Member of Charles Bradley's Extraordinaires and Dala Records founder, Billy Aukstik explores 1970s soul and rock and roll production styles with his latest project, The Hook Brothers.
The debut single from The Hook Brothers is out on Dala Records. How did The Hook Brothers come to fruition and how long has the group been playing or writing music? How have your music backgrounds gotten you to the sound and aesthetic of The Hook Brothers?
The Hook Brothers is a spur-of-the-moment collaboration between four long-time friends based in NYC. The group was born one summer day last year after seeing William Bell perform and then heading to my house to hang. I had a 4-track cassette machine setup at the time and I decided to roll the tape and get some spontaneous ideas down. We instantly wrote “In the Park” and I knew that we had something special on our hands. Combined, the group has been playing music for over 30 years but only recently have we all begun seriously composing songs. Three out of the four of us are horn players by trade (myself on trumpet, Freddy on sax, Ray on trombone) so all instrumental music is a big part of our background. Steve is a guitarist and songwriter/lyricist at heart so the combination of us all makes for some eclectic tunes.
Dala Records is a new label that seems to have a passion and mission of pure, raw recording and production styles from the past. What are some of the methods that the label utilizes in the studio to achieve the distinct Dala sound?
Up to this point I’ve recorded and mixed all of our records on either a 4-track cassette machine or the Tascam 388 8-track. Those machines not only give our recordings a certain sonic quality but also influence songwriting and production choices during the recording process. I love using these machines because they force you to make decisions on the spot and not save mistakes or bad takes to be fixed later. To me, it was a no brainer to work in this fashion after witnessing countless analog sessions at Daptone or Dunham Studios where the workflow was seamless and the records made were beautiful. My goal is to take what I’ve learned from my mentors there and carve our own path with Dala.
As a label, Dala Records has cultivated a supremely impressive cast of musicians and songwriters across different genres from soul to country or Old-Time. What are the common threads that make for such a seamless and cohesive collection of recordings and artists?
The common thread between all the releases in our catalog is high-level musicianship. Each artist as well as every musician on our records is bringing years of experience on their instrument to the table. The main reason our roster feels so tight-knit is because the majority of us have been good friends for over eight years. Most of us met while attending New York University’s jazz program and have since grown to take interest in many other genres of music. When I bought my first tape machine and was starting to get into production, the idea to make records with my friends came naturally.
The group certainly has influences from the 70s soul and rock and roll. Which artists and albums from that era most inspired you to restore those tones and sonics in your recordings? Which artists' sounds are the most difficult to imagine recreating or emulating?
On the rock side of things, The Beatles, Link Wray, Buffalo Springfield, and The Band are all big influences for us. In the soul realm, most of us have been collecting 45s for years so ideas from different cuts we find tend to seep into our songs. Influential soul artists that come to mind are Allen Toussaint, Sly Stone, Willie Mitchell, and Curtis Mayfield. One element of arranging that we tend to borrow from an artist like Sly Stone is the use of the Maestro Rhythm King drum machine. If we’re creating a demo or even cutting a track, using this drum machine gives us a rock solid tempo as well as interesting analog percussive tones. The most difficult sound to recreate on those classic records is the vocals. Oftentimes they were mixed dry without reverb and still sound incredible so, for us, matching those performances is our greatest challenge.
You have worked with several artists from Mark Ronson to Charles Bradley. What are some of the most valuable tokens of knowledge you've received from those folks? How has your time with other established artists helped you in your own personal art?
The biggest thing I’ve learned from working with Mark, Charles, Sharon and other Daptone acts is showmanship. Knowing how to present material in a thoughtful manner and put on an entertaining show requires a lot of preparation and these artists nail it hands down. My work ethic on the trumpet was also whipped into shape as I started touring with Charles and Sharon as they required 110% out of their band night after night.
You've been a touring member of Charles Bradley's band the Extraordinaires for several years. How did you get involved with Charles? How has touring with the group helped your independent creative processes?
I was introduced to Charles’ producer/songwriter/guitarist Tommy Brenneck by my friend and fellow trumpet player Jordan McLean of Antibalas in 2011. I had met Jordan through Miles Arntzen who joined Antibalas on drums around the same time and was in my class at NYU. Charles had just released his debut album and Tommy was looking to form a permanent road band so one week before my junior year began I got the call and decided to drop out to join The Extraordinaires. Touring with the band has been an incredible learning experience not only onstage but also off stage. The amount of great music that the band has exposed me to still amazes me and even now I'll hear something new when we all hit the road. Collecting and discovering records while touring is one of the best parts of being on the road and my knowledge of soul records has grown exponentially since we started. As a songwriter and artist, these records served as my education and now inform most of my compositional ideas. At first I was trying to recreate the records to a T but now I feel myself finding my own voice.
What does The Hook Brothers' debut Watch What You Say b/w In The Park bring to the label? How does the band differentiate itself from their labelmates?
The new Hook Brothers release is a slight departure from our previous records but I find it a natural growth in the label’s catalog. Nothing we’ve released to this point sounds quite like it and I think it opens up a gate for us to explore similar styles of music down the road. The thread connecting it to our previous records is there but I find the Hook Brothers exploring pop music as an exciting new opportunity for Dala. Their method of composing songs together in the studio is also a new approach for us so we’re all excited to keep this momentum going.