Talking with The Hecks

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I have an ongoing problem where every time I see a band that’s intriguing and/or inspiring I become convinced I should move to whatever city they are from. Luckily the first time I saw Chicago’s The Hecks I was already in their city, otherwise I would have probably caught a plane to Chicago the next day. The two-piece, which consists of Andrew Mosiman on guitar and Zach Hebert on drums, have only been playing live since December but the two have already managed to self-release a tape, go on tour with local trio Bomb Banks and be named the “Best New Rock Duo” by The Chicago Reader.

The Hecks are known for a tense, stripped down sonic sound that manages to be beautiful, distressing and unique all within three to four minute spans. This mix of weird pop sensibility is largely thanks to Mosiman’s manipulation of a two to three string guitar and Hebert’s penchant for innovative percussion techniques, which include everything from maraca shakers to concert mallets. I recently sat down with Andrew and Zach to discuss the already significant evolution of their sound, what it means to be a band in Chicago and the benefit of band comparisons for one’s music library.

How did you two get involved in music? Had you each been in bands prior to The Hecks?

Andrew: I’ve been a musician for 15 or 16 years just through various things coming up in high school band and throwing myself into all sorts of different instruments. This is my first rock band; I’ve played fiddle in bluegrass and hot swing jazz for a long time. I was searching what the thing I wanted to do was and when you’re young you always love Rock ‘n’ Roll the best. I don’t know why I skirted around the thing for so long. I would say this is our first go. Zach didn’t even play drums before we started.

Zach: Yeah. I started playing drums with this band and this is also my first actual rock band. Same as him, I’ve done music since I was a kid with marching band and stuff. Rock was something I listened to but was never something that I did…until very recently.

People could describe the band’s style of playing as more “esoteric” due to guitars strung with two to three strings and many different tools and percussion techniques utilized on the drums. Do you think each other’s past in different musical genres led to this nontraditional playing style?

Andrew: I think at first we were really, really conscious that it was just the two of us and we were just trying to have this barrage of different sounds coaxed out of normal ones. Almost in order to trick someone into thinking having two people was okay. Being self conscious about that went away after awhile and then it was just what we did. We’ll be searching for new things for songs and maybe we’ll be looking at the practice room floor and see a tambourine and realize we haven’t used that before and incorporate it.

Zach: For me, not having played drums for too long, it was really nice approaching an instrument with a clean slate. My playing is less about what I’ve done and more about what I don’t do. I try my best to avoid all the drum clichés and there are a lot of them. I think everyone is kind of sick of them. I’m a pretty straightforward drum player. A lot of that comes from frankly my lack of experience but also because I want to play as tastefully as possible and be the puzzle piece that fits in with what Andrew is doing.

Seeing you play live, it does really seem that you both lock into each other well. I’ve noticed you play facing one another, which I’ve seen other two-pieces do as well. I was curious how that started and I was also wondering if any improvisation happens from that during live shows?

Andrew: You wouldn’t practice facing the same wall [chuckles] so we practice facing each other. Depending on the night, especially at the get-go, I would get really bad nerves and a friend was like “You don’t have to face the audience if you don’t want to. Everyone could leave the room and you wouldn’t know and you would just keep playing the gig.” You can just face the other member of the band and it’s a really positive thing to do. We haven’t done it much recently, I don’t know if we got more confident in what we are doing. On the improvisation front – pretty rarely.

Zach: I would say anti-improvisational.

Andrew: Improvisation was a big part of what I use to be. I was really into Phish and jazz/improvisational music. In my mind if you couldn’t play it right the first time you can’t play it all. It was basically the chance you got and you took a stab at it and if you didn’t get it, you couldn’t get it. It wasn’t until I was 23 or something and someone was like “Oh, you can sit down and work out a part and spend hours on it and that will be the good thing.”

Zach: Now, we spend twelve hours on a minute of a song.

Andrew: It’s getting harder. We probably should start facing each other again [laughs].

In regards to the current Chicago scene, this summer some noteworthy and beloved DIY spaces closed. What is your take on that and where the DIY scene is headed. Would you say it is going into a new chapter?

Andrew: I haven’t been around long enough to give a really qualified assessment. I’ve only been here 2.5 years myself, but nobody that had been running those spaces or had been involved and frequenting them for years and years really made it seem like the closing was a bad thing. It was like “This happens, it is always happens. These things always have a short life span.” It was some pretty ridiculous circumstances and a few really amazing spaces got wiped out lickety split for no reason, but necessity being the mother of invention there will be something bigger, better. We always pull through. We’ll move on. I mean I’m expecting better things. Chicago artists are the most resourceful people. I have no idea how they do the things they do.

There is so much interesting and varied music occurring in Chicago along with it being a warm and cooperative community. What do you think being a band in Chicago is about and how have you found entering the scene to be?

Andrew: We were first practicing and working on stuff for a long time before we played a show and you kind of are moving your focus from participating in things as an audience member to wanting to participate as a performer and I remember thinking “how cool.” I can only bounce this off other places I’ve lived, but Chicago is so open to whatever you want to do. If you have a Nine-piece Mandolin Orchestra that plays Italian music and then Springsteen covers they are like “That’s cool, I want you to play at my house!” It seems like musical show and tell and there are also always people in the audience. I’ve not been to many poorly attended DIY shows in Chicago. We were worried about not being weird enough. It was an ongoing conversation, like “That was a pretty good song Zach but…

Zach: It’s really poppy and likable. I bet everyone will hate it.” We’ve changed a lot since our first show where we were a little more traditional, but even then people still embraced it.

What direction have you gone in, just simply a weirder one?

Zach: I think we kind of had a base in likable music and went from there but still have kept that pop sensibility.

Andrew: I feel like early on we would go with our gut instinct and now even more we try to fight our instinct. Like the first thing that pops in our head that we’d want to hear is the absolute last thing we are going to go with. Then you have to go with something clever and figure out what you don’t want to do there and try to make that work. That doesn’t work very often but when it does you get something really cool out of it. I personally was just getting kind of bored with what we were doing. We got to the end of this scuzzy drivey sound where everything was low and blown out. We reached the end of that. We had like three or four songs that were great and seven or eight others that were okay. We had exhausted it completely. There were a weird couple of months there. Stringing guitars with fishing line trying to find what the next thing would be and when we finally got there it felt really good. It was a lot of work of trying to defeat ourselves.

Zach: Prior to that we had decided our music had too much balls. It sounded too grossly masculine.

Andrew: Yeah! It sound like it really had a dude element to it.

How do you feel you were able to step away from this former maleness in your music?

Andrew: I had a freak-out. This is still ongoing in my head, but I think there is a girls’ club in the world and I think the artistic world of women is way more fascinating. I wanted to make sure that we were at least making a gesture towards it with the things we were doing. That it doesn’t have to be all snarl and leather. I’ve been really proud at shows where we get booked with a lot of garage acts. Where every singer takes his shirt off and every guy with a beard in the audience is in a leather jacket and I’m wearing like a maternity shirt playing these high twangy awful sounds and it is very poorly received. I don’t know but it seems like success to me [laughs] because there is this other half too. I wouldn’t say it is specifically feminine but our sound is just trying to get a little bit away from the male centric. Rock ‘n’ Roll has been a boys’ game for so long. I think women’s voices right now are amazing and there are so many artists right now that are just killing it. They can break out of the gender role of being a woman in a band and just be a member in a band. That is what I think is so cool. That female sensibility that naturally I don’t have but wanted to acknowledge that it was out there in the universe.

I’ve noticed that in the past year or so people are getting away from the whole “There is a girl in a band!” to it just being a person in a band, as you pointed out.

Zach: Chicago is very good for that.

Yeah! There are so many women in bands or in the audience here, it’s great. Was this need to change the sound something you, Zach, also picked up on and then you both had a meeting of the minds about it?

Zach: I guess Andrew was losing his and I was following him down that path. That’s usually how it goes.

Do you guys envision in the future a change or incorporation of new instruments into the band?

Andrew: That has been a weird ongoing dilemma in my head. When you were asking why we use these weird percussion things or why our guitar is tuned that way, it is just for that search of finding something that is new and different. Now it is natural as in now we can speak Spanish, so if you’re asking do we want to speak French? Yes, a little bit, but not so much that we stop speaking Spanish. I’m always concerned because there are two ways you can go about making more sound with just two people. One is you can have pedals and things that are prerecorded and drones or something like that, which is kind of odious in my mind because it creates an environment of doubt. Computers ninety-eight percent of the time today confuse me and every time I see a laptop onstage I’m wondering what it is doing. That is a powerful device right there.

Zach: You can have infinite options.

Andrew: It could be a whole orchestra. Our limitations have always defined what we’ve done and I’ve always thrived on that.

Zach: Our lack of options.

Andrew: I love when the frame to your canvas is tiny. I can push the edges of it because I know exactly where boundaries are and it’s fun to nudge them.

Do you guys have plans to tour for the seven-inch coming out in October on Moniker Records?

Andrew: That would be nice. We’re still pretty far in the hole from the last one. It is weird coming of age in a band and recognizing what it takes if you want to make it your thing. It takes a lot of time, money and yourself. Being just us two financing it, if we are gone for even two weeks we come back broke. We loved the last tour and that has been the hard part, because I feel like when we were out there that was what we should be doing. This is what we spend all our energy on and are most qualified for. Nine out ten people are going to be able to pull a better shot of espresso than me but I feel I can be in the Hecks better than anyone else.

When researching you two I came across a lot of live videos of past shows. What is your opinion on being filmed or photographed?

Andrew: I hate it. I mean I can only speak for myself and it’s not right of me to tell someone not to do it if you want to, it’s fine obviously. As new as we are though maybe someone will have never heard us and look us up on YouTube and the sound quality could be bad or it was a really bad night so I just wish there was a filter for that. I don’t think that just showing up and playing in someone’s basement for seven people means it has to be on the Internet. I’ve always thought it was really nice when someone comes up to you before you play and tells you they had the intention of filming for the purpose of putting on the Internet and asking if it was okay. That way there is option to have it run by us. I have no problem if it is a good thing and it’s your right regardless.

Zach: I feel like there is this one video of us that is the most watched from January when we played Ball Hall…

Andrew: That’s like our second show.

Zach: And that’s a completely different band and it’s still like “The Hecks are playing, check this out!” but you’re not going to see that band and maybe you won’t like that but you’ll like what we are doing now. It’s just a very different band.

From the opinion of an audience member who notices taping and such, it can really take away from the moment and perhaps make someone miss the experience because they are overly concerned with capturing it.

Andrew: John from Bomb Banks, I wasn’t there to witness this, but he got really mad at someone who was filming at a show and this is my sort of truth now. He was like “This show is for the people who came to see it and if you missed it is your fault. It is not for the leisure of watching it on the bus on your smart phone.” I think that was a really good way of making it bigger than just the physicality of being filmed. John’s philosophy of the whole thing is something I’ll stand by any day of the week.

Many times bands get annoyed at being constantly compared to other, perhaps more well-known bands or continually being put in micro-genres. Is this something you two have experienced?

Zach: Not to too large a scale. We’ve been called noise or garage earlier on. I don’t think either of those defines us at all but it hasn’t become a big thing in an annoying way.

Andrew: There have been some really beneficial comparisons to bands I’ve never heard before like Wire, which was how I got into them. Someone was like “Oh you guys’ sound like Wire” and I listened to them and I was like “Oh wow, we do, and this band is really amazing. I guess we have to do something different than them.”

Zach: Yeah, same with Brainiac, which someone also compared us to. I had never heard of them before and they’re really cool.

Andrew: We’ve really gotten turned onto some good music by unconsciously ripping it off. […] I don’t think I’ve ever been in a music scene or exposed to one that was so inspiring as Chicago’s. Like “Whoa you guys live down the block and are making something I’ve never heard before.” I don’t think The Hecks could really exist in any other city.

See The Hecks next August 14th with The Estrogen Highs and House Sounds at Empty Bottle.