Roc Nation's got a gem on their hands, waiting to be unveiled. The fact of the matter is their newest member, Hugo, is about to break out big... but he's waiting for the right moment. Raised in Thailand, Hugo's perspective of the world and the music that surrounds it is one that hasn't been experienced and shared in the Western world of 'Pop.' Although he maintains his humble and reserved mannerisms, Hugo is quietly cooking up a storm and getting ready to spread his special brand of butter all across the airwaves. We had the time to speak with him over the phone last month and get his full story.
Interview by Charlie Weingartner
TMC: Hey Hugo, howíre you doing?
Doing fine, yourself?
TMC: Iím doing well. Staying busy. So where are you at right now?
: I am in the rehearsal space in Queens. Around where Long Island City starts to become Queens.
TMC: Very nice. Is New York your home currently?
Yeah, I moved here in September to finish the record and to release it. Have a sort of crack at it, ya know? Itís deeply satisfying for me. It feels like the last day of the whole process. All of the guys, the English people I know, coming to New York, thereís something iconic about it. Any English person coming over here, all the stuff youíve said about New York is wrong. It sort of feels like that.
TMC: Does it live up to the iconic status?
I think so. I mean, everyone compares stuff to how it was ďback in the dayĒ but nothing is ever like it was back in the day, thatís the whole point of progress. People talk about how dangerous, nasty and cruel it was, but I think it still has its edge to it. The main thing is do we really want to be in constant danger, I donít know? (laughs) Iím too old for the jeopardy.
TMC: Well, NYCís a big place so I guess bad things are bound to happen when you get that many people in one place.
And everyoneís from somewhere else. Either from a descendant of someone, or theyíve come from somewhere else. Thatís great too. It doesnít feel like youíre crashing a homogenous party. Everyoneís got a really good sense that they belong.
Sorry, Iím stepping outside.
TMC: So, you were born in England but grew up in Thailand. What took your family there?
Iíve some family on my motherís side. My great-grandfather was 100% Thai, and then he married a Russian lady. My grandfather was half Thai, half Russian and he married an English lady. So, my Thai has been sort of diluted, but we never really left. I went to primary school there, and then came back to England when my mother moved back. When I finished High School, I went back to work.
TMC: Whatíd you do to go work in Thailand?
I was in the entertainment business. There was a period where if you were a white looking guy who spoke perfect Thai you could do pretty well for yourself. I formed a band on the side, supported by the proceeds from acting and things like that. Then, eventually just concentrated on the band and did four records there until about 2005. I met up with Amanda Ghost whoíd called me based on a song Iíd done in English for a charity record that she heard. She got me up to England, we did some writing, I got signed to a major and then dropped. So I started being a writer in London for other people for awhile, and then I fell in with the Roc Nation crowd, just as I was thinking of packing up my shit and moving back to play in bars or whatever.
TMC: Clearly you stumbled into the Roc Nation crowd at the right time. How did you get "Disappear" on Beyonceís record I AM... SASHA FIERCE? What was the whole process?
The song started out as it was going to be sort of my big single, but I was making this sort of singer/songwriter type album around 2006, for a major label who for their own embarrassment we wonít mention. It was quite a typical story. I think everyone has to get dropped at some point, itís a key process in deciding whether or not you want to stick around in this business. So the album, was this recorded and finished album that was just there with nothing to do with it. I tried to get it with a few other places but, I donít know. It just didnít happen. Iíd written a lot of it with Amanda, and Amanda was starting to get a lot of people calling her up to get write a pop line or produce or whatever. She was working with Beyonce at the time and played the record. You know, ďlisten to thisÖĒ She just loved the song and wanted it on her album. She made some modifications to make it relevant to her life, and on it went! And as a result of that, an executive from Roc Nation came to meet me in London and said, ďFuck man. Letís make you a record.Ē The tracks and the ideas that they had were very inspiring because it was a totally fresh slate. I wasnít so hung up on making my record collection any more, Iíd thrown that out, that meticulous authenticity, or whatever. I thought, ďThatís looking back. Letís look forward.Ē Iím really glad it all panned out the way it did because not Iíve got a record that really sounds and looks like what I see around me rather than a sort of throwback rose-tinted view of the 60ís and 70ís.
Which, letís face it, we may want to go back for all the music and good times, but it was a very violent times, there was a lot of prejudice. There was a lot of bad things about it too. I think weíre in the right direction. So Iím trying to shake off the desire to be a dirty hippie, stoner-type guy and make relevant music.
TMC: Obviously music thatís about the present and whatís happening now speaks to audiences a lot more. I think music has to be relevant. Its job is to keep society in line, as well as being a gauge for trends. History can be explained through studying the evolution of music.
Right, exactly. Iíve gotten rid of it, gotten rid of the ego and really focused on the ďitĒ as far as what I need. Really deep down viscerally from making music. I need a bit of blues, and a little bit of a stomp, and I need it to be heavy cause I grew up as a metal guy, a metal fan as a kid. The heaviness, Zeppelin, and all that sort of stuff. I still want that part of it but you can get that and achieve that with modern techniques, and spontaneous, almost throw-away nature. I mean, when I work with a hip hop producer because theyíre just chucking out beats like, ďThere ya go. There ya go. There ya go.Ē They never stop working, but theyíre not precious about Ė you know you can just cut things up. That whole sort of thing, not just sitting around and laboring over a guitar solo is very refreshing. Itís been a very enlightening process.
TMC: Good! Iím glad to hear that. So did you carry any of the songs from the album you wrote in England to the one youíre finishing up now?
Yeah. The ones that seemed, the strong ones, definitely. The song "Born" which is on the album is from a session we recorded in Thailand. It just got a bit of finished in the final months in November with Dave McCracken, a long time collaborator and producer with me. We kept that, and a song called "Mekong Delta" Ė the songs which were really unique. These were not just sort of ballad, generic written pop songs. Theyíre ones which only I could sing, ya know? Becoming a writer, I started to develop sort of a competent generic style at some point as well. Iíd write a slow ballad about sort of this and that. Iíd collaborate and write with so many people that I kind of lost a bit of sense of being open. At the end of it, you have to go back to your muscle memory, and itís stuff like "Born" and "Mekong Delta." But the stuff that came a lot later, like "Bread & Butter" is something I wouldíve written in Thailand, but it wouldnít have been what it was. Thatís my old school dirty Rock Ďn Roll but it sounds like a dance track, or a club track, even a hip hop track as far as the drums and bass are concerned.
TMC: One thing about your music that Iíve really particularly been enjoying is your ability to mix a lot of different instruments into songs that you wouldnít expect to hear them pop up. "99 Problems" the dancy tune, and spin off of Jay Zís song has a banjo in it. Where did that idea come from?
That was deliberately perverse. I was at a stage where I had gained some confidence and I thought, ďYou know what would really slap people across the face?Ē Iíve always liked that song, ď99 Problems,Ē even before I was signed to Roc Nation and had anything to do with Mr Z. That tune has an inherent melody when heís rapping, it was implied. Every time I heard it, I heard that melody. Iím singing. Itís just there, heís just sort of flowing over it. Itís like really old, spooky delta thing that I get from it, and I get from a lot of hip hop. Anyway, I leaned across and said, ďDo you mind if I cover 99 Problems?Ē and he said, ďyeah, sure go ahead.Ē And almost immediately I thought, ďItís got to be a banjo. Itís got to be.Ē Thatís the only thing thatís gonna make it sound sick, rather than sort of serious as well. The banjoís spooky, but at the same time thereís something thatís slightly comedic about it too. Itís a funny looking instrument, a funny sounding instrument, itís sort of sickly kind of funny. And maybe in a way itíll offend bluegrass, banjo purists, maybe itíll offend hip hop purists. A lot of other songs thereís an attempt to try to get people to like it, but with this it was a deliberate attempt to get them to either love it or just say ďthatís just wrong.Ē
TMC: I think thatís the case. Either people will love it or hate it. But thatís probably better than having people sitting in the middle.
Yeah, people whoíre indifferent.
TMC: So, letís talk about the chorus to bread and butter. What are the lyrics in the chorus?
The lyrics for the chorus are, ďGonna spread you like butter, give you all my bread. Donít want to other girl in my bed.Ē Before Iíd gotten into that, Iíd actually heard a J Lo song called ďFresh Out The OvenĒ and then I was listening to a little Howlin Wolf, and Howlin Wolf in one of his songs says, ďshake like Jello on a plate.Ē So I thought Iíve got to do a food song. Thereís nothing sexier than food.
TMC: (laughs) I don't believe I could argue with that. So how many songs are gonna be on the album?
TMC: Do you have any proposed release date or any kind of idea when we might be able to expect it?
I mean, Iím mainly concentrating on live stuff right now. Iím rehearsing, but yeah I think around fall. These things get moved around though. Really, the way to hear the album would probably be to come to a show. Weíre looking at getting a residency at Rockwood too, at some point. Maybe next July.
TMC: Obviously a lot of the songs are very layered, and include an array of instruments. Howíre you preparing to take such a large dynamic on stage and the road?
Well, I have a pretty extensive and ruthless audition process. And, um, Iím gambling. Iíve found the players that I think are the best and they have an open towards their instrument and how it can be played, and technically very good. Iíve been rehearsing pretty much for two months straight everyday; just honing it and honing it to the point now where itís like razor sharp. So, you know, itís all about getting that low end to be really big and boomy. Yet at the same time with all the stuff you put on it, keeping the minimal, negative space. Thatís why my hip hop tracks when they come on in the clubs, in ridiculously loud volumes, itís why they work Ė because thereís nothing on them. Itís just these few super kungfu moves and thatís it. Itís about trying to get the balance right, but you know ultimately it changes and evolves over time. Iím not married to having it sound like the record live, but the songs arenít that subtle in terms of what goes on, so you can get the song across. Then beneath the subtlties are just the little parts, and the way theyíre played, whatever. The songs themselves are quite straight forward.
TMC: Considering your success in Thailand, then England, and finally ending up in New York City, this albumís taken you down a long road to get this far. What about it makes you the most proud?
Yeah, the records I made in Thailand Iím very proud of and I look back on them fondly, but at the same time, they do sound like throw back records, and thatís what we were trying to do. But Iím proud of howÖ. When I finished the record and was listening to it quite a lot, not so much now, but Iíd walk around New York and go, ďyeah that looks right.Ē The reason that I got into 60ís and 70ís music was because in Thailand, with the heat and the jungle, the fact that Creedence Clearwater Revival is still a popular cover that bands played in the late 90ís and early 2000ís. The hangoverÖ the Vietnam hangover. It just looked right, ya know? It just looked right with the same atmosphere that that was. Now that Iím living andíve moved to the West, living in modern Western society, itís gotta look right and feel right and sound right. Like, yeah thatís something with what Iím seeing, the buildings, the cars, the way everything looks, the way people talk to each other, and the way people walk around.
TMC: So obviously youíll be setting out on tour at some point to support the record. If you could pick anyone, who would you like to hit the road and share the stage with?
I assume alive, currently working, right?
TMC: Yes, yes. Someone still around today.
Umm, shit, right now I suppose any band that Jack White happens to be in would be cool. Kings of Leon would definitely be a wicked band to tour with, in terms of itís still Rock ní Roll but itís very modern andÖ you can follow a band like that and theyíve done it the right way. Slowly, inexorably moving ever upwards with still being their sound, their thing. But I donít know, I havenít given it any thought. Iíd be pretty open minded to touring with anybody with a good tour right now. Even if we donít like the act or whatever, weíll just make an attempt to blow them off stage or something. Right now, Iíve kind of been with the album and working on it for so long that any show is still really exciting.
TMC: Do you get out and see many concerts in New York?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of the times if itís at small clubs. Iíll usually go to things blind. You know, I went to see The Big Pink, I love that song Dominos. I thought they were pretty cool. But Iím usually working pretty hard, and after a day of rehearsing you need to give your ears a rest too. So, I havenít been tempted out of my lair for awhile though.
TMC: More or less, what would you say is your approach or philosophy with your music?
I suppose itís quite reactive. It depends on where I am, who Iím with. I have my core sort of shit, my core beat that I go to, sort of style of music that I like Ė which is quite old school. But I just like meeting people and bouncing ideas off them and whatever, because Iím a band guyÖ Iím a band guy at heart. I was in a band before I became a solo artist. I have that sort of approach to it. Iím not yet at the stage where I want to makeÖ. Iím not a control freak. So, I suppose itís just pretty easy going, and trying to just accumulate as much experience as possible at this point.
TMC: So where else have you traveled in the world other than Thailand, England, and the Big Apple?
Umm, not lots ofÖ. When I finished school I had a Lebanese friend, so I went to Beirut before it got smashed the second time. That was pretty cool.
TMC: Do you feel that the music youíre writing now has any Thai, or Eastern influences to it or do you feel the influences are predominantly Western?
Iíd like to think that thereís an Asian lilt in some of the melodies and parts. Some of the songs are about people and things that I was doing, or people I met when I was there. Definitely a song like ďMekong DeltaĒ is pretty obvious where thatís sort of leaning. Yeah, I am a Western guy as well, probably more so. But I donít know, I canít really judge. Iím not that introspective.
TMC: As a songwriter, and some one thatís collaborated with a lot of different names, whatís your stance on artists who donít write or record their own music?
Well, I think there are really great singers and really great performers. I think thatís totally valid. You buy their records because theyíre great singers. You know, and in the end a lot of the great ones end up writing their own stuff, they all do if they get successful. I think they realize that thatís whereÖ You know, if you do write your own music then you control what you get to put out, rather than waiting for people to give it to you. My position would be that anybody that is that kind of artist should brush up and start writing. I buy a lot of that kind of music, sort of that generic pop music. On occasion something will pop out and itíll be like, ďWow, thatís great.Ē You know like Brittney Spears ďToxicĒ or something, but most of the time it sort of passes me by. I acknowledge the craft of it, but yeahÖ Iím not gonna say that it should be banned or whatever, cause thatís what people like and enjoy. Iím a rock n roll guy, I like rock n roll. Iíll listen to a lot of hit stuff, but I like rock n roll most on the whole. Like Wolfmother lives right up my street, and thatís what I listen to.
TMC: Do you ever get to hang with those guys?
No, I havenít really hung out with anyone. Cause Iím really moving in a Ďpopí lane, you know? I feel the stuff Iím making, although it has Rock n Roll influences, I think of it as a pop record. So, itís a weird place to be. Iím kind of in an isolated lane.
TMC: So, I have to ask about "Old Tyme Religion," your title track, is the story from the point of view of a murdered person in a romantic love triangle. Is this a true story you heard or something you pieced together?
When I was in Thailand playing in the band, it was definitely something I feared a lot. Like, I had this fear and paranoia about like accidently hooking up with the Police Chiefs daughter in some rural town and having stingy hotel rooms, or motel room doors kicked in. So, it was definitely something that was on my mind. But the story about that actually came whenÖ. That track came into existence, and was called Old Tyme Religion, but done as a collaboration between Amanda and Johnny Flynn, who are British Folk artists. Pretty great, actually. And it was about music, and whatever, but nothing really happened with it. It was sort of a backing track from a Jay Z album that wasnít used. It may have been the American Gangster album or something, it was just floating around. So I was contacted by the A&R guy at Roc Nation and he gave it to me and said listen, ďYou need to fuckin do this song. Itís right up your street. Iíve been holding onto this song for awhile. But two things: Someone has to die, and you have to say Ďmother fuckerí.Ē And that was sort of how I made the decision to sign with Roc Nation.
TMC: Since weíre The Milk Carton, and our mission is "Music You've Been Missing," are there any artists, friends of yours perhaps, that you think we should check out?
Yeah, Iíve got some people uhhÖ. Thereís a guy, Scott McFarnon, whoís an incredible singer, that Iíve sort of been knocking around with when I was in London. I think we both ended up on Epic as well. Heís pretty good, heís amazing as a singer. I donít know. Iím a pretty solitary guy, man. I donít know any singers that you guys wouldnít probably have a better knowledge of the indie scene and whatevers goin on. I havenít been out of the cave really at this point.
TMC: Well, thatís alright too.
But you know all the stuff like fuckin Led Zeppelin, Free, and Son House, I listen to a lot of old music. Iíve barely passed í77. Iím still like, going through it you know? I think definitely Nick Drake. Everybody should listen to Nick Drake. Everybody should listen to Leonard Cohen. Everybody should listen to, ummÖ John and Beverley Martyn. Thereís an album by them called Stormbringer
which probably not many people know about which is amazing.
TMC: Yeah, I definitely havenít heard of it. Iíll have to check it out.
Yeah, itís 70ísÖ sort of an English folk guy. Itís great. Oh, and Johnny Flynn! Of course Johnny Flynn, is amazing. Check out ďBrown Trout Blues,Ē I think the song is called. Incredible.
TMC: Well, Hugo I greatly appreciate you talking with us and best success to you. Weíll come find you on the road.
Thank you, thank you. Likewise.