Under The Influence: HOAX Creates Empathy Pop Through “The Sound of Beautiful Sadness”
HOAX is rounding out Pop music with their very own slice of the genre called Empathy Pop. Based in New York, the band is recreating themselves and exploring deeply what it means to make music. HOAX consists of Mike Raj on lead vocals and guitar, Frantz Cesar on bass, Paul Brower and Kevin Lopez on guitar, and Jacob Lopez on the drums. Their sound was once described as “the sound of beautiful sadness” and the phrase stuck, speaking to HOAX’s overall poetic lyrical experience. Underlying their connection and songwriting are years of friendship as well as a genuine message of growth and freedom. They embody humble and existential ideas, holding strong to their belief that music is more than it’s functionality or style. Music, to them, is an emotional exchange between artists and listeners. What they strive to share is a greater sense of empathy and beingness.
The band has an upcoming project entitled “b?” which will explore their ideas further. If their latest singles “Grow” and “Moon Moon Baby” are any indication, “b?” is sure to have high-quality vibes and a fusion of influences. HOAX has gained features in OldMan Ebro’s Beats 1 Radio show, Spotify’s Indie Songs For Slackers and Alternative R&B playlists, and more. Heavy listeners to the likes of Frank Ocean, Marvin Gaye, and the Arctic Monkeys it’s no wonder HOAX’s sound incorporates notes of soul, R&B and more. To discuss their inspirations and a deep look behind the music Steereo is joined by HOAX members Mike and Frantz.
Tell us about yourselves. When did you meet and how long have you been making music together?
Mike: I met Frantz at Hofstra University three years ago (late into 2015) in an accounting class. It was a serendipitous moment where I kind of just sat next to him. Within just a couple minutes of talking, we were bonding instantly over things like different brands of clothes we liked, basketball, and music. It was honestly a pivotal moment in what would become HOAX. Although we eventually settled on music, our first project together was a fashion line called IDEALOGY. We used to meet up twice a week in this basement apartment I was living in and just create graphics for t-shirts and stuff. Somewhere on a hard drive is still a folder that has all those designs. I just remember that apartment being so small; I had all these records and my guitars all over the place that it sprung a lot of debates about music and stuff. It was a very formative relationship for us as a young band. I don’t think people take into account how much trust is required to make music with someone and have a vision and be like, “This is something that means literally everything in the world to me,” and then for that other person to reciprocate that passion and to have the same strong trust. I think that’s what makes really great and strong songwriting teams: the idea that no matter what, the other person is not going to yes man you and just tell you something sounds great but instead is going to hold you to a standard that serves the song. And I remember on both a personal and songwriting level, that trust with Frantz was just there.
Frantz: When we started, a lot of the material came from Mike’s personal collection of songs that he had written, which I think is really cool because if you look at the growth of our sound and songwriting style, you can see it really open up. In college, we had a joke that I was like DJ Khaled because I was great at connecting people from different circles together and that carried over into HOAX. I asked Mike to come to a session I was working on with two of my childhood friends: Jacob and Kevin Lopez. Again it was somewhat of a kinetic meeting where the energy was right, and we all started working on music. After collaborating more, we decided to add the fifth member shortly after to round out the sound and create a more sonic experience. I’d always been great friends with Paul Brower, a classmate of mine from Valley Stream Christian Academy, and knew he’d be a good fit (not to mention absolutely hilarious). I think when Paul joined, we were all kind of like, “Okay, this is official. We are HOAX”. In terms of the actual musical compositions and arrangements, Mike and I are the primary songwriters.
HOAX is a 5-piece “Empathy Pop” band. What is ‘Empathy Pop” and what are your thoughts on the music you make?
Mike: I know “empathy pop” seems weird. Or you probably see it as, “Oh great – who are these suckers? Just making up stuff as they go along…” But I think for me, at least, music is such an active medium. There will be times when I listen to artists and have completely different reactions between listens. I think that is the essence of music and it’s beautiful. So when we started writing all the material for our new project, we said, “Okay, I know that stylistically and ‘genre-wise’, we are creating indie pop music, but what is the active emotion or active takeaway we want people to grab from our music?” The answer was empathy. So the name kind of stuck. Plus, I like the idea of our music being more of an overarching strive towards something rather than just a mechanical definition of the type of sounds you are expected to hear.
Frantz: I think with this new project, b?, we are not only trying to observe what we believe to be wrong or right with what’s happening around us, but also give some direction on which steps to take from there. Mike and I have long talked about summarizing the root of world problems into one word (which is a ridiculous task), and the word we always land on is SELFISHNESS. Without taking hours to explain what I mean, let me just say that if you trace almost any human problem back far enough you’ll see that the root to some degree was a form of selfishness. So our thought process was: “Man, how do you fight selfishness?” It’s almost praised in our society now; it’s considered boss when you do it. We figured the only way to become more selfless is to feel more and to use empathy. Instead of thinking from one limited perspective, try to think of the opposing perspective – or just a different perspective. And don’t think just to be reactionary, think to be understanding. So for us, to say we want to have our music be a part of the cure to the negativity that surrounds us, “empathy pop” was a no brainer.
There seems to be a shift in music with more artists branching out from large genres like Rock or Pop. What are your thoughts on the subject?
Mike: It’s the absolute greatest thing. The genre-blending / genre-less movement is so refreshing, and to honest, it’s as close to humanity as it gets. I went to a school where I was 1 of 4 or 5 brown people. And so I always felt like there was this weird dichotomy where people expected me to like certain things or what not, but it also gave me an advantage ‘cause I could hang out with everyone and get exposed to everything without being part of a certain clique or whatever. And to me, that was so liberating just intaking so many different music styles and informations; and when you process music like that – then you begin making music – it’s never going to be just one style. It’s like being human: you don’t just experience one single emotion constantly; it fluctuates. Just like music taste and creativity. There are days when The Doors are really inspiring me and I’m mixing that with Outkast or Marvin Gaye (I’m talking purely inspirations), and the output would always lead to interesting and honest music.
Frantz: We are pretty eclectic as a band in our music taste and style and what we create. I think it’s cool to see that all the formulas are being erased. There is no one way to make a song in a specific style anymore because the genres are all getting blended. I think a lot of that came with the streaming revolution and how fans and listeners are able to pick what they want to hear (or maybe the algorithm is trying to guess what someone would want to hear) instead of when big genres like pop and rock dominated the radio and such. But the music experience is very listener-based now, and it has given a platform to artists that don’t want to be penciled into a certain genre and really grow their own unique sound. It’s a great time to express yourself and be an artist.
Are there any artists or groups that have influenced your group’s vocal style and overall sound? If so, who are they and how have they impacted your music?
Frantz: Our music doesn’t stem from just one sound or one genre or one type of art. Mike and I both grew up listening to a variety of genres and artists, from hip-hop to soul to classic rock to pop. I remember growing up on Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, some Smokey Robinson. Some contemporary artists that inspire us are Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and I know Mike loves Arctic Monkeys, and The Black Keys. And I’m sure that just from absorbing music the way we do, there are subconscious decisions inspired by bands like The Strokes, The Killers, Radiohead, and (old) Coldplay. But that’s the best thing about inspiration – it’s just how you filter it. So I can say something crazy like Kanye West is a huge inspiration, and you might read that and say, “What?” ‘cause it doesn’t sound like that in our music, but inspiration just means some aspect of it is being filtered through us and coming out in a totally new way in the end. Inspiration is like the human equivalent of sampling to put it into producing terms.
Mike: My mom actually told me a couple years ago that she was such a Michael Jackson fan and that it was why she named me Michael. I think that’s hilarious, but a lot of early memories of music are just what my parents would listen to. There was a lot of Michael Jackson, and my parents both love the Disco Era and that type of pop, so the Bee Gees and ABBA were playing a lot. But I also think a lot of my songwriting comes from literature and movies. I grew up reading a lot of Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot. I was always fascinated by Hemingway’s bluntness and honesty, and by Elliot’s poetic depth. I also think I see songs in a visual sense more than I hear them, and it’s probably because I love movies – especially Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and David Fincher films. I just always felt those three really helped me understand the importance of storytelling. Tarantino and Kubrick too!
Your music has been described as “the sound of beautiful sadness”. What does that mean to you, and how do you want listeners to interpret this through your music?
Mike: A good friend of ours actually coined the phrase. She described our music as “the sound of beautiful sadness” while listening to our debut single “Beach House” one day, and it stuck with us ever since. Because I’m kind of a nerd, I think about this Hemingway quote in particular a lot: “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” I’ve always interpreted that message as “The more you know about anything, the easier it is to open yourself up to be let down by that knowledge”. I guess the takeaway is that you can only know sadness if you know joy, and somewhere in between that inevitable dichotomy is human existence.
Frantz: I think it’s pretty accurate. I don’t think we write songs that are normally one dimensional – that is, I don’t think they lean towards one emotion. Rather, they are balanced and cover multiple emotions. The idea of “beautiful sadness” is almost paradoxical, but that irony is actually really close to what everyday life is like. The even funnier thing is that we never set out to chase this specific sound – and we are not bound to it – but I guess the tone and ambience we create just tends to have that type of impact.
HOAX has new releases and though you’ve stated on Instagram that you “usually don’t like to create meanings for the songs we make,” what was it like creating “Grow”? What sparked the song?
Mike: I actually remember the day when Frantz played the bassline and my eyes lit up. It just reminded me of something. Maybe of all the disco my parents played or something cheesy like that. But I just remember getting so excited, and then Kevin playing that “wah” guitar part pretty much solidified the mood we were going for. And I remember already having all the melodies on the first day ever of working on the song; I even had all the lyrics for the chorus written, but I was actually really stumped on the verses and didn’t know why. I think I’m just so scared of writing inauthentic lyrics that sometimes, I would choose to just chill until they come to me. I remember up until the day that we recorded vocals, I was going back and forth and back and forth. But in that very moment, after hearing everything together after it was recorded, I was glad I waited and kept challenging every line. To me, the song just flows so well.
Frantz: When you are working on a song like “Grow”, it’s really important to get the feel right. With modern recording technology, it’s really easy to just fix a mistake. Like anything, from playing off time to singing out of tune. It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of making everything sound perfect. But sometimes that takes away from the feel of the song. So this song was all about feel for us, and there are some notes where Mike clips the mic or doesn’t sound perfect on, but there was so much emotion in the takes that they were perfect.
Mike: The song is not exactly easy to sing either.
HOAX seems to value “the sensibility for humanity” which comes across in your single “Grow”. Can you share with us what this means to the group and how it shows up in your music?
Mike: Maybe I’m just salty, but I feel like I always see these YouTube videos or motivational videos that yell at people our age to be better, be less lazy, seize the day – blah blah blah. I’m like, that’s not how real growth is formed. You don’t force growth out of someone, it happens after a conscious decision from that being is made. And growth happens completely differently from individual to individual, so when we wrote “Grow”, we were thinking: “Okay, what is the actual underlying thing you can add to any situation to actually improve that situation?” And as cheesy as it is, the answer to us is love, which can be boiled into different aspects, like empathy and selflessness. But I think “Grow” was special because it conveys the idea to not focus on the things you have no control over. Instead, focus on the things you actually directly control, like how you act towards other people and how you talk to them, etc.
Listen to “Grow” by HOAX
You’ve just released a sitcom-style music video for “Moon Moon Baby.” How does it represent that song, and what do you want listeners to take away from the single?
Mike: I was on a Jim Carrey binge at the time. I was just watching all his movies. I was also watching a lot of The Truman Show, and I remember thinking to myself, “Sometimes, life does feel like a show, where I’m the only one who was told it is not a show.” And when I first wrote “Moon Moon Baby”, it was after Frantz and I had traveled through the Himalayas in India, and coming back was just a culture shocking experience. Not to mention, to go straight into a full-time job shortly after, I just felt like I was going through the motions. It was like a re-run of a TV show. That was largely the inspiration between the style and format of the video. I think there are also some subconscious jabs to not take life too seriously, ‘cause if you do, the only person really missing out is you.
Since your songs tend to have clever and insightful lyrics, what’s the songwriting process like for your group? And can you share any meaningful lyrics from either “Grow” or “Moon Moon Baby”?
Frantz: There’s a line in the song where Mike sings, “We should buy some golden handcuffs / And throw away the key / And march ourselves into cages in the / Prison of belief”. I’ve always thought this was such a profound and powerful line, and it’s so interesting to hear that line specifically in a song that leans so far indie pop and “feel good”. It’s almost like it was snuck in there. But that’s HOAX for you. That’s always been something I love about our music: that if you are a listener and want to just listen to music and relax, you can do that with HOAX. But, if you also want to activate an existential crisis that’s bubbling up, you can dig deeper into our lyrics.
Mike: I used to write all the lyrics, go to a vocal session, and sing, which would be everyone’s first time hearing the lyrics all the way through. At some shows, I used to freestyle some of the verses in the beginning, but I can happily say we’ve moved away from that. I have a background in writing poetry, so I’ll always write lyrics and send them to Frantz to read. I think Frantz always makes sure that the lyrics can be read just stand alone and make sense, yet still have meaning apart in the music. So when we do add the musical elements, the lyrics are accentuated to a higher level. I think my favorite line from “Moon Moon Baby” is: “I’ve been staying up for hours / Just staring at the ceiling / Now she’s starting to stare back / But I guess looks can be deceiving.” It kind of reminds me of this Nietzsche quote: “And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” But obviously, my line is not as profound.
Frantz: The two released EPs were more so us getting comfortable with the idea of putting full ideas out there. I will say that the current project is an even more in-depth and complete concept on our exploration of being vs. doing. As far as acclaim and numbers go, I think you’ll go crazy if you focus on that stuff. The way we make music is just to see if we really enjoy it and if it’s adding value to existence, ‘cause that’s why we do this.
Mike: I’ve also gotten so attached to the idea of making this project that way way way into the future when I’m a father, I hope my kids will find this record, get their minds blown, and be proud. So I’m pretty much making records just to blow my future-kids’ minds.
Are you working on any new projects? Do you have any upcoming performances or tours?
Mike: We’re currently finishing up the recording process for our debut album, ‘b?’. And in support of it, we’ll be going on an introvert’s nightmare in 2019: a headlining tour.
Frantz: (Amongst some other surprises.)
Watch The Official Music Video for ‘Moon Moon Baby’ By HOAX