It's easier than ever to record and distribute music, and still, this seems to have frozen many musicians stiff. Sure, there are enough new, one-off tracks to keep you torrenting all day and night, but the time gap between many artists' proper albums seems to be widening.
Still, this is decidedly not the case with Awesome New Republic, which is likely officially the most prolific band in Miami. After a brief hiatus in the mid-00s, the band, headed by Michael John Hancock and Brian Robertson, returned in 2009 with two free EPs -- Rational Geographic Vols. I and II -- and a full-length, Hearts.
And yet, all that wasn't enough to exhaust Hancock's creative spark. This month sees the release of his second solo album as just John Hancock, Antenna Death. It's a vinyl- (and digital-) only affair, and a joint project between 10K Islands, Honor Roll Music's new record label, and St. Ives, a D.I.Y.-style subsidiary of indie heavyweight Secretly Canadian. The initial, relatively small run is almost sold out, and with good reason.
While Awesome New Republic's songs whir along with an almost over-the-top melodrama, bolstered by falsetto singing and relentless dancefloor funk, Hancock's solo work takes things a few notches down in volume. The tracks are far more beat- than guitar- or even synth-oriented, with Hancock introspectively crooning more often than Prince-style squealing. Percussion rolls along with a po-mo take on Caribbean rhythms, and everything's infused with a sunny, back-to-nature feeling that makes a perfect soundtrack for the solo swamp wandering in the video for single "Not Scared at All."
It seems, really, like music more for earbuds than for subwoofers, but, then, Hancock recently flipped that assumption on its head too. To celebrate the release of the album at a recent show at the Vagabond, he put together an 11-piece backing band of friends and colleagues to perform the album nearly in its entirety. While it was meant to be a one-of gig, the reaction of both the audience and the musicians themselves has convinced Hancock to repeat the feat, with some more full-band shows in the works for later this summer.
Crossfade chatted with Hancock recently about the new album, which can be purchased in digital form through iTunes and eMusic, or as limited-edition vinyl through St. Ives at scdistribution.com. Here's what he had to say.
Crossfade: You released a video for the single "Wet Added" last year, but the album's just now coming out. When did you actually write the bulk of the material?
John Hancock: I started working on some of those tracks a long time ago, when I put out a record called Part Mongolian like two or three years ago. I started kicking around some of those ideas, along with other tracks that I ended up throwing out or not using. But I started really working on this album and finishing it up in December of 2008.
Why such a long delay?
I was working a lot on ANR, the band; we put out two EPs and a CD last year. I shared i[the solo album] with my friends and put it up online for people to hear, but I didn't really try to promote it. It was more just something I did, because I had a lot of tracks that I wasn't going to use for ANR or anything else.
But then a friend of mine who works up at St. Ives got in touch with me last year asking if there were any leftover songs or more experimental stuff or anything I had sitting around that I would want to put out on the label. So I was like, 'Yeah, I have this record that I would really love to put out!' Then it just takes a while for things to come out.
Do you set aside time to work on your solo material specifically, or do you just get to it when inspiration strikes?
Well, I pretty much just jump back and forth from track to track. I work at this recording studio, Honor Roll, in Little Haiti, so I have a lot of time in the studio. If I ever feel like I'm getting burned out on one project, like ANR, I'll make something more simple and more beat-oriented, and that stuff usually ends up going towards yours truly.
So you're at Honor Roll full time?
I work there all the time, pretty much between just working on my own stuff and then also what the company does, which is scoring music and commercial licensing and all that.
And 10k Islands is the new name for Honor Roll's record label?
Yes. Nick Scapa and J. Reade Fasse started Honor Roll initially as a composition or production house, more focused on the commercial world and the licensing world. Then in having staff composers who also were in local bands and stuff, they said, 'Well, we'll put out the records.'
But there seemed to be a little bit of a -- it just felt weird having a commercial licensing company running a record company. So we just kind of separated it in-house for our sake, really, so there's not such a blurred line of, "Is this seven-inch that the band's working on going to be good enough for American Airlines or Taco Bell?"
How collaborative is the songwriting process usually for Awesome New Republic? Do you do much writing by yourself for the band as well?
I write stuff on my own for both. But real difference used to be more that after the core song was written, the chords and the melody and all that, I tend to go for a different kind of production than Brian. So he sort of acted as a producer role in ANR -- but at the same time, not to say he's a producer and I write the songs. He writes music as well for the band, and especially most recently, it's been more collaborative than ever with the album that we've been working on and stuff like that.
So now, more than even before, I guess there is a clear distinction where John Hancock comes in. I do it all myself and play it all myself and mix it myself. A lot of the real grunt work for ANR is done by B-Rob.
What's the difference in your production styles?
I guess I would say my stuff is dumber than his! [Laughs]. I'm more into the chunky, rhythmic approach and less of making sure that, from the zero- to two-and-a-half-minute mark there's a real ebb and tide of dynamics,. B-Rob really more has a lot more clarity as far as arranging and not having too much going on at any one point, but I don't really think about hat as much as he does.
If you're writing by yourself, at what point do you know when something's going to be for ANR, and something's going to be for John Hancock solo?
I think that ANR songs -- not always, but for the most part -- have always been a little more epic, and a little bit more melodramatic, so that's a pretty good indicator. If a song has a bunch of different sections and stuff like that it's obviously gonna go in the pile with ANR. Whereas if the song is more about a combination of beats, it's more for me solo. ANR is more about songs, and when I do stuff by myself, it's more about grooves and making tracks.
What's your writing setup like for the solo stuff? Do you start on the computer?
I write on the computer, and I pretty much start by programming a beat. Then I get it to the point where there's enough going on so I can sing over it, and then I'll just sing, freestyling nonsense words and stuff like that on top of the track. I usually do that a few times, and then listen back to it, but probably not in the same sitting. And then I try to figure out what I was singing, what that could kind of sound like, lyrically.
That's a very pro-songwriter method.
It's easier that way, and I think that there's something to be said for the unconscious drive of the creative mind, when you're not worrying about, "What am I trying to communicate," and you're just singing into a microphone without thinking. A lot of times I'll listen back and think, "Oh, there are two full sentences. I was saying something, and I didn't even realize I was trying to say it." It's a fun little adventure.
This is a cliche question but how did your influences for this solo album differ from the influences on Awesome New Republic? You have a song called "Nurse With Womb," I'm guessing that's a nod to the band Nurse With Wound.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was totally related to Nurse with Wound, the band, although not really musically or anything like that. I just saw a painting of a nurse, and just started thinking about a pregnant nurse, and thought of the band name.
But for the album, the things that were the most influential on the record were Parliament Funkadelic, particularly The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, and The Electric Spanking of War Babies. I actually wrote some of the lyrics for the album along to some of those records, just listening to that. And then basically whatever I hear emanating out of the little CD stores and botanicas around the neighborhood, and any records that i have of Haitian voodoo and Cuban santeria folk recordings. I was listening to a lot of that when I was making it, as far as the rhythms go. And then Prince, always.
What made you decide to release the physical version of the album on vinyl only?
That's their deal, you know. The way St. Ives works, it's a pet project of Secretly Canadian, and the whole, you know, larger company that they have at this point with JagJaguwar and the other labels. Basically, it's where they can put out records by other artists that aren't necessarily on their label, and it's kosher with everybody involved because it's such a small run. It works out because when you only put out 250 records, it feels really good when a week into it you're almost sold out.
You recently played the material with a full band. Do you have plans to do that more often?
Yeah, I wasn't really sure if I'd be able to do it more. I had to kind of gauge it on the enthusiasm of the players involved, but after the show, they were all coming up to me kind of demanding to do it again, saying that they didn't learn all that music for one night, and they're all stoked to do it more in the future. So, probably some time around August we'll be able to start playing again here and there. I'd love to do it again and kind of focus a little more on the details, rather than throwing the whole thing together.
Who are the backing musicians?
It's mostly people that I met in school or know through University of Miami, and then a handful of people that I just know more generally through living down here and playing out. It was a little incestuous: B-Rob was playing bass, and then there was Mike McGinnis and Jorges Graupera, who I play with in Plains. And then Max Johnson who used to be in Down Home Southernaires, who is playing with Torche now ... and George from Animal Tropical, and Geneva from Rachel Goodrich's band, and B-Rob's wife ... a lot of friends. It was hard to move on to the next song all week because everybody hadn't really gotten to hang out in that way in a long time.
So between this project and the band, what's next for you?
Like I said, I think I'l probably be trying to put together more of these big shows with the full band for John Hancock later in the sumer, like August. And then ANR, we are trying to finish tracking and mixing our new album by the end of this month, so it can come out in October. We're pretty much just holed up doing that for now ,but we'll be playing out as soon as we know that it's done.
That seems relatively soon to put out another full-length.
People used to put out two albums a year, you know. Now, everybody has the capacity to do it. We don't like, force productivity on ourselves, but at least right now we kind of are pretty over-active as far as recording and writing.