In Conversation: Haiku Hands on unstoppable forces

Part multivariate art-collective, part production outfit and part performance artists, the group of Claire Nakazawa, Mie Nakazawa, Mataya Young and Beatrice Lewis burst on to the scene in 2016 via a mix of explosive live performances, well-considered video work and white-hot recordings to capture a well-earned audience across both Australia and the world and haven’t really looked back since.

While their seemingly stripped back approach to music denotes a rapid setup and delivery, every element of Haiku Hands has been workshopped, considered and ruminated on with laser-like artistic precision. But its in its live outcome where Haiku Hands excels best: a piece of performance art where music, costumes, art and production all come together in exactly the context it was designed for: a riot.
On the eve of their first Australian live tour in well over a year, this energy—both within the group and in the audience—is just about at boiling point. We talk about why.
Christopher Barker: Hi all! I liked that the opening line of the press release for this tour was ‘Fuck this shit.’ It felt appropriate....
Beatrice: I think we were just expressing a subconscious internal shaking-off of whatever needed to be shaken off at that time. A lot of Haiku Hands' music is a subconscious processing of things we’re going through. Our shows are an expulsion of energy that has been pent up, but I haven’t always recognised that until now.
That's for the audience as well, right? Your shows are a chance for them to expel some energy too…
Mie Nakazawa: Yeah, definitely. I feel like when we perform I'm trying to go as wild and free as possible, and hopefully the audience can feel that and feel like they're being given permission that they can go there as well. That’s what drives me, to support other people to be free in their expression. I do it through my trying to get to that place myself.
What has been the impact of not touring then?
Claire Nakazawa: I found that the more we performed, the more we could become those personas. On tour I started to become more obnoxious than I normally would, as I integrated my stage character with my real character. Having time off, I feel like I haven’t inhabited that side of myself as much. But it’s still always going to be fun to go into that zone, that character and be your diva self. I’m empowered, we’re all empowered, that’s always going to be fun.
Mie: Moving for me is a huge importance in my life, and being sedentary can create terrible things.
Bea: You can create such a cool energy together. That’s been one of the biggest revelations with Haiku Hands, is just the energy you can create when people come together. The shows are so wild and free and it snowballs into this palpable sense of fireworks. It’s the coolest thing. I love it, and I’ve missed it.
I like the idea that Haiku Hands is more of an art collective than a musical group. Can you talk about the interests that you've filtered to create sound and audio and performance work?
Claire: Fashion comes to mind because it’s just in your face, it’s everywhere you go. It’s like personality and the different characters in your life.
Bea: Yeah, I'm very influenced by life. I love people, I love relationships and interpersonal dynamics, politics, social and community development. I love nature. And it’s the feeling of those things: the spirit of nature, the spirit of people and the spirit of life I find really affects me. I often have this thing where if I’m feeling quite flat or distressed about something or a negative situation with someone, I’m like ‘oh my God I can go and write music’.
Mie: Our band has an attitude that stems from how we’ve learned to exist in the world we’ve grown up in, and that’s changing dramatically, which is awesome. When we write, I feel like we’ve formed a group perspective towards life that we all share to an extent, then that voice and attitude of kind, humorous and inclusive rebelliousness comes through in our songs. They're traits we want to share and promote.
Bea: I like to keep a lot of notes when things come up as meaningful: a particular saying, a conversation, even just colours and textures. Then when I read back I’m like ‘what was that? Why does it say ‘orange hue’? I guess it’s not important now. I’m curious how people say you only use 10% of your brain, or that you have the same 40,000 thoughts a day, and I’m interested in how you get stuck in these neuromuscular pathways. I like being aware that I’m being influenced.
You've collaborated with a huge range of visual creators across all aspects of the group. How do you come to those decisions?
Bea: We all have quite different tastes and it’s where we intersect that is really interesting. I love when Claire or Mie sends me something that they've found and it's something that I normally wouldn't be drawn to, but it expands my visual horizon. And I really like working with people who are exploratory and who are open to pushing new boundaries.
Claire: We spend a lot of time curating the creatives we want to work with. I think about it a lot because I come from a visual arts background and so to be able to source people to make logos or film clips or photo shoots is exciting. Sometime’s I feel like I should back off a little bit, but other times I want to get right in; that balance of not giving too many notes but also having a clear vision.
Mie: I've learnt a lesson there which is that once you’ve chosen who you want to work with, you have to trust them to follow their mission. Once you infiltrate that creative outcome it muddles it up. Choose someone you like and let them run their own creative show.
I think that’s reflected in the Haiku Hands visual universe too, which I would describe as like 'high-DIY'. It’s not ‘perfect’, but it feels right. Is there a visual tension between the high and low for you?
Bea: I’d never really thought of it like that, but that’s possibly a real ethos for a lot of elements of Haiku Hands: the tension between beauty and weakness, being hyped but not aggressive. That can be applied beyond the visual side, it also comes out in the music. Like, I’m not a trained rapper, so there is a playfulness and carefree naivety in the vocal style…but we also work really hard on refining that! And our vocal producer Joel Ma is a punk producer but very deliberate in that too.
Claire: Initially it was DIY because that’s all we could do. We had the advantage of high-quality because we were visual artists already. I had a camera so I could edit, we had an eye for certain looks and outfits and so that was what we had to work with. Then over time people came on board and we developed the style you see now. I really like that because it shows a personality that is relatable and authentic. If I see a clip that's so constructed I'm not really that interested, because you can’t see the character of the band. I’ve always loved in my art to find the truth of the essence of a character or the truth of where someones eyes are. When it’s not overly stylised, that’s how you get there.
It’s tempting and intoxicating to be given more budget and access to glossy creative...
Mie: Yeah. We’ve had like one or two experiences where we’ve taken our hands off because we’re too busy or tired. And personally I've found those experiences way less rewarding. It’s like… I don't feel like any of us is in this now. I didn't sweat for this outcome.
There’s a soul to the work that comes from those experiences, and that’s the magic of putting something in the world permanently as opposed to a performance which you can tweak in real-time.
Mie: I get that in written interviews. I have quite bad dyslexia so my writing often comes across as jumbled. I try so hard to write how you’re meant to write and it’s shit. But when I write in freeform I quite like it. It’s like ‘that’s not the formula it’s meant to be in’ and I go through a crisis but I just need to surrender to it. That’s my language. Deal with it!
Claire, your work as a visual artist is quite freeform and improvisational. How does that process manifest?
Claire: I guess it links to what we were talking about in terms of embracing mistakes and taking the critical mind out and just being present. With painting, it’s about letting the medium dictate the process and trusting intuition. It’s such a different headspace to writing lyrics because it’s working in concepts, not words. It’s like entering a dream-state where there is nothing to grab on to. It’s more just like ‘this shape works’.
Does the satisfaction only come when you’re finished a piece? Or can you feel when you’re on the right track?
Claire: When I’m in the flow, it’s an awesome feeling. It’s a feeling I chase when everything is working without trying. It’s like a gift, that feeling of abundance and creative satisfaction. That can happen with a song too. Sometimes you do it in a day, it just comes out and at the end of the day I’m like ‘thats a cool song, and we didn’t even have to struggle for it!’
Mie, how does that differ from your approach as a visual artist?
Mie: I’ve just gone on an interesting mental journey. When I was doing music, I was all-in on art and I abandoned it for three years to do Haiku Hands. That time gave me a few realisations which has fed back into my art which is mainly around the fact that there is no wrong or right. When I had that realisation with music it was like *brain explosion*. I was like ‘oh my God, this works. Why is this working!?’
The other thing I’ve carried from Haiku Hands is like ‘who gives a fuck?’ I was always quite precious with my artwork. Then as we were touring I had a little book and just started doing little stick drawings, as simple as possible. The drawings were still expressing relationships and how we communicate with our bodies and our words. But they’re a lot more simple.
I had another experience where I had been drawing and I felt quite alone. And i was like ‘oh, this is lonely’. Then I was on stage thinking ‘maybe when I was drawing before I was trying to be heard or express something'. Now I’m doing Haiku Hands, I feel seen and heard. It changed the relationship with my artwork.
Bea, you work in a variety of mediums. You write and perform with Kardajala Kirridarra, you’re mentoring with Ableton Shift, plus your own producing work as Beatrice. Do these each represent a specific side of your personality, or is each project a mixture of your self?
Bea: There’s different parts of myself in each project. Performing and being on stage feels like one part, being in the writing room feels like another, then the business and organising is somewhere else. Different parts of myself find their way into Haiku Hands, but it’s certainly not all of myself. There are other projects where I’m more vulnerable and reflective. Our producing partner, Joel Ma, once said that my beats were more internal, wheres Haiku Hands was more external. I like those different projects and those different spaces.
Yeah, I would add that it feels like some projects, like Haiku Hands, are designed for an audience wheres other projects are more for you. There’s a two-way communication happening…
I would agree with that. I could split up my projects, two are very much for an audience and two are for an exploration and to process that internal alchemy of the world.
Which is where I’m interested in how this all comes together. It sounds as though Haiku Hands is a vehicle to play a character, to relate to people on stage at a greater scale than what your individual practices may allow, and create a space where the audience can respond in quite a physical and communal way too.
Claire: It’s probably more like a small part of my overall character.
Mie: Oh, I feel like it's completely me! When you’re on stage, you want to let go as much as possible while hoping the audience will go with you. I like to challenge myself so others will challenge themselves.
Claire: I see it as a big part of myself that there isn’t always space for in real life. I can’t be who I am on stage in virtually any other social environment. It’s too free, too loud, too obnoxious. It’s so liberating to be able to be that way, and create a space for people—particularly women—to be their whole selves, their biggest selves and take up as much space as we can. That grew from rehearsals to practicing on stage and now I feel bigger and more confident in my life.
The nice outcome of that is that you’re able to embed yourself anywhere and it makes sense. You can perform in a warehouse and an art gallery in equal measure.
Mie: That warehouse party we put on was so amazing because it was like our community just stepped up and we had like friends bringing their sound equipment and they built a stage for us and lights. And it was really community-based, like inner west community support.
There’s a lot of overlapping conversations between racial and gender discrimination in the arts right now, but you as individual artists and as a group have been speaking out on this since day one. How has it been observing the industry slowly catching up to reality?
Claire: We haven’t really spoken about this as a group but my take is that I’m stoked. Take the baton! It felt like maybe we were poking out a tiny bit but there’s now so many more voices alongside and way beyond us. I’m just loving that. We’ll keep doing our thing and leaving space for that and if more friends want to come along and the movement gets stronger, bring it.
Bea: What else would you be doing with your life if you can’t create space for other people and other voices? It feels like this very Western capitalist frame of mind to be thinking that I need to be at the front, that I need to be heard first, I need to be the loudest. I feel really lucky to have spent a lot of time out in the desert in central Australia, and there’s just so much perspective and humour and knowledge that Indigenous people carry. And we just need people to give space for each other and understand each other more. We all grow, and these movements…the world is so ready for it. Very slowly the cogs are turning and the voices that deserve to be heard are starting to be heard. There’s a greater awareness around gender and racial politics, there’s languages being developed and a new kind of awareness that is so clearly only just beginning.
And I suppose clashing with the current establishment too. Unstoppable forces meeting immovable objects...
Bea: Unstoppable force, for sure. But immovable object…there’s an old guard that will pass and there’s definitely a new sheriff in town.
Mie: I feel the same, it’s so awesome. All these movements and things I didn’t know and understand…I’m still getting my head around it and I want to get my head around it more. I’m sitting back and learning at the moment, retraining my brain, happy to watch others charging ahead. And we only occupy a certain message, and there’s messages that aren’t ours to carry. There’s room for everyone.
Do you think the industry can be reformed to be more supportive or do you think it's just about this new generation coming up and building their own world independently.
Bea: I can feel the reform happening. I can hear the conversations and see the accountability. Change is happening now, but I’m not really a part of bigger major labels that promote sexualising young women, that’s very seperate. So in my world, I see younger producers who are much more aware and progressive and conscious to use a different language. So both is possible, and that’s happening now.
And now you’re hitting the road to expel some of that energy. What happens next?
I live in Melbourne and Claire/Mie live in Sydney. We do a lot of pre-planning, like texting about designers and visual collaborators. Then when we’re in Sydney we spend a bunch of time rehearsing and planning the shows. That’s where the fun happens, getting to the stage. But right now, I can feel my heart-rate increasing. It feels like when you’re about to go to a party and you’re in the Uber on the way there. I’m just so excited.
Haiku Hands perform live across Australia in 2021…
April 24—Sydney, Oxford Arts Factory
May 7—Brisbane, Wooly Mammoth
May 8—Melbourne, Howler (Soul Out)

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