Every note of the new Hunters EP, Hands on Fire, screams the following refrain: “Rock is back.” Hands on Fire slathers on the nostalgia awfully thick, no doubt endearing itself to fans who long for the salad days of 2001, when meat-and-potatoes garage rock was still fashionable. Rather tellingly, the EP was mixed by Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner.
“We saw [Zinner] at a show and he said, ‘I want to work with those guys’,” recalls Hunters guitarist/vocalist Isabel Almeida. “It was, like, ‘Yeah, right.’ But his mixing was so organic, and it was cool to gauge his thoughts on the record.”
The description above might imply otherwise, but Hands on Fire is no staid retread of Fever to Tell or Show Your Bones. The EP is instead deceptively forward-thinking. These heavy, heaving tracks ruminate on both the claustrophobia of urban life and the strange disconnect that comes from living in such cramped corners. “I want it! I need it!” Almeida shouts lustily on “Deadbeat,” which opens with a gargling riff so huge your headphones will barely be able to contain it.
“This EP has been rewarding in that it really captured where our heads were at the time,” says guitarist/vocalist Derek Watson. “We’d only had a few 7-inches prior to this.”
Hunters live in Brooklyn, where every third apartment seems to be the rehearsal space for some ultra-lo-fi fuzz-rock group. As if a proving ground for the highest-minded among us, bands of all disciplines flock to this borough, but the sound of BK music can be strangely monotheistic. Watson acknowledges this.
“We’re lucky we don’t use a lot of reverb, but God knows there are so many bands here that use a shit-ton of it,” he says. “But otherwise, we’ve been fortunate to have found a home base. Everyone’s so nice that I just kind of want them all to succeed.”
Watson and Almeida talk to the Rail on a Friday evening in March. They’re holding court in a Brooklyn laundromat, shooting the breeze and joking freely. (“There are a lot of tornadoes ravaging the Midwest right now,” quips Watson in his best mock-meteorologist voice.)
They have reason to be bubbly. So far, Hunters have spent the better part of 2012 touring with critics’ darlings and blues-rock classicists Jeff the Brotherhood, a band that shares their preoccupation with the sounds and fads of yesterday. Both make conservative music, but neither skimps on big, brawny riffs or garage-worthy hooks.
“It was like a party where everyone wants to be there,” says Almeida of their time on the road with Jeff the Brotherhood. Adds Watson, “I never really thought anyone wouldn’t dig it. [Jeff the Brotherhood] are from Nashville, where we’ve played a lot. We’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways.”
As safe as Hunters play it stylistically, Hands on Fire is a record of reasonable emotional depth. Some songs are plainly romantic: In spite of its raunchy namesake, the Bleeding Knees Club–esque “Noisy Bitch” is quaintly old-fashioned, conjuring images of 50s teenagers enjoying milkshakes by the bleachers. Backed by a punchy punk rhythm, Watson’s driving, swooping vocal meets its counterpart in Almeida’s ghostly deadpan on breakout single “Brat Mouth.” Watson sings himself hoarse on the grungier “Acid Head,” wearing a perma-sneery disposition à la the Strokes’ Julian Casablancas.
“It’s what we were thinking at the time,” says Almeida of Hands on Fire. “It’s real, you know? Sometimes music works almost as a mini-movie, and that was true of this record. It was like a capturing of our feelings.”
“Certain songs are carefully planned out, but on other songs, we just vibe off each other,” says Watson. “When we’re in the studio, we’re usually going back and forth on one mic. We wanted to make sure this record had that similar organic vibe. Some of the songs are just the way they are and don’t require much in the way of change or progression, so that’s how we play them live.”
For all their infectious positivity, Hunters are keenly aware that they have critics. Hands on Fire can’t obscure the reality that 2001 is over. The record is bound to be written off by some as retrograde; it is supple, unflashy, and workman-like in the same way that The Strokes’ Is This It was. What does the band make of such an indictment, and how do they navigate the sea of online criticism? “Personally, I try to avoid it,” Watson shrugs.
Almeida takes a less cautious approach. “It’s really hard to define what your music sounds like because you’re so involved in it,” she says. “So reviews can be entertaining. They kind of allow you to detach yourself from the music.”
There will always be alligators eager to snap at their boots. Nonetheless, Hands on Fire is a filling taste of early-aughts New York rock. It often feels like that moment in the genre’s history bypassed us eons ago, but as Hunters can attest, it never really left.