When it comes to new artists surfacing upon the Tri-Cities over the past year striving to carve their own unique niche within the musical architecture of the regional music scene, in many ways Val Hazel is reminiscent of the quiet focused drifter one might see riding into town in a Clint Eastwood movie; or perhaps, a more appropriate analogy would be the character of the lost humanistic alien known as Mr. Newton that David Bowie portrayed in director Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.- a soul filled with many talents looking for a home.
Possessed with a profound interest in both music and cinema, the first time I witnessed Val perform was last summer as a solo artist. Apart from rendering an engaging and unpredictable performance of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter on acoustic guitar, he also ran through a few original compositions that quickly caught my ear because of the thoughtful yet melodic and accessible way in which they were rendered.
Subsequently, a few months later I caught a live performance of Val Hazel joined with veteran musicians Bill Hall on bass and Jon Dillman on percussion and keys, who joined up with Val as part of a new band he formed to not only showcase his original songwriting talents, but also tackle relatively complex songs that you don’t hear club bands perform that often, such as another Beatles’ classic, She’s So Heavy from the Abbey Road album, along with more original material that contained unusual time signatures, an impressively high range of vocal agility, all tied together by a rather infectious melodic foundation.
In terms of Val’s musical and personal background, which both fuse together in interesting ways to pave the foundation for both his original material and the intriguing manner in which he shapes his sound, Val admits he often comes off as being vague because he comes from many different places, noting how ‘When you’re born somewhere you’re supposed to belong there because it’s your home, and communities are built around how they inform you and what you give back to them.”
Born and raised in Kuwait, Val is Lebanese but says that while he has roots there, his ideas are more western oriented. “Although I have roots in Kuwait the middle ground is very complicated there. I got my Bachelor’s degree in radio & television and studied film there, but left in 2017 because they had no film program. I wanted to study for a Master’s Degree in film so upon graduation, I worked with a video editor for a bit and did a few short films while learning music concurrently throughout my life.”
His interest in music was formed at a very young age and began by studying the piano and pipe organ through his highly gifted father at the age of eight and by learning Arabic music, which contains a lot of microtonal theory, along with absorbing Western pop songs that informed his sensibilities in unique ways.
“There is a celebrated musical artist known as Fairuz who is known as the ‘bird of the East’ and is the last great Arabic Middle Eastern star who would compose these epic songs, which influenced me deeply,” he explains, “and then I also became fans of Led Zeppelin and Page & Plant, who experimented with blending Western Pop sensibilities with Arabic music. When I started writing music, I wanted to fuse the verse-chorus-verse Western pop song structure with the epic time signatures of Arabic music into a large musical package, so that’s the background I’m coming from.”
However, Val also grew up in Kuwait during the post-Gulf War period.
“Before the Gulf war things were more progressive and not as secular,” he reflects. “After the war people got indoctrinated and started thinking if they had not done these things they wouldn’t have gotten punished with the war; and then slowly the religious figures started taking more control over the Department of Education, who influenced the government enough that even though I was attending the Oxford Academy in Kuwait, the British schools started taking away music and art classes and regulating them more by banning artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, and that kind of stuff.”
“I was in the 8th grade back in 2008 when music was taken away, so my father who is very artistically inclined started showing me a bit of guitar and piano along with lots of poetry and classic films by directors like Stanley Kubrick, and the first taste of music he taught me was Beethoven’s Fur Elise, at a very fast tempo, which I learned that way to impress him.”
“My music teacher at school had a heart attack when he found out they were taking away music classes, so that also drove me to learn more music; but I also grew more interested in film so stopped music for a stretch and started watching all these great films by directors like Fincher and Linklater, so from my mid to late teenage years I was consuming film before I decided to study it while also listening to all these great classic rock bands like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and many others. I listened to Highway to Hell and couldn’t believe it came out in 1979, which exponentially increased my interests and that’s when I started to learn how to play the guitar, using my piano knowledge.
“A lot of the other kids at school were listening to Nirvana and other grunge bands, but I didn’t get it,” continues Val. “I wanted clean melodies and clean riffs; but I did think Smells Like Teen Spirit was a precursor to Nu Metal because it sounded melodic with interesting chords, but lots of screaming to accompany it, so all these things were planted at that time and age in my life.”
“While studying film around 2011-12, these Lebanese bands came around playing songs by the White Stripes, Smashmouth and King Crimson, so I began making connections with that music and stuff by The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys, which allowed me to make connections to what they were doing along with the other older classic rock bands.”
After graduating early and taking an accelerated Master’s Degree in film, Val got a job as a video editor and got married for a little while during the COVID pandemic.
“I left Kuwait when I was 21-years old and was 22 when I started my masters, but that was a tumultuous time,” he explains. “I wrote a bunch of original songs by the time I finished college, and didn’t have a lot of relationships growing up, but I started writing songs that sounded like Radiohead and was experimenting with different weird chords.”
“Because of my familiarity with all these classic rock and grunge bands, my originals were influenced by different mash-ups - taking one style or song and fitting it someplace where it worked well with another. I wanted to get into writing serious songs, which is a good part of the craft to develop; and I couldn’t do it just writing joyful songs. I was trying to keep them complex.”
“The title of the first EP I recorded with Andy Reed at his studio actually adopted the name of the first band I was with in Kuwait, and it’s called Introspector. My goal was to incorporate 7/4 time signatures to make the song more interesting and was intent on developing my craft. Three months after I came to the United States and settled in Orlando, Florida, I wrote this song called Plates about how somebody works really hard and the respect you have for them, even though they’re washing dishes in a restaurant.”
“I had other songs from Introspector that I wanted to incorporate into another EP, so there’s a 5-year history with all of these songs. Some of them were finished April of last year. I don’t write songs quickly. It’s like investing in the stock market - you can’t put $500 in and get a return, but the more you invest the greater the potential for rewards will be.”
Eventually, about a year ago, Val made his way to Saginaw, and thanks to White’s Bar found a new home and a place to seriously pursue his musical ideals.
“My cousin lives here and my wife and I were separated, so I came here to get away from whatever was going on. I was 23 when I got here and my move proved to be a blessing in disguise. I had a lot of responsibilities and actually came here to quit music because I was so distraught with my marriage. I started learning Japanese because I figured the Western World probably was not suited for me, so thought I might go to Japan and learn how to make video games if the Western World won’t accept me.”
“I lived five minutes walking distance from White’s and had never witnessed a musical scene like we have here in this region. I saw Drew Pentkowski and Charles Allen perform the first night I walked into White’s and they performed for four hours. In Orlando all a musician could get was an hour-long slot, so a few days later Justin Mangutz was performing and said I looked like I played music. When I responded yes, he was very inviting and asked me to perform a few songs, so eventually I arted mixing sound at White’s as well.”
With a 5-song EP already released and a new LP with five more songs set to come out in the Spring, how would Val distinguish or define his current original compositions?
“My roots are within a Western world context informed by 1960s & ‘70s songwriting techniques that are very inspiring and eclectic, coupled with influences from the late 1990s like The Pixies and Sonic Youth and Dinosaur, Jr., that are not quite grunge, and I focus on finding a theme or motif in the riffs because you can’t sound like you’re playing a normal or traditional scale all the time.”
“When playing the guitar I want to sound like a guy who can offer something unique from everybody else, which is what I’ve been figuring out for the last year years,” he admits. ”This is why I’m very grateful that Bill Hall joined my band, because he is an excellent bass player who also brought our percussionist and ‘swing’ musician Jon Dillman into the fold. We are striving to create something unique but accessible.”
“Bill understands my songs more than anybody else, and Jon fit in perfectly from our very first practice together,” he concludes. “While I have jazz and classical influences I can use if a song requires that type of composition to describe or visualize something lyrically, I will use that; but right now I want to start with what’s accessible to most audiences and listeners.”
“In a way what I’m trying to do is assimilate the history of rock music by putting it into this package that is built around my scales, riffs, and motifs,” he continues. “Everybody loves dance music so I apply that same context but add a little middle eastern flavor to it, because I don’t want to get pigeon-holed.”
Fellow band-mates Hall & Dillman share similar sentiments. “What inspires me is that it’s exciting to be involved with something that doesn’t lock you into the same song list as this, that, or every other band playing the circuit,” states Jon Dillman. “We have a unique song list and the original songs have got great potential, which is important to me.”
I’ve heard some of Val’s newer songs and unlike a lot of artists he has ideas that are fully fleshed out,” reflects Bill Hall. “It’s not like he just put these 4-chords together and threw a bridge in the middle, or writes these plan songs with no introduction or ending. He constructs motifs that are layered with ideas, which is why I was excited to play with him. In a nutshell, Val is somebody who is creatively motivated and inspired.”
“We are actually interested in adding a couple more musicians and becoming a 5-piece,” adds Val. “Jon is great at playing drums but is also interested in playing other instruments, so we can do multi-percussion and sequencing with keyboards, which is an essential role. And then we would also like to add another dedicated utility rhythm guitar player, so we can experiment with more instruments and sounds.”
You can check out Van Hazels music on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify.
9th February, 2024