If you passed percussionist Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost on the street (say, a street in Prague), few clues would be given about the whirlwind of sound and melody that they produce as the duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw, otherwise known as AHAAH. Their self-titled debut album sounds like the sun coming up over a sleepy town with circus wagons visible on the horizon; it is like watching a children’s cartoon in another language; it’s sampled farmyard noises that surprise and delight as much as the darker shades intrigue. More importantly, it’s so different. Other bands I have listened to seem to be protecting their own boundaries, not tearing them down.
AHAAH, however, are globally-minded musical sponges that travel the world and absorb whatever sounds that they hear. Most of us don’t know much about the traditions that this duo draws from, but that’s OK. AHAAH has done all the research for you and it sounds like they had a great time doing it too. All you have to do is listen and enjoy.
They take you on vacation.
They drop you in the middle of a strange land, which is yours to make sense of, and then you arrive at your destination with a story that is less “foreign” and more universal than expected.
Their latest album Délivrance contains more songs of celebration and tragedy, more echoes of time, than their earlier works. Barnes’ vocals wrap around the music like a ribbon, bright and strange, that flies loosely in the wind, but always returns to compliment the outfit. The party vibes of “The Man Who Sold His Beard” make me wanna sell my own facial hair and see what good comes my way, while the final track “Lassú” aches and aches with desperate longing. Délivrance is a delicious banquet of sounds, a record full of contrast.
Layabozi caught up with Trost to talk about Shakespeare, Barnes’ trousers, Hungarian pastries, and the journey of discovery that led to this wonderful album.
Layabozi: Does your name “A Hawk and a Hacksaw” come from the Shakespeare quote from Hamlet,”I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw”? Why did you chose this name?
Heather Trost: We got the name from Cervantes, but we have since been informed that it’s in Hamlet as well. Although, I read Hamlet in high school and totally forgot about this one line. I think Jeremy was reading Don Quixote one day and thought it sounded nice.
LYBZ: What would you like people to take from your music?
HT: Maybe you will be walking down the street one day and something, like a flower, or the way the sun us shining through the clouds, will remind you of something that happened once when you were a kid that made you feel sad or happy or alive. Maybe listening to music, and hopefully our music, can bring memories and ideas to mind that you wouldn’t otherwise remember.
LYBZ: What countries have you visited and learned music from?
HT: We were living in Budapest, and so we got to travel in Romania, especially the region of Transylvania. We also got to go to Israel and Turkey last year, which left a huge impression on us.
We also went to Belgrade and saw some amazing musicians playing on the street there.
LYBZ: What can mainstream musicians learn from the music of the countries that you have been to? What do you guys think of the tag World Music?
HT: It’s nice to listen to music you’ve never heard, even if it doesn’t have the rhythms, tonalities or instruments you are used to hearing. I think more people should try to listen to music with unbiased ears, although that can be very difficult! Isn’t all music made on this planet “world music”? I find it funny that only music from certain countries gets this tag. I guess it makes it easy to find things in the record store though.
LYBZ: When I was near you, in restaurant in Leicester England, it was too crowded to see you guys. What do you look like?
HT: I can’t really say how I look (it’s hard to describe yourself), I guess the best I can do is to say look on the Internet for photos of us! I can describe Jeremy though. He is purple and wears funny trousers.
LYBZ: What is the ideal way to experience/imagine music?
HT: I think this depends on the individual. I love to listen to live music, but I also like to cozy up on my couch and listen to my records, it makes me feel like I am being transported to another time or place, and I don’t even have to leave the house.
LYBZ: What inspires you to create your music?
HT: I think life can be pretty inspirational, meeting nice people, eating delicious food, watching animals play. I also think it’s nice just to have something to do when you are alone so you never have to be bored or lonely.
LYBZ: Of all the places you have been learning music, why did you stay in Budapest?
HT: We made good friends with some musicians there and we fell in love with the city.
LYBZ: What is your quest/search in music?
HT: I guess it’s just something we do that we love. Maybe it will change someday and will turn into something else. I think it’s more about the creative process, and that is the search in and of itself.
LYBZ: What are your favorite songs from A Hawk and a Hacksaw?
HT: My favorite song to play live is Fernando’s “Giampari”. and lately I like hearing “I Am Not a Gambling Man”.
LYBZ: You just played at SXSW. How was your experience there? What are your upcoming concerts/gigs?
HT: We have played SXSW twice before so it wasn’t so much of a surprise. It’s a lot of bands and people all in one place, which can be fun and also tiring. We did get to play at the beautiful French embassy in Austin, which was pretty amazing. Before Texas was a state, they had a French Nobleman come and dedicate it.
We are going on tour in a week for the next three months in the US and Europe. We are opening for Andrew Bird and then Wilco in the US.
LYBZ: You will release your fifth studio album soon, so please tell us about it: what’s the subject? How was the recording experience?
HT: I suppose it’s somewhat of a documentation of our time and the people we met in Budapest. We recorded it mostly in Hungary in different people’s living rooms. Jeremy would carry around his laptop and microphones with us. We finished it in New Mexico so we have some of our friends from home playing on it as well.
LYBZ: What do you think of the music scene in China?
HT: I am curious about the music scene there! There must be so many great musicians playing all the time. We saw a DVD of this great band Vialka and they were touring around China by train. It looked like they had an incredible time. I really like the ancient musical forms of China and their traditional music is really beautiful as well.
LYBZ: What is your favorite Hungarian snack? ( Túró Rudi maybe? )
HT: I never tried Túró Rudi, but my favorite snack would probably have to be these delicious strudel pastries filled with fruit or something savory. My favorite were the rasberry ones called málna rétes.
It’s great to hear Heather talk with all the zest and enthusiasm for life that AHAAH bring to their music. Their music is driven by Quixote-like powers of imagination and a faith in the beauty of humanity that is impossible not to be inspired by.
And—while we’re talking literature—let Proust have his madeleines, the ones that famously bring memories flooding back with a single bite, I’d rather share a melodic málna rétes with AHAAH: they too, remind their listeners of lost times.
Personally, I’m grateful to their music for reminding me of my own travels in Hungary, one of the many places that they pay tribute to so perfectly. But, as Trost suggests, AHAAH makes the kind of music that sounds different to every single person who hears it. Listen to Délivrance, and see where it takes you.
Délivrance will be released by The Leaf Label on May 18th
Photo by Adam Faraday