Meet Hiatus Kaiyote

We interviewed the Australian band about musical synergy and the #1 problem that gets swept under the rug Down Under.


Hiatus Kaiyote at Osheaga. Photo by Cindy Lopez

A sunny Saturday at Osheaga brought a real treat for avant-garde music fans all the way from the land Down Under, when math/jazz, grooved-out, cosmic funkateers Hiatus Kaiyote took to the festival’s Tree stage for a mid-afternoon lesson in sound.

Formed in 2011, the four-tet — fronted by the distinctively adorned, both in voice and presence, singer/guitarist Nai Palm — made an unusual amount of noise for a small Aussie outfit making weirdo breakbeat music, but a book mention by Questlove, a collab with Q-Tip, two albums and two Grammy nods later, and here we were, gathered under the hot sun to dance with HK at the best festival on the East Coast of North America.

As Montreal is exactly the kind of place that falls in love with visions such as HK’s, I figured I’d take the chance to speak to the band, and they generously obliged. Drummer Perrin (aka Pez), bassist Bender, keymaster Simon and the aforementioned Ms. Palm kicked it with me after the show to talk about beats, times and Aussie life — the good, the bad and the racist.

Introducing Hiatus Kaiyote.

Darcy MacDonald: So first off, how was your Osheaga experience today?

Bender: It was dope man, we had a really great set!

Simon: The crowd was amazing, they were so…yeah, they were great!

Nai Palm: It’s always super gorgeous to play outside as well, it adds another dimension to it.

Simon: And in the daytime, too.

DM: I’m largely a hip hop journalist, and I see production and composition in a style of sampling and arranging, and obviously your music is very rooted in that. And at the same time you are all technically dope musicians, and now having seen that live I gotta ask: What is it like, today, to be doing this, especially while so many cats are on a laptop? And how are you able to compose that intricately together?

Bender: It’s sometimes easy to compose intricate music if you can always bounce ideas off other people who can like, do real cool stuff themselves, you know what I mean? As opposed to having to be that person making everything, when you can just be like “Play something awesome on the keyboard!” and I’m not gonna tell you exactly what it is and it comes together. Everyone just writes their own parts and we spend a lot of time figuring out how all the pieces work together and refining those pieces. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that is tightly stuck together.

DM: Do any of you have a background in more traditional styles of beat production, or even Fruity Loops or whichever softwares?

Nai Palm: I mean Pez, when we all got together, hadn’t been drumming that long because he was making beats and shit so it was like, to sample his own drum tones or whatever rather than digging to find the perfect breakbeat or whatever, he was just playing it himself. It’s super rare to find a drummer that is tasteful and approaches it from a production standpoint rather than just like, “Uh, I’m gonna just play loud and it’s good!” He’s very articulate with his playing. I think — I mean Perrin, you can speak for yourself — but I think it stems from a production standpoint.

DM: All of you are articulate in your playing, that is a great way to look at it as a whole and it is apparent live as much as on record. So Perrin, in your own experience, were you making beats for people or for yourself?

Perrin: Well, I started off making beats for other MCs, and DJing. I learned how to scratch first, and then make beats on MPC, and from that I used to have a little production team with two other producers, and produced two MCs, and played all the beats live and stuff. And then I went on a journey for like six years, and went to Norway. But between all that, just making beats for myself after that first project didn’t work out, I guess. And I just kept listening to hip hop tunes and making that stuff, and trying to make my own stuff. Yeah.

DM: Are any of you formally trained musicians? It certainly sounds like it but who can tell these days? Any music college?

Bender: Yeah.

Nai Palm: It’s 50/50. Simon and Bender have both studied pretty extensively. Myself and Pez, just by ear, and we’re lucky enough to have parents that were into a lot of eclectic shit. Like my mom used to love Tupac. So from a really young age, I was exposed to some pretty like, heavy shit, I guess. (laughs)

But at the end of the day everyone is really intuitive and listens to each other. That’s the rarity. There’s so many bands where egos get in the way of the potential of what the music could be. So it helps that it’s like a combination. Simon, when did you…he’s been playing since he was like four or some shit and went through jazz school.

Simon: It was very young, yeah.

DM: To that end what were some of the things that you each listened to when you were young that we hear in your music?  I’m so kinda hip hop centric, I guess…

Perrin: But hip hop centric is like not necessarily a bad thing because hip hop takes shit from everywhere. That’s why, for a lot of people, it’s like, “This is my favourite genre.” And then if you go deep into hip hop you go, “Man, I really like this song, why do I like this song?” Probably because of the sample. Who’s the sample by?

Bender: Yeah.

Perrin: And then you discover a bunch of new music. It’s a funny thing when people are really like, “All I’m about is hip hop” because, it’s like…

Bender: You’re kind of a fan of everything, then.

Perrin: Yeah, like you could be sampling some piano thing, or Bollywood music, or some like, mariachi shit, or anything. Anything can be turned into hip hop.

Nai Palm: And the most iconic shit is, you know? Like all the best producers and the biggest crate diggers (make) hip hop kind of like musicology, in a way. Just refined and cut up like a sample smorgasbord of fuckin’ anything. The cool thing is, we kind of approach it like, rather than sampling shit, listening to a lot of eclectic stuff and then trying to write from that standpoint — so trying to play something live that sounds like it’s been cut up and looped. And you get this live energy when you do that, vs. some dude hiding behind his laptop, which is not necessarily the most riveting shit to watch, even if they are mad talented. [Playing live] adds another dimension of body to it.

DM: And when I mention hip hop, I actually know a little bit about the Australian hip hop scene and Triple J radio and it sounds pretty wack, really at the surface. I understand that it’s hard for underground artists to be different and get taken serious. There’s this rapper here Cee, who’s from Australia and lives here and he totally broke it all down for me.

But you guys aren’t a hip hop band per se at the same time, so how do you guys get over at home? I hear about you from [Osheaga] and I hear about you from credible music sources from all over, and it still feels like something special to get into.

Bender: I guess Australia is, like, a very small population so being in that sort of cult band place means that there’s not necessarily a lot of people, but we do have people that come out to the shows in Australia and they’re just fuckin’ awesome. We’ve always had a really strong thing in Melbourne, and in Sydney, and it’s been good. But we’re definitely not mainstream in any way.

You know, we got the Grammy nod and me and Perrin went on morning television and they’re like, “Oh good, so like, who are you guys, anyways?” (laughter)

Nai Palm: The thing is the industry in Australia is crazy monopolized, and unless you’re indie rock or super straightlaced Aussie hip hop, like… I’m probably gonna piss a lot of people off, Aussie hip hop is its own thing and I don’t really fuck with it that heavily. It’s really quite xenophobic in a lot of ways. (There are also) a lot of amazing MCs and hip hop that are referencing like, fuckin’ Tribe Called Quest and OG shit but in Australia, it’s kind of got its own thing and we don’t really fall under that banner.

DM: My friend was telling me that if dudes try to rap with an American accent…

Perrin: Ah, you get dissed.

DM: You know, every rapper from the East Coast will sound like they are from New York whether they want to or not, you know…

Nai Palm: But it’s not even the accent thing! They all have the same fuckin’ phrasing, and all the beats sound the same with this throwback scratching, and it’s just like…

DM: Well, it’s the same problem with bullshit hip hop everywhere, really.

(general agreement)

Nai Palm: But there’s some dope artists though. Like our friend Sampa, Sampa the Great. She’s fucking amazing. And Remi. There’s a dope underground scene there. But the thing is, there’s a really kind of stylized market in Australia and unless you fit under that, no one really fucks with you, so it’s kind of funny that we got two Grammy nominations under our belt and people were kind of like, “Who are you guys?” while selling out massive fuckin’ shows overseas.

You know, it’s always been that way, wherever you are. Hendrix had to go to the U.K. to make it big. There’s this whole like, exotic…

DM: The Beach Boys broke Pet Sounds in the U.K. in America it was, “No more surfing? We’re done with you.” Without hyperbole, Montreal has an incredibly talented, deep, tight beat scene and the talent here loves you.

Perrin: Canada’s got great producers in general.

DM: For sure. Later today for instance, Kaytranada’s gonna play.

Nai Palm: Is he from Canada?

DM: He’s from right across that river over there (pointing to the St. Lawrence).

Nai Palm: Well, I think the Roots really changed the game with that, you know? With that record Dilla Joints. Or even the extension of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson arranging all those Dilla beats for a fucking orchestra. And that concept that like, people that Dilla sampled, like the Silvers, it’s like, he didn’t really fuck around with their shit that much! It sounds like it’s been cut up a lot but you listen to the original track and that’s how it actually sounds, you know? Same with like, Dionne Warwick or a lotta old-school shit that inspired electronica. And then vice versa, and now beats are inspiring musicians and so there’s this beautiful synergy to that.

DM (to Nai Palm): You certainly don’t do the same thing more than one time in a song. You bring your vocal talent like an instrument, so how does that work (into the composition process)? Do you write to finished productions, do you all jam out as you write your shit?

Nai Palm: It’s different for every song. But I do other shit, like I play electric guitar and either I can bring a whole song and we arrange it, or it could be a beat that Pez made, or a weird nerdy sound loop that we all just expand off. That’s the thing, everybody has the freedom to contribute and write. But I’m definitely not some fuckin’ token singer singing over shit. I write a lot of the harmonic arrangement and shit like that.

DM: So I saw your band getting political on Facebook and other social media this week and I don’t know if that is a consistent thing, but this specifically was something in comparison of indigenous rights and systemic racism in Australia with regard to what happens in North America. What made you consider that?

Nai Palm: Well how could you not consider it? Like in this day and age.

DM: Of course. But do you feel in making a political statement about racism in Australia that you’re exposing that in fact it’s well covered up?

Bender: Australia really refuses to stare deeply into its past and acknowledge what’s happened. A lot of people are just like, “Come on, just fuckin’ get over it.” But you can’t get over it because it’s still happening!

Nai Palm: Just to put it in perspective, Australia is the only country that doesn’t have some form of written treaty with its indigenous people. And it wasn’t until about 1969 and the civil rights movement — before that happened, aboriginal people of Australia were recognized as foreign to their country, like foreign fauna, literally. They weren’t even fucking recognized as human beings.

The backlash of that is still so fuckin’ present today. And the thing is you don’t learn about it in school. They don’t teach you shit. And I’ve been really lucky to spend some time in the desert and doing songwriting workshops with young aboriginal girls. I’ve had some sessions with ngangkari, which are like aboriginal healers. And there’s just such an incredibly rich culture. Not only is it not taught to the majority of the country, let alone the rest of the world, but there’s so much negativity and stigma against aboriginal people in our country.

It’s like that globally, but specifically, in Australia, we’re always just behind the mark by maybe 40 years or something.

(general agreement)

Bender: It’s all very, “let’s not talk about it and just sweep it under the carpet” shit.

Nai Palm: And like Nina Simone said, as an artist, it’s your job to reflect the times. That’s the beauty in art, is that it allows you freedom to express and educate and heal in whatever way possible. And I wouldn’t say like, we’re not an overtly political band but by just promoting imagination and emotional liberation, it’s an act of rebellion in some ways.

Bender: I can’t remember who, but some smart person said that all art is a political act because you’re putting some statement of intention out there. We don’t usually try to be a political band because we also like to try to be a relief from that. Because it’s so easy to be swamped with information about how everything is fucked. But I think that just from the fact that you can get a whole bunch of people in a room who are all from different backgrounds and they’re all going to fuckin’ zone together, and when you feel it be really like, everyone’s just in — then you’re really fuckin’ one organism. And that’s pretty wild.

DM: That’s what it was like out there today. Hey you’re super quiet, Simon. Where does the rest of this tour bring us?

Simon: (laughs) Where does it bring us? We just started, so we did a show in Toronto last night and one in Chicago the night before, it was great man.

Nai Palm: There was this opener that was really cool, what was their name?

Bender: This would be a great time to promote them, but years of touring have destroyed us from the mind outward.

DM: Hiatus Kaiyote, thank you very much! ■

See our review of Hiatus Kaiyote’s Osheaga set here.