by Michael Thomas
In the beginning, there were congas.
The Holy Gasp is one of the wilder bands Toronto has to offer, and just last month they released their excellent debut album, The Last Generation of Love. Combining elements of Afro-Cuban music, punk and several other musical styles, the band can be hard to categorize, but band leader Benjamin Hackman prefers it that way.
“I wish instead of freaking out about genre and what it is and putting it into a category, people would resist the urge to categorize it,” he says. “I think that it really limits our ability to appreciate the music. They should just be open to the cultural exchange and mindful of the cultural appropriation.”
But the beginnings of the Holy Gasp can be traced back to a trip Hackman took several years ago. He stayed in the Gulf Islands (off the coast of BC) for nine months and “totally hippied out” writing poetry. When he arrived back in Toronto in 2011, he fell in love with a pair of congas and began putting music to them. Thinking it “a very beatnik-y” thing to do, Hackman began playing music as a one-man band.
Eventually Hackman wanted to record an album, and initially had some help from Benjamin Reinhartz of Dilly Dally before the band finally solidified to a lineup consisting of Hackman, Daveyoso, Sebastian Shinwell, Christopher Weatherstone and James McEleney.
If the lyrics of a Holy Gasp song make the listener think of something one might hear at a poetry slam, it’s no coincidence. Hackman’s poetry background goes back to childhood, and he draws inspiration from varied sources, from John Berryman to Sophocles.
“I just saw music as an opportunity to fuse the disciplines and also enliven poetry from the page and distinguish myself from the spoken world,” Hackman says. “And kind of renegotiate the aesthetic of beatnik poetry, but in a new way, through music.”
Poetry provides the backbone for Hackman’s songwriting process. “The poetic structure offers a melodic structure,” he says, and once he has something figured out for congas he sits down with Shinwell to map out the rest. In some cases, Hackman says, a melody will come into his head fully formed, but it can take a long time before he finds words for them.
There’s certainly a poetic feel to some of the lyrics of The Last Generation of Love, which Hackman calls a protest album—but it’s not aimed at any one person.
“It was kind of a generally anti-establishment, anti-civilizational, overarching, anarchist critique of society,” he says. “I was hoping to call attention to an earlier generation of protest and see what we might be able to learn by bringing some of those voices into the present. Not as a way of criticizing an older culture or a contemporary culture but as a way of seeing what it might be like to live with that culture of protest.” To do that, he says, he wanted to create a soundtrack, and thus the album was born. But if his critique is so general, does he propose a solution?
“Ultimately people ask me ‘What should we do in society?’ I would just say ‘Think for yourself.’ That’s my only culminating message,” Hackman says.
The idea of protest is most obvious in songs like “Stomp Out the Man,” but it’s more hidden in songs like “All the Animals,” a song Hackman says he is the most proud of on the album. The song (and the first two lines) come from an Orthodox Jewish song that taught kids to eat kosher.
“It was kind of a mixture between James Brown and James Bond influenced by the Dead Kennedys,” Hackman says about the song’s melody. “And I really wanted to play with spy movie music, that was a really big influence behind it.”
Or there’s the increasingly absurd “A Boy and His Pony,” which was inspired by the work of Derrick Jensen.
“He essentially says that most problems in society can be boiled down to the very fact that industrial civilization is at odds with the natural world,” Hackman explains. “So the only true solution, in a very purist way, is the complete overhaul and dismantlement of civilization and a return to a more primitive, techno-negative version of society. ”
And so follows the song, as an anarchist boy frees one, then many ponies and…uses them to try and smash capitalism. “Perhaps there’s a little pony in everyone, waiting to be freed,” Hackman says. “And perhaps with that pony you can smash capitalism. And set your soul afire.”
But Hackman’s not above laughing at himself, especially in the intense “Bedbugs,” the subject matter of which is pretty self-explanatory. Hackman himself had them, and describes the way they transform a person’s life:
“You get so ridiculous when you have bedbugs. You meet people who had bedbugs recently or are living with bedbugs and they are paranoid and hysterical. It’s so shitty having bedbugs, it’s such a relief having something to laugh at. I wanted ‘Bedbugs’ to be a funny song.”
Though The Last Generation of Love has barely been out a month, Hackman is already working on the band’s next album, which he says will be a lot more personal—it’s inspired by the death of his father last September. And future albums will also be fairly thematic too.
“I think probably the next five years, the Holy Gasp will stop looking like a band and start looking more like an opera out of Synecdoche, New York,” Hackman says, laughing.
See The Holy Gasp play the Last Generation of Love tape release party at the Silver Dollar on Saturday, March 21 at the Silver Dollar. Full details here.