The hallway into Hearts of Palm’s rehearsal space/studio has the sparse look of a contemporary art gallery: white walls, soft lighting, intriguing paintings at optimal intervals. Upon entering the Electronic/Noise band’s creative lair, the atmosphere shifts to a chaotic combination of frat house rec room and property closet for an avant-garde community theater.
A wig on a mic stand. Semi-abstract nude paintings. Ancient and contemporary band fliers. Peeling collages. Broken vinyl albums. Circuit bending devices with faces constructed out of dials and knobs. And musical instruments of and beyond every conceivable description.
“That thing back there against the wall with the red wheel on it,” says Hearts of Palm multitasker Jay Wilson. “That’s a piano soundboard. That will play percussively generally.”
There’s nothing traditional about Hearts of Palm, the music they make or the way that they make it, particularly on their recently released sophomore album, Trance Nipple Manifestation. Wilson and his musical collaborators Mike Hancock (he and Wilson also make up the rhythmic Electronic duo French Crips) and Dave Chamberlain, are all multi-instrumentalists whose roles within Hearts of Palm’s framework are constantly shifting. And the sound that results from the trio’s spontaneous improvisation can be jarring or soothing, but is never anything less than compelling.
“Our strongest suits are and have been our approach to percussion and our dynamics,” says Wilson. “And the way music moves and breathes as we’re doing it.”
Hearts of Palm’s roots go back more than a dozen years to bands and impromptu musical gatherings that ultimately led to the group Mystery Mary.
“It was a musical house,” says Wilson. “People moving in and out all the time, always good people.”
In early ’98, a busted rehearsal with a friend of Hancock and Chamberlain’s and a chance visit from Wilson, who had moved out of the house, led to an interesting musical discussion.
“We’re talking about music and free improv, and somebody picks up some keys (rattles keys rhythmically), and next thing it’s ‘Let’s go to the basement,’ ” says Wilson. “After weeks of doing it every Sunday, we came up with the name. We’ve been recording the whole time, on cassette, four-track, boombox, whatever. I finally got a computer for here and then we started loading up the hard drive.”
Although Hearts of Palm began playing out and have maintained their Sunday afternoon sessions, they didn’t actively pursue recording an actual album until three years ago. The band had documented their Sunday explorations before deciding to release an album. Hearts of Palm’s eponymous 2006 debut received, as Wilson describes it, “limited acclaim,” although it earned positive coverage in Wire, England’s modern music journal.
“I sent out 10 copies and we got four pretty great reviews,” says Wilson. “But we haven’t had any American press at all. There’s only a couple of American magazines that cover this stuff. So as far as I know the reviews have all been from the UK.”
Because Hearts of Palm drew on their extensive tape archive as the first album’s foundation, the material has an admittedly shifting center point, sounding, as Wilson describes it, like “a compilation of a bunch of different bands.” For Trance Nipple Manifestation, they narrowed their focus and pulled the majority of material from one particular session, giving the album a greater sense of cohesion.
That structure is repeated to a greater degree on the next Hearts of Palm album, which will be released later this year on a Spanish label called For Noise’s Sake.
“It’s the complete session, 43 minutes long, the three of us improving on mainly percussion instruments,” says Wilson. “I had chopped it up into pieces and then we listened to the master and it never lets up. It’s always great, it flows and changes beautifully, and there’s great dynamics. I wanted to songify it, but our music generally has no framework unless we’ve got some sampled beat.”
After reviewing the session, the trio will improv over the improv to create the final album, which they hope to deliver to the label in mid-May. They plan to continue this productive period by playing out slightly more and by incorporating more visual imagery into their equally improvised stage presentation. Their recent live improv alongside the ’60s cult film Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda was so successful that they were inspired to pursue crafting original accompanying video footage.
“It was crazy, effected footage of the grass growing in my yard,” Wilson says. “We’re a Petri dish here, a real experiment, and the act of being observed changes our experiment, not usually in a good way. The film takes the pressure off. People are looking at that, and we can look at the image and maybe get something out of that. It’s a natural kind of thing. Anytime we try to put restrictions or parameters on something, it can screw us up. It’s just got to sort of be. There’s really magic in what we do.”
For more on HEARTS OF PALM, check out myspace.com/palmofhearts.
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