Hiatus Kaiyote: On birds, improvisation and identity

Olivia Fletcher 24 November 2015

It’s been a busy and exciting, if not a little heavy, year for Hiatus Kaiyote who released their second album, ‘Choose Your Weapon’, in May whilst touring their home country Australia. The band have been on the road for a while (touring through America and before that, Europe); Simon Marvin, the man behind the synths, tells us they’ve pretty much been non-stop since March. Yet, despite the suddenly freezing November air enveloping the Cambridge Junction, the band seem anything but sullen – their performance is flawless, authentic; and their farewell, though laden with a strong sense of somatic relief, flirts with the possibility that they could go on playing forever. 

Unfortunately though, time elapses and, as the person next to me softly grieves, “we’ll have to go back to a world where she’s not singing”, it hits me too. Nai Palm’s voice is unbelievable. During sound check she jokes around with an octave changing effect and insists that it should be used in the chorus of ‘Swamp Thing’, their ode to Michael Jackson’s thriller. Though, as the sound guy obviously decided, Nai’s voice needs no buffer or effects: it suffices on its own, reminiscent of and as familiar as a birdsong, laced with undertones of RnB and Hip-Hop, amongst other resonances. 

The band, formed in 2011, is often questioned about their influences since their sound is notably eclectic and difficult to pin-point. We talk about how their music is simultaneously complex yet effortlessly listenable. Their first album samples the opera Lakmé; their second features a collaboration with Q-Tip; yet their sound always remains distinct, unadulterated and recognizable. Marvin plays with the idea that this is down to their Australian roots: ‘we haven’t got any cultural identity as such, and that opens the door so much for us’.

Above: Simon Marvin, synths, ‘if it appeals to us in a way that makes the hairs tingle on your arm, then its something that you want to develop and work on, and if its flat and it doesn’t then you don’t.’ (Image Credit: Hannah Machover)

Their music is often defined by the genre ‘future-soul’, but this approximation doesn’t quite fit, nor does it satisfy a description of what can be heard on their record, or come anywhere close to what happens onstage. As a band that formed through an extended jam-session, their music is a free-flowing rag-bag of different tastes and various skill-sets. Marvin says this is something often commented on after live shows: ‘That’s something a lot of people connect with […] It’s more about it being a live thing, as opposed to just a revision of the record.’ As Nai and bassist Paul Bender nod along to each other during ‘Mobius Streak’, I understand what he means: it’s as though the entire song has been spontaneously composed, the members feeding off each other with certain riffs or diversions and responding with enthusiasm to anything remarkable, as Marvin’s solos often are. 

The inclusion of animal sound-clips and allusion to bird songs and ‘bubbles’ is something that is not so prominent onstage but arresting when listening to the record. Marvin and Bender agree: they try to keep their creative process as 'organic' as possible. Bender tells a funny anecdote about their friend Charlie, a ring-neck parrot who enjoys hanging out with Nai in the studio: he listens as she records her vocals and starts ‘freaking out’ if he hears her voice through the speakers, responding by shrieking down Bender’s ear. Bender’s not bitter, however: ‘it’s harsh, it’s really harsh but he’s a cool guy and I like him.’ Though, the impression is that these quirky embellishments are not what is being referred to as organic. Rather, they talk about their ‘sound’ and the ‘emotional experience’ it aims to produce as the most natural and enjoyable element of their music. 

A question about their part in the Cambridge Jazz Festival inevitably leads to a discussion of genre, and its futility. The members of the band are bringing so many different influences to the creative process; they never sit down and discuss their ‘sound’ in the way that I am trying to, right now.  Marvin, who studied classical music for fifteen years, opens up on this subject, discussing quite eloquently the conflation of musical finesse with musicality and the limiting effects that genre habits can have on creative processes. ‘Popular styles like jazz and classical music become this world-class thing and if you actually want to be that kind of musician you have to be world class. That just takes so much work, and people get lost in that work: before they know it, they’ve lost all musicality’.

Above: Paul Bender, bassist, talking about Charlie the Parrot and music as ‘emotional experience not just […] technical experience’ (Image Credit: Hannah Machover)

The apparent formlessness of their music is both a result of the energy behind their live music and also of the Melbourne music scene and its drive towards forging an identity. REMI (Remi Kolawole), who supported the band, is also from Melbourne and has the same distinctively different, yet reminiscent sound. Bender says that their music production is about ‘emotional experience, not just a technical experience’. Marvin interjects: ‘When I’m making music, one of the most enjoyable points is when I’m not thinking about any of that shit. I’m just thinking about the moment and the music that’s being made and the people I’m with.’ 

So, as the band return for one (graciously long) final song, they bring a bottle of Jamesons with them. The songs evoke something strong in the audience who unanimously sway shoulders and move hips, but also something in the members onstage: nearing the end of more than six months of touring, they continue to bite lips and furrow brows at the astonishing sounds they are producing. Hiatus are in love with music, and its nomadic processes; it was an honour to have witnessed their intimate genius onstage.