Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote / Photo by Pat Shahabian
Even though they had just been nominated for a Grammy for their performance with Q-Tip on their track “Nakamarra,” I found Hiatus Kaiyote easy to write off when I first heard of them last year. Self described as multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit, Hiatus Kaiyote is a band’s band. But they're all that without any of the pretense that usually turns casual listeners away.
Their most recent album, Choose Your Weapon, helps to breathe life back into the neo-soul genre at a time when wispy, unstructured, electronic R&B reigns supreme. The 18-track release is strung together by interludes (a touch reminiscent of J Dilla) that came together through loosely structured jamming in the studio. These stand at odds with the very carefully arranged compositions that make up the bulk of the new release.
Despite any of my initial skepticism, when I saw Hiatus Kaiyote at this year's Roots Picnic I was floored. I immediately sought the band out again later that week in Brooklyn, on the last date of their North American tour, their third consecutive sold out New York show. Once again I was blown away. Maybe it was the massive crowd that was patiently waiting in line for a sold out gig they were definitely not getting into, or maybe it was the hype audience singing along to some of the most complex vocal patterns I’ve heard outside of a jazz club in my life, but I needed to know still more about how such a paradoxical unit came to existence.
How did four virtuosic musicians from Melbourne end up playing such a unique brand of funk and soul music to packed houses in New York City, the birthplace of the neo-soul movement? I met with lead singer Nai Palm before she headed back to Australia and asked her.
Noisey: When I think Australia, I don't really think of a big soul scene. Is there a lot of soul, funk, and R&B? Do you have influences down there?
Nai Palm: Well, it's eclectic… so basically I was raised on Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin and a lot of old soul records just from my mom, and that's why I can sing, and that's what I grew up with. She was a choreographer, so she'd bring home a lot of world music as well. So from a young age, I didn't grow up listening to the radio, I grew up listening to the records that my mom would bring home. That was just naturally how I hear music. It was never like, "I'm going to make a soul band!" You are the byproduct of your environment, so the natural extension of my creativity has a soulful element to it because it's just what I was raised on.
Do you think people see you mostly as an Australian band, or do you think people are hearing you and thinking ‘these guys are just an awesome soul outfit’ or what ever genre they assign you to?
The Australian association is definitely there. It’s cool. Like "Nakamarra" is the song we got the Grammy nomination for, and "Nakamarra" is an indigenous skin name that was given to a girlfriend of mine. We are, like I said before, the byproduct of our environment, and even though our music isn't typically Australian there's definitely elements of it. Like this owl in our album is Australian. There's a song, “The Lung,” that I reference a really old Australian folk song and different Australian flora in the lyrics. I think it's cool to be proud of where you come from, but it's not in a straightforward, like Aussie Aussie Aussie, kind of patriotic thing because everybody wants to be America now.
I don't know if you've noticed that, but there's a massive globalization of American culture all around the world, which is beautiful in a lot of ways because you get these crazy hybrids of culture, for example like hip-hop in Mongolia, you know…
Is that a thing?
It's definitely a thing.
Is there a globalization of American music or culture happening in Australia?
Definitely. There always has been. More so now, though. Even with the radio, the majority of it is American pop. Hendrix, for example, had to move to London to make it, and then when he came back he was like exotic-ified. I feel like the fact that we're Australian—definitely there's a lot of amazing bands that are contemporary soul music—but our story is unique and has its own narrative to it that gets your attention because it's like, "Why is their pocket so hard in soul genres when they're four white people from Australia?" The thing is, we live in age of information where culture is just constantly interacting and hybridizing itself, and there's something really beautiful in that. And I love that I love incorporating a lot of different styles into it, but it's nice to kind of have that underlying sense of self and identity associated with where you're from. Like Bjork for example, she is a magical little universe unto herself, but she still has very strong Iceland essence about her, which is cool.
Besides Bjork, what are you guys listening to now? Are you all big fans of the soul genre
This is the thing, being categorized as soul and R&B, a lot my influences aren't from that genre. Basically all I listen to is music from the Sahara desert, something really earthy but intelligent about it and raw. There's a singer called Mariem Hassan. She's kind of nomadic, so I'm not exactly sure where she's from, but, the Sahara desert. A lot of people are nomadic in the Sahara desert. She’s rawer than any of the earliest blues—Son House and shit. I love a lot of different music, but there's something about the Sahara desert that has this raw direct expression of the human soul. There's no tricks. There's no smoke and mirrors. It's just direct, and it's really, really intelligent as well. But directly soulful.
Have you been there?
I haven't been there, no. I've always wanted to go there, ever since I was little I was obsessed with Malian music particularly. I feel like it's the origin where music started. That's the thing, I'm not really listening to the new hip thing.
What’s your dream collaboration?
I don't know, I'd love to work with Toumani Diabaté, who's like a 71st generation kora player from Mali…
For those of us who don't know what the kora is…
Kora is an African harp, so Toumani's father’s father’s father’s father’s father for a thousand years have been playing this instrument, and the songs that he's played are passed down. And he has a son that's the 72nd generation. That's what moves me as a human and as an artist, having that ancient thread still intact. Being able to incorporate and interact with other musicians who are more contemporary. Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian jazz composer that made this song for Broken Flowers with Bill Murray in it. And that's how the western world kind of knows him. He is a pioneer of like playing traditional music in a nontraditional format, and I really love when those two worlds combine. Because you get the energy of something timeless and potent, but then it's given a new landscape.
Any new projects in the works?
We did this remix for Miles Davis (biopic Miles Ahead) that's coming out. And there's a whole bunch of really amazing artists that have done these remixes where they gave us the stems to Miles Davis stuff, so we reworked one of his songs.
I can't tell you. Robert Glasper curated the whole thing. But it's an awesome project. My auntie, who studied classical Indian dance, her partner’s father, he's 73, and he's been playing classical south Indian flute, and he was in all the old Bollywood films. He's just this old guy who's not doing anything anymore, and he was visiting from India around the same time we were working on this remix. So she called me up and was like "He's bored and wants to meet musicians, can he hang out with you for a day?" So I kidnapped him, and I took him to the studio. And as a result like this 73-year-old south Indian flute player, we got to use him in this Miles Davis remix, which I feel is really beautiful because that's like the ethos of the band: Rather than just trying to recreate what is already there, it's like finding the threads.
Pat Shahabian is the funkiest staff member of VICE News. He's not on Twitter.