It’s 2020. Coronavirus has hit, and Bodega is isolated and entering the world of philosophy in a book club together. There, endless hours of conversations among the members of the Brooklyn, NY-based punk band helped formulate the songs of Broken Equipment and the “ambiance” around the band.
“Our book club very much had the gang mentality that rock bands tend to have, which directly spilled over into our new lineup,” Ben Hozie tells American Songwriter, who along with singer and percussionist Nikki Belfiglio, drummer Tai Lee, guitarist Dan Ryan, and new bassist Adam Lee discovered more mutual connections. “In my experience, musicians tend to play with more emotion when they have a direct experience connecting to the source of the lyrics, which this current lineup certainly has.”
Recorded at Trout Studios in Brooklyn in Sept. 2020 and mixed by Bryce Goggin later that year Bodega made a u-turn back to the studio in Jan. 2021 to record two newer tracks—“How Can I Help Ya?” and “Seneca the Stoic” and re-track some guitars and vocals with additional mixing by Adam Sachs.
Following the band’s 2019 release Shiny New Models and debut Endless Scroll debut in 2018, Broken Equipment is a statement piece on socio-political imbalances, existential pivots—and even a nod to Shakespeare—bouncing on the band’s proto-punk and hip hop renderings.
Broken Equipment is a box of musical pieces assembled around the cross-examinations of self, an exploration of the history of New York City and art, former relationships and familial ties, and navigating the aftermath of a social and productivity-driven world and how it can make one become bitter, harder, fatter, stressed out, as laid out on “Doers.”
Hozie chatted with American Songwriter about the band’s “seven pillars” of making Broken Equipmentcross-examining their own identities, and why some “silliness” never hurts.
AS: Tell me how the songs of Broken Equipment began piecing together. Was it mostly a collaborative effort when writing?
BH: There were multiple stages. It tended to work like this:
I. Me and Nikki first began our respective songs traditionally, with just an acoustic guitar (either playing the chord changes or a bass line) and/or a notepad to work out the lyrics [and] melodies. Sometimes the lyrics came first (ie “Thrown”). Sometimes the riffs came first (“CIRP”), and sometimes they happened simultaneously (“How Can I Help Ya?”).
II. Me and Nikki shared these simple song ideas with each other and received (usually harsh but helpful) feedback. We edit each other’s lines and suggest new contrasting sections. We always want to make sure that the emotion and the ideas are translating in the right way. Tone is often the hardest thing to get right with a song.
III. We start to make very simple demos (usually in the Logic software) with drum samples. At this stage, we start to get feedback from bandmates and see what kind of sonic direction the tune should be shaped in. In early 2020 right before the pandemic we also did a few demos in our practice space with live drums. The biggest challenge with our band is always how to try out a song in a new genre (for example the power pop of “Statuette on the Console” or “How can I help ya?”) and still have it sound like Bodega.
IV. At this point, we would usually begin to workshop the songs live in front of an audience, but obviously the pandemic put a stop to that.
V. After the pandemic started my neighbor and friend Bobby Lewis came to me and Nikki’s apartment and helped us make more elaborate Pro Tools demos as we were shaping the overall arc of the record. We made mixes of 12 of these demos in April 2020. We wrote another 12 and demoed these in June 2020.
VI. As the summer ended we finally were able to get together as a band in our practice space—but only as a four-piece since our lead guitar player [Dan Ryan] lives in Baltimore—and find the best way to translate our demo ideas into fleshy live arrangements.
VII. We prepared a repertoire of 20 of our favorite songs from our pool and began working with Dan—sometimes over e-mail and sometimes in-person—to flesh out his guitar parts. By fall 2020, we went into the studio to begin tracking.
AS: What is it that threads the 12 songs of Broken Equipment together?
BH: I think of Broken Equipment as a kind of concept record. Me and Nikki began this song cycle by interrogating our own identities. We realized that to write about who we are currently, we’d need to write about external things that have been ‘thrown’ our way. For me, this involved topics such as the history of NYC, particularly its relationship between commerce and the arts, my relationship with Nikki and my exes, the language of self-help and advertising, movie trailers, and my relationship with my mother. “Doers” explores our brains in overcharge and how that can actually be counterproductive, or bitter, harder, fatter, stressed out (which it does). The pandemic and everything that was happening (still) definitely made us reflect deeper on how we’re devoting (or wasting) time, the people in our lives…
AS: You go into our social media existence, religion, and so much more. Are any of the other songs making even more sense (meaning-wise) now than they did when you first wrote them? Did working in the thick of the pandemic, how did this impact the songs, or their meaning?
BH: Many of the lyrics were written before the pandemic, even the bit in ‘Thrown’ where I state “at this moment and always I am wearing a mask.’ I was thinking more along the lines of Macbeth than KN95’s but I assume most will now hear that as a pandemic documentary.
On a practical level, 2020 was the first time that I had ever really fleshed out and finished song lyrics ‘in the box.’ The arrangements for “Doers” (and its digital-only b-side “Top Hat No Rabbit”), ‘CIRP’ and ‘No Blade of Grass’ was the product of me writing and editing lyrics while working directly with the timeline inside Logic , which I feel is pretty standard practice for musicians these days. Before I had always written just with my guitar in hand but the extra time inside with a computer and no friends meant I had to learn how to work in a more modern post-hip hop fashion. Working this way definitely has its benefits (your sketch can often resemble or even be the final ‘product’ which means that your final track may be closer to the initial spark of inspiration) but it has its cons as well. Sometimes you don’t want to be thinking ‘inside the box.’
AS: Broken Equipment: What’s the significance of the album title?
BH: Things that are broken reveal. I may forget that I have a toe until I stub it. Art works in a similar way; artists tend to be broken people making aesthetic gestures that reveal something new about the everyday. We want to remind listeners that they have toes and highlight the essence of toe-ness. On a larger scale, the systems of power in our world are very broken. Perhaps they always have been, but it has become blatantly obvious to all in recent years. People are developing new consciousness because they cannot ignore this stubbing of the toe.
AS: Now that the album is out and complete, is there a sense of detachment with the songs, or do you feel like they are resonating with you now?
BH: I don’t think of any recorded song as the one definitive platonic ideal of that song. Songs always evolve and change. Records are beautiful and interesting because they capture a group’s energy and spirit at a particular moment in time. As a band, we are already thinking about future records but these songs are still very much alive to us.
AS: Tell me how New York still impacts Bodega and the songs.
BH: It impacts us because we let it consciously. NYC is as much a state of mind as an actual place. That’s why there are bands in Canada who sound like they are from New York.
AS: What kinds of songs (lyrically) do you think you’re gravitating towards now for Bodega?
BH: I’m always drawn in several directions at once but lately I’ve been working hard to bring more melody to the group. Broken Equipment has a lot more tunefulness than our first record. Even the raps have pitch worked into their design. Deep down, I’m as interested in a surprising chord change as I am in a revealing pun or a powerful groove.
AS: Writing can shift over time. Do you feel like songs are still coming to you in the same way they did when you first started, or even since Endless Scroll?
BH: They still come but you have to invite them in with the proper input. I keep my antenna open and am always reading books and watching films looking for images, words, or gestures that inspire me. Most importantly, I have learned to trust my seemingly silly ideas when they appear spontaneously. I almost rejected both “Jack in Titanic” [Endless Scroll] and “Doers” for verging too close to the edge of novelty songs but am very glad I didn’t. I’ve come to believe in the profundity of silliness.
Photos: Pooneh Ghana