In only a year the Brooklyn based duo known as Hank & Cupcakes have become underground music royalty in New York City. Their live show prompts one to question the rocking duet since there are only two people on stage, yet they somehow sound like six.
Much of that has to do with their training. Hank is a virtuoso on the bass who plucks through complicated riffs at blinding speed. His wife, the affable Cupcakes who is a master pianist by trade, works triple duty as drummer, vocalist, and hype-woman. They’ve described their sound as “minimalist-pop”, but there’s nothing minimal about their live show or the songs they write.
I caught up with the duo last weekend before their set at the Delancey in Manhattan, where they described why they came to New York and how Hank makes his bass sound like a piano, guitar, and synthesizer wrapped in one.
Matt Thomas: Describe your transition from Israel to the states.
Hank: Well, we didn’t come directly from Israel to Brooklyn. We originally went to Cuba [under a student visa] to study music. Cuba was an intense experience. The music was great, but it was. . . challenging to live there. All the systems there are different. Nothing is held by the people. There’s a lot of control.
Over there, $30.00 a month is more than what a doctor makes. I’m serious. The way people make extra money is by renting out rooms, which is how we got a place. And that’s legal. But some places, like the place where we lived, the owners rented out their whole place and were never there. That was illegal. People start watching you. I was getting paranoid. It was just constant stress. You start closing the shades.There were all these surprise inspections; they were always asking to see the owners. I thought we were going to be arrested. I lost 20 pounds.
Cupcakes: It’s a closed off kind of culture. We had to get used to being alone for a long time. We couldn’t call overseas, and the only access to the Internet are in these public areas. You have to wait two hours in line just to send an e-mail.
H: It was unforgettable. Life changing in terms of music. A reservoir of music.
C: It’s all Cuban music. Because it’s so cut off from the rest of the world it’s untainted. There’s no Britney Spears or anything like that. No mainstream influence. It’s a very pure form of music. We learned a lot [while studying] at Havanna University. I can actually say I have a degree now.
MT: How did the band form?
C: I [originally] studied classic piano. Hank & Cupcakes started by accident. We were both teaching music [in Israel] and got bored.
H: I was losing weight again.
C: They were letting teachers use the rehearsal space, so we started playing there and practicing as much as we could. The band formed from there.
MT: For a two piece band the two of you have an unbelievably rich and full sound. Can you explain how you’re able to get that out of a bass?
H: A lot of effect boxes; a synthesizer; filters; delays; trigger recordings that I record before shows; and I’ve really learned how to use pedals.
C: I call him a PEDALphile. Hank has learned to be an unreal multitasker.
MT: There aren’t too many drummers out there who double as lead singer, especially not ones who do both while standing up. Was it difficult to transition from piano to drummer/singer?
C: There was no transition. I write all the songs on piano. [The drums] came very naturally to me. Well, I guess it was pretty hard at the beginning.
H: It’s pretty shocking to see [Cupcakes] up on stage. The split duties.
C: The singing was difficult. Sitting behind the drums was hurting the projection of my voice. That’s why I have to stand while I play.
MT: Describe how you go about recording a song.
C: We’re just crazy.
H: We rehearse a lot.
C: Our aim is to not to sound like a band [where the listener is constantly asking] “where are the other members of the band?” We like being minimalist, but we don’t let ourselves slip into the same old bass and drums sounds. It’s like going into the lab. It takes a great deal of discipline to take a song from piano and make it work [with our setup].
H: Every song is like research. Sometimes it’s very random. Sometimes you work on a song for six months. Other times, it will just happen in a week. It’s like a riddle. Every song has to have its own logic that makes sense.
C: We’re constantly working on new songs. We just recorded a new single.
MT: Do you want to eventually sign with a major record label, or would you rather remain as underground artists?
C: We totally want to be on a label.
H: There are things a label can do that we cannot. What we want are resources and possibilities.
C: A label can help us develop the relationships we need to get our sound out to as many people as possible.
H: When you’re on a label it means something: you’ve made it.
Hank & Cupcakes are now on their east coast tour. Check them out in a town near you:
11/6 @ The Putnam Den in Saratoga Springs, NY
11/8 @ The Bug Jar in Rochester, NY
11/10 @ Castaways in Ithaca, NY
11/11 @ TT the Bear's in Cambridge, MA
11/12 @ The Electric Company in Utica, NY
11/13 @ Jillian's in Albany, NY
11/14 @ The Space in Hamden, CT
11/15 @ The Red Palace in Washington DC
11/16 @ Club Sonar in Baltimore, MD
11/17 @ Tea Bazaar in Charlotesville, VA
11/19 @ The Drunken Unicorn in Atlanta, GA
11/20 @ The Milestone in Charlotte, NC
11/21 @ The Pour House Music Hall in Raleigh, NC
11/23 @ The Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn, NY
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