[28 March 2014]
Hans Chew doesn’t stop there as his piano style draws deeply from the playing of New Orleans masters and he clearly imbibed the grooves of classic British rock, such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Life & Love is a barn burning smoker of a record that’s simply irresistible. Now, we’re going to step assign and let Hans Chew tell you about the creation of the album.
TRACK BY TRACK
This song is our own creation myth, the story of the birth of man and civilization, so it’s fitting as the opening track of the album. The concept for “Chango” began spontaneously somewhere in Texas in a van on the way to SXSW in 2012. I was at the wheel, perhaps delirious from the two-day-straight drive to Austin from New York, and the word “Chango” just came into my head. I began chanting it rhythmically and after a moment our bass player Ricardo Ortiz says, “what are you saying?!” Then he goes on to explain to us that when he was a boy in Puerto Rico his grandmother used to call him Chango, after the mischievous grackles indigenous to that region. That was uncanny, so after a little research I discovered that the indigenous Taino peoples of Puerto Rico had sculpted images of Changos (one of which features on the album cover) and also that the town that Ricky is from is named after the Taino word for the river that runs along the region, the Bayamóngo. I added together the lyrical imagery of a mythical bird soaring high above the river, crying down the to the proto peoples of the land, breathing life into humanity.
2. “Tom Hughes Town”
The title “Tom Hughes Town”, as well as the song’s choruses, come from Leadbelly’s “Fannin Street (Mr. Tom Hughes’ Town)”. Leadbelly recorded the song at least three times that I know of, and in every version he imitates the sound of himself and his mother crying. I was obsessed for a while with one particular recording in which the crying sounds are some of the most emotively painful and beautiful things I had ever heard, so I set out to try to reproduce them and incorporate them into my own material! I found resonance in Leadbelly’s lyrics, and had no trouble writing my own. Both songs are about memory and guilt, and the genesis of mine came mainly through the experience of a loved one dying. I received a phone call saying that my grandmother had a heart attack, and that if I wanted to see her alive again I should come to Tennessee right away. So I rushed off to LaGuardia airport with the clothes on my back to jump on the next flight to Nashville. I made it to the airport just in time for the flight, but while we were waiting to board, the announcement came that the flight was delayed due to the torrential rains that were coming down. During the delay I got the call that my grandmother had unexpectedly died on the operating room table during open heart surgery. So as not to lose it in public, I made my way up and out to the curbside, went to the very end of the terminal sidewalk out from underneath the awning, and stood in the rain and cried. It felt incredible.
The song “Love” was my attempt to write a love song for my wife in spite of myself. I guess if you hear it, it’s kind of an anti-love song in a way. Regardless, my wife was none too impressed. She loves the song now, but at that time the song was kind of a disappointment. I mean, the chorus phrasing flips around in a way that sounds like I’m saying “anything but love”, but it’s actually the opposite sentiment, nothing but love. I was feeling incapable of expressing myself in a meaningful way, to write a great love song, and that’s what came out. I was pressuring myself to come up with something grandiose and then just tore it down to what you hear there on “Love”. Ironically, I think that the heaviest emotion and expressivity is successfully achieved wordlessly in the instrumental outro of the song, a one-take bit of improv at the end where we captured something special in a fleeting moment on tape.
4. “Strange Love”
“Strange Love” came out of a painful experience my wife and I went through around the time of our wedding in which we had a tumultuous falling out with people we loved. It was the first time in my life I had ever experienced anything so intense and unbelievable, like finding out your brother is an imposter or something, very surreal. I needed to express some of the feelings I had, and I felt it was best to do it in a song rather than interpersonally, for better or for worse. Basically the song contrasts two “loves”: one exclusive, another that supersedes.
“Goodnight” is a song that was written in about 15 minutes on an acoustic guitar. For me, that’s about 3,000 times faster than the next quickest song I’ve ever written. This one is the real love song, the natural, effortless one that I was trying to write when I was fooling around trying to write “Love”. It’s the story of me coming to NYC alone, just starting out, and then meeting my wife and falling in love, and then the feeling of being connected, extra-physically even, to be able to whisper “goodnight” into the wind and feel that the message is somehow received.
The inspiration for “Mercy” came around the time I discovered the idea of Guanyin in eastern religions, the goddess of mercy. I had already been thinking about the idea of “mercy”, both the physical action of one showing kindness to someone who has affronted or harmed them, as well as the idea of divine mercy in times of great suffering. I happened to overhear a Buddhist dharma talk that my wife was listening to while she was painting in which a monk was teaching the concept of the goddess of mercy. I thought it was perfect that the god of mercy be female, and I liked the depictions of her carrying a vessel of pure water for the thirsty, as well as the beauty of her form in Hindu and Buddhist painting and sculpture. At this time I had also been struggling with wanting to express something regarding my feelings dealing with a young man fighting a tough battle with mitochondrial disease, who was confined to a wheelchair and losing the ability to speak. My wife had also recently experienced the tragic loss of her best friend to diabetes, and I needed some context to express my need to find comfort for her. So all of these ideas worked well with the concept of the goddess of mercy lending us her hand.
7. “The Wedding Song”
“The Wedding Song” was written specifically for two of my best friends, whom I introduced, who got married. They asked me if I wanted to write and perform something at their wedding, and this is what I came up with. The characters in the lyrics are chosen both for being plays on my friends’ real names as well as for metaphors of their personalities. The story is an imagining of the wedding between Daphne from Greek mythology and the disciple James from the Christian Old Testament.
8. “The Supplanter’s Song”
This one’s a nice sonic mix of gospel piano, salsa, boogaloo, and psychedelic rock. It’s a father/son tale, spanning from Isaac and his son Jacob of the Old Testament to Tzar Peter the Great of Russia and his son Alexis through to me and my father, with a subplot involving the creation of the universe. It also features a raucous drum solo from mad drummer Jesse Wallace.
9. “Junker’s Blues”
Closing out the album is our riff on the ancient New Orleans barrelhouse piano number interpreted variously by Willie “Drive ‘Em Down” Hall, Champion Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker, and so on. It’s the tale of the Junco Partner, the man forever running from his own shadow. Ours is a hungry, jonesing, desperate, screaming fury, just as determined to stay one step ahead of the Junco Partner as he is of himself.