Hiatus Kaiyote Charge Ahead With Bright & Bold New Album: ‘People Like Our Music Because We Break The Rules’

27 June 2024 | 1:21 pm | Cyclone Wehner

On their mindful and mesmerising fourth album, ‘Love Heart Cheat Code’, future soul firestarters Hiatus Kaiyote are heralding a new optimism.

Hiatus Kaiyote

Hiatus Kaiyote (Credit: Rocket Weijers)

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The triple Grammy-nominated Australian future soul band Hiatus Kaiyote are heralding a new optimism with Love Heart Cheat Code, the follow-up to their metaphysical opus Mood Valiant (2021). The lead single is the effervescent Everything's Beautiful, and it’s indeed apt in its title – worthy of Beyoncé. Hiatus Kaiyote are extolling mindfulness.

“The weight has lifted off a lot of people's shoulders now and it's a bit lighter,” drummer Perrin ‘Pez’ Moss ponders. “We didn't intentionally say to each other that we wanna try and make a lighter record or anything, but it just happened like that, you know?”

Hiatus Kaiyote tour solidly – and today they're far from their Naarm/Melbourne base. Perrin and keyboardist Simon Mavin are in the US, conducting a last-minute interview over Zoom from a curtained hotel room. They’re en route to Indianapolis for the first stop of a summer run across North America. “Where are we?” Perrin asks no one in particular, only to remember they're in Lititz, Pennsylvania, a town settled by Moravians – Central European Protestants seeking religious freedom. “I've never heard of this place before, he says.

Absent is bassist Paul Bender (whom everyone simply calls Bender) and, of course, the band's magnetic vocalist and guitarist Nai Palm (aka Naomi Saalfield), who's prioritising self-care ahead of an eight-hour drive. Both players are concealing their fatigue – Simon, in a red top, coyly retreats to the sofa as a loquacious Perrin, wearing green, goes off on a tangent.

Hiatus Kaiyote previewed Love Heart Cheat Code in February, when they sold-out a hometown concert with an orchestra at Hamer Hall – and the band will tour nationally come September.

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TheMusic.com.au first profiled Hiatus Kaiyote in 2012, the story auspiciously titled Sky's The Limit. And the outfit's formation the previous year is mythic. By chance, Bender caught Nai performing on a novelty pink nylon guitar at Gertrude's Brown Couch in countercultural Fitzroy, and was bedazzled.

The latter singer-songwriter had a tragic upbringing. At 11, she lost her mother to breast cancer and, soon after, her father perished in a house fire, leaving the orphan to foster care. In her mid-teens, Nai experienced homelessness. Resilient, at one stage, she was a fire-performer.

Nai and Bender began collaborating, gradually pulling together a jam band with Pez and Simon – the pair then roomies. A Tuesday night residency at The Evelyn Hotel was so popular, it was extended. Along the way, the quartet tagged their experimental sonic fusion “wondercore”. They cultivated a DIY ethos. “Initially that was the thing that kind of set us apart, really – ‘cause we did make the records ourselves,” Perrin drawls.

Still, in approaching their debut album, 2012’s Tawk Tomahawk, Hiatus Kaiyote saw their divergent musical backgrounds as a challenge. Simon and Bender studied music formally (the former graduating from Monash University), while Perrin and Nai were self-taught. Perrin “didn't know how bands really worked”, so he observed Simon and Bender. He couldn’t play live drums, either.

Hailing from the Blue Mountains, Perrin started as a teen DJ, rapper and beatmaker, taking to the skins upon relocating to Naarm in 2008. “I couldn't even play some of the drum parts on the first record – at all,” he reveals. “I had the ideas in my head, so I'd just produce them and be like, ‘That's the kind of sounds that I wanna do, and then I'll learn how to play them for the live shows.’ Then eventually I got better and better at playing drums.”

Simon had been “predominantly a session musician”, though he was briefly a member of The BamboosLance Ferguson’s band putting Naarm on the rare groove map in the 2000s when they signed to the UK's Tru Thoughts label. Nonetheless, he didn't have production knowledge. Until he joined Hiatus Kaiyote, Simon assumed the producer or engineer determined the sound of a record, rather than the instrumentalists – “it was an epiphany to me,” he says. “I sort of got my eyes opened up, like, ‘Oh, wow, we can make this sound however we want it to sound.’”

Hiatus Kaiyote released Tawk Tomahawk independently via Bandcamp, and their success as global exports serendipitous. In fact, the group became tastemaker favourites through an old-fashioned mode of music discovery: word-of-mouth.

After supporting hip-hop soul stalwart Taylor McFerrin earlier in 2012, the Brooklynite raved about Hiatus Kaiyote to the blog From Paris. The band’s cosmic jazz subsequently radiated out to influential radio types Gilles Peterson and, in the US, KCRW's Anthony Valadez – not to mention The Roots' Questlove, Erykah Badu and even Prince.

New York's Salaam Remi, famed as a producer for the Fugees and Amy Winehouse, signed Hiatus Kaiyote to his fledgling Sony Music imprint Flying Buddha. The avant-soulsters then re-issued Tawk Tomahawk – now a cult classic – with a hip-hop remix of the track Nakamarra featuring Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest fame) – thus making Hiatus Kaiyote the first Australian act to be nominated for a Grammy in an R&B category. The band are beloved in Black America, much like the Brit James Blake.

Inspired by mixtape culture and their collection of vintage synths, Hiatus Kaiyote's 2015 sequel, Choose Your Weapon, was even more maximalist. The four received another Grammy nod for their metaphoric single Breathing Underwater.

Hiatus Kaiyote recognised that their idiosyncrasies render them “special”. They accept any and all “mistakes”, Perrin notes, vouching that “you are your own worst critic.” He now considers “naivety” as “brilliant”. Simon elaborates on the sentiment: “That’s what a lot of musicians sort of forget – the artistry is the truth and there's no wrong [or] right. It's just you being an artist.”

Perrin stresses that Hiatus Kaiyote aren't commercial: “If you want to be a pop artist, there are certain boxes you have to tick to get onto certain platforms, or radio or whatever. But if you just want to be an artist, there are no rules.”

Ironically, Hiatus Kaiyote have been sampled by hip-hop, R&B and pop superstars like Anderson .Paak, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, The Carters and Teyana Taylor. On Drake’s Scorpion, Nai riffed on Aaliyah’s More Than A Woman. The band also contributed to Robert Glasper’s tribute to Miles Davis, Everything’s Beautiful.

With the Flying Buddha label apparently inoperative, Hiatus Kaiyote moved to Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder Records and generated new buzz with 2021’s Mood Valiant, a comeback album of sorts. It transpired at a momentous time. For starters, in 2018, Nai revealed her traumatic breast cancer diagnosis. The band were then sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic, unable to tour.

The band believe they arrived artistically with the ambitious – and regenerative – Mood Valiant. Stylistically they strayed into Brazilian bossa nova, liaising with legendary composer and arranger Arthur Verocai when they visited Rio de Janeiro. Yet they also presented more traditional songs over noodly jazz; the retro-nuevo ballad Stone Or Lavender rivals Teena Marie.

“We're all on the same page these days,” Perrin states. “Now it's like everyone is able to produce songs and do it on our own time, which is really cool.”

If Hiatus Kaiyote are occasionally slept-on domestically, Mood Valiant proved a triumph, peaking at #4 on the ARIA Top 50 Albums chart. It was justifiably up for Best Progressive R&B Album at the 2022 Grammys. The band performed a Tiny Desk concert for NPR and joined FlyLo at the Hollywood Bowl, again with an orchestra.

The vibe of Hiatus Kaiyote's fourth album is wholly different to Mood Valiant – above all, Love Heart Cheat Code is sanguine. But Nai has never been as lucid – or immediate – in her songwriting, exploring themes of curiosity, attentiveness, empathy, friendship, found family, and the power of love. And again, the band offer whimsy – the album’s visual marketing depicts them in a cartoony mini-mart.

Eschewing loungecore, Hiatus Kaiyote remain unpredictable. Songs like Cinnamon Temple verge on heavy metal, and the album's closer is a grungy rendition of Jefferson Airplane's psych-rock staple White Rabbit.

Hiatus Kaiyote laboured on Love Heart Cheat Code for two years, with some touring between sessions but less personal strain. “I think things just settled a little bit after COVID,” Simon reflects. “Mood Valiant was a pretty crazy time for the world – and for us. When we were all making that, we were kind of sneaking out of our houses and going into the studio to work on that record, which was pretty nuts. Then this latest record came along and it was more relaxed in how we achieved it.”

The biggest surprise? The usually self-autonomous band hired an “external” engineer and producer, Mario Caldato Jr – an Brazilian-American stalwart long associated with the Beastie Boys. As Perrin explains, Hiatus Kaiyote aimed to “change it up” but also “handball” the mixing to someone else: “You don't realise how much work actually goes into that pocket of time.”

This expedited the process for the self-proclaimed perfectionists. “We didn't have the pressure to have a finalised record that we had to hand over," Simon enlightens. “[Moreso] we had the idea that we were going to go somewhere to finish the record, so we had to get the songs to a certain point. [But] that alleviated a lot of pressure.”

Hiatus Kaiyote prepped material in their own studio – The Villa in Preston (the inner-north suburb immortalised in Courtney Barnett’s moody 2015 hit Depreston) before flying to Los Angeles to work in Mario’s neighbourhood of Eagle Rock. “Predominantly it was just us sitting in the room with him, telling him what to do,” Simon confesses.

Hiatus Kaiyote had crossed paths with Mario years prior. “Madlib asked us to come along to his studio – and then he didn't actually have a studio,” Perrin jokes. “So he's like, ‘We’re gonna go to my friend’s studio instead,’ and it was Mario’s.”

Perrin commends Mario for intuiting the band's creative dynamic: “He's amazing to work with – [he has] the right temperament. When we recorded with him initially, it was just like, ‘He seems such a chill guy. You can’t shake him.’ [And] I would say we're probably pretty difficult to work with!” Simon concurs: “If we come in flustered, he's a bit of a brick wall – which was great. It's exactly what you need in those situations, where sometimes emotions are flying wild. He's able to just bring it all back into focus... I think it was a good experience for us to go through that. He was a perfect first try.”

Hiatus Kaiyote agree that as an album created in a post-pandemic world, Love Heart Cheat Code is more hopeful than its predecessor. “There was a lot of chaos in the world at the time, and obviously personally with Nai,” Perrin recalls. “She was going through a lot of stuff. It definitely impacted the way we made the record sound and feel. It was kind of like, ‘Well, we need to say something musically, as well as lyrically, to support what Nai was talking about.’ We didn't know if that was maybe our last record, or know what was going to happen in the world. No one did. So it was a bit of a statement.”

Love Heart Cheat Code captures Hiatus Kaiyote, as a collective, at their most carefree and instinctive. “There’s definitely no rules,” Perrin reiterates. “Some people would like to say there are, but I think people like our music because we do break the rules. It's just us being ourselves and the push and pull of ideas. If you give everyone space within the band to express themselves and try to achieve what they're hearing, without trying to be too stubborn and hold on to something that you wanted to do, then naturally [the music] just comes out – not 100 percent what you wanted to do, but not 100 percent what anyone wanted to do.

"We definitely allow for everyone to just explore and go on deep rabbit holes. It’s fun.”

Increasingly, Hiatus Kaiyote are themselves renowned as producers. Simon and Perrin notably oversaw early Genesis Owusu songs like Sideways. Simon then produced Eora/Sydney soul newcomer Natalie Slade’s underrated debut album, 2020’s Control.

Ever-communal, members have ventured out with a plethora of grassroots side-projects and spin-offs. In 2017, Nai frontwoman delivered Needle Paw – a stripped-back song collection highlighting her voice and guitar – and she often performs intimate solo shows. Perrin proffered the Pareidolia LP under the name Clever Austin (with Brainfeeder's Georgia Anne Muldrow cameoing), while Bender indulged his love of easy listening as The Sweet Enoughs (releasing his Marshmallow album in 2020). Recently, too, Simon aired the piano album Some Days.

The band's pure instrumentalists are likewise active as the improv trio Swooping (formerly Swooping Duck), cutting the track Morning with UK art-rapper Little Simz (for the latter’s 2018 album Stillness In Wonderland). Simon also gigs in The Putbacks, the funk group that backs Emma Donovan.

“Hiatus is one creative outlet – and then it's great to be able to do other things as well,” Simon affirms. “I think it's really healthy for all of us to be doing other things, ‘cause that's how we keep it fresh. You're able to focus your energy on something else and then you bring back more to Hiatus.”

Hiatus Kaiyote may not perceive themselves as pop stars, but they have pop stars as fans. In the same way the band have flipped White Rabbit, Doja Cat covered Mood Valiant's sultry Red Room for the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge last year. She currently includes it in her regular setlists.

Ask the Hiatus Kaiyote duo about the zany Cali pop-rapper and they're bashful. “I mean, I don't really know Doja Cat that much,” Perrin admits. Simon echoes the sentiment, but adds, “it was a dope version... You know, from all the covers that people have done, I think that's one of the better ones. There's a clip she did – like a live clip. That was sick... It feels great! It's wild to have other musicians play your shit.”