Hazmat Modine (the combination of the abbreviation for “hazardous materials” and a reference to the industrial Modine space heater, typically found hanging from the ceiling in garages) is a New York City based band created by Wade Schuman with a twenty-two year following of devoted fans. I sat down with Schuman to discuss his music.
As the leader, singer, multi-instrumentalist (harmonica, penny whistle, zamponia and guitar) and songwriter, together with Erik Della Penna, he has assembled a diverse eight-nine piece (sometimes plus) band that he describes as an “American roots band, incorporating many sounds and influences from all over the world, from the diaspora that makes up the DNA of American music: African, Asian, Caribbean, Klezmer, Gypsy and NOLA with blues at its core”. The instruments include: trumpet, tuba, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, harmonica, banjo, violin, guitar and drums.
On February 1, 2020, Hazmat Modine will release its fifth and latest album, “Box of Breath” in conjunction with a live performance at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City. Among the special guests will be Balla Kouyate and his band from Mali.
Interview by Maria Passannante-Derr. Photos courtesy of Wade Schuman.
Maria Passannante-Derr: The combination of Hazmat and Modine . . . I don’t know where you got it but it really works.
Wade Schuman: At this point, the funny thing about the name is that it is 22 years old [and] it becomes a thing on its own. I have had complaints that nobody can tell what the band is about from the name, but maybe it is a good thing?
MP-D: I have read that you are an American roots band blues, New Orleans, jazz and funk influenced by klezmer, calypso, gypsy, jazz, African sound, swing, eastern European, folk, Jamaican and Hawaiian, but you say that the core of what you do is the blues.
WS: I think that what you are exposed to when you are very young becomes the essence of your expression. I grew up with a much older brother who was into early American music from the 20’s and 30’s. When I was a small child I heard blues, boogie-woogie and stride and pre-war music from 7 up to adulthood. Blues was my first love, but my brother also played Bulgarian and Romanian music, the Beatles, The Band and Donavan. I became a voracious music collector. I would go to the library, take records out and record them on cassette. I would record all kinds of music: calypso albums of Lord Invader and Wilmoth Houdini, early classical, Italian music from the 16th century, also, more recent blues, and post folk revival music.
My gestation of musical influences as a child was all over the place musically, but blues was at its essence because it is my first love. I am a harmonica player and how the harmonica is used in American music is one of its unusual achievements.
MP-D: You have been playing since you were 10 years old. Do you play both diatonic and chromatic harmonica in the band?
WS: When the band started, it had two harmonica players, for about 10-15 years, (Randy Weinstein Bill Barrett, and myself). They played chromatic and I played diatonic. At this point, it is just me on diatonic. I play other instruments to the degree I need to in terms of song writing. I play a little zamponia, penny whistle, and guitar, but in terms of some skill and flexibility, I am more than anything a harmonica player. I have been writing more on guitar because you have access to chords.
MP-D: On your new cd I can hear the New Orleans sound, the slow horns, the honky tonk on “Hoader”; the blues on “In Our Home”. You play the harmonica on “Dark River”; and, when you least expect it, on “Delivery Man” you have that Eastern European sound.
WS: Over time our music has become a blend of all our influences we have, so Erik and I are using less specific idiomatic models. We are writing songs in the way that rock music came out of R&B or blues. When you think of the Beatles or Crosby Still Nash & Young, they are just writing music. It is a sum total of influences with no specific idiom other than “rock”. I think this is the most mature album we have created because they are just written as songs and not modeled after any specific musical language. For example, “Ain’t Going That Way” is not reggae or even the blues. It’s kind of its own thing.
MP-D: Which of the songs are your favorites?
My favorite songs are “Crust of Bread”, “Box of Breath” and “Dark River”. “Crust of Bread” is influenced by West African, Malian musical ideas, but there is no attempt to actually play like an African musician. Rather than literally play idiomatically, we try to channel an emotional resonance. There is a simplicity in the chord structure, but also a drive and a pentatonic, melancholy aspect to it that reflects Malian guitar playing, but it is not a literal translation. Some of West African music parallels American country music either by cultural osmosis or direct African heritage mixed with other musical traditions. All these songs are written by Erik Della Penna and myself. In recording it, I reached out to Balla Kouyate, a multi-generational Griot balafon player. Balafon is sort of a West African Marimba, and it fits perfectly and has a natural musical relationship to the song.
MP-D: Are you referring to your special guest who will be at your February 1st performance ?
WS: He will be there and bringing his band. He is an amazing musician. He has reinvented the African balafon because, rather than a single pentatonic instrument, he has created a chromatic setup and he can play anything on it. He is a true virtuoso, a remarkable musician!
MP-D: “Dark River”, is that you playing the harmonica at the beginning?
WS: Yes, I am playing the harmonica through a $13.00 karaoke mic I got at Marshalls. It has this cheap slapback on it and has a beautiful haunting sound, perfect for this song. That is a song about aging and the end of life. Erik wrote most of the melody . I went to Maine to spend time with my parents and I was thinking about “twilight years”. I wrote the lyrics while I was there. Erik and I write all the songs together, but we don’t have a specific methodology. We mix it up equally on all aspects of song writing.
MP-D: Where did the title “Box of Breath” come from?
WS: I have worked for 20 years with an engineer named Scott Lehrer and he did a lot of sound editing for NPR and different recording situations. The sound editor literally cuts out breath, people’s exhalations and inhalations after they are interviewed. He cut out breath from analogue tape over the years and put them in a box. “Box of Breath” is a metaphor about the brevity of life, and the physicality of being. You have a rib cage and lungs and you are, in fact, a box of breath. I thought it was a very apt metaphor, the fact that we are made out of meat and live only so long. That song is a bit of a meditation on the finality of existence. I took breaths that Scott collected and they are looped in the rhythm track of the song. We included the breath of some well known folks. It is a compendium of breath, but very subtly done. I did not want it to be melodramatic. Balla is also on that recording as well as Mazz Swift on the violin.
There are a lot of old idiomatic expressions in there. “Putting on the Dog” is something my mother says which is a term from the 20s about dressing up. There are various animals, like an eider, which is a wild duck that lives in Maine and a remora, those large fish that stick to the bottom of whales, and get a free ride in life, a good metaphor for a lot of people. In some sense, it is a blues song. I am playing guitar. Erik is on banjo.
The song “Dark River” is effectively part of “Delivery Man”. In blues there is a cliche about the delivery man which used as a sexual metaphor. But I though, ‘What if the Delivery man delivered time?’I was working with the idea that The Delivery Man is a kind of fantastic person that you have to deal with who controls time. The lyrics reflect that. Time is smaller for the old and larger for the young. No matter how wealthy you are you don’t necessarily get more time. That song that was not written any genre to begin with. People sometimes think we play klezmer but we really don’t. I have no background in klezmer, but the rest of the band does, so we made the end a klezmer song and it speeds up as time in life speeds up and gets faster and faster and then it ends and returns to “Dark River” as a reprise. There are stories about time, travel and displacement and loneliness. There is sex, love, food and death. These are the basic topics of music.
MP-D: I like “Extra Deluxe Supreme.”
WS: Thank you! I wrote the chorus 20 years ago but I was never able to write the lyrics. Erik and got together and then I wrote the lyrics in one sitting. It is about somebody who is looking for that mysterious something to solve all their problems. In the way we often look from technology. “If I only had the latest iPhone or car.” It’s a metaphor that something outside of you satisfies all your needs. It’s satirical. There is some influence from the song “Shopping For Clothes”, recorded by the Coasters, a song that is more spoken than sung.
MP-D: One of the songs has slow, honky tonk horns, New Orleans influence.
WS: You are referring to “Hoarder.” I have hoarder in my family. I also collect stuff. It is a question of volume and amount. My grandfather had it, my mother has a bit of it. I understand this idea about objects. My wife always says that I believe that objects have souls. That is true in a way. Everything contains the history of its origin and that is a story full of pathos and meaning. The guitar I play is over 100 years old and comes from Germany. It went through the First World War and the Second World War. I bought it on Ebay. It went across the Atlantic. It has a pickup that was made in the 50’s in North America, so all those things are the story of the physical object as it relates to the story of human life.
MP-D: Can you tell me about “In Our Home”, “the kitchen is empty and cold”?
WS: Its a song about a friend’s house where Erik and I stayed while on tour. He had a multi-million dollar home but there was something wrong; no food in the refrigerator; cracks in the walls and spider webs. It turns out that he was sleeping in the basement and his wife was sleeping on the second floor. That house was a metaphor for the failure of a marriage.
MP-D: What about “Lazy Time” ?
WS: There is a talented musician, Son of Dave, Canadian but lives in London, I have known him for years. He visited me and we wrote the song. I recorded it with the band, and then sent the recording to him; he worked on it and sent it back. It was a kind of collaboration across the Atlantic. He is singing with me and playing harmonica. He uses a loop for mouth percussion and harmonica and plays guitar. I wanted to write this song honestly because there were so many references in the album to sadness and death. “Lazy Time” is about looking towards the future and being finally able to relax, not something I often get to do! It is a bit of a fantasy of a time when you don’t have to do anything. It’s slow, a bit more jazzy than the other songs. In the middle section, with the horns, it sounds completely improvisational but actually most of that is a melody that Son of Dave and I wrote and the horns improvise on it.
MP-D: “Ain’t Going that Way” ?
WS: WWhen I moved to New York City I noticed that on big trucks, people tied stuffed toys were tied to the grill of the truck, sort of a totemic, magic talisman. You see it on the garbage and pickup trucks. I have been collecting photos of this for years. There are stuffed toy bears or sometimes super heros on fire trucks, like Spiderman..This song is written from the point of view of one of these stuffed animals on the front of the truck, a life story of one those stuffed creatures who are at first happy then discarded, and thrown out, then rescued from the trash and tied to the front of vehicle and driven around town.
There is a sort of declaration that he is not going to end up in a land fill. In the middle section, there is a drum solo on trash by Tim Keiper. We put all sorts of trash on the floor, in the studio, including a studio door and he is playing all this trash with mallets. It represents the sound of a garbage truck. At the end of the song, you can hear a motor going away. It’s a recording I made of a sugar cane crusher in India while we were on tour there. When on tour, I collect sounds that I use in recordings. It is very rhythmic and sounds like a Samba. The last song on the album is a hidden track on the cd and not listed. We were doing a sound check in China, I recorded it on my phone, and made a sound collage at the end from this and other recordings from our tours in China, Europe and India
MP-D: Is your line-up constant?
WS: Yes, but in general the band is about 8 people, sometimes a few more: Joseph Daley on tuba; Erik Della Penna on guitar, vocals and banjo; Patrick Simard on drums and vocals; Pam Fleming on trumpet; Reaut Regev on trombone; Steve Elson on sax, clarinet and flutes; Charlie Burnham on fiddle. The horn section has been with us 12 – 15 years and Joe has been with us 22 years. In “band” years, that is a long time! We have people in their 20’, 30s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the band and this makes us unique. There are very few bands out there with this range of age and that brings a diversity of spirit that is missing in our culture. We have men, women, people from all different backgrounds and ages and I think that makes the flavor of the band very unique.