[Cover photo credit to Lee Citron]
Harry Katz and the Pistachios spent Covid-times pretty busy working on a new collection of songs that we can expect to hear this summer. They were in the process of recording demos for their first couple of songs when the world changed, and Harry Katz set himself the task of learning more about demo recording to capture their songs as they worked toward an album. Said album was eventually recorded at MooseCat in LA, capturing meticulous songcraft in layers that harness Rock ‘n Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Rockabilly, and even a Big Band sound.
Now, with live performance once again on the cards, they are diving right back in with a Residency every Wednesday in March at the Silverlake Lounge in LA with a ten-piece band, but they have the added momentum of releasing singles from the new album and teasing it until its arrival. The first release was the single “Oh Yes”, along with a very energetic video which took the “off-off-Broadway” comparison of a critic to heart and staged the song as a rough and ready performance of Grease in a rented theater.
I spoke with Harry Katz about the rather intricate audience-influenced development of the song “Oh Yes” and the fun they had shooting the video. I also asked about how an eight to ten person act came together in this age of minimalism and what the band have in store to bring more live music to fans.
Hannah Means-Shannon: What was the inception point for the song “Oh Yes”?
Harry Katz: The song started in 2017. I had been working as a filmmaker for five or six years and had really taken a break from music. I found myself in Los Angeles, feeling like I was going to be long term, but not feeling like I had a lot of friends or very deep roots. So I turned my life back towards music and got really into writing songs and playing again. “Oh Yes” was one of the shining stars from that period of songwriting.
HMS: How long was it between writing the song and taking it to the stage for other people to hear it?
HK: I had an older band and played it a little bit with them. The Pistachios was a side project of mine that I had for my own songs while I was a bass player with other bands. Around 2018, I decided to make The Pistachios no longer a side project, and I started playing the song right away with them. But what was interesting is that we started to rewrite it as we played it live.
We started to unpack the lyrics and turn it into more of a discussion. It’s predicted upon a lot of crowd participation where the crowd yells “Oh yes!” and we have these big signs we hold up. I began to realize that it was a lot of responsibility if you’re asking a crowd to say, “Oh yes!” to something. So I started recrafting the lyrics to reflect a more evolved understanding of love based on communication and affirmative consent. What are we saying, “Oh yes!” to? We started evolving what love songs can be about.
HMS: I find it to be a very interesting song. While I see it fitting under the banner of love songs, I think it helps remind me that the category really should be broader and encompass much more discussion. I don’t think this is a conventional love song at all.
HK: I think a lot of relationships are about how we relate to each other. The song started out being more conventional, written as a positive affirmation for my personal desires. But I wanted it to be about more than that, about more kinds of relationships, and about more than my assumptions.
HMS: The affirmation that the song is talking about almost feels more adventurous because it’s so unpacked and discussed. It’s easy for people to leap into relationships if they aren’t thinking about what they are doing, but this song is aware in that way. It feels like it’s more about autonomy and agency.
HK: I actually have a background in sociology and so tying the bigger structures of society into how we, individually, perpetuate them is interesting to me. Also, not just the bigger idea of agency, but the individual’s experience of agency within relationships. I wanted to write a love song that deals with those dynamics. I think people are even more aware than they used to be about these concepts and want to see those things in their art. More people have heard the word “agency” and understand what it means.
HMS: This song also made me think about the fact that in some relationships, one partner will go along with a stronger personality and never be as conscious of the specific choices they are making. This song suggests that everyone is making choices, whether or not they really own that. It’s a good reminder.
HK: I feel like I deal with that in my own relationships. I have a strong personality and I’m good at saying what I want. It took me a long to realize that if someone else isn’t as good at that, you can easily steamroll them. I now understand that you need to give people the space to express themselves, and also allow that through creating a safe space for that. Sometimes that means that I need to be less expressive!
With this song, you can see the change in the second line of the first verse. Originally, it said, “I can tell exactly how you feel.” One day, I looked at that, and thought, “What an assumption to make! That’s not the relationship I want to have with the audience.” I changed it to, “You can tell exactly how I feel.” That’s something true.
HMS: I can definitely see how that would work better in a live setting, and generally. The video for the song is also very lively. As the description promised, it did indeed remind me of seeing behind the scenes of an off-Broadway play.
HK: The video idea started with a bad review of the song “Oh Yes” that described it as sounding like a “bad off-off-Broadway play”. I loved that. I thought that was the best. How can you be upset with that? Other positive reviews also suggested some theater connections, like Little Shop of Horrors or Rocky Horror Picture Show. There are a series of black box theatres in LA and I called them up and asked for a theater rental. I told them we were shooting the shittiest version of Grease and the theater guy loved that. We shot it with a two-person crew and then just me and the people who you see in the video. We committed to making something and then we just rolled it out having fun.
HMS: It is a lot of fun, including the colors, the imagery, and the clothing. It felt like being involved in a play to have people running up and down the halls. Were there ways in which, visually, you were trying to cue some of these layers of meaning in the song that we’ve been talking about?
HK: My wife’s a screenwriter, so we had discussions about unpicking the story elements for the video. The idea that she came up with was the first verse where the girls are not buying it, and there’s a process of winning them over. That process makes it more fun and it plays into my insecurities. They buy it, then don’t buy it, then get mad at me and chase me around. From working in film, my go-to action scene is just to find a reason to have people running around.
HMS: Should we be looking out for more singles or videos?
HK: We’ll be doing a five week residency in LA, and a couple weeks into that, we’ll release a single. And there will be another one in April. The album will come out sometimes this summer.
HMS: How important has live performance been to developing the songs on the album? Has that been an incubator?
HK: We were a live band for a long time. For the first shows, I didn’t even have a band, and just got a show. Then I put together the band. It’s also a big band, with 8-10 people, and there’s stuff you get away with in live performance that doesn’t necessarily translate on record. When the pandemic hit, we were in the middle of recording a couple songs on our own. I had all these bass and drum stems, and I realized that I needed to learn how to record music, so I invested in a little gear.
Then I started honing the craft of playing the individual parts and finalizing the arrangements, including piano parts and guitar parts. Then I worked with my saxophone player to finalize arrangements and write charts and my drummer did all the backup vocal arrangements. That was the finer tuning. A lot of the songs started with the shows, but the final placement of things happened during quarantine.
HMS: I saw that you recorded at MooseCat Recordings. I’ve talked with Mike Post before, who I know is really intro retro stuff too.
HK: Mike is really awesome. We first recorded a song with him in June of 2021 and we really liked the process. The space is really beautiful and they were really welcoming. We were still wearing masks and having to bring in people separately. He was also a really great collaborator. There was a lot to record and mix. We did the bulk of it in August 2021 and then from September to January 2022, we were finalizing the mix.
HMS: How do you become an 8-10 person in the world these days? The trend seems to be to minimize everything in terms of how many people are involved.
HK: I think whenever you see those trends, you know that the opposite trend is cooking in the background. I love that minimal aesthetic and I’ve tried to play with less members, but I don’t feel like it communicates in the same way. There’s just something about the horn section and the backup singers. My origin as a songwriter was hitchhiking around with a guitar, banging out these songs to busk. That’s how the song on the album, “That’s Too Darn Bad”, got written, singing to people on the street. In my mind, I always had these big arrangements, so the process of doing that fully, and evolving to having the right people with me live and on the album, has been really fulfilling.
How I, personally, manage is that while working in film as an Assistant Director, I managed 60 to 100 people in a day, so managing ten is my day off. It is a lot but I treat everyone as departments. I have the rhythm section and I have my guy who is the head of the rhythm section. I’ve got my horn section and my friend who’s head of the horn section. We expand and contract based on what’s necessary. But for this residency, I think we’re going to do the whole ten piece.
HMS: So, order, organization, clear communication, and knowing who the point people are contributes to a good experience for everyone? That way no one is wasting their time. That sets a positive tone.
HK: It’s a delicate balance because as an artist, too, I need a lot of emotional support but have to provide a lot of leadership. It’s a balance to know when to ask questions and when to provide answers. I had a long talk with the band where we discussed that if I ask for people’s suggestions, I then have to get in the habit of taking suggestions. It is a lot about those relationships.
HMS: I saw that you released a live EP in 2019. Are there any plans like that to do any recordings for the residency coming up?
HK: The director of the “Oh Yes” video and I talked recently about an idea he had to shoot video each night. I hadn’t thought about that before. I had thought about what we could accomplish in one night, not over five nights. There’s scope to what we could create with that and we are figuring it out. Especially in a Covid world, it’s not necessarily a default setting for everyone to go out all the time, I do want to find ways to make the events inclusive and give them to others. Not everyone can come to the mountain, so I’d like to bring the mountain to people. Part of that may be livestreaming, but it will also be how we document things.