The release of a new Fat Freddy's Drop album is always an event - they haven't made many in their dozen-plus years of existence. But as Lydia Jenkin reports, the Wellington-based firm is still going strong here and abroad.
We know what they did last summer: flashback to February and you would've found Fat Freddy's Drop entertaining crowds across many of the country's vineyard settings, headlining the annual Classic Hits winery tour.
As one expects with Freddy's, it was a deep grooving, warpedly funky, danceable melange of dub, soul, roots, disco, electro and blues. There was an impressive fiery light show, beautiful, wandering improvisation, special guests such as Ladi6 and they had the sauvignon-swigging masses enthusiastically skanking, as the set of old and new songs unfolded, often stretching to 10 minutes each.
All of this fits perfectly with the picture of the show painted in our minds when someone mentions Fat Freddy's Drop.
But what was worth noting was they weren't playing to a crowd of raving teens and 20-somethings. The audience was largely comprised of groups of grown-ups, some with their kids in tow. They were people who'd grown up with the band - a band who've now been together for 14 years, have all become dads themselves, and recently celebrated a couple of 40th birthdays.
"We're not spring chickens that's for sure," producer and band founder DJ Fitchie, aka Chris Faiumu, agrees. "In fact, a 50th isn't that far off, but I won't mention any names. It's funny, we've been together for a long time but I reckon we're closer than ever these days."
Back in 1998, you might've raised a few eyebrows suggesting this fiercely independent band, capable of creating mesmerising songs more than nine minutes long with just one verse and one chorus, would become mainstream.
Even they might've doubted the likelihood of playing on a tour sponsored by a retro radio network. But they're a true household name in New Zealand, and widely popular in Australia and Europe too.
They'll hit half a million sales worldwide with the release of Blackbird, and over the past decade have established a well-trodden, lengthy touring circuit in both areas, easily selling out venues of 3000 and more (including two sold-out nights at the Sydney Opera House last November), and playing to more than 200,000 Europeans annually. In fact, they spend so long on the road they've added a couple of pieces of special cargo to make the trips in style - a few crayfish frozen live for band chef (and keyboard maestro) Dobie Blaze, aka Iain Gordon, to cook, and a road case in which to carry all their favourite hats, which were previously getting crushed.
But despite their popularity, they remain based out of Lyall Bay in Wellington, and at heart are still very much a laid-back sound-system group with jazz leanings who will never be in a hurry to release their albums.
"Over all these years we've learned a thing or two about what we're capable of, and how long things take," trumpet player Tony Chang, aka Toby Laing, laughs. "Things often take a year longer than they should, but we're okay with that now."
"Blackbird has been a gradual recording process of roughly two-and-a-half years," Faiumu explains, "constantly interrupted by touring, new babies being born, throw in a hip replacement and a few tantrums, and finally, Blackbird arrived."
Their slower pace is also a result of having seven band members who all write the songs, and have a collective sense of perfectionism.
"The process of songwriting and composition as a group just takes slightly longer, you can't make so many executive decisions. Sometimes the best way to contribute is to stand back, and not try to contribute anything," Laing smiles.
So what does Blackbird sound like? Well, it's a sound Freddy's fans will be familiar with, but is still a progression from Based on a True Story and Dr Boondigga and the Big BW.
The silky vocals of Joe Dukie, aka Dallas Tamaira, are front and centre, as are some cool horn solos, and they've expanded the live sound with guest drummers Julien Dyne and Redford Grenell, and bassist Rio Hemopo.
"Our new space in Kilbirnie has influenced this project greatly," Faiumu says. "A nice big room to both rehearse and record in allowed us to do lots of playing together at the same time - more of an old-school approach."
The band agree that it's probably the best reflection of the Freddy's philosophy they've created, and the process that their new studio (nicknamed Bays) allowed had a lot to do with it.
"The way we've done this album, we could set up all our gear, and leave it set up for years [in the new studio]," Laing explains. "With everything set up all the time, the way we've produced the album is really all together, all playing, all writing together, and for that reason the collection of influences and styles that have featured on the other albums, have really flowed in a much more live sort of way."
To picture this influential studio, imagine a typical warehouse, on a non-descript street, above industrial shops. It had multiple different previous guises - an old vinyl pressing plant in the 70s, several churches, possibly home to a cult, and at one stage was some form of club for musicians who'd been evicted from other domestic settings. "It's some pretty low-rent real estate in Kilbirnie," laughs Laing. "But it suits us because there's a lot of room for us to spread out. We've got our management and production offices in there as well, and a kitchen for all the cooking and entertaining."
And it offers them some privacy.
"When Joe Lindsay was recording his horn parts for Blackbird, he got so hot and bothered by the end of it he was down to his undies," Faiumu reveals. "Luckily for us the recording booth is about 20m from the control room and our view was limited."
Reflecting on their evolution as a band, Laing explains how they've continued to stay enthusiastic about making music with each other, while also retaining some of the initial vision they had as a loose DJ sound system.
"Mu would simply get a gig and invite a bunch of guys who didn't really know each other to come and play with him, and he kind of built the band that way out of his DJ set.
"I think that tradition is still very strong, too - that's where some of the eclecticism comes from, the idea of a sound system being that everyone brings their different influences and those different performances are interspersed among more of a soundscape or sound identity that the DJ is bringing. That's still very strong.
"We can be a lot more succinct and a lot more focused about it now though, so I really enjoy the way that has evolved. As much as anything, the band has been our continuing musical education, and to have a vehicle like Fat Freddy's that can allow you to keep learning music and keep absorbing styles and learning how to make them your own, that's just a fabulous opportunity for a musician."
Of course, in their early days they made headlines for their successful independent approach (they were the first local independent act to have an album enter the New Zealand charts at number one) and they've determinedly maintained that stance through their career. Faiumu affirms there have been no disadvantages.
"I have no regrets and I've loved the journey. It's been a great learning curve. If we'd gone with a major record company we would have lost too much control. I also believe we would have been done and dusted by now. We're in it for the long game, and the majors don't know that game."
So beyond the release of Blackbird and the upcoming tour, fans can expect Freddy's magic to stick around much longer yet.
"Being a part of this crew is just the best job. We've grown into such a strong unit. We've all got better at what we do," Faiumu continues. "I think we'll hit our 20th birthday, we definitely have more albums to make. As long we stay healthy and fit enough to keep putting on exciting live shows, we'll keep going!"
LIVE FROM LONDON
Though it's unfortunate the Freddy's crew can't be in New Zealand to celebrate the release of Blackbird until September, Kiwi fans will be able to catch their London launch performance via the wonder of YouTube.
The band are celebrating the album release with a two-hour performance in east London at the Village Underground, and streaming it live around the world via youtube.com/fatfreddysdroptv at 8am (NZ time) on Thursday June 27. There will also be a one-time repeat broadcast, on the same day at 8pm NZ time.
The venue, which is a restored Victorian warehouse, has limited capacity, and though 5000 people entered the ticket ballot for the show in just 24 hours, only 500 tickets could be given out, so it will be a relatively intimate affair.
Who: Fat Freddy's Drop
What: Third studio album Blackbird, released tomorrow
Where and when: Performing at The Powerstation in Auckland on Friday, September 13, and at the Opera House in Wellington on Friday, September 20
Watch the first "Blackbird" mini-interview with Dobie Blaze.