A couple of years ago, Hanna Badalova's grandmother came to stay with her. "She would cook me these really heavy meals with half a bottle of olive oil," Badalova recalls, "and recite [Anna] Akhmatova poems."
This was already eight years into the career of Mr. Moccasin-the band Badalova started with erstwhile CP contributor Jared Fischer back when she was only 18 years old, a freshman studying poetry at Goucher-but there is something about the scene with Badalova, her grandmother, and the seminal Russian poet that sums up XAHA, the band's new album.
First, there's the Russian. XAHA is not pronounced "ZA-ha," as you may expect. Rather, it's the Cyrillic spelling of "Hanna."
"Before, Jared would always give me a topic for songs-like, 'Why don't you write about this?'" Badalova recalls, sitting on the couch of the apartment she shares with her boyfriend in a large Tudor mansion. She's dressed in yoga pants and a T-shirt, distractedly massaging her bare foot as her fat cat, Brian Eno, slinks around the room.
"But on this record, I told my stories. But it's weird because this one actually has less Russian than our other albums-mainly because I ran out of Russian words," she adds, widening her already saucer-shaped dark eyes.
The first of Badalova's stories, though she doesn't sing about it directly, involves immigrating to America in 1990, when she was 5 years old, to escape the genocide of Armenians in Azerbaijan in the late 1980s and early '90s. Her mother is half-Armenian and half-Russian, "but she has serious Armenian features-she looks like Cher-so she really stood out among Azeri people," Badalova says. "We moved all around and were homeless. I remember Italy because we were there around Christmastime in 1989 and there were so many lights everywhere. And I remember my dad ran out into the streets to wash people's car windows. We had no money at all. He did however make some change because I remember my parents giving me two presents when I was there: a jacket with a squirrel drawing on it, and tap shoes."
Though she studied poetry in school, writing a 60-page epic poem to graduate from Goucher, Badalova's childhood displacement may have influenced her career as a therapist working with children in Baltimore City. "It's wrong to go into this field if you're suffering [yourself], but I think I can relate better," she says. "I talk to other people and am surprised to know that they remember a lot before they are 5. I don't remember much except for little trips I took with my grandmother. Most of the album is about little trips."
Many of those trips are dark, as one might expect. The first song, "Black on Black," is built around a trip to Latin America, where she felt isolated and alone, and saw a black serpent slither across black sand. The song's refrain, "You got me," is an acerbic take on Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe," bringing out all the dark implications of such a statement.
Not all of the trips which inspired these songs are quite so negative, but the album carries a dark minor-key tone. "Cabana Boys (Birds of Youth)" is a gorgeously soaring song about the vacations Badalova takes with her best friend. "We're such nerds, it's a total 'girls gone mild' kind of vacation," she says. But the lyrics, sung in Badalova's sultry soprano, can't help but take on an ominous shadow. "Once a year we meet/ Put the past behind us to start clean/ smoke some stranger's cigarettes like we never did when we were teens," she sings in front of the band's loping, vaguely Spanish arrangement and Tropicália-ish drums. When the song reaches its climax, she sings "find yourself a sweet cabana boy," and a lonesome horn accentuates the song's wistfulness.
Much of the power of Mr. Moccasin's songs comes from the dynamic between Fischer and Badalova. The two met at Goucher when Badalova heard Fischer reciting a short story he wrote. "I thought his voice sounded so weird, but I loved the story," she recalls. Shortly, the two began to date. "I think we just didn't understand that what we really had was a creative marriage," she says. "Though I hate to use the word 'marriage,' because it entails so much more. But we have this real creative relationship."
The band was originally a two-piece-unless you count the cartoon rabbit mascot Gaspadin Moccasin, from whom they took their name ("Gaspadin" is Russian for "sir" or Mr.) and "Coach" Apichella. "We grew up with Human Host, and Mike Apichella [from that band] was such a big supporter, we used to call him 'coach,'" Badalova says. "The sloppier we were, the more he loved it. He'd say, 'That's the real Moccasin.' Now, we've really grown into a four-piece, and so the four of us are the real Moccasin."
Even though they have added Chris Martinelli and Greg Hatem on electric guitar and drums, respectively (Hatem also produced the album), the songs still begin with Fischer and Badalova. Fischer will bring her a melody and she'll begin toying around with words. Only after she's got lyrics worked out do they bring the song to the rest of the band. Still, it is clear listening to XAHA-despite the focus on Badalova-that Mr. Moccasin is now a cohesive four-piece unit. XAHA is not so much a break from the band's previous two records as it is fleshing-out and maturing of their eccentric sounds, which have always had a bit of the ominous, Tropicália-indie vibe-as if they were written for one of the more recent international Jim Jarmusch films like the Limits of Control.
In many ways, that's what a band is about: limiting the control of any single individual. "None of us function well without the others," Badalova says. "We're Mr. Moccasin until we die."