HomeInterviewsSXSW Artist Spotlight: abracadabra

SXSW Artist Spotlight: abracadabra

360°Sound recently had the pleasure of chatting with abracadabra ahead of their SXSW gigs in Austin, Texas. The Oakland, California-based duo consists of Hannah Skelton (vocals, synthesizers) and Chris Niles (bass, synthesizers). Their new and second full-length album, shapes & colors (out now on Manchester, UK indie label Melodic Records), is a unique and exciting collage of psychedelia, synthpop, funk, Baroque pop, and more. The grooves at times bring to mind early ‘80s dance-punk band ESG, and Skelton’s half-sung, half-spoken vocals recall Tom Tom Club. Despite the influences, the sound is all their own – and sure to ignite a dance party. In this exclusive interview, Skelton and Niles talk about how they met, vintage synths, funky bass lines, and the inspiration behind the new LP’s anti-capitalist overtones.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

360°Sound: How did you meet one another and start making music together?

Hannah Skelton: We actually met through a different project. A mutual friend asked us to play in this Halloween cover band in 2016. There’s this venue in San Francisco that has these big Halloween parties where groups of musicians get together and choose an album or an artist to cover. We covered the first Eurythmics album. Kind of obscure, but a cult classic.

Chris Niles: We really love that first one. Our friend was putting a band together. He asked me if I wanted to play bass and asked Hannah if she wanted to play keys and sing, and we had never met at that point. So that cover band was our introduction to each other. And we really hit it off after that. It was fun learning the songs. And then as we got to know each other, we had a lot of similar interests in music. And I had some demos that had just been collecting dust on my hard drive. I’ve had a few of them from over the years that didn’t quite fit in with some of the other projects I was working on. I felt compelled to share them with her and get her perspective and thoughts and ideas on them. And we almost immediately started collaborating on him. That first night that I shared them with her, we started writing music. It’s been that way since then.

I understand you were able to use some classic synths from the Vintage Synthesizer Museum. Tell us about that.

Niles: In the last maybe two years, it relocated from Oakland to L.A., but they were up here for at least 10 years. And the owner, Lance, is a good friend of ours. We tracked out of that studio for our first album. We had a day there. And we loved it. And for this next one, we didn’t intentionally go in there to do that. What ended up happening is Lance called me one day, and he had tickets to go to a concert. And he really wanted to go but he had a country band booked at the studio that was going to use it to just rehearse. He essentially needed someone just to be in the control room to babysit while they were there. And I could play whatever I wanted in the control room, which had these incredible Moog synthesizers and all this old stuff. So I was like, ‘Yes, I would love to do that.’

I go there, I’m in the back. These guys are jamming, and they don’t really need me. So, I’m just totally preoccupied just playing with everything tracking the stuff and coming up with little moments. And at that point, I had let Hannah know that I was there that she should definitely come when she’s off to work. So Hannah shows up a couple hours later and I shared with her some of the loops that I’ve been working on. Hannah just started riffing and doing some really awesome lead parts over it. And we had these very cool moments that were saved onto a hard drive and not revisited for probably about a year and a half when we started writing the new songs. We had a really intense two-week period where we did a lot of writing for shapes & colors.

Skelton: That was pre-COVID. And then we found ourselves writing the new album kind of locked up at home with no access to synthesizers that we didn’t own. And so, we were actually just kind of poking around and discovered that folder that had been recorded. Those songs had been recorded and then forgotten about. All of those sounds turned into “inyo county” pretty quickly. The moral of the story is, you should just save little surprises for yourself all over your computer, because you never know

Chris, does dub reggae have an influence on your basslines? Some of the cool effects on “swim” recalled King Tubby or Scientist.

Niles: Definitely. I’ve been playing bass for about 20 years, and the quintessential bass player nerd genre is dub. I’ve listened to so much dub over the years. It’s definitely like a comfort genre. King Tubby, Scientist, Prince Jammy, it never gets old. I love how prominent the bass lines are, and sometimes how simple they are. But they just really have such a strong presence. It taught me that as a bass player, you don’t need to be going way up the neck and doing all these really showy things. You can play a simple baseline that’s three or four notes and have it be the most engaging, hooky, fun part of the whole song. Dub really showed me that as bass player.

The production of those dub records is so great and something that we tried to channel a lot throughout shapes & colors. When it comes to all the reverb and delay — a lot of the collage-y sound effect aspects of it. Also the dubs siren stuff that you would hear in a lot of dub records — almost like a sonar, radar thing. That’s something that we use liberally, particularly in “swim,” there’s just all these wavy synthesizers that are coming in and out of it. That’s a constant influence for us.

Hannah, during the pandemic, you had to leave your salon in San Francisco to become a backyard mobile hairdresser. You listened to rich clients complain about the hardships of the lockdown while living in mansions. How did that experience inform the songwriting?

It was definitely a big part of the subject matter because it was a lot to wrestle with. A lot of these clients, I didn’t fully understand the way that they were living. Living in Oakland, there’s just so much homelessness and poverty. Then I would drive 20 minutes up to the top of a hill and I would go cut some rich person’s hair. They would be complaining to me about how miserable they were. And I would look around and I’m like, “OK, so you have your own pool and tennis courts, and I’m watching someone do your laundry as we speak. I’m so confused right now.”

It honestly developed into a little bit of anger, too, because these people just could care less about all of the suffering happening around them. And they’re so self-involved. That went into the songs in this, focusing on anti-capitalism, because just seeing the way that the system is serving our community. All of that was really amplified by COVID. It just made it so much more clear to me seeing the disparity. That went directly into that frustration. How it came to be that way was definitely bottled up into all these songs.


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