31 January 2012

Interview: Mayer Hawthorne


The story of the beginnings of Mayer Hawthorne is a good one: performing hip hop music as DJ Haircut, he gave a couple of blue-eyed soul sounding tracks "as a joke" to Stones Throw Records boss Peanut Butter Wolf - who then asked Hawthorne to record a whole album in that style. On the eve of his world tour, VOLUME magazine spoke with the man born Andrew Cohen about being Mayer.

"It was a little daunting at first, for sure," says Cohen, speaking about recording his debut, "But people are really smart and they can sense when something is real and something is fake, so I knew I had to just really be myself."

I'm really glad he brought it up. One of the peculiar things about using different aliases when making music is when only one of the aliases is lauded. The idea of the wonky-angled baseball-cap wearing hip hop DJ Haircut becoming the sharp-dressed ladies man Mayer Hawthorne - essentially overnight - is fascinating, but has seen Cohen's authenticity come into question. "If I was playing a character, well, I'm not a good actor, so I think people would've seen through that and it wouldn't have worked like it did."

Beyond the challenge of writing an albums' worth of material in one defined style, there was also the small matter of fronting a band for the first time. "It was something I'd never really done! I'd never been the lead singer of any group." Cohen had been the bass player, the beatmaker, the one who provided a canvas for the frontmen to paint over. "It was definitely something that took a lot of getting used to, but I had to bite the bullet, dive in to the deep end head first and say 'Am I gonna do this or not?'"

There's little doubt he did it. The first track Cohen wrote as Mayer Hawthorne was also his lead single and an absolute gem.  Just Ain't Gonna Work Out was part-Dilla, part-Smokey Robinson, yet all fresh. The door opened to considerable success - and this is where it gets interesting: is it possible for someone who has found such success in one style to progress that sound without losing their fanbase? Cohen thinks so: "That was kind of the main focus for the new album. I thought to myself why am I making this music with just one style, when I grew up listening to every style of music? I was really proud of the new record, I felt like it wasn't retro-soul, it wasn't throwback-soul, it wasn't new-soul - it was Mayer Hawthorne. I felt like I found my own sound on this record."

That Mayer Hawthorne sound is rooted in his upbringing. "Detroit is the shit, man! It's a beautiful place with a lot of creativity, and a lot of amazing culture. It's also a really hard-working, blue-collar place to live, so I'm really grateful for that work ethic that was instilled in me early on."

Cohen grew up in Ann Arbour, Michigan, with an incredibly supportive family."I was really blessed to grow up in a musical household. My Pops taught me to play bass when I was six years old and he still plays in a band in the Detroit area to this day. My Pops was a huge influence on me, of course, he still is!" There's a great piece of footage on YouTube of Mayer Hawthorne and band performing in the Cohen family basement at halftime during the SuperBowl final (there was a massive uproar in the US when Nickelback were announced as the official halftime "entertainment"), with "Pops" on bass.

From a tight family unit growing up to signing with Stones Throw for his debut album, Cohen has had great support as he has become Mayer Hawthorne. "I still talk to Peanut Butter Wolf almost every day, man! Stones Throw are like a family, and I think that's part of the magic of it, you know, that Dam-Funk and Wolf and James Pants and I can go to the record store together and dig for records, and it has nothing to do with releasing our music or performing, it's about our shared love for music."

Ever the gentleman, Cohen has convincingly - and with considerable class - let me know that Mayer Hawthorne is as real as it gets. How do you do?

Interview by David Carroll


Earth, Wind & Fire 'Let's Groove' (1981)
"That was a huge record for me as a kid."

The Police 'Synchronicity' (1983)
"I remember that was the first record that I actually bought with my own money. It was on cassette tape and because it was my Dad's cassette, and I'd played it so much I wore it out and it snapped, and he made me buy him another one!"

The Beatles 'Rubber Soul' (1965) and 'Help!' (1965)
"My Dad's favourite is definitely 'Rubber Soul' so that was probably the first one that he put me onto; but I remember the 'Help!' soundtrack too. I really loved that one as a kid. There was just something about those tunes that just really connected with me as a little shorty."

The Doobie Brothers 'Minute By Minute' (1978)
"That was a big record for me growing up."

Steely Dan 'Aja' (1977)
"Steely Dan are one of my favourite groups of all time. Man, I got a chance to see Donald Fagen play with Michael McDonald and Boz Scaggs out here, and that was one of the most epic moments of my life, seeing them all play together!"

Original interview and sidebar appeared in Volume magazine issue #20
Go check out the whole issue here.
For more on Mayer Hawthorne, try here.
For more about the New Zealand shows, click here.

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