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Interview with Wade Schuman (Hazmat Modine, english version)

Wade Shuman
Wade Schuman (Hazmat Modine)
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - May 2012)

Wade Schuman is Hazmat Modine's frontman and founder, an incredible 8-piece and two-harmonicas blues band from NYC that sounds truly like no other. These adventurous musicians use unusual instruments and pour countless musical traditions, sounds and influences in their musical recipe (African, Caribbean, Klezmer, Gypsy, New Orleans... ). For a long time since their 1998 beginning, Hazmat Modine has been NYC's best kept secret until they finally release their first LP Bahamut in 2006 (Jaro Medien/Barbès Records). Last year they came back with Cicada (Jaro Medien/Barbès Records), a new masterpiece praised in many reviews worldwide and finally awarded 'best 2011 blues album' by the prestigious Charles Cros Academy in France. Wade Schuman is not only a formidable multi-instrumentalist, he's also a fine arts teacher, a painter, an amateur zoologist, a professional hedonist and a very special Nature sound engineer. All these qualities makes him a delightful and obvious candidate for an in-depth exclusive interview. Hazmat Modine come back for an european tour this spring and summer (starting in Paris on May 24th) with new songs. To celebrate this, Wade has just cooked a great blues and brass mix. It's available here.

Hazmat Modine
Wade Schuman (Hazmat Modine)
(Interview by Nicolas Ragonneau, for Paris DJs - May 2012)

01. I almost always begin my interviews with a bit of etymology. Tell me about this strange band name, Hazmat Modine.
HAZMAT is an American English word for Hazardous Materials. AKA dangerous materials, you see it on the sides of trucks or special trashcans. MODINE is the brand name for an industrial forced air heater unit, the kind that hangs down in garages and artists lofts... the company is in Muncie Indiana... they are both American words, but the sound of them together is rather exotic. People often think HAZMAT is Turkish. I thought Modine sounded a bit like a 1950's rock n Roll band.

02. You're a musician, but you are teaching fine arts for a living. At one moment, have you hesitated between those two vocations?
No, not really, I like being a person who does many things... I would be miserable if I didn't... my life goes in many directions always... Life is a rich experience and I am blessed to feel passionate about many things, art, teaching, music, zoology, sound, swimming, etc... Painting is an important part of me... I need texture and colour and variety of expression and these are fundamental to both art forms... visual and aural... Also being a good teacher means being a good performer in many ways, and facing a class of graduate students is as hard an audience as any, so it helps the performing chops.

03. The cast of past and present hazmaticians is quite impressive. Is HM a real band or something closer to a collective of musicians around you?
Well, I am not sure what a 'real' band is...? All bands are different in someway... I am always surprised, we all figure it out as we go along, there is no one system... After 14 years I have made it my own way... You mean a democratically run band where all parties make equal decisions? Then no. I am certainly the leader and the person who keeps it all going and does all the producing and conceptual work, the design and most of the promotion in the U.S. I pick the band members and the material and I take financial risks in the U.S. and I take the blame!... Having one person who does that is one reason I think it's still there, bands don't tend to live too long... but Hazmat Modine is still a real band and all the members are very very important to it's sound and feel... And my goal is to let (and make) everyone shine. We have been touring for over seven years in this present configuration... Although Joe Daley (the Tuba Player) has been in the band from the start, going on 14 years! And Joe has a lot to do with what this band sounds like in many ways… But I do like bringing in other musicians to collaborate on the records. I get obsessed with the range of sounds and textures that exist in the world. I love sounds that are unexpected and that have a richness... (nothing is better then the Tuba... what an instrument! Such a rich, pure, deep sound... it's like coffee in the morning: I have to have it). There are so many colours of sound that I still haven't explored enough... Bassoon for instance... it has such a wise sound... Kora, different kinds of percussion... there are a lot of sounds I want to incorporate some day. When you play music with another musician and it clicks it's like meeting an old friend that you didn't realize you missed so much... it is a very sweet experience. I always wanted a band with certain sounds and certain instruments... harmonicas, Tuba, horns, Guitar, all the textures I heard in my head... and New York is a Great place to start a band, there are so many astonishing musicians here who can play all sorts of things... but the musicians I found brought a lot to the band I didn't know I needed, and am so very glad for that! They bring a huge wealth of musical ideas and idiomatic voices... and of course what is most important: soul. So yes it is a band, but it is a band that was started with a certain vision, and that evolves also with what the fellow musicians bring to it.

04. Who had this bright idea to blend diatonic and chromatic harmonicas?
I started the band in 1998 with Randy Weinstein another harmonica player who is no longer in the band... We met at a meeting of professional harmonica players in my loft in NYC. Randy and I had a lot in common musically, and I knew he was the perfect guy to start the band with, he is a great musician and can play many styles with a lot of soul... initially I really wanted two diatonics mainly, but then I realized that the sound and texture difference between the diatonic and the chromatic was a really interesting contrast, they are really two very different instruments... When Randy left the band after ten years, I called up Bill Barrett, who I had always admired and asked him to join... luckily he said yes. Bill is a tremendously dynamic and interesting player... few chromatic players can do what he does and no one sounds like him. Bill is also a great singer and that brought a lot to the band... To be honest, the idea of this band for me goes back to Philadelphia in the early 90's when I was making mixes of multiple harmonicas on a boom box... at the time I wanted a four piece harmonica band... then I moved to New York and met Randy. But back in the 1920s there was a whole harmonica band movement that continues to this day in Asia and other places... that was certainly an inspiration

5. Speaking of harmonica, who are your harmonica heroes?
Deford Bailey, Rythm Willie, Gwen Foster, Paul Butterfield, Jaybird Coleman, Joe Filisko, Papa lightfoot, Howlin Wolf, Pegleg Sam, Onie Wheeler, Charles Leighton, Son of Dave...

06. HM music is rich and complex, mixing elements from different traditions and culture. It's a cliché, but it's seems to a kind of 21st century melting-pot music…
Well, truth is that it's an American band coming out of the blues... but Probably not in how most people think of Blues bands these days... But a lot of the early musicians who played blues played very eclectic music, W.C. Handy's big hit St. Louis Blues has a Tango section in it, and the early Jugbands played Waltzes and Fox trots, stringband music, and Blues... We are a kind of Post-modern-ethno-Jugband... But, I think at the core of what I do IS blues... it's the language I came out of. It's at the core of everything that I do musically, and it's at the core of most good American music. There is a lot in what we do that has influences of other music forms: R&B, Rock and Roll, Latin, Carribbean, African, Eastern European, Asian, etc... but at the core it's still coming from blues... it has sadness and humour and it has rhythm. It is music that can let go... the most important thing is to let go.

07. By the way, you seem to enjoy a lot traveling to Europe. It never seems a chore but something you want to live deeply…
Well, I spent a lot of my youth traveling all over Europe and I have a lot of very close friends here. And since I am a painter European culture is pretty important to me. Plus in many ways Europeans appreciate Art and Music more then Americans do unfortunately... America is dominated in many ways by the huge pop music machine. You still seem able to listen to live music here! In America after a gig they kick everybody out and have a DJ. He is the real star... The DJs are replacing live music... I cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate that Europeans will pay money to see live music. Unless they are going to see a big pop star most Americans have lost so much touch with the idea of live musical culture...

08. Animals (mythical or real ones) and fauna are important in HM's world. Your two albums got their titles from eponymous animal names tracks.
We are all animals, aren't we? My first love was Zoology... some days I think I should give it all up and move to Borneo and study Proboscis monkeys. Almost all metaphor exists in nature. There is nothing that we can make up that rivals what already exists.

09. Bahamut appears in Wim Wenders' Pina's soundtrack. How did this happen?
Through our agent Uli Balss... He is German... But we have played in Wuppertal, and we are pretty well known in Germany...

10. Some of your lyrics are quite elusive and seem loaded with innuendos. Is it a reminiscence of hokum?
Sure... Sex is a big part of music... it's all very physical.

11. Tell me about the Gangbé Brass Band? How did you meet?
Gangbe Brass Band we met at a world music concert on a mountain in Malaysia. It was a world music festival in Genting Highlands... which is one of the largest casinos in Asia literally on the tip of a mountain. It was musical love at first sight for me! I pursued recording with them for many years... but it was hard as they were often touring and we were never in the same country or continent at the same time. We finally played together again in Tubingen Germany two summers ago, but I had a kidney stone! We were ready to do the show, there were hundreds of people waiting, a camera crew and a recording crew and I was rolling around on the ground back stage in so much pain... I was foaming at the mouth. I finally took three pain killers, did the gig and then went to emergency and had an operation to remove the stone... None the less the music with them was incredible, I can't tell you how much I love that band and the vibe and energy they have! Last year we played with them in Kazan Russia at a concert of 200,000 people, it was quite an experience... ! My goal is to do a full CD with them, I hope that we can go to Benin and record with them there... it's a very exciting collaboration... I love that band.

12. There are also sounds from nature on the records, recorded in many different places of the world, as if you put some sounds of your journey diaries in those...
Yes, that is important for me, I am kind of obsessed with sound. How things sound different when you record them, it's kind of how color looks different in a painting then in real life, it's all heightened. We never really notice sound since we are bombarded with all sorts of images and sensations as well, but when you separate it from the visual it's astonishing... sounds tell stories, we live in this incredible sonic world that we miss 90% of the time. It's all context. Plus it's bringing all our touring and life experiences back into the recordings of the band, it's like a sonic journal... I have sounds from the rain forest in Indonesia and insects in central park, fireworks from the 4th of July on a small island in Maine off the coast of the U.S. An unknown accordion player under a bridge I recorded in Amsterdam on my cell phone... Dogs barking in Bali and Monkeys in Sumatra and recordings off my answering machine...

13. I can see the painter's interest for natural history and anatomy in this...
Yes, it is like painting with sound... I once made a recording of a kingfisher on an island in Maine in a rain storm... he flies by panning from right to left singing in the storm... I lost the recording and I have been looking for it for years... Some day I will find where I filed that recording! One of the best things I have ever made!

14. I saw your paintings on the net. You seem to love Magritte and Jerome Bosch...
Magritte I respect, Bosch I love... I studied 16th and 17th century European painting techniques mostly, but I love most of western painting with the exception of some 18th and 19th century stuff...

15. Do you still find time to draw or paint?
Yes of course! I am working on a series of paintings based on the idea of the Virtues... Years ago I did a series on the Seven Deadly Sins... it wasn't the typical Catholic iconography, I was more interested in the concept of what is sin. Turns out that the depiction of the seven sins goes back to Babylonian culture... I used different animals as personifications. It was a meditation on the idea of Sin. So now I am doing the same with Virtue... which believe me is much harder, since most people are less interested in Virtue. But I find it fascinating... for instance to me one of the greatest virtues is so over looked: Humor... one of the amazing human qualities... one of our most brilliant attributes, the thing that can save us from the worst of our selves is humor. We tend to trivialize it, but it is perhaps our greatest art form because it protects us from the overwhelming realization of eminent death. It changes time. For the series I am doing hybrid animal/people images. For humor I plan to do a self portrait as a baboon based on an image from Velazquez’s buffoon series... I am also doing a large polyptyk kind of based on an experience I had in Sri Lanka a few years back, and then a smaller series of paintings of insects on shaped canvases.

16. What can we expect from your European tour this spring?
Well, a damn good band! We will have the full eight piece band and we have been working on new material... I have co-written a song with Pete and Michael that I am very pleased about at the moment... it's an R & B tune, kind of a Stax sort of vibe about feeling that no matter how hard you try in life you always feel like you are barely keeping it together, I think we all feel that way at times that it takes all that we have to keep it all going... I am pretty pleased with the song, it's perhaps the catchiest thing I have written so far... then we have another tune that is half way between Mali and a Kentucky old-time tune, called Whiskeybird, and Steve wrote a tune that a friend and I (Erik Della Penna) are writing words for about his dad who is completely obsessed with building a wall in the middle of nowhere from large stones... I don't write material fast, but it's very exciting to write new songs and I hope to have a complete set of new material by this summer... We plan to do a live recording of the band for the next CD on the road. We are doing several tours: France, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy Spain, Austria, Russia, UK and Canada... And we are looking forward to seeing you in Paris!

Hazmat Modine Cicada

Links :
Hazmat Modine : official | discogs | myspace | wikipedia | youtube
Nicolas Ragonneau

Nicolas Ragonneau

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