After ten years of touring the world, Hazmat Modine’s third studio album, Extra-Deluxe-Supreme, digs deeper into American soil.
Ten years ago, Barbès Records released Hazmat Modine’s debut album, Bahamut, which quickly went on to become a cult classic. Pitchfork probably captured it best by describing it as “generalized roots music that takes from pretty much any roots it sees fit,” and went on to praise the album as “true world music, weird and wonderful to the last note.”
Now ten years later, Barbès is releasing Hazmat Modine’s third studio album: Extra-Deluxe-Supreme: an artistic statement that is the culmination of ten years of musical adventures around the world.
The new album confirms Hazmat Modine’s place as a band of outsiders oblivious to the rules that govern today’s music scene. The group itself is a heterogeneous collection of musicians with a fondness for odd instruments and an all-inclusive view of what constitutes American music. Extra-Deluxe-Supreme is their most classically American album to date. It draws from Gospel and R&B, from Country Blues and early jazz, and displays a strong attention to songcraft, inspired by a long line of American songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to Stax and Motown.
Hazmat’s sound is still defined by their signature tuba and harmonica, as well as their original horn section, guitars and accordion – with the addition of your usual assortment of marimba, doshpuluur, Igil, railroad spikes, claviola, rocks and cimbalom.
Hazmat’s eclecticism is probably what got them noticed in the first place. The band is known for having collaborated with famed Tuvan throat singers Huun Tuur Tu, Benin’s Gangbe Brass Band as well as Natalie Merchant. They count “American songwriting and African music” as their “biggest influences,” and first got noticed by German director Wim Wenders for the Calypso-like Bahamut, which Wenders included in his movie Pina.
Extra-Deluxe-Supreme does away with the more obvious genre hopping and exotic colors of its predecessors. After ten years of leftfield collaborations and extensive touring in places as varied as Siberia, Borneo, Brazil, Germany, Mexico, New Zealand and Turkey, Hazmat Modine seems to have absorbed it all and wholeheartedly embraces its own forged identity as an American band with its own idea of what American music means.
“Twenty years ago” explains bandleader Wade Schuman “I had to sort through all the complicated detritus of singing in an idiom that has its origins in Southern and rural music but I also embrace being a New Yorker. I like the idea of a New York music which by its nature is eclectic.”
One essential New York tradition remains that of the professional songwriters, starting with Tin Pan Alley and the likes of Irving Berlin (who inspired the song Plans) “Tin Pan Alley affected everything. It was really about the idea of a journeyman songwriter and the fact that we were creating our own music in the 20th century.” You could say that they created the template for all the songwriting teams that would emerge later in Memphis, Detroit, or the Brill Building.
In keeping with the idea of a songwriting team, most of the songs on the album were co-written by Wade Schuman and bandmate and guitarist Erik Della Penna. “Sometimes I’ll write the verse, and Erik will write the chorus. Or if I have a melody he will write the lyrics. We have absolutely no system,” says Schuman about their collaboration. “Neither of us has a preconception of how to do things”
Still, Hazmat Modine has not renounced its fondness for eclectic sources and transcultural feedback, as exemplified by their collaboration with Alash, another band from Tuva. “I brought in the Tuvans again because I thought that they intersect perfectly with a certain kind of American idiomatic language” says Schuman. “On the song Your Sister for instance, I’m going for a kind of rural American sound but the irony is that the Tuvans are playing their own version of the fiddle and banjo and flute – it’s exactly where the tonality of Asia and the Midwest meet.”
For the past ten years, Hazmat has kept a busy touring schedule in most of Europe – with forays into Asia and Latin America. The band has been the recipient of France’s prestigious French Charles Cros Award, a German Records Award and was nominated for a BBC award. Its US appearances, however, tend to be limited to their hometown.
It is true that Hazmat Modine may confuse American audiences. “In most bands everyone looks kind of similar to each other but I think Hazmat doesn’t fit anybody’s idea of a normal band. We are not one ecosystem” says Schuman. The band includes men and women of all ages, blacks and whites, rock and jazz musicians. The diversity is a reflection of Schuman’s wide range of interests. “I think that’s an important ingredient to what the band is. I pick people who wouldn’t naturally go together. People who have a very different background from me and from each other.”
And indeed, band members have all contributed different aspects of the American musical experience Reeds player Steve Elson toured with Johnny Otis and then went on to work with David Bowie for many years. Guitarist Michaela Gomez is a veteran of the rich Brooklyn trad jazz scene. Trumpet player Pam Fleming has toured with Burning Spear (and smoked weed with Fela in Lagos) Accordion player and singer Rachelle Garniez has worked with Jack White and written for musical theater. Erik Della Penna has toured and recorded with Natalie Merchant for over a decade, as well as worked with Joan Baez and Joan Osborne. Drummer Tim Keiper has spent years playing with Vieux Farka Toure, Cyro Baptista and the Dirty Projectors. He has visited Mali numerous times to study calabash and N’goni.
Hazmat’s only other original member, along with Schuman, is tuba player Joseph Daley. “Joseph was my guru in a way because he saw something in the kind of raw band leader that I was; he saw something that we could do.”
Joseph Daley is a native New Yorker, born in Harlem to a West Indian family and raised on the Lower East Side. As a teenager he started playing out with Latin musicians such as Monguito Santamaria and Jerry Gonzalez. He went on to work with some of the most influential artists of the past forty years including Sam Rivers, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, Taj Mahal and Howard Johnson.
The heteroclite nature of the band remains one of its most defining characteristic – and perhaps its main driver. The sense of creative freedom and disregard for constraining rules that permeates Hazmat Modine’s music is particularly evident on their latest album, which Schuman calls “the product of a maturation of a kind of musical journey” “’
“I think our band is like a really good NYC diner” concludes Schuman. “The food comes from every tradition you can think of, but in the end it’s really the ultimate American comfort food.”