“We attract the nerds…but that’s cool,” laughs Hiatus Kaiyote’s siren-like singer, the charismatic and slightly mysterious Nai Palm, who is talking to SJF on the eve of the Australian band’s appearance at the Glastonbury festival. “We’re looking forward to it: it will be really fun and the fact that we’re on super-late should mean that it will be well and truly chaotic by then. It should be cool.”
The Melbourne-based quartet – the other members are instrumentalists Paul Bender, Simon Mavin, and Perrin Moss – play another UK gig this Saturday 4th July at Islington Assembly Hall and are due to appear at the Love Supreme festival the next day. They’re over here as part of a summer-long European expedition having just finished a gruelling American itinerary but they won’t be off the road until next year. “It’s all systems go,” laughs Nai, the group’s main lyric writer, who seems to be relishing the band’s time in the spotlight.
Their hectic, globetrotting tour schedule is a reflection of the group’s rising popularity, particularly in the USA, where their latest album, ‘Choose Your Weapon,’ recently peaked at #11 in the R&B albums chart. Some have described their music as neo-soul while others have dubbed it ‘future soul’ whereas Nai Palm, herself, has described the band’s music as “multi-dimensional polyrhythmic gangster shit.” Confused? It’s difficult not to be. The truth is, though, that their unique sound and allusive style simply defies categorization – there are identifiable elements assimilated from different genres of music (soul, pop, funk, jazz, hip-hop, drum and bass, and even Japanese Anime soundtracks) but they’ve been combined and distilled into something wholly unclassifiable and totally original which is often brilliant and uplifting.
Led by Nai Palm’s distinctive astral vocals – which has hints of Erykah Badu and Billie Holiday in its timbre and phrasing – Hiatus Kaiyote issued their first album, 2013’s ‘Tawk Tomahawk‘ independently before being snapped up by producer/A&R executive Salaam Remi (renowned for his work with Amy Winehouse and Lauryn Hill) who signed them to the Sony imprint, Flying Buddha. Prior to the release of their second album, ‘Choose Your Weapon,’ the group were nominated for a Grammy for their song ‘Nakamurra’ featuring A Tribe Called Quest’s talisman, Q-Tip. That placed them firmly on the world stage and since then they haven’t looked back.
In conversation with SJF’s Charles Waring ahead of the band’s Glastonbury appearance and their July 4th and 5th UK gigs, Nai Palm gives us the lowdown on Hiatus Kaiyote, talking about their inspirations, collaborations, and their most famous fan, one Prince Nelson Rogers…
What’s the story behind your new album ‘Choose Your Weapon’?
That’s such a vague question! (Laughs) I don’t know, it’s the natural evolution of us as musicians and working together. We worked on it for maybe a little over a year…what you just asked is like talking about the universe or “how do sum yourself up as a human being in one word?” It’s all encompassing and multifaceted and eclectic. It’s really awesome and it’s been well received and has allowed us to tour the world.
You’ve got 18 tracks on the album – how hard was it sequencing them?
Sequencing the songs is the easiest part but tracking them individually was harder, because we have a lot of material that we needed to put down just because people are familiar with our music. We had cover bands popping up playing music that we hadn’t even released yet. That was in Norway or something. Our music attracts musicians all round the world because it’s really… musical (laughs). A lot of music now doesn’t necessarily have to be musical: you just need a hot, front person to not wear many clothes. We attract the nerds, which is cool, and we have a lot of live footage of us floating around online and people were getting familiar with the repertoire that we hadn’t recorded yet so we had to document as much of it as we could.
You have a very distinctive and unique sound that defies categorisation. Did it come about by design, accident or did it happen naturally?
It’s very intentional but at the same time a natural and organic evolution of us collaborating as four musicians. We put a lot of good intentions and effort into it. Sometimes you can be lazy as a musician, like when you go to figure something out and say “oh this sounds like this so let’s just do this” but we never settle on the first idea and try all avenues until it feels right. Sometimes that’ll be the first idea that you came up with anyway but it leads you to explore what the different versions of things could be and we are constantly reacting off each other’s ideas and refining it.
Do the songs take on a new life and evolve when you play them on stage?
Yeah. For sure. It’s different really, like the live aspect inspires the recordings and vice versa. So you just try and find a way to adapt it to your environment, whether you’re in the studio or live, so it’s cool. Sometimes they’re pretty similar and sometimes they’re completely different. Like sometimes you’ll go to execute something in the studio that you have played live and you find that the sounds don’t quite work as well because you’re not on a massive stage, you’re in some headphones. So it’s something that might create a lot of vibe on stage and energy but it can be really abrasive if you’re just listening through headphones. You have to find ways that you can create that dynamic so that you can be creative and open and explore different ways and trying create that same feeling, I guess.
What can you tell me about your fellow bandmates and what they contribute to your sound?
I play guitar. We all write and produce together. Simon (Mavin), the synth player, sounds amazing, and then there’s Perrin (Moss) on the drum kit, who also does a lot of programming and production. Bender’s the bass player and he also does live samples and production, and I write and play electric guitar and a bit of piano.
There are some overlaps, then, in your roles within the band.
Yeah. There’s no formula, it’s different for every song. We all write. Sometimes it will be a little idea that someone has brought or a whole song that I wrote on guitar. The reason that every song is so different is because we allow all ideas and explore. If it feels right then we’ll explore.
So it’s a very democratic approach to music-making then?
Yeah, it’s definitely difficult but it’s worth it I feel: it’s overcoming interpersonal egos for the greater good and also trying to come up with something really magical. I feel with that trust there you can create something that you could have never have imagined just on your own and it’s worth that that sacrifice, because it is a sacrifice.
Did it take long to establish the creative chemistry within the band?
It was natural. I never met Simon before our first rehearsal. That was four and a half years ago. Bender, the bass player, helped me get a band together and there were a couple of other musicians but they were approaching it from a very session background, and it needed to be more than that. It needed to be all encompassing and cohesive as a creative entity of everybody’s ideas. The first rehearsal that we had with the four of us we barely even looked at the chord charts that were written out. It was just like vibing off other musicians and it just fit.
How did you come up with the group’s unusual name?
I came up with the name with some friends of mine. We were just kind of throwing some buzzwords around and this came together. We wanted a name that inspires the listener to creativity, like how they perceive it. Kaiyote is a made up word but it has imagery of Coyote and peyote and when I Google searched it I found out that it means a bird appreciation society. So it just kind of fit and we like the fact that it’s not the easiest to say or remember – but once it’s in there, it’s in there.
What about the influences that helped to shape the band’s sound?
The influences are everything from Japanese composers like Takashi Yoshimatsu, early electronica from the BBC like Daphne Oram to a lot of music from the Sahara, and, of course, the staples like Stevie Wonder, Bjork and D’Angelo. It’s a very eclectic mix of influences and a lot of the influences aren’t even musical…like Miyazaki’s films.
Yes, ‘Laputa’ seems to bear the influence of Japanese Anime films, is that right?
It was inspired by this Fuzaki film because Bender came up with this synth line. I’m a very visual writer so I can hear a sound and it will inspire imagery and I’ll base the whole theme lyrically and then that extends to musically when we’re putting the sounds down. It’s more fun and you can go deeper into it.
You lyrics read like poetry and some of the song titles are very ear catching. What inspired, for example, the song ‘Borderline With My Atoms’?
‘Borderline With My Atoms’ is one of the songs as I wrote and then brought to the band. It’s a really deep one, I guess. I wrote it after I met this Apache Native American man and we had a really magical interaction. I guess it’s saying there are multiple truths – like when you’re little you believe in so much more magic because it feels real to you and then as you grown up its filtered out and there are certain realities that are pushed on to you. Both are completely valid but it’s just how you choose to defeat it. ‘Borderline With My Atoms’ is a commentary that says life is still magic and there are some beautiful and spontaneous things that can’t be explained that are very real if you choose to see them that way. I live my life like that and I have been blessed with some incredible experiences that I feel really fortunate enough to have had because I’ve been open to it.
How much has Native American culture had an influence upon you and your music do you think?
I don’t know. I’ve written two songs about this guy. I’m an orphan. My dad left when I was five and he passed away when I was about 13 in a house fire. He used to make Native American-inspired jewellery and sold it at markets from when I was really little and so my only memories of him were his fascination with the culture. So from an early age it was something that reminded me of my dad, even though he wasn’t native. I’m inspired by a lot of culture from all around the world, both ancient and contemporary. There’s no stone unturned as far as inspiration goes.
Do you feel that your music has a spiritual depth to it as well?
Yeah, for sure. That’s the whole point of music – or that’s what it used to be about (laughs). Right now it’s entertainment. My role as an artist is to explore the depths of the emotional and spiritual state of beings, without getting too esoteric! (Laughs).
Some of your titles are a tad esoteric. What about ‘Shaolin Monk Mother Funk’?
That’s a song we all wrote from scratch. It’s a tribute to kung fu films and that intense expression and outburst you get in martial arts. There’s so much philosophy and training behind martial arts but when you see it from the surface it’s like this really rambunctious expression. With my lyric writing there are always multiple layers and stories happening at the same time. So although it’s like a tribute to martial arts films lyrically there are elements of my 21st birthday at Uluru, which is this sacred site in the desert in Australia. There’s also an element related to the fact that a friend of mine said that she always hated her freckles until someone said that they looked like constellations, so it kind of changed the way I looked at freckles. So there’s a lyric about that in there so it’s very multilayered.
How much is the culture and history of your own country, Australia, influenced you as well?
You are the by-product of your environment no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing. The natural side of Australia is really potent. Even if you live in a city, you can drive half an hour and be in the bush. It’s pretty amazing. I lived with wildlife carers when my parents died so for me that connection with the native animals there and nature has been a massive part of my personal therapy. So it’s naturally tied in with me, which is also very cathartic. Also, the music scene in Melbourne is very nurturing. It’s not competitive. Everyone plays in each other’s bands. So you get this really eclectic mixing pot of culture and identity and sound.
How are you perceived back home?
Well, it’s that whole tall poppy syndrome, I guess. With Hendrix having to come here (to the UK) from the US before he really made it. I think that especially in the US they understand a lot more about the roots of a lot of the music that we’re playing because I was raised on Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and ’90s R&B like Aaliyah so that’s naturally how I express myself based on that upbringing. But it’s not typical for Australians to listen to that. It was what my mum really loved so I feel that whenever we play in America the heritage is very cemented there so it’s more ingrained and people are more used to those sounds and appreciate where it’s coming from whereas in Australia it’s a little bit behind in that department. We’re renowned for AC/DC and Kylie Minogue and stuff like that but we became the first Australian band to be welcomed into the R&B department of the Grammy awards.
And that validated what you were doing…
Yeah, especially because we’re from the other side of the world and you just assume that there is a world level and then there’s your level. The fact that we were recognised internationally with such a great accolade was really eye-opening. Like I said you’re a by-product of your environment whether that be direct or how you were raised, and so it’s cool that people can feel that.
Your Grammy-nominated collaboration with Q-Tip was a remix of a track from your first album. How did that come about?
We’d already released our record online about six months before signing with a label so we were already out doing our thing. Prince had already heard it and then we got a label offer so they wanted to re-release it. Salaam Remi was head of our label (Flying Buddha). As a musician he produced Amy Winehouse, Nas, and Lauryn Hill among many others and he’s got a lot of friends in the music industry. The label wanted to re-release the album so we had to put something extra on there for people who may already have it ’cause it was already out there circulating. He suggested we get Q-Tip on and we’re all big A Tribe Called Quest fans so it just kind of fit.
You’ve had DJ Spinna remix the current track of the new album, ‘Breathing Underwater.’
Yeah, I wrote for Stevie Wonder and DJ Spinna’s been working really closely with Stevie so he felt attracted to that song and put something together. The remix isn’t typically the music that I would listen to but I appreciate the effort.
What about Salaam Remi? What did you learn from working with him?
The thing is that we produced our album ourselves. We worked with a couple of engineers but he wasn’t working as a producer on the album – he was the A&R and label head. But being a musician he had some perspective. Mostly he just left us to do our thing, which is really refreshing; to be signed to an imprint of Sony and have that much trust and freedom to do what we wanted to do. He gave us a couple of pointers like certain tech stuff – audio interfaces to use or gear suggestions. He just said it as a friend: “have you thought of maybe trying using this?” But he was less hands-on but just sitting back and throwing in some random helpers here and there. He’s very cool and really relaxed.
Do you think that if you worked with outside producers you’d have to sacrifice your unique sound?
We don’t really need them. Maybe we’ll work with some producers (in the future) but it’s like we don’t need you. People don’t realise that production is like a fifth band member. It changes your sound and if we can do it ourselves then we… It’s definitely more strenuous because you’re doing multiple jobs but as a result of that the sound is more unique to you. One day maybe but it’s just not like ‘oh, we’ve made it now we’ll work with a real professional’ (laughs). Most people fuck up when they do that. Their sound changes and people lose interest. ‘Oh, you sound like everybody else’ instead of like when you recorded it in your bedroom you were sincere and people felt that.
How did it feel when someone like Prince took notice of you?
It’s awesome! (Laughs). I’m a massive Prince fan so it was cool. He came to our gig in Minneapolis. He’s asked us to play at his house three times but it just hasn’t happened because we’ve been on tour and we can’t really turn down 800 people because Prince wants you to play at his house. So he came to see us play but he was in and out – he came right at the start of our set and he left right at the end to avoid all the people. But he was cool. He sat on the sound stage for the whole show and it was pretty terrifying. (Laughs).
What’s in the pipeline after this album and Glastonbury then?
We’re doing a European tour and then we go home for two weeks. Then we do an Australian and Asian tour – Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. Then we go straight to the US and do another tour there and then we go back to Europe and do another tour here. Hopefully we’ll get some time off and run away to the desert or something.
What about new recordings? Have you got new songs in the pipeline already?
We don’t have any recordings but we’ve definitely got a lot of material. We’ve almost got another whole album’s worth of songs because we’re constantly writing but we don’t necessarily get the luxury of free time to be in the studio all the time. With this album we went in pretty deep and it’s been nice to just step away for a bit. But you finish it and go straight into touring which is hard so you try to balance it out and do the things that feed your soul and keep you sane.