Getting to Know: Hank & Cupcakes
Hometown: Williamsburg, N.Y.; Tel Aviv, Israel
Members: Sagit Shir, Ariel Scherbacovsky
For fans of: Lykke Li, Regina Spektor, Justice
Two years ago, Israeli duo Hank & Cupcakes left Tel Aviv, where they were making a living as musicians. Hoping to become part of a larger music scene, they moved to New York. Since Manhattan was too expensive, they ended up in a little studio apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not knowing it was the indie music capital of America. And with the irresistibly danceable live show they bring to the bars of their new neighborhood, the two are poised to grab some of that Williamsburg attention for themselves.
Hank & Cupcakes are Ariel Scherbacovsky, whose funky bass riffs and effects pedalboard sound like a full band, and his wife Sagit Shir, a powerhouse vocalist and drummer. Their infectiously poppy self-titled EP is a four-track teaser to their frenetic live shows, where Cupcakes, clad in Chuck Taylors and spandex dresses, stands to bang her drum kit and puts down her sticks to catalyze dance parties in front of the stage.
Paste caught up with the couple after one such live show at a riverside festival in Harrisburg, Penn., and chatted about teen angst, Brooklyn street art, and the 13-person marching band that played at their wedding.
Paste: Have you been traveling much abroad this year?
Hank: We played in Israel, a few shows.
Paste: In your hometown?
Hank: Well, the whole place is pretty much as big as New York has as many cities as all of Israel.
Cupcakes: Last time we were in Israel we were there for a very big festival. We were opening for the band Placebo. That was very, very exiting.
Hank: Like a huge festival. We’ve never played on such a big stage.
Cupcakes: There were thousands of people. It was very exciting. So we were flown to Israel, and we got to visit our family, which was very convenient. And we played in London, a few shows. But we haven’t played a lot outside of the States.
Paste: Do both of your families live in the same town?
Hank: No. My family is from Jerusalem.
Cupcakes: And my family is from the Tel Aviv area. But it’s only an hour and a half.
Hank: Israel is about the size of New Jersey.
Cupcakes: To go from north to south in Israel is like six hours’ drive, and from east to west is like two hours. It’s really small.
Paste: Was it good to be home?
Cupcakes: We were only there for a week. We try not to visit for too long because it gets us out of the groove and gets us out of the fast, New York electric mode. You know, when you’re with your family and in another country, you start relaxing too much
Hank: and it all gets psychological and heavy and all of your past comes back to you. And the good things, too, by the way, not only bad things.
Paste: Do you think that for this season of your lives you’re meant to just stay in that going-going-going, fast pace?
Cupcakes: I think we should’ve been going much before this season, but we only got to New York two years ago, so we’re making up for lost time. We love it. I mean, we were walking here before the show, and both of us felt like everyone was on sedatives because we weren’t used to people walking so slowly. We’re used to New York where everyone’s running down and running around. We love that fast pace, so it was very weird for us to get used to this slow pace. Hank said, “It’s so slow. Why is everyone so slow?” and I said, “Wait, it’s not. It’s normal. These are normal people.”
Paste: Do you guys call one another “Hank” and “Cupcakes”?
Hank: Yeah? Maybe as a joke.
Cupcakes: No, I call him Ariel.
Paste: Tell me what you love about Williamsburg, besides the pace?
Cupcakes: Besides the pace? We love the artistic vibe. Everyone’s an artist in Williamsburg. We feel very much at home and part of the landscape there. We feel inspired by everything that’s going on. There’s always street stuff going on and art. We get a lot of inspiration for our music from things that aren’t necessarily musical, so it’s a good environment.
Hank: You can just walk in the street and see graffiti or things that random artists did on the wall. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing.
Cupcakes: We love it. I have a collection on my phone of photos of street art.
Hank: Yeah, we can show you. And there are maybe 20 venues in the neighborhood. You can pass between them and see great shows. Every evening someone amazing is playing somewhere. That’s very inspiring.
Cupcakes: But honestly, though, the reason we live in Williamsburg is because it’s cheaper than Manhattan. If we could afford it, maybe we would live in Manhattan.
Hank: I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I’ll tell you the truth.
Cupcakes: You wouldn’t live in Manhattan?
Hank: I think we live in the best place in the moment in New York.
Paste: Did you know that going in? Did you know that Williamsburg is such a hub for independent music right now?
Cupcakes: We had no idea.
Hank: We knew it was a huge scene in comparison with what we know from Israel, but we had no way of imagining the size of it. There are thousands—tens of thousands of bands just in New York.
Cupcakes: We didn’t know Williamsburg was the place, though. And we didn’t know that the two-piece thing was big. We became a two-piece because we’re two people and we were leaving Israel so there was no point in getting more people. But then we got here and there are duos everywhere and it’s huge and it’s this big thing and we had no idea.
Hank: Yeah, the first time we saw a duo we were shocked! It was like, “Oh my God!”
Cupcakes: “Another two-piece! Another two-piece!” It’s everywhere now. So I guess we had a good feel for it.
Hank: But I don’t feel anybody’s doing exactly what we do, right? I think it’s kind of different. Because most duos do things that have to do with electronics and heavy computer use, which we really don’t use.
Cupcakes: A lot of compensation.
Paste: So what came first, your musical relationship or the romance?
Hank: The romance. But pretty soon we had this band and we played covers by Suzanne Vega, The Beatles, Tori Amos, Paul Simon
Paste: Just for fun, as you were spending time together? Or were you performing?
Hank: It wasn’t as serious as this is now, but
Cupcakes: it was with the intention to be musicians. We were young musicians, and it was like our first steps. He had already played in a lot of bands, but it was my first band, and it was for taking our first step in music.
Hank: Yeah, but you know, in Israel, when you have a cover band, it’s not really taking you anywhere. It’s only for fun. It’s only to play at Mike’s Place, that kind of place.
Cupcakes: It gave us a lot of experience, and we developed a musical language, which turned into a three-piece which we had for eight years afterwards. It was us two and another girl who played guitar—she also lives in New York now—and we became a band and we did original music after that.
Paste: What was that called?
Cupcakes: It was called “Maim Shketim” which means “Silent Water.” There’s a saying in Hebrew, “Silent water penetrates deeply.” It was very quiet music.
Paste: I saw you quoted in an article saying how different that project was from what you’re doing now. Can you talk more about that?
Cupcakes: I’ll describe the emotional differences. The songs in the first project had a lot of meaning. They were songs that were very emotionally connected to me. I felt I was revealing my soul in a very intimate way when we were performing because it was very quiet music and there’s no physical movement. It’s not like here where we’re getting people to dance. It’s a very strong energy and I’m giving my soul away here as well but in a very different way. This was—people were sitting down, no one was moving, everyone was silent and they were listening to what I was saying more than letting their bodies listen.
Hank: It was more of an intellectual project, because it was very acoustic and the lyrics were poems, so the words were very, very important. It was a completely different vibe—a vibe that was very demanding for the listener, unlike this, which is more fun and kind of easy to listen to.
Cupcakes: It was like being naked on stage.
Paste: Was it hard for you?
Cupcakes: I found it hard because I couldn’t take it lightly. I couldn’t just be cool about it and not care how many people came. We care now as well, but then I took it so, so personally. I loved it, though. We did it for a long time, but it was very close, very intimate, and this is very, just, “Let’s have a fucking good time!” The words, I mean sometimes I write words with meaning, but sometimes I write words with no meaning at all—very flat lyrics.
Hank: It’s like the difference between being 13 and being 28, no?
Cupcakes: Like why?
Hank: When you’re 13 everything’s like, “[Gasp] Oh my God, no! It’s all right, it’s not all right.”
Cupcakes: You’re so self-conscious, I guess.
Hank: And now everything’s ok. We feel good about what we do. We don’t have any problems. We’re not thinking about it. We enjoy it. We’re proud of it. We love it.
Cupcakes: I guess we’ve matured as well.
Paste: That’s a great thing to be able to say. Not everyone can say that at 28, or wherever you are.
Cupcakes: I just turned 30 yesterday.
Paste: How does that feel?
Cupcakes: It feels good!
Paste: Have you reached that milestone yet, Hank?
Hank: Yeah, I’m going 31 in a month.
Cupcakes: We’re sharing our 30 month together, because we have one month a year where we’re both 30 at the same time.
Hank: I feel like I was born 30. It’s very natural to me.
Paste: How old were you two when you met?
Paste: Can you tell me that story?
Cupcakes: No, you tell it.
Hank: We were studying at two schools—
Cupcakes: I think she’s done her research, by the way. We were gonna make something up.
Hank: We usually make up something for this part. Let’s make it up! It doesn’t matter. So we were studying at two schools in the same neighborhood
Cupcakes: Yeah, the neighborhood of Jerusalem-Tel Aviv OK, we met in a military band. We hate talking about it, but here we go. We have to improvise. We have to have some stories.
Paste: Do you hate talking about it because it’s the question that everyone wants to know about?
Cupcakes: Um, it’s not the question, but we just don’t like that because it’s how we met, the military enters every single interview we do. It’s not exactly a subject that we’d like to expand on or highlight or talk about, because it’s not something that we feel is part of our lives as musicians. You know what I mean?
Hank: Especially coming from Israel.
Cupcakes: But we were in a band in the military. It we’re going to say it, then we’ll say that. We were not fighters.
Hank: I was a sound technician and Sagit was a singer.
Paste: And that satisfied your civic duty?
Cupcakes: That’s one of the options. You can be in a band. It’s very hard to get into. You have to do a lot of auditions and stuff, but there are military bands that just tour the country and play at different army bases and go home at night. And then all of the soldiers hate us because we get to go home and sleep at night. We were the spoiled soldiers.
Hank: But it’s basically for very accomplished musicians. Most musicians do not get in. I wasn’t accepted, for example, as a bass player. I was accepted afterwards because they needed a sound technician.
Cupcakes: So that’s how we met! That’s the truth.
Paste: And were you married shortly after that?
Cupcakes: Nooo. We were married seven years later.
Hank: Which was four years ago, almost five.
Paste: Tell me about the music at your wedding. Anything special?
Hank: We had a 13-piece marching band. We got married real quick, because summer was ending and we wanted to do it outside, so we got engaged and the week afterwards we were already married.
Paste: You got a 13-person marching band together in a week?
Cupcakes: That was the only thing we knew we wanted at the wedding. We said, “If they’re available to play next week, let’s just do the wedding.” We found a nice place to have the wedding, and they were available, and the rest—getting the photographer and the dress—we did very quickly. We’re musicians so we’re used to doing productions and getting things organized and arranging things. It was exciting. We called everyone and invited them by phone and everyone turned up—like 200 people.
Paste: Who was the band—friends of yours?
Cupcakes: The tuba player is a good friend of ours. They’re amazing. They’re called Marsh Dondurma.
Paste: Have you been able to do music full-time for a long time now?
Cupcakes: Financially? We are living on the edge of our life savings at the moment, but every month, knock on wood, there is more money coming in from shows, and it’s really growing nicely, so hopefully we won’t get stuck. We are counting on it—that when the money runs out, it’ll be an exact nice swap.
Hank: We took a serious risk here.
Paste: Well, there comes a point when you have to say, “We’re going to do this,” because it takes time to do it well. Did you even give yourselves the options of not going after it 100% when you arrived in the States?
Cupcakes: No. There was no other choice. We gambled everything. We stopped our lives in Israel. We were both working musicians. He was playing with a million bands and a lot of famous singers. We cut everything and took our savings. We rehearse every day here. We feel like the clock is ticking. We have to work really hard and push ourselves. We don’t have the time that other people have.
Paste: How did you get off the ground once you got to New York?
Hank: It was by the book. We just went to places and asked them to play. It’s all by email these days. They asked, “How much do you draw?” “We don’t draw anything; we just got to New York.”
Cupcakes: The first promoter who answered our email said, “What’s your draw?” I said, “Someone answered! Someone answered! What does that mean—‘What’s your draw?’ Is that like slang for, ‘What’s your deal?’” We didn’t even know what that word meant yet. So he never got back to us.
Hank: Even still, we had like 20 people at our first show.
Cupcakes: I think we had 12.
Hank: Twelve? Yeah, including my parents that were visiting, and all the people we knew in New York.
Cupcakes: We played with a touring act from Pennsylvania, and that’s how we hooked up with playing in this area. It was The Tamborines. It’s a really great band. They were playing at the very first show that we played, and one of the guys that escorted them invited us to play in Reading, and so we played in Reading.
Hank: Then we made some connections here and there, and somehow it turned out that we played here through our first show. Somehow almost every show we do influences something we do in the future, which is amazing. Even one time we played and it was practically empty
Cupcakes: it was completely empty. There was no one there. We were saying, “Should we play? There’s no one here.” No one. Not one person. There was the sound technician and a bartender. So we said, “It’s just going to be rehearsal on stage,” and we started playing.
Hank: But we fucking killed it.
Cupcakes: And people walked in. And then we got another show in Long Island.
Paste: Does it make a significant difference in the energy of your performance if there is a small audience? You guys have a ton of energy; are there shows where you just don’t have it because it’s not being given back to you?
Cupcakes: No. We always have it.
Hank: There are harder shows.
Cupcakes: But people don’t know that the show’s hard for us. We’re always giving out that energy even if it’s from inside.
Hank: Sometimes the audience is very open, and there is a very open feeling and a strong exchange of energies between us and the audience, which is the ideal performance situation. Sometimes it’s not as open. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, but it’s less strong.
Cupcakes: I don’t have a problem with that anymore, though, because I understand that when it’s not open, it’s just because people are embarrassed and they don’t feel comfortable opening up, but I know they want to. I know some situations, like when it’s not dark in a bar and you’re all drunk and it’s outdoors and it’s pretty early in the night, they get embarrassed. Even though I say, “Come on! Let’s dance!” they don’t do it. I know they’re enjoying themselves.
Hank: We had a crazy show a few days ago at a venue/bar called Union Pool. It was amazing. When everyone’s drunk and they’re in the party mode—
Cupcakes: We love it when people dance. It’s fun for us.
Paste: Are you always writing new things, or do you compose in seasons?
Cupcakes: We weren’t writing a lot when we arrived, but then I got a piano, which is what I compose on. We start our days by me composing, and Ariel goes and starts playing, warms up, thinks of really cool ideas that he’s got. Then I join him like an hour later, and he’s got these amazing grooves, and I’ll come with a bit of a song or some lyrics that I just wrote, and we’ll start creating together. It takes us a long time to finish a song, sometimes, like months. It’s hard to make two people sound like a full band and not like, “It’s just bass and drums. Where’s the guitar? Where’s the rest of the instruments?” We’ve started a lot of songs that we don’t play. We’re very strict with ourselves.
Hank: If something really good comes in, and there’s something that isn’t good enough, it gets pushed away by the new songs. It’s a very healthy process. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Paste: You played a song tonight where you sang, “You tell me I don’t have a hit, well guess what? This is it,”—is that song reactionary?
Cupcakes: Yes it is. Rob Schustack, the head of the Orchard Group, who we just signed with for digital distribution, came to our EP release and told our manager that we are nice and we are cool, but that we don’t have a hit. And I got pissed off. So I wrote that song.
Paste: Does he know that?
Cupcakes: I don’t know if he knows it actually.
Hank: It’s ok—we like him. We have a good relation.