Interview // A Hawk And A Hacksaw
Ordinarily, coming out from a stint in one of the most buzzed-about indie bands of recent times, a musician would see nothing but a world of opportunity on the horizon.
However Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes felt nothing but disillusionment following the untimely break-up of Neutral Milk Hotel in the wake of their seminal 1998 record, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea.
The Louisiana band’s two albums had earned them critical praise up the proverbial fundament, but it was very much Magnum’s project, so when their hiatus turned into a full-blown break-up, Barnes was left looking for a new angle to ignite his musical passion.
Speaking from his Greek soundman’s phone following a gig in Ghent, Belgium, Barnes explained that the seeds for A Hawk And A Hacksaw came in the most unlikely happenchance, of forms.
He says: “I bought a record at a thrift store of Romanian music because I liked the way the cover looked. I didn’t even think that I would bother listening to it – I just liked the cover – and it just sat around in my collection for a while.
“I finally put it on one day and it totally blew me away. It was kind of an epiphany. I had been searching around for something to do and some kind of direction and it pointed me in the area that I wanted to go.
“That was in 1999, and from there I began looking into music from Romania particularly but also from different parts of Eastern Europe, trying to understand the relationships between the different types of music. For lack of a better term, it became an obsession.
“I was at a point where I was finishing, musically, with what I was doing and I needed something new to do, but as an outsider.”
Nowadays, with groups like Gogol Bordello and Zach Condon’s Beirut (for whom A Hawk And A Hacksaw served as backing on band on his debut album, Gulag Orkester), there is a strong and well-worn niche for Eastern European folk music in indie rock circles, but Barnes was very much plowing a lone furrow when he began experimenting with the music of the Roma.
Like the aforementioned acts, Barnes has a healthy respect for tradition but sees himself as somebody who adds to the musical tradition rather than simply preserving it, and it’s this curiosity and experimental nature that has led the now five-piece group to incorporate sounds from Hungary, Turkey and, most recently, Mexcian mariachi music into their increasingly complex casserole of influences.
He explains: “There is the idea that folk music should be preserved, and I listen to a lot of folk music by people who are trying to re-do music that was made 100 years ago or more, but it’s not my path. Music evolves, and you can’t really track it or even understand what’s going on with, especially now that things have exploded in terms of what everyone hears.
“You don’t receive it from the village pub, and you don’t receive it from your father teaching you to play the violin, you receive it on record. The whole way that folk music is transferred between people has changed. Even if the transferring is kind of cold and not as romantic as your father teaching you a melody that is 100 years old, that’s just the way it goes and it’s the way living music works.
“The ways these forms move throughout the world – you look at heavy metal music being played in Brazil, and the way it transfers itself between places, I think it’s really interest. In a way, it’s more of a living folk music than a lot of so-called ‘authentic’ folk music that’s being treated as a museum.”
Though he regretfully notes he hasn’t studied ethnomusicology in college, Barnes shows a clear interest in the academic aspect of the music he plays, in the history of Eastern Europe and how its various music forms evolved.
“What I love is the mixture between people – the influence of Turkish music on Bulgaria, Bela Bartok from Hungary, Hungarian music and Turkish music are related, and the movement of people from western Asia, even Hungarian people are supposed to be from central Asia. In the end, everyone tries to find this ‘authentic’ music – like ‘this is the authentic Irish music’ or ‘this is the authentic Jewish music’ – but everything has been so mixed that it doesn’t matter. There’s no point in finding that.
“Have you ever heard of this documentary, Atlantean Quartet? You can find it on Youtube. It’s from the 70s. This Irish guy is drawing similarities between North African music and naval culture, and also Irish music and Irish naval culture. He’s putting this theory up that a lot of Irish people came from North Africa on these ships way back, and the idea that Irish people are only Celtic are wrong. It’s an interesting theory and an interesting idea, and I like looking at those sorts of things. I never graduated from college or studied ethnomusicology – it’s just something I’m into.”
Having incorporated forms of music that stretch the length and breadth of Eastern Europe, and now Mexico, the conversation inevitably turns to whether he could ever see himself playing Irish trad music, but inevitably his train of thought always winds up back in Eastern Europe and the music that re-lit his musical flame over a decade ago.
He says: “I have some Irish in me and I grew up with Irish music, and all my family listens to Irish music so it’s something I grew up listening to. In some ways, when I first heard some eastern European fiddle music, it reminded me of Ireland and that was one of the things that excited me about eastern European music.
“There’s this book called Raggle Taggle by Walter Starkey – he was an Irish writer and translator. He travelled and met a bunch of gypsies from Hungary in this internment camp where they were prisoners, where they had made a violin.
“He ended up becoming their friend and he promised them he’d go to Hungary and Romania after the war, and he ended up writing a book about him walking around Hungary and Romania in the late 1920s. He meets all these gypsies as he’s walking around, and it has this really nice Irish humour to it. It’s a great book.
“It never occurred to me to use Irish music, but you never know. At this point it’s just fun to listen to.“
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, April 12.