The Hudson Branch – named for a ‘Hello My Name Is’ sticker stuck to the t-shirt of a random child – comprises five earnest and talented Chicago-based brothers and friends: Cobey Bienert (vocals, guitar, ukulele, lyrics), Corey Bienert (drums, percussion, glockenspiel), Matthew Boll (bass, guitar, vocals), Jake Boll (guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, vocals) and Enoch Kim (piano, synth, violin, vocals). With a penchant for mash-ups and egged-on by a nagging suspicion of ‘higher’ education, the band decided to shake off the stresses of the looming white-collar world awaiting them by immersing themselves in the all-important work of making music.
Releasing debut LP Kohn in 2011 (which promptly won them Best New Artist at that year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival), The Hudson Branch duly forged ahead with their idiosyncratic collaborations for a second LP released last month – a sonically rich collection of boy-becomes-man-themed ideologies and wistful, instrumental imaginings entitled, World Kid.
Recorded with John McEntire (Tortoise, Broken Social Scene) and produced mixed by Neil Strauch (Andrew Bird, Iron an Wine, Anathallo), the ambitious brainchild that is World Kid embodies big ideas, even bigger aspirations, innate skill and obvious determination. Band members Corey, Cobey and Matt met up with me recently on speakerphone to chat about the new album, paraphrase some Wilde and Dylan, and to explain why they’re driven to work so hard to work out a future for The Hudson Branch.
World Kid is a myriad of instruments and atmospheres – How would you describe the overall sound we hear on the record?
Matt: A lot of times we get excited about the small things in our songs – an instrument, a riff, a melody – and then we just mash as much stuff as we can think of on top of that. At the end of the day, it’s really hard to categorize or sum up what we were even going for in the first place…
Corey: We tend to start off pretty atmospheric until a melody comes along and then the percussive instruments kind of carry the song from there…Being the drummer I take credit for that (laughs). We’re keen on melody but don’t do many choruses; we write the song as it happens and don’t continue going back to a catchy or poppy hook.
Is that conscious on your part to keep away from choruses?
Corey: That’s just how Cobey’s been writing them…
Cobey: I mean, we all have influences – the music we’ve grown up on and enjoy listening to – and that’s definitely a part of us but our process is more than just, ‘Hey, let’s write a pop song that kind of sounds like that one.’ It’s more about capturing the feeling we get when we listen to those songs, you know?
From reviews and articles so far, do you feel like people are getting World Kid?
Corey: The album’s been well received by our peers so we feel like people are getting us. There’s this Oscar Wilde quote: ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,’ so we appreciate any press we get, even if it’s bad reviews; it means people are listening to our music and giving it a chance.
Is there an overriding theme to this album – or a story its meant to tell?
Cobey: Yes, definitely.
Matt: Though not originally.
Cobey: The songs we included on this record were all written around a specific time frame. I was going to school and thinking about the working world after school and what did I really want to do? All the songs were reflective of my life – and our lives – as musicians trying to figure out what all of it meant.
What were you taking in school?
Cobey: I was…(laughs)…a writing major but I stopped going because I didn’t feel like I was learning anything; I wasn’t being challenged in the way I wanted to be and it wasn’t feeling like…‘higher education.’ (laughs) And that’s not to rag on college in general, but the particular one I was going to just wasn’t for me.
With tracks like Periodic Table of Elements and Muons, would you say this record has a cerebral edge?
Cobey: Yeah, that was my intention. You know, there was a point where Bob Dylan met with The Beatles and they jammed together. It was early on in The Beatles career when they were just writing their simple pop hits. Dylan basically told them that were good and had talent, but said that because they had such an important voice, it was necessary for them to say something about they things they cared about with their music and not just sing, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ In my mind, that must’ve been what took them the next level of their career where they experimented more as musicians and delivered a message. So for us, if we’re going to be writing songs I’d like to have a message and create something that will make people think and have discussions afterward…
Corey: And we all try constantly to keep learning and educate ourselves. I’m always listening to Podcasts and reading articles about the world, society, culture, science…I think that’s what makes our lyrical content the way that it is.
And is that where the name World Kid comes from? Your interest in the world around you?
Cobey: It’s definitely an aspect of it. When we were deciding the name for the album we’d already determined the theme for the record. One of the lyrics in Working World is ‘World kid, we’ll work it and work it out,” so we took that to define who we are – world kids trying to work it out in the world.
Matt: It’s pretty vague and ambiguous but the idea meant something to us.
So you put a lot of time and thought into the writing process – Can I take that to mean that once you enter the studio, the tracks are set in stone?
Matt: With the limitations of being independent, when we’re in the studio we have to get in and get out and do the best we can on one or two takes. We went in really prepared and had everything as ready as we could and then of course, we took it back to our own studio and tried to add in some fun stuff where we could, too.
Corey: We had the songs for this album ready for at least a year before we laid them down so our process of playing them live was pretty polished at that point; it was a relatively quick thing.
Do you feel like you learn a lot while you’re writing and recording – whether technically or philosophically – that you file away for future use?
Cobey: Well, after the four or five days that we had in the studio, we went off on our own and started experimenting. That’s where a lot of the uniqueness of the record came from. We share a lot of our ideas online and that’s the direction we want to keep moving in for the future. It’s really nice to experiment individually because the ideas feel less forced and we have time to sit on them and refine them.
Corey: We recorded a Christmas CD using Dropbox and ever since, we’ve been using it to write all of our songs and share all sorts of ideas now. Cobey will drop stuff in there and we’ll open it up and add our stuff to it. It’s a unique way to go about writing.
You produced a limited edition, physical multimedia songbook to go with the album, right?
Matt: Yeah, we wanted to produce a physical presentation of the music. Making a simple CD seemed almost obsolete to us and we didn’t think many people would put their money down for that. In the past we’ve made homemade songbooks so that people who don’t know our music can read the lyrics and sing along. With this one, we added a more multimedia edge: lyrics, photo, artwork, a short story and a download code for the record. It turned into something really nice to accompany the music.
Was the short story Work by [award-winning radio producer] Andy Mills [of NPR, PRX and WBEZ)] specifically written for for the album?
Corey: Yeah, it was. Andy’s been a part of a lot of stuff that we do. He got an advance copy of the record and then wrote the story. He’d been working on it for a while and a lot of his own life experiences are worked into there.
Matt: It’s autobiographical in the way that some of his experiences are in there, but not everything is necessarily fact.
So what’s your schedule been like since the album was released?
Corey: (Laughs) Well, it’s been crazy packed. We did that release show two days ago and that was this huge anvil hanging over our heads. We worked so hard getting everything prepared for that. For the past month, we’ve been scoring pieces for different media companies; we’re working on something else for WNYC and working on an acoustic show and other shows to promote the release…it’s just been jam-packed with promotion.
Matt: We’re independent – I mean, we hire people here and there to help us with things – and ultimately do everything that needs to be done by ourselves. That’s good and bad (laughs). It’s good to have that control but it’s bad because there’s just so, so much work to do.
What is a typical Hudson Branch show like?
Matt: (Laughs) That’s a good question. We have a few variations that we do. The main one is the classic, five-piece rock band format where nothing too out of the ordinary happens…
Corey: You’re basically seeing us perform the record live and that’s that.
Matt: And another type is the smaller shows where there’s a very small amount of people in attendance and they’re very intimate; on some levels they’re more exciting because of that intimacy. The third kind of show we do is a multimedia show where we combine storytelling aspects with live scoring to that storytelling…and then there’s recorded audio mixed in, too. It’s a mixture of rock band and theater and storytelling…
Cobey: We really like playing concerts (laughs).
It sounds almost like a Hudson Branch talent show!
Corey: We all juggle and there’s a few magicians in the band, too (laughs).
And bears riding unicycles?
Corey: That’s not too far from the truth.
So after all that hard work are you looking to take a break?
Corey: (laughs) I think we’re actually just starting to ramp up…
Cobey: Even though we just got done releasing this album that we put so much time and energy into, all that excitement quickly starts to disappear and we start thinking about how much we want to start working just as hard on the next thing. We’re going to get right back into the grind and start on a new EP or some more scoring and jump into whatever other projects might come along. We can’t wait to start getting back to work.
Matt: We’ll take a break for like, a week or something (laughs).