In some ways a band like Hospitality is as typical as they come. They emerged from Brooklyn, a crowded music scene that has been responsible for bands like the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, MGMT, and Yeasayer. They have worked hard, made the right connections, and slowly but surely built the kind of recognition that opens the door to something more. But, in a lot of ways, Hospitality exhibits a kind of poise you just don’t see so often anymore.
Lead singer and guitarist Amber Papini started writing songs for this project back in 2007 when she met drummer Nathan Michel at a party and, shortly thereafter, bassist Brian Betancourt. Despite the fact they have been playing together for nearly five years, they released their first LP this January. While others who live the rock and roll lifestyle are quick to boom their way into something to behold, Hospitality stayed the course without letting success dictate everything about them. Papini even worked as a Kindergarten teacher in the meantime. This kind of patience and calculated sensibility paid off in the form of a self-titled album filled with sharp hooks and a sophistication that was sure to turn heads. All they needed was a break, some kind of open door.
It turns out that open door came by way of a phone call from Merge Records. Hospitality took their time after the release of their only EP back in 2008. Carrying a few of those songs into scattered studio sessions with Shane Stoneback, who was producing albums for Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells, and Cults at the time, and the band emerged with a pop record that represented the fun of their 20s and the responsibility of their 30s. To put it another way, they rocked it. Merge noticed and the rest is history.
Hospitality is set to play this Friday night at the Canopy Club as part of the Pygmalion Music Festival. Lead singer Amber Papini was kind enough to chat with us about her band, their influences, and what it’s like being both a teacher and a badass rockstar all at once. Any fans of Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Lord Huron, or intelligent pop music in general would do well to catch their set immediately following the wrap up of Dirty Projectors in downtown Urbana.
Smile Politely: So this band has been together for quite some time now, but just released its first full length in January. How did Hospitality come into being back then?
Amber Papini: We started playing together — the three of us, Brian, Nathan, and me — just in our apartment and we would just jam and play some of Nathan’s songs and some of my songs. We really didn’t know how to configure who should play what because Nathan could play tons of different instruments and Brian originally played with us as a guitar player. So we finally figured out that Nathan should play drums, I should play guitar, and Brian should play bass. I just can’t play bass and Brian can’t play drums and I can’t play drums. I really can only play guitar (laughs).
SP: What’s it like trying to make a name for yourself as an artist in such a culturally rich and diverse place like Brooklyn?
Papini: Brooklyn has been really generous to us I think. We have slowly but surely started playing more shows and getting more recognition from press and stuff. Yeah, I feel like Brooklyn has been good for us and good to us as well. There are a lot of things working in the music scene in Brooklyn that help a lot of artists. There are a lot of clubs. And there is also a lot of journalism happening too.
SP: You’re originally from Kansas City, right?
SP: When coming back through the Midwest do you feel like you are coming back to your roots to a certain extent?
Papini: Yeah, I always feel, um, more at home in the Midwest. There are definitely more familiar things happening. Yeah, the weather is more familiar, the people, the culture. It’s just always great to come back. But we haven’t played Champaign before, so we are really excited. I had friends that went to school there and it has a good reputation, so I am excited to see it for myself.
SP: So you all just put out a very entertaining new music video for your track “Eighth Avenue.” Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
Papini: Yeah, we were really excited to work with these directors and we really liked the work they had done with Here We Go Magic. We were big fans, so when we met up with them we kind of just gave them, not really specific directions, but we talked about light and the golden hour and like a darker lighting and color. We talked about how we didn’t want the video to match the merit of the song. And then they went away and wrote this great script about a nighttime car race and we really liked it. We just let them do their thing and we are really happy with the way it came out. It reminds me of a fable or like an Italian folk tale. I really like the magical realism of it. There is kind of this fairy tale element to it.
SP: I think that song in particular has this sweetness to it, but the lyrics can often be a bit darker or even tongue-in-cheek. Do you strive for that juxtaposition throughout or does that just come with the personality of the band?
Papini: Yeah, when I am writing the songs I think about that. I sort of like tongue-in-cheek lyrics. I like pop music, but I also like, you know, darker sentiments or darker lyrics and I am really interested in juxtaposition. I think originally when we chose the name Hospitality, what interested me with that name was the idea of how you could have a juxtaposition of this really friendly name with darker images or perhaps darker music. Which, you know, so far the images aren’t extremely different than the name Hospitality (laughs), but I like the possibility of always … I don’t know, I like the possibility of that. I don’t know that we have always succeeded but it is a direction that we could explore.
SP: So, you just got done with a pretty big summer tour. Have you been writing new stuff since you got home?
Papini: Yeah. I wrote some songs. Well, before we went on tour I had a bunch of songs sort of stashed away and then in the summertime we got to get together and arrange them. So we have four that we can bring on the road and workshop. Which is fun to bring songs on the road and play new material in front of an audience. Yeah.
SP: So what was it like going from being self-produced to rather suddenly being a band signed by Merge records? I imagine that was a pretty exciting time for you all.
Papini: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. It was kind of a dream come true. We had kind of been on our own self-releasing. We had released an EP and we were booking our own shows around New York. For about six years we were on our own, and to suddenly have a whole team of people supporting you and supporting the record and the tour … it was just really awesome to have people working for your music; it’s amazing. It’s a lot of work they do: the marketing and publicity. We feel really lucky.
SP: Who do you consider to be your influences?
Papini: We have a really diverse musical taste. We all like Elvis Costello and we like a lot of post-punk stuff and British rock. We also like classical music like Bach and Stravinsky. Cass McCombs is also a specific influence. Neil Young. I don’t know. We have a pretty wide scope.
SP: So what’s with this Steely Dan cover I’ve seen online? Can we expect some “Riki” in Champaign? Not that there is anything wrong with Steely Dan, of course.
Papini: [laughs] Some of the members do have deep love for Steely Dan. I’ve enjoyed Steely Dan on the radio [laughs]. Brian may definitely have a real deep love for him. But, we got a request from the AV Club to do a cover and the list was pretty sparse by the time that it got to us. Most of the songs had been picked already so there wasn’t a lot. We thought that Steely Dan was something we could work with. And it is a great song. But we have never really pursued playing covers because we always had originals to learn and work on and arrange, so this idea of a cover was kind of new to us. We tried a Lindsey Buckingham song before. I think we had just taken covers too seriously before. We thought we needed to choose the most obscure song that no one knows that’s really good and that works with us. So, you know, I think we were just thinking about it too hard and when the AV Club asked us to do a cover we had eight days on tour to do it. And it was good to just dive into it. So it was a good thing that happened to us and helped us not to take covers too seriously. And then, like, Wild Flag, they would always do covers and we toured with them for a little bit and that was really inspiring. They would play the Rolling Stones and Television and Fugazi and, like, they’re just like these songs that are already in the canon. They are not super obscure or anything, they are just good songs.
SP: You are a teacher by day, right?
Papini: Well, I’m not right now, actually. I might be subbing after this tour. Hopefully I will have some time and I hope to get back.
SP: So do you ever have students bragging or telling their friends how their teacher is going on tour?
Papini: I think it’s interesting. When I was teaching and I was touring, I think it was kind of cool for them. It was good. I had a lot of parents tell me that it was an inspiration to the kids and they felt it was important that they could see that I was a teacher, but also, you know, a musician and making music that I was going out in the world and making it work.
SP: Have you ever been tempted to bring the kids for a children’s choir in any of your songs?
Papini: Yeah, I have thought about it actually, but I have never gotten it organized enough to get them involved. But that is a great idea!
SP: You are headlining for most of this tour. Are you looking forward to that experience?
Papini: Yeah! This is going to be a totally new experience. We’ve toured North America a couple of times now, but this will be the first time that we are headliners so that is a totally different experience and I’m excited to encounter that. But I’m also really excited to play these festivals and to see Champaign!
Hospitality plays alongside Best Coast, Laetitia Sadier, Lord Huron, Zeus, An Evening with Your Mother, and Withershins this Friday at the Canopy Club. Single show tickets are $22.