Published Mar 04, 2011He's not Neutral any more. Over the course of five albums, Jeremy Barnes the former drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel, has traded in his kit for an accordion-led voyage into the heart of Eastern European folk forms with A Hawk And A Hacksaw. His latest collaboration with bandmate Heather Trost is their first self-released effort Cervantine, which drops March 8 on the unsexily named LM Duplication label. Barnes is very happy with where this personal musical journey has taken him, even as he acknowledges its esoteric nature.
Do you see your quest as a band as exploring the folk musics of Eastern Europe, or to develop your own hybrid sound, or both?
It's a mix of both. We don't want to be a cover band and just learn songs. So we do write a lot of material, but I also think it's important to not only learn songs but also learn things from musicians. So I guess it would be both.
A lot of people will throw around the word authentic with respect to the analog sounding, expansive recording. Do you care or not about the word "authentic"?
Well, I think it's a tricky word. In the world music industry a lot of people are looking for this pure authenticity that I feel doesn't really exist when you delve into the music and folk culture pretty much anywhere. It used to be in Romania, or even in England in different counties the music was different, the ballads were different and the folklore was different. Then they were they kind of collided for good or bad and they became "English folk music" or "Romanian folk music." Certainly in some places there still is authentic sound. [For example] one county in Romania they play this style and that's it. I love that and there is certainly something to be said about preserving that as you would something in a museum. But my take on folk music is that it's evolving and changing, it is a living thing. As far as our music, we're kind of rootless wanderers, we're affected by all sorts of music, not only Eastern European music, and these things come up in our music so it's very mixed. We're just musicians who are doing what we love and doing what we feel we should be doing. The authenticity thing is, if you're looking for it, you won't find it with what we're doing. I guess our music is authentically A Hawk And A Hacksaw.
One thing about taking on the repertoire from this part of the world is you really have to play your ass off. Have the last few projects you've done really kicked your asses as musicians?
Definitely. We lived in Budapest for two years and played with four Hungarian folk musicians and I spent two weeks recording in a Roma village in Romania. It's not only their musicianship but the way they learn. We were learning by ear ― I don't read music so that's good for me. But definitely there's something about the speed and ornaments in Eastern European and Turkish music that I really love. And it definitely will kick your ass.
Do you think this is a contrast to how people view instrumental prowess in North America?
Yeah I think a lot of people are confused if they don't know who we are and we start playing, they're like "What is this what's going on"? We've had comparisons to Metallica, which is really funny. Because the only genre where technical prowess is kind of accepted these days is heavy metal. In some ways musicianship is getting lost in there somewhere. It's funny cause I don't consider myself a very good musician; I'm self-taught.
That's interesting because there's a certain looseness to your sound; it's less fanatically on point than, say, a lot of Balkan brass bands but I think some people are attracted to it because of that quality.
Yeah. I love the Romanian brass bands and Boban Markovic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvW3mLLhqyI&feature=related). I love that super-fast stuff but it's not what we're doing. But I can see what you're saying.
What do you think of the Balkan turbo-folk movement? You get these really fast brass bands and really compressed dance floor style production for a club audience.
Well there are two kinds of genres coming out from what I can tell. There's the dance music, which is made for people in the Balkans, which is regional from country to country and then there's dance music made for mainly western European audiences that isn't really listened to in the Balkans. That stuff I don't really like very much it seems really clichéd like let's slap a crappy hip-hop beat on top of this wonderful Ottoman Turkish kind of rhythm and everyone will dance. To me it's stomping out all the unique intricacies of the music. But in Romania there's a music called Manele which is like synthesizer and voice and drum machine and electric violin. I respect that music, cause I can see the roots. It's forward thinking. They think it's very Western because it has synthesizers but really it's completely Eastern phrasing. I respect it, but can't listen to it. But it's huge in Romania and people listen to it all the time.
In terms of expectations put on you with your music, you recently split with Leaf ― was it amicable?
It was amicable and they always supported what we did even when we went a little too far into Eastern European folk, they were great. But it was just getting harder for them and us to make money selling records. I partly I feel like with our music, we just have a ceiling. We don't have ambitions to sell many more records and we're not going to do any of the things that maybe you could do to sell records. I'm happy with what we're doing which is just getting better as musicians, that kind of thing. When you're working with a label that's looking to have success it's hard. I kind of felt that with this ceiling; it would make more sense for us to release our own music. So we made that decision and they respected that and understood. I'd been talking to them about it for a few years.
It must be an interesting proposition to launch a label in 2011.
It is. It's been a lot of work but thus far it's been OK, we have a distributor and pre-orders have been good and it hasn't affected our lives, I was worried that promoters would be wary. We have had to do everything in this release. I recorded the music, I worked on the design with the designer and we chose where we were going to print it. We saved money by folding and packaging everything ourselves to send it off the distributor. It's been interesting.
It's a beautiful package, I love how it feels.
We wanted to do something for CDs cause it's kind of a lost medium. We released a 78 RPM record a few years ago and it almost feels like releasing a CD is the equivalent of that. Nobody buys them anymore so we thought let's try to make this special.
What's the story behind the name?
I wanted it to be extremely generic. I've been buying a lot of records from the 50s and 60s and there were a lot of labels that came up and disbanded and did one or three releases. Even in Albuquerque where we live, you'll see these Hispanic labels with like the address of the office on the back and the artwork is kind of strange and generic. And I started to like the aesthetic of that. Instead of naming it after something cool and wild, I'd make it generic.
Like a private press label that the Numero Group (www.numerogroup.com) is going to reissue in 30 years.
Right! That's exactly it.
Where do you see yourselves going in the future, how do you continue the exploration?
I want to release music from different places when we get the money together. We're talking to a few, we have a few ideas for reissues or projects, and that's partly what the label is there for. There isn't a lot of money in it but we can tour a lot and we do our best and hopefully that will continue, so we'll just do what we do.