with a drumstick taped to your knee. Any plans for anything else. You could play a harmonica with your mouth?
JB: (Laughs but sounds unconvinced) Well, yes that is true enough…
IN: (Hurriedly moving the interview along hoping the cracks won’t start to show.) As we discussed over email, I’m from the Midlands here in England, so we were interested to read you lived in Enderby (Ed: a village outside Leicester slap bang in the middle of the UK) – not far from our home town of Nuneaton. It’s an odd thing for a man from Alberqueque to end up in Enderby.
JB: I was with a girl from Leicester but we broke up so I don’t have the house in Enderby anymore. I did work for the Royal Mail whilst I was there. It was a good study of English culture – I remember we had a lot of tea breaks.
(Laughs heartily, perhaps at the thought of the great British postman tradition of twisting envelopes with a clear "Photographs – Do Not Bend" instruction printed on them.)
IN: Probably nobody who reads this interview will be interested but we’ve got to ask – did you ever go to Nuneaton?
JB: I went to the train station – we used to get picked up or drop people off there. I did read about a band from Nuneaton recently. They were a duo from the 1970s on CBS and have had an album re-released recently. It was an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. They released one album and then got dropped – I just can’t think of their name.
(Subsequent correspondence and the wonderful world wide web reveals our mysterious home-boys to be Fresh Maggots – acid folksters from Nuneaton -look out world here they come…)
IN: An ex-member of Showaddywaddy used to run a pub in Nuneaton…
JB: They were much better than Showaddywaddy.
IN: We certainly hope so… that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Ken Loach is from Nuneaton (although he did move away, probably as soon as he could) and Larry Grayson. Do you know him?
IN: Hmmm…well…he was a…how do you describe Larry Grayson? He was a light entertainment TV presenter famous for being camp and catch-phrases such as "What a Gay Day"…
(Incendiary flounders manfully as it fails to explain the intricacies of Larry Grayson and the Generation Game to a musician who probably thought we had lost the plot way before now…)
Anyway, we see the Neutral Milk Hotel album has been re-released on Domino and is being talked up by Boom Bip and members of Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire. How do you feel about that?
JB: Well it originally came out in 1998. Think about an album that was released in 1968 and then re-released in 1975, if there is one. The group would have moved on and be very different. Put it this way, I’m pleased there is an audience for it in the UK. I honestly don’t really know those bands you mentioned. It doesn’t really have any effect on me.
IN: Except for royalties…
JB: I guess – we’ll see what happens. I’m grateful people like it. We had a great time and I’m glad it is living on, but I’m trying to move AHAAH forward now.
IN: Looking on your CV, there are a lot of collaborations in your past, not the least of which is Bright Eyes and Broadcast. Any more in the pipeline?
JB: With Bright Eyes, he was in high school as he was about 17. He was a huge Neutral Milk Hotel fan and I met him at one of our gigs. He asked me if I’d play drums on his record. He said he had no money. I’ve always been intrigued by the session musician, like Hal Blaine who drummed on Phil Spector and Brian Wilson records. It was just 1 day practice and 1 day recording – so I thought why not just to see if I could do it? He paid me with a six pack of Guinness.
Last thing I did like that was a tour with Broadcast. I’m a big fan of them. It was a lot of fun but I realised maybe I should start concentrating on my own thing. It’s not going to sell a million records but I like being captain of my own ship. So I’ve no plans to collaborate with anyone else (laughs) well that’s the plan…
IN: We saw you recently on both sides of the North Sea – once in Rotterdam and at the Spitz in London. What about those dancing girls in Rotterdam?
JB: Those girls were Dutch – we didn’t know them. We do get dancing but not usually in that style.
IN: They looked like extras from a 1930’s Soviet propaganda movie…
JB: Yes, but they didn’t put us off. We had a great time in Rotterdam. I would like to live in Holland one day – the design, the architecture and the canals and great musicians like Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink.
IN: So what’s next for AHAAH?
JB: After we finish the tour in Italy we’re going back to the States for Christmas. We’ve got enough material for another album so we’ll get recording back in New Mexico. Hopefully it will be ready soon but it will be done when’s it done. I’m lucky to be working with some great musicians in Alberqueque like Heather Trost (violinist and Jeremy’s girlfriend) and our tuba player (Mark Weaver) used to play with some of the jazz greats like Anthony Braxton.
IN: We imagine New Mexico to big and vast with ranches and so on…
JB: It is. There is a lot of empty space where you can’t grow anything. There’s no grass for cows to eat and there are big skies. Whether that will influence the record, I don’t know. I have intentions but just don’t know what will happen. There is no direction or aim. People always ask if I have a mission and the answer is no.IN: I imagine you heading into a studio full of weird and wonderful instruments from the four corners of the globe. A bit like Steptoe’s Yard…
Witness our dismay to find out Jeremy had no idea about additional UK comedians from the 1970s. After a lengthy and somewhat disjointed description of the merits of British sitcom Steptoe and Son and the horse Hercules, he did concede that the studio is a large room with a big microphone and loads of random an unusual instruments. At the intimation that his studio resembled a junk yard, he only laughed politely in that way that people do, when they have no idea what you are talking about or where the conversation is heading or in this case, nose-diving…
IN: Right – on that bombshell – we’ve seen you described in many ways. Amongst our favourites are "intricate folk meanderings from Leaf’s supercharged, idiosyncratic AHAAH. A Klezmer infused cartoon Gothic PT Barnum soundtrack to the Day of the Dead." Phew…how would you describe yourself?
JB: Well… (he pauses for a long time)… I guess partly what we are trying to do is explore what is going on in the world musically. Not enough people are doing that. Well some are, but to my mind Western music has pretty much reached a dead end. It is important to look around. No matter where you’re from, you can’t help but be influenced by different cultures. I’m working my own way – putting my own voice in. The goal is to mix styles and try to add in my own style. I was never really interested in music until I discovered the mixture of chaos and beauty. That’s what I’m aiming for. I love that mixture.
IN: Glad we don’t write your press releases. If you don’t mind us saying so, that wasn’t exactly snappy marketing speak. We were expecting a sentence or two…
JB: (Laughing a lot.) The whole thing isn’t very snappy. Our whole band is not the most marketable undertaking. I wish I could sum it all up in one sentence.
So there it is in black and white – a cultural exchange between the Englander and the New Mexican. A New Mexican stand-off. Nuneaton to New Mexico, via Eastern Europe, Leicestershire, Rotterdam and France. Our cultural references were Steptoe & Son, Showadawaddy and Larry Grayson whilst in return we got to hear about Kafka, Slovenj Zizek, Misha Mengelberg and the Quay Brothers, amongst others. Somehow it really doesn’t seem like a fair trade…
Words: John Cottrill.