With an intriguing mix of Latin, jazz, soul, and world music, New York's Heavy Merge has been making a name for themselves this past year on the indie scene with their debut album, Heavy Merge.(See MISH MASH Issue #10) We had a little chat with lead singer Genevieve Gazon and bassist Orlando Marin, Jr. to find out what makes Heavy Merge tick.
Q: Latin music has just exploded lately in the mainstream--even Carlos Santana is at the height of his 30+ year career. Is this gaining more attention for Heavy Merge?
Genevieve: It helps us get our foot in the door, yes. But occasionally hurts us when people are looking for an actual Latin band, as in Salsa a la Tito Puente. I must admit that the Latin theme is what keeps our music interesting and fun, however, we are seriously into pushing the envelope and will not allow ourselves to be pigeonholed. I try to remind everyone that we can't avoid the Latin influence, but we were still raised on a healthy diet of diverse music because Orlando and I were both born in NYC.
Q: There are a lot of other influences in your music--jazz, r & b, world music, etc. How does this effect your songwriting process--does the song start out in one direction, or does it all come together at once?
Genevieve: The songs will usually start out in a specific direction. Orlando will lay down a groove and the rest is laid on top of it, layer after layer. As we begin to perform the song live and the improvisational bent of character of the band takes over, we encounter some really amazing and fun ideas that we make note of and incorporate into the song. The songs aren't usually fully completed until we've performed them live for a couple of months and then they begin to take on their own life, so to speak. We take into consideration both the things that make the song fun for us to perform over and over, and the responses we get from the audience during these performances.
Orlando: When we started out, we would write a song with a certain direction in mind and that would be the style of the tune, more or less. But we've gotten to the point, now, where we are open to all sounds and 'feels'. Often, we'll write a song in a funk groove and later find out that it works better in a Latin Groove or a slow grind.
Q: Just how much of what we hear on the record is improvisation? Do you guys cut loose in the studio or do you stick to a rigid plan?
Orlando: The whole CD is improvised to a certain extent. We follow a strict form, but what we play in each section is open to interpretation. In the studio I wouldn't say that we follow a rigid plan. Often we'll find that something we played live that kicks ass might not work so well on tape. The simpler things seem to work better in the studio. Things that are completely amazing or heady can get boring after being heard over and over (sometimes, not everytime.) I think on the next CD the sessions will be more organic than the first one due to the simple fact that we've played so much and have a better concept for our sound. This CD was the beginning for us and we were a little wet behind the ears and I think it was great but in the studio... no rigid plans, they're not necessary. We know what we want to hear and feel, so I would say that we do cut loose in the studio but it's all controlled improvisation and looseness... it has to be, to a certain extent, for recording's sake.
Q: Studio vs. live performance: what are the pros and cons of each for you?
Orlando: Studio work can be very difficult, for example, it can be very challenging to play your ass off when hearing yourself through a set of stupid headphones and the simple fact that there's no audience changes everything. So, idealistically, one wants to groove as hard in the studio as one does live. It's all a matter of the climate and conditions under which we work that makes each experience completely different. Playing live, of course, you can't go back and change a bad note...then again, that's the magic of it. It's gone forever. I would say they both have pro's and con's (a very long list) but the main thing for me is to be able to adapt to the surrounding conditions. Often one is at the mercy of the sound guy (at the club) or the engineer (at the studio)... if you treat them nicely, they might take care of you and then you just have to do your thing.
Q:Generally speaking, the singer is the center of attention. While you are more high profile than the rest of the band, there is a lot going on in your music instrumentally. Is it hard to find a balance?
Genevieve: Honestly, no. The other members in the band are extremely supportive of me as a musician and a vocalist, but they also push me gently to stretch out and experiment. When I started this band with Orlando, that was the idea. That everyone have their own amazing ability and that everyone work as an ensemble, not just to make the singer look good. My original vision was, and still ultimately is, to be something like a Weather Report or early Spyro Gyra but with vocals (and so, more accessible than those bands). I want to be an instrument, part of the ensemble. EarBuzz.com actually complimented me as a vocalist for being able to hang tough with the intense technical musicianship of the other band members. I have worked hard to be able to do that. Obviously, for recording purposes, we had to reign in the improvisational stuff (or the songs would be mindlessly long) but when we perform live, improvising is the most fun part of performing with my band.
Q: One of your songs has been performed up by Chrissie Hynde--is she an influence for you? Have any other female artists made an impact?
Genevieve: Oh, yeah. Chrissie was a great influence on me. Not just musically, but as a band leader. She took matters into her own hands and was not the fluff girlie girl who stepped to the mic while everyone else took care of the nuts and bolts of the music. Other female artists that have influenced me are Rickie Lee Jones, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, Flora Purim, Ella Fitzgerald, Bonnie Raitt, Anita Baker, Joan Armatrading, and Sade. More recent female artists that I admire are Fiona Apple, M'chelle Ndgecello, Sheryl Crow and of course... Lauryn Hill!
Q: I like the style of your website--is the internet a big part of your promotion? How much time and energy do you focus on it?
Genevieve: The internet is a huge part of our promotion because it's extremely cost effective. Using the internet is very time consuming because there are an infinite number of websites, newsgroups, press release sites, message boards, e-zines and free music sites that one can be a part of. Culling through all of them, choosing the ones you want to build a site or name in, and then maintaining your presence on each and every one of those is a full time job. But it's worth it, we have something of an internet presence and I honestly feel that it's building. Every fan we acquire through the internet seems to be a long term fan.
Q: What about mp3s? Do they help or hurt your sales?
Genevieve: They help because we don't throw out the baby with the bath water. We have some live bonus cuts on MP3 and IUMA and one or two songs off the CD. I think it's good for the fans to be able to live with the few free tunes they get and then choose, if they're impressed enough or curious enough, to buy the actual CD. I look at it as our form of radio play, since we don't really have money for radio promotion. Also, since we are more jazz than anything else, jazz radio is more difficult than pop radio to break into.
Q: If you could only choose 5 albums to listen to for the rest of your life, what would they be? Be honest!
Genevieve: Five is seriously not enough! Can't I have 10? Okay, let's see... today it would be: Earth Wind & Fire's "Greatest Hits Vol. I," Rickie Lee Jones "Pirates," Ella Fitzgerald's 40th Birthday Live Concert from Italy, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan's live (2) CD set "Stompin' at the Savoy," and Ozomatli.
Orlando: Weather Report - "Heavy Weather," Jaco Pastorius' debut album, Bad Brains - "Re-ignition," Sabu & Art Blakey - "Orgies in Rhythm," Joan Armatrading - "The Shouting Stage."
Q: Anything you'd like to add? Future projects we should look for?
Genevieve: I would like to add that I want to give props to the amazing musicians that I work with because a band is a unit, every member is an invaluable asset and Heavy Merge can't exist without them, their names are: Orlando Marin, Jr., Tino Derado, Robert Bonhomme, Ron McBee and Ken Gable. We are working on our second CD and it's going to be "da bomb". We've seriously come into our own, as far as our sound as a band is concerned, and this next CD will "hit the ground running" so to speak... It's untitled as of yet, but tentatively I like "Calling Out the Changes".
Q: Tell me a little bit about the new album. Can we expect any surprises?
Orlando: Yes... many surprises. It's going to be intense. Basically it will be myself, -G-, and Tino (our keyboardist) that remain from the first disc. We have a new drummer, we've added percussion and still have a saxophone. Speaking for -G- and myself, we are now two completely different people (more intense and focused) who have grown a lot in two years. The band has a completely authentic vibe and sound now. There's going to be an arsenal of infectious ethnic grooves with harmonic expansions on top. I don't anticipate any regrets on the next one as far as "I wish that would have been louder" or "too bad the overhead mic's are distorting" etc. We did the first one by ourselves (recording, writing, mixing, etc) we had a little help, but for the most part we were on our own. The next one will be produced by Darryl Serrano, a drummer, keyboardist, writer and producer, who gets a great sound in the studio (he's got big ears). I'm expecting a sound so new that it will have the potential for just about anything.