Greil Marcus’s brilliant book “Weird America” was written to explore the secret roots of Bob Dylan’s music—obscure ballads and folk legends, which usually led to primitive folk songs from America’s backwoods. It is a multicultural narrative full of despair and hardly poetic. Coming from the same weird Americana roots, and originally steeped deeper in the blues and archaic jazz throughout the 20th century, combined with all of the modern trends in world music in our own contemporary times (sans electronica), Hazmat Modine is a New York-based musical community from far out-of-this-world.
Tom Waits at his roots has the same offbeat musical concoction going, and similarly to Waits, Hazmat Modine is led by a gravelly-voiced singer, songwriter, and lead diatonic harmonica player as well as banjitar-player Wade Schuman, who for over a decade has also been Director of the Painting Department at the New York Academy of Art.
The newest album by Hazmat Modine, “Extra-Deluxe-Supreme” (2015) on Jaro, extracts the sinister side of Waits’ sound to a brighter universe with influences from more recent times, compared to their earlier music, which was influenced by the first American recordings ever. However, their influences are still relatively old music, depending on your year of birth: 1960s soul, doo-wop, and so it should not be surprising to even hear similarities to Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, specifically on the standout track “Whiskey Bird.”
As Schuman is also a visual artist, Hazmat Modine’s sound can be described as a surreal mash-up of styles. The name Hazmat Modine is a mash-up too: “Hazardous Materials” merged with “Modine” (the name of an old American heater). The 10 piece ensemble includes Mazz Swift, lead and backup vocalist and violinist, Pamela Fleming (trumpet/flugelhorn), Steve Elson (saxophones, clarinet, duduk and flute), Tim Keiper (drums, percussion), Erik Della Penna (vocals, banjo, guitar), Michaela Gomez (acoustic and electric guitars, banjitar and steel guitar), and Joseph Daly (on a truly humongous tuba).
Their assortment of non-standard instruments helps to imagine the sound of their twisted and evolving roots music. Visually, they also have a captivating presence. Daly’s Sousaphone, used for marching bands, stands out like a huge golden bullhorn wrapped around his neck like an exotic Black Mamba.
Their sound is an ever-building melting pot, expanded since their 2007 debut “Bahamut” (Jaro Records). From the blues, Schuman has said that Little Walter is a great influence, but also 1920s and 30s jazz, and Gypsy music. He is also obsessed with the late 60s, early 70s rocksteady, Jamaican music.
Due to collaborations with world music musicians, such as Huun Huur Tur (Tuva throat-singers) and the Gangbé Brass Band, they evolved to become a weird Americana music meets world music, post-modern blues fusion experience with stronger links to African roots. Now they seem to be seeking a newer re-awakening of later 20th-century music, too, with a more upbeat message and sonic punch.
Hazmat Modine’s European Spring (weekend) tour will be doing its best to spread the spirit of its weird Americana-world-music, and post-modern blues fusion. It’s a centuries-old tradition at this point.
Friday, March 17—Festival Jazz A Toute Heure, St-Rémy-lès-Chevreuse (Paris), France
Saturday, March 18—Jazz Fruhling, Neubrandenburg, Germany
Sunday, March 19—Fireman’s Theatre (Jazz Meets World mini-festival), Prague, Czech Republic
Text: Tony Ozuna
YT Video: Fredrik Kinbom
Last modified: July 15, 2018