Heather Trost, as one-half of the duo A Hawk And A Hacksaw with Jeremy Barnes of Neutral Milk Hotel, a touring member of NMH, a member of Taper and a collaborator with groups like Beirut and Thor & Friends, has amassed years of enviable experience with some of the most respected figures in indie rock. But more than a supporting player, Trost has also built up a store of songs of her own, which will see the light of day on June 2, when she releases her debut album, “Agistri.”
Joined on the record by Barnes, Deerhoof’s John Dietrich on guitar and Drake Hardin and Rosie Hutchinson of Mammal Eggs, Trost has composed a cycle of songs that seem to inhabit their own space, maybe the Greek isle from which the album takes its name. We chatted with Trost about the new album and what she learned working with Neutral Milk Hotel, among other topics.
Did you approach “Agistri” with a theme, either lyrically or sonically, in mind?
Yes, I had cinematic imagery in my mind after visiting Greece last summer on tour with A Hawk and a Hacksaw. I often see a painting or a scene, or recall a dream while I’m wiring music, and I try to convey that picture sonically.
How did these songs come together? How would you describe the writing process?
A few of the songs like “3 feathers” and “Plastic Flowers” I started while on the road, I was literally watching beautiful scenery go by in the van, and I had some melody ideas that I would record later when we stopped. When I got home I recorded them properly at our studio. I slowly learned how to record during the songwriting process, so it took me much longer than it would have if I had an engineer, but it was rewarding because I got to do most of it myself.
Following up on that, did you have arrangements and additional instruments in mind right off the bat, or was that fleshed out later during the writing process?
I think the song I had the most fleshed out instrument-wise was the Harry Nilsson cover, “Me and My Arrow,” but I added lots of instruments to that later as well. I would start with the basic kernel of a song, chords, melody and then for the songs with drums Jeremy and I would record organ and drums, and then I would build on top of that.
Why has it taken until now to record your first proper solo album?
I was busy doing other projects, and when I had the chance I would write and record.
What did Jeremy, John, Drake and Rosie bring to this record? Were they immediately in tune with what you were going for, or did it take some time to explain it to them?
I had help from amazing guest musicians. Jeremy Barnes on drums, and some bass and organ, and John Dietrich on guitar. Drake Hardin mixed the album, and also played bass on it. Rosie Hutchinson is a great singer and violinist, and we all play in a band together called Tapered, so we often all work together on each other’s projects.
The sounds on the album are obviously very diverse. Is there a danger of being too “all over the map,” and if so, how do you guard against that?
Hmm, I’m not sure, I feel like a lot of the sounds speak to each other, especially the organs and synths. I guess I try not to guard against things when I’m being creative, and see what happens. I let things flow, and of course things get cut or added, but I went more by how they felt and sounded to me. I think a lot of the cohesion came from ideas
Why did you choose “Agistri” as the album title? Have you been there?
I have been there! Last summer, Jeremy and I played in Athens, and Agina and Agistri are the closest island to the port of Piraeus in Athens, so we decided to take a trip there. We rode bikes all around the island, and of course swam in the Aegean. I chose the name because it evokes an ancient feeling to me, also I feel like it has a connection to New Mexico. Even though it’s an island, it has an almost desert landscape to it. Beautiful rolling hills with pine trees and dry grasses.
What type of live show and set list are you planning for this album cycle?
I have a band, Jeremy Barnes on drums, Rosie Hutchinson on keys and backup vocals, myself on keys and singing, and Greg But era on bass and guitar. We will be doing songs from the album and some new ones I’m working on for the next album.
What else do you have planned to promote the album release? Any videos, special shows, etc.?
Naomi Yang directed two videos for me, one for “Agistri,” which was premiered on NPR, and another for “Bloodmoon,” which came out on Brooklyn Vegan. I would love to do an album release in Agistri, but I don’t think we can afford the flights! We will be touring this summer in the southwest and West Coast and hoping to get to the east and Midwest in the fall.
How do you feel you have changed as a writer, singer and musician since you started out?
I think in a way I’m less shy about putting my music out there. I’m also more free in collaborating, because I feel more sure of myself as a musician.
What influence did working with Neutral Milk Hotel have on you?
Everyone in the band is an incredible human and musician. I learned so much from playing with them. I have always loved “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea,” so getting to play with them, and hear those songs live every night was a huge gift and an unforgettable experience. It was amazing to see Jeremy Barnes play rock and roll drums, as we have been playing together for so many years as A Hawk and a Hacksaw, it was a new side of Jeremy that was beautiful and inspiring. Jeff Mangum is such an amazing singer and band leader. He has crazy stamina to sing the way he does every night, and he always did an incredible job. He has a huge respect for his audience and wanted it to be the best show it could be every time. That was a big influence on me.
How would you describe the Albuquerque music scene?
An oasis in the desert if you know where to look.
What impact did the town have on your early musical life?
I grew up in the mountains outside of town and didn’t live there till I was 18. But in high school I would occasionally go to concerts in Albuquerque. Once I started college there, I went to DIY shows and started playing in bands. I honestly didn’t come to truly appreciate Albuquerque or New Mexico until I left.
What type of music did you listen to growing up? How were you exposed to new music (friends, family, record store, etc.)?
I learned to love psychedelic rock and roll and classical music in equal parts from my dad. Sadly there was no record store where I grew up, but we would go to Albuquerque and go to Hastings and buy used CDs when we could. In high school, I was exposed through friends to heavier music, especially older siblings of friends (I’m the oldest in my family, so I passed down music to my siblings). My favorite bands were Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Portishead and my old roots from my dad, Santana, the Doors, Pink Floyd. In college, my tastes expanded to older music, and folk music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. But also to more electronic things, like Stereolab, Broadcast, Kraftwerk, Can, Neu, as well as rock like Captain Beefheart (who Jeremy introduced me to) and newer stuff like the Pixies.
What’s next for A Hawk and a Hacksaw?
We are working on a new record and doing soundtrack work. We finished the soundtrack for an Albanian TV show, which was fun.
What other projects are you working on?
I mentioned Tapered earlier, we are finishing a record. We have 10 hours of material we are working on to get down to an album-sized worth of music. Jeremy and I have a label, LM Duplication, which we are releasing stuff on. We recently recorded on the forthcoming Thor and Friends album, and will be releasing that soon.