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Escape Velocity

Battling Nostalgia: Phenomenal Handclap Band Interviewed
The Quietus , December 1st, 2009 10:32

Mark Wall talks to the New York hipsters about famous friends, soundtracking zombie movies and Jon Spencer's theremin

Listen to Phenomenal Handclap Band’s self-titled debut whilst walking the streets and suddenly you’re the star of your very own exploitation flick. Behind every corner waits a gang of street punks in sleeveless denim jackets with do-rags and switch blades, just waiting to cut you up. Every girl you see is a go-go dancing black magic woman hell bent on your destruction...and probably a zombie.

New York’s PHB humbly doff their hats to the oft-touted-but-rarely-heard soundtracks to those B-Movies played out in abandoned drive-ins across mid seventies America; that time when the hippie dream went bad and the dregs of the baby boom seemed to rise slowly to the top.

The resulting record is the warped alchemy of two hipster DJs and a cultish band of merry pranksters that counts moonlighting members of TV on the Radio, Calla and the inimitable Jon Spencer amongst its ranks. A sprawling, drug-infused odyssey through the forgotten corridors of pop culture, Phenomenal Handclap Band channels the murky dream affections of West Coast psychedelia, Philly Soul and the proto hip-hop vibes of New York funk with one eye on the dance floor and the other fixed firmly on the cash register.

The Quietus caught up with co-writer/producer Sean Marquand to talk collaborators, movies and theremins.

Am I right in thinking your background is DJing and producing?

Sean Marquand: Yes. Daniel (Collas, co-writer/producer) and I are both musicians but we really began our New York lives as DJs and producers.

Why the sudden leap into the limelight?

SM: The limelight part is a fortunate by-product of making our own album the way we wanted to make it. As a DJ, you definitely express your musical ideas with other people's records but making our own album was thrilling for me as I was able to do whatever I wanted with our incredible band.

A lot has been made about the amount of collaborators you enlisted on the record. How do you go about recruiting people? Were songs written collaboratively or did you pick and choose once the song was written?

SM: The collaborators on the album were all friends and acquaintances that we'd asked over the years to collaborate with us. Once we started the project, we discussed who would be best for each song and moved on from there.

You’re not shy of incorporating a variety of genres into your music. I’m reminded of Tropicalia such as Os Mutantes, early-70’s-obscure-film-soundtrack era Pink Floyd and psychedelic funk acts such as The Chambers Brothers or early Parliament. Is the record a re-imagining of your DJ set?

SM: We all listen to (and DJ) a lot of records that have certain things in common and make sense in the context of a club night in New York. So when we set out to make this record, some of those elements may have seeped in just like any other band is influenced by their favourite records. But for us, it wasn't calculated. We had already found a sound that we loved and some of that comes from records that we love, and some of that is just the sounds we loved to explore ourselves in the studio as producers.

Os Mutantes are my favourite band! I don't hear much of them in our music, but I'm still thrilled at the comparison. Floyd, The Chambers Brothers and early Parliament are also spot on.

An evil label boss forces you to pick one musical route, which one do you choose?

SM: Polka definitely.

Considering your background, playing live must be high on the agenda?

SM: Our live show has turned into a main focus. As it happens, playing live is incredible and as integral a part of the essence of our band as writing songs. But truthfully, we never planned it that way. We just wanted to record music and then we were surprised by how much we love playing live.

How does playing live with a band compare to DJing? Are the audiences different?

SM: Yes. It's a different thing altogether. When we first started performing, we had much more luck in the underground club scene as we do sound a lot like the dance records that go over in NYC, but we don't use sequencers or drum machines. We almost got a free pass from the club world as we were an extension of the DJ set already in progress, but we were a live band. After a while, however, we focused more on reaching audiences who were more interested in hearing a live band. So we really had to move into live performance with all that includes. We had to have a communication with the audience visually as well as musically. It was a bit foreign for us at first.

Have you been able to rely on many of the album guests when playing live? I can imagine someone like Jon Spencer is hard to pin down...

SM: We play live with our collaborators when we can, but at this point, we're a living breathing band that has its own dynamic on stage. Often that changes when we have a guest join us. I love incorporating guests on stage, but personally, it's much more rewarding to explore our songs with the core eight of us on stage.

I once saw the Blues Explosion at a festival and their set consisted solely of Jon testifying and wailing on a theremin for about an hour. It was strangely awesome. Did he try to break out the theremin when he came in to record his parts?

SM: Jon was so cool in the studio. He showed up and quietly asked for the type of compression, reverb, and mic technique he wanted on his vocals. And then he started singing. As for the theremin, we know theremin players, but we don't know anyone who can sing like Jon.

Your sound has, for want of a better word, a filmic atmosphere…have you had any forays into the world of film music? Is it an ambition?

SM: Hell yes! My dream is to score a werewolf, slasher or zombie picture. I want to be commissioned to score a movie where we get almost carte blanche to make a wild score to a really vivid horror film.

Daniel and I did do some songs for an incredible film called Manda Bala directed by Errol Morris' protégé Jared Goldman.

To what extent does nostalgia inform the record?

SM: I feel like I'm battling nostalgia all the time. It makes its way into all art, and our record wasn't immune to it as far as lyrics and tone go. But my goal is to reject nostalgia at every turn. How incredible would it be to assess everything for its present value or its accurate historical value without rose-colored glasses? I know it's impossible, but I envy anyone who thinks it can actually be done.

You’re clearly fond of classic genres but which current acts excite you?

SM: I really like RVNG, Fever Ray and a lot of music from Sweden. I think MGMT made the most focused and uncluttered album of 2008.

Tell us about the weirdest record you ever played in your past lives as a DJ?

SM: ‘Roda’ by Gilberto Gil has been a big record for me for a long time. Gil's vocals and guitar playing have a swing and elasticity to them that are immediately danceable. I think it's an unlikely dance record as there's no drum kit on the song.

How did it go down?

SM: It never misses!

Finally, what’s next for Phenomenal Handclap Band?

SM: A lot of touring for one. Oh, and the next album. We've already started working on it, but we'll be recording in earnest this summer.

Phenomenal Handclap Band LP is out now on TummyTouch. Click here to find out more.

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