How Collaboration, Curiosity And Mortality Shaped Hiatus Kaiyote's 'Mood Valiant'
In the last decade, Hiatus Kaiyote has been synonymous with a kind of understated cool that sometimes gets mistaken for pretentiousness. The band — made up of lead singer and guitarist Nai Palm, bassist Paul Bender, keyboardist Simon Mavin and drummer Perrin Moss — is known for its intricate, genre-hopping style. Its propensity for trying on and melding different styles — R&B, hip-hop, funk, soul — has led to repeated misclassifications by music journalists and even casual fans as to the kind of music it makes. This had led to a typical back-and-forth in interviews with Kaiyote: "Are you a jazz/neo-funk/r&b group?" answered with a less concrete, but more honest: "Not any one of those things."
Still, some people seem most confident in classifying the group based on the enormously famous artists who have sampled it: Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Drake, plus a past single with Q-Tip. This proximity to Black music, especially from a group of all-white Australians, tends to be treated as overdetermined novelty in the media, though Kaiyote is not the first, nor will it likely be the last, group of white musicians to make music clearly influenced by Black culture. It's more realistic, and less sensational, to realize that the band's commitment to a unique sound and genuine musical curiosity are what drive its members and draw new listeners, famous or not.
To Kaiyote, I put forth the optimistic thought that its excellent new record, Mood Valiant — its first in six years, out June 25 — is an undeniable showcase of the band's vast musical range and talent for arrangement. After the spareness of its debut, 2012's Tawk Tomahawk, and the chaotic alien wizardry of 2015's Choose Your Weapon comes the band's most cohesive album yet. Valiant represents a marriage of all the disparate sounds, whether electronic, acoustic, or found, that the band has always been using. Here, those Hiatus Kaiyote staples — intricate arrangements, flawless rhythmic feel, wondrous melodies, Palm's evocative lyrics — are all seamlessly interwoven and deepened.
Over Zoom, we talked about the band's path to Mood Valiant, including how Palm's experience with breast cancer informed her perspective on the record. "I'm super stoked that we have new music out," she says, "because I became obsessed with the concept that I was going to die before we finished it." We also talked about these misclassifications of the band's music — and its undeserved reputation as first-take musicians — and how the band's collaboration with Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai shaped Mood Valiant.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicholas Russell: I want to talk about how you all play on this album. Much of it reminded me of Tawk Tomahawk, in terms of closeness and warmth. There are also moments on the record when Nai's vocals remind me of Erykah Badu — the vulnerability of the singing, but also how things are mic'ed. Was there specific equipment, or a specific style of playing, that you were excited to put on this record that you hadn't done before?
Paul Bender: On the other two records, there was definitely a big mix of things that were very live and then things were very produced in an electronic way. I think on this record, there's a bit more of a symbiosis between them.
Perrin Moss: For us, it was like: How do we leave more up to the imagination [so that] people go on their own journey when they're listening to the sonics and the lyrics? I feel like we got that on this record.
Nai Palm: That evolution happened because we took a year off and everyone made their own records. I did a solo record, [Perrin] made a record. So we had the time to go back to ourselves and find the things that we love. With the early records, it was just all of us chucking it all in the mix. Whereas that time off influenced how we perceive things and how we can put it together a bit more intricately and intentionally.
Simon, I'm curious about "Rose Water." I love the chords on that song. How did that come together?
Simon Mavin: I just had an idea of the opening riff, and then I brought it to the band and it just literally turned into a song in a session or two; it was really quick. For me, it's a classic way that Hiatus grabs ideas and runs with them in a really unique way; you can bring an idea in, and it will just come out in a way that you didn't perceive it to because everyone has got such a ridiculous view of music.
Bender: That tune, like a lot of Hiatus things, definitely started off as a more complicated idea, which eventually got shaved down to something quite concise and simple. I remember initially we were going to do quite a lot more complex numbers, rhythmic numbers, then we eventually settled into just being a pretty normal song but just which happens to be in 5/4.
Mavin: I like when things are in 5/4 or 7/4 or odd times, but if there's a pulse behind it and you don't realize that it's in that odd time and you can dance along to it. And people aren't like, "Oh my god, I can't figure out what's going on." They're just like, "Yay." But then the nerds are like, "Oh, this is cool."
There's this perception of you guys as being these technical masters, but often it seems to be said in a flippant way — as if you play to sound flashy. But – especially on this album – each song, even if it's built around improvisation or a moment of inspiration, feels so deliberately put together.
Palm: People are like, "Oh, yeah, you're a jam band." Are you f****** kidding me? Do you know how intricate and specific all these arrangements are? Everything is super intentional. Just because people don't understand the complexity of it, they're like, "Oh, it's messy. So it must be improvised." It takes away from our credit as arrangers and composers.
Moss: It's a language that we've been developing this whole time. Once we learn a section, you can learn it meticulously enough that you have the freedom within that song to play with it, and that could be taken as improv – and it is, in a sense. But you've learned this whole end of the song, and you just see them as different sentences, and you can elaborate on them as they come up. These days, for us to learn a song is much quicker than it used to be, because we've developed a language and we understand each other before we even finish playing the idea.
Mavin: Thinking back to the way that we put together tunes in the beginning, just think about how much time we spent on "Lace Skull" for instance --
Bender: I wanted to quit the band so many times.
Mavin: We'd do eight bars for two hours just to get the right fitting. And then we'd go "Cool, let's go to the next eight bars." And then we'd loop that for f****** ages until we felt good about it. We don't do that anymore.
How did you guys get Arthur Verocai to work with you?
Bender: Nai's persistence
Palm: In interviews, they always ask, "Who's your dream collab?" For us, our band is already a four-way collaboration. So for someone to come into the mix, you want them to be unique unto themselves and bring something that we couldn't create with the four of us.
And so, yeah, it was just like: "Oh my God, what if we got Arthur Verocai to do strings?" Then I just harassed our manager. It all came together really quickly. Arthur was like, "Yeah, I'm down to do an arrangement. Is the band going to come to Rio for the studio?" And we were like, "Oh my God, that'll never happen." Then we said, "F*** it. Let's pull together a super janky South American tour to at least pay for our flights, because we want to be there." Arthur ended up doing a string arrangement for "Stone or Lavender" after we came home as well.
It seems poetic that you guys worked with Arthur. There was a real moment where it seemed like he was going to be lost to obscurity.
Bender: It was interesting talking to him about it in the studio. He said he never really wanted to be in front of the music. He wanted to be behind the music. He didn't really have that deep desire to be the famous singer, famous front man kind of thing. He just was like, "I want to arrange the music. I want to make things that are beautiful."
It seems to me like there's still joy in the music you make and in the process of making it – as opposed to bands that have more friction and turmoil. Nai, do you feel that's true, even if you're handling heavier stuff lyrically? Is the band still a source of joy?
Palm: It saved my life. It's my purpose. Especially dealing with all the breast cancer mortality s***, it makes you really evaluate what you want from your life. It really could have just been like, "Well, being in a band is hard. I'm going to go and start a lavender farm and just chill and look after myself." But it's always been really clear to me, even more so after this record, that my happy place is collaborating in a studio with these little nerds. And that's all I want to do. It's basically like time travel and you're cheating death in a way, because it lives as long as people interact with it. And that gives me comfort; that's to have real purpose.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas.
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