A few years ago we published an interview with Hazmat Modine frontman Wade Schuman just before their unforgettable show at Studio de l'Ermitage, Paris. They have just released a brand new album ('Extra-Deluxe-Supreme', maybe their best to date) loaded with great blues anthems and ballads.

I was in New York City last October so I had the chance to meet Wade at his apartment in Harlem. We spent a chilled evening chatting about music, painting (he's also a fine-arts teacher and a painter), food and Africa (while eating in the only Somali restaurant of New York). So this is my second interview with Wade, focused this time on the making of the new album and on what being on tour means.

Hazmat Modine - Extra-Deluxe-Supreme
Hazmat Modine — Extra-Deluxe-Supreme (Jaro Medien)

Interview with Wade Schuman

Nicolas Ragonneau : For the first time you release an album featuring only original compositions. Before this album, you were pretty much the sole composer but now the other musicians are more involved in the writing?

Wade Schuman : Yes, actually, all the CDs had some amount of collaboration, though I did write most of the songs, I wrote a bit with Randy on the first CD and some other band members on the second one. The difference is that this CD is mainly an equal collaboration in writing with Erik Della Penna who plays guitar and banjo and also sings in the band with me. Erik is a fantastic musician and prolific songwriter - the collaboration is really exciting. We wrote most of the songs in about six months (which for me is very fast). The nice thing is that neither of us ever get territorial, sometimes he writes lyrics, sometimes I do, sometimes I write the verse and he writes the chorus, sometimes I write the music and he writes the lyrics, etc. Most often it’s all mixed up together, which is not so common?

It’s nice to work so closely on a creative level with someone. Erik is great, he is always willing to throw things out and start over again, always willing to sacrifice a part of a song for the good of the whole. We approach it in a very straightforward way like a job, we meet each week with scraps of ideas and chew through the songs and beat them into submission, or if we are lucky (and it does happen sometimes) the river opens and the songs pour outalmost too fast to write down… then we work through the arranging and finishing, which is often the hardest part.

We have no set methodology, the songs come every which way. What is nice are the free ones that come by themselves. Sometimes I wake up with a melody or chorus in my head, a free gift from the unconscious… (The chorus of “All of my days” came that way). There was also help from other members in the band, Steve Elson co-wrote “Moving stones”and he and Pam helped with the horn lines in “Most of All”, Rachelle wrote “Plans” with us, and Michael Gomez helped with “All of my days”. And everyone tends to have some input in arranging at times…

Hazmat Modine - Extra-Deluxe-Supreme

N.R. : Tell me about the new musicians who've joined the band since your last studio album. What about the new instruments and sounds they bring?

W.S. : Rachelle Garniez is an old friend who over the years has worked on and off with the band, she toured with us in Russia a few years back as well… She plays accordion and is a very original and eclectic songwriter in her own right and a crazy good performer…she comes out of the downtown Lower East Side music scene that used to flourish in New York City. This is the first CD that has only me on harmonica, but Rachelle played accordion and the mysterious claviola (which I got from my brother) on the CD — both of which are free-reed instrumentslike the harmonica, she also sings harmony with Erik and I.

Reut Regev is also on the last CD, but doesn’t often tour with us since she has her own band that tours quite a bit. She is an absolutely amazing and original trombone player, really soulful, I think having her on the songs really brings the horn section together in a powerful way and makes the CD sound much richer, She is a fantastic performer and she also toured with us in Russia when we did the collaboration with the Gangbe Brass band.

Graham Hawthorne is a remarkable drummer who worked with David Byrne for about ten years and toured with a lot of great musicians including Paul Simon, Harry Belafonte, etc. He was also my neighbor up here in Harlem! Sadly, Graham moved to New Orleans so he no longer plays with us. The drummer we use now (and also played percussion on most of the CD) is Tim Keiper. I think that Tim’s playing had a big impact on the CD.It’s our first CD that has percussion on pretty much every song…and he adds textures we have never had before… Tim has worked closely with Cyro Baptista for many years and tours with Vieux Farka Toure. He has been to Mali about seven times and he plays calabash on “Whiskey bird” and Malian Ngoni on “Arcadia” and Rocks on “Moving Stones”. Tim brings a whole wealth of sound that is very new to the band and I love working with him.

N.R. : In our last interview, you told me your fascination for sounds. The Tuvan Band Alash is featured on two tracks. The way you incorporate Tuvan throat singing in your songs is fantastic. It sounds a bit like a jew's-harp. Was it the intention?

W.S. : A few years back we played at a festival in Siberia and I got to visit Tuva for a short minute… There is something in the music that I find so intensely moving and familiar, and places where the music meshes with American music in such a perfect way… we had collaborated with the great Huun Huur Tu a number of times, and it was exciting to get the opportunity to work with Alash who I have also known for some time. They are a different generation from Huun Huur Tu and they have their own sensibility. In particular they sing harmony - which is not so common in Tuvan music. On “Your Sister” Ayan–ool plays the Doshpuluur in the start of the song, and it sounds so much like an American old timey open back Banjo. Also Ayan Shirizhik plays the Shoor, which is a kind of Tuvan Flute and it mixes perfectly with Steve’s piccolo. I am also playing a Chilean Zamponia (pan flute) on that tune, so we have essential three different kinds of flutes from three different continents on the recording, but to me it just sounds pretty much like an American song, the sounds mesh so well… Then I have Alash singing full throttle at the end in Tuvan. People often think only of overtone singing with Tuvan voices, but they sing beautifully in so many ways besides that.

Hazmat Modine - Extra-Deluxe-Supreme

N.R. : The album was recorded live between Germany in NYC. Why this choice of recording live?

W.S. : Well, It’s not really live, in that it was done in a studio, but it was all done together in single takes. I think the one thing that characterizes this CD is that it was recorded in five days right after a tour when the songs were still pretty new, then I added some overdubs in NYC The other CDs had been done over years in bits and pieces, some of it live, some of it studio, some in basements, some even outdoors, etc… that gave them more of a collage feel and that was nice, this CD has a sort of unity that comes from working in a whole different way. What happened was that we had a tour scheduled for India, but it fell through and we had a week when we had no booking, so Uli Balss (the head of Jaro records) had the idea to record in the country in a beautiful studio Osnabruck in an old farmhouse, and it worked out very well…

N.R.: A word on the stories your songs tell. What are the stories of "End of Sweet Dreams" and "Arcadia" for instance?

W.S.: End of sweet dreams is based on a sort of yodel song that was popular in America in the 1930’s… I like the fact that Americahas it’s own yodeling tradition. Many cultures have it, of course,say the region of Tyrol, but also in Africa and other places, and America has it’s own tradition - both black and white… the song was inspired by an ex-student of mine who is an artist…
After effort she built her dream studio and put all her paintings and sculptures and precious things in it. Very soon after this she awoke from a deep sleep when her window was suddenly filled with blinding white light…she looked out of the window and saw her studio surrounded by snow completely engulfed in flames, everything was lost, even her car which was parked near it was partially melted… She posted an image of this on facebook and said “this is happening now” I kept thinking about what that must of felt like, that sort of complete and absolute loss of things… and I decided to write a song about it where the person in the song voluntarily gives up everything. They give uptheir clothes so that they are naked to the world, their bed so they will never sleep again, they “cook the Books” so the past won’t stay…it’s the idea of complete renunciation and redemption… the chorus came from something that our tour manager Uli once said after we were sleeping on a long ride on the bus – “It’s the end of sweet dreams!” (time to get up) which sounds rather strange in English - the realization of loss. The song ends with the whole band playing at once, slightly out of control like the fire…

One of the things that characterizes this CD is in fact that each song is a kind of story…
“Arcadia” was really a take on writing a Gospel song. I am a huge fan of the Staple Family, and I feel that Gospel music is one of the greatest cultural achievements that America ever produced.
We were going for a sort of striped down very spare and plaintive sound…This is the only song recorded in NYC… I picked the image of Arcadia because I am not really religious in the normal sense, and I wanted it to talk about something that could be either a person or a place or an idea, hence “Arcadia”. The horns are supposed to evoke a kind of New Orleans funeral call & response, a kind of dirge in the background…and you can hear Tim’s Ngoni in the chorus sections…The person singing is talking about some form of damnation from which he is exempt because he is prepared, one thing I like about some of the real old Gospel tunes is the strangeness and idiosyncratic quality of the lyrics…”Coffee, Salt, and Laces” was a shopping list I found in my pocket, it somehow sounded elemental…

N.R. : You've been touring for more than 10 years with the band now, mainly in Europe. What did you learn of this long experience?

W.S. : Touring is a different world that normal life…people who don’t tour often think it is a sort of vacation or that it is filled with happy selfish glory, and I guess at times it can be both, but honestly it is just very very very hard work. Some of the hardest,most physically demanding experiences I have ever had - have been touring… days on end with little or no sleep, and performing each night with all the energy you have, and often weeks with not a single day off and literally a month where you sleep in a different bed each night…I have toured and performed with pneumonia and broken ribs and been filmed and recorded live with a 16 piece band with kidney stones and having to rush to an emergency room operation immediately after the concert…

Touring it is not for everyone, and I have observed that honestly many people can’t hack it…they think they can, but they can’t. They drink too much or they get paranoid or in some way they break down and become negative. And I see that other people do not have that problem no matter how hard the road is. Often the folks who are the most macho or appear the most confidant are the people who break under touring. I have decided that as a band leader I never want to tour with the negative people…You live 24 hours a day together in a band on the road: I don’t care how good a musician may be, it’s just not worth it.

Hazmat Modine - Extra-Deluxe-Supreme

N.R. : You are an American band with no American label and just a few gigs in New York. It is a strange and sad paradox, isn't it? How do you explain that situation?

W.S.: We do play in the states at festivals and in Canada and around New York. We do have a label here, but after ten years or so Barbes is really now mainly Latin music these days- that is fine, but not really what we do. Honestly, I really like my situation in New York City… I play as often as I want in clubs I like and it allows me to devote more time to painting and teaching and song writing… I wouldn’t ever want a monolithic existence… I like being a person who does many kinds of things. I am lucky that way. We get a perfect balance with touring all over the world mainly in the spring and early summer, we play all kinds of shows: big festivals, small festivals, small clubs, big clubs, what more could a musician want?

Too much touring is unhealthy.

In two weeks we go to Brazil and Mexico for ten days, then in March we are doing Womad in Australia and New Zealand with maybe a stop in South East Asia. And in the Spring we are Europe of course, and then in July & August I paint in Maine on a small island.

Listen, the music industry is in a weird place and America’s music industry is particularly a weird place. In Europe most towns and cities have art centers and festivals supported not only by local governments but also by the federal government, and often run by volunteers, America has very little of that…America has the perverse and misguided belief that all things capitalist are for the good… but while we are forced to spend a fortune on the military we do not as a culture really support the arts… this is one big difference between culture here and in Europe, and it is a troubling one.

I like the music career I have… I wouldn’t want it to be too much bigger. This year we will have played for thousands of people on four continents… The band is healthy and expanding, eight-nine people and still moving and growing after over seventeen years – I am excited about song writing, that is allgood fortune and for all of this I am very grateful.

Links :
2012 Paris DJs mix
2012 Paris DJs interview
Hazmat Modine : official | discogs | facebook | jaro | wikipedia | youtube

Original post on Paris DJs