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BUZZ JAR: The Angelica Interview

By John Powell

Firstly, Buzz Jar is cool because they have a female electric guitar player that is unafraid to play bar chords. She is Johanna Hiller, a brown-haired punk-at-heart that usually wears knee-length, single color dresses. Her counterpart, Jake Brennan, also plays guitar, but while she strums elegantly behind her cream-colored Gibson, Jake fires off licks with just the right amount of feedback on a skinny, shiny, black axe.

On March 10th, just before their show at Higher Ground, they sit backstage, seemingly relaxed about their upcoming performance. Bassist Willy Lamb-Orgel leans over the balcony watching the opener and explains to me how pleased he feels that the crowd has decided, of all the things they could do on a Wednesday night, to listen to Buzz Jar.

Fifteen minutes later, on stage, the band settles into a groove, heavy kick-drum and a splintering guitar riff. The bass enters, pulsing like a heart, and the crowd begins to move. I hear side comments about how rockin’ they sound. Buzz Jar suddenly stops.

That was just the sound check.

When they finally break into their first song, their sound blends the garage sloppiness of Iggy Pop with the pop precision of nineties grunge radio stars like Foo Fighters. Jake’s voice at times leaps an octave with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah pubescent lurching. The second song, Hannah’s first vocal performance of the night, slowly builds in fuzz. She sings like Aimee Mann.

And yet, despite the comparisons, Buzz Jar is cool because they have fun playing together, and show it on their faces. Willy stands in the middle, playing bass with a guilty pleasure grin on his rounded face, like he’s doing something he’s not supposed to be doing, and meanwhile, drummer John Willis allows his jazz influences to guide the band away from growing too loud. When Jake sings, Hannah is smiling. When Hannah sings, Jake bobs his head happily. So, unlike other bands with their overall sound, Buzz Jar isn’t pained or disturbed.

Instead, they have decided to have fun, to constantly grow musically, to let the backgrounds of each member work together. Although they are clearly rockers, they are sometimes jazzy, funky, or mellow enough for fans of A.A. Bondy. No one in the quartet strains to play too hard; they play through their instruments. It is a conversation the audience is watching. This is a lesson in good communication.

After the show, I sit down with Jake, Hannah, Willy, and John backstage, around the coffee table. Joining them is a broad-shouldered, bearded man who at first says nothing and I later learn is named Jim Deveraux, the band’s supernumerary.

Jake shakes his shaggy hair from his sight line and leans back with his beer in hand, comfortably a rock star. Next to him, Willy, with wry grin and expressive eyebrows, continually changes the way he is sitting, eying the tortilla chips on the table behind me. John and Hannah both sit forward, bookending the band on the couches. John’s thin blonde hair is back in a ponytail. He could be a sixties hippie with a little more fraying, and Hannah hurries the band to get started. It’s a work night. She has to get up at six, tomorrow morning.

I’ve known Willy for over eight years. We went to high school together. He was always relaxed, pleasant, and in character all the time. It’s interesting to know him so well, and to sit down with people he’s been close with for years that I hardly know. What makes them click?

As I start my interview, the four are calm, introspective, and not sick of one another, the sort of band that goes at their own pace. They do what’s best for the music, one show at a time.

I know Willy’s originally a Charlotte boy. Are the rest of you from Burlington, Vermont?

HANNAH: No, not even close.

JAKE: Hannah and I are from New Jersey. John’s from Buffalo.
WILLY (Quietly): I’m from Shelburne.


Oh, you’re from Shelburne? Willy was the first…Oh, well; I’m not going to put that on record, on tape. Um.

JAKE: Oh, just say what you were thinking.
WILLY: What were you going to say?

I was just going to say that we used to drive around Charlotte, and you could drive perfectly with your knees. You could do, like, a right turn.

HANNAH: He could drive with his knees?

How did you meet and what prompted forming a group?

HANNAH: Caitlin.

Oh, Caitlin.

HANNAH: Jake and I have been together since 2004.
JAKE: Hannah and I have been playing in different bands for five or six years. We met Willy through a mutual friend.
HANNAH: After Willy conveniently moved down the street from us, John conveniently moved into our back yard.
JOHN: Yeah, in a tent.
HANNAH: Into a house, in our back yard.
JOHN: Their drummer-
HANNAH: Moved to Boston.
JOHN: moved away right when I moved in. I went to ask Willy, who was in my Math class…
HANNAH: when we say they met in Math class, John’s a math teacher. Willy was his student.
JOHN: I was the professor in the Math class.
WILLY: You’re not a professor.
JOHN: I was a grad student teaching in the Math class.
WILLY: And I was an undergrad. Though, I’m a year older than you. And in case my parents read this interview, I got a, what, an A-?
HANNAH: You got a D!
JAKE: Next question.

How have your songs evolved? I know you both (Hannah and Jake) write songs. How long have you guys been writing? I’m sure your songwriting’s changed.

HANNAH: I wrote my first song when I was fourteen; it was called, “I Want You to Love Me.”
JAKE: Both Hannah and I have been writing songs independently since middle school, like six or seventh grade. Many years later, in this band, the way it works is either Hannah or I will write a song …
HANNAH: It’s a shame, because my songs are so much better than Jake’s.


JAKE: The way it works, we both write singer-songwriter songs on acoustic guitars and then we bring it to the band. There’s a period of time, sometimes it happens in one practice, sometimes in a month, where we take the basic acoustic song and turn it into a full electric thing, and during that time the song will evolve from the basic song into, say, a noise break in the middle, where, while I’m singing there’s this riff going on. It’s a complete four-way.
WILLY (Laughing): You gotta have one girl in the band, so-

It doesn’t get weird.

WILLY: No, it’s still weird.
JAKE: For on the record, Jim is here with us. After our last band, the Marigolds, broke up, I had all these songs, Hannah had these songs, we hadn’t learned. We went into the studio and Jim was the assistant engineer.

JIM: I’ve been the groupie, the rodey, the sound engineer…

Do you work at the studio where they record?

JIM: I used to.
HANNAH: Before it went bankrupt and our album burned down, yeah.
JAKE: It’s a long, sad story. But there was a one-week period where we were together recording an album and it was a pivotal point in my musical life, just to live in the studio. That was a big point.

Would you consider yourselves more of a recording band?

HANNAH: Not at all.
WILLY: That’s a good question.
HANNAH: Not at all. We’re a live band. We’re trying to record.

Because some people will sit in and just be with their songs.

HANNAH: Don’t get me wrong, we love being there.
JAKE (To Hannah): I’m going to go ahead and, almost, counter you. In practice we are a live band and not a recording band because Buzz Jar does not have a real EP or album.
HANNAH: We’re the only band that that plays without a fucking album.
JAKE: We don’t have something to sell, something recorded. But recording is, as we were just saying, is my favorite thing to do. That’s where we can be really creative. You can do things in recording that you can’t do in practice and you can’t do live. I really like that. Not laboring in front a computer, but being in the process of recording. We’re not a recording band yet, but I think that’s a lack of discipline.
JOHN: That being said, we’ve practiced without shows for the last two months and very little improvisation, and then tonight we played and there was a whole bunch of improv., very jammy kind of style.
WILLY: No, man, that’s wrong. We jam a lot in practice.
JOHN: That even more supports the argument because I think we’re more of a live music band. We have never recorded, well, with me anyway, and I guess when we do practice we do jam. We don’t jam as much as we do live.
WILLY: Maybe we don’t.
JOHN: But every time we play it’s definitely a different feel, a different vibe, and we’re not meticulous, I mean we are, but we definitely have these crazy, improv. jams.

Along with songwriting, there are clearly times, or places, or situations where you want to write. Are you the kind of people that write in one go, or are you the people that construct a song as the line comes to you? Is it summer, under the stars? Is it in the corner of your room?

JAKE: Well, all right. For the physical, it’s in the room. It’s not under the stars; it’s definitely holed up in the bedroom, or living room.
WILLY: Or Radio Bean.
JAKE: Right. It does not go line by line. When I sit down to right a song it’s focused. I may have lyrics in mind and then write lyrics without music, or vice versa, lyrics with music. When I sit down to put it all together…it’s still a concerted effort to put the song out in one shot. And it’s not a conscious, “I have to do it this way,” but it’s just the way it always happens.
HANNAH: You’re talking too much.

No, that was good. What the first album you bought that you are still proud of?

WILLY: Seal, “Kiss From a Rose”.
HANNAH: Mine was “Spice World”.

Oh, yeah, great album.

JAKE: She’s not kidding; she’s serious.

No, but the album’s got great, great production.

HANNAH: What was yours, Jake, fucking “In Utero”, or something cool like that? Rage Against the Machine?
JOHN: Yeah, see, these people are Rock and Roll. I’m a jazz monkey.
JAKE: Basically, I’m so Rock and Roll that one time I was sitting home alone, and I caught off my pinky just to be punk rock.
WILLY: One time, I ate my own shit.
HANNAH: I pissed at band practice last week.

What are your guilty pleasures in music right now?

WILLY: Next.
JOHN: Drugs.
HANNAH: Sonic Youth.
WILLY: Miley Cyrus. Just one song, though: “See You Again.”
HANNAH: Oh, I thought you meant just pleasure.
JAKE: No, guilty pleasure.
HANNAH (About Jake): He knows I don’t listen to music.

Getting serious now, about the internet, and MP3’s, and downloading: clearly it’s affected how you have to be a band, making money, recording…

HANNAH: Jake doesn’t know how to use a computer.
JOHN: Buy vinyl and used CD’s.
WILLY: I don’t even consider recording music a way to make money anymore. It’s a way to spread music.
JAKE: When Buzz Jar records an EP or an album, we’re going to have a physical copy and I would hope that people will buy it. I like the idea of physical music.
WILLY: Album artwork.
JAKE: I have recently bought used CD’s. As far as downloading goes, I’m not opposed to it. If I knew how to download music, I would download it. I don’t know how to download music. I don’t have a computer because it was stolen and I haven’t gotten a new one.

Are there any other Burlington groups that you know, that you support?

HANNAH: The Cush, Lonestar…
WILLY: Feverbreakers.
JAKE: Okay, first and foremost, Feverbreakers. They're our very close friends. The Cush is another band, slash, Lonestar Chain. Burette Douglas is the guy, and he’s a close friend.
HANNAH: Fucking Paper Castles, and the Sad Bastards.
JOHN: And Jazz Rehab.
JAKE: Can we hear this interview before you…
HANNAH: He’ll edit.

I’ll edit.

WILLY: Edit out every third thing.

I’ll edit the beginning, middle, and end. Any more touring?

HANNAH: Touring?
JAKE: One show at a time. We’re playing a festival in Buffalo, New York this summer.

What other plans do you have coming up?

HANNAH: EP, four songs. 2011, that’s what we’re looking forward to. It’s our big year.
WILLY: 2012, we’re going to finish up the world with a bang.
HANNAH: Buzz Jar’s going to contribute to the end of the world.

There you have it: Buzz Jar.

Visit Buzz Jar on Myspace


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