Touring in Black Taxi is just one way that the band's singer Ezra Huleatt has seen the country.
Black Taxi plays One Eyed Jacks tonight, and it has similarly made its reputation on road with an energetic show. It has played New Orleans three times before, once at Cafe Prytania and the last two years during the Foburg festival. “We have eaten at Coop’s every time,” he says. “Every time we’ve been down there, the night has taken an epic turn and we’ve made some good friends along the way.”
His years of travel including a year in Haiti have left Huleatt uniquely suited to band life. “I can sleep on a dirt floor,” he says. “Traveling and music are two loves of mine. Like anyone, you get tired of being in a van after a while with the same group of guys, as cool as they are. But if there’s change happening, if you’re playing good shows and things are working, things go good. I love heading South in the winter time because I’m a warm-blooded animal.”
This year’s We Don’t Know Any Better doesn’t sound like the work of someone who has stayed in motion for as long as he has. The album’s an engaging, immediate collection of dance-rock songs that foreground tension and texture, balancing wiry guitar sounds with plush keyboards. Still, it doesn’t have the worldly lyrics or rhythms you might expect from someone who’s toured as much as Huleatt has. You could easily mistake it for the product of someone who’s spent all his life in one place and really loved Franz Ferdinand at an impressionable age.
Traveling has been a part of his life since from the start. His parents moved around and were active in social causes. They encouraged the teenaged Huleatt to go out and have his own adventure, which took him to Haiti for the first time. He lived there for a year when he was 18 and became involved with non-profits in hospitals and social justice organizations. After he returned from Haiti, he moved to New York, which was just as adventurous in its way.
He moved their on a whim with $80 in his pocket and a bad relationship in his rear view mirror. “I caught the Greyhound and ended up in New York the next day,” Huleatt says. “I went to a local soup kitchen. One of the guys I knew apparently worked there, but he wasn’t there anymore. I was trying to offer to help out, and they just thought I was homeless. They were about to call child welfare because I was a little baby face - I was 19 - but one of the guys took pity on me and he sent me up to Bronx.
“I lived up in the projects. The first night I was there, one of my roommates got stabbed. It was absolutely crazy. I became a bike passenger after a bit and figured some stuff out. Then I left New York for a long time. I taught rock-climbing, read too much Jack Kerouac and found myself going all over the world for a bunch of years. I’d just work hard and take off. New York was kind of my home base, but not really.”
Part of his time out of New York involved another adventure - hitchhiking across America. He undertook the journey in honor of his grandfather, who had hitchhiked across the country when he was Huleatt’s age. “He’d give me all of the stories,” Huleatt says. “He ended up in New York at a protest, met a woman there who worked at a co-op in the Bronx, and two weeks later they were married. They moved out to California and started a family, where my dad was born. It was out of respect for him that I did it, and it was crazy. Anything that you can imagine happened. There was attempted rape, there was getting stuck on a llama farm, there were arrests, there was sneaking into swimming pools, swimming instead of taking showers. It was an amazing trip. There’s a couple journals full of stuff; one day it’ll get written down.
“It’s definitely not the ‘60s anymore, I realized. It was pretty easy to get a ride on the West Coast. First thing people would do would be to offer you a joint, and you’d have a really good time. Then up by Tahoe, I didn’t even want to get a ride. I’d get picked up by someone, and then 10 miles down the road, I’d say, ‘You’ve got to let me out; this is just too pretty.’ When you get into more of the Midwest flatlands where you want a ride, it’s a lot harder. It’s a different mindset. I started the trip off on the wrong foot, unfortunately. I met this guy in San Francisco who told me the best route to take is Route 66. Which was true in the ‘60s when he’d last done it, but it is not true today. It happens to be called the Longest Road in America, as I found out the hard way. There’re a lot of federal penitentiaries out there, and you’re not allowed to pick up hitchhikers and it’s pretty abandoned. I had some pretty rough times up in there, and that’s when a lot of things went wrong. But I made it through, and somewhere in the Midwest I met this kid. He’d been following The Mountain Goats. He was driving back East, all the way, and I caught a ride with him all the way from the Dakotas to New Hampshire, where my girlfriend at the time was living at a nudist camp. Only took a couple weeks or so, but it was definitely adventure-packed.”
With all that experience, it’s a little bit of a surprise that travel doesn’t figure more prominently in Black Taxi’s music. Part of that, Huleatt says, is because he’s only one of the songwriters in the band, along with guitarist Bill Mayo. Travel doesn’t figure that prominently because he also doesn’t travel like he once did, but its influence is in the lyrics if you know where to look. “A lot of songs I write are about home, and that’s in and of itself is talking about travel, but you’re coming from somewhere else. You’re looking for home. There’s definitely stuff there, but it’s not maybe as blatant.”
Updated February 27, 2013, 3:25 p.m.
My Spilt Milk and Simple Play present Black Taxi's return to New Orleans on March 1, 2013 at the Hi Ho Lounge with Autotomii opening.