As Fat Freddys Drop prepare for a big summer, saxophonist Scott Towers talks to Scott Kara about their plans and that long-awaited new album.
Scott Towers - the portly and cheery saxophone player in Fat Freddy's Drop, not to be mistaken for bouncing bellied trombonist Joe Lindsay - was meant to bring along a brand spanking new song for TimeOut to listen to.
We sit down at a table at record shop-cum-cafe, Conch, on Ponsonby Rd expecting to put on some headphones, turn up the volume, and get taken away to Fat Freddy's land.
But, says Towers apologetically, he can't play Silver & Gold for me.
In typical Freddy's fashion - remember, their 2005 debut, Based On a True Story took an age to come out, and second album Dr. Boondigga and the Big BW from 2009 took a little while too - they've gone away and redone the song a different way.
"As is the way," he smiles, "we were listening to the track that is going to be the single - for want of a better word - and it was sounding really good but then we thought, 'Hey, what if we took that bit out and switched that section to the middle ...' So, all of the sudden, we were rewriting the song."
Never mind, we can wait to hear the new song - perhaps as early as this week, so keep an ear out - and third album, Blackbird, which is due out in February. "We're pushing pretty hard to get the album done before summer," Towers says.
The February release date also coincides with the band's headlining jaunt on the annual Classic Hits Winery Tour with the Adults, and Anika, Boh & Hollie. And the official launch of Blackbird starts this weekend with a collaborative music and art performance in the concert hall of Sydney Opera House at GRAPHIC, an annual festival of comics, animation and illustration. The band was invited to perform at the festival and the unique, one-off performance will see graffiti artist Otis Frizzell - who did the art work for Boondigga and is working on the new album - do an "illustrated preview" of Blackbird as the band play live.
Some might call FFD fussy, with their constant reworking of songs, but this restlessness is a reflection of their live show and also sums up the band's uncompromising way of working.
"The songs are pretty amorphous things when we play them live. There is never an exact version of the song," says Towers, who joined the band in 2007 replacing original saxophonist Warren Maxwell of TrinityRoots and Little Bushman.
Towers, who comes from a jazz background, remembers with a laugh how he came to the realisation early on that the way Fat Freddys make music was "more jazz than anything else I'd ever done because everything is on the spur of the moment".
The band have already played a number of the new songs live in the past two years, during regular European trips where they have established a good following through playing festivals, and now headline their own shows at venues with capacities of anywhere between 1500 and 5000.
"Some of the new songs have been in the live sets in Europe and they've changed a lot in that time and so the versions on the record are very different to the ones we do live."
Compared to jaunty cocktail of reggae, dub and soul on True Story, Boondigga had more of a trippy and trancey dance vibe thanks to tracks like Shiverman, and Towers says Blackbird extends on that.
"The feeling we seem to be coming back to ... I guess, to me it feels like a dance record. I keep thinking about Grace Jones records with Sly & Robbie in the rhythm section [such as 1981's Nightclubbing], they are songs but they could really be dance tracks too. There is a crossed line there and Blackbird is a bit like that."
Although Towers says the Freddy's sound can perhaps best be described by what trumpet player Toby Laing calls the filter of dub. "Everything passes through the filter of dub, whether it's a soul tune, a blues tune, a techno tune or whatever it is. It all goes through that filter, or that lens, and we've probably ramped that up a little bit further and had more of a focus on the electronic side of things.
"So we've done these live versions of the songs, but then they've been approached almost like harking back to the early DJ sets when Fat Freddy's came together when it was really just [founder and producer] Mu playing instrumental versions of dance tracks, and then we got into truer songs over time, and now we're trying to combine those a little bit."
BRUSH TO THE BEAT
Otis Frizzell has been forced to do away with his beloved spray cans and pick up a paintbrush for a collaboration with Fat Freddy's Drop at the Sydney Opera House this weekend.
As part of the annual GRAPHIC festival, Frizzell has been commissioned to create a special animated and illustrated visual preview of FFD's forthcoming album Blackbird as the band play live. But because the opera house is a heritage building the graffiti artist is not allowed to use spray cans.
"I'll be using a paintbrush, one of those crazy things artists use," he laughs.
"I've had to teach myself to use one for this show and it's fun, and it is about broad strokes, and it is a bit like, 'Do you know what it is yet?'," he says, mimicking Australian entertainer and painter Rolf Harris.
"I often do live painting. It's a bit of joke though, like the performing monkey job. It's a bit like Rolf Harris. Taking it on to a big canvas inside the Sydney Opera House while Fat Freddy's Drop reveal songs from their upcoming album is epic, and nerve racking, but it's exciting and I've had to be quite Rolf Harris about it because I don't have that long and it's a big canvas."
Frizzell has already started work on the album cover for Blackbird, which has helped him come up with ideas for what he will paint on the night, and he's taken particular inspiration from one of Fat Freddy's new songs that reminded him of the soundtrack to spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars.
"So Clint Eastwood's squinty eyes, and a dusty and sweaty and s...'s about to go down kind of thing. So I've got these concepts and designs which I will be alluding to during the show."
Who: Fat Freddys Drop
Where & when: The Winery Tour, with the Adults and Anika, Boh, and Hollie, starts Feb 2 at Ascension Estate, Matakana.
New album: Blackbird, out February.
Also: Playing Sydney Opera House, Saturday, as part of GRAPHIC in collaboration with artist Otis Frizzell who is doing a live animated and illustrated preview of Blackbird as the band play live.