Matson on Music
Interview: Mayer Hawthorne | Erstwhile hiphop producer with Motown soul
Posted by Andrew Matson
The artist known as Mayer Hawthorne plays Fisher Green stage at Bumbershoot Saturday, September 5th. His style: Motown. His pedigree: hiphop. His phone manner: Affable.
The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/DJ/producer is as yet mostly unknown to the public at large. I predict this will change.
In his Matson on Music interview, Hawthorne (known to the government as Andrew Mayer Cohen) mentions a surprise upcoming album with Seattle hiphop producer Jake One (!), and touches on topics like listening to Motown with his dad, the joys of being signed to Stones Throw Records -- the only label that would let him release his single on red, heart-shaped vinyl without batting an eye at how expensive that is (his idea) -- and whether he's had more success with the ladies as a hiphop DJ or soul singer.
Photo by Schiko
Where am I reaching you today?
I am at my home in sunny Southern California, Los Angeles.
And the weather's sunny?
We're both named Andrew. Did you ever go by Andy or Drew?
I went by Drew, never Andy.
By choice, or did people just start calling you that?
It was more by choice. I've never been a fan of "Andy." I like Drew better.
Do you still go by that? What do your friends call you now?
Man, I have so many names that everybody calls me something different. Some people call me Drew, some people call me Mayer, some people call me Haircut.
Oh, is it May-er and not My-er?
Yeah, it's May-er. Like John Mayer.
Just like John Mayer.
That started from when I was growing up. My dad owned a hardware store, an auto parts store, and I used to go with him to work when I wasn't going to school and we'd listen to Motown in the car on the way to and from the auto parts store.
And this was in Ann Arbor?
This was in Ann Arbor.
That's pretty Motown-y, hanging out at the auto parts store in Michigan, listening to Motown.
Yeah, I mean, I wasn't even alive during the actual Motown era. I'm an '80s baby. So it was oldies. But my dad was around then, and he's a big Motown fan, and he's a musician, and I would ask him millions of questions about every song that came on the radio and I always wanted to learn as much as I could about it. And my dad had most of the answers. I got fond memories of listening to Motown with my dad on the way to work.
Everybody's a fan of Motown, in the way that everyone feels good when that sound comes on...
...but he was a little more studious about it, huh?
Yeah, he knew a little about it. And he had actually gone to see a lot of those groups perform live. Yeah, it was cool. He's a musician. Still plays in a band in Detroit to this day.
What's the name of his band and what does he play?
He plays bass guitar, and the name of his band is the Breakers. But they play sort of classic rock covers now.
They've graduated to a different oldie.
Yup. But they've always been into that, you know. We listen to all kinds of music. But soul music always resonated with me.
Your album is straight homage. Was there ever a time when you thought you might do the Motown-y thing, but update it slightly? Like mix new style with the old? Or was the idea from the get-go to just be strictly old school?
Ah, no, the idea from the get-go was always to put my own spin on it. I think if you really listen to my album, you can definitely hear the modern influences on there. I'm a hiphop kid, so, like, the way that I mix my drums in there, I'm listening to J Dilla for my drums. As well as Benny Benjamin, one of the Funk Brothers. Like I said, I wasn't even around when they were making that music in the '60s, so I don't know how they were making that music. I can only experiment and guess and see what works for me.
Do you see it as fusion music?
For sure. There's definitely a lot of new elements in the music that bring it to 2009. And I'm trying to hit a new generation of kids that didn't grow up on Motown soul.
About the creation of the album itself: You made it all, and then other people join you when you play it?
Well I wrote every song on the album, except "Maybe So, Maybe No," which is a cover of a classic Detroit soul 45.
Who did the original?
The original is done by a group called the New Holidays. It was produced by Popcorn Wiley, and it was sort of an off-Motown, you know, it was on a label called Soul Hawk. It was more of an indie thing.
And I played the majority of the instruments on the album. I had some help here and there from some of the members of my live band, "The County."
But the drums, for the most part: That's you?
The drums, for the most part's me.
Playing on a set, or programming?
Playing on a set, and sometimes I would play on a set and chop 'em up from there, but they're played. And most of the drums are actually just played live. I played all the bass.
Line goes silent. Mayer Hawthorne is not responding. I hang up and call back.
OK, we're recording again.
And we're live.
I hear a sense of humor in "A Strange Arrangement," or at least some songs struck me as funny. The first time I heard "Just Ain't Gonna Work Out," I thought it was pretty funny. Do you think there's a sense of humor in the album?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I consider myself to have a decent sense of humor. What's life without a sense of humor?
Mainly, I would say it's more fun that fun-ny. I had so much fun recording this album. I always have fun making music, because that's truly what I love to do. And I think that comes through on the album, at least I hope it does. And I think the fun factor of it is a big attraction for a lot of people. Everybody wants to have fun then they're listening to music. And I definitely take the music seriously. I'm a serious student of music, a perfectionist in the studio, and I take the arrangement and production of it very seriously, down to the mixing and mastering even. But at the same time I'm having so much fun with it. I try not to take myself so seriously.
I think that's the right move.
You're a DJ. Are you still going to be a hiphop producer?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Like I said, I grew up on hiphop music. It's still some of my favorite music to listen to. I listen to hiphop every day. There's definitely a lot more hiphop to come.
Since you've become Mayer Hawthorne, has there been a lot more MCs coming up to you like, "Can I get on a track?"
I heard that Guilty track on your Myspace.
Yeah, that's my Detroit family. So that's always been there. But yeah, it's been great. We just got contacted by Prince Paul to record something on a track. Yeah, the response has been crazy.
Your rap group was called Now On, but I haven't listened to any of it. Is that something that's still happening, or what's that stuff like?
Yeah, that's more like, I mean it's hiphop, but it's more electro-soul, kinda. One of the things I was really proud of on the Now On project was we really came up with a "sound" that was super unique, and I really can't, it's hard to explain. I can't compare to it anyone out there. You just gotta listen and see for yourself. That's one of the the hardest things to do in music, to come up with something original and unique. And I really thought we did it with Now On, especially with "Tomorrow Already" that just came out last year.
I'll have to check that.
Definitely check that out. I think you'll like it a lot. In a lot of ways it was a segue into Mayer Hawthorne. I started singing a lot. Songs got really melodic. We did a lot more actual songwriting for the new Now On album.
Versus, here's the beat, come to the studio and write a verse.
[Starts laughing wildly.]
I'm sorry, go ahead.
What's going on?
Oh, my good friend and I got burritos from [high-pitched laughing] Baja Fresh like three days ago, and my friend has been eating the same burrito for like three days. Monster burrito. He says it gets better and better everyday. It's hilarious.
Does being a DJ make being signed to Stones Throw special to you?
Yeah, it definitely makes it fun. When we go on tour, we all are such record nerds, that the very first thing we do when we get to a city is try and find the record store. Everybody knows Stones Throw's reputation for putting out great music. But most people don't know that much about the people that run the label. Besides being such a great label, they are some of the best people in the world.
You're talking about Wolf and Jank?
And the greatest thing about Stones Throw is the freedom they've given me. Even Peanut Butter Wolf, when he asked me to record an album full of this Mayer Hawthorne material, he told me straight up, "I'm gonna put out your record, and I'm gonna push it as hard as I can whether or not I even like it. If you turn in your album and I hate it, I'm still gonna release it and still gonna put the same amount of promotion behind it," and he was like, "I really want you to record your album how you want it." And that's an incredible thing you're not going to find anywhere else.
And I told them, for my first single, my first release, ever, I said, "What if we pressed my first single on a red heart-shaped record?" Which is about the most expensive thing you can do.
Yeah. I mean, I'm agreeing, but I can only imagine.
Yeah. It costs us like five bucks apiece just to make those things.
Compared to a normal record that costs less than a dollar.
Yeah. We had to make a custom heart-shaped die. It was an ordeal. But they were like, "Know what? That sounds really dope. Let's try and do that," instead of saying that wasn't possible. I couldn't ask for a better label to be working with at all.
Did you do any record shopping when you in Seattle last time?
I'm not sure we got to any record stores when we were up there. I know I've been to some places before, but I don't think on this past tour.
You've been to Seattle before? Business or pleasure?
Oh, is that who facilitated the Freeway track?
Yep, for sure.
So is there any artistic involvement from Jake?
Jake produced the track, yeah.
And then you sing on it and Freeway raps?
And you're doing a hook?
Yeah, I did the chorus. It's cool. Jake's a friend. I'm actually working on a top secret project with him, too.
Well, it's not a secret anymore.
You're gonna do a whole album with him?
Yeah, that's the idea. We're already working on it.
Yeah, we'll go back and forth.
And are you writing new Mayer Hawthorne songs?
Oh, we've got a lot more Mayer Hawthorne songs. There's definitely a lot more Mayer Hawthorne to come.
Nice, I guess I have one last question and I'll let you get back to helping your friend with his burrito. I wonder: Is it easier to get ladies as a DJ, or a soul singer?
Ah, man. Definitely easier as a soul singer, so far.
Is it because you get to talk to people more? Or they think you're sensitive?
Yeah, that's really what it is. When you're a soul singer, I'm singing a lot of songs about love and relationships that I think a lot of girls really relate to. For whatever reason, that seems to get 'em excited. The DJ, everyone always says the DJ gets all the chicks, but that's never been my experience.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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