A Hawk and a Hacksaw talks Old-World folk music and sources of inspiration

Not all indie rock is rock. There is, for example, a subset of indie-minded musicians dabbling in Eastern European folk music, though “dabbling” doesn’t quite do justice to the music of A Hawk and a Hacksaw.

What started as a solo project by former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes yielded a self-titled 2002 album exploring American folk traditions, before Barnes and new musical partner/paramour Heather Trost decamped from Albuquerque, N.M., to eastern Europe for extended stints in Romania and Hungary, where they immersed themselves in the sound and feel of local musical traditions.

Their travels have yielded a series of largely instrumental albums (augmented by various other collaborators) with a rustic, Old-World feel, full of horns, strings and percussion. A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s latest, “Délivrance” (The Leaf Label), came out in May. After opening this year for Wilco and Andrew Bird, Trost talked to Listen, Dammit, by phone from the passenger seat of a van in Chicago just hours before the band launched its own fall headline tour.

FACT: A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s interest in eastern European music is a result of location and circumstance: while on the road, Neutral Milk Hotel used to listen to recordings by Bulgarian women’s choirs, and Barnes’ subsequent residence in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood offered plenty of opportunities to hear music from the old country. For her part, Trost played in a klezmer orchestra while she attended the University of New Mexico. The real connection, though, came when they moved to Budapest. “We lived in Hungary for two years,” Trost says. “That was when we really started getting into Hungarian music and played with Hungarians.”

FACT: Although each writes separately, too, most of the band’s music is the result of collaborative efforts between Barnes and Trost. “More than anything, other music inspires us, and of course, place and circumstances can affect that, but more subconsciously,” Trost says. “Mainly we’re thinking sonically and melodically about what’s going on, and if we hear something that’s really inspiring, it’ll inspire us to write a melody or use a rhythm.”

FACT: Although Neutral Milk Hotel is one of the most beloved and influential underground bands of the past 20 years, his past discography is the furthest thing from Barnes’ mind in A Hawk and a Hacksaw. “Whatever background you’re coming from is going to have an effect on what you’re doing now, but what we’re doing is pretty different from Neutral Milk Hotel, so I’m not sure how much it’s relevant,” Trost says. “But obviously Jeremy really loved working with those guys, and it was a really good musical and life experience.”

Photo by Tina Larkin

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