As the leader of New York “Italian pop band” Tredici Bacci, composer-arranger Simon Hanes is busy recasting long-adored sounds drawn from Ennio Morricone soundtracks and 1960s middle-of-the-road orchestral ballads, among many other sources, with post-millennial pizzazz. His large ensemble returned to the studio to create La Fine del Futuro (NNA Tapes), a sophomore album that revels in the pure pleasure offered by everything from Hollywood opening-credit theme music to semi-operatic ecstasies and vintage avant-garde scores that added tingle to trashy, badly dubbed homicidal thrillers—all played with a knowing verve.
“It’s all about having people around who are willing to get into the paint with me,” says Hanes, a 27-year-old Brooklyn resident, whose most notable collaborators include J.G. Thirlwell (who performs on the new record) and uber-producer Hal Willner, and who occasionally manifests as his lounge-singing alter-ego, Luxardo. “It’s kind of insane. I feel like all these people, I just want to hug them the whole time. It’s a trip to be in a position to be writing music and know that it’s going to be safe in the hands of these people.”
On a recent afternoon at, appropriately enough, an Italian café in East Williamsburg, Hanes talked about his musical obsessions, his formative years at the New England Conservatory – where he studied with the invaluable composer and pianist Anthony Coleman – and the joys and travails of sustaining a big band in an ever-demanding city.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: The origins of your work with Tredici Bacci really goes back to college. How did all of it come about?
SIMON HANES: The one thing they do teach you to do in the contemporary improvisation department across the board is they ear-train the fuck out of you, so that if you want to figure out what your interests are and how you can turn them into something of your own, you can. All of a sudden, I had found this website where you can download every single Morricone soundtrack for free. It’s totally defunct now. I did my time in there.
That was my last year of school, and the whole time I was studying contemporary composition, and doing stuff with Anthony and improvising and playing in this fucked-up dance/thrash band. But the only thing I was listening to was Bacharach and Morricone. I was having a really hard time finding a way to write contemporary music. I thought, well I’ll just try to write this Italian pop thing. And all of a sudden, it started to make a lot more sense.
That was in 2013. Looking back now, all of that seems almost hilarious. If I had been really smart, I would have been, “It’s really, really hard for me to write contemporary music, so I should just keep hitting my head against the wall.” Because that’s how you create a discipline. The thing about this was, music was happening at a much faster rate. Orchestration and arranging has been the biggest thing that I loved the most. I was able to explore all that in an amazing way. However, now, I’m almost back to square one. I’ve said a lot of things in that Tredici Bacci soundtrack world. There’s a page turning.
So this new album is a benchmark?
It’s a benchmark because I’ve made the decision to keep working with Tredici Bacci, because over the years we’ve developed a really amazing rapport. In terms of where I’m planning to take music in general, you can take this as a summation. I’ve said what I want to say with this; now I want to say something else.
How did Bacharach enter your picture?
My parents were into Burt Bacharach, especially the Dionne Warwick stuff. For a second, I heard it and it didn’t work for me somehow. Then in college, we uncovered, my roommate [Tredici Bacci bassist Jesse Heasly] and I, this bunch of stuff on this [Bacharach] record. There was a lot of B-side shit, and some Dionne Warwick stuff. There were some instrumentals. It had everything that was missing from every other possible realm of music that we were being exposed to.
[Heasly] was studying jazz bass. In college, the epidemic of those guys studying, they’re just taking their shit way too seriously. There’s so much humor in Bacharach. There’s humor, or “A House Is Not a Home” is the most melodramatic song in the entire fucking world—and that’s amazing in a way. The more you listen to that stuff, the more you see it in terms of orchestrational possibilities. When you take it into the Thirlwell realm – we wrote that song on the album, “Felicity Grows” – what we found in it was this proto-”Promises Promises” universe. It’s basically prog. The time signatures are everywhere. It’s really hard to play. We loved this pop/easy listening thing but it’s all progged out. So we started writing all these songs. We have five songs that could be called the “Promises Promises” genre. “Felicity Grows” was the first one.
I know you’re encyclopedic about your Italian movie composers, and that Morricone is in some way only the tip of the iceberg—although he’s also the iceberg. Anyone else come close to making the same kind of impact on you?
Nino Rota was a huge influence. And then there’s this guy named Armando Trovajoli. He’s got a lighter vibe, but it’s really amazing. The thing about Morricone is it’s sickly satisfying what you can get from his work alone. You listen to one soundtrack and it’s 100 percent new music. And you listen to another soundtrack and it’s some free improv thing: he had [Gruppo di Improvvisazione] Nuova Consonanza, they did a couple of those giallo movie soundtracks where it’s them improvising and some guy playing drums under it. But then you can turn around and listen to some of the early stuff where it’s Renaissance harpsichord music, but he’s got this children’s choir going “la, la-la-la!” and then there’s the crazy gangster movie shit. There’s no end to the wealth of stuff.
Getting into the grit of his compositional style is the best part, because there is so clearly a style within all of that. There’s so clearly a thing that Ennio Morricone does really well. Morricone does style. He has this whole thing that he’s a real composer, and the way you know he’s a real composer is he doesn’t write with piano. There’s a statement about that. He went to Darmstadt and he’s a real composer. What’s interesting is you can see these things where he kind of will say, “I need to do one of these pop songs where it’s got kind of a bossa nova feeling to it, and maybe there’s a little emotional ambiguity happening in the film, and it’s kind of sweet though, so I’ll take this three-note motif and I’ll cycle it in this way and I’ll put chords under it that kind of work”—and there’s probably like 40 songs that are just that. But what’s amazing is that in every instance of that the formula is the same, but the pieces of the formula are different. Is it a harpsichord playing this dinky three-note melody? Is it a saxophone? Is it really fast? Is it slow? Is it medium tempo? What are the strings doing? Are the strings commenting? Someone could make a compilation album of just the Ennio Morricone cute music. There’s this guy on YouTube who has these playlists. His [handle] is, literally, “MorriconeRocks.”
Where else did you want to go with this record?
We’ve done all these things over the last three years to find new ways of finding interest. “Minimalissimo” is one of the most important tracks on the album. As a piece of music, I feel very proud about it. And then there’s this level where it’s coming from this humorous place, because the idea is that it’s Italian minimalism—because a stereotypical thing about being Italian is being very expressive, so it’s me trying to imagine expressive minimalism. It’s supposed to be oxymoronical in itself. Can we make something that has totally different rules? And what happens when I spend a year playing straight-up Italian pop with my band?
The “In the 1970s” song, which was supposed to be the single on the album, that’s a song I wrote three years ago. We had these gigs at Barbès, monthly gigs, and we played it and asked the audience, what do you think about this? And some dude had the cojones to say, “Well, actually, there’s this one part where it sounds like you should be doing this.” And then we tried it: totally worked.
Part of the interest of this record is bringing ideas into the band that take some work to make fit fully, which imbues the song with a level of something. The title track is my homage to opening title music for Italian movies. And then the Emmanuelle song that J.G. sings on, basically two years ago at Christmas, J.G. emailed me: “I went to this church, and they performed ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,’ and I was sitting there thinking this would be a great song if you combined it with the music from the movie Navajo Joe.” So I just did that. And we had a Stone residency two months after. We all just pushed ourselves a lot to go crazy.
Sami Stevens, the vocalist, makes it all incredible fun and also knows when to lunge for the dramatic flourish. What’s your collaboration like?
Sami’s just a fucking maniac. She’s an incredible singer, and always had this attitude of being completely game to try all this stuff and adopt this musical style that she didn’t at the beginning know very much about, but of course she has all the right skills to do everything. She does this wordless singing that’s a staple of Italian movie soundtracks, and then she turns around and does “In the 1970s,” which is a very different kind of singing, and then she turns around and does “Minimalissimo,” which is a back to a semi-operatic thing, and then turns around and does “Felicity,” which is in a low range, very kind of Warwick-esque.
Sami’s the focal point for a sprawling ensemble. It’s hard to imagine you all squeezing onto the postage-stamp stage at Barbès. It’s also hard to imagine anyone making enough money to cover car fare. And, yet, what’s the point of composing all this stuff if you can’t play live—the band is the instrument. How does all that work out?
Right now, at the end of the gig everyone’s going to get 50 bucks no matter what. If there’s more, everyone’s going to get more. Now, we rarely actually make enough money that I can pay everyone 50 bucks without going into my own pocket. For a while that was possible, because I was living in this place that had raccoons in the ceiling and the rent was beautifully cheap. Luckily, I could go into my pockets like a few hundred bucks. In the course of making this record and the bullshit you do after you physically make a record, I’m coming to terms with the fact that playing out is the most important thing.
These days in New York, paying 20 dollars to see a show at The Stone is an incredible bargain. If 50 people come out, there would be enough money to go around. But most venues aren’t so musician-centric.
It’s a sad fact of life that the way New York clubs deal with money is laughable. I can just tell you all the times when, to a certain degree, I’d play a show and bring the whole band and do the whole thing, and at the end of the night whoever’s job it is takes me to the back room and fucks the shit out of me with their… sorry to be… I’ve been fucked over so many goddamn times. That’s why playing at The Stone is actually great. You know that if you get motherfuckers to come into the room, that guarantees that your band gets paid. Other venues, in Brooklyn especially, you can bring tons of people into the room, and the venue can still figure out a way that you make absolutely no money whatsoever. And then they make eye contact with you, and give you an envelope and make you sign for it, and then you open the envelope and there’s like 60 bucks in it.
It’s interesting to think about what you’re doing in the context of what’s been going on in popular culture the last few years. Where’s that line between inspired homage and watered-down emulation? Those John Carpenter keyboard soundtracks from the 1970s and ‘80s have became such a big deal that John Carpenter himself can tour behind them now. [Discussion ensues about Stranger Things and Ready Player One and the ubiquity of reference-laden throwback culture.]
What I find to be problematic, I guess, is that Stranger Things is really accepted by my generation as being a badass cool thing. Like you were just saying, it’s an amalgamation of references to older things, and I don’t know if it could exist or be good outside of those references. And it’s not even like those are references that people of my generation really know.
It’s really a show for Winona Ryder [the 1980s teen icon of Heathers, who plays the supernaturally besieged mom in the show], not for the kids in the show. But people my age never had a strong connection to Winona Ryder. Say Winona Ryder’s in it, and that’s cool somehow? When that starts to take place for substance, it starts to be a bad thing.
I think that’s a problem for the show.
There are a whole lot of things that are in a similar vein. The music is so much revolving around references that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to have much substance beyond it being referential.
So for you doing what you do, that’s got to be the challenge to rise to?
Exactly. Right now, I’m trying to figure out ways to show that even if everyone is like, “OK, this is the Italian pop band that lives in New York,” I want to be able to build on that and take it in a direction to show that there’s substance beyond that.
Tredici Bacci opens for Beat Circus at National Sawdust on April 25 at 7pm, and returns to perform in John Zorn’s Stone Commissioning Series on June 26 at 7pm; nationalsawdust.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
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