Paul Bender: From Hip-Hop to Fusion with Hiatus Kaiyote

When Paul Bender picked up bass at age 12 and went on to study music at the University of Miami, he was content simply to jam with like-minded musicians, never dreaming he’d one day be touring the world and playing packed festivals.
By Jon D'Auria ,

When Paul Bender picked up bass at age 12 and went on to study music at the University of Miami, he was content simply to jam with like-minded musicians, never dreaming he’d one day be touring the world and playing packed festivals. But like a little-known café where all the best chefs dine, his band, Hiatus Kaiyote, become an instant sensation when it dropped its bass-heavy 2012 debut, Tawk Tomahawk, attracting the attention of artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and the Roots and getting nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B Performance.

On the band’s second album, Choose Your Weapon, the 30-year-old’s playing is even higher up in the mix. Tracks like “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk,” “By Fire,” and “Molasses” show hints of James Jamerson, Stuart Zender, and Chuck Rainey while keeping Bender’s distinct voice intact. Grooving on a hip-hop line one moment and then jumping into an odd-time jazz-fusion riff the next, Bender covers serious ground while sporting a tone that finds the right balance between synth bass and organic midrange bite. On Hiatus Kaiyote’s sophomore outing, Bender hasn’t just risen to the high bar he set on Tawk Tomahawk—he seems to have hurdled over it.

What was the writing process like for Choose Your Weapon?

We avoid having a single process, which keeps things interesting. [Singer] Nai Palm wrote and brought in some parts, and other songs we created from experimenting in the studio or just playing together. “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk” came together from an idea that I had, and then the band filled in the rest. The things that I tend to write are bass lines that turn into bigger parts. It’s definitely a collaborative effort.

Did you go into this process with any particular mindset for bass?

I definitely had distinct goals for each tune about where I wanted my playing to go. “Molasses,” for example, has a lot of weird parts that go into a bunch of different places in an old-school way, and I knew that I wanted my bass to sound as much like James Jamerson’s as possible. My bass approach on this album was from more of a macro point of view—I wanted it to be one element of a bigger picture.

Describe your role in Hiatus Kaiyote.

The bass connects all the pieces. It connects the drums to the keys and the keys to the vocals, and it dances around everything in creating a context. I have a massive responsibility to the rest of the band to make sense of everything, to be melodic in the right places, to let a note ring at the right time, and make it all happen in the moment. And even when I’m doing it well, I might not be noticed. But as soon as I start doing the wrong thing, everyone notices, and it feels really strange.

Your music is technically challenging but highly palatable.

We’re not trying to be a “chops” band that wants people to notice our tricky shit. We just happen to like the sounds and styles of certain types of music that might be complex or “out there,” and we trust our listeners to get it and go on this trip with us.

INFO
LISTEN

Hiatus Kaiyote, Choose Your Weapon [2015, Sony]

EQUIP

Bass Lakland Skyline 5
Rig Ampeg SVT head, Ampeg SVT-410HLF 4x10
Pedals MXR Sub Machine Octave Fuzz, Boss RE-20 Space Echo, ZVex Box of Rock, DigiTech Whammy 5 Pitch Shift
Strings Ernie Ball medium roundwounds