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Muscle Hawk

by Ryan Powers
ryan@slugmag.com

This two-man electronic juggernaut has been quickly rising to the top of Salt Lake’s music scene, playing SLUG’s own Pride Float, X96’s Big Ass Show, the Gallivan Center’s New Year’s EVE Celebration, and now SLUG’s Localized. With a unique blend of exquisitely produced beats and samples with live synths and vocals, the musical maturity and complexity of composition is anything but DIY. Understanding how such a dramatically unique band exists in Salt Lake City of all places begins with understanding the backgrounds of Greg Bower and Josh Holyoak. Greg, a long time fan of electronic music beginning in the 90s with forays into house and drum & bass, left Utah for California, where he produced strictly hip hop and rock, during a pronounced and intentional hiatus from electronic music. Greg returned to the electronic scene as part of Salt Lake’s live drum & bass group COSM.

Meanwhile, Josh’s early influences of Skinny Puppy and The Beatles and dislike for bandmates led him to building his own computers and recording, eventually creating strange sound effects inspired by aggressive electronic groups like Atari Teenage Riot.

These two producers were eventually united by their jobs, creating music and sound effects for video games, and their passion for new and avant garde electronic music.

Muscle Hawk (whose name is of course taken from a scene in Beastmaster where a hawk perches across a mighty bicep) aims for abrasive, danceable electronic music, inspired by their experience in house, drum & bass, and the French renaissance of electronic music in the 2000s––but with an “American twist.” Because both members are experienced music producers with endless hours of studio time, all hints of ‘amateur’ sounds are absent. A quick listen reveals strong hints of French moguls Daft Punk and Justice, a wide array of sounds and effects tightly sequenced to a master 4/4 beat that’s as danceable as house, but as dynamic as avant garde.

Muscle Hawk live is an exciting departure from both the traditional DJ show and the traditional rock concert, occupying both realms simultaneously––Greg controlling the master sequence via laptop and a supercharged mixer with Josh on keys and the occasional bass.
 
SLUG: For the uninitiated, it can be hard to distinguish what is happening on stage—there are keyboards, lightshows, occasional live drummers, and one prominent laptop and mixer setup. So what is happening on stage? Are you checking your e-mail on that laptop or what?
Greg Bower: What we are doing is we have a custom version of Rockband on our Mac. We have specialty modifications. We play Rockband live. We actually wrote the album in Rockband.
Josh Holyoak: Well, to be fair, we did use Guitar Hero a bit… [Actually,] we have different backing tracks of drums and click tracks so we can hear what we are playing to.  The mixer interacts with the computer and we can bring in and out different elements of a track. I’ll play live keyboards through distortion pedals, occasionally a bass to add a funk element. Greg also adds live keyboards. Occasionally we’ll add a live drummer for bigger shows, light shows, something to engage the audience visually on the same level or better than a full rock band.

SLUG: Most electronic producers make a career out of DJ-ing or remixing, but Muscle Hawk has been curiously absent from the DJ booth. Why?
Bower: Well, that is because we don’t know how to DJ. We are asked on occasion, but it is something we’ve never taken the time to learn and become good at.

SLUG: Do you have a lot of other producers or DJs doing remixes?
Bower: We have some local remixes of our new single, “Set Yourself on Fire” coming from local DJs Bandwagon, Hot Noise and JSJ.

SLUG: With electronic musicians in particular, a lot of musicians rely heavily on a particular piece of software or equipment, which eventually shapes their sound. Do you feel the equipment you use in production influences your music and songwriting?
Bower: I’d say our equipment and tools are a pretty large influence, it is the palette that we have to work from. But, for us, we don’t really limit our palette. For example, I’ll go to YouTube and find an 80s funk video and microsample the actual YouTube clip.
Holyoak: We would initially try and find the high quality version of the song from YouTube to sample, but found that sometimes the lo-fi YouTube sample sounded cooler in the final mix.
Bower: Right. As far as the actual production software, we use Pro Tools, which is essentially a blank canvas. We have a lot of things to choose from: We have hardware synths, software synths, samplers. So, for me, it doesn’t depend as much on the equipment as it does on knowing the tricks to make what you have work.
Holyoak: The ease of recording, the ease of using the software makes the software not influence the music as much. I use mostly hardware synths, so the software only records what I’m playing on the keys and running through pedals.

SLUG: How do you feel about sampling other musicians’ songs or effects for use in your own album?
Bower: If you are just using a second of sound, a snare or kick drum that is just sound–– but if you are Vanilla Ice stealing from Queen an entire bassline, I mean, that’s just not cool. Or doing what P. Diddy did in the 90s––we had nothing to do with that.

SLUG: I have evidence that shows otherwise.
Bower: Yes. Actually I wrote that album.

P. Diddy involvement or not, check out some of Muscle Hawk’s tracks at myspace.com/musclehawk and their live show at SLUG Localized Friday, Feb. 19 at the Urban Lounge.