Hank & Cupcakes is a moniker that implies a wild musical ride, but the idea that Charles Bukowski inspired the name should remove all doubt. The Israel-born Brooklynites—Sagit “Cupcakes” Shir and Ariel “Hank” Scherbacovsky—deliver sonic assaults that imagine disco raves on an eight-ball bender. Musically, H&C gives vintage disco-funk grooves a modern synthpop spin, but the visuals also channel the decadent energy and artistic edge that epitomized NYC in the late ʼ70s. While on tour supporting their new album Ca$h 4 Gold, the married duo took time to answer a few questions.
The name alludes to Charles Bukowski’s alter ego and one of his romantic partners. Do you relate to the debauchery in his writing?
Hank: The appealing element for us is his unapologetic brutal honesty. I think that he was a man who wrestled with life and existence with a great deal of personal honesty and spirit. His view of life is so harsh and uncompromising that it offers a rare unrefined documentation of reality. I absolutely relate to the debauchery. There is nothing more interesting and beautiful about the human mind than its tendency for debauchery and then the inevitable decadence. Everything from religion, love, social justice, art, revolutions, sex, music, philosophy is somewhere in that simple equation.
You spent almost a year making Ca$h 4 Gold. What were some of the main reasons that the album took so long to make?
Hank: The main reason it took so long was that we decided to make the record ourselves but didn’t have any experience so we were learning how to make a record while actually making a record. It was a long and at times painful learning process. It took a lot of time to learn the technicalities of producing, recording and mixing a record. The incentive for this radical approach was that we were coming out of a record deal that didn’t work out, parted ways with our manager and booking agent and were very disillusioned with the “industry” part of the music business. I think that was the reason we refused to get any help from anyone and insisted on doing everything ourselves. We just had to prove to ourselves that we can do it.
You released Naked with a record label and Ca$h 4 Gold independently. In what ways did BMG open doors, and in what ways did it limit what you wanted to do creatively?
Hank: To be precise, both Naked and Ca$h 4 Gold were released by us. We recorded Naked before signing the contract, and although BMG signed us with the intention of releasing it under its wing, we left them and went on to release Naked independently. Although short lived, the record deal was a stepping stone for us because we always naively fantasized of being signed. We were navigating to that goal so it gave us a feeling of reassurance and validity. It was important for us to have the opportunity to later move on and reshape our dreams when we discovered it was a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Cupcakes: The biggest door this deal opened for us was the one in our head leading from the ridiculous tendency we had to put all our hopes and trust in other people helping us and saving us—record label, booking agent, manager, etc.—to our current state of mind where we are in control of our art and business. It was limiting in the sense that the relationship with them was not constructive and creative. They seemed to have a concept of how things should go, and we were expected to straighten up according to that.
“Cocaina” is a particularly interesting song with darker moments, religious references and a cocaine title.
Hank: “Cocaina” was originally written for a documentary movie called The Bolivian Case about three Norwegian teenagers incarcerated in Bolivia after attempting to smuggle cocaine into Norway. The idea started on a subway ride in New York with the weird Electro-Afro-Cuban feel of the chorus, and later we added the more spiritual folky verses. We recorded the chorus vocals in the subway hall on the Metropolitan Ave G train in Brooklyn to add some performance edge to the vocals.
Cupcakes: Writing the verses for this song was very tricky because the idea of the chorus with the crazy Cuban beat was the first thing written, and I needed to add a verse to that idea. At first, I tried to write the verses on the same beat as the chorus, but nothing sounded right. Eventually I slumped myself on the floor in a moment of despair and suddenly "Down on the floor but the devil wants more" came to me.
The song “Relax” references a story. Is it someone asking you about the story, or is it the character who wants a story?
Cupcakes: “Relax” came about on a day that I was trying to write. Now the thing is, when I “try” to write, it never works. I was getting really frustrated with myself and ended up deciding to abandon the whole thing and go for a run instead. Of course, when I let go during my run, inspiration came to me immediately. I returned home and recorded a demo of the entire song in under 10 min. The “story” theme—“You want a story behind your food, you want a story behind your booze..."—came to me as an observation of the people in the farmers market where I was running. It's addressing the kind of neo-spiritualism we see nowadays where people are so over focused with eating right, buying local, which is good in itself but can sometimes feel like it's become a bit of a religion to fill up an emptiness.
Your videos and style are amazing. Did either of you work professionally in fashion or video production, and do you have a team of friends and colleagues who help with the visual aspects?
Hank: Thanks! Neither of us ever worked in any fashion- or video-related business. When we moved to New York, we discovered a sense of artistic community that we didn’t know existed. Each one of the videos came about in a different way, usually starting by hanging out with friends and someone saying, “Let’s make a video!” Then there’s a brainstorm for a concept, everybody starts pulling their contacts and possibilities and then you do it! We had the good fortune and pleasure of collaborating with some really talented, inspired and inspiring individuals on our videos, and we are very grateful for all the love put into them. When we made Ca$h 4 Gold, we started learning how to make videos entirely ourselves. We learned how to edit and bought a camera. The videos for “Cocaina,” “Relax” and “Bat Your Eyelids” were all shot and edited by us.
What is something you did visually that was much more difficult to pull off than a person might assume by watching the video?
Cupcakes: I'll tell you the opposite! People always ask us how we made the video for “Bat Your Eyelids,” which shows us walking on the Williamsburg Bridge, and all the people in it are walking backwards except us. We managed to create a complicated looking video that was made with a very simple concept. We shot all the footage of ourselves walking backwards and then simply reversed it.
On the “Sweet Potion” video, you worked with Myles Kane re-interpreting corporate and commercial video content. What were some key clips, and does the aesthetic reflect the song?
Hank: We met Myles at a show in NYC called “Our Hit Parade.” The idea behind the show is that the performer reinterprets a Top 40 song. He was using all sorts of old videos from tapes and commercials and looping them to the rhythm of the song, and the outcome was really enchanting and interesting. Some of the videos we used were from educational tapes from the ʼ80s, some from Jane Fonda aerobics exercise tapes and some from ʼ80s and ʼ90s commercials and footage we shot in Myles’ living room.
Cupcakes: The aesthetic of the video doesn't have any literal connection with the content of the song other than a rhythmic one. However, the verses of the song are delivered with a kind of lethargic energy that works well with the hypnotic feel of watching TV and those commercials that tend to have a brain washy vibe.
What is an example of something artistic you have done in NYC that did not directly involve the band? Do you participate in street art or any other artforms?
Cupcakes: Hmm..If you consider putting up stickers on lampposts and then getting arrested for it then, yes, we participated in street art.
You studied music in Havana, Cuba. What technical and emotional aspects of Cuban music did you absorb and apply to your music in some way?
Hank: It’s hard to pinpoint. We were there for six months and absorbed as much as we could. There is a certain freedom with which they approach music that was very influential and felt very natural. Our teachers there were very non-methodical, very focused on the musicality, not the technique.
In a previous interview, you said you were foodies. What is the most off-beat restaurant that you visited in NYC?
Hank: We like going to Chinatown and getting all sorts of weird stuff there. Since many times people there don’t speak English and the ingredients are a complete mystery to us, there’s really no way of knowing what you’re going to get.
Cupcakes: We also like to eat at Punjabi, which is a tiny Sikh place a cross the road from Mercury Lounge on the Lower East Side that looks like a deli from the outside and has one of the most delicious and very affordable food in the area.
Israel is a world leader in medical marijuana studies, and Professor Raphael Mechoulam from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has been called the Father of Medical Marijuana. Outside scientific circles, do you feel there was awareness among the people about the country’s role in cannabis-related research?
Hank: That’s amazing, I wasn’t aware of that! I never felt any awareness of that sort while I lived in Israel. I’ve heard of people using cannabis for medical purposes, but everyone I knew and myself included just smoked because it was fun.
Cupcakes: Now that you mention it, I used to go to Rainbow gatherings in Israel, and one of the people who introduced me to it had a PhD in marijuana studies!
How did growing up Israel shape your views on cannabis, and to what extent does that view differ from the U.S.?
Hank: I think that people here and in Israel use cannabis for the same emotional, psychological and social reasons. There’s no difference. It seems to me that maybe in the U.S. it’s a little more common and more socially acceptable than in Israel. Another difference is that the average weed in the U.S. is way stronger than what you find in Israel. I was always open and curious about it in the same way that I try to be towards all the experiences life has to offer.
Lastly, if either of you smoke cannabis, do you think it helps you creatively?
Hank: I don’t currently smoke it, but I’ve experimented thoroughly with it in the past, and it was inspiring at times. If you’re a creative person, all life experiences should be elixirs, including cannabis. I’ve experimented thoroughly with it in the past, though, and it was inspiring at times. I, personally, abused weed to the point that it was a daily routine about as inspiring as shooting insulin. I did that for many years and eventually got bored and stopped. When you overdo it, it's like eating the same food every day. After eating the same delicious cake for a couple of years every day all day, you’re gonna find yourself praying for some brussels sprouts, or even kasha.
Cupcakes: I used to smoke a lot when I was younger, and at the time I think it helped me expand and see things from a different perspective. I don't smoke anymore. I've learned a lot from my experimentation, and now I'm at a place where I want to be extremely focused in my life. I'm enjoying the clarity of being completely sober.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.