The first time I heard about Hiatus Kaiyote, I was interviewing Chance The Rapper. “You’ve never heard of Hiatus Kaiyote?!” he said. “Wow, they’re amazing. You need to leave here and listen to them right now.” That was in June when the group’s debut album Tawk Tomahawk wasn’t yet released in America. Now, seven months later, Hiatus Kaiyote is the first Australian band nominated for a Grammy in the R&B category, for their song “Nakamarra” featuring Q-Tip. Game recognizes game. And the same goes for the band members themselves, who came together by chance, kind of. Paul Bender saw Nai Palm perform a solo show and asked her to work together. A year later, they saw each other again and she agreed. Another year passed until they finally started making music. Around the same time, Perrin Moss met Nai at a café. She had an acoustic guitar, he started drumming on a table and soon enough they started rehearsing together. Simon Maven knew Bender from before, and the rest was Grammy history.
MA: Your website says that you have a telepathic connection.
Perrin Moss: We’ve been talking to each other this whole time.
MA: What have you been saying?
[All look at each other]
PM: No, don’t tell her that. [Laughs]
Paul Bender: I guess it kind of clicked when the four of us got together. The more that we’ve worked on music together, the more the combination of influences that we bring together feels like a language that you develop. So, when we’re jamming on stuff, purely improvising in a room, we can kind of predict the directions that we’re going to go.
Nai Palm: I think it’s also because we write for each other. We’re always interjecting ideas for each persons instrument, so it’s kind of like you have that unity as well through collective ideas rather than everyone coming up with their own thing. There’s a lot of exploration. Usually, you do too much before you realize what you need to take away for it to really fit. I think because we’ve really developed that from early on in our musical relationship it’s more intuitive rather than technical. For example if I’m recording vocals, sometimes I won’t even have to say whether that was a take or what I need to do, even in the editing process. That’s what we kind of meant by that. It’s more of an intuitive sonic chemistry, I guess.
PM: Most of the time we’re all searching for the same sound, which is cool.
NP: But we don’t always know what the sound is — we never really know where we’re going with it, but we all know…
PB: …When we’ve arrived at it. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this is the thing.”
MA: Do you guys improvise in the live show?
PB: A little bit, yeah. It’s funny actually, there’s been some people who’ve interviewed us and they’ll say, “It feels like your set is just this huge jam session and you’re just improvising.” That is ridiculous. There are all these parts and we’re all doing these interlocking things, so it’s actually very arranged, but there are certain tracks and times we improvise. There are certain sections that are always different.
NP: It’s hard as a vocalist as well. I’m a bit schizophrenic with it. Like, I’ll get bored unless I’m constantly changing shit, but there’s another side of that. People want to be able to sing along to something like melodies on the record. I’ve experienced that when I go to gigs and I’m like, “I just want to sing along with you, but you’re not singing the melody at all because you’ve probably completely bored with singing the song over and over again.” So it’s trying to find that balance. It’s a combination of trying to be as accurate to the record for it to be enjoyable for the listeners because it’s familiar, but also to be able to explore our creativity in that environment.
MA: Is there something better about music in the live environment when the audience is involved?
PB: Yeah, pretty much the craziest show I’ve ever done was in London, the last tour, and it was just mental. They knew all the words. There was one point when they were singing along to one of Nai’s guitar parts — a riff. It wasn’t even lyrics.
NP: I’m like “Oh my god, I better not fuck this up because they’re gonna know.”
PB: And every time we’d get into a really heavy groove, it felt like we were playing “Jump Around” by House of Pain. When you have a crowd that’s that engaged and you can feel they’re right there with you. As soon as you do something, they’re freaking out.
NP: There was this section in a song we have called “Jekyll,” there’s this massive part for improvisation and there’s a lot of vocal polyrhythm. I really get off on writing stuff like that vocally. So I set up the audience to sing a line and then we completely flipped it and they held that line. We had that really amazing vocal polyrhythm that was like the whole audience and us. It was a very interactive.
MA: What was it like working with Q-Tip?
PB: He was on the other side of the world so we didn’t really “work” with him, but it was also really surreal because we just got the track back from him with his verse on it. He does a little bit of a singing thing at the end of his verse and I was like, “I want to harmonize to that,” so we’re in the studio like, “Ok cool, just drop me the end of Q-Tip’s verse.” And then we like stopped and looked at each other and were like, “That’s Q-Tip.”
NP: In the home studio in Melbourne.
Simon Maven: Wow.
PB: Pretty weird moment.
NP: It was cool because even though we didn’t get to meet him, the song was very sacred to us. “Nakamarra” is an indigenous skin name and it’s about a girlfriend that was working with an aboriginal artist in the desert. You can’t just have any rapper write about that because it’s such a remote culture that they probably know nothing about. A lot of mainstream Australian’s don’t really know anything about it, which is why I wrote the song. I emailed him a whole back history and it’s quite a political verse that he put down. He kind of put on his own spin from an African American perspective. It was cool, the fact that his interest piqued after he read the email and that he actually…
PM: …Related to it.
MA: You mentioned the African American perspective and, I don’t think your music has a specific genre or anything, but it definitely touches on hip hop, jazz, blues and soul. What attracts you to that typical black American sound?
PB: It’s just really good music. It comes from a different place.
NP: We all listened to a lot of the roots of that shit like Mali, Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare. Me and Perrin, were both raised on that kind of music; Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. That’s what I grew up with, which isn’t really that common in Australia, but it’s the reason why I can sing. I didn’t have any formal training. It’s like nature versus nurture, I guess. For me it’s natural. That’s the way I’m going to express myself because that’s how I was sonically nurtured growing up. There’s a lot of influence in there.
PB: There’s definitely no denying what black people did for Western music from the 20th century onwards. It’s changed everything. Blues to everything that came out of that. We never deny our influences or anything. It’s huge.
NP: I think it’s a really beautiful juxtaposition where the more Western white influences are more composers or a classical bass or folk stuff and then there’s the African or African American influences, which is all feeling and not just in 4/4. I think the reason why, naturally, when I bring a song to the band it usually has all these crazy time signatures is because growing up listening to it. I feel like you find your natural pulse when you’re born and what you’re surrounded by.
MA: Does anything influence you beside for music?
SM: Life experience in general is definitely influential in the way we play. This morning, my coffee wasn’t that good, so I might play different tonight.
NP: “Mobius Streak” on Tawk Tomahawk is inspired by the art of M.C. Escher. There’s a piece called “The House of Stairs,” which is a mobius strip. That’s an optical illusion that looks infinite. I wanted to use his artwork as a metaphor for the way we look at love because there are so many different facets of how we look at a relationship. In the beginning it’s super amazing, then you go through a break-up and you still have that love and it’s always going to be infinite, but you view it from different angles. Lyrically, that was a pretty strong element because I wrote the song as a structure based on that. Even the vocal part in the middle has got this reverse effect and then when we were arranging it, we wanted it to have these natural side chaining or synth swells that add that kind of movement where you’re not sure whether it’s going back or forth.
MA: What about animals?
PB: Sometimes I like to think about the sound of a whole track being like an ecosystem. Different sounds are different beings and they have different sizes and weights and they move differently in the space. Something right in the middle of the space, like a bass, might be an elephant moving really slowly in the middle of the picture. Then you have these really small things like little flies buzzing around your head or something and there’s these frogs down here and birds flittering around and an antelope might be the guitar or the keys.
With this band it’s like we’re not really explicit about what the songs mean or what the music is about, but we want to stimulate peoples imaginations and have a generally positive message and also stimulate a sense of wonderment. At the moment, the thing that depresses me is what seems to be happening in music is that in the mainstream it stopped being some sort of vehicle for truth or beauty or appreciation of anything. It’s actually crass. Modern pop music is like worshipping the gun that’s pointed at your head. It’s like celebrating just money and it’s just crass materialism and all this shallow shit. It’s just like humanity stands on this point of precipice where it’s just like extinction — all these motherfuckers just flashing shit that’s not even their real life. It means nothing.
Australia and New Zealand is a sleepy little world. People don’t really live that life. To see it in music videos you’re just like, “This is so funny. This is so dumb. Who even gives a fuck? Cars aren’t going to make you feel better about anything. Your friends are, the people you love are. Whatever you’re doing is more valuable than that, the moments you have with people are worth more than that. Everything is more valuable than that.”
MA: Have you had any wild music-related spiritual or religious experiences?
PB: Probably the first real significant thing that I can remember would be from playing music. I distinctly remember the first time I played music and it was an out of body experience. It was when I first started going to university. I had some guys that I was playing with and the whole thing was improvisation. It was crazy. We were in this room one day playing stuff and I had this experience of, like, leaving my body. I was seeing my hands do things and I wasn’t telling myself to do anything. It was just happening and every sound that everyone made was like the sound that was meant to happen. It felt like it was this huge growing ball of energy in the center of the room and you weren’t doing anything, it was all just happening. It naturally finished and we were all like, “Whoa.”
PM: I had a crazy experience. It was the first time I actually took acid. I just started playing percussion. I was playing the cajon, which is a flamenco instrument, and I remember going down to the beach at like six in the morning with just my cajon. That whole night was crazy, but this one moment I sat on this cliff and it was really high, but I didn’t realize how high up it was, and I stood there playing the cajon for hours trying to unlock my left hand and my right hand and try to split my brain in half to do crazy things like polyrhythms, but with just two hands. I unlocked it that day, the sun was rising at the same time and ever since then I’ve been able to do things that I wouldn’t have been able to do before. It was so crazy. Then when I finally woke up out of this thing I realized that all these people were down on the beach doing yoga and they were all looking at me waving.