Catching Up With Hebronix (Former Yuck Frontman Daniel Blumberg)
For the first 10 minutes of talking by phone to former Yuck and current Hebronix songwriter and vocalist Daniel Blumberg, the supposedly chatty Londoner is especially hard to get anything coherent out of. Mostly he stalls to make himself coffee and he insists he meant to wake earlier but he is staying in a basement with no natural light to nudge him from his slumber. Mostly I’m just disturbed that he is waking up at what must be 8 p.m. GMT and even more so at the image of him emerging in the night from his black subterranean cell, eagerly watching the drip increase its speed until he knows that functionality is just a gulp away.
His caffeine requirement leads to time-filling banter about the weather of all things, and when he mentions how “it’s been so nice here in Denver,” everything seems less like a movie of the week, and I stop making grand internalized assumptions as to why Blumberg and Yuck had recently split. Instead, it turns out he is just not a morning person.
Still in his early 20s, Blumberg has a resume that speaks to a virtual recording career. He has a notable early band in Cajun Dance Party, a previous solo recording moniker in Oupa, and of course Yuck, the band that he and longtime friend Max Bloom broke out with their 2011 debut.
Yuck played nearly every major music festival and toured relentlessly behind it, bringing the sort of awareness of their fuzzy and crunchy interplay of guitars that falls upon bands that are here to stay.
It was the kind of debut that made the word of Blumberg’s separation from the band last month a surprise, and nothing about the four-piece seemed unhealthy or conflicting. Even more of a surprise was the announcement that Yuck would continue without him (though, as many have noted, “Operation” was written and sung by Max Bloom, who will take over the fronting duties full-time).
Blumberg’s new project, Hebronix, teams the singer with producer Neil Hagerty, former frontman for Royal Trux. Their debut recording, Unreal is out on July 9 via ATP Recordings and is a departure from the short and catchy rockers he had previously written. Paste caught up with Blumberg and discussed Hebronix’s establishment, his breakup with Yuck, the music he loves, and the music he’s not familiar with.
Paste: So, how did Hebronix begin and you get hooked up with Neil Hagerty?
Daniel Blumberg: Well I just started recording on my four-track in London and just made a set of songs. And then I sent them to Neil, whom I previously met through a mutual acquaintance, and got his email. And then we started emailing and and decided to do the record in October.
Paste: Neil’s old band, Royal Trux, they were an important band for you. Was it intimidating to begin this work relationship with someone whose music and production you admired so much?
Blumberg: I think it just really worked from when we started. It felt perfect, really. It felt like it was going to be a fruitful collaboration. I’ve been lucky enough to have relationships with people that I really respect or look up to, beyond this type of stuff, like the production of an album. Sometimes there is a sort of mutual respect.
Those early Drag City artists, particularly Neil and those records he produced… I’m a big fan of his production style, when he used to work under Adam & Eve. So, being intimidated, I think that’s the first stage when you first meet someone, and then you start working and it was just great.
Paste: Those songs that you brought to him, they don’t sound like the songs you wrote with Yuck, they sound like they are coming from a different place, somewhere that makes sense with the music you hold in high regard. So, when you were writing and demoing what turned into Unreal, did you know they weren’t going to be Yuck songs?
Blumberg: When I was writing or recording, I really wasn’t thinking about what songs they would be or how they would be packaged as a product. But, that was probably why they came about. I write song in groups of tracks together, and I think it was after in listening to them, it felt like it would be a good idea to work on them with Neil.
Paste: That must have been a difficult or just confusing decision. You’ve previously released solo material as Oupa, though, so this isn’t unheard of for you.
Blumberg: This is my fifth debut album. It’s so stupid. I was 22 when I recorded the record, now I’m 23, and at no point have I ever felt ready to say “This is it.” I’ve just tried to go along with whatever I’ve produced and seen where that takes me. And hopefully, I’ll continue to develop as an artist with each project. Or it will be for the right reasons. I guess it would have been easy to package it and release it different ways, but I wanted to work with Neil. He hasn’t really produced anything since that Bill Callahan record, Woke on a Whaleheart , so I didn’t expect it to surely happen.
Paste: Is it your age and your not being ready to settle on a direction that leads you to not record just under your own name?
Blumberg: [laughs] Yeah, maybe. I also am not that comfortable running around like that. My name is my name, I was born with it, and I haven’t found a way to incorporate it. Obviously in music there is a fine line. If I called myself Daniel Blumberg and went up on stage, or appeared in photographs, or paraded myself around, it wouldnt’ t feel right at this stage. I wouldn’t feel genuinely connected to that, and your name is obviously your name. It’s what your grandma calls you.
At the same time, I’m releasing a record, I’m doing press, and maybe there will be a time where I’m comfortable enough to use it like that.
Paste: You raise an interesting point, that with the project names, if you want to abandon it and start a new one, it’s not a big deal. But with your name, you can’t abandon your name. Music you make under it is a major part of how you are viewed.
Blumberg:There is also this thing, where ever since I started making music, I’ve been a signed artist. When I was 15 I signed to XL recordings. That was my school band. Obviously we weren’t great, we made a couple EPs, but that’s something that people don’t get. I have a definite appreciation for the people that put my music out, but there’s a flip side, where there’s a bit of rebelliousness in me, and that part doesn’t want to be in a situation where a record company owns my name.
These record contracts that you have to sign, and I need to remember this is something I have to deal with in my life and might sound boring to others, but basically when you sign these things, it says they own you. And the idea of that being your name, I don’t know, that’s just weird.
I feel very young in this all still. Young in the sense that I have more to learn and I did’t want to be like “hey I’ve arrived, my name is Daniel Blumberg.”
Paste: At what point did you decide that it was going to be Hebronix instead of Yuck, or was that decision not yours? How did that happen?
Blumberg: What’s cool about it is that in this scenario that’s happening now, there are going to be two records coming out, rather than one. And, now they are in the studio, and Max is a really great songwriter, so I think it’s exciting. I think he’s going to make something truly great.
Similarly, this record for me was a more engaging process, and I’m very pleased with the way it came out. So, all of those things were involved, but the separation is more of just the names again. It’s just how people sell music and buy websites. This is sort of the way that Max and I can best progress.
Paste: At some point, either the band or you had to decide to move on from the other. There could have been a compromise where you waited on your solo stuff or they delayed the new album. When did that decision happen?
Blumberg: I think everyone was involved in the music they were making. I was recording back in October and I think they were, and they are making a really rich-sounding record. It’s a really tight group of people. I’ve known Max for a very long time. So, it was all quite straightforward to be honest.
Paste: Yuck just gave an interview in Spin, and it sounded similar to how you sound, where they are optimistic for the future and show support of your endeavors, but there is also a certain sadness that seems accepted by all. I also got the impression that Max wasn’t quite comfortable fronting the band yet. Did that give you reservations?
Blumberg:We were all working very intensely together and we grew very close; we were all we had after our parents left. It was a really nice relationship, and we also tried to make music together. Now, it’s at least lovely to hang out and see each other like that.
Paste:The songs you wrote with Yuck, do you feel a proprietorship over the material, enough to play without the band, or will the band play without you?
Blumberg:The band is gonna approach those songs in such different way. I just did a tour with Low before I got to Denver, and the last thing I wanted to play was the songs I have played a thousand times before. I think it’s just instinctual; you have to play what songs you feel the need to play. These days I’m trying to be more instinctual in my performance—like, for these last ones, Low played Hebronix songs with me.
Paste: That’s cool.
Blumberg: Yeah, it was. It sounded very cool. And now in Denver I’m playing with an electronic musician.
Paste: Well, as far as instinctual performances go, I think of Stephen Malkmus, someone that I know you identify with. And on occasion he’ll play Pavement songs, but just because he feels like it. And on Hebronix, you often sounds a lot like Malkmus and the way he performs. How did he influence the record?
Blumberg: Well, Pavement really led me to Silver Jews. Yeah, I guess these days I think of them as more of a stepping stone to Silver Jews. David Berman is all over my work. I was actually just listening to Starlight Walker and obviously they are so lyrical, and that’s sort of a world of its own, but also on that record, some of the instrumentals manage to be lyrical as well, through the embellishments in their guitar work. I haven’t played guitar as much as when I had first been writing songs, but for this I played more and the instrumentals on this feels like their record.
Paste: As you said, Silver Jews are known as a lyrics band. I had heard previously that, about Yuck, you were less concerned about lyrics?
Blumberg: I think they work best when there is no separation between lyrics and song. Otherwise, I’d try to write stuff that didn’t have lyrics around. But, for me lyrics and music come at the same time; they are not just glued on afterward. On the album, there are some songs that are more lyrical. One in particular has a lot of words in it.
Paste: “Wild Whim” stood out to me for the lyrics, and that was one that I thought you sounded particularly like Malkmus.
Blumberg: That’s cool. This is actually the first time outside my friends that I’ve talked to someone that’s heard it.
Paste: One writer I know, he heard it and said he was getting a shoegaze vibe from the album, like shoegaze without all the noise. Was that something you were listening to or have an interest in?
Blumberg: I don’t have a lot of experience with it. I mean, if someone were to say “check out this band, they are a shoegaze band,” it wouldn’t be something I was drawn to. I’ve never gotten into a band that was labeled shoegaze. I guess genres are weird in general, but “slowcore,” I quite like that word, and a few of the bands I like have been labeled that. But, shoegaze, I’ve never gotten into that. My Bloody Valentine, I’ve never gotten into, and I don’t think I’ve heard Loveless more than once.
Paste: That’s interesting. “Rubber,” the Yuck song, when you used to play it live and get on the ground and make all the noise, that was a very shoegazey thing.
Blumberg: Oh yeah, but I’m not the best at describing music. I got into Codeine after we made that song and I really connected to Codeine and they are ones that are called “slowcore.” And with Neil, I really am into what he does, I think that everything he has produced has been great. He had free rein on the album, since he has made so many great records. I literally said to him when we started that “you’ve made so many great records and I haven’t, so feel free to do anything.” That’s the cool part for me, is all the elements that he orchestrated, it’s half my album and half his. And I’m such a fan, it’s nice to listen to that way.
Paste: Yeah, there are actually a lot of variation in effects and textures throughout. The long opening track, “Unliving,” has that autotuned solo in the middle and elements that reminded me of the latest Bon Iver album. Were the sonic choices on the album mostly him or did they come from you, too?
Blumberg: It was a full-on collaboration, and he’s a wonderful arranger. For example, the saxophone players were his idea. He would take the melodies from the demo, which were all guitar, and he would change the instrumentation.
Paste: Saxophone, that explains the Bon Iver parallel.
Blumberg: I haven’t heard much Bon Iver. When you said that, I didn’t know what that meant.