Making it from scratch

Starting from the bottom, quirky Israeli-bred drum and bass duo Hank & Cupckakes is finding moderate success in New York

making it from scratch 311 (photo credit: alan lugo)
making it from scratch 311
(photo credit: alan lugo)
Most bands rely on a sturdy bass and drums rhythm section to build a sound  foundation. But no matter how stellar the combination – think Moon and Entwistle, Watts and Wyman, Mullen and Clayton – there would have been something seriously lacking without the glorious musical toppings provided by Townshend, Richards and the Edge, respectively.
Hank & Cupcakes, a quirky Israeli-bred, New York-based drum and bass duo, have no such sonic shortage problem. As one reviewer of a recent Brooklyn show noted, “At times it seems as though there are 10 people on stage, all playing rare, exotic synthesizers, when in fact, of course, there are only two.”
As visually riveting as they are musically stimulating, Cupcakes (Sagit Shir) attacks her drums with a vengeance from a standing position, belting out vocals in the best “girl group” tradition while often wearing provocative spandex outfits. Meanwhile Hank (Ariel Scherbacovsky) is equally aggressive on his bass, surrounded by pedals, knobs and other equipment that creates a dizzying dance club effect. Together, they create wildly invigorating music that is full of danger, mystery, noise, and sex – all the ingredients of great rock and roll.
And to think it all began a decade ago in the IDF, where Shir was playing percussion in an army band and Scherbacovsky was serving as a sound technician.
“Being in the army was a good education for me in the sense of performing a lot and getting into a routine of rehearsals, but beyond that… I’m not sure how beneficial it was,” said Shir in an interview with The Jerusalem Post earlier this week in Tel Aviv. The the group has come back to Israel for a short vacation that will include a few performances – at the Ozen Club in Tel Aviv on April 12 and 15, and at the Barby Club on the 16th, opening for old friend Tamar Eisenman (Scherbacovsky played with her band for five years).
GETTING TOGETHER both professionally and personally, Shir and Scherbacovsky formed an acoustic band upon their release from the army, which they called Mayim Shketim (Still Water). While experiencing some success, within a few years the couple decided to break up the band and try something completely different – like moving to Cuba.
“We went to Havana for six months to study music because we were attracted by the fact that music there is like a nature reserve,” said Shir. “Because Western culture is basically closed to Cubans, their culture is very preserved, and it was a great opportunity to get exposed to the music there. It was very worthwhile musically, but it wasn’t easy living there for six months.”
Upon their return to Tel Aviv two years ago, the couple began hatching the idea of moving to New York and starting a band there.
“We did the acoustic thing for a very long time. It was very revealing and it was very personal and really hard for me to get on stage and be so open in front of the crowd,” Shir told the New York music Web site Music Vagabond. “I was showing my gut and I just wanted to do something fun and groovy and less serious and deep.”
At the time, their intention was to master their instruments and create a well-oiled rhythm section that would attract top New York musicians. But a surprising thing happened – they got so good they didn’t need any other musicians. “We’re a duo by choice,” Shir told the Post. “What happened was that we wanted to move to New York and try living there and making music. And because we knew we were going to be moving, we didn’t try to start a band in Israel with other musicians. Instead, we planned to get really solid as a bass and drums rhythm section and meet other musicians in New York to form a band with. But since we rehearsed so intensively, our sound got so full, and at some stage we realized that it stood on its own.”
Reinventing themselves as a high-energy drums and bass duo, Shir and Scherbacovsky only needed a name, which they found courtesy of revered beat poet and novelist Charles Bukowksi. “We both love Charles Bukowski, and were watching a documentary about him one night, around the time we were thinking of a band name. He used to call himself Hank Chinaski in his books and in a certain scene in the documentary, he was waiting in vain for a lover of his called Cupcakes,” Shir told Music Vagabond.
REBRANDED HANK & Cupcakes, the duo relocated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn and began the arduous task of building a following from the ground up. Performing wherever someone would have them and late last year releasing a well-received EP, Pleasure Town, the group found success based on their own modest criteria.
“We’ve been working very hard to get a following, and it’s growing. It’s not an explosion, but we’re working organically, starting from the bottom. At each show, we add people to mailing lists and send out flyers announcing shows. We’re very happy with the progress,” said Shir, adding that she and Scherbacovsky have been bolstered by the vibrant musical environment of their adopted neighborhood.
“There’s a huge music scene in Williamsburg – I think that every musician in New York must live there. There’s a whole underground network of  rehearsal spaces and studios, and 15 music venues within walking distance. We really feel like we’re part of a scene all the time.”
With rave reviews for their dynamic stage show and inventive music, Hand & Cupcakes are poised on the cusp of making it as a drum and bass duo, and don’t consider the lack of another instrument in their lineup a limitation in any way.
“I consider it being challenged, not limited, at finding ways to keep the songs sounding full,” said Shir.  “The more we play and the more experience we get, the arrangements become more creative. Finding ways to overcome our  musical lineup is a challenge that we really enjoy.”
Something else that Shir and Scherbacovsky enjoy is returning home to Israel, to see friends and family, to relax in a familiar environment, and to experience the feeling of seeing something familiar from a different angle.
“When I come back to Israel, I feel like an Israeli but with a verydifferent perspective,” said Shir. “Every time you leave home, and haveexperiences and see different cultures, it broadens your horizons andhelps you to see things that maybe you don’t understand or can’t seewhen you’re always at home.”
Still, following their shows here next week, Hank & Cupcakes will be returning to New York for some more career building.
“Our plans are to keep building a following in New York,” said Shir. “But it’s nice to have a following here in Israel too.”