Jeremi Morris of Hanzelle has slipped into his “motherly” southern accent again – one part Paula Dean, one part lively Georgia bell, one part Gwyneth Paltrow in Country Strong. He, lead vocalist/cellist Casey Kauffman and drummer Dustin McCormick are sitting across from me at a narrow table in the back room of Mas Tacos, and I nearly spit out my tortilla soup in laughter the moment Michigan-native Jeremi lapses into his full-force biscuits-and-gravy-oh-my drawl. He’s no small guy, so the whole thing is like watching a blonde, slightly less hair-endowed Bobby Moynihan from Saturday Night Live rehearse a skit where he plays a Alabamian housewife.
“Sometimes, y’all just gotta tell yoself, git on stage!” he says sprightly. I’m giggling, but Casey looks unphased – she’s about half, maybe one-third his size, and staring at a chicken taco that she sporadically picks at with a plastic fork. It’s been a long day so far: she’s just gotten off a shift at 12th South Taproom where she can usually be seen running around the patio balancing pints of ale and lager on a tray and sporting the same Taproom-branded sweatshirt she’s wearing now. The missing band members, Peter Wallace (upright and synths) and Steven Palassis (guitar, vox) couldn’t get off work – a familiar burden for many up-and-coming musicians here in Nashville. In fact, Dustin arrived late, rushing over from his job – too late, actually, to order any food. It’s past four, and Mas Tacos is nearly empty and closing any minute now. Jeremi’s voice, drawl and all, is the only noise in the restaurant, save for some clinking dishes.
Of course “gittin’ on stage” is something Hanzelle’s been doing and working towards since 2008, when they first met as students at Middle Tennessee State University and bonded over a mutual love of experimental 90’s band Tortoise, classical music and prog rock – particularly German bands like Can, Kraftwerk and Stereolab. Jeremi and Casey got to know each other initially (Jeremi, now 34 and then a returning student at nearly 10 years her senior), eventually connecting with Dustin, Peter and Steven through mutual friends and classes. Casey was primarily focusing on cello and met Peter in orchestra, recruiting him to play bass.
“I think we first knew that something was there musically when we did mushrooms,” Jeremi says half-sarcastically, aggressively shaking a bottle of hot sauce over his fried avocado taco. Seriously? “Well, sort of. I mean, we did take mushrooms one time. Or a couple times.” Though Casey’s the lead singer, Jeremi’s the talker, hallucinogenics or not – in person and on-stage, from behind his synths and often covered in fluorescent accessories – and the comic relief (evidenced both by his penchant towards accents and little quips: like when our food first arrives, he looks down his and exclaims “I’m going to get my teeth decorated up in here!” which apparently means he’s anticipating the need for dental floss, with all this cilantro and all).
“There’s a great scene in Murfreesboro,” Jeremi says about the college town where MTSU is located. “Less about lower Broadway and more about experimental stuff. It’s an incubator for that sort of thing.”
And for bands like Hanzelle, of course. They self-released their first record, Bio-Electric Flower Pot, in 2008, and it says a lot about their sound in its name alone: organically formed, electronic influenced, cosmic roots. In short, they make music that doesn’t fit neatly into any corner of the current Nashville scene: not country, not Americana, nor indie or garage rock. With a sound rooted in Casey’s voice that can tackle both hushed tones and high shrieks, set to dreamy synths and pounding break beats, Hanzelle can hop from meditative swirls to acidic thumps in the drop of a hat. At one point, Jeremi even jokes that we should be talking on a roller coaster so it could serve as a metaphor, and he’s not far off: it rises and dives continuously, in a way that slaps a huge nervous grin across your face.
And while being outside of the Nashville musical pulse has been difficult, it’s also what has helped the band shape their identity. “When we first started playing shows not only in Nashville but in [my hometown of] Louisville,” Casey says, “no one knew how to define us. So we got paired with all sorts of bands and acts.” They were always very different from whoever else was sharing a bill – sometimes even polar opposites. And in a town of steel guitars, synthesizers stand out like a Kandi Kid at the Station Inn.
“It’s hard to find similar acts to play with when you are tossed between indie rock, rap and electronic,” Jeremi says. “So we’re out in the washing machine a bit.”
“But,” Casey adds, “it’s nice to not be drowned out.”
Over the past few years they’ve managed to find a unique niche, playing Mercy Lounge’s 8th of 8th showcase, Murfreesboro’s hipster-suburban-bikefest Tour de Fun and opening for touring bands whose musical aesthetics more closely mirror the own, like California’s complex dream-poppers Gardens & Villa and Atlanta’s electronic lo-fi outfit Washed Out (Hanzelle has also played a cover show of Outkast songs, as part of a benefit for Tennessee Teens Rock ’n’ Roll Camp). They went on to record a self-titled EP in 2010, and are currently prepping for the release of their still-untitled full-length in February of 2013. Jeremi lets me listen to a few of the potential tracks – still very raw and in demo-form at this point – and they’re as eclectic as ever. One tune, tentatively titled “Catch the Buzz” is full of space-age synths peppered by hyperactive drumming and another, “Pedulum,” sounds like the song version of a trippy dream where Prince is stuck in an Atari game, shooting at digital aliens. Nothing is predictable in melody while still unleashing a catchy enough beat.
“It’s music that can breathe a little,” says Casey. “That makes you bob your head but is still contemplative. Like, there’s a girl at the show who’s really into it, and then there’s a girl who’s just, you know, going buck.”
“What is that? Jeremi teases. “Going buck?”
Casey laughs, and waves her hands in the air – showing us how to go buck, I guess. “Anyway, there’s music that can make you want to feel outward, and music that makes you feel inward. I think a mix of both is important.”
Hanzelle certainly aims to – and accomplishes – both. One key principle of the band is to make music that is, at its hub, fun. “We’re not fans of spacebar bands,” Jeremi says. “I want to make happier music than that.” All of the sudden, he starts to cough, covering his mouth with one hand and pointing to his taco with the other. Too much hot sauce, apparently.
“I’m seein’ stars,” he says, in that drawl again. Funny thing – that’s what happens to me sometimes when I listen to their music. The stars, that is. Not the coughing. Or the accent.
The band records and writes constantly, often practicing in Jeremi’s living room and always as a collaborative effort –even though certain elements, like Casey’s lyrics, can be created alone. “Everyone has equal say in the final product” says Dustin. Sometimes that means hashing things out until they all feel content, even if feelings might get hurt a little. “Yeah, someone gets attached to their part,” adds Jeremi, “and someone else doesn’t like it – well, it gets real dramatic for a while, but eventually everyone’s happy.”
“We’d rather have it out in the open,” finishes Casey. “We don’t want people in the band going out for a cigarette and then talking shit about what someone else is doing.” This translates to the stage too: they put a good deal of thought into their live show and audience interplay. Jeremi will often talk and taunt the crowd, while Casey dances and swirls, affecting a persona that is at once awkwardly reserved and quirkily otherworldly. So, with big personalities like Jeremi’s, is it difficult for Casey to be the only woman in the band?
“Not really,” she says. “I mean, I’m not very emotional or anything.”
And this is where Jeremi – with a little mischievous glint in his eye – can’t resist interjecting. “Well, moon time gets a little intense,” he says laughing, an infectious chuckle that sounds like something that could come out of a stuffed bear toy when you squeeze its stomach. Me, Casey and Dustin look at each other confused. Moon time?
“You mean like…cycles?” I ask, and Jeremi nods. He giggles again. Ah. We get it now. Casey laughs for a moment, and then snaps immediately into seriousness again, continuing to answer my question.
“I don’t feel any different, really,” she says.
“You dance a lot better than we do.” Dustin and Jeremi agree.
“True. I do like to dance.”
Moves aside, Casey’s voice doesn’t fall into any typical female traps, and can be both girly and masculine all at once. Sometimes her delivery is feminine, “sometimes I sing more R&B, sometimes more like Prince, sometimes neither, ” she says. “It’s nice not to feel like there are any boundaries in my singing style.” Her orchestral training, however, is at the heart of her musical core, though it’s not always floating right on the surface. As a kid, she’d play Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins on her cello and write little ditties, to the point where her teacher had to have a talk with her parents, urging them to make her rehearse what she was given. And although Casey isn’t defiant, she, and Hanzelle in general, clearly like to eschew any rules. Mixing them all together and breaking them apart is much more fun.
“We’re fusion,” Dustin says, “but not world-fusion.”
“Just…” Jeremi begins.
“Fusion,” Casey finishes, and they all nod.
Now on to the challenge of picking a title for their upcoming record. Like each song, it will have to be something everyone agrees on. And, of course, also be grounds for a little sarcasm.
“How about you call it Moon Time?” I suggest.
“Why yes,” Jeremi says, as if he’s already shaped this one out in his mind. “They’ll be a old time gin bathtub filled with red beer…”
“Ohh,” says Casey. “Artsy! Only you, Jeremi.”
And, once again, they all nod together, laughing.