Saturday, August 06, 2016

True to their Roots - Trinity Roots (NZM)

Trinity roots, 2002
Trinity Roots

NZ Musician December/January 2002 (Vol:9, No:9)

By Shaun Chait

It is often asked what makes a particular band special from any other band? What distinguishes it - differentiates from other acts around? When you meetWarryn Maxwell, singer/guitarist of TrinityRoots, you don’t have to ask this question. The first time I interviewed Maxwell, I came away thinking he was possibly one of the most interesting musicians I had ever had an in-depth conversation with. After this latest meeting I know it.

There is an aura around Maxwell, and indeed around the whole band, that is special. He possesses a fierce determination matched by a quiet humbleness, and the love and spirit he puts into his music has an earthiness that conjures up images of one working the land, carving out his or her own paradise.

"I have a little piece of land outside my place," he tells me. "It’s not big, but big enough to put a rocking chair on. I love to go out and push my toes in the dirt. I’ve spent many peaceful hours out there in that chair. The land is not big, but it will grow."

And so the music of TrinityRoots is like the earth beneath us; lay the seeds, let the roots grow, and nurture it into your dreams. TrinityRoots (formerly known as Trinity until they ran into possible copyright conflicts) was started in 1998 by Maxwell and Rio Hemopo (bass/vox) after they had finished attending the Wellington Conservatorium of Music’s jazz school.

"We had wanted to get back to our roots and play some cafe sets - just a couple of bros and their guitars," Maxwell remembers. "After the discipline of jazz, we wanted to have a casual, loose approach. We were going to play party songs - old Motown tunes. When we realised how much we enjoyed it we got Riki (Gooch) in to drum and debuted at a private party in August ‘98."

Gooch was the third element, hence the name Trinity, but they never did play any cafes. A week after forming the band entered Victoria University’s Operation Music Storm Battle of the Bands. Incredibly, considering the short time they had been together, they won. The prize was recording time at Inca Studios with Mike Gibson, from which the ‘Little Things’ EP was born. By then TrinityRoots had grown to a four-piece, with Darren Mathiassen taking over drums, allowing Gooch to switch to turntables/samples. 

The EP, finished in March 2000, was the band’s priority last year. They went about promoting it with a stack of high profile gigs around their home city of Wellington, where the band has a devout following, as well as support slots with internationals such as Ben Harper, Lee Scratch Perry and Mad Professor. The band also played out of town events, The Gathering and Orientation.

Maxwell says the point of the EP was to "test the waters for an album". The test proved positive, the independently released ‘Little Things’ selling out its run of 2,000. It is believed that Real Groovy in Wellington sold over 400 copies, an indication of the support TrinityRoots has in the capital.

With the EP completed and still receiving significant airplay, the next step in the TrinityRoots journey is to release an album. TrinityRoots have made the decision to go it alone, putting out the album themselves.

"A few labels have shown interest and we will look at a label for overseas, but for New Zealand we don’t want a label at this stage, we want total creative control," Maxwell explains, although aware of the benefits a label can bring.

"With Southside of Bombay (who he played sax with) we were with Trevor Reekie at Pagan, who was fantastic. We are not in it for the money, so if anything, we would go for a smaller label with no dollars but the right passion. But what a label does have is contacts."

Maxwell says the primary concerns with the album are good production and availability nationwide. For this reason, TrinityRoots will be looking for a distribution deal. The band provides an excellent case study in the process of making an album independently. Maxwell elaborates on the groundwork done before any instruments were even picked up.

"We started by putting together a proposal and seeing what opportunities there were for funding. This was while promoting the EP. Then we went underground, rehearsing and getting ready for the recording session."

The homework paid off, with the TrinityRoots album being bankrolled by a private investor (who prefers to be anonymous) - hugely significant given the budget for the album was $30,000. With meticulous behind the scenes planning, the final cost is estimated to come in around $10,000 light of this.

So determined is Maxwell that the album - working title ‘True’ - sounds exactly how he desires, he is producing it himself.

"I talked to a few people about the role of a producer," he reasons. "My main concern or fear with getting someone in was that they would compromise the sound of our music."

The band started work on the album in September with Maxwell triumphant that the project is now nearing completion. Although frustratingly delayed (they had hoped to release it in November), the album is now scheduled for February release - probably a good thing, saving it from competing with the swollen Christmas market.

"The energy to get it done is rampant in this whare at the moment," Maxwell enthuses.

The choice of recording location says much about the spirit of TrinityRoots. The boys chose a huge estate house called the Orua Wharo homestead in Takapau, just outside Dannevirke. Maxwell says they heard of the house - a fully-fledged mansion - through video maker Rueben Sutherland.

"We called the owners and had a chat to them about who we are and what we are about," says Maxwell. "They said ‘What the place needs is people’, as they don’t live there, so they were all for it."

The homestead includes 10 bedrooms and a billiard room where TrinityRoots set up studio.

"We took some equipment from Marmalade Studios - a 2" 16-track tape machine, a Pro Tools studio, digital 8-track, lots of equipment."

The band loaded the gear into their vehicles and drove up from Wellington in convoy. They spent two days setting up the makeshift studio as they wanted and immersing themselves into the environment which included "having big cook ups, playing outside, and making music."

The band also brought in guest players, including Breathe’s Steve Gallagher and members of Welli actsFat Freddy’s Drop and Deville Bros. TrinityRoots spent a total of three weeks recording in Takapau, Maxwell describing recording conditions as "perfect".

"For most of it there was just six of us there (the band plus manager Toby Larmer and helping hand, Marmalade engineer Brett Stanton). We didn’t want any distractions. There were no jobs or girlfriends. We were away from the concrete and hassle, in an environment where everything was relaxed. The billiard room was huge, with a great acoustic quality and live sound. The house itself is 150 years old, so it was amazing."

Although recording for the album went smoothly, coming up with the final sound has been a painstaking process for Maxwell as producer. His stringent piecing together of the tracks, after turning the arrangements on their heads, delayed the release.

"When I was mixing the album, I realised it was going the wrong way, so I stopped it and am now stripping everything away," he begins. "We had 14 mics set up around the drums, but I have only ended up using three or four of them. A lot of the building up has been chucked out. Recording is like making a film - you record a whole lot of footage. We put down heaps and filled everything (all the tracks) up. Now I am ruthlessly stripping it all back."

Post production is being done by Maxwell at his home studio, with editing often meaning taking colour out rather than putting it in. Maxwell says he is using a Pro Tools TDM set-up, with a digital studio and analogue 2" tape.

"We structured everything in analogue then coloured in digital. I tried to get the sounds I wanted from the instruments themselves. Our EP was heavily produced. The album is going to be live, start to finish. This is closer to us live and will be mixed as a punter in the crowd would hear us - but it’s hard throwing layers away."

The 10 songs on the album will feature the TrinityRoots take on roots, dub, and their related forms. While Maxwell agrees there will be plenty of soul, blues, reggae and jazz, he says the album will not feature as much drum’n’bass as fans are used to. For this reason, respected and one-time TrinityRoots memberDJ Mu may be called in to provide remixes.

Maxwell says the album is a journey: "The first track takes you out of your everyday world to Takapau, to forget your woes. The album is a journey through different emotions. There’s rock, dub, gospel, roots, blues ... we tried not to play one genre of music. The threads that bind the album are the vocals and the way the songs are played - organic and live."

There is a mindset intrinsic to TrinityRoots, a spirit or philosophy that is at the very core of everything they do. The band gets most satisfaction out of interaction with their audience.

"‘Spiritual’ is the first element that comes to mind," says Maxwell. He thinks hard about this. "We use roots as a vehicle or medium to convey emotion. We combine lyrical message with primal rhythms, often Afro/Cuban or dancehall. We are organic in our music and spiritual in the way we play it, though not in a religious sense. It’s about playing a beautiful groove - it’s a way to get in touch, to cleanse yourself and you get that feeling when done well in any genre."

TrinityRoots’ music is as much about feeling as notes, with an obvious reference point being Maxwell’s inspiration Ben Harper. Perhaps the best way to understand the TrinityRoots head space is through the live experience.

"It’s about creating a wave-length and relating to the music. Many times I’ve been crying on stage, tears in my eyes at the response. We form a bubble on stage. I shut my eyes and when I open them to see a wave of people in the same zone, a wave of emotion on a large scale - whether there’s three people or 2000 people - I get shivers down my spine. After a gig I feel in an elevated state."

Perhaps the key to TrinityRoots’ ability to develop and express this emotion comes from the fact they are all such versatile and schooled musicians. All studied at jazz school (where they met) and have played in a wide range of bands.

Maxwell takes up the story: "Rio is a solid bass player. A lot of bassists are guitarists trapped in a bass player’s body, but Rio will stay on a bass groove for 15 minutes. He is the anchor and he has played in covers bands but has reggae roots. Riki has played forever. He’s from a funk/rock background and has won Gary Brain scholarships and is a 2001 Red Bull Music Academy recipient (taking place in London this coming February). Darren is a monster session drummer."

He leaves himself out, but on prodding admits his background covers "pretty much every musical style you could think of". Past bands include Southside Of Bombay and acid jazz outfit Tardis. "Jazz made us aware of elements outside the pop genre," says Maxwell. "Music is about sharing and communicating. We found that spirit through roots and dub."

Maxwell says the roots of TrinityRoots definitely lie in jazz concepts.

"With the pop genre songs are three and a half minutes. With our stuff, we appeal to the whole spontaneity of music - what happens in the moment. Recording in the studio conflicts with our whole approach, which is like jazz. It’s hard to do three to four takes with spontaneity - I think spontaneity could be the next big thing in music."

TrinityRoots are the leaders of a strong roots/dub scene in Wellington, with contempories including the Black Seeds, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Ebb. With Wellington long considered an alternative rock city by the rest of the country, the emergence and prominence of these bands has surprised outsiders.

Maxwell has his theories: "Wellington is very open to change and cycles. With so much rock in the past, the scene has just opened up. Roots covers a huge territory - blues, soul, dub, hip hop, and jazz are all included. The organic component in any style of music is roots. Punters are embracing a different sound. Now there’s almost too much of it in Wellington, but everyone is supportive and there is no competition at all."

When TrinityRoots begin promoting their album early next year, it will be without drummer Mathiassen, who left the band the week before the interview for this story took place. Maxwell says Mathiassen is pursuing "his own musical journey" and is quick to state that the album is very much a four-piece effort. Gooch will resume drum duties.

Promotion starts on January 12th with a performance at the Raglan Reggae Festival, and will take in numerous festivals, Rippon and Orientation among them. With 3,000 units to be pressed, the band are looking at distribution channels. They will also be visible on the telly, with videos planned.

But for all the PR and hype, TrinityRoots will never lose sight of who they are. While Maxwell remains true to his musical influences, he says his personal inspirations are "family, my Maori ties, the home and how we live."

With the demeanour of a best friend and exuding warmth and tranquility, he tells me it’s all about believing in yourself. We then turn the tape off and chat about life and music for the next hour.

Regardless of whether the album is called ‘True’ or not, that is the word that best reflects TrinityRoots. Don’t look the word up in the dictionary. Listen to the album and feel it for yourself.

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