From his early beginnings with the now legendary Neutral Milk Hotel, to collaborating with Beirut and Bright Eyes, to mining the music of the world, Jeremy Barnes has been at the forefront of musical experimentation over the last decade. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about Balkan music, being accused of cultural appropriation, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and his brilliant band A Hawk and a Hacksaw, in Wellington for the New Zealand International Arts Festival.

A HAWK AND A HACKSAW find themselves billed in this festival as something of a novelty act, with Jeremy Barnes’ multi-instrumentalist skills singled out as he plays accordion and percussion with occasional singing thrown into the mix. Featuring Heather Trost, who plays violin, glockenspiel and melodica, their music incorporates various styles: early twentieth century tunes, mariachi, minimalism à la Reich and Adams. However, it’s the influence of Eastern European genres and sub-genres, music from Hungarian, Serbian, Romanian, Roma and Jewish cultures, which has had a huge impact on their sound, allowing for it to be as unique as it is. Don’t be fooled by the publicity; A Hawk and Hacksaw’s music is quite something else, filtered through the eyes of a real musical explorer and innovator. Also, being a former member of Neutral Milk Hotel, and working with Bright Eyes, Beirut and Broadcast, among others, is probably also going to guarantee a high degree of indie credibility. If you’re that way inclined.

Jeremy Barnes, an Albuquerque native, released A Hawk and Hacksaw’s first album in 2004. Being a postman was an important moment in the genesis of the project – Barnes having played in a number of other bands beforehand, but not necessarily in his own project, found himself in England. Being a postman “was a key point in realising that I really didn’t want to work in a normal job. That period was interesting, I was volunteering in a refugee centre, and playing music with a lot people from all over the world that delivered the mail. One of the big key [moments] was meeting Heather, that’s when it started to take shape in a lot more interesting way.” The band’s novel name comes from Don Quixote, when Barnes found a line in an English translation. That line itself was based on Hamlet (though it was “a hawk and a handsaw”) and Barnes wanted to quote the famous misguided knight. “When I was starting it, I felt like – and I still do feel like - Don Quixote. While I was first starting A Hawk and a Hacksaw, I was reading the book, and I could see the parallels – here I am sitting in this damp cellar in France, having limited equipment, and everything was breaking, and I couldn’t play the accordion and I’m trying to copy what these Romanian orchestras were doing in the 50s. It was naïve and stupid but I looked at Don Quixote and found some comfort in that – he created something, it wasn’t what he thought he’d create, but it was something interesting and worthy in its own way.”

Barnes admits to being a fan of a lot of different types of music, including everything from 60s and 70s Bollywood to Kiwi legend Alistair Galbraith. Both he and Trost praise the Ruby Suns (Ryan McPhun had reciprocated the praise in an earlier interview). Barnes played with the Tall Dwarfs in New York – “they’re really nice people”. But it’s been Balkan and Eastern European music that’s really grabbed Barnes’ fancy. “It’s hard to say exactly what it is. And it’s such a varied culture, Balkan and Eastern European cultures. Maybe that part of it is that it’s so rich. I’ve always loved things that are Eastern. I love Balkan music because it’s kind of both European, but it’s also Oriental, or Middle Eastern. And the Jewish and Roma cultures are really interesting. I can’t really intellectualise it, in the end I just think it’s really beautiful.”

It’d be reductive to simply say A Hawk and a Hacksaw play Eastern European music – “I don’t focus solely on Balkan music, though that’s the sound people hear the most and definitely, that’s the obsession” – for example, the first self-titled album in particular sounds like it comes out of the early twentieth century with the ‘60s minimalist loops thrown in. You get the feeling he wouldn’t be content with the simple drums, electric bass and guitar set-up, and he’d be frustrated with the conservative music tastes of most listeners. “I think a lot of people view music kind of like wallpaper. They just need something in the background, like ‘this’ right this now. To me this is completely annoying and infuriating. I think a lot of people, people who don’t really care about music, need some sort of sound in the background.” The ‘this’ he was referring to was some non-descript rubbish, and someone must have been eavesdropping onto the interview because someone ran and changed the music to jazz immediately.

A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s back catalogue is predominantly instrumental, something that creates a beautiful swirl of moods, timbres and textures. “One thing that I really like about music is trying to communicate beyond using language, communicate beyond borders or cultures. If we play in places where they don’t speak English, they can still understand what we’re saying with our instruments. I just love that it’s a universal language. I love that. We do use lyrics, but only when we’ve got something direct to say. There are people out there with great voices, and I’m not one of them, so I only use my voice when I have to. Other than that I like the music to speak for itself.”

“If I’m not supposed to play music of another culture, who’s supposed to play it? To me the borders are so grey. Who is supposed to play klezmer music? Who’s supposed to play gypsy music? To me music is way beyond borders, and political and racial boundaries, and I understand how people are sensitive about how these rich Americans go over to Romania and stealing music from them. But honestly, to me and the musicians we’ve met, we weren’t stealing, we were doing something new.”

Part of the approach to the music comes from Barnes’ background as a drummer, creating a rather dynamic sense of rhythm in the sound. He also taught himself the accordion, something which he confesses to finding quite difficult. Barnes admits that because of his drumming background, “it took me a while to get to even think about melody because when I was a teenager I was all about the rhythm and trying to create something rhythmically interesting. I still do that – melodically I try to do a lot with rhythm. I love of people who use rhythm or cultures who use rhythm in interesting ways melodically, like Bulgarian music where they play in asymmetrical rhythms and the melodies are just insane in the way they work. And a lot of minimalism when they’re using organically looping rhythms, and African music.”

He and Trost are currently living in Budapest, annoying and arguing with their neighbour over Barnes’ accordion playing. He’s a firm believer in environment seeping into the music. “I think once you get interested in a culture, you just have to visit the country you’re interested in.” An example of this was in the recording of the third album The Way the Wind Blows which was recorded in a tiny Romanian village. “Definitely environment always affects recording. I have a problem with recording studios and trying to make it too much of a sanitary environment. Again it’s really inspiring – it’s like travel – if you’re in this weird place, where it’s hard, you’re trying to get this right mic sound and there are problems with electricity. There are always little things which go wrong, but it definitely pays out in the end, I think it creates a different character.” That particular recording session involved curious Romanian kids playing around with his computer, and chicken and beer being delivered during recording. The people though were “incredibly welcoming”.

I ask if he feels a tension for being an American going over to another culture, potentially “appropriating” their music. “I feel a tension not from the musicians, or people in that culture, but from writers in the West. And my feeling about that is where do we take it? If I’m not supposed to play music of another culture, who’s supposed to play it? To me the borders are so grey. Who is supposed to play klezmer music? Who’s supposed to play gypsy music? To me music is way beyond borders, and political and racial boundaries, and I understand how people are sensitive about how these rich Americans go over to Romania and stealing music from them. But honestly, to me and the musicians we’ve met, we weren’t stealing, we were doing something new.”

This collaboration has included playing with a bunch of Hungarian musicians he met in Budapest called the Hun Hangar Ensemble, and releasing a limited edition eight track album. A new album recorded with them will be released mid this year too. Barnes emphasises that a key issue when it comes to collaborating with different cultures is how they are treated by the dominant musician. “As far as we’re concerned, any musician who tours with us, no matter where they’re from they get the same amount as we do, we pay them royalties, we treat them as we’d treat an indie rock band with a good contract in America. A lot of the world musicians that we know and we work with, get treated like shit. They have managers who take huge percentages, they don’t receive royalties. You could say we’re stealing [music], but in the end the world music industry as far as I’ve seen it, is a lot more detrimental to a lot of musicians.”

But it was a legendary bunch of musicians, the Elephant 6 collective from Athens, Georgia, and particularly an even more legendary band from that collective, Neutral Milk Hotel that probably has had a huge role in getting Barnes to where he today. However, it is dangerous to equate Barnes’ work now with Neutral Milk Hotel, which was essentially a project for Jeff Mangum’s genius. He drummed and played organs on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, now probably one of the biggest cult albums of all-time. “I joined Neutral Milk Hotel when I was nineteen and they were all doing bedroom recordings and working really hard on albums. There was a lot of energy and commitment to music, especially Jeff Mangum, he was the one who first played me Bulgarian music, and Alice Coltrane, and the Soft Machine. His musical mind was well beyond most people in 1995 that I’d ever met. He just really threw down all those borders that you naturally sometimes come up. Listening to music is not like supporting a sports team – you can adventure out and enjoy anything and be open-minded. So that’s the thing I really learnt.” I ask how he feels about the album’s now mythical status, not a bad first foray into recorded music for a twenty-one year old. “It’s weird, yeah, it’s so…um….it’s just weird. [laughs] I think everybody felt there was something in the air when we doing it, and there was something about the songs and Jeff was really on a roll. I was thinking about it the other day, people talk about how good the vocals are on the record, but that was just a normal. I heard him practising all the time, his level of competence, musicianship, his songs. He put so much care into it. That was just a normal day to him, when he did those vocals. I don’t think he struggled doing it, it’s pretty incredible. I’m really happy to have known all those guys and worked with them. It was really fortunate for me, and I wouldn’t be doing this now if it wasn’t for that.”

But it’s A Hawk and a Hacksaw that deservedly should take the plaudits for Barnes’ musicianship. His interplay with Heather Trost also should be fantastic live. Barnes, Trost and their merry band of musicians conjure up beautiful imagery and sounds, and four compelling albums have been the result of their musicianship. A Hawk and a Hacksaw are certainly not a novelty act, they’re the sound of a globalised music world, a world where people can, nay, ought to listen, collaborate and treat with respect the glorious multitudes of musical traditions present.