WOMAD Feature Artist : Hazmat Modine

Danger – High Explosives!

With one of the strongest line-ups yet this year’s WOMAD festival, in New Plymouth, is set to be a stunner. With big names like De La Soul, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and John Grant on the bill it’s easy to forget that at the core of the festival is the opportunity to see are artists that you’re likely to never see ever again.  And that’s always been the appeal of events like this.  It’s a box of chocolates, Forest!  One such band is Hazmat Modine, from New York who’s mechanized Oompa Loompa horns evoke jazzy New Orleans dive bars, Manouche cabarets and Delta bluesy barefoot Sunday-morning walks.  Their concoctions are hot-peppered with this crazed whiskey-damaged Leon Redbone vocals from lead singer Wade Schuman and his ‘wall-of-sound’ harmonica explosions.  It’s a musical gumbo that’s always on the heat, constantly changing.

Sitting on a park bench in Central Park, the band’s founder Schuman (lead vocals, harmonica) gave me a quick rundown on the band. “When I started the band back in the 1990’s, with (Randy Weinstein) I couldn’t help kinda sucking up New York in to it.  Every guy that’s been in the band it will add their own spice to the stew.  New Yorks is the ultimate mesh of cultures from German Ompa bands to Jewish and Russian and Asia influences so we just said come on it.  American music is the ultimate American music and this town has it all.”  The current line up Joseph Daley (tuba, Sousaphone), Pamela Fleming (trumpet, flugelhorn), Steve Elson (sax, duduk), Erik DellaPenna (guitar, banjo, vocals), Michael Gomez (guitar), William Bauch (drums), Rachelle Garniez (accordion, claviola) all add their own explosive maverick elements of blues, folk, world fusion and jazz. “I like to say that we draw from the rich soil of American music – from the 1920s, 30s, 50s and to the 60s.  We throw in a bit of hokum jug band, Klezmer, New Orleans R&B, Jamaican rock steady.  We’ve even got a Hawaiian guitar.”  What really makes the band unique is that the band is fronted by two harmonicas which use call and response, harmony, melody and syncopated interweaving rhythms. “I use both chronometric and harmonic versions to get different sounds.  It’s the original travelling instrument because it can fit in a waistcoat pocket and go nearly anywhere.  Although you can play just regular, I like to emulate different sounds – Middle Eastern, Asian, African.”  Every country has it’s own take on Harmonica playing.  He tells me about a collection of Aussie harmonica tunes recorded in the 1920’s that’s he’s found – songs of swaggies and squatters.  The style he says is a lot slower and more folky than the Mississippi blues he started out on.

The band’s debut, Bahamut, was recorded over a five-year span, he tells me, because of constant changes in line up but it hit the spot, receiving solid support from stations like National Public Radio’s “All Songs Considered”.  “We came up with the name – ‘Hazmat’ (Hazardous Materials, like the signs on those big gas takers) and ‘Modine’, which is a space heater company.  I had one in the rehearsal loft, downtown.  It kinda sounded retro, 1950’s.  So being full of woodwind and brass we blow a lotta hot air!”  By the third album Weinstein had left the band and Schuman’s  friend songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Erik Della Penna had joined.  Their sound had changed too, evolving to contain more vocal harmonies.  There was a greater awareness and emphasis on early American song writing: Irving Berlin, Fats Waller, Doc Pomus, Hays & Porter.  That can clearly be seen in last year’s release “Extra Deluxe Supreme”. Not unsurprising for a touring festival band, Hazmut has collaborated with many acts, across 40 countries.  Schuman reckons they’ve performed over 250 concerts, mainly in Europe, since 2007, but he’s not entirely sure of the exact numbers.  Yet despite the volume it’s the range and diversity that takes you aback.  Working with the Mongolian Throat Singers of Tuva on “Everybody Loves You” was a definite highlight.  “It was a real match, given I sound like a freight train and that had this beautiful chronometric drone.”  Others include Kronos Quartet, Aussie’s Cat Empire Natalie Merchant and the Ganbe Brass Band from Benin.  “We did this festival in Malaysia and I thought this was the most amazing group I’d seen.  They were really surprising.  So we went to Benin to make this song.  Collaboration is always on the cards.  Right at the end I ask what he’s most looking forward to in New Plymouth.  “Blue skies and green bush,” he says, “Does anyone down there play blues differently?”  A bit stumped on that, I venture “Well there’s the Maori strum, it’s a guitar style.”  “Cool, if we like it we’ll get one in the band!”

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