Mike Raj of HOAX talks serendipity, songwriting, and the meaning of life

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Mike Raj stumbled upon his seemingly predestined career in music in a way that will make you believe in destiny. He sat down in Accounting 102 next to bassist Frantz Cesar. Raj experienced the struggle everyone who has ever sat down in a classroom has felt. Picking a desk is a decision you have to live with for the rest of the semester. Little did he and Cesar know, where they sat down might have changed the expected course of their lives. “It was one of those serendipitous moments where if one factor had changed, we probably wouldn’t have been a band,” Raj explained over the phone.

“It was one of those serendipitous moments where if one factor had changed, we probably wouldn’t have been a band,”

Raj was making music at the time but was “working on producing and making beats for hip hop artists in the Long Island scene” or privately writing with no way to get his music out there. He was a finance and marketing major with no connection to any other musicians, wondering if he wanted to, how he would get his music out there.

Frantz Cesar was a musician with a burning need for some accounting in his life. Maybe it was just a burning need to fulfill a certain class requirement, regardless, it brought the two musicians together. Raj noticed their similar taste in fashion and struck up a conversation, trying to connect with a classmate. What if Cesar had decided to fulfill his business credit with a finance class? Or, had decided to wear sweatpants that day? HOAX as we know it might not exist. The discovery that they were both musicians led to a jam session and the subsequent formation of the band.

2017, via HOAX

“One of the coolest things about our band is our diversity,” Raj says. His parents were both born in India. The band is rounded out by Kevin and Jacob Lopez both Ecuadorian, on guitar and drums respectively, Paul Brower – – who is Sicilian and German, as the third guitarist and Frantz Cesar, the bassist, who is Puerto Rican and Haitian.

 

“Musically, it challenges us and opens us up to new ideas,” Raj explains. Their diversity and love of travel drive their music. Traveling has given Cesar and Raj a focus and purpose when writing. Experiencing new cultures, both through his bandmates and through traveling to other countries, has shown Raj that everyone has a different perspective. In the US we need to have more empathy towards others and their cultures.

“We came back from our trip to India with a new found mission for HOAX’s music, to install that empathy in everyone who listens, or at least get them in touch with their emotions and that human side we don’t always get to focus on,” Raj explains,“We want people to understand the basic core of humanity is empathy.”

“We want people to understand the basic core of humanity is empathy.”

 

2017, via Braden Doucette

HOAX aims to connect with listeners above all else, to empathize with them and show that everyone has the same thoughts and feelings at their core, that they are not alone. At live shows, the band pays attention to what the audience is connecting with in an effort to understand what people hold onto the most. “If we don’t know why people connect [with the song] at the time it just means we need to study it out more, because it will make us a better band and just better humans,” he says.

When Raj writes a song, he takes a “really strong core idea” and goes from there. He doesn’t write down lyrics until they are finalized. “When you write relying on memory it forces you to write a different way than when you’re writing on paper,” he explains. “It forces you to say things you mean in a way that you will remember.”

The same idea allows for the line between song and interlude to blur or even blend giving audiences these wonderfully unique one-and-a-half-minute songs that leave you wanting more rather than wanting to skip ahead.

“We used to get a short song and we would try to add this part and this part to make it longer,” Raj said. But as they got settled as a band they decided “This is just not who we are, this is all we have to say, we don’t want to give anyone an add-on-false-bridge, we just give them the core thought.”

The short songs also “mirror how people think.” Raj points out. “[You never] get a full thought in your head or a well thought out plan just sticking out, it’s usually just fragments. You have to piece them together to make one idea, plan, or entity that is ‘something.'”

They decided to write fragmented songs creating the album as the real whole and the songs being thoughts or ideas. Raj says the short songs “Became engrained in our style.”

“I would try to understand why it’s so beautiful the way they write. It’s not beauty for the sake of beauty it’s beautifully meaningful.”

 

2017, via Braden Doucette

The style is a rhythm HOAX naturally fell into, but Raj is proud of its uniqueness as he hopes to “add something to the tradition of American songwriting, instead of saying the same thing [as everyone else]. We often see a great melody “that is not backed by anything that has purpose.”

Raj grew up reading and being inspired by the writing of authors and poets, “I would try to understand why it’s so beautiful the way they write. It’s not beauty for the sake of beauty, it’s beautifully meaningful.”

The EPs that HOAX has released accomplish being “beautifully meaningful,” set up with empathy at their core and backed by soulful lyrics. Raj is also- like many writers- a fan of the hidden meaning. “Words That End With Wh(y)” is full of mysteries to uncover and creates a puzzle for the human mind it aims to emulate. The most obvious is every track name (Sway, Lay, Barely, Looney, Plainly, Scooby, Pray) ending with the letter “y’” and rhythmically, they go together like any one of the songs on the album.

The meaning behind the album art is a little less obvious. Raj was originally inspired by The Smiths and their tendency to sneak flowers into their live shows and music videos. Because of the British indie band’s approach, “flowers became something meaningful to HOAX” Raj explains. Flowers represented the style and became the face of their “dichotomy of a beautiful sadness.”

HOAX’s first EP, “The Truth and Other Lies,” hosted the first of many fruits that would represent their EPs the way flowers represented singles.  Raj says the fruit on their album cover is meant to represent the idea that in “the biblical creation story, we don’t actually know what the fruit is.”  According to an article from NPR about Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the forbidden fruit being an apple is nothing more than a Latin pun or an act of symbolism because the word “malus” means both “apple” and “evil.” The album cover is meant to represent how in something that is meant to be considered universally “true” there is a lie built into the way we perceive this truth.

“Words That End With Wh(y)” featured a lemon because both the album and the taste of a lemon can be summed up in one word – – bittersweet. “That’s the emotion that is drawn up when you think of the question ‘why am I here?'”- which is the core idea of the EP, Raj says. “It’s kind of a bittersweet answer. Half of it is hopeful and half of it is dreadful.” 

“What I have learned from design and songwriting in general… is to get rid of the extraneous and just get to the core right away, I think that is what we try to do with our album artwork and our music in general,” Raj says, summing up.

HOAX is like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is just a small representation of all the hard work and thought they have put into their minimalist style. Something that seems simple and clean is actually a complex representation of the human mind in an attempt to get everyone to tap into their humanity.

Check them out in concert:

  • January 19th: The Creative Corner (Hempstead)
  • February 10th: Amityville Music Hall (Amityville)
  • February 16th: SoFar Sounds Session (NYC)
  • April 30th: Live from Studio A (Hofstra University)
  • May 12th: Pianos (NYC)

 

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