As the Billyburg/Bushwick/Greenpoint underground overloads itself with crude art-noize slop, the clean-cut, pop-obsessive whizzes in the Red Hook-based Hospitality are quite the welcome anomaly. With an indiepop aesthetic as charming as their band name, singer/songwriter/guitarist Amber Papini, drummer Nathan Michel and bass-man Brian Betancourt jam-pack their heavenly tunes with a feathery array of hook-filled jangle, orchestral shimmers and catchy la-la’s and ooh-ooh’s. The chanteuse-like Papini is irresistible, slinging her axe and outlining her dreamy vision of New York in an unmistakable voice sure to inspire quite a few indie boy crushes, especially in the wake of her band’s Merge debut coming out.
Sound of the City spoke to Papini on the phone from her beloved Red Hook to talk about all things Hospitality.
How did Hospitality come together?
I met Nathan at a party. I was trying to figure out how to get my songs out. I knew I wanted to be a songwriter, whether solo or in a band. Nathan and I met, and bonded over music in New Haven, Connecticut. I sang on his record [The Beast] and we toured a little bit. We moved to New York and I started playing my songs with my sister, Gia and Nathan. Later Brian started playing with us. We experimented with different arrangements, like all of us on guitars. Eventually, we just settled on the instrumentation that is on the record—Nathan on drums, Brian on bass, and me on guitar. Gia sang and played keyboard.
Did you kick your sister out of the band? Why didn’t she stick around?
Gia got married and left the band. She was really important in the beginning. She helped a lot. She encouraged me to start playing out and booked our first shows in Brooklyn. We thanked her on the record.
You’re from Kansas City.
Yeah. Brian’s from New Jersey and Nathan’s from Charleston, South Carolina.
How’s the music scene in K.C.?
When I was there it was really thriving. I remember going to all-ages shows and seeing a lot of bands between Kansas City and Lawrence, which is an hour away. It’s a college town and a great music and artist town.
When did you get into playing music?
I started writing songs when I was like 13. My dad is a pianist and he would play and practice all the time. We would sing Gershwin and Cole Porter songs at the piano. I had that in my ears when I was young and I started guitar at thirteen because my sister got one for her birthday. So, that brought the guitar into the house. I immediately stole it from her and started playing it. I was really active as a teenager, going to the record stores and buying records and going to shows.
What music did you grow up on?
I consumed a lot of indie rock that was out on Merge and Matador. I remember discovering Teenage Fanclub’s first record, A Catholic Education—I really liked that and Liz Phair, Neutral Milk Hotel and Polvo.
In that case, it must have been mind-blowing that you signed with Merge.
It was like a dream come true and how crazy it was talking with Mac on the phone about putting our record out [on Merge]. I spent most of my teenage years listening to Superchunk and being obsessed with Merge bands. It was very surreal.
You first released an EP in 2008?
It’s so casual these days. You put something on the Internet and I guess people write about it. It was never formal. We thought of it as a demo. It was never mastered and that came out in ’08. I don’t think Merge knew about the EP when they heard our record. We know a guy who makes videos (Scott Jacobson). He recently did videos for the National and Steve Malkmus, the Pavement guy. He put “Betty Wang” on his MP3 player from a blog and he really liked it. We started a back and forth with him and we gave him some of the tracks we recorded. Aside from Merge, he cold contacted like twenty record labels. Scott is a generous guy who really liked the music. We never even met him before and he was really enthusiastic and helpful. We brainstormed all the labels that might like it, contacted them and Merge was one of them and it worked out. We knew we had to make a record—that was my goal. Our dream was to make a record and get a booking agent and then we thought we’d be legit.
Was Hospitality recorded in Red Hook?
We only did the EP in Red Hook.
I’m not too far from there, actually.
We’re still in Red Hook. We’ve been here for a while.
The type of music you guys do doesn’t seem like it would come out of a grungy place like Red Hook, with the exception of the IKEA and Fairway.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s colder and on the water and you’re waiting out in the cold for the bus and it’s kind of brutal.
And the Smith-9th Street stop off the F train is shut down, too.
Yeah, and that’s the ugliest subway stop in all New York. [Laughs]
So you have this pretty music and it’s coming from Red Hook. Not to diss your ‘hood or anything, of course.
[Laughs] Yeah, right, yeah. I think we are very misleading because of what the songs are about aren’t really very pretty. They aren’t ugly but they’re not like love songs. All the songs on the record are written by me but putting everything together, it’s a very collaborative experience.
Do you feel intimidated or out of place next to the tons of noise/noise-rock bands in New York right now?
We were just thinking about that and were like “Oh, shit! We’re really different.” [Laughing]. I don’t know. People call us twee and I never hear that term until people actually started calling us that.
Hospitality seems like a fitting name for your aesthetic. How did you arrive at it?
We liked “Hospitality” because it was long and we liked the sound of it. Personally, I liked it because it’s anti-rock and roll. It’s not cliché or trying to be dangerous in any way [Laughing].
I hear a keen British sensibility in the music.
That’s great. I adore British music and rock like Pink Floyd and Elvis Costello. I was thinking of Television but they’re not British, they’re New York. [Laughs] That’s kinda where I’m coming from.
You’re kind of the opposite of what is going on in New York right now.
I didn’t want it to be ironic. I guess its most appealing thing it’s anti-conventional. You don’t think “rock band.” [Laughing].
It seems like with the press you are getting for the record this far, a lot is focused on you as the singer and songwriter. Are you and the other guys cool with that attention?
We are cool with it, though Nathan and Brian did contribute a lot. Nathan co-produced the record. He really brought the tracks to life, adding guitar, piano and synth parts to the songs. He is a fantastic composer and guitar player. You can hear his work on all the tracks. He added this lush and sad string melody to the end of “Argonauts.” Brian is an amazing virtuosic musician who comes up with beautiful melodies and bass lines.
Do you have a favorite place to hang in Red Hook?
I really love Fort Defiance. They have the best beer on tap. I also like hanging out listening to the jukebox at the Ice House.
Are there other bands besides Hospitality there? Will Red Hook be the next cool music scene destination? There was a cool venue called The Hook, but it closed.
I really like my friend Fiona’s band Chair-O-Planes. She lives down the street from me. It would be great if The Hook came back; there were some really cool bands that played there.
New York imagery is omnipresent in your lyrics. What is it about NYC that inspires you?
I think I get inspiration from the people in New York, like the people on the bus or someone that I see on the street. I’ll start thinking about what they’re wearing and what their life is like, where they live. I also love the architecture and little apartments. I’ve always been fascinated with old buildings and apartments.
Hospitality plays Glasslands tonight with Glass Ghost and Dustin Wong.