HDLSS (fka Headless Horseman) talk with Heems about new LP & single, sampling, race, politics & more (BV interview)
You may remember duo HDLSS from back when they were called Headless Horseman. It's been a while -- six years -- but Far and Wolfy are back, still making ethereal, spare pop, and will release new album Selections from DUMB on August 4. We've got the premiere of new single "Wonderloss" from the record, a song that seems to dissipate and coalesce like vapor on the breeze. Stream that below.
To talk about the "Wonderloss" and the new album, we got Far and Wolfy to trade questions with Heems who is an old friend of the band. Says Far:
We met at Wesleyan University as we were both in the same anti-fraternity art collective thing called Eclectic. Naturally we were the only brown people there in a rich white liberal arts school. Heems has always supported my music and encouraged me to keep going despite the shitiness of the industry. He managed our project during our first run in 2010-2012 and taught us how to navigate the industry. This was at the height of Das Racist, so I really appreciated that he looked out for his artist friends and made a home for us at his label/management company Greedhead Entertainment, as he definitely did not have to do that. It kinda helped me realize the importance of community, especially for minorities of any kind, which naturally made up a lot of the Greedhead roster. Many years later, he is still looking out for us, and we are working on a collab for the upcoming album. I have always looked at him as a great model for a South Asian artist in music, as there are so few.
In the Q&A with Heems, HDLSS also talk about what they've been up to for the last six years, the influence of David Lynch, sampling, politics, this new song, splitting their time between NYC and Pennsylvania, and more. Read it, and check out a few other songs from the new album, below.
While HDLSS don't have any shows at the moment, you can catch Heems as part of the Met Breuer's Theater of the Resist series this month, and he'll also playing a benefit at Brooklyn Bazaar in August. His group Swet Shop Boys play NYC fest The Meadows.
Heems: Tell me about this new single “Wonderloss."
Far: Well, musically the sound of the song is somber and kind of mixes what Sigur Ros might sound like if they wrote a doo-wop song. I combined the words ‘wonder’ and ‘loss’ to mean the opposite of wonder, like being in state of continual loss of curiosity. The song mourns the death of wonders, whether that means just growing older and your focus narrrows, or closing yourself off to the world and becoming narcissistic. I think because of the nature of social media and the way things are going, it’s easy to retreat in yourself and build this cocoon of ‘safe space’ and not even really know it you are in this fantasy land because the virtual and physical realities have merged into one where you can’t tell the difference anymore. Naturally concerns become very trivial in this type of space because the real world is very far.
I think of this song as a eulogy for delayed gratification and patience. We are bred as consumers to exist within a space of discontent so we always have a void to fill and within earshot there are tons of instant solutions. We can always choose now instead of later, and I see this in myself, yet paradoxically because it is a modern way of life it is very difficult to shed. It’s hard to go anywhere without GPS. Our knowledge and memory are decreasing because Google is always a few clicks away and our devices do our remembering for us. I don’t really know where all this is headed or what the long term affects of social media are, but I definitely experience depression and anxiety as byproducts of this lifestyle, as I know many people do.
Heems: Where did you find the inspiration for this record? Which books, films, etc.
Far: There were a lot of disparate influences, probably too many to mention. One film reference that maybe sums up the whole album is that opening sequence in Blue Velvet, by David Lynch, where the quintessential Rockwellian suburbia and perfectly green grass is contrasted with the severed ear covered with insects feasting on it. That scene evokes a feeling that something is off, but you can’t quite tell what at first. I think it is much harder and more interesting to make something suggestive and subtly dark, which Lynch is a genius at. Strangely, that opening scene has actually guided us to find this balance between the dark and light, and how to artfully create a feeling of tension or anxiety bubbling just beneath the surface. The familiar yet strange. Like pop music that feels familiar, but warped and demented at the same time.
Heems: How do you think this record shows your growth since your first release?
Far: As you know, we took a long hiatus between albums, as we released the first one in 2011. Obviously, a lot has changed in the greater political climate, but also in our personal lives and in the tools we use to make music. For this one, we upgraded our recording rig from this crappy free DJ program Magix to Abelton, making a huge difference. The first record was more vibey and lo-fi, and lyrics weren’t as important as sometimes I would sing gibberish. I also used my falsetto range less on this new album, jumping to that register to heighten emotion and vulnerability at key moments, something Frank Ocean and Elliott Smith have taught me over the years. Sometimes there is a certain pain you can elicit only by going that high.
The main difference though for this album, “Selections from DUMB,” was the emphasis we put on songwriting craft, lyrics and writing this album to be a body of work. The first album was more a collection of songs. Conceptually the album focuses on the experience of witnessing one’s own dumbing down, and how that becomes a type of paralysis, which turns into a complacency and apathy. It creates a bystander effect we see more and more these days. So the album goes through some of the fears, realizations and process to admitting culpability to hopefully inspire the same questions in listeners. It really only asks the questions though, it doesn’t give any answers.
I think we often forget that the will to nothingness is still a will all the same, like doing nothing is a choice to support to the status quo. People contribute to racism by not calling it out even if you are not racist yourself. I think some of this stuff gets lost when we are in the moment of cultural trauma when it actually counts because its hard to see and admit. Everything is so transient and fast now its hard to hold onto epiphanies. I watch my thoughts disappear and wonder where they go. Ultimately the question the album really asks is: just how dumb have I become?
Heems: There’s quite a great collection of samples on the record. How do you choose which samples to integrate?
Wolfy: The samples always serve a purpose. They aren't just selected for their aesthetic purpose but for making a statement with anyone who might consciously or subconsciously recognize them, or at least their association. It’s not arbitrary, but picked for a specific cognitive reaction for the common associations people have with them. On “Colonizer,” which sorta parodies a trend in white pop music to rebrand dancehall as “tropical house,” we sampled Harry Belafonte doing the “Dayyyy Ohhh” thing from the “Banana Boat Song.” That sample fit perfectly to reference that “tropical” sound of Jamaican and Calypso music, while the lyrics are about appropriation and white guilt. There’s also an amazing Toni Morrison sample in that song from an interview she did with Charlie Rose that fit because she is talking about the tradition of white people stealing from black culture.
Heems: I’ve noticed this work is a bit more political. How important do you think it is for you as a brown, muslim artist to speak on the current climate?
Far: Yea, it is. I definitely think it’s important. Growing up, it was very rare I would find any artists I looked up to that looked like me. There would be 1 brown dude here and there (Tony Kanal in No Doubt, Munaf Rayani in Explosions in the Sky), but none that were really telling their story and singing about it and somehow integrating it into the greater indie mainly white narrative. Maybe that is because guitar indie rock is sorta conservative, like in this decade it’s not where innovation is occurring. Electronic and hip hop music have opened new spaces to reimagine identity and shape shift, and we are seeing all sorts of new amazing artists that are LGBTQ, various minorities and lots more women. Electronic music is not necessarily new or anything, but it still feels like that space has not been colonized yet and there aren’t as many rules. So in that sense, I feel like it is important now more than ever for minorities to have a voice in this world of music. And you know, for my younger self, it would have been cool to see Tony Kanal front his own band and sing, so I want to encourage that for the next generation. And of course, given the current political climate, it is important to increase the visibility of South Asians across all mediums of art/media to help humanize and show that there are all different types of Muslims and South Asians, just like there are white people.
Heems: Do you feel a pressure to do so?
Far: In some ways, I think there is a pressure, but in others, no. In this post-9/11 era, I don’t really think the media or the powers that be will be motivated to change stereotypes of brown people anytime soon as it serves fear campaigns and the war machine, so that responsibility is on this newer 1st generation South Asian Americans to get those stories told. Since our parents immigrated about 30-40 years ago, the next generation is coming of age to tell our parents stories, and stories of navigating dual identities in this era.
My parents didn’t have the opportunity to explore the option of art, so I feel very grateful that I do. But of course pursuing art is alien to our parents, something I know you deal with too. I definitely wasn’t raised to think art is important as other white friends I know were. There is a stigma with art in general, so there’s definitely not a direct pressure from the community. It is more self imposed, out of guilt or fear, because I feel like if I am going to devote my time and energy to music, it should have impact and not be self indulgent or difficult arty music. I don’t feel like I have that luxury to be vague or just make art for art’s sake and not have it mean something greater.
Heems: How do you do so without being pigeonholed as a "muslim" or "brown" artist?
Far: I think by making good music that has layers and multiple purposes. Your band Swet Shop Boys has done a great job navigating that whole thing, and definitely demonstrates that it can be done if the art is well crafted and true to itself. I am naturally drawn to subversive pop music, so when I do have a concept or point, it feels natural to put in a digestible format. Great pop music should work on the surface, but also be deep enough to peel back layers where the song grows and contorts and is applicable in many ways. Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” taught us it is possible to make art on a high level that still feels organic, innovative, nuanced, beautiful yet still vital to the current political climate and have it not be preachy or corny. Yeezus also had a similar impact. I mean Yeezus kind of changed my life, because musically it took noise and aggression to a whole new place within pop music, and it was political. Some people don’t consider Yeezus a pop record, but I disagree. He just expanded hooks to include weird sounds and yelps and things that repeat.
That is what good pop music is to me, just familiar enough in form and guise that it earns the latitude to experiment with sounds that bend, expand and push the genre. But yea, I think to avoid being pigeonholed you have to innovate. Like for this album I did a lot of automatic writing for the lyrics, like writing without thinking, or recording nonsense lyrics that I would later decode to help reveal things from my unconscious.
Heems: What’s the creative process like between you and Wolfy?
Far: We both produce, record and engineer. I sing and write the songs till I feel like I hit a wall, and then I bring it to Wolfy who is the music theory trained multi-instrumentalist one. Once we are working on the song together, we will do all sorts of things. It goes anywhere from stripping it down to bare essentials and building it back up, rewriting chords, sampling ourselves, putting a remix of the song within the song itself most likely in the bridge… We went to high school together, so we have a long musical history, and discovered some of our favorites artists together. We definitely both share an affinity for damaged glitched out production that can then turn dreamy and beautiful at a moment’s notice.
Heems: What caused you to incorporate more glitch in your music?
Wolfy: It came out of a poor punk aesthetic of working with broken laptops and eventually became an indispensable part of our songwriting, so we exaggerate it and bring it to the forefront because its part of our musical DNA. It used to happen by accident all the time because of our shitty equipment, that was part of our decision to name ourselves "headless" because we would use things we didn't intend on and embrace the instinct instead of intellect. Postmodernism destroyed the intellect anyway, why should we work in a dead medium? Its sort of a fusion of computer and human intellect, allowing the machine and its imperfections as much space as our imperfect human brains.
Hima: How is working in Pennsylvania and NY similar, not different?
Wolfy: Pennsylvania and NY are only similar to the extent that creative processes are not limited to location. The mind is wider than the sky, and it only matters where you are as far as marketability and access, vs creativity and inspiration. In a lot of ways, NY hampers creativity, so moving to a less busy location can free your mind in ways not available in the city.
Far: Making electronic music shifting between rural and city areas was interesting for this record. Wolfy had a cottage in a tiny sorta hick town in PA on like 50 acres of land. We had a lake in his front yard, so that was awesome in the summer as we would rope swing across and jump in when it got really hot. In the winter we had routines of like getting up, fetching and chopping wood for the wood stove, getting raw milk from a nearby farm, cooking all our meals, going on hikes on snow gliders strapped to our feet… We also went to Shenandoah National Park and rented this primitive cabin along Doyles River built in the 20s and would stay there for small stints. That cabin was even more basic, like no running water, electricity or heat. Just a wood stove and bunks. It was interesting making electronic music in the woods because typically you would associate that with a bearded folky guy like Bon Iver.
Wolfy: But for us the computer is like the new guitar. It’s an instrument all its own. The isolation associated with musical composition/inspiration in the woods is no different if your playing a stringed instrument or a computer.