Interview: Daniel Collás and Sean Marquand of Phenomenal Handclap Band

By on Sunday, 23rd August 2009 at 9:43 pm
 

DSC01026-tgtfinterviewShortly before their group the Phenomenal Handclap Band took to the stage at DC9 on 21 August, New York City DJs and cofounding members and producers of the PHB Daniel Collás and Sean Marquand graciously sat down for a chat. They’re terribly funny chaps to boot. I’m always curious what Americans think of Britain too…and apologies in advance if anyone is offended about their opinions of the traditional fry-up!

From what I can tell, the UK just loves you. I first I heard of you was through the UK – I heard “15 to 20” on Radio2, Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie‘s show. And then I heard you guys doing a live set for them. Now how did that come about, were you over there for a tour?
Daniel: We paid them a lot of money. Payola! You know, that’s the one thing people are unwilling to talk about! Payola has made a bigger comeback than any of this dance rock or disco crapola that they’ll have you believe. The press should be covering payola.
Sean: No, I don’t know how it happened…I don’t know…
Daniel: (looks at Sean with a serious look) You can’t just take my answer?
Sean: Okay, fine…

Seriously? Okay…(all laugh)
Sean: No, they actually took a shine to us because they heard the song through Zane Lowe of BBC Radio1. They knew we were going to be in town, in Manchester, so they invited us to come by the [BBC Manchester] studios. Not the most interesting of stories of what happened but…being at BBC Radio2 was so much fun.
Daniel: Those guys were awesome.
Sean: We didn’t know who they were, of course. And so it was so cool to be around these major celebrities and be around these guys we’re supposed to know, but we were just able to appreciate their charm, like, at face value. Really charming.
Daniel: They obviously carry a lot of weight but we don’t kind of perspective on that, so we just saw them outside of all of that. They are really genuine and really cool. Maconie came to see us at Latitude [Festival] and they were genuinely enthused.

I didn’t know one of your songs debuted on Zane Lowe’s show…
Daniel: Actually yeah, that’s how Paul McCartney heard us and all that business…because before that we didn’t know who Zane Lowe was, and his sphere of influence.

Ah right, the Paul McCartney story. I’ve heard about this but can you tell it again for our TGTF readers?
Daniel: Uh, so Paul McCartney heard one of our songs on Radio1. And I guess he called in, wanting to know what it was. You know, heavy duty stuff! We were like, “what? Paul McCartney?”
Sean: So people asked us, “so what’s next, what’s next with this?” And I said, “I don’t care.”
Daniel: Exactly. I think that’s enough. And people asked, “are you going to meet him? Are you going to do a record with him?” Isn’t it enough that Paul McCartney like called to ask who we are. He knows who we are. We sent him an email, he wrote us a letter, and we wrote him a letter back. So he knows who we are, it’s amazing. It might take him a minute to remember, but at one moment our name passed through his lips, and that’s enough.

So you were over there for Latitude Festival. Were you there for other festivals as well?
Daniel: We did Wireless, iTunes, Oxegen…
Sean: Right, Oxegen was Ireland. And we did Bilbao BBK. Those were the big ones.
Yeah, that’s not one I’m familiar with.
Daniel: That’s the first year they did that one, I think.

If you’re like me, living over here and liking British bands, you see all these festivals like Glasto and think, “one day I’m going to get over there”. So how did you like playing for non-American audiences?
Daniel: Really cool. We’ve only really played in New York and Austin, Austin for South by Southwest. It’s great. People were really great. When we got to Ireland, it was really cool – they were shouting out our area codes. “718! 212!”
Sean: Yeah, you were trying to give them an extra area code.
Daniel: (laugh) Oh yeah, 646 and 917. Anyway…it’s cool. I think there’s a certain mystique, and they like to fetishise about Brooklyn. We always get called a Brooklyn band, or from the Brooklyn scene, which isn’t really the case, because we’re based in Manhattan. Sean is from Brooklyn, but I’m from Manhattan, and the majority of the band is from Manhattan. And I think there is this sort of nascent Brooklyn scene, you know, with MGMT and Amazing Baby, Yeasayer…and it’s like people in the UK are keen to put us in part of that. Which is a flattering comparison, but there’s not necessarily anything to it.

Are you guys still DJaying?
Daniel: Yes, but not as much obviously because we’re busy with this. We used to have weekly gigs…but now the most we can manage are one-offs on occasion.

Is this your first time in town, in D.C.?
Daniel: As a band, yes. We really literally only played…we haven’t even played Philadelphia. We played in New Jersey, at some frat party. But aside from that, it’s been New York and Austin, and across UK and Europe.

We’re so honoured to have you guys here. You started as DJs first. Where did you spin in New York, what kind of music did you spin? And how did you meet?
Sean: I had this weekly gig in Brooklyn at this place called the Black Betty, spinning mainly ’60s and ’70s Brazilian music. And that was where kind of all my musical successes started in New York. And it was like a little party in a little bar, which was nice because it ended up becoming in some circles really well known. Really nice, and the party just grew and grew and grew, the bar closed down a couple months ago. So that party’s over but it was a nice ending I was getting really exhausted doing that every week.
Daniel: And I actually met Sean DJaying. I was involved with this party with kind of ’60s revival filtered through Britpop of the late ’90s. That was kinda my start in professional DJaying in New York. I had been in New York for a couple years already by that point. I’m originally from San Francisco and I had been DJaying in San Francisco just as acid jazz was just ending. I had always been into obscure soul records and things like that, so mostly obscure soul and rare groove, a lot of records that I was into. So I was doing that stuff, and for reason I got involved with this party that had a post-mod theme, really kind of big beat-heavy soul records from the ’60s and ’70s. That was all the stuff I was into, and then it got pulled into this mainstream thing so I started DJaying with this Britpop DJ so we would do half-hour rotations and it was a huge party. It was kind of insane, the stuff I was getting away with, really totally obscure but really danceable. Nobody knew those records!

So yeah, Sean’s sister was one of the go-go dancers that we hired there, and I remember meeting Sean, and he said, “yeah, you know, I’m getting into DJaying too”. And I remember thinking, “another guy?” There were only a few DJs, and I knew them. I think it was obvious because I was playing obscure stuff, “that guy is playing whatever he likes!” and it was going over for some reason. A brief of window in time where I was able to do that, any other time after that I was asked play the hits. Anyway, I met Sean and we started working together, he was playing all these amazing records I’d never heard before, most Brazilian, and then I’d play him something he hadn’t heard because he was mostly into Brazilian stuff. And then we had this, like, interdependence on each other. We were DJaying with each other and working on stuff together and then we started producing stuff together.

(to Sean) Now how did the Brazilian thing come about for you?
Sean: I used to live in Brazil. But it took me a long time to find records I liked. In a way, it was a “Dark Ages” for Brazilian consciousness and their own culture because a lot of Brazilians I knew hated their own music and were not interested in their heritage. There’s this guy, Jorge Ben, he’s one of my favourite artists, and he came to town and almost no one went. I lived there for a year and a half, and by the time I was ready to go [and leave Brazil], I finally found all these great records. I came back to New York with, like, 100 records. But then I kept going back, spending all this money on airfare and eBay and going back to Brazil and stuff to get more records. Would have been nice to buy them whenever I had a second in Brazil, when I thought there weren’t any great artists. Turns out there are, like, thousands of records I’m crazy about, at least.

Regarding your live band – you have eight people with you. I read that when you made your album, there were many more. So how did you get it down to eight?
Sean: The band was never supposed to be…there were 27 diffferent people on the record, but the band was never intended to be this Fela Kuti thing with 40 people onstage. The idea was to represent the record onstage with a certain amount of musicians necessary. And the fact that there were a bunch of different people on the record, we took that in a way, a lot of records that I like as well as Daniel likes, they had a bunch of different musicians, “that person would be great on that particular part on the record”. That was more or less the idea, “well, this would be great to have a flute player right here”, so we’d have our friend who played the flute come in and record for us. But it’s not always practical to have every single instrument on stage.
Daniel:I would also like to point out that eight is still a big number! It’s not like it’s totally scaled down.

Phenomenal Handclap birdtamboI think it’s just amazing to have so many people onstage. And I’m a big fan of your bird tambourines.
Daniel:You like those? We just retired them. They’re doves. They’re Pentecostal doves. We were given those by these guys we were recording – this guy, he’d taught music at a church, he’d come across them and he brought us two. And we thought, “great, great!” And it turns out that they’re not that sturdy, and they’ve already broken, you know? You like those, huh?
Yeah, and well, they’re supposed to bring good luck, I presume.
Daniel: Well, yeah, they’re religious. Not really luck. We call it faith! Luck, faith…

Beyond that one-off gig at LPR last week, you’re also going to be supporting Friendly Fires out in California. How did they approach you for this?
Daniel: (quizzical look) They talked to our manager…? (laughs) I’d like to come up with something more romantic, but you know, like…
Sean: (in low voice) We saw each other across the room…(deadpans) no, actually, they were in Central Park. They were whistling something and I happened to be whistling something else, and it was totally harmonious. And then we said to each other, “we’d make great music together”.
Daniel: Actually, they were walking by with a jar of peanut butter, and we had chocolate and we ran into each other. Kinda how it happened.
Sean: Yeah, two great tastes that taste great together. [Author’s note: I wasn’t sure if people outside America had seen this Easter candy advert. So if you haven’t, have a look.]

Because I thought maybe it had to do with Brazil. They just came back from playing in Brazil. You guys should have gone with them.

Sean: So true.
Daniel: We totally agree. We wish you could have been there! You would have been the voice of reason.
Maybe next year.
Sean: Yeah, we’ll talk to them about that.

So what’s next for you guys, do you have tour plans…

Daniel: We’re gonna play here!
…beyond next Tuesday?
Daniel: Let’s get through tonight. (smiles) We’ll get to California, and whatever happens, happens. We’ll be back, touring, we’re going up to Canada at some point. Chicago. We’re going to Europe again in mid-September. Mostly London and a couple dates on the Continent. Then we’ll start making some more music. We just finished this track that we’re really into called “Pretty Mask”, which we wrote because they [the label] asked us to do a B-side, but it came out really well and it we’re really proud of it. I’m sure it’ll be up on blogs soon. I think it’s going to be coming out in digital download as a bonus track.

So your album is available in the UK…
Sean: It’s out here [in the U.S.] too, it’s available here on Friendly Fire Recordings, not to be confused with Friendly Fires.
Daniel: Yeah, that’s weird…
I thought that was a weird, ironic twist of fate.
Sean: If anyone brings it up, just be like, “that’s absurd! What are you talking about? They’re totally different!”
When you do a Google search for “Friendly Fire” you get a lot of stuff back. Sean Lennon has an album called “Friendly Fire”.
Daniel: And then there’s the unpleasant political problem…I mean euphemism.

Is there anything you’d like to share with your UK fans, the people who know you from Radio1, Radio2, and all over the place?
Sean: We really took a shine to their country.
Daniel: Yeah, it was really nice over there. They really know their way around the potato. They do a good job with the fried potatoes. And the cold beer. That’s a magical thing. Tap beer is a whole ‘nother beast over there, it’s amazing. Black cabs – amazing. The Queen – very good. (all laugh) The list goes on…
Sean: But be careful of early morning breakfasts in Bristol.
Daniel: Shame on you, shame on you England! Elevenses, twelveses, whatever you call them…
Sean: I had this fry-up in Bristol…

Did it make you sick?
Sean: No, it felt like punishment! But then we went down the street to this other place and it was totally fine. But that place…I now understand what hell would be like. We walked in and everyone kind of snarled at us.
Daniel: It was fries – a plate of fries garnished with some egg somewhere on there, fried mushroom, some fried tomatoes…
Sean: …and deep fried bread in tepid oil. To get in the most amount of oil in as possible.
Daniel: These are mostly insults more than commentary…
Sean: But we did get some really great food out there.
Daniel: But it was good. We had a great time out there! Really enthusiastic crowds, I really like the way people go to festivals. You see people attending festivals the same way people here [in America] would be at an amusement park. They go with the whole family for the entire afternoon, they just relax and check out the music, instead of paying too much for crapola and riding rides.

I think it has to do with the musical tradition over there. And there are so many festivals over there too. We’ve got a couple here and there but they’re smaller.
Daniel: Weird too that we had Woodstock. We did it first, didn’t we?
I’ve been over to England a couple times now to see bands. I don’t know how to describe it, but I feel like every gig I’ve been to, the UK fans are more in tune to the music, and respectful of the musicians also.
Sean: We noticed that too.
I don’t know if it has to do with tv and radio being more supportive of musicians versus in the United States.
Sean: Beyond the comment boxes on MySpace, I’ve noticed that the gross stereotype that I’ve noticed so far is that there’s much more of a readiness to say, “what have you got? What’s going to happen?” in England, “am I going to like this?” They start off with the idea of, “I’m going to sit back and listen”, and they’ll write, “oh, this is interesting, this shows promise”. Whereas I find that a lot of people in the U.S., they even want it [music] to show promise. That’s not what they’re interested in. They’ve got a few bands they like, and that’s what they like. Everything else…it’s more of a sport, they’d rather downplay bands. But that of course is a stereotype.

Now how did you get signed to Friendly Fire Recordings?

Sean: Well, a buddy of mine shared an office with them. He was actually working for Anti Records, Man Man‘s label? I gave him a copy of the record, and he would play it sometimes in the office. And Dan of Friendly Fire Recordings was there and I think after the first or second listen, he said, “what’s this again?” And he’d ask to listen to it. And Dan took his time, I think it was 9 months later until he finally said, “okay, let’s do this”. But he was going to gigs, talking to us. He was cool about it.

Are the other acts on the label New York based?
Daniel: I think so. Asobi Seksu….
Sean: Right, Asobi Seksu is their biggest act, and Faunts I think are really strong. But yeah, he [Dan] was really excited to work with us, I’m sure he loves all of his acts equally!
Daniel: (points to Sean) The diplomat over here!

Well, I think that’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for your time.
Daniel: No, thank you. Thanks for coming out.

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[…] et Joan Tick. Ce line-up est devenu le line-up officiel du groupe, les deux têtes pensantes n’envisageant pas vraiment de se transformer en Fela Kuti band sur scène. Cela dit, l’enregistrement de l’opus aura rassemblé (rumeur, pas rumeur ?) […]

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