Some dismissed Mayer Hawthorne’s debut, A Strange Arrangement as overly contrived. But the record was truly one of the great growers of 2009, helped in no small measure by Stones Throw Records and Hawthorne’s vintage connoisseur taste. Not to mention, Hawthorne’s rare knack for pleasantly deluding people into believing that they could do what he does with the right snappy retro suit.
Soon, a bunch of major labels were trying to break down Hawthorne’s door and sign him to lucrative deals. But many were surprised when a month before the release of his new album How Do You Do, he announced his departure from Stones Throw to sign with Universal Republic. I caught Hawthorne on the horn for 15 minutes before he set off upon the latest leg of his “How Do You Do” world tour. He’s a breezy conversationalist, but there’s a confidence here that perhaps didn’t always come out in his earlier interviews. We chatted about Detroit, label moves and Thanksgiving shows.
Where are you, Mayer?
I’m in Los Angeles, man. Just chilling and rehearsing with the band before the upcoming How Do You Do world tour.
So LA is where you’re calling home?
I do not pay rent here, anyway. I live in a tour bus. Home is where the bus parks.
You’re originally from Ann Arbour on the outskirts of Detroit.
How much time do you get to spend there?
Not enough. I love it there. My family still lives there and I try to get there as much as I can, but it’s harder and harder these days to make it back there. Detroit is the best.
You’re living on the tour bus and you had your success with A Strange Arrangement via LA, but your music really reflects Detroit a lot. Is it important for you, personally, to represent Detroit, in a sense?
Man, if you’re from Detroit: people from Detroit are the very first people always to tell you where they’re from. I don’t know if you’ve ever met other people from Detroit, but the very first thing that they’ll tell you is that they’re from Detroit. We’re so proud of where we come from, and it’s because Detroit’s the shit. I rep for the ‘D’ every chance I get. I love that city and I will always represent for Detroit and try to shed as much light on that amazing city as possible.
Mayer Hawthorne started out as a side project to your work as Haircut with Athletic Mic League and Now On –
A method to get around having to clear samples. What’s the status of your hip-hop work? Are you getting to dabble in that as much as you’d like?
I still keep one foot in the hip-hop world. I listen to hip-hop everyday still, and I still love rap music as much as ever. And I get to participate, but I just do it in a slightly different way now. I do remixes for Snoop Dogg, and I get him to sing on my album, and I just did a track with The Cool Kids for their new album. I infuse that hip-hop feel in everything that I do. I make soul music for hip-hop heads. I make music that I’d want to sample if I was a hip-hop producer. Really, I try to just maintain a foot in that world always. That’s where I came from and I don’t want to lose that.
Would you prefer to be doing more?
I feel pretty good about the level of hip-hop that I have in my music. It’s definitely not lacking.
Record labels and the move from Stones Throw to Universal Republic: That happened quite late in the piece – just before the release of How Do You Do. What was the story behind that? Why the move?
When we released A Strange Arrangement I got blown up by basically every major label out there. They all wanted to sign me and I basically said, “No. No. No. Thanks, but no thanks.” I really had no interest in it until Universal Republic came along and I just felt like that they really understood my vision and they wanted me to make the record that I wanted to make, and they didn’t want to turn me into the male Amy Winehouse, or whatever (laughs). They didn’t want to change my music; they just wanted to help make it bigger, which is what it’s supposed to be. I’ve been really happy over there. But I was absolutely terrified of signing to a major label. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made in my life.
The album came out just a month after the move, correct?
Yeah, I had a lot of the new album recorded before I signed to Republic. And, you know, I still talk to Peanut Butter Wolf everyday, and I just DJed the Stones Throw 15 year anniversary party. Stones Throw is still a big part of what I do, and that vibe will always be there.
You seemed like a great fit with Stones Throw. Were you worried about fans and people who had discovered you through that avenue being a little miffed by the move?
I wasn’t that worried about that. Just because I knew I was going to keep making the music that I wanted to make, and the music always has to evolve. I’m the kind of artist, I could never make another Strange Arrangement. I’m incredibly proud of that work, but I did that and now it’s time to move on. You’re always going to lose people when you do that, but you’re going to gain even more people. So, the people who are riding with me, I love you, and if you don’t like the new material, I love you anyway. There are other artists that you can listen to.
Moving to the new label with the album done, has that increased the appetite to get another turned around quickly?
I’m definitely a good part of the way through the next album already – album three. It’s going to change again, the sound is going to keep evolving and moving forward. I’m not one of those guys who wants to take it back to the old school. I want to move the music forward, and it’s always going to keep moving forward. But the focus is definitely on How Do You Do right now, and we’re going to be touring all around the world for the next year, straight. I’m not moving on that fast (laughs).
The halftime performance for the Lions Thanksgiving game –
Oh, cool! Yeah, you saw that?
Were you happy with the way that came together in the end, with the basement set?
Oh, man. That was so much fun. I was just so happy that I got to play with my dad. That was the coolest for me, because he was such a big inspiration, and I rarely get a chance to do anything like that with him. Just the fact that I got to go down to the basement and jam with my dad, I couldn’t have asked for a better Thanksgiving than that. I was really, really thankful for that.
You shot for the actual halftime performance [after outcry over Canadian rockers Nickelback earning the spot]. Was the basement arrangement always in the pocket, ready to go? Or did you knock it together at the last moment?
We threw that together really last moment. I was home in Detroit and I just called whoever I knew that was in town and just said, “Hey, you guys wanna come over and watch the game? And we’ll do a little jam at halftime and film it.” And the really cool thing was that Rolling Stone picked it up and got behind it. They helped us broadcast it to the whole world, so that was really cool, man.
The album feels a lot more confident than A Strange Arrangement. Is it the same with your live performances – do you have more confidence in what you’re doing these days?
Definitely. Without a doubt. Even since the last time we were there we’ve probably done 100 more shows. We’re always growing and improving, and we’re like a football team, you know: every show, we watch the footage and we analysis it and break it down and ask how it could be better for even the next night. We work insanely hard to make sure nobody ever wants their money back when they come to see Mayer Hawthorne live.
Few months down the track. Are you still enjoying the album? Are you enjoying performing these new songs?
Man, I’m having so much fun. I’m just really happy to have some new material to do (laughs). It’s so great for us, because we’ve done so many shows since A Strange Arrangement came out. We probably did close to 200 shows last year, or more. And it’s really a breath of fresh air to have a new album of material to play.
This started as a side project for you. Was it hard when you first started getting up onstage to do this? Was it a bit of a mind fuck when you were first up there as Mayer Hawthorne?
It was really tough. It was a tough adjustment for me, because I’ve always been the DJ or the bass player – somebody who’s in the background. I had never been the front man of any band that I was a part of. It took a lot of getting used to, and I’m still getting used to it. That on top of trying to learn how to sing, which I’ve never done professionally either – I mean, it was a lot at first. But I feel like I’ve got the hang of it now. Singing is still a very new thing for me, and I’m always learning every time I hit the stage, learning to be a better singer. It’s something that I work really hard at, and like I said I’m trying to make sure that every night is just a little better than the night before. I’ll always be trying to become a better singer, a better performer.
What are the plans for the live shows? You’re bringing the band with you. Is it the same make-up as previous visits?
Yeah, my live band, The County. They’re the best band in the world and we’re definitely bringing the show, man. It’s going to be even better than last time. We’re the hardest working band in show business, so come ready to party. It’s gonna be a party, we don’t do concerts! (laughs)
For reasons many people probably can’t put their finger on, the Mayer Hawthorne project has always felt like more than just a throwback. What’s the key to giving it that contemporary edge?
The key is that I’m a young dude who wasn’t alive in the 60s and 70s. I don’t have any idea what it was like back then. I can only speculate from video footage and things like that. I grew up as a hip-hop DJ and producer and I live in 2012 and I’m trying to move the music forward. I hate it when people say, “Let’s take it back to the good old days!” It makes me cringe when people say that. Run DMC wasn’t trying to take it back to the good old days. Neither was James Brown or anybody; they were trying to move music forward and do something original and new and exciting, and that’s definitely what I’m trying to do. I don’t want to take it back to the good old days; I want to make the new good days.
Other than a heap of shows, what are the plans for 2012?
Um, I’m just gonna try and make sure that I eat all the best food in the world. That’s my plan.
Going to try and line up the next Thanksgiving game, perhaps?
Oh yeah, man. I’m already planning things for next Thanksgiving. Hopefully I get to jam with my dad again; that’d be great if it became a traditional thing.