The release of a debut album is normally a moment of celebration, but after a spin on the major-label merry-go-round, the only huzzah you'll hear from Israeli duo Hank and Cupcakes is for their freedom.
In July BMG put out Hank and Cupcakes' Naked! a year after signing the electro-pop duo, which was about to release the album on their own. Now with the album out, the pair are out of their deal and back on their own discovering the DIY ethos they never really had.
"We felt like being signed to a label and the people we were working with — and I don't mean this in a bad way — but they're not musicians. They're more corporate people who essentially work in an office in a very big business," says drummer/vocalist Sagit "Cupcakes" Shir. "They don't have the strong passion we have.
The band's 11-track album has a pulsing dance-floor flavor that recalls '80s new wave with a modernist flair. The electro-rock track "Ain't No Love" possesses the perfect dance-funk flavor to slot it between Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and the oeuvre of the Human League. The rave-tastic trance throb of "Hit" turns on the wishful couplet, "You tell me I don't have a hit/ But guess what this is it," while "Liquid Mercury" has the icy dance-soul and rock flavor of the Eurythmics.
Hank and Cupcakes originally recorded Naked! on their own in 2011 with money they got from a publishing deal with BMG. They were happy with the sound, and it was on the brink of dropping when BMG stepped in and signed them to a record deal. The plan was to go back into the studio to re-record some bits of the album prior to its release. This is when they got their first real taste of the music business, and it soured their outlook.
"The New York office gave us the green light to go ahead and start working on doing some slight mixing changes. At the same time we found out by chance that the Berlin office said maybe the songs aren't good enough. Maybe we should co-write or rewrite," Shir says. "That's when we decided we were going to get out of this deal the moment we can."
Shir and bassist Ariel "Hank" Scherbacovsky met in compulsory Israeli military service around the turn of the millennium. They were members of an "entertainment unit," and they've been playing together ever since. A dozen years ago they started a trio with guitarist Ronnie Reshef called Maim Shketim (Hebrew for "silent water"), making very different music than they are now.
"It was very sophisticated acoustic music," Shir says. "The lyrics were mostly from a very famous Israeli poet. It was very serious music, kind of complicated. A little jazzy, a little bit folky. It wasn't like a fun party like we're doing now."
When Reshef moved to New York in 2006, the band broke up. Shir and Scherbacovsky first left Tel Aviv for Havana, where they planned to study for a year. But while the music was great, the island was incredibly repressive. They found themselves being followed. The whole atmosphere was quite depressing.
"About halfway through it, Hank said, 'Fuck this, let's go to New York instead,'" says Shir. "I think we made the right decision."
They planned to get a band together when they got to America, but something happened during those first few months. "We thought the two of us were just a temporary situation," she explains. "But because we were practicing so intensely and rehearsing so much this sound started forming, and it started to sound good. We realized we didn't need another member in the band."
So together Shir and Scherbacovsky started Hank and Cupcakes, a reference to author Chuck Bukowski's literary alter-ego, Hank Chinaski, and one of Bukowski's girlfriends, Pamela "Cupcakes" Wood.
One key is Scherbacovsky and his pedal board, which he uses to create a rich, fulfilling live sound. Shir says, "It will look like he's tap dancing while he's playing because he's turning a lot of things on and off all the time." The plushly layered sonic effects back Shir's strutting vocals, producing more sound than you'd expect from two people. Performance is truly their medium.
"Live is the first thing that happens. Our big challenge is how to translate it into an audio recording," Shir says. This is one reason why it takes them so long to write. Though Naked! was finished more than 18 months ago, they've only got six or seven finished tracks for the next album. "It's a process that sometimes takes months before it's ready because we're looking for this way to create a full sound with just the two of us, and it's always an interesting challenge."