Stephen James Hawley, aka Liquid, co-founder and member of Montreal collective Bran Van 3000, has teamed up with Rench, frontman of Gangstagrass, to create urban Americana EP ‘Hard Labor’ under the name ‘Liquid Ltd’. We caught up with Stephen James Hawley to find out more.
On ‘Hard Labor’, it’s about the reap and sow. It’s about the working population I grew up with. Factory workers and blue collar.
First up, tell us bit about yourselves - who are Liquid Ltd?
Liquid Ltd is my continued journey with my Bran Van 3000 experiences wherein I am working with musicians, in this case Rench of Gangstagrass on Hard Labor, to harness the emotions I’m feeling with the world around. Music builds bridges and can bring a lot to the table where there’s a lack of dialogue, we don’t limit ourselves in genre specifics, but rather embrace the conflict and chaos and harness it and hopefully have the emotions and message transcend from our songs into awareness.
Liquid Ltd is about being, seeing and feeling free in a vibe and sound and joining with like minded people who feel the same way to appreciate what we have to lose and celebrate having today.
What led to you two teaming up?
I was pushing a song I had signed to Warner Chappell called One ‘More Time’ and hitting walls with a stand alone single that was meant to involve Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. With her tragic passing I was left with a song ear marked as a co write between Dolores and myself but she was gone. I couldn’t achieve what I had dreamed so I studied my options in moving forward and it became apparent it was best for me to reach out of my comfort zone. I had exhausted avenues in my yard in getting people together to get back into jamming verses forced writing wherein so many artists are pushing endlessly to follow a trend.
I have known Rench for seven-plus years and featured on his band Gangstagrass’ two previous albums. He had a sound I love. I grew up with Bluegrass and country. Americana is in my roots. We both love hip hop and rap and blues to so we started talking and next thing I was on a bus a couple days later on my way to Brooklyn in the late hours of the night. When I got to Rench’s, he greeted me with a mic on and a twanging banging rhythm which is Hard Labor. We went to work.
Gangstagrass have been trail blazing the urban Americana path back and forth across the US for years and after a couple hours we had laid the bed for 6 songs. I made the good choice. Here we are.
Who did you take inspiration from?
I have been influenced and shared the stage with so many greats and learned from them all. From the classics of rock into melodic roots to soul into sublime. All are an inspiration.
I kinda feel like if Dolly Parton missed her ride and was with Kenny Rodgers and both sought shelter in a bar where Sublime was on the stage with the Doors and Johny Cash and we all ended up corralled together, it would fit nice with Hard Labor.
I grew up when the DJ’s broke songs on radio and the spectrum of songs that would play in a night on radio would go from country to Rock; Rap to a ballad. All were influential. Bran Van mashed that all up and became one hell of a melange and inspiration to us all.
Why the name ‘Liquid Ltd’?
Liquid was a nickname given to me circa the founding of Bran Van 3000. I am the co-founder of Bran Van. I had hitchhiked to Montreal at 16 from a small industry town in Canada. I sought to explore and develop my love for music and film. Upon graduating from Communication studies at Concordia University, I was a regular at local hot spots around Montreal with artists such as Cats from Bran Van 3000 and Arcade Fire, jamming nightly in free style sessions where the mic’s were always on.
A Rastafarian named Dodge, who later joined the Bran Van, looked at me post club jam and pronounced he would from that day forth be calling me Liquid because in his words: “You flow like water!”. Poetic from the Gravediggaz agreed and from then on, liquid became the go to name for me while holding a mic. It meant more for me as I had always believed in Bruce Lee’s teaching to be water! You can’t hold it. You can’t damn it. You can’t put it in a glass. It will find its way out. It is unstoppable. I liked that philosophy so it stuck.
Post Bran Van, it wasn’t gonna work in an online presence being liquid with an over saturation of liquids. Feeling limited with options, while viewing the reality of a mass exhausting natural resources and turning from the reality of the exhausting of these resources and the environmental devastations occurring, Ltd was an easy add to liquid. In so doing, Liquid Ltd was born out of necessity and in holding true to my views in flows that deal with topics such as the environment and politics abounding us and our daily lives. There’s an old reggae song by Buju Banton wherein he declares
“…Big men don’t cry, but you never miss the water till the well runs dry…” That stuck with me and a longer story became the concept of a collective and umbrella where artists would embrace all limitations and work together to overcome all obstacles in our way.
Your EP ‘Hard Labor’, when did you write it and where did you record it?
It was Christmas season 2018 when the journey began. As I said in my previous long answer, I have been travelling back and forth to Brooklyn from Montreal to finish this up. It’s about an 8 hour drive and much of the content has been thought out in the journey.
I flew the first time and really didn’t enjoy endless customs rituals and being lost on the trains trying to get to the spot so I stick to me driving and controlling the route and time now. The first time I came out in a Brooklyn stop where the Warriors movie was filmed and I was alone as the train tailed off and I screamed: “Warriors! Come out and play!”.
Only to hear a voice holler back: “Fuk youuu!”.
I love that memory. It inspired me to grab a few bevies and down them for nostalgia purposes. Brooklyn rocks for vibe and artists too.
How does ‘Hard Labor’ represent you both?
For Rench, he has been grinding it out for years as I said before. Both as a producer and artist touring. He wrote the theme of the TV show Justified and was Emmy nominated for it and has been on Billboard etc etc. He’s been putting in the Labor. He met me with Bran Van and came to see our show. We both have the hard work ethic necessary in the music business.
I was doing construction before I had reached to Rench to get some extra holiday money to record wherever I was gonna go and working with a bandit and hard nosed cats and found that if I continued on that path, I’d be looking for a way out soon enough to kill the pain. It was tough as Fuk with the people to match. I came up with the name on a roof with my demolition partner after moving about 25,000 pounds of brick. Rench liked the name and we set out to tell the stories of Hard Labor together. We lit the fire and started throwing in the wood soon after.
Can you talk us through each track?
We have 12 to 13 down and six to seven close to finished. It’s truly a singles market now - I’m told - and learning, so rather than have songs not be heard, we are looking into breaking the tracks into two EP’s on which three singles will get pushed verses the old school three if you’re lucky days.
On the first EP, it’s about the reap and sow. It’s about the working population I grew up with. Factory workers and blue collar. The war kids who had it all figured out but were forgotten in lay offs and recession after recession. Our grandparents war torn and abandoned by our government in so many ways. The give the shirt off their back kinda folk who built the foundation for the floor of capitalism and greed to flourish and create a slippery slope.
‘Hard Labor’, the title track sets the pace with this mould.
‘For The People’ continues that voice going further into the politics of propaganda and a tight rope on the people and population wherein I say: “You have no love for the people who are trying to cope, so we cope like dope getting sniffed and smoked.”.
Both these songs dance around crime and criminal activities as I attempt to outline reasons marginalized communities are left with little or no options but to do whatever it takes and I strive to maintain course to build that bridge to better days.
‘Grand Marquis’ is based on a true story of a bank robbery in another time and place where a couple in love have lost hope with trying to struggle to make ends meat and role off in the big old car to the hopes of a brighter future. It’s a modern day Bonny and Clyde tale wherein the hook has the female as Bonny singing: “I close my eyes, I see you and me, a sac full of money in a Grand Marquis!”.
‘That Feeling’ is from a trip to Cuba for the same couple who robbed the bank. It was inspired visiting Al Capones bunker and continuing the love journey on the run for Bonny and Clyde on a beach front terrace and a new day. It’s a drink by the sea saying: “So, might as well go for broke / See this world as just a joke! / It’s like that feeling / Like so / Round and round we go / Where we stop, nobody knows / I got that feeling!”.
‘I Walked and Miles’ are more personal in my own struggles through my life reflecting and dealing with family abuse and hard times and mapping a way out of the depression that can hold you back for life. It’s the journey songs that leave the skeletons in the open air for the ravens. It’s the songs that are about the people they are about and in righteousness declaring: “You want the high, better know the low! / Better know from where you come and where it is you want to go! / This worlds a stage, enjoy the show! / Practice what you preach because, you will reap from what you sow!”.
What are your hopes for ‘Hard Labor’?
Well this is one of them and the main one. I hope to reach people who are working hard and holding on and losing hope or struggling to find it. I hope that it resonates with people and can inspire and help someone.
It’s important to matter in our lives and I wake daily and push to matter because if I don’t, nothing matters. I hope this story and my song matter to the audience I reach. In that, I will have laid my self down to lift another. My son will know no quit and see that hard Labor pays off and it’s in the times you wanna quit that you have to push on.
I tattooed the title of the poem IF on my wrist to never forget what Rudyard Kipling said in it, that: “if you can fill the unforgiving minute, with 60 seconds worth of distance run; yours is the world, and everything that’s in it and which is more; you’ve become a man my son!”.
Any plans for the start of 2020 you can tell us about? Can we expect to see you guys on tour?
We had a show this summer at a festival in Montreal to try out the songs and come together live. Rench cane down with Olivia K from New York. We had about an hour rehearsal but they came together like butter on toast so live is a must. I’m hoping to get back to the UK because it was brilliant with Bran Van.
Even before ‘Drinking in LA’ went top of the pops, we toured with Massive Attack and Bjork and I fell in love with the people who love their music and bring great energy to the shows when they’re feeling you care to be there. This is Urban Americana and without a label so it’s a want to do shows. We are building and not waiting to be told it’s good and how to do it. We are doing it and it’s coming. The engine is being built and I am so thankful for this opportunity to reach readers and listeners abroad as well as at home.
It’s a great time to make music you believe in, especially if you can reach the audience who may feel the same way. Can’t wait to get the show on the road in the new year. 2020 has a real nice ring to it too. It’s not my vision anymore with my eyes but it is a great vision for the future.
Finally, if you could go back in time and give yourselves one piece of advice, when would it be and what would you say?
I’ve always been a go getter but I have to say it would be the end of high school time in my life. Even while believing in myself, it was a troubling time as few had the same dream and didn’t see the world the same. It was a struggle to keep self worth while pushing forward with a dream.
I would say it like I say it in Hard Labor; when they said: “Do you know what your problem is?!”. I would say, “It’s ok to wear heart on sleeve and be deep! They aren’t. They feel to little and are to shallow. None of their opinions will matter later on!”.
It’s hard to reflect on paths seen but passed because of fear and intimidation. Again though, for myself, I always pushed on. I’m doing what I did at 12. I’m better. It was worth the journey to be here now. Don’t quit your dreams to be and do what others want. That path is a guaranteed dead ending.
And like I say in Hard Labor; “if they tell you you’re “looking for a needle in a haystack!” / Light a match! It’s to easy. / Be hay in the needle stack and don’t look down and don’t look back!”.
Listen to ‘Hard Labor’ on Spotify below. For news and more go to liquidltd.net.