Introducing House of Hats: British Group Making Move with Debut Album, New Video, and First U.S. Tour
Officially open for business, House of Hats is a worthwhile investment opportunity.
The folk-rock quartet based in Brighton, Eng., starts with brothers Alex and Rob Gigante, both of whom happen to have a thing for fashionable headwear (as any of their performance videos on YouTube will prove).
After older brother Alex (guitars, piano, soulful Cat Stevens-like vocals) developed friendships with fellow students Al-Anoud “Noddy” Al-Omran (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano) and James Kuszewski (vocals, ukulele) at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, Rob (bass, percussion) suggested they pool their resources into one unifying force.
Though the four of them have been making music together as a band since 2012, House of Hats is sharing its lush sounds with American audiences for the first time in several formats.
This Love (Willow Walk Records), the delectable debut album they co-produced with Pete Smith, gets a worldwide release on Tuesday, June 10, after being presented digitally in Europe earlier this year.
With a wide range of influences (Fleetwood Mac, Angus and Julia Stone, Ray LaMontagne, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Bon Iver, Johnny Cash and more), House of Hats resonates musically with melodies both fresh and familiar.
Al-Omran was born in Kuwait City, but her lead vocals on some of the album’s latter cuts — “Home is Where the Heart is” and “No Man” — seem as lovingly homemade in the U.S.A. as Karin Bergquist’s (Over the Rhine) and Brandi Carlile’s.
While becoming a tight-knit unit performing live regularly on Brighton’s Harvest Sessions (which they also produce), the cool cats in the Hats gained confidence and are excited to make their first visit to the United States with a week of East Coast dates beginning June 14 at Annapolis, Md. After touring the U.K. with their good friends Will and the People in September and October, they plan a return visit to America this fall that will include a stop at the CMJ Music Festival.
Finally, to serve as an introduction to the band that brings lovely lyrics to warm, sincere, acoustic-based songs flavored by heavenly harmonies, their video for “Close to Me” is presented.
Frontman Alex Gigante, who wrote most of This Love’s 10 songs (the title track gets a closing reprise featuring Al-Omran’s stunning voice), said the video directed by Maddalena McNicholas was shot over three days in the “beautiful Sussex countryside about 45 minutes outside of Brighton.”
The follow-up to “King of the Average Pace,” their first official video released at the beginning of the year, stars Jika Edstrom, a wild dog and a tin church, intercut with the band’s performance.
So enjoy what, for many of you, will be a first glimpse of House of Hats, then get to know them even better through a series of 20 questions presented via email to Alex Gigante, who, at 35, is the oldest member of the band. His replies are filled with wisdom (and smiley faces).
And just like any loyal bandmates in tune with their leader, the remaining players of House of Hats eventually lent their voices to the discussion.
Presenting the official video for “Close to Me”:
20 (OR SO) RANDOM QUESTIONS FOR HOUSE OF HATS
Michael Bialas: What was the idea behind the concept of the video (and if that’s you in the final scene, what does it signify?)
Alex Gigante: In the words of the video director Maddalena McNicholas: “The video represents a dream world — a world where everything needs to be pieced together and interpreted in order to make sense. We wanted to give time no meaning, [so] it jumps and jutters around, just like a dream. But we also wanted to give this girl a way out. A wild dog appears to her and subsequently becomes her guide, leading her to the tin church where the music plays. Whilst on the way, she starts to remember what happened. I wanted Alex to be there with her at the end so there is a personal connection between the band and the character — what that connection is, is up for the viewer to decide.”
In honor of “Close to Me,” who’s closest to you and why?
AG: My brother Rob for sure. I couldn’t be a part of this amazing journey we are having without him. He is my best friend and my inspiration. We have been making music together for so many years now and rarely go a day without seeing each other. We are very lucky to have each other.
You and Rob share credits on “Close to Me.” Who or what was the inspiration behind it?
AG: It’s funny what inspires a song — it’s very different each time for me. With “Close to Me,” me and Rob were messing around playing some reggae, and Rob started playing this bass line that instantly stirred an emotion and inspired us both to write a song around it.
My girlfriend at the time used to spend weeks — sometimes months — in Thailand volunteering at an orphanage. Even though I knew that she was doing something amazing, I missed her a great deal and wanted to be closer to her. That’s pretty much what the song is about.
You’re invading America this month. Is this the first time that House of Hats will perform in this country? And what city are you most looking forward to visiting?
AG: This is the first time for us and we can’t wait! I honestly can say that we are looking forward to every city. We have always wanted to see New York. James has family in Boston he has never met, that are coming to our show there. But we just can’t wait to experience all of it.
Are you adding to the quartet for the U.S. tour?
AG: Not this time. We have a multi-instrumentalist here in the U.K. called Fiddes Smith that performs with us normally, but we could not bring him on this occasion. Hopefully, by our second trip, we can afford to bring him.
What songs are your favorite to cover and will they be on your U.S. set list?
AG: Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee” and Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock.” They will be on our U.S. set list for sure.
What U.S. city resembles Brighton the closest?
AG: We can only go by what we hear as we don’t have firsthand experience. Our manager (Ken Kutsch) is from the U.S. and says Boston, as it’s by the sea and has a progressive music scene. I have also heard from some of my touring friends that L.A. is similar.
What does Brighton have that you can’t find anywhere else (besides the Harvest Sessions, of course)?
AG: You know the Harvest Sessions? That’s great, man.
We started it to get bands we meet on the road down to Brighton and give our local fan base what we think is great music. Hopefully, it will expand to different cities soon. I think Brighton has a unique soul. For such a small city, there are so many different walks of life and energies. From the high-flying business executive to the graffiti artist on the street corner — everything is condensed and close. There never seems to be a huge divide between where the people come together.
Noddy Al-Omran: Our nickname for Brighton is “The Bubble.” You either lose yourself or find yourself.
James Kuszewski: I’ve never experienced the same sense of community, life, widespread creativity, and freedom of expression anywhere else. Brighton has our story — where we came from as musicians and how we all came together. Despite where we individually come from, Brighton is home.
Which of your musical heroes aren’t necessarily musical influences?
AG: Louis Prima is a massive hero for me, I absolutely love his music and the fact that he was King Louie in The Jungle Book cements him as a legend. We all listen to him a lot.
NA-O: Bob Dylan. He has influenced me in my music, but he has become my hero because of his journey and how he responded to different hurdles in his life. I have watched endless films on him and have listened to his lyrics throughout his musical endeavours, and have always understood and respected his views. Such passion.
Rob Gigante: Louis Armstrong.
JK: Donny Hathaway.
Your influences are listed on Facebook, but your music also seems to be reminiscent of a couple of other U.S. groups you don’t mention — Over the Rhine and the Head and the Heart. How familiar are you with them, and what do you think of the comparisons?
AG: I was not familiar with these bands but the good news is that I’ve just spent the last two hours listening to them and love them both. Thank you for introducing me to this beautiful music. Any comparisons to good music is cool by us.
Pardon the pun, but you and other members of the group seem to wear many hats. How much does superstition play into it and what’s your lucky hat?
AG: I’m not sure if superstition plays a part, but I definitely feel most comfortable with my favourite brown felt fedora. I can’t seem to find another hat that can take its place.
NA-O: Wearing a hat just feels so good! You can’t beat a beautifully crafted hat … and, the older the better! We have always worn hats … way before the band had started, so it’s a bonus that the word “hat” features in our name. My lucky hat would have to be the bowler. … I feel complete when I’ve got mine on. [It’s] closely followed by a porkpie hat. I just bring both to be safe.
JK: I’m not overly superstitious but I do have a pair of socks that, occasionally, I like to put on just to feel extra special. Ha ha! I now have a new flat cap that belonged to my (recently) late grandfather that I wore throughout our recent tour of the Netherlands. This is now to become a staple in my wardrobe. Another hat that was given to me was a bright yellow woolly one that belonged to my late grandmother, who won the first ever Miss Great Britain beauty competition. The only person that I could see this suiting well within the band was Noddy. So I gave it to her but she’s never to let it out of her sight.
You’ve mentioned the origin of the group, comparing your social gatherings in the past to a mad hatter’s tea party. How has that changed since the group formed?
AG: We now spend a whole lot more time just the four of us and, between the four of us, the madness and tea drinking has reached new heights I didn’t think were possible. James is obsessed with tea and, because of that, we rarely go an hour without a cuppa.
NA-O: We hope that we have become a little more refined mad hatters. … We have always been true to who we are and will never let anything hinder that, but we are always growing and learning new things along the way. It’s been an amazing journey so far and we are only really just beginning to get going. There are always natural progressions in our art, as it reflects what’s happening in ourselves, but we will remain mad hatters. … I believe it.
You and Rob are brothers, but what is your relationship with the other band members? Did everyone meet in school or did you develop friendships beforehand?
AG: Me, Noddy, and James met at music school in Brighton while we were all pursuing solo projects. We have been friends for many years before House of Hats, and I’m very grateful that we ended up together to share this amazing journey.
How do you and Noddy decide who’s going to take the lead vocal? Does it ever result in an argument?
AG: We try our best to be conscious of what is best for each song and also have a great respect for each other. I remember when I wrote “Home Is Where The Heart Is,” I was convinced that I should sing the song as it was so personal to me. One listen to Noddy singing that song changed my mind instantly. There hasn’t been one argument about this between us.
On a romantic scale from one to ten, how would you rate yourself compared to your songs?
AG: I would probably give myself a seven — I like to romanticise about most things, especially what might be or might have been. But, in terms of romantic actions like buying flowers, I probably fall a little short.
“This Love,” the title track, opens the album, then closes it with an alternate version. What led to that decision and what do those two words mean to you outside of music?
AG: One of the things we try to keep at House of Hats is that individual expression that happens when you take a song and make it your own. Starting and ending with different versions of “This Love” is our own way of demonstrating that. Kind of like a header and footer.
I guess by “This Love,” I mean the love that I shared with one person at that one time, and how special it was. I passionately believe that love can be found more than once.
What’s the most romantic song you’ve written and what or who inspired it?
AG: “Gold.” I wrote the song when I was with a long-term girlfriend and there was a period of time we both were working in the city of London. I felt like an alien living a false life — all the people marching like ants and wanting to step over each other. The thing I looked forward to the most was catching the train home from Victoria station and being with her.
If you could go back in time or into the future, which would you choose, and why?
NA-O: To the future, for sure. I often dream about heading back to the 1960s as there was so much passion for change and progress from music to fashion, to how we perceived our neighbours. But, we all know what happened — we have witnessed it in photos, films, and books — so heading to the future would be a scary and challenging trip! Falling into the unknown just seems so exciting. Just as long as I could come back. … I’m loving the present.
What do you expect to be doing in 10 years?
NA-O: Singing my heart out … writing songs like I do. Hopefully all the things that make me happy.
What deep, dark secret about yourself are you willing to share?
JK: I use the vacuum cleaner to get rid of spiders. I am sorry!
(House of Hats photo, above, from left: James Kuszewski, Noddy Al-Omran, Alex Gigante, Rob Gigante. Photo by Frederique Bellec)