Interview: Hiatus Kaiyote

words by Jake Heinitz

photography by Lucas Farrar

Led by a vocalist as explosive as her name, Nai Palm and Hiatus Kaiyote have created a new genre that is restricted by neither time nor place - “future soul.” An experimental mashing of neo-soul, jazz, electronic and hip-hop, it was developed in a rundown musician sharehouse in Melbourne, Australia. Since forming in mid-2011, Hiatus Kaiyote have attracted high praise from musicians and tastemakers like Questlove, Erykah Badu and Giles Peterson - all before a physical copy of their debut, Tawk Tomahawk, had even been printed. I sat down with the four musicians, Nai, Bender, Perrin and Simon on their first trip to the States as a band. 


GR: How did the band form?


P: Bender discovered Nai at a solo gig and wanted to work with her, so he started transcribing Nai’s original songs after she returned from the desert. I came along to a random jam session and they were downstairs playing some music - they told me to stop by rehearsal and we started playing around with five people from the start, [with a] different guitarist and different keyboard player. That kind of fizzled away and then Simon came along, who we were living with at the time, and then magic started happening.


GR: What were you doing in the desert for a year?


N: [laughs] I wasn’t in the desert for a year, I was there for maybe two months. The manager we have now put on something called the Bohemian Masquerade Ball, a pretty crazy tour with circus acts and shit. It was right before my twenty-first so I planned to celebrate my birthday while I was out there and just ended up traveling around, hanging out with iguanas and eagles. I came back from the desert, without a plan or place to live and I just kind of flipped it. Bender and Pez saw me play like a year before so when I came back to start fresh, it came together really organically.


GR: You all stayed at the same house and that was where you recorded the album?


B: The three of us - me, Simon, and Perrin, were living together with a couple other musicians and Nai was living about ten minutes down the street. That’s where we recorded most of Tawk Tomahawk. It had been a musician share house for about a decade and has slowly transformed into a sort of pseudo professional rehearsal space.


GR: You cited famous Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia as one of your main influences, a true testament to your eclectic sound. What do you take from Lucia?


N: My mum was a contemporary choreographer and would bring a lot of really awesome music home from the Uni[versity] library where she was studying, including flamenco like Lucia’s. I remember being haunted as a child by these people singing, the way you could hear their soul crying in the music. With our influences, it’s more about adapting them into our consciousnesses and then creating and expressing who we are with, originality but with the essences of those different influences.


GR: As a child, besides the flamenco music, what were some of your biggest influences?


N: Predominantly Stevie Wonder. He was like my surrogate godfather, sonically speaking. I’m so honored that my mom exposed me to good music when I was young; some people grow up listening to mostly Neil Diamond records. I learn how to play music from listening a lot, so for me to grow up learning to create by listening, Stevie Wonder covers a lot of ground. The reason I can sing is predominantly from soul greats like Aretha [Franklin] and Donny Hathaway. 


GR: What is the origin of the name Hiatus Kaiyote?


 N: I was hanging with some friends and we were just throwing out buzzwords. I think “Luscious Integrity Dragon” and “Zen As Fuck” were in there but we couldn’t have a swearword in our name.


B: “Zen as Fuck” is now Nai’s fashion accessory line, watch out for that.


N: [Laughs] Essentially they just came together. Kaiyote is a made-up word that incites imagery of Native American shamanistic stuff, like peyote and coyotes. My father left when I was little, but he used to make Native American jewelry, clothing and teepees so I grew up with that kind of culture, Navajo and Hopi. Essentially Kaiyote is a word that involves the listener’s creativity and how they want to perceive it - Hiatus is like a pause to absorb your surroundings and then Kaiyote is hollowing it out in a creative way, challenging the listener to be creative with how they interpret it into their psyche.


GR: Has living on an isolated continent helped you to stay true to your sound and uninfluenced by contemporary music trends?


B: With my experience of Australian music, most of the people that I know do a whole bunch of different stuff. There will be guys that have gone to the conservatory and made their money doing corporate gigs but then they will also be in some pop project, a metal band, jazz gigs and then some really experimental shit. There are less people and less gigs than in America, so there isn’t as much space for niche scenes. People just play a lot and have broader horizons about what they do.


GR: Nai, I hear that Questlove smells like maple syrup?


N: Yeah! I met him at the Brooklyn Bowl when I came out in October [2012] to represent the band and he told me that he had heard our music through Angel of Dirty Projectors who heard it through Animal Collective. Then he gave me this big cuddle and he smelled like maple syrup. I love honey - I named my guitar Challah, after the honey ants in the desert - so I told him and he was like, “you could just say I smell good,” but I was like “no, it’s specifically mapley” because... I’m awkward like that [laughs].


GR: You’ve also received a lot of love from Giles Peterson, one of Europe’s most influential tastemakers. How did he get the record?


S: Taylor McFerrin hooked him up. We did a support slot with Taylor, in Melbourne, ages ago, and that’s how it all kind of leaked out. He saw a couple of our songs before he went on and then after the gig he was like, “man, lovin’ your shit, its really cool.”

N: One of them was really out of tune because me and Bender smashed the heads of our guitars. So we were out of tune from each other and the rest of the band.  That was one of the three songs that he heard and he still repped us, which makes him even more of a legend.


GR: You know Taylor McFerrin grew partly in Minneapolis?


N: Yes! Madie McFerrin, his little sister, was doing a album review project where she covered 100 albums in 100 weeks, and we were one of them.  She was saying that she had been hounding Questlove, like “check these guys out, check these guys out” and then it wasn’t until ages later that he got hip to it and then she was teasing him about it, like, “I’m the real tastemaker here.”


GR: What are you guys working on right now?


N: We started a cult but it’s not going as well as we’d hoped. Our spaceship is basically a supermarket trolley with lighters attached to the back of it. [laughs]