Sponges aren’t mammals, but members of the band Mammal Hands are sort of like musical sponges. But they don’t usually absorb dish sink water. Instead, they absorb all the sounds they dig, and let them slowly and selectively ooze out through their saxophones, pianos, drums, and guitars. Their sound can be described as jazzy, but the result of so much musical consumption is not necessarily Jazz. They call themselves Mammal Hands because they don’t want to call themselves jazz, or swing, or electronic, anything other than mammals who just happen to have hands.
Mammal Hands is a fusion of three people who know music, and know how to bend and mix it. Drummer Jesse Barrett brings to the trio his knowledge of Indian Classical music. Saxophonist Jordan Smart channels Pharoah Sanders’ uncaged, free jazz. Pianist Nick Smart has the knowledge of classical, Jazz harmonies. Their debut album, Animalia, is a combination of all those sounds, and more. The interwoven sax and piano melodies rise, and fall. Sometimes the sound is quiet and contemplative, and sometimes it’s a spiraling frenzy of sound, always held together by the melodic reign of one instrument.
As a whole, Mammal Hands is partially an accident and partially intentionally. Nick and Jordan are brothers, so that was somewhat contrived. “We come from a family where we were always listening to music and buying albums,” said Jordan. “When we started playing, it made sense to share the stuff we were into and jam our ideas together,” Nick added. Their constantly-alert ears come from their years working as DJs. Jordan’s constantly alert ear comes from the result of working as a DJ for years with his brother Nick. “I’ve always enjoyed the way that DJ’s are always listening, looking for new music and trying to find tracks that the audience won’t have heard before,” Jordan said. “Anything you take in musically is gong to come out in your own playing.”
When they were ready, they took their music to the streets of Norwich, and that’s when Barrett found them. He stopped to listen, and then approached them. “I don’t often approach buskers, but I was looking for like minded people and I could hear an openness and creativity in their playing and felt we might work well together,” said Barret. Approaching musicians can be scary, but it’s worked well for Barrett in the past. That’s how he met gifted percussionist Sirishkumar. “He was playing a gig in my parents house,” said Barrett. “His playing just blew my mind. He offered to teach me then and there. He taught me the nuts and bolts of playing, but I’ve also learnt a lot from him about discipline.”
For the most part, they find out what their songs will sound like after they’ve already happened. Jamming is as crucial as note taking. Collaboration is everything. “We all compose together. I think sometimes it’s really hard to try and separate what we each bring ourselves, especially as we all listen to the same kinds of music,” said Jordan. “Jesse is always saying, ‘What if we tried it this way?’ when we are writing. It will usually bring out something from a tune that’ll take it in a new direction.” Lately, they’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop and Afro beat. It shows, particularly in the song Inuit Party, Inuit Party breaks down slowly before transforming into chaotic, free style jazz. Bustle is a fast, relentless piano ostinato composed in odd metre. Tiny Crumb is earthy and melodic, and Jordan said, inspired by Alice Coltrane, Pharoh Sanders, and Joe Henderson.
After two years of playing in gigs, they decided to put together an album featuring some of the songs they had written. Enter Animalia. “The goal for us was to…capture as much interaction and live energy as possible,” said Barrett. Lately, Nick has been under the influence of the harmonium, and their songs have taken on a North Indian feel. The soprano saxophone has taken over, and the flute has snuck in. Their ears are on the alert for new sounds to consume, and then release.
Mammal Hands is currently on tour, and will be performing in Halesworth, in Suffolk, on 23 January and in London 24 January. For tour details, check out http://mammalhands.com/#!live.