TEN QUESTIONS WITH HATCHBACK
Sam Milton Grawe's Hatchback debut album Colors of The Sun certainly deserves the attention it's getting—after all, where else might you hear motorik Kosmische music grooves and Klaus Schulze-influenced synthesizer music drenched in California sunshine? Grawe's one of those artists who's seemingly spent every waking moment of his life devouring music—ABBA, The Eurythmics, Vangelis, Klaus Schulze, Popul Vuh, Cluster, Kraftwerk, Herbie Hancock, Aphex Twin, Mouse On Mars, Tortoise, Stereolab, for starters—before spitting it all out again as “a mind-blowing transmission of blissed-out, life-affirming cosmic disco” (in the words of London record shop Phonica). After moving to California in 1998, Grawe's been steadily working towards Colors of The Sun's release by hooking up with guitarist Dan Judd to issue tracks under the name Windsurf on Dreamchimney and at Sentrall records in LA, and following it up with a 12-inch of “White Diamond” backed with a remix by Prins Thomas. Recently Grawe generously took us on a scenic tour of the Hatchback universe.
1. The remarkably accomplished character of Colors of The Sun—the finesse of its compositions and polish of its instrumental sound—makes it hard to believe that it's your debut album, and your characterization of it as the “culmination of more than a decade of dabbling” seems to be at odds with its meticulous character. How do you account for the album's degree of polish, given that it's your debut, or do you hear more rough edges than polish when you listen to it?
First of all thank you. It's really quite a nice compliment. In some ways this is the first album the rest of you get to hear, but people who've known me—and upon whom I've been inflicting my music for the last fifteen years—have heard it evolve from cassettes of Rick Wakeman-inspired prog rock to µ-Ziq-style IDM to CDRs of baroque psychedelic electronica to mp3s of vinyl-slicing future folk to whatever it is now. There's definitely been an evolution and a honing of my craft. Granting, my craft is still just me in my house with fairly rudimentary equipment. When I listen to the album I don't hear rough edges necessarily, but where the new listener might be taken on a voyage into unexpected territory, for me it's just memories.
2. California doesn't seem like the likeliest point of origin for “Cosmic Krautrock Disco.” How exactly did your music-making develop into the style that it did, and how much was it influenced by growing up in India and traveling to Egypt, Nepal Hong Kong, Japan, and Papua New Guinea?
I was pretty young when I went to those places, although I also travel a great deal for work nowadays too. I don't think I was too heavily influenced by the music of those cultures, but when I was kid I never went anywhere without my walkman (we had tapes of Abba, Flashdance, Eurythmics, Culture Club). I was always listening to headphones on car rides and planes and even romanticizing that experience, pretending it was some kind of personal soundtrack to the amazing landscapes, cities, and places in the world I was visiting. I think as I got into high school and that age when your identity is wholly based on the music you listen to, it only intensified. For instance, I used to think that listening to a side-long prog rock epic (meaning a track which took up an entire side of vinyl) on the way to a basketball game would bring good fortune to our team—Genesis' “Supper's Ready,” ELP's “Tarkus,” Pink Floyd's “Echoes,” Yes' “The Gates of Delirium.” Kind of ridiculous looking back, but we did win our final tournament that year, so maybe there was something to it.
Oddly, the Tower Records in the strip mall near my house in suburban Virginia had the most amazing imports section loaded with all kinds of insanely obtuse progressive rock. Anyway, I wish I knew who the long-haired hippy dude who stocked that section was so I could thank him now. There I was all of seventeen years old buying a Führs & Fröhling album, deciding if I should get Hatfield & The North or Gong, and trying to complete the pre-1980 Klaus Schulze discography.
But what really ignited this expedition to the far reaches of the musical galaxy was a love of synthesizers (by high school, analog synthesizers) and the far-out sounds they produced. I remember being in the second grade when a classmate brought a Casio VL-Tone to school (it was also a calculator) and going home that day and telling my parents in absolute wonderment about this amazing machine I had played with. I was hooked.
3. Could you take us through the process you go through in creating and constructing a composition, perhaps by using the resplendent “Jetlag” as an example. What parts of this track are naturally-played instruments vs. software-simulated sounds? And, given how multi-layered the piece is, how difficult was it to know when to stop adding sounds?
Usually I start out a track by assembling some basic rhythms. These usually come from snippets of records layered with analog drum machines. The drums that you hear in the “break” section of “Jetlag” were in fact the drums I started out with—some chopped up bits from a couple of different sources. Usually once I have something mildly acceptable going I'll start messing around with a chord progression, or a bass line. In this case I think it was the main two chords played on the Rhodes . I then came up with a little counterpart on the Rhodes which plays off of that simple chord change and turn it into something really triumphant. I then started adding some of the arpeggiated synths, which really I can keep doing until my brain starts to melt out of my ears, and the pads and so on. Most of the synths on this track are played by hand, but the ones which are computer plug-ins I'll run out through various pedals to give them a little more warmth or un-digital character. I'm also not afraid to record first with MIDI and then take the best bits or move some notes around and make it altogether better before bouncing down. Once I have enough bits looping, I'll rough out some kind of arrangement. Usually it's best if at this point, especially if it's 4 am, I call it a day. A little time between sessions always gives me fresh perspective, and generally I return with a clear set of ideas on how I want to shape the song. In the case of “Jetlag” this happened about four times (three times more than usual), and the final mix came together about six months after I started. I wasn't liking my bass part so I invited a friend, Terri Loewenthal from Rubies, to come in and add live bass which really makes the track for me. She did such a great job.
4. The krautrock influence is obviously strong, so much so that it's explicitly referenced in the title “Everything is Neu”; it also sounds as if traces of Kraftwerk can be heard in the “Neon Lights”-like keyboard patterns that appear in the back-half of “ Carefree Highway .” Where did this love for krautrock come from?
I guess when I ran out of symphonic prog rock, I started getting into the kraut. Seriously though, it was just a love of synthesizer-based music. Early on it was Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze (Ricochet and Body Love II in particular). Later when I got into Brian Eno I discovered Cluster, and I really snapped up everything I could find by Moebius and Roedelius, which led to Harmonia, which led to Michael Rother, which led to Neu! which led to La Dusseldorf, and so on. It's endless once you get into it. I think Michael Rother's first four solo albums are my all time desert island favorites though.
5. I had to laugh when I read that, in your formative years, you crafted epic prog-rock suites in the style of ‘70s bands such as Premiata Forneria Marconi since I actually saw the band play in Toronto when Photos of Ghosts and The World Became The World were released. Though the trippy space ambient vibe of the sixteen-minute epic “Horizon” would seem to leave little doubt, am I correct in hearing a prominent prog dimension in your music (also heard in the synthesizer sounds in tracks like “Everything is Neu” and “Carefree Highway”)? Secondly, what's your perspective now on the era when prog acts like Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull reigned?
Yes, you are correct. Secondly, more than anything, you have to just marvel at the fact that record companies were moving hundreds of thousands of albums with triple gatefold Roger Dean sleeves and the bands were selling out huge stadiums to rapt audiences willing to listen to twenty-four-minute long songs with eighteen sections, three tempo changes, five key changes, and time signatures which would make Bach blush. I did catch Yes in 2002 had no qualms getting down with the middle aged crowd. There were so many high fives at that show.
6. You refer to your songs as “miniature (sometimes not quite so miniature) soundtracks to imaginary films.” With that idea in mind, could you describe the kinds of films “Closer to Forever” and “White Diamond” evoke for you?
Well I made “White Diamond” after watching Werner Herzog's film of the same name so that one may be cheating a little. For my own imaginary film I envision a crystalline diamond hovering over artic landscapes while being followed with a steadycam. It flies over mountains, valleys, icebergs and through flocks of white gulls, all the while spinning slowly on its axis and perfectly centered in the frame. It finally crashes into the sea, never budging from its location on screen. The camera follows it as it sinks to the murky depths. The darker the water gets, into eventual blackness, the diamond begins to become luminescent.
“Closer to Forever” is the lovers tune on the album. This one is strictly grainy 16mm. Driving a Volvo PS1800 hatchback, a beautiful Scandinavian-looking woman's hair filters rays of the setting sun with abundant hexagonal lens flare. We follow her voyage along a desolate coastline. At the end of the song a guy wakes up alone on a commuter train stopped at the last station, his headphones playing final strains of the same song.
7. You're not only working as a solo artist but also involved in a group project with Dan Judd (Sorcerer) called Windsurf that's got a debut album coming out soon on Prins Thomas' Internasjonal label. How does Windsurf's music and sound differ from your solo stuff, and can you tell us about what we'll be hearing on the album?
Windsurf somehow becomes something quite different from either Hatchback or Sorcerer. It may sound cliché, but to me, it's more than the sum of its parts. When I play with Dan I try things I might not try on my own, and it's the same for him. When he's editing a song he may choose a bit I would edit out, or visa versa. Our skills tend to complement rather than compete, and it makes for worthwhile collaboration. You could see Sorcerer's White Magic, Colors of the Sun, and Windsurf's album (which is called Coastlines), as a kind of trilogy which pulls together a broader vision of what we're into and what we're doing. If I was a waiter and had to describe it to you while you were deciding what to order I would say, “The Windsurf has a little more funk and little less prog—and I sing on two tracks.”
8. Colors of The Sun seems like a classic “bedroom” album, something obsessively pieced together over a long period of time. Are you planning to play live as Hatchback and/or Windsurf or are both projects “studio” only?
While we can't really put together a band to recreate our tunes properly live, we're working a way for the two of us to perform, and still have it be interesting for us and hopefully for an audience. We should be playing some shows this fall.
9. The Hatchback music doesn't sound in any way dated yet at the same time there's an undeniably old-school dimension about it in its incorporation of krautrock and disco grooves, classic synthesizer sounds, and analog drum machines. On “The Lotus and The Robot,” for example, the synths exude a vintage ‘70s quality and the snare resounds with a ‘70s-style “thwack.” How deliberately are you evoking that era in your music and why that period in particular?
I'm not really trying to be that deliberate. I definitely have a taste for the music of that era, but it's impossible to simply recreate the character of albums which cost hundreds of the thousands of dollars to produce in the world's best studios on my laptop nor do I want to. It's like when you see that dude at a concert who's wearing the leather fringe jacket, corduroy bellbottom flares, and cowboy shirt, etc. It's pastiche and when he pulls out his iPhone it looks even more ridiculous. I'm not trying to dress up my music in a costume, but rather, these are the sounds—the Rhodes , analog synths—which resonate with me and are still vital in my mind. I hope that I am using them in some kind of a modern way.
10. At different stages in your life, your musical loves initially included ABBA and The Eurythmics, and much later Aphex Twin, Mouse on Mars, Tortoise, and Stereolab. What's on your playlist these days and what's currently exciting you musically (if anything)?I just got Roxy Music's Avalon, which goes to show there's still a lot of fairly mainstream stuff out there for me to get into (to that end I'm just starting to appreciate Fleetwood Mac). I've been on a huge Gabor Szabo kick for the last year—great records for cooking dinner or reading a book. Most of all I always love getting new tunes from my friends—Sorcerer, The Beat Broker, Rollmottle, Mardu, Michael Andrews.