The sun doesn't always shine in Wellington. But as news filters through this NZ Music Month morning that two of the capital's favourite bunches of sons - Fat Freddy's Drop and Shihad - occupy the top two places on the nation's music charts, even my normally winter-dark Aro Valley flat seems oddly bathed in a warm glow.
The most impressive thing isn't that Fat Freddy's have the #1 next to their name (and gold selling status to boot) on release, or even that the album lacks any traditional radio pop songs to get it there. It is that 'Based On A True Story' - their debut full length album - is independently recorded and distributed, completely devoid of any sort of major label involvement. Distributor Rhythmethod claim this as a first for the NZ music industry, giving Fat Freddy's Drop a unique place in Kiwi chart history. It's a fitting compliment for the music that Fat Freddy's have crafted, and for the reputation they have quietly built over five years.
The sun is certainly shining on the seaside suburb of Lyall Bay on the day I visit members of FFD in the historic bach/studio that producer/band memberFitchie (akaDJ Mu) calls home. It's accompanied by a rather awe-inspiring fog, sitting quietly over the stilled waters of Lyall Bay beach, providing a stirring and vivid background for our discussion. The members of Freddy's not surprisingly claim to be influenced by the 'vibe' of the sea, their melodies moulded by their surroundings. Today those surroundings seem to perfectly mirror all those things that the band's music embodies - a captivating, spiritual, earthly and graceful beauty that can bring viewer and listener alike to tears.
This is a band that musically doesn't succumb to timeframes, gently easing the listener into their soundscapes. Listening to 'Based On A True Story' as I stroll along the beach after our chat, the sweet soul, hypnotic dub, punctuations of jazz and organic roots almost melt me into the sand. Throw in generous doses of funk, reggae, and pop, hold together with Fitchie's beats, and you get an idea of what the intoxicating world of Fat Freddy's Drop sounds like.
It's a world that may not have been created at all. The seven members of Fat Freddy's Drop are all prolific musicians with high profile side projects in their own right. Members' 'other' bands includeTrinityRoots, Black Seeds, Ebb and Bongmaster. Freddy's may not want the 'supergroup' tag, but they epitomise the closeness of their city's music scene.
Much of this centres around the Wellington Jazz School, where FFD members Fulla Flash (Warryn Maxwell - sax), Tony Chang (Toby Laing - trumpet) and Ho Pepa (Joe Lindsay - trombone) first breathed joint life into their instruments. With acclaimed solo singer Joe Dukie (Dallas Tamaira), guitarist Jetlag Johnson (Tehimana Kerr) and keyboardist Dobie Blaze (Iain Gordon) joining band leader DJ Fitchie (Chris Faiumu/Mu) to round out the collective, the jamming began. Dukie subsequently added colour to the band's alter egos, immortalising them in the cartoon characters featured on the album cover.
Fitchie tells the story. "It was five or six years ago and we were all busy with other projects. We came together as a jam band, everyone sharing a love for improvisation. It progressed naturally from there, slowly morphing into everyone's main focus."
A string of vinyl singles and appearances on compilation discs fed a public appetite created by endless gigging throughout the country. This steady snack diet (including the very familiar Midnight Maraudersand album-closer Hope) was only broken by the 2001 four course album 'Live At The Matterhorn', which has gone gold. Vinyl is a big part of what Freddy's do, so expect a showing of remixes and new tracks on vinyl over the coming months, as well as a pressing of the album.
Freddy's are foremost a live band, a point they emphasised with their initial CD release, and by only committing selective cuts to record. No two outings of a song are played the same, the band putting each piece through a process of organic evolution every time they visit it.
"We had jammed enough on these songs and it was best to get them down and put them to bed before we move on. By the time we play in July half our set will be new, so we wanted to put closure on the last few years."
Many of the songs on the album came out of sessions at the Kaikura Roots Festival a few years back. Fitchie says the band was armed with Pro Tools, computers, pre-amps and mics but in the end didn't use any of it, instead concentrating on writing new jams and grooves.
"Cay's Crays came out of a bassline on the MPC2000, and four gigs later we had a song."
Jetlag concurs. "That's how we write songs - we evolve them live. I once made a mistake on a chord progression to Midnight Marauders and that led to what became the main version of it."
With 'Based On A True Story' sporadically recorded between March 2004 and April '05, the band had the luxury of being able to take their time, recording at The Drop - Fitchie's home studio. He also took the helm on production duties, handling the recording, engineering and mixing, thus allowing the band the freedom to tour the UK and Europe without add-on producer and studio constraints restricting their movement.
"Resources come in many different forms," explains Fitchie. "We had time. We were able to walk away and come back with fresh ears."
The recording process flowed as naturally as their music.
"The first step was getting the rhythms down. It was all roughly written into the MPC. Half stayed and half were replaced by live drums. Once the bass and drums were sitting in Pro Tools, we had a few goes with everyone jamming their instruments over the top so we could map out basic arrangements."
"We got ideas from the jams without worrying too much about how it sounded," elaborates Jetlag. "Once we had the core idea down we came in individually and laid down our parts."
They kept a lot of the jams, aiming to keep long sections in there to keep it as live sounding as possible with a natural feel and dynamics. Both agree a key ingredient was patience, Fitchie saying he pretty much lived in the studio for six months.
"We only used two mics, but we used good ones. A lot of people will say you should vary, but everything sounded good. A lot of it has to do with a good performance from the band and me being fussy at the point of recording and taking time mixing it. The conversion was also important. It's a part of the process a lot of people underestimate, but there's no point having a flash mic, pre-amp, and compressor if the conversion's done on something really cheap."
The modest Fitchie is somewhat of a recording/producing genius, widely regarded as one of NZ's finest - indeed this talent earned him the public-voted Best Producer award at the recent bNets, along with a second as Most Outstanding musician. (Dallas/Dukie won the Best Male Vocalist title.)
"Pro Tools has been my main weapon for years," he begins. "There was some late night drunk talk of one-take recordings, but that process only works now if you're a non-improvised, well-rehearsed band. We are all quite into the studio too - embracing the Pro Tools world."
Fitchie and Jetlag agree that the band approached recording as a collective. With seven equally capable voices able to make decisions on which directions to take songs in, it often came down to Fitchie engineering with whoever was around helping with arrangements. And with ideas flowing, the songs might have gone on even longer.
"Each song could've lasted for two years", quips Jetlag.
Fat Freddy's 'on our own terms' mentality is a model many bands aspire to. They are very much about old school ideas, combining them with a remarkably focused business head.
"It's all about live performance and pulling live audiences - that's always been the key for us," offers Fitchie. "It's nothing new - we are very old school musically, stylistically, and in our methods. We sell merchandise, not for the money but so that people will see and recognise the name. It's a classic thing - you go to a concert and you've gotta get the t-shirt. It's not like you go watch a DJ and buy the t-shirt."
The decision to remain independent in the face of significant offers is also with an eye to the long term.
"We wanted musical freedom, but it also made better maths in regards to finances," explains Fitchie, as Jetlag nods.
"We are all into being business owners and directors. We want to learn how to run a business. If you sign to a major, somebody is doing all those jobs for you. If you concentrate on the music, keep it real and have a good product, those good opportunities will still exist and you will still have a product to sell in six months time."
Walking the walk, the band released 'Based On A True Story' on their own label The Drop Ltd, with distribution handled by Rhythmethod Ltd, a small Auckland outfit whose initial involvement with the band was with the 'Live At The Matterhorn' release.
Fat Freddy's Drop have used their time abroad well, establishing contacts in key markets. 'Based On A True Story' is being released in Australia earlier than projected due to sales through online retailers Smoke and Marbecks forcing Aussie distributors Inertia to strike while the CD is hot. Distribution has also been set up for European markets through independents Kartel in the UK and Sonar Kollektiv in Germany, as well as Lexington in Japan.
Fitchie astutely explains that one big benefit of licensing to different distributors in different markets is that "... if one falls over it doesn't pull down the whole thing."
Europe is the big target, and typically the members of Freddy's have their own well-developed theories as Fitchie espouses. "You have to go there year in, year out. You have to hold onto your integrity and keep it real. If you stick to the old style of playing live lots and injecting money at the right time, then it's humbling what real music can do."