MOUTHWASH — An Offbeat Experiment
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On the Brooklyn Moon with Nick Hakim and Roy Nathanson

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Nick and Roy both phoned in from Brooklyn, but if you asked them their preferred location they’d probably say the moon.

In conversation, the two are energetic and in sync, bouncing off each other in a way that feels as improvisational and buoyant as their latest record.
Small Things’, the seven-part storyline released in April, is an original product of Nathanson’s existing poetry. Inspired by his lyricism, Hakim and Nathanson spent the last two years channeling a transcendent quality that’s sure to take you on a one-way ticket to the nearest galaxy.

Likewise, there’s a lightness in hearing the two of them speak—the passion is palpable and humor drives the conversation upward. Above all else, the profound level of mutual respect the two have for each other as both musicians and human beings is humbly inspiring. They are an unexpected duo, but as you hear them speak it’s overwhelmingly clear the two were fated to meet. 

Through the static of a 3-way phone call, we connected over their time in New York City, the process of making a collaborative album during covid, and all the things they’ve learned from one another—remembering most importantly, not to take themselves too seriously.

MW: We’ve got a big group today. How’s it going, can you all hear me? 

RN: It’s going well! Isaiah Barr is here too, actually, he's playing piano over in the other room. Nick are you there? 

NH: Yeah, I’m here! Where are you guys at? 

RN: We’re at my house, in the studio.

MW: Nick how about you, where are you calling in from?

NH: I'm at home as well, we're both in Brooklyn.

RN: We're so far away from each other though, it's basically like we're in Zanzibar and Siberia. About a 45 minute drive on the other side of Brooklyn, seriously.

NH: Actually. If I tried to walk over to Roy's it would take about four hours. 

MW: Are you guys getting out much these days? What’s the energy like in New York right now?

Photo by Zora Sicher

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NH: Restaurants are opening up and the bars are open till midnight now, but I don't know how to feel about it. People are still staying back a little bit.

RN: It doesn't feel dramatic yet. But there's hope in the air for sure. It was such a horrible year, particularly out here. I mean at the beginning it was something else…just horrible. Once something like that happens I think it creates a vibe that’s hard to forget. We all just got notice from the CDC allowing us outside without masks on, so I went on a walk yesterday and it felt so great. People are still wearing them though, but I think that’s because there’s a whole etiquette behind it.

MW: I think part of it is this communal aspect. You don't want to make someone feel uncomfortable on the street if they see you without one and they’re not vaccinated, especially in New York, a city built upon community and proximity. I'm thinking back to a year ago today the state of New York City…I had family out there and I mean, we were worried sick. Hospitals overloaded, supplies running short, were you guys there during that time? That's an experience to go through in itself.

RN: Oh yeah it was crazy

NH: Lots of sirens, lots of ambulances every day. I’ll never forget how constant that sound was

MW: I must say I definitely hear New York on this album, at times it almost feels like New York itself is the third person in the room. I wonder how much you’d say your sense of place influenced the narrative and played a part in the sound of Small Things?

NH: Well we started recording the album in New York City before the pandemic, but we finished it during. I would say most of the album was done when we had more time to spend together in person. During the pandemic, we were mostly trying to finish it virtually.

RN: It's interesting though Nick, because what she's saying about New York being the third person in the room…it’s hard to say. I've lived in New York my whole life, and I'm almost 70 years old. Nick's studio is on the other side of town, there's a lot of hipster kind of activity where he's at in Ridgewood, it’s a totally different kind of neighborhood than Flatbush where I’m at. I'd never really been out there much till we made this record. We met through one of my former students Isaiah Barr, a great saxophone player who like I said is here right now in the other room. So there’s kind of this sense of the album being a New York story—how we met and where we played together. It's interesting you should say that though because I also feel like it to be a very interior album. The stories are very interior, like the inside of a body. Part of me doesn’t actually feel it to be in New York City. What do you think Nick?

NH: I mean in some default ways I do. Our lives and our personalities are informed by New York, especially with Roy’s words and the sound of the record. There are glimpses of New York in the way that Roy plays too. So it does to me, but at the same time, it feels like we're somewhere else, like we’re on some other planet.

MW: Transcended even. Maybe on the moon?

RN: The Brooklyn Moon.

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MW: As someone who appreciates New York from an external perspective, the themes, the lyricism, even just the musicality with which you guys play and connect to each other. It all feels very much like a New York story.

RN: That's nice for me. I like to hear that, I think that's so cool.

MW: Speaking of lyricism, one of my favorite things about the album is it’s rooted in lyricism. Nick, can you tell me a little bit about that origin story and how you were inspired to make music after picking up Roy’s poetry?

NH: Yeah for sure. I’m pretty okay at coming up with ideas off the fly, but after reading Roy’s work I felt it was a very natural way for us to align and create lyrics.

RN: The crazy thing is that Nick really came over to my house and just picked it up. I mean, I teach students how to cold-read music at NYU, and I've never heard anybody but Nick read a poem down and just bring it to life and sing it. He did that without reducing it, without simplifying, just spontaneously bringing it to life. Certainly getting rid of extraneous words that are more literary, but with the essence of the poems intact.

MW: Damn. That level of improvisation is so cool. What was it like to approach the creative process from an alternative route?

RN: Totally like nothing I’d ever done. For him to take the words of the poem and just sit there and play the chords for most of the songs…that was just incredible. Of course, I started one or two tunes but the majority of the sound on average, Moonman, Small Things, that's all Nick's chords just out of the blue.

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NH: Yeah the very first thing we did was Small Things, which is also the intro for the album. That was recorded in Roy's basement studio space where he’s got this beautiful Fender Rhodes piano.

RN: Oh the Fender Rhodes, funny story. In the early 70s I was working for a Jazz non-profit called Jazz Interactions. That was an exciting time, when rock was everything and the greatest jazz musicians in the world were coming out with whole ass records. At the time, Jazz Interactions was doing outdoor gigs for the Count Basie guys for 50 bucks. That was my day job and where I practiced, it’s also where I got that piano from. I just took it home.

MW: No way. That’s the one Nick played on?

RN: Exactly. We were in my basement and he played Small Things on that piano the very first time he sat down.

NH: Yeah the first play. We immediately recorded it on this really bright condenser microphone. It was so cool and laid down a solid draft of what you hear on the record. 

RN: That’s the beginning of the track. You can hear me playing saxophone really loud and then it goes into what we recorded in Nick's studio. 

NH: I wasn't even thinking about what time it was or anything. I just played.

MW: Almost sounds like a spiritual experience.

NH: Yeah it was! And it was also really fun. I feel like I learn something from Roy every time we get together and make stuff. I'm always open to whatever’s going to happen, to let things happen the way that they feel.

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MW: I love that. On the subject of Small Things… What a fitting opener. It has this air of conception, uplifting and kicking off this narrative. Can you take me through the journey of the album and how it closes off with Small Things 2. How do those two respond and work together?

RN: You’re the first person to have asked that question! It’s a funny story, because we went from the original recording in my house to a recording we did in Nick’s studio. On the second version, the sound is much cleaner, but Nick didn’t like it! He felt that it didn’t have the immediacy of the first one. Something about it I really liked. I felt strongly that they both belonged on the record. Throughout the process of writing, I kept trying to push it on the tracklist. I figured we got to start the record with Small Things and end it with Small Things 2. I kept pushing but Nick didn't want any of it, except my original saxophone from the first version. 

NH: Basically, I just liked Roy's sax on that first version. But then we added acoustic guitar and our good friend Spencer Murphy played bass. It’s crazy though because we finished recording the vocals and guitar last June with the windows wide open on my birthday. If you listen closely you can hear the sirens in the background.

RN: It’s funny because the only tension we had was about whether we could keep Small Things 2 on the album.

NH: That was the only tension, yeah. My thing was: I want to try to make something completely different if we're going to use this because it kind of felt like an interlude at first. We came to the realization that it could be its own song after we spent more time with it.

RN: It seemed like you thought it was a bad version of the first one just with higher quality sound.

NH: But then, we redid it—

RN: And I didn't think there was anything that could make me like it better and I was wrong!

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MW: It sounds like you guys pushed each other in a truly collaborative way. What’s your guys’ dynamic like? If I was a fly on the wall in the studio, or at the dinner table, what's the vibe?

NH: We're laughing.

RN: We’re definitely laughing, but it's serious business actually and that's the funny thing. It's very creatively concentrated. I’d call it goofball concentration and pure joy. The Cry and Party shit? 

MW: Oh you can totally feel the joy on that song.

NH: At the end, if you listen all the way through, you hear Roy’s laughter. We kept it in because it was such a crazy reaction to Austin, who was playing drums. He put this symbol on the snare to make it sound real snappy. Then you hear Roy and he’s like “aha ha let's fucking go”. That energy is just always there. Every time we record it’s just pure energy and joy and so much fun. Goofball concentration for sure.

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MW: I can feel it in the way you two speak with each other. I’d be curious to know, with working together so well over the course of the last few years, what has the process of collaboration taught you guys about your own individual practices?

NH: That's a really good question. On my end, I learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses. I have an attention span that moves at 100 miles an hour. Roy’s ability to focus and get shit done…that was so helpful. In the beginning, I was finishing WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD at the same time as we were recording so it challenged me to prioritize my projects. Making this was such a new and exciting kind of collaboration for me. It made me realize how much I can give to a project and how to focus my energy in a sustained way for a period of time. Usually I go through phases of extremes, being intensely obsessed with something, totally dropping it, and eventually getting sucked back in. 

MW: I’ve always found the process of working with others helps us understand our own working styles. It’s reflected back to us.

NH: Yeah definitely. It also made me realize the importance of having my own space and being able to be as loud as I need to at any time of the day. Like somewhere I'm not bothering someone sleeping if I'm playing drums at midnight.

MW: How about for you Roy?

RN: It’s a really good question, and it's actually a serious answer. I’ve spent years being a serious writer. I have a graduate degree in poetry. I’ve written lyrics for some great singers. Jeff Buckley, Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, a lot of people. So I write and I play music, but I can’t sing. If anything, my saxophone is my voice. Unlike any other experience, Nick has been the greatest bridge between my poetry and the music. Between the words and myself. More than anybody that I ever met. I’m a teacher of Interdisciplinary Studies at NYU and I teach a class about connecting words and music. In that class, I keep telling them about the experience of making this album because it blew my mind. I never thought you could sing the words of a poem and make it into a song. Of course you could do an avant garde thing — but to improvise it into a proper song, that's what Nick did. That makes it incredibly special because we're hardwired for narrative, and it brought those poems to life. So that's what he's taught me, that he's got some shit going on. He's like magic.

MW: You two learned so much from each other. Roy, how’s teaching going these days anyway?

RN: Good, it's actually the last week right now. Like I was saying, I teach an interdisciplinary class for musicians who are interested in words, and writers who are interested in music at NYU. So they kind of have to have some sense of each other.

MW: Nick, would you take a class taught by Roy? 

NH: Of course. Give me the syllabus! I would love to take a class with him, but to be honest I already kind of take classes with Roy. He literally gives me assignments and guided exercises. I’ve called him a couple of times about how to get out of writer's block. The stuff he sends me really helps.

MW: Could you ever see yourself teaching in a similar way? 

NH: Actually yes, I’m not on staff but I’ve been teaching for about 10 years. I have three students a semester at New School and do private lessons for younger kids at City-As-School in Manhattan. It’s amazing, I have a student that I met when she was nine years old and she just turned 20 which is crazy.

RN: Yeah he’s an incredible teacher. It sucks right now though because my classes are remote and I'm old and not supposed to be around people. But actually, I have them come and do this improvisation game called “crow” in my backyard when it’s nice out, so at least we get to see each other for a little bit. Words or poetry you can teach remote, but not music.

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MW: Music more than any art form needs presence and interaction. Speaking of playing in person, have you two gotten to play the album together for a group of friends or anyone to celebrate?

RN: No! That's been the worst part. I'm desperate to do that, I think Nick's not as desperate, but I'm desperate. I can't stand the idea that we're not playing Small Things Live. 

NH: To be honest, I’m kind of enjoying the break of not being on the road all the time. But I do miss touring and making a better living. I think Roy and I are gonna figure out how we can play somewhere outside or in a small venue because I do want to do that, but also I’m chilling at home and it's nice. Maybe we should do a livestream?

RN: Sure. But I’m itching to play live. They’re reopening the streets and things are happening so I’m going to be on his case. We have to do it before MOUTHWASH gets here—but that’ll take forever.

MW: Listen, we’ll be on the first flight there. You two together live in New York City? We’re showing up.

NH: Hell yeah. We’ll see you all there.

On the Brooklyn Moon with Nick Hakim and Roy Nathanson

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