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“You Have to Be Selfish As an Artist”: The Valiant Return of Hiatus Kaiyote

The genre-smashing group discusses their creative process and their long-awaited third album, ‘Mood Valiant’

Ninja Tune Ltd/Ringer illustration

An artist named after liquid fire flashes a gold and obsidian ring and, by the way, just lit our conversation aflame too. “I guess I basically had this obsession that I thought I was going to die before this album came out,” admits the singer Nai Palm, the lead vocalist of the Grammy-nominated band Hiatus Kaiyote. She and bassist Paul Bender are in front of separate computers in mid-June in Melbourne, where the troupe is based. It is, I’ve been told, quite cold outside. She’s telling me how she feels about the release of the group’s third album, Mood Valiant, their first in six years, last Friday. Which, considering the baggage around it—a breast cancer diagnosis, a collectively agreed-upon yearlong respite, and a bout of general music industry malaise—is to say that she is really telling me how she chooses to carry out the faith of living. “There’s less of the nerves,” she continues. “It’s more just like a relief.”

Where have they been? That’s the common refrain, but one that misses the point by a bit more than a mile. The query assumes that the group (which in addition to the two aforementioned members also features keyboardist Simon Mavin and drummer Perrin Moss) did in fact journey elsewhere. A question that is more keen and all the more rousing: Why have they refused to leave?

They could’ve faded away. Plenty have. There are the groups that drop an album or two, collect a handful of accolades, grab whatever touring cash they can manage, and glide into relative anonymity. Or the ones who, in the process of expansion, grow absolutely sick of each other and, somewhere along the line, opt to spread like germs (sorry Meth). There are even a few that separate amicably, launching a set of solo careers and the undying promise of a reunion tour (or, dare we say, album). Point being, six years is a long time and there were multiple off-ramps. Not taking one is telling, but in what way is less clear.

Money would be a fair cause to stay and fame is often even more delicious. Bender didn’t seem to agree, though: “It’s never like, ‘We should make the idea more palatable or simpler so people like it.’” That leaves the craft, and theirs is elemental and universal—like air. They do not believe in genres, or rather, they do not believe in the space between them. A string of samba will fit nicely with a scattershot techno synth and a distinctly southern American baseline, in their multivariate kingdom.

Even within a single song, multiple movements—toward and then away from a given mode—frequently occur. The language, written by Nai, is likewise assorted. On “Molasses,” their 2015 breakout that Anderson .Paak later sampled, the songstress croons of a mechanical “relic with an armored heart,” before revealing the machine to be the making of her own heartbroken grief (“How do I tessellate, filter the rage”). Hiatus Kaiyote has been known to simultaneously incorporate references to the environmental, technological, and spiritual. They are enigmatic as often as they are profound.

Mood Valiant arrives as the outgrowth of this work and also a refining of it. The album attempts to wrap its arms around the question of what things ought to be said when there is no time left to say anything else. The answer is found in the thumps and wails of “Sparkle Tape Break Up” (cry unabashedly to the heavens); on the bubbling ode “Rose Water” (attest your love in full); and on the pensive confession “Red Room” (note those mundane beauties which lie at the fingertips). If wise enough, one might—as on “Stone or Lavender,” the album’s ideological peak—pledge to “stand for something, if not, anything.” Perhaps that’s why Hiatus Kaiyote neither felt the need to leave nor return. They have some more to say.

I was struck by the tone of Mood Valiant when I first listened to it. The project feels like something that was made by a group of folks who’ve been through some shit and come out with a kind of clarity. That’s my long-winded way of asking, whether after completing the album, do you feel like you’re in a better place?

Paul Bender: It’s hard for me to be really deep in a project and also be living real healthy, you know what I mean? It takes over and then all your mind is consumed on it. So many other things fall to the wayside. You’re just obsessed with getting to the end, which always gets a little bit further and further away, all the time. It’s a very elusive thing. I don’t know, I always feel fairly destroyed. It feels like the end of a marathon, your muscles are just screaming, but emotionally you’re like, “Ah.”

Nai Palm: It’s the idle time that’s the hardest for me to sit in. I feel the most sense of purpose and value while I’m doing it, so rather than enduring something and overcoming and then [being] on the other side, for me, the relief is in the active form of expression. Even though it’s super arduous, I feel the most ... alive when up against a challenge, you know? The relief is nice. But the thing that makes me feel most alive is when I’m active and present in it.

Was this album for us or was it for you?

Nai: Both. They’re not mutually exclusive, I don’t think.

How so?

Nai: You have to be selfish as an artist and I think if you try and make music to appease other people, no one wins. If you can impress yourself and if it feels good for you, then that’s going to translate to other people. Music is empathic. So, if it feels good for us it’s going to feel good for everyone else. And vice versa, if it feels shit for us and we’re just doing it to please other people, it’s superficial, it doesn’t mean anything.

Bender: There’s definitely never a thing of, “Oh, we should make the idea more like this to make other people enjoy it.” It’s more “this is the idea and we need to make the best version of that idea” and then people will enjoy it if it’s the best, most convincing [creation].

Nai: Because half the time no one knows what people want, all you have to go off is your own experience of music. Which may differ from other people. For me, I like to be surprised. I like it when I listen to a song and I can’t just guess where it’s going to go next. But then the flip side of that is [what] a lot of people do. So to each their own.

Bender: You can never really predict what it is that people are really going to like. We just do stuff for people who are going to like the thing, whatever we decide to do, because there’s going to be someone who likes the thing that we do.

That’s a really healthy attitude. I don’t know how many people are able to carry themselves like that, you know what I mean? To me that sounds like freedom.

Nai: It’s pretty liberating.

Bender: I just feel like people underestimate the audience in a way, because the reality of music listenership, at this stage in the history of recorded music, is that pretty much everyone has heard some amount of everything. Everyone’s heard a bit of death metal, everyone’s heard some crazy drum and bass, everyone’s heard some really out-there classical music. Everyone’s heard some sweet R&B. It’s going to be rare that you’re going to play something for most people and it’s completely 100 percent incomprehensible.

Nai: I think the last time I experienced that would be the Shaggs. They’re a group of sisters that were home-schooled and they’d never been exposed to music before. Their father [had his palm read by his mother, who said,] “You’re going to have famous children,” and so he went home and gave them all these instruments. But they didn’t know what music was and so [what they made], it’s demented and pure and chaotic. But it’s what they think music is, and it’s super strange.

Bender: It’s one of those things that it just has its own internal logic that is unlike any other formula. I think they had a couple of Beatles records but they just took whatever I guess they wanted from it and it was just like, “Whoa, what?”

Nai: If you’re going to look it up, there’s this track called “My Pal Foot Foot.”

Bender: It’ll break you.

[Looks up “My Pal Foot Foot”]

Oh wow, it’s coming up.

[Listens briefly to “My Pal Foot Foot”.]

[Brain leaves body. Stops listening to “My Pal Foot Foot.”]

That was an experience. Speaking of experiences, as you were going about piecing the album together in the face of so much going on in your own lives, did you end up feeling more attached to Mood Valiant than your previous works?

Bender: It definitely felt like working on these songs was more personal in the sense that there seemed to be more of an emphasis on certain kinds of emotional states on this record more than on other records. Just having lived more, having gone through different trials, having been on more roller coasters of life together and as individuals, it feels like there’s more rich things coming out in it. Whereas there’s definitely other stuff we’ve worked on that’s just like, “This is sick, this is a sick vibe.” This one’s more like, “Ah! My heart!”

Nai: I guess for me it’s not my first rodeo. Going through my health stuff with this album was massive, but the other records are processing the death of my parents. There’s deep emotional thematics throughout my entire career because I’ve had a fucking crazy life. So for me, it doesn’t seem like this one’s so different, I feel like that’s always been the experience for me.

If I’d asked you after Choose Your Weapon how this is going to go—artistically, did you ever think that it would take the time it did for you all to get to Mood Valiant?

Nai: “Get Sun” I wrote, I think, before I even met the guys, it was super old and I thought it was trash. Then we had a year off for our mental health and stuff—and [also] because we want to continue to create music together—we all went away and did our own things. When you come back together you have all these extra tools to work with. So we got together and we’re basically just sharing bits. It was like, “All right, what have you got?—Yeah I’ve got a lick, I’ve got a piece of piano over here,” it’s like Lego pieces or whatever. “Get Sun” was a piece of Lego that was hidden under my bed that I forgot existed. And then on the same record in the same studio we recorded “Red Room,” which Bender wrote the bass riff in the studio on the fly, and we did a couple of passes of it, recorded it, and that was it. It just wanted to exist.

You just work on it until it’s ready and endure whatever comes with that. And that’s the thing, that year apart might seem like a break from it, or my health stuff might seem like a break from it but it’s part of it, it’s part of [you] when you come back to it, it influences how it ends up. All of these components contribute to where you end up.

Do you believe in fate?

Nai: This is not the first time someone’s asked us this, this is strange. I do, but I think it’s a combination of things. I believe in the natural law of the universe and I believe in magic, but I also think that you have to be open to experience it and you also have to work for it. You can’t just sit around and throw a penny in a fountain and then your life will be magical and good.

Bender: I don’t believe in fate so much as in “your path is set and no matter what you do you’re going to end there” but I do think some sort of doors open the more that you search for them and are trying to move through them. There’s this British guy called Derren Brown who did an amazing show on luck, about [how] people who believe they’re lucky see the opportunities that are in front of them and people who don’t believe they’re lucky, something can be right in front of them ready for them to take.

Nai: Is he the magician guy that does Jedi tricks on people?

Bender: He’s a crazy mind magician or something, I don’t know. He’s on some other shit, that guy has too much power.

I’m going to have to add this to my list after “My Pal Foot Foot.”

Nai: It’s very integral to this interview.

Bender: Absolutely. Go promote his YouTube specials.

What art were you consuming while you made the album? It doesn’t have to be just music, it could be film, it could be theater, literature, anything.

Nai: For me, I have a playlist on Spotify called “Random Shit Nai Listens To,” and whenever I find something I like, I add to it and it probably is five days long at this point. But you can tell if I’m going through a depressive mode or something, there’s only Erik Satie and Japanese classical music and the theme from Ghost in the Shell. And then it can go through Afro-pop to film scores, it’s all over the place and I feel like that’s a map of where I’m at usually.

This is going to sound a bit random, but are you fans of Sun Ra?

Nai: Yeah, we might have a Sun Ra cover on the next record.

Oh really? I kept making that connection as I was listening to the album.

Bender: That’s cool, that’s a cool connection to make when listening to us.

Nai: Yeah that’s rad. I went to a community college, which was super sketchy. Basically to get into this school you either had to be expelled from other schools, you’re on the autism spectrum, your parents are heroin addicts, or you’ve just fallen through the cracks. And I was 15 years old and I was an orphan, I was taking lots of acid and I basically enrolled myself in this school so I would have some kind of structure in my life. I remember it was one of the first days I went to school there and I had a music teacher and he walked up and he put on Space Is the Place, which is the film by Sun Ra.

He walks in the room and he’s like, “Sun Ra was a jazz musician from Saturn,” put the DVD on, and then just walked out. Which was maybe not the most academic of approaches, but it was definitely fucking awesome. Whenever I hit a mental health dip, there’s a track called “When There Is No Sun” and it’s something that’s deeply sorrowful but it also comforts you and it’s just that combination. There’s a magnolia ficus tree [in the park near me] and when I couldn’t go to the studio I’d just go to the park, climb this tree, and listen to that song.

You know, when I first listened to you, I had no idea that any of you were white. I hadn’t even considered it. You’ve talked before about your music being genre-full, it leans into and is influenced by so many different styles. Do you ever worry about veering the line between appreciation and appropriation? Is there any trepidation when you’re picking up a Sun Ra album or a Fela Kuti record and you can see the influence in your own music?

Bender: For me, I went from Tasmania to the States to go to Miami for jazz school—I wanted to be in the U.S. to learn about jazz because I know that motherfuckers take their shit real seriously there and I want to be schooled in that tradition. It’s interesting when you go to that sort of situation, [the teachers] are like, “Yeah, if you like how someone sounds, go transcribe their shit. Go transcribe their playing, go transcribe their solo, play along with it, internalize it, learn it, let that become part of you.” So at some point, the more you study the music that exists and that you love and that you respect, it just seeps out of you.

When we get into a room to play a thing—[when] we’re trying to figure out what to play on a song—it’s years of study or experience or listening or just awareness. Shit comes out really as an intuition and it’s just like, “How do I make this sound good?” And then something intuitively comes out of you. It’s not something that you can really [control] ... It’s just a natural process: that the thing that you want it to sound like will come out. And invariably that comes from a lot of different places. That comes from an entire range of legacies of great incredible musicians who have come before. So how do you unmix that soup? I don’t really know.

Nai: I think that attention to detail is important. I think it’s important to know what you’re working with, what ingredients you’re working with, and when there is that respect, I think that’s what will carry it. For me, especially with the American market it was really eye-opening because my pre-internet mom raised me on Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, her record collection was mostly African American soul artists. I remember performing a Stevie Wonder song and feeling embarrassed about it to be entirely honest with you. It was like a guilty pleasure for me or something.

The first time I ever played in New York at some tiny club and I played a Stevie Wonder cover, it was just people singing along. I’d never experienced that because it was such an insular thing, it was something that I listened to at home growing up. But then to be in the cities where this music is from and people have such a deeper sociological connection to it was profound. One of our first tours ever in America was supporting Erykah Badu and D’Angelo in Detroit. And Ma Dukes was there, Common was there, Dwele was there, all of these artists that I looked up to. First time I met Erykah Badu, she came up to me singing “Nakamarra,” and Ma Dukes came up and gave me a big hug.

As four nerdy white people from Australia to be so welcomed by such revered artists, was—I don’t know—it just made me feel ultimately the thing that translates is your intention, your effort, your talent because people, they don’t owe shit to us. But our whole career exists because artists like that gave us the platform. Like Prince tweeting us and Erykah tweeting us and Questlove tweeting us, that’s what we owe our career to, it wasn’t like we struck gold with a label that put heaps of money behind it. The only reason we’re successful is because these artists supported us. So I guess it’s tricky.

Does it feel like a sort of transgression?

Nai: It’s like feeling like an alien but then being welcomed by the community of people that you look up to.

Do you ever find yourself yearning for the days before you got to this point? Maybe not the grind, but the mind state you had during it, if that makes sense. The relative simplicity of it all.

Nai: We’re in this weird hammock dip of having accolades and [being] on people’s radars, but we’re not mainstream. So we’re spoiled in that sense. The people that fuck with us are super beautiful. We’re curious artists and I think that translates. I guess one thing that I’ve struggled with the most is less privacy, random people coming up to me and being fucking super inappropriate because they have a projection of who they think you are, and it loses that natural human interaction because it becomes one-sided. But also, the more exposure you have, the more you can use it to your benefit and shed light on things that are important to you and that’s really valuable.

Bender: There’s certain things I miss about previous times but also sometimes I feel like there were [instances when] I worked on a lot of music, just trying to make stuff. In order to learn how to make it. These days I feel like when I’m working on projects there’s more gravity and knowledge and purpose behind it. It’s like you go through your furiously learning stage, into “I’m going to do this project and it’s about this, and this matters to me.”

What is the one thing that you are trying to master, today?

Nai: I’m working on a hand. It’s a giant hand prop and it was for Tiny Desk. I’ve gotten really crafty and I’m obsessed with this task, it was really fucking with me because I got it second hand and it’s the OK symbol. And I literally found out the same day, Bender’s like, “Oh that’s the symbol for white supremacy now.” And I was like, “OK, well.”

It moved quickly, right? I didn’t know it meant that either and then I read about it online.

Nai: Some stupid right-wing fuckers were like, “Yeah, this is our symbol,” and it just escalated from there. Anyway, so I have a giant one in my backyard and I’m like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do?” I’ve got this giant white supremacy symbol in my house. I was like, “Am I going to want to destroy it?” It was a hot mess, so I just cut a finger off. I cut it off and then put a bow in it and I [added] glitter. Then I put palmistry symbols and tattoos on it and now I actually really like it. It was this horrible bad decision that I was staring down the barrel of for a while and now I’ve finally had a breakthrough with it. So that’s what I’m working on right now. What about you, Bendy?

Bender: I’m pretty much just drinking smoothies and riding my bike.

Honestly, reasonable.

Nai: He’s on a health kick.

Bender: I’m on a health kick.

Nai: You going to get swole?

Bender: I’m going to get swole. That’s actually my goal, Bender’s going to get trim and then Bender’s going to get swole.

I’m putting that in the article. It’ll be the kicker.

Nai: That should be the headline.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.