Interview: Bradley Hanan Carter on coming to America, hitting rock bottom and saying ‘yes’ to NO


NO seemed to materialize out of nowhere last fall, a DIY quintet with a seemingly career-assassinating name, fronted by a genial man with a Kiwi accent, and dispensing hopeful, noir-ish indie-rock that recalls the National.

The genial man is Bradley Hanan Carter, who first came to the U.S. as guitarist/backup singer for New Zealand rockers Steriogram. How Carter got from his hometown of Whangarei (pop. 52,000, and the birthplace of Keith Urban) to the U.S. is a story of ambition and good fortune – both of which seemed exhausted by the time in 2010 he found himself in Echo Park with not a lot going for him, his relationship soured and musical projects in stasis.

Carter found catharsis in a new batch of songs, and in Sean Daniel Stentz, Joseph Sumner, Reese Richardson and Mike Walker he found collaborators capable of helping him build on those ideas. On a recent morning at an Echo Park café, I chatted with Carter (we were later joined by Stentz) about the band name, the EP’s artwork (it’s the Vons grocery sign, with the “V” and “S” covered up, and turned upside down) and making something of nothing.

And, as Stentz said, how “we’re all trying to find that thing that resonates.”

Take me back to the early days, with Steriogram.

BHC: It was something that happened in my hometown Whangarei, which is north of Auckland. Nobody wanted to move to the big city, but I moved down there and started playing with friends. We were really into the Beastie Boys’ song “Sabotage” … and we ended up like being something of a blend between AC/DC and the Beastie Boys.

In New Zealand, we were always told we’d never get to America, but since I was a kid I always wanted to come to America. We worked hard in New Zealand – we played high schools; we’d go to a different down every week. Then, out of the blue, the Datsuns got signed. And when they got signed a lot of people started looking to New Zealand, like “What else is down there?” And we got lucky on the back of that.

It became a whirlwind. We toured the world, got to make a video with Michel Gondry (“Walkie Talkie Man,” nominated for four MTV awards). … It was a crazy experience – one minute you’re playing at a high school in New Zealand and the next you have somebody like Michel Gondry wanting to make a video for you.

We didn’t have a lot of control of anything. When somebody gives you that much money and you’re only 22, you don’t really know what to do. We didn’t even really get to spend it; it was spent for us. But we learned. And the biggest lesson I learned was that if you think you’re right, you probably are.

Young rockers on a label budget … Those must have been wild times, though.

BHC: There was partying. When you’re in Alabama on tour and it’s after the show and you have a big rider to drink, that’s what you do. Everything was like a paid holiday. We got to go to Europe, we got to play really good shows, eat awesome food … Actually, we never really broke up. We just got to a point in 2007 where we all wanted to do other things.

How did you decide that Los Angeles was the place for you?

BHC: At the end of 2007 I was about ready to move back to New Zealand. I had accumulated a little bit of studio gear, which was nice because we had always ended up with these producers who would never listen to us. I wanted to learn how to record, so I did. And I ended up renting a little studio in the building that (producer) Michael Patterson is in.

But then you embarked on a different project …

BHC: Growing up, we had an exchange student staying our house, Anders, and we wrote really good songs together. We used to say that someday we’d be in a band together one day. It was kind of a romantic idea. Still, I tried to set up a band with him and a couple other friends where even though we were in four different countries (Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.) we’d record on Internet. We ended up recording 18 songs over two years, and we called it Pistol Youth. It was a ’90s-sounding project, inspired by the music I never got to listen to as a kid in the ’90s because I was raised in a Christian household and I grew up listening to all these hippie Christian bands. And Bob Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming.”

And Pistol Youth just became too impractical?

BHC: It was 2007, then 2008, and the recession kept coming. I lost most of what money I had, and I went through a rough personal time as well. I had a relationship that ended and I really hit bottom, living alone in L.A. I’m proud of the Pistol Youth record, but it really sounds like that. And it became apparent that to make it work was just going to be impossible.

At what point did you just decide to move on?

BHC: It was 2010 and I living here in Echo Park. I was writing and listening to a lot of things like Sinatra and Lena Horne and Lou Reed. I was experimenting with trying to sing in a lower register, first as a kind of joke, but then … I met Sean and played him some of the new songs, and he was like, “You want a bass player?”

Some of the songs sound like you were a guy on the edge …

BHC: I was really low – borderline just getting out of here, moving back home. I was in that place of not knowing who I was. For the first time in my life, I had nothing to look forward to, and it was a really empty feeling. I was definitely looking for some sort of truth. It was a tough time, too, with the music industry having changed, but I didn’t want just give up. Even now, I’ve never been this broke in my life, but there’s a certain clarity when you have nothing.

Was there one moment when this was coming to fruition that just made you believe?

BHC: Not really … Sometimes it can just be a little thing. I’d never had anybody who could sing a harmony with me. Then I met Sean. At one point I thought, “I’m so happy right now, we could be a two-piece.” Or when we were working on “There’s a Glow,” a song that Sean wrote the riff on … It’s a song of hope. We just got the sense that we wanted to make something that helps us get on with our lives.

And by the time the EP came out, that feeling spread like a contagion …

BHC: It was amazing. Even at that first show at the Satellite, looking out to a full room, everything felt so right. It took me 15 years in bands to get to that point.

We’ve been overwhelmed by the response. We didn’t make this record for anybody else, and we gave it away for free so people could get to know us. When I arrived here with Steriogram, everything was so immediate. If it doesn’t happen for you right away, you move on. With NO, we’re not going to rush it and be something for just a minute.

Do you think you sabotaged yourselves a little with the band name?

BHC: That’s my fault. We had constructed this mini-mythology about taking back the word “NO” and making it a positive. It kind of fit what we were trying to do – you find that puzzle piece and slide it in. Besides, there are all these simple band names now, it seemed OK. People remember it; they just can’t really find us …

(Sean Stentz: It’s true they can’t find us online, but I think it makes people subconsciously pass it on.)

What’s next in terms of releases?

BHC: We have our EP coming out on 12-inch vinyl. We’ll be doing a 7-inch for White Iris – two 7-inches in the next four months, as a matter of fact. We have about 30 songs written and in varying stages of completion, so it will be nice to get some more material out there. At our shows we’ve just been playing the EP from start to finish. Right now, we have so many things to do … but it’s a little team effort. It’s so nice to be in control of everything ourselves.

||| Live: NO plays its vinyl release party tonight at Origami and does the Monday night residency in March at the Echo.

Photo by Piper Ferguson