Louder Than War Interview: The Hand To Man Band – supergroup featuring Mike Watt and John Dieterich amongst others

There seems to be a never-ending stream of “Supergroups” coming our way in recent times. Most of them are pretty rubbish to be honest but bucking that trend are The Hand To Man Band whose album, You Are Always on Our Minds is due to be released next week. Below we introduce the band to you & ask them a few questions.

Almost two years ago (August 2010) four pretty big names from the US alt-rock scene got together in Austin Texas with the express intent of making themselves a record. Such duly came to pass &, as you’ll be able to hear for yourselves from next week, a mighty fine record they made too.

They call their collective selves The Hand To Man Band.

And the album? Well, that they called You Are Always on Our Minds.

Meanwhile, to those of you who don’t yet know them by that name, you’ll call them by their individual names which are:

  • Tim Barnes (Silver Jews, Jim O’Rourke, Text of Light),
  • John Dieterich (Deerhoof, Natural Dreamers),
  • Thollem (Tsigoti and, being a serial collaborator, many more)
  • Mike Watt (Minutemen, Stooges, fIREHOSE).

With names like those you just know the sound their endeavours yielded was a goodun dontcha?

To quote from Thollem’s website:

“The Hand To Man Band is a new chapter, a different look, at four truly original, seminal musicians”.

Amen to that.

I first got wind of this project when Brian ‘Deathbomb Arc’ Miller (who you’ll remember from the Deathbomb Arc singles series we featured a short while ago) sent me a link to a free download by the band.

I liked it a lot & contacted Brian about a possible interview with the band. He passed me on to Jeremy at Post-Consumer Records & you can read the resultant interview below this:

Louder Than War: So, easy one to start off with, whose idea was the project & how did everyone become involved?

Thollem – The band ultimately exists because of Nicholas Taplin! (Post-Consumer owner & all round musicologist – Ed). Nicholas extended an open invitation to me to come to Austin and record an album in his new studio. I asked John if he’d like to join me, we had just released a duo album on Dromos Records out of Lisbon in Portugal. John then invited Tim and I invited Watt…Watt had spent an afternoon at the Tsigoti house in Italy and got to know my band mates over there and so we all started a dialogue. The only starting point we had was to have no starting point. The idea was to come together in the same space and create everything from scratch in the moment. I really love how it all came together, and that we were all willing to jump into this thing without having any real idea what it was going to be.

Mike Watt: I got the tap from thollem who I guess already had done a twofer w/john dieterich and they wanted (as I gathered from thollem) to do something improvised as a three-way. however, as the date to started to get closer, I think it was john who suggested a fourth man, a stick man. this wasn’t supposed to be only a session but a few gigs too though my stooges touring wouldn’t allow for that but I think the other three played them. I was only there for the album recording unfortunately.

LTW: Did you all know each other before coming together for this & how well did you all get on – listening to the record it certainly sounds like you were having fun.

John Thollem and I had played together a lot over the last couple of years. His versatility as a musician is still astonishing to me, and he doesn’t have many preconceptions about things. It’s very open. Tim was somebody I had been a fan of for years (Deerhoof toured with his band One Long Lash years ago). His touch on the drums is really special, and he strikes me as being very painterly in the way he approaches music, which is to say he sees the big picture and is very precise and surgical. There’s no excess. I had met Mike, but we had never played together before, so it was a very exciting opportunity for me, both musically and personally. He’s a whirlwind of ideas, both when playing and when not playing. I felt very at home playing with him, somehow. He plays very melodically at times, but I think he’s often hearing the chords underneath, so it’s quite challenging and interesting for me. His harmonic sensibility made it possible for us to make something semi-coherent out of a lot of this material.

Watt: I knew john as a man but not as music cat except for witnessing his righteous deerhoof performances. I met thollem cuz of him being a tsigoti member if I recall correctly. tim barnes I met via the session itself so “no” in regards to your question.

I think there were times during the session I might’ve made things awkward. they were more about behavior and not over any person themselves. I think there’s many approaches to do something like that and I’m very grateful for having my mind opened up to some interesting possibilities. also, big time respect for the tolerance shown by my band brothers. they sincerely seemed to wanna try and understand stuff about me.

LTW: You recorded it in 2010, how come it’s taken this long to see the light of day?

John: Well, it took a while to finish it. A lot of work went into constructing something from these seemingly disparate ideas. Almost everything on the record came from improvisations, and it’s not like anybody was taking notes on what was good and what wasn’t. We just went back through it later and sifted through the hours of material, trying to figure out what we had done.

Thollem: Sometimes things just take time. We’ve all got many different projects, and the label was just getting off the ground…It’s all happening in its own necessary course.

Watt: “No wine before its time” a great man said – I think it was orson welles in a paul mausson commerical. actually a lot of this came together quick and then there was consensus checks to keep everyone onboard and engaged/represented/respected.

LTW: You named the band after a fortune cookie I believe. Is there a story behind that or is naming the band after a fortune cookie story enough? (In which case ignore this question).

Thollem: It was the album title that came from the fortune cookie, first night we were together, I think. Watt opened his cookie and placed the fortune on his knee.

Watt: the name of the band came from me – it was either that or the man to hand band, those were my two suggestions and the other three men were kind of enough to approve of one of them. I was very touched they would consider my band name. for band name I was thinking about “hand to hand” combat or “man to man” negotiations and thought of confusing the two to somehow convey my philosophy that the goal of an ensemble (more than one cat playing) is to to make an interesting conversation.

the name of the album is a direct quote from a fortune cookie I got one night during the sessions when we got chinese takeout chow. it seemed like an incredible and eerie statement. again, my three bandmates agreed to use my baka suggestion for not only band name but album title… very VERY kind of them. the album name was supposed tobe an actual souvenir of the session that seem to burst w/a trippy
irony.

LTW: In your marketing spiel the album’s described as “psychotropic jazz to konked-out funk to skronked-out dirges to alien transmissions to plaintive nocturnal pleas”. You must have had some preconceived idea as to how the album was going to end up before you all came together, would you say that description matched your preconceptions?

John: There were no preconceptions. I know that seems unlikely, but it’s really true. I hadn’t played with Tim or Watt before, we had no idea how everybody was going to play together, we had no discussions about approach or ways of thinking or anything like that. The whole idea was to come in and make something new.

Thollem: I had hoped that the result would be something totally different than anything any of us had made before, and I think we accomplished that.

Watt:: I personally had no preconceived ideas about how this album would come out and thought this was the most honest way to approach it, it was more integral to the album having its OWN life and not a “name-game” bolt-on silicon tits feel to it. what I thought was most important would be to allow whatever chemistry between us let its freak flag fly and we’d be not only more honest but stronger for it.

LTW: As I mentioned before it sounds you were having fun recording the album. Did the whole process of making it go smoothly?

John: Ha! Not at all. It was very difficult in many respects, but yes we did have a blast. The 3 days we were actually together recording were a mixture of intense struggle and occasionally breaking through into something new. Then we’d be sure we were on a roll, and all of a sudden it would be hard again. I feel like there’s no way around that, in a way. Music is often like that.

Thollem: Fun can be defined in a lot of ways, and every collaboration is such a unique experience which is fascinating to me. It was definitely challenging and I wouldn’t change a thing. Ultimately, it was an incredible experience in the heat of a Texas summer. All of us sleeping in the front room, tracking in the dining room, and trying to cool off a bit on the porch. There was also a lot of fun, in a lot of ways!

Watt: I already talked about some inconvienent truths I dragged into the studio w/me. I wanted to work on some compositions along w/spontontaneous ad lib ad hoc throwdowns. I’m glad I was convinced to let go some but am glad we talked and even worked on constructions too. I was happy w/what we did but even happier w/what the mix/editing made from it. that was a mind blow for, truly.

LTW: Any plans to tour the album in the UK. Mike actually owes me one; in 1987 I travelled 200 miles to see fIREHOSE only to get to the venue & find the band had blown the gig out & flown back to America. So I’d say the least you could do is bring THTMB over here to make up for that disappointment. I can only imagine you’d be amazing live.

John: No plans yet, though it sounds like fun.

Thollem: I think we would be amazing live too! We’ll see what happens…

Watt: I would like to play gigs w/this proj if possible, absolutley.

LTW: The album’s a lot more experimental than most of your all your other work. Is that part of the reason why doing this project appealed so much – to exorcise that urge to experiment? Or did you have no idea it was going to end up so experimental.

John: To be honest, for me it isn’t any more experimental. It’s simply listening to the material and seeing what it calls for and trying to be true to that.

Thollem: We didn’t have a specific vision of what we were trying to create or even an attitude or energy we we wanted to convey. We were simply exploring and following the ideas as they came. Really, I don’t know exactly what defines experimental music. I think everyone is constantly experimenting whether or not they are aware that they are.

Watt: I wanted to take things – I wanted to have my self taken – as far out as possible. the urge to experiement was big time in my mind and it seemed like the other three men were stuffed to the gills w/that kind of stuff. I hope the urge to experiement in either me or the bandmates is never “exorcised” – punk for me was always about pushing things and not an acutal sound in itself… it was up to each cat to find out what kind of waters they wanna swim and learn new strokes and shit.

LTW Sort of linked with that last question – how much of your previous work do you think you brought in to this project.

John: 100%

Thollem: Everything from the birth canal to the back porch!

Watt:I brought every gig and every recording I’ve ever done up to that moment but at the same time I tried to forget it all and list only to the three men in my world at that moment. let me see, I was thinking of egineerman nicholas also. it was a weird danglling duality cuz I thought this experience deserved to have it’s own identity so didn’t wanna bumrush too much other trips.

LTW: How did the writing work? Did one person take lead on each track or was it a collaborative approach from first to last.

John: Totally collaborative. Somebody might have a little nugget of an idea, or somebody might start playing, and then we’d all just jump in and try something. A few songs were done that way, but then the bulk of the rest was constructed from totally free improvisation, which we might listen to later and then talk about what we liked about it and what we’d like to focus on or think about.

Watt:I remember some stuff coming off of one persons lead-off springboard thought and then other times we just hollering “go!” and we’d like crawl around in the dark in real time and feel the shit out. we even structured a few things out and other stuff w/was total dice roll.

LTW: What have you learnt by working with each other.

John: Not sure I could describe it in words. I learned that people instantly organize in situations like that and without even intending to start to create a language. I guess it’s just instinctual. One thing I learned is that I play too much and need to shut up more often.

Watt: I learned about trust more and valuing folks who respect your opinion. musically there was many interesting trips including harmonic and rhythm things that were righteous. I like how the tunes are journeys unto them selves yet still it reflects also some w/a totality and persona to it. I really like how john and thollem worked together and then had me and tim come in to join in. that was a very interesting process.

LTW: Who wrote the dialogues & lyrics on the record. Did they just come about organically?

John: Thollem, Watt and I wrote the lyrics. I do think they came about very organically. We hadn’t specifically planned to have vocals on the album at all, but people started getting ideas, and it kind of snowballed from there. It was nice to see some of the material come out somewhat songy as I think it casts the more improvised sounding material in a different light.

Thollem: Yes, I think we made a conscious decision at some point to switch the balance to a song oriented album supported by instrumental sections rather than the other way around. Again, it was just a matter of following ideas as they came and trying them out, passing them by the others and getting yays, nays or additions…

Watt: the one song I sing on, those words came from john. he did have only a verse or so and well, I went re-arranged the same words to make kind of an anagram of his original vision for the verses that followed his. I wrote or performed on none of the other spiels.

LTW: Riffling through Tumblr I saw some dude’s been commissioned to do a Hand To Man Band cartoon. Is that going to see the light of day & if so perhaps you can tell us something about it?

John: Yeah! Marcos Sanchez. He’s great. He’s an artist from Chile who I’ve never met in person but have been in touch with online for years. We have been conspiring to do something together for a long time, and I’m so happy that he was up for contributing to the project. It’s going to be great.

Maybe Nicholas can add to this?

Watt: that would be a great thing, truly. I know very little about this idea but am big time into it.

LTW: Is this going to be a one off or too early to say?

John: It’s not too early, but neither do we know. Could be great to do something again. I’m very proud of the work we did together.

Watt: I would like a follow up, I vote for that. I think it could be a band w/legs. I would totally get in the ring again w/ these wraslers, they have true spirit.

Thollem: I think it’s a pretty great band. I’d be very curious to hear what our second album would be like!

LTW: A lot of the album sounds like you were just having a great big jam rather than a making a painstakingly precise record. I imagine if you’d gone into the recording studio the day after & tried to reproduce it you’d have come up with a very different album. Would you say that’s accurate??

John: I totally agree. Even more than that, I think each of us could have made 4 completely different albums using the exact same material. I think we all heard it in very different ways, which was actually very helpful.

Thollem: I wouldn’t call it a big jam necessarily. We improvised a lot together to generate ideas that we then worked out in a variety of ways. In the end there was a lot of thought that went into it compositionally. I’m sure that if we make another album together it will have its own unique approach and spirit…

Watt: I would say you were accurate but I would also would say we tried our hardest and what you’re hearing is the result.

LTW: I always like to check what an album is electronically tagged with. Tyler, The Creator’s ‘Bastard’ was tagged “Fucking Awesome’ which probably tells you more about Tyler than it does about the album. Your album’s tagged with the genre “Brilliantly Humbled”. Is there any reason for that or is that news to you? (Again I imagine that’s telling you more about the band than about the record).

John: Oh, that’s cool! I’ve never heard that before.

Watt: I know nothing of our album’s “tag” but would argue humility is a very important virtue but maybe it gets soiled some if you start bragging about it – does that make sense?

LTW: I really like the album art. Was this done by someone you know. It seems to really fit the album perfectly (and weirdly too I guess).

John: It was done by Rachel Carns. She is highly great.

Thollem: I remember when we first saw the artwork it was immediately clear to us all that it was perfect for the album. When Rachel was brought on board for it we tossed around a bunch of ideas and she came up with this pretty quickly. She’s really amazing! I’d work with her again anytime…

Watt: the album art was made by a lady named rachel who does righteous work and also took much of our input to realize the vision you see. I dig that art big time, much respect to her.

THE END

The album isn’t released for a week as mentioned above (the 22nd of May to be precise). However you can pre-order a copy from Post-Consumer records if you wish.

Also worth mentioning that Post-Consumer have a rather natty label sampler up for grabs. If you wander over to their Bandcamp page you can score yourselves a copy for free (or just stream it even).

All words Guy Manchester. More by Guy can be found here. Guy tweets from @guidoman & blogs from his Tumblr here.

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