Operation Aloha – Bottling Bohemia In Hawaii

One day two winters ago, 14 musicians decided to leave their hectic lives for a little while and go to ‘Gilligans Island’ – only this island was Maui, Hawaii and instead of sleeping on hammocks beneath the palm trees they slept 500 feet above sea level in a compound of treehouses.  Together they lived a minimalistic existence …no electricity, no running water, hardly a road to drive on and barely a roof over their heads.  Yet, it was 30 blissful days of swimming, surfing, singing on the beach…inspiring and experimenting and most importantly, recording some very amazing music.  The end result is Operation Aloha, a collection of songs that captures the tranquility, freedom and spirit of Hawaii – and it will be self-released on May 12th, 2009.  It may sound like a great reality TV show, but it’s far from reality… about 2,500 miles (Los Angeles) to be exact…

Team Aloha includes members of Maroon 5 (guitarist James Valentine and keyboardist Jesse Carmichael), Gomez (frontman Ian Ball, multi-instrumentalist Dajon Everett and drummer Olly Peacock), Phantom Planet (bassist Sam Farrar), All Spots To Black (Fil Krohnengold) and Kahn Brothers (Nadav Kahn).  Other individuals include producer Will Nash, photographer Christopher Wray-McCann, Maureen Wray-McCann, Mathew Chaney, Charles Danek and Saam Gabbay. 

Acclaimed photographer, Christopher Wray-McCann was the catalyst and collaborator to the project, pulling each musician out of their element and transplanting them in paradise for about a month.  The results were stellar and Wray-McCann can prove it – as he documented every moment of the experience.  Glide caught up with Will Nash, producer and manager in reality, percussionist and vocalist in fantasy (Operation Aloha).  As the son of the British singer-songwriter, Graham Nash from the folk rock supergroup, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Will managed to carve his own musical path…a journey that included this venture to Maui, which for him wasn’t too far from his childhood days spent on Kauai…

How are you doing today?

Great, it’s lovely out here in California.  I’m actually standing on the lawn of Shangri-La Studios in Malibu.  Crosby, Stills & Nash is recording with Rick Rubin, so I’m milling about looking at the ocean.  How’s New York?

I guess for New York standards, it’s a pretty nice day.  I’m excited to talk to you about Operation Aloha.  First tell me a little bit about yourself…

Well, I was initially raised on the island of Kauai.  We kinda lived between Hawaii and L.A., but more in L.A. as I started to go to through my formal schooling.  I’ve always been involved in music and I’ve played in a couple of bands around town.  But I really work as a manager these days.  I manage Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jackson Browne.  It’s a pretty fun gig. 

I imagine it must be.  What’s it like to have an icon as your dad?

Everyone’s childhood and family life is what they thought was normal.  I just assumed people cruised around the country singing songs for everybody, being nice and taking care of your friends and family was what everyone else did.  Obviously, that’s not the case, but it was a spectacular upbringing and I feel so lucky to have experienced that.

I also can’t imagine that hearing my father’s tunes all my life hasn’t imprinted something on my subconscious musical taste.

It’s definitely left its mark on me.  CSN is rooted deep in my camp memories.  How did you get involved with Operation Aloha?

I’ve known Christopher Wray-McCann for about 10 years now.  And this was kind of a different idea that he hatched.  As he built it up and fleshed it out he brought in people who he thought would be helpful and that’s how I came into it.

Was his role mostly as the photographer?

No, he was actually the ringleader of it all.  I think it took a photographer as ‘president’ to see something like this through.  You need someone who can really cut his teeth on capturing artists doing their thing, yet still staying out of the way and knowing what that role is – as far as letting things naturally run their course and imposing all the complications of recording that are associated with it.  He knew how to let things just naturally grow, and yet kept an eye to where things would end up and that was something this project really needed.

Were you friends with these performers before you set out to do this?

Yeah, I knew most of them before we did this.  I went to high school with Jesse Carmichael from Maroon 5, Valentine came along with that.  I’ve also known Chris for a long time and he’s known Ian and the Gomez boys for a while too, so through Chris I got to hang with those guys.  A few of them I didn’t know, but for the most part I was pretty comfortable with everyone.

Here you were holed up together in treehouses.  Were these real treehouses?

Yeah, they were.  The main house where the studio was (where we recorded and played and where the kitchen was) was sort of a rickety shack near some trees. It was the only house with electricity.   The rest of the treehouses surround this one main building and it’s all up in the air on stilts.  I think maybe 5 people slept every night in some kind of structure built into a tree.

And this compound could house all these people?

Very closely, yes (laughs).  It was very bare bones.  Pin roof.  Not even four walls.  Screened-in mosquito netting.  Very, very simple construction.  You can tell when people build things to last and when some build things to let a hurricane blow it down and then re-build easily.  This was the latter (laughs).  It’s this kind of closely-knit little haven of small shanties.

Has it been used for musical recordings in the past?

Oh, absolutely not (laughs).  In fact, Chris was smart enough to bring a friend of his – this architect who was capable of tracking down the electricity components in the main house and bridging them all together so that we could get enough ‘juice’ in one place to power the few things that we did have. I think Chris got there a bit earlier than everyone else and they blew out the fuses within moments — I mean, the wiring was just not ready for anything complex.  And yet, it was kinda great because it limited what we could physically plug in and how many wires were in the room because that’s all it could take.

So did you keep the album simple or come home and re-vamp it?

No, it was all done there and left that way.  It was extremely limited not only by the electrical load but because they didn’t wanted a bunch of gear in there.  The environment that we were in dictated how complicated we could get.  I think everything was recorded on a 16-track little mixing board kinda-thing.

It sounds like everyone pitched in vocally on this album.

Oh yeah, absolutely.

And for the most part did every musician experiment with different instruments and take on different roles than usual?

Definitely.  For a lot of people this was the only opportunity they had to escape the roles they’ve been cast into in their own musical projects.  There were four or five current working bands represented there and everyone had their own ideas of what they wanted to accomplish.  For instance, maybe the drummer from one band really wanted to sing—in a lot of cases that happened.  Dajon and Ollie from Gomez didn’t get to play guitar very much in their own band or sing very much either and here they had that chance.  So for a lot of them it was an opportunity to ‘shake off’ what they’d been doing and find themselves musically.  And I know people just loved that part of it. 

How was this project a departure for you?

I’m actually more of rhythm guy – I play drums and bass, so for me it was a chance to sing.  Growing up there was a lot of resistance and hesitancy to put myself out there in front of the mike, so this was an opportunity in an environment where I felt extremely supported.

How long did the project take?

I think the whole run was 4 or 5 weeks.  I was there for about 7-8 days.  Some people such as myself came and went, but most of the people involved were there for the majority of the time.

Tell me about the hot seat…

The hot seat really speaks about our process in making the album.   Every night someone would rotate into the hot seat and that meant you were the bandleader for the night.  So whoever’s sitting there is like, “this is kinda what I want to do tonight… I have some changes that I think we need to make, etc”… we all had the chance to be the benevolent dictator every night so that each song would sound very, very different since it was orchestrated differently every night.

Do you know who’s in the hot seat for every song?

For the most part, yeah.  Chris has the master list for this.  For example, Chris was in the hot seat for “Waltzing Matilda”.  Sam Farrar, the bass player for Phantom Planet, was in the hot seat for “Failure”, Ian Ball was in the hot seat for “Elephant Pharmacy.”

I thought the song “Rain” was pretty cool…very chanty…

That was Jesse Carmichael in the hot seat.  That song in particular has a story… it started raining halfway through recording it and we didn’t notice it.  What’s amazing is the song really sounds like it’s raining.  At one point someone said, “God, this song really sounds like it’s raining” and we were all so ‘in the moment’ that we had not realized that it actually had started raining and that the rain had affected what we were playing.  We heard it on the roof and obviously the changes in the environment would affect how the music came out…  

What are your favorite tracks?

I really love “Failure” and “Elephant Pharmacy”.  I just thought they were these kinda oddball stories…little snapshots of these lives that were curious…little examples of music and storytelling.  

How do you feel about the completed project?

It’s kind of spectacular.  It was such a joy to even participate in it and looking back now that it’s completed, it’s pretty amazing to see it come to fruition.  It’s been a pipedream for so long that to be on the tail end of doing interviews, seeing press clippings about what we did there… I’m still kinda blown away that we pulled it off (laughs).

Did you take advantage of the environment or were you just cooped up in this treehouse?

Oh, no we did all…our thing was to tape in the evening and during the day we’d all go down to the beach and go exploring, hiking, surfing, swimming…a couple of us went fishing, we’d lounge around.  We’d always be humming little melodies or strumming on ukuleles.   And then every night we had these big, communal meals with fresh fish from the local village.  That really saved us a lot of trouble ‘cuz it was ready to be cooked and then we’d just put huge chunks of aki or whatever was scrounged up that day on the table and everyone would feast on it with their hands…people would go to town on it  (laughs).

In the end, several tracks were tossed.  How did 14 of you diplomatically decide which ones to keep?

In the end we all talked about it and got a consensus. Some songs were silly and weird and some just didn’t come out right and it was a very communal and democratic process, but it took two years to come together because once everyone went back to the madness of their own lives, it was much tougher to get any kind of consensus-building when people were scattered across the globe. 

Any meltdowns?

Not really.  Everyone treated each other very, very well.  This was a chance for everyone to free themselves of whatever ego or posturing that they had done in their lives and to come to this with an open heart and open mind.  We were really respectful of one another and genuinely interested in the opinions of the other musicians in the room.  There was a lot of listening going on, that’s for sure.

How do you feel about your music being described as ‘naturalistic pop’?

Well, the writers put us into boxes all day long, so if this is the box we’re in, I’ll take their word for it.   If I had to describe it, I’d say it’s got a Hawaiian backdrop with country themes and folky presentation and experimentation.  There were so many people from so many walks of life with so many different influences …I’d think it would be tough to categorize what was going on in that room, but I think it’s all in the record.  Our love of country and our love of songwriting is there. 

What lasting memories would you like to share?

There were the moments right as we finished when everyone knew that all the notes that were gonna be on that track had already been played and the song was over and no one had hit ‘stop’ yet or even made a sound that was extraneous of the song.  We were sitting in the room –14 of us — all looking at each other or at our instruments or out the window and that silence and stillness was a spectacular moment.

Some of the tracks such as “Akoha” have a primal quality…a psychedelic screamer.  What was the deal there?

 guess as much as we all tried to shed the boundaries that we put on ourselves, we all brought on our madness with us.  No matter how mellow it is, there were still flashes of anxiety or destruction or whatever people bring with them.

If you could do this again, what locale would you choose next time?

Definitely some place warm and beautiful.  It would really depend on who was involved and what kind of foundation we wanted to give ourselves for this.  I’m sure if we to Iran and had to smuggle in vacuum tubes, it would not work out.  The sound would be crafted by the environment in which we made it.  As long as people want us to do more beautiful, lush, raining tunes, I think we should go back to Hawaii…

Joanne Schenker lives in New York and is a contributing writer for Glide and freelance writes about music and the arts for several other publications.  She can be reached at [email protected]

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