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Wade Schuman of Hazmat Modine
Interview Rick Webb
Hazmat Modine manage to pull of the extraordinary feat of sounding at once familiar and at the same time unlike anything you've ever heard before. Their sound is joyously eclectic and comes across with extraordinary wit, style and verve. It's clearly steeped in American roots, but not enslaved by them, and encompasses a broad range of source material that provides an unusual amount of depth and nuance. "If you want to be faithful to the music forms that made American music great,” says Wade, "you have to be faithful to what made it great, not to the music forms themselves. American music is, by its essence, music that comes out of the so-called melting pot of different cultures banging up against each other."
Their album 'Bahamut' is a triumph (read our review here) and by all accounts their live shows live up to the high expectations it might generate. Frontman and creative lead Wade Schuman found time for a chat before their upcoming European tour, including a London show at the Borderline on 7th May...
BiL: Hi Wade, so where are you right now?
Wade: I'm in New York City on the 16th floor of 307 west 38th street in what is left of what's called the Garment District of New York. I look out my window and I see all these old industrial buildings. And I see about 4 or five building cranes and about 6 or 7 of these ugly buildings that are being built up everywhere like some kind of nasty architectural fungus. Opposite me is a giant crane that's gotta be about 4 hundred feet high that keeps swinging around menacingly outside the window. I can see the river and the boats going by and I can see New Jersey, which is a beautiful sight to behold! And I can see a lot of the old water towers they have here. No matter how fancy the new buildings are they all have these water towers.
BiL: The reason I ask so specifically about where you are is that when I first heard your record I assumed you guys were French or Eastern European. I was surprised when I found out you were from New York. Is it romantic nonsense on my part to make much of the American/Eastern European immigrant thing?
Wade: Well first off, I take incredible insult at being called French! But seriously, I like to think that we're a very New York band, and New York is a city of immigrants. Its a very short of time America has been around and the thing about New York is that there are people coming through all the time and all these different musics collide - I think our band particularly is a very good example of a very New York band... For instance our tuba player grew up on the Lower East Side, he's from a West Indian family but the Lower East Side was mainly Jewish and Hispanic so he grew up playing in Hispanic bands and eating Jewish food, even though he's West Indian, then he's toured with different jazz musicians, and blues musicians, so he's an example of how in New York the cultural life is very mixed up, which is a very nice thing.
BiL: And what about a Jewish musical connection? Not something with a very high profile within 'Blues'...?
Wade: Well, number one, you've heard of Leiber & Stoller right? Well they were a Jewish songwriting team, many of the great songwriters who wrote for R&B - for Ray Charles, the Coasters, Big Mama Thornton, they were Jewish, and of course there's a huge songwriting tradition in America in general from the Jewish immigrants... If you're talking about what we think if as African-American Delta Blues then maybe there isn't so much Jewish influence, but if you're talking about the pop element of R&B I think there's always been a connection.
But I don't think of us as a Jewish band particularly, any more than we're any other kind of band. I'm half Jewish, half Baptist, so I don't know what that makes me - Bewish? We have a band member who's African American, one who's kind of Irish... I think a lot time, especially in the blues world, people have a certain limited vocabulary of music, so they hear something with a lot of minor chords and they think "Oh that's gotta be Jewish" but of course, most Eastern European music deals with a lot of minor chords, and in fact there's a fair amount of blues music that does as well, so I think that there's a kind of association that's not necessarily based on a full understanding of the parameters. I can't think that I was influenced directly by Jewish music, but I've been very influenced by Romanian music for instance, which I think a lot of people don't necessarily know the difference between the two.
It's a funny thing, I really don't consciously try to make 'Exotic' music, or music that's 'Eastern European' and the way people have viewed us in terms of 'World' music seems a little funny to me, because the truth is I really come out of blues, that's my background - I grew up listening to music from the 20s and 30s. I think that in the 'blues' demographic there tends to be a misguided purist attitude in some ways - when something becomes a music form then suddenly everyone gets conservative but the funny thing is that all the original guys played, for example polkas! All those guys knew all sorts of music forms because they were entertainers.
In hindsight we want to think of them as a pure blues phenomenon but some of that was a commercial thing - that is blues was the pop or the rap music of the 20s, it was a commercial phenomenon. A lot of those guys knew a lot of different music forms - someone like Mance Lipscomb played all different kinds of music - rags and popular music... And Lonnie Johnson played popular music and all sorts of things. They didn't have this notion of 'purity' that we have now and you see this in lots of things, like in Bluegrass, which was invented by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs and then suddenly you get these Bluegrass purists, 40 years after saying "It can't change" but it didn't even exist before then. The same in Jazz - it starts as a popular music form but then people get this high and mighty notion of what it can or can't be.
So I like to think that we are true to the essence of what it is that I care about, which is this kind of American blues/roots thing. But I think that also good music is about something that is alive and creative and not just re-hashing of the same thing over and over.
If you look at the early R&B magazines they'd have like Little Walter as the star but then they'd have the coasters right next to him... Now in a lot of peoples view the Coasters were pop music and Little Walter is the real thing, but at the time it was just considered the same thing - black music - and these people would play in the same places and so the notion that someone like Little Walter was 'pure' blues and, say, The Persuasions or whoever were something different is not is not really part of the reality because culture is always permeable and always shifting, and there are things that go back and forth, and that's what so beautiful about it. The saving grace of American culture is that, as I've said, we're an immigrant culture, and that's always a synthesis of different pieces and parts. I think, that's also why Britain has had such a great musical culture because you've also had an influx of a lot of different people from all over the world...
BiL: Are you guys part of a 'Scene' over there, is Hazmat Modine some sort of a unique 'bubble'?
Wade: Well n some ways we're part of a scene, although I don't think there's many people doing what we're doing... There is a kind of scene based around club in Brooklyn called Barbez which was founded by a guy named Olivier Conan whose originally from France. He has couple of bands and he started the club then a record label and so there are a number of us who are on the label and who are associated with the club.
In America back in the early 90s there was a kind of neo-swing scene and lot of revived interest in roots music - Eastern European and so forth - and a lot of the scene in New York developed out of this where people were getting away from electronic rock and roll and there was a combination of interest in world roots music with a more rock sensibility. So for instance there was a kind of gypsy punk scene - bands like Gogol Bordello or Beruit. So it's a kind of indie rock scene but based on roots music and I think that you can find us in that circle, but I would say we're unique in that we're coming out of this roots/blues background.
BiL: So what came first, the idea of what you wanted to do or the availability of the musicians to bring it to life?
Wade: It was definitely the idea. I lived in Philadelphia for many years, were I worked as a musician, mainly as a side guy and when I moved to New York, ten years ago, I decided only to do music that I love and I don't want to do a single song I don't care about. I had a whole list of things I wanted to do - two or three harmonicas, a tuba... I had an idea of all these things I wanted - musical textures - and loved different kinds of music so I wanted to combine all these different things... I very interested in Rock Steady for instance - I love Desmond Dekker and Toots & The Maytalls... So I started the band with the idea that I just wanted to do only things that I really loved and the band kid of came out of that. I kept adding musicians not because I had a plan to have an eight piece band but because I was greedy! I wanted to have this sound or that sound... And so it evolved over the years.
One of the great things about New York is that there are more musicians that just about any place I can imagine. If want to find say an incredible jazz bassoon player, there's gonna be one in New York! And great musicians come through New York - that's how, for instance. I got to work with the Tuvan throat singers, because I had met them on a social level here in New York.
So I can say honestly that the band was a concept before I got the individual musicians, but each musician brings to it their own qualities and special ideas that I didn't necessarily foresee. For instance one of our guitar players is a really great Cuban Brazilian player, which is not a music that I have much background in but he brings that sound to the band as well, so each musician expands the band in different directions...
BiL: How does the songwriting work? Do you have these worlds in your head, or is it led by the music of the band?
Wade: Well its a whole mixed up thing. I'm a completely self taught primitive illiterate - I'm not proud of that but it is what is - so I can't say "OK we're gonna do a song with this chord and that chord..." it doesn't work like that for me. Things kind of come out, or they don't, and sometimes I have suggestions for ideas from other people in the band and I work with that, but it's much more organic than that in many ways... I kind of don't have a choice what comes out. It sounds corny but sometimes the best things you do come from your limitations, not from your expectations...
BiL: What kind of places do you play?
Wade: Well we've been touring a lot. Last year we were in like fifteen different countries, so we play anything from a giant theatre in Malaysia - a huge disneyland style casino - to small jazz clubs in a basement in Germany, to outdoor festivals. One of the things I think that nice about our wierd kind of music is that we can play jazz festivals, blues festivals, world music festivals... we can swing a lot of different ways and I like that. My favourite kind of venue is something between 100 and 500 people - big enough that you can get everybody going and crazy but small enough that I can see everybody in the audience.
I really like to communicate with and audience and for me one of the real joys of music is that connection with the audience when it's in real time - you respond to them and they respond to you. We cut our teeth by playing at this blues club in New York called Terra Blues. We played there ten years and it's like a loud blues club and people are drinking and to me that's like a home place. Its down to earth and people talk to you and I can talk them. I like to really be there in a place, and not too stuffy about things.
BiL: How much do you consider yourself to be 'of the blues'? Do you get any people whose narrow definition of what blues is makes them think you don't qualify?
Wade: Well good musicians are good musicians and they recognise each other for what they are. In Terra Blues everybody likes each other, all the musicians are nice to each other. There's a real sense of community there. I think Hazmat Modine are pretty well accepted by the 'Blues Nazis'... I don't generally feel like it's problem and we do so many different things that there's something that everybody can find that they can relate to, so I haven't found it to be an issue.
I don't know what the situation is there in Britain, whether people are more orthodox there than in other places. Certainly there's no problem for us in Europe. But you know the funny thing is Europe is they call anything jazz - if it's American it's jazz! Americans, I have to say, have a much more orthodox notion of what jazz is... or world music. One of the things that I've noticed is that generally 'World Music' does not incorporate American music, so you can't be a 'World' musician and be from America, even though last time I looked we were still part of the world... although given the way George Bush is that may not be forever!
BiL: Well that's interesting because I think probably here in the UK you guys are more widely known within World Music than in Blues... And like you say, World Music tends to be anything that isn't British or American in origin.
Wade: Listen, it's 2008, I'm a white guy from Michigan and I'm playing blues. You've got to have sense of humour about that! If you don't, you're an idiot, because I'm playing music that was basically invented a hundred years ago by some very poor black guy and I'm coming from a completely different time and demographic. One if the things that I do believe in is that humour is one of the essential elements in blues - it's what makes blues very powerful, the idea of using humour as a way of release and as a form of irony and communication, and so to take yourself too seriously in that regard is to miss one of the greatest elements in the music that gives it pathos.
If you listen to all the lyrics from early blues musicians there's a tremendous sense of humour, but it's also mixed with anger and irony and that's what makes it so powerful and poetic. I'm aware of the oddness of somebody from this point in time and from my background working within this idiom. The only problem I have is when there are musicians who take themselves so horribly seriously - I think they misunderstand the music completely.
BiL: So how's business? How's things for Hazmat Modine now?
Wade: Well let me put it this way... If you'd told me two years ago I would be touring all over the world I never would've believed you. I think it's actually going better, in a way, than I have an ability to keep up with because two years ago we were basically playing locally, two or three gigs a month and now we're playing all over the world and we're doing six week tours where we're playing every single night and the response has been pretty astounding I have to say.
And this is for an eight piece band - I don't know what it's like in Europe but in America it's almost impossible to tour with an eight piece band. And lets be honest, we're not a pop band, I'm not an attractive woman, I'm a dumpy middle aged guy so it's pretty astounding how much people have responded to it, so I'm very happy. I feel like I'm incredibly privileged to be able to play all over the world and for so many people and to get such a great response.
I'm really excited about coming to Britain I have to tell you, because I feel personally like it's a place we need to play - I feel like there is a kinship between England and the USA in terms of a musical heritage and that some of the great music of the last fifty years has come out of England. It's just something I really want to do, but it seems to me it's much harder to get launched in England than it is say in Germany or France or the rest of Europe.
BiL: Well that's one of the reasons we started this website, but it's a whole other conversation for another day...
Wade: I don't know why that is. We're losing money doing this London gig, but we're doing it because we want to get into the English market somehow.
But I understand this guy Seasick Steve is pretty big over there right now, and if he can be big then I think we should be able to do it too, but it's somehow hard to just get in the door.
BiL: Well that's the power of TV - he was a very popular show over here and then went through the roof. But I remember when I first started getting into blues in the late 80s I used to see all sorts of great blues people playing in London, but hardly any of them ever come here any more...
Wade: Well that's amazing. It's true in New York too you know. None of the blues guys come here because it's really expensive to stay and the gigs don't pay any money. When I first moved to New York there were five blues clubs and now there's one... B.B. Kings doesn't even have blues, just pop and rock music...
Hazmat Modine play the The Borderline, Orange Yard Manette Street, W1D 4JB on Wed 7th May.