Hank and Lily North America

Hank and Lily North America
Oddball musical duo Hank Pine and Lily Fawn are more like a post-apocalyptic freak show than a rock band. Good times, though. With a catalogue that includes comic books, herbal teas, tattoo aftercare creams, sexual lubricants and, oh right, CDs, Hank and Lily are a unique and multi-talented pair. Their comics are populated with characters both grotesque and bizarre, not the least of which are versions of themselves: Hank appears as a gas mask-wearing murder suspect and Lily as an antlered, half-deer woman with a penchant for kidnapping babies. It’s all very complicated. Recorded as a soundtrack to volume two of the comic, North America is a cohesive collection of upbeat, peculiarly catchy, punked-out country tunes. Flourishes of musical saw, cello, Theremin and trumpet temper darkly prophetic lyrics that deal with human assaults on the environment and the disconnect with modern society. Lily’s wispy, girlish singing is the perfect complement to Hank’s lugubrious crooning and they’re backed magnificently by the voices of a full 30-person choir. This is a fully realized, immensely enjoyable concept album that will have you speaking in tongues and howling for Hank and Lily to bring their travelling revival show through your town.

How’s the tour going? Where are you guys now?
Hank: We are somewhere outside of Nelson, ON. Somewhere near Perth on some back road. Lily’s driving real fast, Luther Wright’s riding shotgun and barking orders, as he does. He really runs the show. We played in a tiny place called McDonald’s Corners last night, played for some really nice farm folk, they loved it — very warm afterwards. At first they were a little, you know, standoffish, because we’re kinda freaky, what with the costumes and the yelling, but they came around. And before that we were in Alberta, and we did a tour with our whole choir and a film crew through BC.

A film crew? What’s all that about?
Hank: Lily’s actually explaining it to Luther right now. Maybe you want to say it again?
Lily: These really, really nice people from Belgium came here and they followed us around and made a documentary about us and they were so nice! Hank: Yeah, they were really sweet and I got to make this whole kind of fantasy narrative movie alongside the documentary, so the final result will be these two different movies. It’ll be my movie and their movie. It was really fun.

How did you get hooked up with them?
Hank: Well, we’ve toured a lot in Europe, mainly in Europe, actually. We’ve just recently decided that we would like to play in North America more. So we wrote an album called North America and we’re going to play in North America, gosh darn it.

Why were you previously playing more in Europe?
Hank: We just lucked out. This guy came to one of our first shows and he represented a label in Belgium and he flew us over and then we toured Europe four or five times. And so we’re big in Belgium but not so much in Canada.

Have you had any label interest over here at all?
Hank: We haven’t, no. We’re looking pretty seriously for one. We’re hoping someone will come to us and be like, "we love you.” Just to put that out there.

So tell me, did the comic book come before the music?
Hank: It did, the comic book came before the music and then we started to write songs based on the comic and now the two kind of feed off of each other. We have this live show that we did that’s like a cabaret show called "The Velvet Vacuum,” so we recorded this album called The Velvet Vacuum. It’s like a swing, cabaret album and now I’m trying to work a murder mystery into this, which is basically like a musical. So for that one the comic came after but most of the time the comic comes first and then we build the music around that.

What’s the origin of the characters in the comic?
Hank: Well, my character is something that I had come up with a long time ago and Lily had her character and we just sort of meshed the two of them.

And what’s up with the gas mask?
Hank: I’ve always drawn comics and I didn’t want to draw my face so I have goggles and a mask so that I could draw myself over and over and kind of marry my love of music and art together but not have to draw myself over and over because I think that would make me nuts. Well, there’s a lot more going on there, actually, but that’s maybe the simple, most offhanded reason. But there’s a whole convoluted comic book story. Are you ready for it?

Hank: There’s this secret society that I belong to called the Avatars of the Second Sun that are trying to basically set the world on fire. And in order to do that they leak this chemical into the air, and in order to not be set on fire when the whole thing blows up all the Avatars of the Second Sun wear gas masks and goggles.

And that’s also the name of your choir, right?
Hank: Yes, the Avatars of the Second Sun Choir. Or A.S.S. Choir, as we like to call them.

And they’re on tour with you?
Hank: They were, yes, but also, because we can’t travel much with a 30-person choir, we’ve been doing this fun thing where we put together different choirs in all these different towns. So we’ll show up in a town and grab different musicians that we know in that town and assemble a choir. In Montreal we’re meeting with this band Ladies of the Canyon and they’re going to be our choir. And then in Edmonton we had a band called the Secretaries and they were our choir. We made this songbook to go with the album and we sent that out. It’s got the guitar chords and all the lyrics, so it’s this whole "teach yourself” thing. We sent that out to all these towns in advance, so the idea is that they did their homework and learned the songs by listening to the CD and then it’s kind of like a test when we do the show [to see] how well they learned. Generally it’s been awesome, they’ve been really, really good. The Secretaries really rose to the challenge.

This album seems to have quite a different sound than your first one.
Hank: Well, the first one was more of a shotgun approach, we did a lot of different styles of music and sort of felt it out and did whatever we wanted to do. This one definitely had a focus. I wanted this acoustic sound and then tried to make a sort of Pixies-ish album, all acoustic with a full choir behind it. It was very focused. The songs had to be all about a certain thing and it had to all sound the same. It took a lot of doing because we toured so much. We had to keep coming back and we had to have choir practices for a whole summer with these 30 people and get them all together. And to organize 30 people, that was the biggest hurdle: to get them all in the same place at the same time over and over. But then the end result is some of the best live shows we’ve ever done, so it’s awesome. When we did shows in and around our hometown, we had strings, keys players and a horn section and the whole choir, so what we’re doing now is definitely a scaled-down version, but we’re doing the best with what we can find. It’s one of those albums that’s really hard to tour but it’s definitely taken on its own life and is doing its own thing live.

Are you the only lyricist or does Lily contribute to the lyrics?
Hank: She’s kind of the filter. If I write something cheesy, she will make it sound better. She’s very good at keeping the language simple. I can get very wordy and dorky and she kind of reins that in. She makes it so it’s more palatable and understandable.

Judging by your lyrics, you have a pretty grim view of humanity.
Hank: This album is like a doomsday album. There’s this underlying sentiment in it of the apocalypse coming, but it’s about what you’re supposed to do with that overwhelming feeling of doom. You can’t just surrender yourself and live that way. So it’s kind of about fighting against that, more than anything. It’s the idea of having this cynical worldview where you feel like humans are going to destroy everything but then what are you going to do with that knowledge? How are you going to come to terms with it? This album is about what’s wrong and then the next one is going to be about what’s good.

So you think there’s hope for us?
Hank: Yeah there is. Definitely. The newer songs are about stepping back and looking at the big picture, not focusing just on humans, and that helps a lot. So it’s a progression, I would say.

Why do you pair such dark lyrical themes with whimsical, light-hearted melodies?
Hank: It’s because we can’t take anything too seriously. It’s just who we are. I don’t know if it’s a problem but we run into this again and again where we can’t take ourselves seriously for more than five minutes at a time. So the music kind of reflects that. And I think if we were to be straight with it, it just wouldn’t be as fun. I mean, ultimately it’s about reaching out to people. What we really want is for people to have a religious experience when we’re playing. We want people to feel involved and feel part of it. And you can’t do that if the music isn’t fun. We try to make the music fun and engaging but also say what we need to say.

How long have you two been collaborating?
Hank: We’ve been playing together for four years. Halloween was our first show, as you can probably guess from our getup. Then we’ve been touring a lot in Europe. That first album was really good to us and took us all over but we’re really excited to put out something new because that one’s really old.

You’ve got a ton of upcoming stuff listed on your website.
Hank: Yeah, that’s exciting. We just need some time and money to put them out. But The Velvet Vacuum is a swing/cabaret album coming out and then Lily has a sort of Björk-y, weird Lily’s Lullabies album coming out that will have a storybook with it. They’ll all have a comic book to come with them. That’s the thing — we’re a comic book band — so the comic book comes first and the disc will be the soundtrack to them. And we’ve got one called Crank City that we’re working on. And then I have a solo one called Late Night Spirituals, which kind of explains more about my back-story. It gets into a lot of the plot in the comic, because there is one. This one, the North America album, is more esoteric. We don’t want to just dump the whole plot; it has to come out in little pieces and clues so it’s not too much all at once.

I read somewhere that you guys are considering doing a kids version of your show, is that true?
Hank: We are; we have done kids’ versions at different festivals. It’s funny because we do the same songs, we just drop all the gory bits. They work really well as kids’ songs, which I think is the test of a good song. If it’s simple and it can get kids moving, you’re not going to lose people. If it can hold a five year-old’s attention, then you know it’s an engaging song. And our kids’ shows have gone really well. I love it. It’s always funny when we do them because they’ll put us after we’ve just done the adult show and it’s such a weird contrast to go from that material to the kids’ material, because the shows are geared very differently.

Can you tell me a bit about the live show you’re touring right now?
Hank: What we’re doing now is like a Dust Bowl-era snake oil revivalist sort of thing. The idea is that we have the snake oil that Lily makes. She makes all these herbal products, so we have this ceremony where we get people to come up and they get anointed with snake oil and gyrate around. And it definitely has that sort of tent show feel. I’m very excited about that. And the choir kind of adds into that. So we’re definitely working that aesthetic; it’s fun. People come away from it feeling like they’ve really been to one of those things, which I love. You don’t see too much of that these days. Not in a bar, usually.

How does Lily do with her herbal products, does she sell much?
Hank: She does. That’s how she keeps herself going most of the time. When she’s not busy touring in a rock band, which takes up a lot of time. It’s called Earth’s Herbal, her company. She has her own website and you can also order it out of the back of the comic. I’m really excited about creating this community with the comic where we have this connection with the audience, or we play in a town and then people send us letters and stuff. We have this sort of feeling of "our people.” I like that. (Independent)