Local Musician Check-in: Hicham Benhallam

Posted on February 19, 2014 by

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Since forming last September, Post Sixty Five has exploded onto the Charlottesville music scene, working hard and playing show after show after show to establish themselves on a terrain already saturated with serious talent. Their hard work seems to have paid off, with their shows drawing sizable crowds to local venues such as The Southern, Tea Bazaar, and Main Street Annex.

Those who have heard them know that Post Sixty Five sounds moody and romantic. Their rich, textural instrumentals are accented with trumpet and heavy guitar riffs, and matched in intensity by the dark, introspective lyrics of front man Hicham Benhallam. In the Cville music scene, they are distinct.

This week, I was able to chat in great detail with Hicham about the darkness behind his words, and how his early influences left an indelible mark on his writing style.

p65 hichamHicham Benhallam

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? If not Cville, when did you come here?

I’m actually from Rabat in Morocco, but I came here for school when I was 17. I’m graduating in May, but I feel that I need to work more on music and play more with Post Sixty Five, so I’ll probably be in Charlottesville for a while longer.

What are some of your favorite local spots: to catch live music? to grab a drink? to eat?

For whatever reason, I love Miller’s. I like the lights and the tables, I like the stage… the fact that it’s so crowded is nice. I love the food. There’s just an understated elegance about that place that makes me feel grown up.

I also like Fardowner’s out in Crozet. It’s just normal, and there’s no extravagance and it’s just food and drinks on tables and bars. It feels essential.

What local musician(s) you are most excited about?

I really like The Anatomy of Frank. I worked with them while they were on tour in Europe last fall and in the process I’ve gotten to know Kyle and Jimmy and consider them good friends… I think they’re both very preoccupied with beautiful things. The band as a whole is so ambitious. Their sound is big and it feels like they have a vision. The song they recently released as part of their Kickstarter campaign (“Leavenworth, WA“) really speaks to the fact that they don’t take themselves lightly.  They’re very applied and intentional.

When and why did you start playing music and singing?

I’ve been playing guitar since I was 15 and piano since I was about 17. I recently started taking jazz piano lessons with Butch Taylor because I want to know the instrument a little better. I want it to play a bigger part in the composition process. When it comes to Post Sixty Five, I write a lot of sort of basic sketches on guitar that I can use to write lyrics and melodies. When I feel the song is ready, I pass it on to the band and they turn it into something whole.

Most influential artist as a child? Teen? Adult?

The first song I can remember actually doing something to me is a song called “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel. I think I remember listening to it for the first time when I was 5 or 6 years old. It’s violent and primitive. It’s about sailors and prostitutes and I remember finding that disturbing but at the same time really pretty. After Jacques Brel, I started to draw influences from Leonard Cohen and shortly after there was Elliott Smith, whose writing I always thought was impressive. By the time I was 16, I started listening to some of the pre-’65 Bob Dylan albums. I was always impressed with the value that all of these artists gave to writing and the kind of literary seriousness that came with their music. I revisit these albums all the time, but now I listen to a lot of The National, Arctic Monkeys, The Antlers.

Post Sixty Five has a lot of different musicians coming from very different places musically, and these bands kind of help shape the vision I have for the group. I play classical guitar and Matt (bass) comes from a very funky place, whereas Will (drums) is sort of pop/rock-oriented and Teeter (guitar) comes informed with very strong British punk sensibilities. On top of all of this, we have Ryan on trumpet and Kim (keys/guitar/vocals) who is more involved in arrangements and orchestration, so the whole thing comes together in a way that stands outside of things that you can hear around town, I think.

When did you write your first song? What was it about?

There was a song about a ballet dancer called “Waltz #1” that I wrote in 2011. It felt a little more poetically bold than previous songs I had written at that point. I had a weird relationship with that song where it just felt wrong and dishonest to be so confident about being truthful. I thought about that a lot and kind of struggled with trying to be more nuanced with the things that I wrote. Soon after, I wrote  “Honey” which embraces more comfortably the delusion that I think comes with writing about myself. It’s an unapologetically self-centered project about desire as a function of me creating the subject of my desire. It’s a negotiation between seeing something real and interacting with it almost exclusively in my head.

What influences your writing?

It’s impossible to say, but it seems that a lot of the books and plays and movies I engage with contribute to my poetic imagination. Also, I don’t think I shy away from the idea that most, if not all, of these songs are completely about myself and my wrestling with these things that I keep in my head.

What aspects of life excite you and stir your affections, fuel your passions?

Oddly enough, I love projects involved in the literacy of the world. I’m really interested in comparative literature and literary theory. I’m really into feminist thought and critical theory, too. All of these things try to interpret the world in a way that I’ve invested a lot of time in.

Also, pink lemonade and rum. I’ve invested a lot of time in pink lemonade and rum.

p65 the southern

When did you play your first gig? What emotions and thoughts ran through your head after finishing?

We actually booked our first gig opening for The Anatomy of Frank before we were a complete band. I had all of these songs written, and the gig was at The Southern on October 24, 2013, so I had a month to start assembling a sort of miscellaneous group of friends from different circles whom I had either collaborated with before or whom I had had my eye on for a while. I was very happy with how we performed. It was earnest, and I had this boyish feeling of excitement afterwards. I was a little surprised that it went so well, but I think people might have liked our music.     

Do you get pumped or nervous pre-show?

I get very nervous, but I tend to be a nervous guy in general so that just happens. But I also get very excited to share these songs that go from being sketches in my head to being a part of our performance. There’s definitely a safety issue. It feels safer performing the songs when you have five people on stage with you who seem to believe in what you’ve written.

What does a day in the life of a modern-day songwriter look like from your perspective?

I’m not really sure what a modern-day songwriter looks like or does… I don’t think of myself as a songwriter at all, really. It’s a little too unassuming, I think. I’m a little bit more dramatic.

What do you want people to take from hearing your music? As a fan, what do you also want people to take from experiencing your live show?

I want them to ache. I don’t know if that’s an okay thing to say because I see it as a good thing, but it might sound a bit sadistic. I want our audiences to listen to any of our songs and feel that something has changed by the time it’s over. I want something about the status quo to change.

Being on stage allows me to be unapologetic about how intensely some of the songs make me feel. I lend myself to a certain degree of ugliness in the way that I hold myself, but I think I try to embody how disturbing some of my writing can be. If the audience can recognize that, I think I’m doing alright.

p65What does the not-so-distant future hold for Post Sixty Five?

I’m constantly writing–slowly, but constantly–and hopefully we’ll have enough songs to put out a release in the next few months. We just played a Valentine’s Day show at Cville Coffee, which was a nice change for us, and we will be playing at the Tea Bazaar on March 20. We have a brand new song called “Fever in Eb” that might be our most devastating and claustrophobic song yet, and I can’t wait to play it for the first time.

After that, the hope is to be able to play in other cities… Maybe go on tour and take our music farther and farther away from Charlottesville. Until then, we’ll just keep working on being a better band and playing better music.

Lastly, describe yourself in 10 words.

Post Sixty Five is Kim, Matt, Ryan, Will, Teeter, myself.

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