Black Taxi: The Crucial Cut Interview
What does it take to write a great song, the type people jump on immediately and vote for in online contests like Diffuser.fm's Crucial Cut of the Month? Musical ability often helps, but knowing how to play multiple instruments and switch from jazz to hip-hop to rock doesn't guarantee you a classic chorus or lyric that resonates. For that, you need creativity and enthusiasm, both of which ride shotgun in Black Taxi.
The New York City foursome's 'House on Fire' burned up the competition in our Crucial Cut of June 2013 poll, and in the following email interview -- their "prize," if you will, for having the month's best free mp3 download -- members Ezra Huleatt, Bill Mayo, Krisanan Soponpong and Jason Holmes explain how they wrote the synth-embossed pop-rock jam, as well as the other tunes on their forthcoming 'Chiaroscuro (No Shame)' EP, due out Sept. 10.
The group also traces their history, looks ahead to the future and explains what Lauryn Hill and Keanu Reeves have to do with where they are now. As an added bonus, scroll down for a free download of Fake Money's 'House on Fire' remix.
You guys come from pretty diverse backgrounds. How'd you come together?
JH: Krisana and Ezra met while at the Full Moon Rave on an island in Thailand while dancing their faces off and drinking mushroom milkshakes. They both lived in NYC at the time, were wanting play music and decided to link up back in the city. Bill had a mutual college friend of Kris, was coming to NYC more frequently for sessions, made the move and the band was started. I relocated to the city six years ago from New England to play music full-time. I anticipated doing more freelance theater and studio work but saw some potential with this band, and couldn't deny the energy they put forth onstage. We met at the show, and after an audition later that week, I was asked to join the band.
We decided to start fresh as a new band with a few songs and an early EP just released. We even considered renaming the band but decided to stick with the name Black Taxi, as we had a few fans already and budding relationships with a couple venues downtown. The first song we wrote together was called 'Swagger' in late-summer/fall of 2007. We were rehearsing in this hot and sweaty practice space the loft Ezra shared with a bunch of other people out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We wanted to write a slap-you-in-the-face rock song that captured and spat out the energy that we were all feeling at that time of new beginning, while acknowledging the stagnant and sour surroundings in that sticky and oppressively hot NYC environment.
What was the NYC scene like in 2007? How is it different now?
JH: The thing about the "scene" in New York City is that there isn't one "scene." This place is huge; there are literally millions of musicians and thousands of bands. So in a word, the scene will always be diverse. Unlike many of the smaller cities we tour through these days, there isn't just one or two cool venues in town that serve as a cultural center. There isn't even one place for hipsters, one for rockers, one for singer-songwriters, one for jazz, etc., etc.
So for us, the last six years have been spent carving out a niche for our band in this constantly evolving surroundings. It's like trying to find a spot on a crowded train where people are currently getting on and off. The scenery outside is changing, and there's no ideal place to be although the amenities vary from car to car.
So over the years, our convictions about what kind of band we want to be has gotten stronger. We know better what we do well and know we are better at playing music that we are proud of and enjoy playing. Being based in New York has certainly influenced us, since the crowds here in general are pretty choosy. Like I said, there are a ton of bands and other entertainment, so nobody's gonna come to a Black Taxi show because it's the only thing going on that night. We've had to work really hard, keep the bar high and stick with it. We've seen so many cool bands come and go and make it our mission to write songs that won't be just a flash-in-the-pan.
Bill, you worked as a hip-hop session musician. Who are some of the artists you played with? Any big-name people? Are there more live instruments on hip-hop records than people think?
BM: When I moved to New York in 2004, I had a friend here who was pretty deep in the hip-hop scene. He goes by Mr. Reynolds. He got me my first gigs in the city, and I would go track demos for R&B singers and rappers in Quad Studio's late-night hours. I played with Lauryn Hill a few times, but none of that material was released. It was a great experience to be around that kind of talent. People often think (justifiably so) that much of that genre is created on a macbook in a afternoon. But some of the best musicians around are behind the scenes, putting some real integrity into that music.
You guys all have impressive musical credentials. Do you think your chops set you apart from other bands?
EH: There are plenty of NYC bands with stellar chops who are also multi-instrumentalists, so I do not think those traits alone set us apart from other groups. Rather, I think it is chops, strong melodies and lyrics that latch like cordyceps, combined with a raw/passionate live show and a keen understanding of our strengths which we have been able to hone through the benefit of working for over five years together.
JH: Every band has it's own strengths and weaknesses. I think the key is to work with what you have and produce what you imagine. As with any creative and practical project the more tools, skills and know-how you have the less limited you are by them. But as we see all throughout history in all the arts and otherwise, sometimes imposed limitations result in greater art.
That being said, we do each bring quite a bit to the table musically, whether it's in the form of skills or tastes and preferences that we've developed. I think it's this complex mix of musical flavors, in the context of rock music, that people find compelling about our band. And great ideas remain unknown unless one has the skills to share them and make them work with other ideas. So keeping our chops up allows us to convey those ideas and take them to greater places, to make music out of them.
Was the songwriting chemistry there right away?
EH: Initially our chemistry was non-miscible. We wrote, we hung out a lot with each other, and respected each others writing capabilities, but it was water and oil. Punky rock 'n' roll coming from my side with Yacht Rock (in the coolest sense) R&B coming from Bill. Take a listen to our first EPs. Luckily time does a good job of fixing that up.
JH: From the get-go, it seemed that Ezra, Bill, Kris and I had a lot to say musically. So I recall there being this exciting, fresh energy and we all wanted to put our best foot forward and write song kick-ass songs. It was like starting a relationship with a girl you just met, realizing that there is a strong chemistry happening. You want to do everything, say everything, grasp that moment in time and find a way to regenerate it, over and over, to build, etc. But as the relationship progresses, you start to discover your partner's and your own strengths and weaknesses. You discover that you don't have to say everything on every date, and tell her all the ideas in your mind. There is time, and it's best to keep your wits about you. As we are now, we've found a way to work together where one or two of us will work on song ideas individually and develop them for a while before bringing them to the group. Then we'll powwow about how to develop the song further and how to play it in a live setting. The real key, and sometimes the biggest challenge, is to keep passion in the process.
How is 'House on Fire' different from the songs on 'We Don't Know Any Better?' It seems more pop, maybe -- that's a giant chorus.
EH: 'House on Fire' definitely is a straight-up pop jam, as are a number of tracks on 'We Don't Know Any Better.' What sets it apart from the previous record is the magic that Good Danny (engineer/producer) brought along with the densely layered synths sounds. In the last year, we have been bombarded with synth-heavy songs from M83 to Fun., and as much as I would like to run away from it, all the sounds are insidious, get inside the head and eventually need to be let out.
JH: The songs on both 'WDKAB' and our first full-length 'Things of that Nature,' are pretty varied anyway, so it's hard to make a direct comparison without going song by song. I can say that our music has been evolving right along. With this latest handful of songs -- 'HOF' being the first we've released -- we are being super honest and expressive of where we are as a band and who we have become as individuals.
We developed 'House on Fire' and the other songs on our forthcoming EP while in residency near Austin, TX. We took ourselves out of NYC the environs we'd grown accustomed to, away from people we loved, and thus created an opportunity to see ourselves and each other more clearly. We chose to not defend ourselves and our individual tastes and didn't have to apologize for liking a particular pop song, or pretend to like something we didn't. It was liberating and humbling but we still had work to do, and so had to find some new ways to function as a band. We were each dealing with our own lives, loves and realizations of where we were as people, and the sounds on 'House on Fire' speak for that.
You're releasing a series of EPs, right? Why did you opt to go that route instead of a full-length?
Jason: We'll be releasing and EP in early September, and then a full-length album in 2014. We've been eager to get our songs from the TX residency out to our fans and the world -- it's been a year since we put out our 'Live in Portland' EP and longer than that since 'WDKAB' came out. Also, there is a sonic cohesion on this new EP that we wanted to feature, and as a smaller collection of songs, it really shows where we were while in exile -- I mean in residency -- in the desert.
What's your favorite place to play in NYC?
JH: The Bowery Ballroom is one of my favorite stages and rooms. The sound is killer, the room is dynamic and our first time playing there (and selling it out!) represented a major milestone for us as a band. A tiny place that's hard to beat the sound and vibe of is Arlene's Grocery in the Lower East Side.
What are you five favorite local bands right now?
EH: Love the twisted pop-psych of CHAPPO, the earnest Americana-rock of the Dig, the crazy spank-dance of Hank & Cupcakes, the darkly amazing Chainwave and this cat called Jay-Z ... he's alright.
KS: The Attic Ends, the Workout, Yazan & Martin, Mother Feather.
You've had a lot of tunes end up on TV. What's the strangest place one of your songs has landed? Have you ever had any trepidation about licensing songs for TV?
JH: Most places I see them are a bit odd. It's a funny experience to hear your own music coming out of a screen and having strangers acting out some drama along to it. I saw our old song 'Pretty Mama' in an episode of MTV's 'Teen Wolf.' We were in a trailer for a Michael Cera movie -- though not in the movie itself. I'm told there's a scene of someone getting a BJ to our song 'Shoeshine' in the latest Keanu Reeves movie that you never heard about. ("Whoooaaaa...")
You've been a band for more than five years now. Do you see Black Taxi making it to 10 years? What's the ultimate goal? From the start, you've seemed like a very ambitious band…
KS: You can't be a five-year plan or 10-year plan on things. You just have to keep finding things you enjoy about playing music.
JH: We are ambitious, and why not, we have one life to do it all. We have been more driven to accomplish certain things than to do any one thing for an arbitrary amount of time. So hopefully our goals will become apparent to the onlookers as we achieve them.
Grab Fake Money's Remix of Black Taxi's 'House on Fire'