Nai Palm, the singer and principle songwriter of Hiatus Kaiyote, a band self-described as “multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit”, sounds tired. It’s early afternoon in Rhode Island, they’re due to play a gig this evening, and it’s just days away from the new album’s release. But once questioned her passion kicks in, only pausing between lengthy answers to rapidly eat. The new album, Choose Your Weapon, is remarkable – but you probably knew that already if you’d seen them live in the last couple of years.
Some questions I’ve put down after hearing the new record, but others have been mulling since seeing them at Village Underground in 2013. The gig, which you can watch online, was a masterpiece in musicianship – it comes as no surprise they’ve garnered fans from all around the world for their performances both on and off record. Choose Your Weapon is their second release after Tawk Tomahawk’s sketchbook of beats and bliss, but their first album proper – 70 minutes long, 17 tracks, and released this month.
It’s got to be a good feeling, but roll back the years and a pre-HiKai version of Nai Palm was not in such a fortunate place. “I was asked to play a festival in the middle of Australia. It was my first solo festival gig. I was going through a breakup, wanting to get a band together but didn’t have any music theory to translate it to other musicians, so I was just feeling frustrated and I got this offer. I packed up my house, and went and did the festival and then travelled for a month after, camping in the desert out in the centre of Oz. It’s really raw and beautiful. I spent my 21st birthday at Uluru. I have a really strong connection with nature… going into the desert opened me as a person in so many ways – it was an integral purging I had to do, almost like a rite of passage.”
Nai met to-be bassist Paul Bender and drummer Perrin Moss (“Pez”) separately: “Bender wanted to help me get a band together and I was ready. I wanted people that could connect emotionally and creatively. Pez had only been drumming three years, he was only gonna do percussion and production but we had a rehearsal and it just went really well. Simon [Mavin, who plays keys], was living with Pez in the house where we were rehearsing, so he had already heard the material, but he was really established in the music scene as a session musician and so Bender had never thought to ask him. It just came about that he was interested to do it and we all got together in a room, had our first rehearsal as a four piece and it was just really easy – I never knew before how a band was supposed to be like.”
Unsurprisingly, all three of the band’s instrumentalists are fantastic artists in their own right. They perform together as improv jazz three-piece Swooping Duck when time permits, Pez also produces as Clever Austin, a side-project making post-Dilla leftfield instrumental music that sounds like Teebs one minute, early Four Tet or Madlib the next. But this ability would be nothing without the mutual understanding to make Nai’s songs work. “I write in a way that means I hear more than I can actually play, and working with the guys means I can write knowing their skills and hearing certain flourishes they can do, elements that would challenge them. I’m really aware that when writing a song, it’s simplified, but when showing it to the guys, they learn the structure and we refine it – they all hear different things, and it builds from there.”
“Music is about overcoming things.”
Initially released on Bandcamp, Tawk Tomahawk was half mixtape, half debut. Interludes like Rainbow Rhodes and Sphinx Gate were “the evolution of us starting to write together from scratch” whilst tracks like Nakamarra and Malika were Nai’s own tracks juiced up with magical arrangements, creating a future-soul like very little else. It didn’t take long for a label to start sniffing. Salaam Remi (a producer with credits on Nas’ The Don and several Amy Winehouse hits, among much more) made them the first signing to his Sony imprint, Flying Buddah (“we were lucky that Salaam’s imprint timing was right – it was really great”). This led to a Grammy nomination for a re-recorded Nakamarra featuring a guest verse from Tribe’s very own Q-Tip.
Choose your Weapon is literally packed full (“It’s as much as we could get on a CD”) with songs that have been gestating throughout tours. Jekyll, Shaolin Monk Motherfunk, Fingerprints, have been fan favourites for a while, to the extent that it’s a little strange hearing a definitive version without a Mavin solo or Pez drum break. But the end result is sublime – a polished documentation of years of touring, storytelling and even a bit of heartbreak. “Molasses is a breakup song. I was feeling horrible, in Paris, from a horrible breakup, but I didn’t want to write from wallowing. I knew that in the future, I would grow from it, I don’t want to share that negativity with people.” As well as Molasses, Building a Ladder is gorgeously upbeat but with an undertone of hurt.
It’s also recorded with Nai’s voice at absolute breaking point, and rounds off the album. “It’s kind of like a release after going through something hard, not just on the album but personal trials and tribulations. I actually really loved the lack of perfection in it you can hear – it takes courage to show your humanity, when some of [the album] is so polished. Music is about overcoming things. I feel like music tends to get stuck on the wallowing. Ideally I want to try and help people through it, by embracing it and growing through it and I’m really conscious of that – to have the perspective at least by the end of the song.”
Words: Rory Foster
Hiatus Kaiyote’s second album Choose Your Weapon is out now on Sony Music.