Austin, Texas is easily one of the music capitals of the world, and there's no arguing it. Given that the world-renowned South by Southwest Festival happens here every year, it's no surprise. A collective of musicians (ten, to be exact) that have emerged from Austin in recent years are known as Hard Proof. With each release comes an abundance of dance-infused, up-tempo Afrobeat music reminiscent of that which emerged in the seventies and eighties. The band are set to release their next studio album, Stinger, this Friday. Jason Frey, the tenor saxophone player in the band, sat down with us and spoke about working with producer Chris "Frenchie" Smith, recording live versus overdubbed, and how the band are able to channel ten peoples' influences into one incredible group.
You guys have a great sound. It's always nice to get a bit of variety and hear something that's a bit different. Would you mind explaining a little bit about Stinger, and how that came together as compared to the release you had put out a little while ago? Maybe talk about what was similar and what was different? How did it rank among you as songwriters?
Yeah! I'll start with the release that we had put out earlier this year. That was with Jim Eno at his studio, Public Hi-Fi. He's the drummer for Spoon, and he's also a fantastic engineer and he's got an amazing studio. We were really happy to get in with him. A couple of us in Hard Proof had worked with him in the past, with other bands. We kind of had a relationship. He had been flirting with the idea of doing completely live recordings, live mixing, and keeping everything one hundred percent analog. That was going to be a really different recording process for us, whereas the release we have that will be coming out in January (Stinger) was pieced together a little bit at at a time.
When we did the Public Hi-Fi recording, we did everything live. We wrote some songs that would be short so that we could fit everything on [the record]. Jim wanted to do a 12-inch 45 RPM, so that kind of limited the amount of time that we had on the record. So we kind of catered to what we knew was going to be the end process. That's how we approached that one. With Stinger, we recorded with Chris Smith (he goes by "Frenchie") at his studio. He's more of a rock and roll dude. The horn section for Hard Proof met him when we recorded some horns for a band called The Toadies, out of the Fort Worth/Dallas area. They've been around since the nineties, and they're a great rock and roll band. We loved the studio, we loved his vibe. We ended up recording a "cassingle" a few years ago, and put that out for "Cassette Store Day". We did two songs with him, and the process was the best that we had at that point. So we were like, "we've gotta do more."
We ended up booking more time, just recording songs that we had had already, songs that we had been performing live. Frenchie had really fun ideas, as far as the production, maybe ideas on some guitar tones. Not too much on the arrangement side, but he did give ideas on how we could change things up with solo or repeating sections. That one we did mostly live, and then we overdubbed a second and third layer of guitar, keys, and solo sections. We put that together over a couple weeks when we were recording with him. Then we ended up using some tracks from some other places that we had recorded at as well, for Stinger. We did a "Rubber Tracks" recording session, which is something that Converse does. They've got a few different "Rubber Tracks" studios, but they always do a pop-up at South By Southwest here in Austin. We ended up using, I think, two tracks from that "Rubber Tracks" session. We were looking at what we had, what we were happy with, and then we decided to put one more track on there. We used an unreleased track that we'd done with a producer and guitarist here in Austin named Adrian Casada. That one was recorded a few years ago. It's been a fun process putting it together.
We've got some new songs that haven't been released before and haven't really been played live, we've got a few of our staples that have been in our live set for a few years now, and then we've got one track that's going on four years old that's also been a live track staple. It's a really nice mix of what we've been doing live, and some explorations we took in the studio.
One of the things that I had heard you say earlier was about recording to 45 RPM records. You're talking about doing all of this recording live and on analog. What is it that kept you guys thirsty and crave an older era of music to help influence what you guys were doing in the newer era?
The long answer would be that most of us grew up at a time where you went to the store, you got a cassette tape or a record. We have a wide range of age through the band; I think the youngest guy is about thirty-three, and the oldest guy is nearly sixty. We've got a nice range of people that have had experiences. The conga player grew up in New York during the sixties and the salsa explosion. One of the dudes playing percussion used to be a drummer in a hair metal band in LA in that heyday. We run the gamut in between as well. Those were the mediums that we loved.
We felt it was something that's tangible. You can hold it in your hand, look at it, read what's going on, check out the album art. When you go and you buy music at a store, and something jumps out at you [on the shelves] and you go, 'What the heck is this?' If there's a store that has a listening room or a listening booth, you can go into there and find the music that way. You can do that digitally; it may be even easier. I don't want to say, like, for history or posterity-sake, but the hope is that somebody fifteen, twenty, thirty years down the road is going through a record store in Austin. They'll go, "oh, this band was from Austin thirty years ago? I'll check 'em out." You know? That kind of thing.
Given that you guys have ten members in a band, it makes sense to have ten people taking on the kind of music you're playing, rather than your core "drums, bass, guitar, keyboards". How are you guys able to channel all of your individual influences and writing methods into one cohesive unit?
So kind of how I mentioned earlier, we've got a pretty wide range of musical taste in the group, and playing experience. Everybody's coming from a different place. What we've done really intentionally is to try and keep the core of that to Fela Kuti's Afrobeat sound from the seventies and eighties. That's our main thing. So if we're looking at it like a Venn Diagram or something, we've got Fela in the middle, and then all ten of us have our own thing. We then have to find how that overlaps into that original sound that we're trying to create. I guess that would be the way that we did it. We try to keep a conscious effort to pull influences from different African artists that we really enjoy and try to emulate with our music. Then we allow our individual music abilities, tastes, and interests to be highlighted within that context. I think we've done a pretty good job of doing that through the years. It's been getting easier, now that we've been doing it for awhile, to find the stuff that works and not be afraid to try other things.
When you're working with someone like Jim Eno or someone like Frenchie, how do those relationships essentially come about for you guys?
Yeah! So with Jim, the horn section for Hard Proof also plays with Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears. Joe's first two albums were recorded with Jim. That's where we had that connection. We'd always told him, "hey, we've got this band. It's really crazy." He'd be like, "oh, that's pretty interesting!" Over the years, it kept coming up. He came and saw us live a few times. It's actually really similar with the stuff that we do with Frenchie. We met him through another outside work. A lot of it, honestly, is right place, right time. Like with most things in the music industry, it's kind of amazing to me how often that is the case. "Oh, you're around, you're available? Okay, you want to work?" That kind of thing.
But with both Frenchie and Jim, and with Adrian as well, we've been a group now for eight years. It's just constant seeing them around, seeing them at other shows, hearing other recordings that they did and mentioning that you like something that they did, and keeping those relationship lines open. Then, when people had the time and energy to collaborate with each other, we made it work. One of the cool things about Hard Proof is that it's everyone's favorite side project, in a way. There's some people in the group that are real career-oriented, or teachers. This might be their main outlet. There's other people doing music full-time and play with twelve different bands, three shows a night.
Finding time to where, if some people are touring with another group and are gone for two months, and then everyone's super stoked and finally in the same room together and we get to play music...I think that's been a really beneficial thing for us throughout the years. It's kind of helped keep us together, keep us going forward, and keep that initial excitement that we had when we first started the group.
What does music mean to you?
I guess, without getting too metaphysical or anything, music is any sound, and to some degree, any kind of vibration that resonates with you in some way. It doesn't have to be good, it doesn't have to be bad, it can be neither good nor bad, or both good and bad. You know what I mean? Any kind of vibration that resonates with you. And I say that because it'll be amazing how hearing city sounds, or trains, birds, or rustling in the forest can kind of create rhythms. If you're listening to that, it can become music.
Hard Proof's newest album, Stinger, is available January 13 via Modern Outsider Records.
This has been another Shameless Promotion.