Fat Freddy’s Drop producer Mu takes a break from finishing recording new album Black Bird to discuss touring, Paris, the Wairarapa, rugby, and Withersian wisdom.
““I’ve got one funny story, we were on tour in Paris at the famous Elysee Montmartre, before it burnt down. Dallas [Tamaira] was having a particularly grumpy day. The local Paris press wanted to do some interviews and Dallas said ‘Nah fuck man no way’ and then this girl walks in and she’s just drop dead gorgeous; beautiful. He’s ‘I’ll do it’,” Mu laughs like a hyena on helium. “Most press want to talk to Dallas, but that’s about the only time I’ve seen him do an interview. He’s a married boy, so we gave him a chaperone.”
The hugely affable Samoan New Zealander and I are lunching at Mojo Kumototo. Chris Faiumu reminisces about making ‘Midnight Marauders’, which tracks a romantic possibility. “It was early days, 2000, 2001. Dallas had moved in to my flat on Ghuznee Street, we were pretty young then and we were just making music, living the life. No proper jobs, smoking weed, making beats all day, being little ratbags; a lot of music was made in those days, and ‘Midnight Marauders’ is definitely a product of that. Listen to the lyrics, there’s a lyric about Dallas going down to the corner store—the Star Mart actually—to pick up a tinnie.” How do the rest of those lyrics go? The girl at the counter caught my eye. “Yeah yeah,” the laidback beatmaker chuckles. Mu’s marvellous sense of humour through the interview is heartening.
Shortly afterwards, the Wainui native’s longtime partner—and Freddy’s manager—Nicole Duckworth coerced him to move out to their picturesque seaside home in Lyall Bay. “I was really set up for making music in Ghuznee Street. I was kinda dragged kicking and screaming after I knocked her up. I didn’t want to leave but we found a nice spot on Lyall Bay.”
The band’s other members are Tehimana Kerr (guitar), Iain Gordon (keys), Toby Laing (trumpet), Joe Lindsay (trombone, tuba) and Scott Towers (saxophone). In 2005 Based on a True Story—Freddys’ nine-time Platinum in New Zealand album—was recorded in Mu’s basement seaside studio The Drop.
“We wanted one funky tune that was going to have some crossover appeal and we had a beat lying around that was quite funky. Then Dal came up with lyrics and it wasn’t a tune we took too seriously, but funny enough it did its job in the end.” Songs like ‘Wandering Eye’ were the summer of 2005/2006’s soundtrack. T our guitarist is available— so is Joe Lindsay kind of— but the rest of us are pretty solid, we’re all happy with what we’ve got.”
Mu says the rest of Freddy’s are family men with kids who don’t succumb to temptation. “It is a funny culture though, that whole culture of being on the road touring. After you’ve finished a gig, there’s often lovely ladies around, there’s nothing you can really do about it,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eye. “That whole wandering eye thing, Freddys can’t really go there, so we wrote a song about it.”
Plenty of critics are fans also. The BBC/Guardian’s Jon Lusk praised their “unmistakeably South Pacific swing” in August 2009. “Fans of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed band since The Clean have had a lengthy wait for the follow-up to their gorgeous international debut of 2005, Based on a True Story. Wellington-based ‘seven-headed soul monster’ Fat Freddy’s Drop are renowned for taking their time to distil onstage jams into meticulously crafted studio creations, and once again that approach has paid off. Dr Boondigga & the Big BW is every bit as good as their last record… And even if Tamaira does rhyme “waters” with “daughters” on the highly aquatic, driving dub of The Raft, the way he chews and savours his words for maximum musicality throughout ensures he’s still one of the most soulful singers of his generation.”
Tamaira’s voice is smoother than Princess Bay on a tranquil day on songs such as ‘Hope’. “He’s quite shy, he doesn’t like doing interviews.” So Mu explains Tamaira’s soul influences, including Anthony Hamilton, comeback kid D’Angelo, and Bill Withers. Mu thinks the documentary Still Bill conveyed the inspirational, principled man, both as a musician and man. “One wise thing about him was he entered the industry quite late, and then he got out early. A lot of artists that were in the industry for a long time they got rinsed, they went through a lot of bad stuff. He was a smart man, he knew when to call it quits. Even in his short career he still had ten top ten hits. I don’t think he was too affected by the evilness of American business. A lot of them stay in there for decades, and just get reamed out.”
There’s a funny moment in the tour documentary, Based on a True Story, where a good-looking Deutscher fan approaches Joe Lindsay after a Berlin gig. “Everyone in the band has their role, whether it’s in the studio or it’s live, and that’s when Joe really comes in to his own; he’s a real showman which is good because Dallas is actually quite a reserved frontman. He’s quite a complex character, quite a deep guy, and he’s not so comfortable with all the hype and dealing with the audience. It’s good that Joe can take that pressure off him a bit. Joe just laps it up, he loves it.”
Lindsay, who The Datsuns could have written ‘Supergyration’ about, tells me how he wants an audience to respond is simple. “I think live music will always be relevant. There is an emotional connection between performer and audience that is unsullied by commercialism. I want people to lose their inhibitions on the dance floor. Writhe about, shiver and shake. Gyrate and leave with someone they’ve only just met.”
The drummer from The Eggs chimes in: “Joe Lindsay is any jam band’s secret weapon. While he’s onstage, a jam band are unstoppable.”
The importance of whanau and kaimoana is a Freddy’s leitmotif, from the photo of fish ‘n’ chips in Based on a True Story’s cover art, through to tracks like Boondigga’s ‘Pull the Catch’. “Freddy’s was born around the dining table, kai, sharing,” founding saxophonist Warren Maxwell said in Based on a True Story. Earthy and authentic, Mu adds: “It’s a real family thing. Focus your fellowship with each other around the meal. You know we consider ourselves a family. I mean we piss each other off for sure occasionally. It’s not always good, but it’s mostly good. I can’t think of too many other bands apart from us and Shihad that are still in, still performing a lot, still together, after ten years. You’ve gotta conduct yourself in that sort of way if you want to have any longevity in your relationships and the way you make music. Food’s quite a simple thing, but it’s really quite important to sit down and eat together, and we’ve been doing a lot of that lately cause we’re in the studio a lot,” they are working hard finishing Black Bird after nailing the single months ago.
“Iain’s a bit of a fisherman and he had a really lucrative whitebait season. He’s been up in Paikak and been killing it. We’ve been eating proper whitebait fritters,” Mu illustrates, pumping massive fists like a rapper accepting a Grammy. (“As much as I love whitebait, I’d never buy a fritter in a restaurant because it’s just egg,” he says, picking at less than half of an apparently disappointing Mojo pizza bread, accompanied by a pinot gris.)
Last time I interviewed him, Mu said one of the things the makes him proud about Freddy’s—a Polynesian fusion of reggae, dub, jazz, and soul—is how it sounds distinctly from New Zealand. Still? “Yeah,” he enthuses in his softly spoken way. “I think a lot of bands from this country have been trying to sound like bands from overseas. I’m not going to mention names, but I think these bands don’t actually do a lot of travelling, and if they did they probably realise that what we actually have over here as a sound is actually attractive to a lot of the markets over there, and that’s why they get excited about what Freddy’s do.”
With Black Bird, Mu says the band are moving more towards soul and electronic soul music, from the reggae/roots/dub focussed sound (“that was the flavour of festivals in those days”) they started out with. “There’s two reggae tracks, it’s not completely ditched, we still love it as a genre of music, but certainly when you listen to the new album and compare it with Boondigga and Based on a True Story, there’s less reggae through the thread.”
One of those reggae tracks is beefed up with Trinity Roots’ muscular bassist— Taumaranui’s finest son—Rio Hunuki-Hemopo. “Rio’s mean on bass, and he brings a flash guitar to the party, not some dunger.”
Wearing a bright red Herbs t-shirt, Mu smiles about Trinity Roots planning a new album. “Rio’s in good form at the moment. I haven’t see much of Warren because he lives in out in Featherston. We’re still friendly, I just don’t see him. I hate the Wairarapa so I never go out there.” The Winery gig at Martinborough’s Alana Estate is a rare exception. “There’s something dark about the Wairarapa, I reckon. There’s a lot of criminals hiding out there,” Mu says in a uncharacteristically solemn tone.
Because he didn’t want the less good aspects of the recording lifestyle (“cigarette butts everywhere”) to impact on Mia’s upbringing, Mu moved the famous Drop studio. “We still live upstairs. Our good friend Dexter who’s our production manager he’s moved in downstairs and we’ve actually got a really good studio above Tony’s Tyre Service in Kilbirnie. Joe was kinda in charge of that place, there were a few of the Black Seeds flatting up there as well. We kicked them out, and found them a flat to live, and took it over and turned it in to a big studio and rehearsal space.”
Mu’s aroha for his partner and daughter is palpable— the Ans Westra European tour photo exhibited at Suite Gallery in December—but he’s not afraid to constructively criticise Mia’s musical inclinations. “She loves music. She’s always walking around with her headphones on and making up playlists. Her taste is questionable. But I’ll play her something good and she gets it. She and her mates are thirteen, and starting high school this year so they are in to pop.” Might the management side of music interest her, like her mum? “She’s definitely got those traits, very organised. But she may rebel against everything that we are.”
For Mu, music is about doing what he wants, in the way he wants to do it, rather than making big bucks. The former DJ (“I miss it. You’ve got to be immersed in it, be a digger”) and dedicated vinyl fiend (“Committing to being part of the vinyl renaissance is important for Freddy’s”) is characteristically light-hearted about the difficulty of making money recording in the digital age, and streaming services such as Spotify’s miserly rates. “I’ve pretty much given up on making money from recordings, particularly digital downloads,” he laughs. I cite Bob Dylan’s complaint about journalism being riven with hacks and charlatans. “Bob Dylan has that reputation of being difficult with the press and difficult with the industry and not wanting to sell out and blah blah blah but his voice ended up on Mad Men,” Mu chuckles. “Maybe he had to pay his tax bill?”
In 2013, for the first time, Freddy’s are considering using their music in the right films and television shows. Mu says something like The Orator, impressively scored by Tha Feelstyle, would be the ticket. “It’s a special film man. I only watched it once and it feels like I definitely need to watch it again.”
Mu believes Feelstyle is great. “I lost touch with Kas, I need to get on Facebook. He’s a real talent. He’s smart, he’s conscious, he’s bilingual—fluent in Samoan. He’s really shy—or at least, he used to be, probably still is—but as soon as he gets on stage!”
Although Freddy’s enjoyed touring California (and sold out every venue “small ones” they played), they lost money on it. They make their living touring New Zealand and Europe. Berlin is Freddy’s second home. “Berlin’s very special, very progressive. Munich’s quite straight, but Berlin’s progressive in all areas: music, food, lifestyle, and it’s where we started everything way back in the day. Our first time overseas was moving to Berlin for a month and sleeping on people’s couches. That was before Based on a True Story. Me and Dallas made ‘Midnight Marauders’ and then Dallas, Nicole and I went on a plane went to England, went over to Berlin and hooked up with Ben from Sonar Kollektiv and he loved the record and that was the start. Every time we come back it’s like we’re going to a second home, we know lots of people there and it’s cheap; cheaper to live over there than it is over here. We probably won’t now because of our kids, but if we had relocated it would’ve been Berlin. We’ve got contacts in London, but unless you really hit it off you can’t live in London.”
A favourite venue is Copenhagen’s Vega. “We’ve played there three times over the last three years, and every time it’s one of our favourite gigs of the tour. Great venue, not a big one, about 1500 people in a beautiful room. Everything about it’s good. Last year we missed D’Angelo by about three days, he was on his way to Stockholm. There’s always one artist when we’re on the road that we just miss.”
Rock en Seine, the big Parisian festival, was a highlight of last year’s gigs. “We played on the second stage, which holds 8000 people. It was bursting at the seams, and it was really exciting.” Their next European tour is in June, for summer festivals. “Then we’ll probably go back in September-October and do our own shows, an album release tour.”
Before then, Mu says Freddy’s are really looking forward to the Winery tour. “We’re getting in 17, 18 gigs around New Zealand, no one does that anymore. It’s quite a big risk, we’re taking two trucks on tour and we’re driving around. A lot of bands can’t do that in the current market, you’d just lose money if you did. There’s three of us, three bands on the road and there’s a promoter behind it, it’s gonna be good fun I reckon. We’re going as far up as Tutukaka and right down as far as Dunedin. And we’re playing reasonable size venues. There’s people that go and do big tours around the country but they’re playing small venues.”
Also, a decent amount of time to play. “Our sets will be a little bit shorter than normal but still, one and a half hours. Not 45 minutes.” Although they sucked in that short straightjacket at the Big Day Out, I’ve enjoyed more than half a dozen exciting Freddy’s gigs.
Although music “took over” for the Wellington Under-21s’ number eight, Mike Fabulous once told me Mu is Wellington music’s most imposing social soccer player. His table tennis stroke isn’t bad, and then there’s his golf habit. He’s a member at Miramar, and plays in the men’s competition every Wednesday. “Yeah I’ve got a handicap and everything, I play reasonably proper. I play at least once a week. I’ve met a few men down there and we’ll play every Wednesday, not all of them are crazy oldies, some younger guys I’ve got more in common with. When I first got greatly addicted I’d be out there at eight every morning playing nine holes before I started work. I’ve got to the point now where I’d rather be playing with other people.”
He plays with other musicians including Scott (“the new Warren Maxwell”) Towers. “He doesn’t play as much as I do but he’s a pretty good and we always take our clubs on tour. We’ll suss out the golf courses near venues on a tour beforehand, chuck the golf clubs in the back of the bus. This winery tour coming up, we’ll be playing at least three days a week, it’ll be all good. Golf takes a long time, but when you’re on tour you are alleviated of your family duties, all you gotta do it make sure you’re showing up at sound check and performing. And then the rest of the time is yours so usually every morning before a gig we’ll try and get out for a hit. It’s a good way to shake off the few rums from the night before.”
Mu no longer goes to the Stadium (“I’ve got MySky”), but he remains a passionate rugby follower. He was in Gisborne performing at a Rhythm and Vines associated gig, but snuck away to watch the World Cup final. “I was a bit disappointed,” he says with Samoan understatement. “Everyone was saying Graham Henry was the Messiah, but we won by just one point. One point! He almost gave the whole nation a whole heart attack.” Mu looks like he’s almost about to have a heart attack just recalling the nailbiter. “We’ve had horrendous games against the French. We needed to thrash them. You don’t want to get me started!” Slightly surprisingly, Mu agreed with Mark Hammett kicking Ma’a Nonu out of the Hurricanes. “Ma’a performs well under Graham Henry, but he was lazy for the Hurricanes. I saw he was spending too much time surfing at Lyall Bay.”
Mu learned new stuff from the Shihad documentary, Beautiful Machine. “I loved it. Watched it on a plane, I thought it was really interesting. Having known those guys for a long time, I reckon it was really good to have something come out about them that was brutally honest. It was good that you found out about the whole namechanging and how it went down in America, good to get some actual facts on that and how it actually went down. We played before them at Coro Gold on the 30th and god they smashed it.” (Later this summery January day, I meet a couple of Danish girls at the Botanic Gardens for Data Hui. “Fat Freddy’s Drop were so awesome at Coro Gold,” they gush).
Mu says Freddy’s would be interested in a Beautiful Machine-style documentary if someone sharp approached them. “We find little things here and there to stick on the Internet. I think we’ll try and shoot some stuff while we’re on this winery tour because I think it’ll be quite funny. We won’t make a big deal out of it, just nice little things to put out on the road. There’s always a camera around so, and there’s some quite dangerous characters on this tour. Anika Moa and Hollie Smith, we won’t be able to keep it up for the whole time, but there’ll be some late night shenanigans that’ll go down that I’m sure will be worth filming, there’s some quite strong personalities. Anika’s got kids now but I heard that she’s bringing two nannies on the road because she’s got twins, seems to me bringing two nannies means you’re gearing yourself up for having a good time. Anika’s hilarious.” How about Shayne Carter—who, like Dallas, memorably riffs on soul music—headlining Jon Toogood’s new supergroup, The Adults? Mu smiles insouciantly: “A very funny guy. Shane’s got a very dry sense of humour, comes up with some hilarious things.”