Listening to A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s 2011 release Cervantine, you could be forgiven for thinking the album was a compilation of obscure global folk music from days gone by. For all its intricacy and unquestionable musicianship, the music created at the behest of Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost is certainly alien to ears saturated […]

Listening to A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s 2011 release Cervantine, you could be forgiven for thinking the album was a compilation of obscure global folk music from days gone by. For all its intricacy and unquestionable musicianship, the music created at the behest of Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost is certainly alien to ears saturated with the sounds of formulaic Western pop. It comes as no surprise then, that when I heard Tom Ravenscroft, progeny of the late great John Peel, play Cervantine highlight ‘Lazlo Lassu’ on 6Music last summer, I stopped what I was doing (frying eggs and bacon I think) and stood still, lost in the beautiful wave of violin and accordion that emanated from my kitchen stereo. The moment of foreign and unexpected serenity was in every way worth the burnt breakfast.

Equally refreshing is the group’s decision to accompany Sergei Parajanov’s 1964 cinematic opus Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors on their most recent tour, which came to Sheffield last month [read a review by Pete Martin here].

‘It is woefully underrated and it is one of my favorite films,’ says Jeremy Barnes, ex-member of Neutral Milk Hotel and one half of the multiinstrumental pair that form A Hawk and A Hacksaw.

His reasoning behind choosing to rescore the film seems impeccably simple, yet that fact that Barnes still uses the present tense to describe the film as one of his favourites, despite having seen it in excess of 100 times, is a testament to his affections.

‘In my opinion, some of the original soundtrack doesn’t work so well with the film. So I felt that we could insert ourselves here and there and still use the folk songs from the original audio, without being too intrusive,’ Barnes adds, his dedication to the original soundtrack exemplified by the fact that he and Trost spent time learning passages from the film in order to play along.

While soundtracking or even re-soundtracking are by no means new art forms, it is endearing to see the way in which Barnes turns his admiration for Parajanov’s film into a gratifying experience for both the director’s work and his band’s own rescoring.

‘What I love about Parajanov’s films is that they are in some ways going back in time, but in others they are totally revolutionary and way ahead of other filmmaking from his era,’ he says, before reflecting, ‘We strive for this in our music.’

At first it may be hard to see how the work of both Parajanov and A Hawk and A Hacksaw can be seen as revolutionary, particularly given the massive folk template that both artists work from. But although my knowledge of Soviet cinema may be slightly sparse, some of the shots in Parajanov’s film seem daring even now; shots from cameras seemingly falling through the branches of trees, disorientating whirling shots that capture moments of communal jubilation and a thoughtful and often aggressive use of colour against a backdrop of snowy mountains.

If Parajanov’s courage was in looking forward, then A Hawk and A Hacksaw definitely rock the boat by looking back, infusing a genuine passion for the cultures whose musical heritages they borrow from with an unabashed nerve to play them with a vigour that can only be admired.

Over the course of the Sheffield performance it was sometimes a challenge to know where to look: the vibrant and dizzying shots incorporated by the film, the amusing if not wholly inconsequential subtitles or the silhouettes of Barnes and Trost exorcising all sorts of arcane spirits from the bowels of their chosen instruments. There is a feeling of fluidity to proceedings, with every element of the performance bleeding into one another. As far as I know the evening could have been very well improvised.

‘People listen to music differently when they are viewing images, and it gives a live performer the ability to take more chances and do things differently in a live setting,’ Barnes enthuses, and I’m inclined to agree.

In the melee of sound and images in the auspices of St. George’s Church – hats off to Drowned in Sound and Sensoria for the chosen venue – there emerged a moment of serenity akin to the one that burnt my eggs some months ago. As a bereft Ivan stumbled through the forest, lamenting the loss of his childhood love, the permeating grief of Cervantine’s ‘Lazslo Lassu’ filled the room.

‘We went through each section of the film and scored individual segments and key moments first,’ explains Barnes, ”Laszlo Lassu’ was the first song we tried, and it worked instantly.’

And work it did, in the way that Elliot Smith so perfectly accompanies Richie Tenenbaum’s attempted suicide in The Royal Tenebaums. Precious few other film and music combinations have put lumps in the throats of their audiences in the same way. It is of little surprise that Barnes seems to have such a knack for marrying music and images when he reveals his creative ancestry.

‘I love Neil Young’s score for Dead Man,’ he professes, before adding ‘Nino Rota, Angelo Badalementi, Morricone’ to his list of soundtrack heroes. ‘You know, the Italians.’

But for all of his glances backward, Barnes is a man with his head looking firmly forwards when it comes to his band and his recently established label, L.M. Dupli-cation.

‘I would like to do something new, working with a director who is familiar with our music and I would really like to work with dancers, traditional Roma dancers,’ muses Barnes before relinquishing his concrete plans for the year ahead.

‘We are releasing a record in April by the great Appalachian folk musician John Jacob Niles and then releasing the soundtrack to Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors later this year.’

What is most refreshing about Barnes and his various projects is the sense of authenticity that he brings to the table. In the face of ye olde worlde aesthetic adopted by certain faux-folk troupes receiving chart success of late, Barnes is the real deal. His love for the cultures of the countries he mines comes across in his work and even, it would seem, in his lifestyle.

‘We’ll be growing corn and chillies this summer,’ I learn of his labels lessmusically orientated projects. As for A Hawk and A Hacksaw, ‘we are moving towards using electricity in a more active way. Who knows how long that will last, though.’

I’m not even sure if he’s talking about the music anymore.

Interview by Tom Childs.