A punk/classical guitarist, and a formally trained bluegrass banjoist? On paper, it makes no sense.
But let Carrboro duo Hank & Brendan put your doubts to rest. Their rollicking fusion of bluegrass and rock laced with acerbic wit goes down far more smoothly than any moonshine you’ve tasted.
Sitting across from Hank and Brendan under the string lights of Caffé Driade, there’s no doubt that the two are collaborators. They share a span of musical and cultural references, and a mutual, congenially salty sense of humor.
“You’re a cigar-chomping fat cat now,” laughs Hank. Brendan grins back, and puffs a little more vigorously in Hank’s direction.
It was their first meetings at Chapel Hill open mics in 2015 that convinced the two they needed to work together.
“His songs were a level of weird I appreciated and understood,” Brendan recalls. “It was a bit of a hard sell, at first.”
“There’s a kind of stigma around banjo for some people,” adds Hank. “I confess I had it for a little bit, there. But I was smart enough by that point to be like, “‘Don’t be that guy, just see if it works.’ And of course it did.”
Together, Hank & Brendan — their formal billing — have released two albums and appeared live all over the Triangle and beyond. In July 2019, their latest release, Cutting Capers, finds the duo pushing the lyrical envelope even further, and branching into psychedelic influences.
In this Q&A, Hank & Brendan talk their musical backgrounds, songwriting secrets, and what listeners can expect from the new EP.
Katherine Whalen will join Hank & Brendan for the Cutting Capers release show at The Station on July 19th, 2019. You can find event details here. Cutting Capers also features drummer Ryan Masecar and bassist Chris Bullock.
TTG: I wanted to ask you guys about your separate genre backgrounds. Hank, you grew up in the New York punk scene.
Hank: Well…Westchester. I was part of the very limited Westchester punk scene and I was more or less the kid who followed the older punks around.
Brendan: You knew a guy who knew Lou Reed, didn’t you?
Hank: Oh, yeah, that’s how I got into that kind of music. A guy who would drive me to guitar lessons when my mom and dad couldn’t had been a veteran of the original New York punk scene. He would go to CBGB, and he hung around the Warhol crowd before that. And he saw Ramones, he saw Television, he saw Talking Heads, Blondie, all while they were just local bands. He would tell me about this stuff before I went into my guitar lessons. And at that moment I just felt like I knew that this was what I was going to do. It was pretty much just right off the bat.
TTG: What was his best story?
Hank: His best story — he was in his apartment, and a friend of his showed up unannounced. He was just in his room doing whatever, and she just walked in and scared him half to death. And she was like, “I brought a new friend of mine with me,” and he walked into his kitchen, and Sid Vicious was there.
TTG: That’s a good surprise! Brendan, you studied at East Tennessee.
Brendan: Yes, that’s correct. I was formally trained in bluegrass banjo after hearing Steve Martin and Bela Fleck perform a banjo duet — a triplet, actually, with another guy, on Letterman. It was this very beautiful, all-American sound, and I got engrossed in it from there.
TTG: What stood out to you about it as all-American?
Brendan: I honestly couldn’t say. There was just a twang about it that I enjoyed. And part of it was high school contrariness. “Well, you know, everybody plays guitar, so I guess I should do something different.”
TTG: You guys have an EP coming out called Cutting Capers, which you describe as — let me see if I can remember this — “rougher edges of Americana with psychedelic…”
Hank: And some rather brash lyrics on my part.
TTG: Tell me about the brash lyrics.
Hank: Both of my songs I wrote are actually about Chapel Hill. Specifically Franklin Street.
Brendan: Street gawkers and mouthbreathers. All the people that clog up the streets.
Hank: One song was about when I first moved there, and I was not in a great place. I had a lot of social disappointment in the places I’d lived in before, and I was worried about that happening again. I wrote this song about looking at the people on Franklin Street with contempt. But somehow, at the end of it, it goes from “I” to “we,” and I feel like that demonstrated me blending in and finding my place in that scene.
TTG: In Cutting Capers, you’re exploring the “rougher edges of Americana.” Where do the rougher edges of Americana take this release?
Brendan: Definitely there were some brash lyrics and whatnot, but we started with electric guitar work this time around.
TTG: You guys are usually pretty acoustic, aren’t you?
Brendan: Yeah. Until we get into the studio and start playing with all the backwards guitar effects and stuff. It goes off the rails from there.
Hank: This was the most satisfying studio experiment I’ve ever had, this EP. It took six months, the last album. Started in June, ended in December.
Brendan: Yeah, it was a long process. This time, we wanted a few songs with a different feel from what was on the last album, and we decided on something more lofi and obnoxious. From there, we knocked it out in one day.
Hank: At the same time, what came out ended up being much more fully realized than the last album.
TTG: It sounds like it’s a departure from your previous recording efforts.
Brendan: Yeah, more of my songs are involved this time than usual. I spent a lot of time building confidence in my own writing.
TTG: What built up your songwriting confidence?
Brendan: Y’know, honestly, just writing more of ‘em. And not being afraid to write a bad song.
Hank: I still have that fear and I’ve written plenty!
Brendan: It never goes away.
Hank: I’ve never gotten — songwriters talk about when they write something bad, they throw it away. I’ve never gotten into that practice.
Brendan: I’ve got a whole binder full of bad songs I’ve written out on a typewriter and everything.
Hank: I’ve got all the songs I wrote in high school. Those are pretty dismal.
TTG: Do you archive your old songs for historical purposes, or do they make reappearances later?
Brendan: A little bit of both. I think at some point you can bring your friends over and be like, “Aw, this sucked!” But I’ve found a lot of pleasure in re-writing stuff that was bad.
Hank: I think revisiting songs that you weren’t so sure about a while ago is often a good way to start writing new songs.
TTG: I was listening to your interview on WHUP, and you guys mentioned that you would bring songs to each other — sometimes from different genres — and then reinterpret them to include a banjo. Can you talk about that process?
Brendan: Yeah, I think the song “Catheter” is the best example of that. Initially, it was this dark, brooding piano piece, and we turned it into a bluegrass song, which took the edge off.
Hank: “Catheter” was originally this D minor piano dirge. Then I recorded it, and I put a drum loop and some grindy electric guitar and an organ sound on it. And it sounded very Halloween, very spooky. But then I kind of flipped the script, switched it to guitar and turned it into an acoustic song, and I thought that the song might get through to more people like that.
TTG: Your lyrics are often very sardonic, with a specific brand of humor. Tell me about that.
Brendan: That’s all on you, man.
Hank: It just kind of happens.
Brendan: Everyone has these misanthropic thoughts throughout the day. You get cut off in the coffee line, you need to buy gas and the guy in front of you keeps buying lottery tickets, and you think things you obviously don’t mean, but —
Hank: I think particularly in the more effective songs, I write something that just makes me sick, that I would never say to anyone, but I end up sticking with it.
Brendan: People oddly relate to it.
TTG: You can sing it, but you can’t say it.
TTG: Are there any works of art that inspired this project?
Brendan: Spaghetti westerns, for this release.
Hank: More sonically than lyrically, I would say. For the month of March, when we did a lot of this recording, I dropped all chemicals except for caffeine. I stopped drinking, and a lot of how I deal with that situation is I go back and watch classic movies that I’ve seen. I went back to spaghetti westerns and really fell in love with the music in them. Particularly Morricone’s work, and of course he’s influenced a lot of albums. Weirdly, by the time we finished this record, the whole thing smacked of desert sounds.
TTG: What kind of production were you going for on this album? Is it true to what you’ve done in the past, or did you experiment with new methodology?
Hank: Our first record, it was just us on acoustic and a lot of compression.
Brendan: We had a lot of reverb behind it, too. Which fills the space a lot more, when you’re just two people.
Hank: It had a certain charm to it. But it was something we decided not to do going forward.
Brendan: We kind of wanted this record to sound like a Velvet Underground record. Not known for great recording quality per se, but I think it was fitting for this release.
TTG: I heard you guys did the non-verbal tracking for this record in five and a half hours, which is impressive. Recording your last record was a much longer process. What changed?
Hank: We deliberately went in and out of the studio as fast as we could.
Brendan: Usually in the studio, there’s one song you get hung up on, but for some reason that just didn’t happen. We had all this extra time at the end of the session, so we just threw a bunch of resources at the song, and we had Chris [Bullock] play bad piano, and had excess tambourine parts.
Hank: I feel like the last album was much more calculated in our approach, but we came out of this EP with a much fuller sound.
TTG: I’ve seen you guys live a couple of times, but I haven’t seen you jam yet. Is that going to be incorporated into the new live shows?
Brendan: It will be. There’s a lot of bad connotations with bands that jam, and we want to keep it succinct.
Hank: If we’re going to be up there with a bunch of random dudes, we’re going to play one or two chords and leave. It’s the punk rock attitude towards jamming.
All images courtesy of Hank & Brendan.