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Under the radar

Geordie Crawford chats to Hiatus Kaiyote, a world-famous Australian band you probably haven’t heard of.

hiatus-kiayote web

hiatus-kiayote web

Walking down King Street I spotted a rare flock. There was a male with matted plumage and a rastacap chirping to another with a slicked back crest and leather jacket. Next to them was an unassuming male with a hairy bib nodding at a female with exotic plumage in the form of tattoos, bangles, piercings, badges, sparkles, crop top, and blue eyebrows.

No, I wasn’t bird watching. I was on my way to interview Hiatus Kaiyote, an Australian band that have played to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, been lauded by Pharell and Prince, ‘done’ The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and been nominated for an R&B Grammy.

If you’re rubbing your eyes and wondering how such a pre-eminent band could have slipped past your musical radar, there’s actually nothing to worry about. Hiatus are, somehow, still relatively unheard of in Australia.

Their recent opening slot for neo-soul empress Erykah Badu at The Star in Sydney was only attended by a couple of hundred fans, while mention of their name often leads to confusion in Australia, “Coyote? Ibis Coyote? Wait, who caters peyote?” It turns out that the soul food of the States and Europe is not as appetising to Antipodeans.

“I think stylistically what we do is more in tune with what’s happening in other places,” bassist Paul Bender tells me. “For instance, I think here there can be people who are really into Australian hip-hop but really unaware of a lot of stuff in the American hip-hop realm.”

A case of different taste it may be, but the Australian music industry has also played a part in keeping Hiatus underground. Unlike other national acts that have recently made it big on the international stage, such as Flume, Chet Faker, and Tame Impala, Hiatus Kaiyote have not been fostered by Triple J. And, while their critically acclaimed debut, Tawk Tomahawk, received significant media coverage in America and Europe, the Australian music press have largely turned a
blind eye.

Not that they’re complaining. Over the last two years Hiatus Kaiyote have travelled the world showcasing their unique gumbo of soul/hip-hop/West African/jazz music, or as it is described on their website, “multi-dimensional, polyrhythmic gangster shit.”

When I asked lead singer Nai Palm what informs her contributions to the band, she cited an array of non-musical culture : “There’s a lot of references, from [children’s TV show] Adventure Time, to Tuareg nomadic silversmiths, to the lifespan of a type of cacti from Jericho.” She says all of this while Michael Jackson glares at me in his ‘Thriller’ pose from a badge on her jeans.

In conversation with the band, it’s clear Nai’s more than just a leader on stage. When I spilt my tea and subjected a tiny teddy to death by Chai, her absurdist humour brought some relief to the otherwise sorrowful occasion, “Teddy needs to change his cottage pouch.”

After an appropriate mourning period, she was erudite in explaining the role of women in music. “It’s important to challenge the ideals that have been placed on women in the music industry,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of cheek from sound engineers thinking that I’m just the face of the band and disregarding me as a musician. It’s not that there’s a lack of fucking awesome female musicians, it’s just that, as far as the industry goes, there are certain niches women fit in. For instance, the ‘pop princess’ world as opposed to just being a badass musician.”

In another band, Nai’s tractor beam charisma and nomadic pop-punk aesthetic would make her the focal point. The most impressive aspect of Hiatus, however, is their music; a beautiful beast born from the imagination of four mad music scientists.

Keyboardist Simon Mavin and Bender have played music professionally since they were teenagers, in genres spanning from metal to classical, free jazz to eighties porn-funk.

Drummer Perrin Moss is a veteran producer and one time emcee. Hiatus Kaiyote is the first band he’s played drums in.

Nai Palm is an accomplished singer songwriter with a background in soul and world music. Prior to Hiatus, she was singing in an Aztec cumbia dub band that covered Radiohead in Spanish and traditional Columbian fishing songs.

It’s this eclectic mix of backgrounds that allows their music to remain fluid. One minute the band will be laying down a crisp hip-hop groove before transitioning into a soulful ballad and then sliding into a synth-laden samba replete with polyrhythms and lush backing vocals. And it works because it’s not contrived. It’s their shared life experience.

“The music will probably keep changing because we keep changing as musicians. What we like now we might not like in a year’s time,” says Moss. It’s a scary philosophy for the intransigents who love Hiatus Kaiyote the way they are, but a philosophy the band couldn’t exist without. Their music is futuristic and they don’t plan on letting time catch up.

In the spirit of time travel, after we’d been talking for an hour or so the band informed me they were running late to catch a plane. As we went to leave, Mavin abruptly grabbed my arm.

“Man, you have a spider on your forehead.”

I slowly rotated to face him and he vacantly stared at me for what seemed like two hours. Could he not see the terror in my eyes? Thankfully, Nai was more decisive.

“I’ll save you!”

Taking the spider’s web in one hand, she carried it, suspended, to a tree; the invisible line between her hand and the spider suggested a telekinetic power. Evidently, Hiatus Kaiyote’s front woman is not only a ringmaster of crowds around the world, she is also a tamer of deadly creatures.

I’m actually pretty chuffed that she saved my life, not least because Hiatus Kaiyote is recording a new album and I really want to be around to hear it.