A Hawk and a Hacksaw: “We Took Our Time With This”

Ex-Neutral Milk Hotel man Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost come to Cork next Tuesday as part of a small run of Irish dates as A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Barnes about their new record.

“I just saw that your last name is McGrath. My grandma was a McGrath. Her grandfather came over to California from Ireland in the nineteenth century.  We still have a few connections to family in Ireland… I’m hoping they will come to the show in Cork.” Such ease in connecting traces of family and history around the world, and connecting them to the present, informs the music of A Hawk and A Hacksaw, the solo-project-turned-duo starring Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and world-travelled violinist Heather Trost. As we chat about how the record has been received, this forthrightness is a constant, as Barnes addresses the road itch that inspires their music time and again. “We haven’t toured in awhile, and it has been wonderful to be out again playing live.”

On their seventh full-length, ‘Forest Bathing’, the band have tapped into a natural interest in the music of Eastern Europe, indulged with visits to the area. Indeed, a greater connection with the world is a theme of the project. “Some of the stories were inspired by a melody, while some of the songs were inspired by a particular scene or meditation we had somewhere in Eastern Europe. When we were in Koprivstisa, Bulgaria, we learned about how the merchants of that area travelled all through the Ottoman Empire selling textiles. It led me to thinking about what it must have been like, for a Bulgarian to go down to Istanbul and into the Middle East, to see all the cultural richness of those areas, and then to head back home. That is really what we are interested in – when so-called borders are crossed and people open themselves up to the world outside.”

While the band has traditionally featured more collaborations than have occurred on this record, the process for the duo hasn’t exactly been isolated either, as musicians from around the world have brought their experience to the table. “We wrote all the songs, and most of the music is played by us. We had a few key musicians play here and there, including Cüneyt Sepetçi, who is a wonderful Roma clarinet virtuoso from Istanbul, and Balazs Unger, a cimbalom musician from Hungary. Our old friend Sam Johnson from Chicago played on one track, and closer to home, a great bass player from New Mexico, Noah Martinez played on a few tracks.”

The attention to detail that comes across when Barnes discusses the album extended to the recording and production processes, with the duo working at their own pace. “We took our time with this, which made it much more enjoyable, and we are introducing new instruments, some of which will be with us when we play in Cork. I’ve been playing the Iranian santur and davul drum, both of which we will bring with us.”

The band has been releasing records via its own label, LM Duplication, and has been for a while. The tectonic plates that have shaken the music industry continue to move, and adjusting for the movement has presented challenges. “The transition from physical copies, to downloads, and to streaming has at every step meant less income for the artist, and more income for places like Spotify. The music industry looks nothing like it did when I began playing professionally twenty-two years ago. I don’t feel like an old man, but in this business, I guess I am. Starting our own label has given us a lot of freedom, and it is wonderful to be in full control. But of course there is a lot more work. We are in involved in every aspect of the release of our records, from mixing and mastering, to album sleeve design, down to filling orders at the post office. With the way the industry has been set up today, I’m not sure that I would want to be a musician if I were nineteen again. In 1995-96, I could see a way for a musician to make a living on a small scale, without having to deal with major labels. I’m not sure that I can see that now. Our music is heard by more and more people, but we receive less and less income.”

The duo is playing Cork next week, on the 14th, upstairs in Cyprus Avenue. Heading into their Irish dates, Barnes is excited about getting in front of Irish folk audiences. “We love playing in Ireland! We’ve found that Irish really listen, and they can handle instrumental music. Few places have as much of an understanding of the violin as Ireland does – Hungary, Romania, certainly, but I think of all the countries we’ve visited they are the only ones.”

Claudia Schwab: A World of Sound

Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with violinist/vocalist Claudia Schwab ahead of Clonakilty and UCC dates this month.

Austrian-born, Indian-influenced and Sligo-resident, violinist/vocalist Claudia Schwab draws from a wide range of reference points in her music, a folky, world-travelled whirl of sounds and cultures. Second album Attic Morning, releasing this month, brings Schwab’s sonic concoctions on the road, including two dates in Cork, on the 16th in Debarra’s of Clonakilty, and in a free, midday gig at the Aula Maxima in UCC, as part of the university’s FUAIM performance series.

Schwab gets into the influences, travels and circumstances that informed her musical upbringing and development. “In my childhood, I was very much surrounded by classical and orchestral music. My mum is a violin teacher at our local music school and my dad also plays the violin. They actually met in a youth orchestra! (laughs) Me and most of my brothers and sisters would have gotten our first violin lessons at home off my mother and we all learned several different instruments at the music school. We were part of kids’ string ensembles, youth orchestras, the adult orchestra, ensembles, choirs… I also remember being dragged to a seemingly endless amount of classical concerts. As long as I can remember though, I was always interested in all kinds of music: at home, my brother Wolli and me would listen to Beatles records, turn off the vocals and sing our own lyrics to the songs. He was also into punk rock and the band Flogging Molly, which was one of the first bands to introduce me to Irish music. I remember borrowing my sister’s Riverdance CD, which I listened to up and down for a good few years… As a teenager, I became interested in jazz and improvisation, hip hop dancing and Balkan music. I was very lucky to study with my violin teacher Berni Schmutz, who also ran an ensemble, Joey’s Ba-Rock Ensemble, where I had my first go at improvising. One of my piano teachers was also a hip hop dancer, and my singing teacher ran oll sorts of cool projects involving singing gospels and more modern stuff as well… When I came to Ireland at the age of 19, I only played trad for a few years and got really into it. It wasn’t until I went to college at UCC that other things came back to me. A new big influence was Indian Classical Music: just before I started my BA at UCC, I took a 3 month trip to India, where I got lessons in North Indian Classical violin. At the time it was just something “local” to do on my travels – little did I know how much impact it would have on all of my music. I think it’s just a natural thing: all these different things are in my head and fingers and they just come out!”

The album itself sprung from spontaneity, and a hunger to get ideas out from the ether and onto tape. Borne from touring and the grind that goes with it, elements of collaboration and sound-art are evident throughout. “We started recording the album on a rainy day during an Ireland tour with my trio, featuring Stefan Hedborg and Marti Tärn. The three of us had been touring together since the launch of my first album. Through our gigs, a new repertoire had formed, and the songs moved more and more away from their original solo arrangements, to a more integrated band sound. We went into the studio and just recorded all the new material we had been playing together. And that’s how it started: it wasn’t really a set decision that we’d go in to make a new album, rather to just see how we got on. It was pretty clear to me though, when we left the studio, that we pretty much had just recorded a whole new CD! I got a few guest musicians in later on who added to our recordings, such as accordionist/clog dancer and singer Hannah James, who has since joined our band, and Lisa Hoerzer, an old friend of mine from home who graced some of the tracks with her beautiful harp playing. There’s a sound collage in there that I started working on when I was a student at UCC: actually – the call of the Evening Echo man can be heard in it! I was collecting sounds around Cork at the time and thought that it would be really nice to have his call in there, as it forms such a distinctive part of the Cork sound.”

DeBarra’s in Clonakilty plays host to the first of her two Cork-county dates, traditionally a great pilgrimage to the West Cork town for musicians local, national and international. Schwab’s memories of the venue are fond, and she’s anticipating her own upcoming sojourn. “Well, everyone knows that West Cork is where the craic is and just always worth a visit, isn’t it? (laughs) I remember my first time at DeBarra’s years ago. I was there with my friends Donal Gunne and Pearse Feeney who performed at the Clonakilty Guitar Festival with their duo Túcán. I think I was only meant to stay for a day, and ended up staying for three days… it’ll be my first time playing there and I feel very honoured. Absolutely class venue!”

She’ll be playing UCC as part of the touring proceedings the following day, in the storied Aula Maxima, of all rooms, for a lunchtime concert. It’ll be an event wraught with memories for the artist. “As a former UCC student, I’ve been in the Aula Maxima many a time, mostly listening to lunch time concerts, the UCC FUAIM Series, sometimes playing there as well. In fact, I think it was actually in this very hall I first played one of my own compositions in front of a public audience! The Aula Maxima is a stunning venue with amazing acoustics. I’m looking forward to this gig and to revisiting my old college days a lot. It’s been a bit over three years since I graduated, and it’s really important to me to stay in touch with UCC. My lecturers were incredibly supportive throughout my years there, and they still are.”

For more info on the upcoming dates and more appearances, check out claudiaschwab.com.