Brittle tumbleweed blows across the barren interstate. A crook gets out of jail and roams the streets, free as a coyote. A wailing harmonica pierces the night. You would be forgiven for thinking these scenes came from some small, rural town in America. And with an album title like Woolston, Texas, you might assume the same about Adam Hattaway and the Haunters. However, Woolston is not a town in Texas, but a suburb in Christchurch where Adam Hattaway, the band’s frontman, grew up. In Texas, the closest thing to ‘Woolston’ might be ‘Waco;' and in Christchurch, the closest thing to ‘coyote’ might be ‘pūkeko.' So how did Adam Hattaway and the Haunters end up making music so evocative of America it attracted the attention of notable Americana music blogs, drew comparisons to Bob Dylan and inspired fellow Americana musician Marlon Williams to direct a music video of theirs? I sat down with Adam Hattaway and the Haunters after they performed for Flying Nun’s ‘What Was That Thing?’ series and tried to get some answers.
“With the Americana thing, I'm not actually trying to do that” says Adam, taking me by surprise. Seated in the small office space at the back of the Flying Nun record store in Newtown, he continues: “ideally we would sound like our influences, which are more American, but be like, upfront about the fact that we're from New Zealand.” Barring a handful of tunes, he says all their music is set in The Land of the Long White Cloud, “but it's not like we're specific about it.” The genres Adam draws from, including country, soul, blues and rock n’ roll, are so inextricably linked to the cultures from which they originate, to the point of being labelled ‘Americana’, that his music has proved difficult to transpose to Kiwi culture. “I've tried to throw in Kiwi names, and place names and things, but I haven't been able to do it effectively. It just doesn't roll off the tongue, and I wish it would” he says. Ironically, it is in this globalised nature of Americana music that its conservators revel; perhaps a point best encapsulated by the name of one highly regarded Americana blog to recently feature Adam’s music: Americana UK. While good for the longevity of Americana, for Adam Hattaway and the Haunters it can sometimes mean performing a cultural juggling act.
However, when Adam first discovered Americana, it was as simple as: he loved the music. From a young age he was listening to artists like Bob Dylan, and learned to play the music even before he was aware the term ‘Americana’ existed. At age ten, he discovered The Rolling Stones, who became another touchstone influence. Van Morrison was so beloved he ended up playing several cover shows in his tribute. “I’ve been playing that style of music, really, for as far as I remember” he says. After a certain point, performing covers simply wasn’t enough, so Adam started writing his own material. “It's always been the thing that needed to happen” he says, looking back. Still, the years spent embodying other artists shaped him, and an interesting characteristic of Adam’s music is his ability to assimilate and alter the voices of musical icons. Something resembling Bob Dylan’s voice boils to the surface on Wasting Our Time from Woolston, Texas, and Big Night, from the same album, evokes Van Morrison’s falsetto, only up an octave. “When I go to sing my own stuff, it naturally happens and I'm kind of aware of it” he says. “But then I also hope that it will become some new combination of things. Just that little one percent me” he says, laughing.
Yet, this is not to say Adam’s work is simply derivative, and his discography demonstrates a rather rapid honing of his craft. While their debut album All Dat Love has an indie undercurrent (Adam cites Pavement, Guided by Voices and 90’s Flying Nun material as influences), their discography gradually reveals an exploration and refinement of elements of rock and roll, R&B, soul and country. While the lyricism in their first three albums remained cryptic, and the instrumentation frantic, Rooster, released late last year, is slightly calmer. It represents a work of some subtlety. Much like the folk music in which Americana has its roots, it demonstrates an adeptness at storytelling; something Adam has always aspired to. “I've always wanted to do that and didn't know if I could” he says. Honor Lee, in a distinctive yodelling vocal style, tells the story of a man abandoned by his lover. Crime of the Century follows a detective hunting an elusive murderer. You Made a Drinking Man captures a vagrant drunk, who drowns his loneliness in booze. Yet, in Adam’s mind, the album still doesn’t represent a milestone. “It’s still not as refined as I'd like it to be. I'd like to be able to write songs that tell a story without any ambiguity. It’s still a bit cryptic.”
On the note of Kiwi Americana, Adam Hattaway’s story intersected with that of Marlon Williams in mid-2020, when Williams co-directed his Nothing Lasts music video (alongside the prolific Martin Sagadin). The video was brainstormed in Brisbane airport by a jet-lagged Marlon, who had been listening to the Crying Lessons album on repeat. If there was any doubt Adam inspires his fellow Americana peers, Williams' co-direction of the video marked the first time he had done so for an artist other than himself. The video features Adam lip syncing along to the lyrics whilst he goes about the motions of robbing a bank. He is then apprehended and sentenced to death via electric chair, all the while acting totally blasé. My initial impression was that Adam exhibits a natural charisma onscreen, but as closer inspection reveals, he generally finds the process of making videos painful. “I just find it arduous; you know?” he says. “I feel like I look awkward as hell. I can't believe people think that I look okay in there. And then they're like, no, you look fine. So maybe I just need to relax, maybe I look better than I think I do.”
Adam describes the transition from admiring Americana to making it as “kind of like coming full circle.” Appropriately, he quotes a 2015 tweet by American icon and maverick Dolly Parton to explain his point. It reads: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” He says “you might need to deviate with other styles and doing other things. But then, by experimenting and doing lots of doing what you do, you'll eventually figure out what you are.” Adam Hattaway and the Haunters continue to do just that.
Solomon Powell writes for a new music blog, The Noise Report, which focuses on local Wellington musicians, gigs and other music related subjects. Check out more of his writing at noisereport.co.nz