Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Drax Project: From the streets to the stage

Starting out as buskers, Drax Project quickly established themselves as a band to watch indoors as well. They talk to Lydia Jenkin.
Drax Project Ben O'Leary, Shaan Singh, Matt Beachen and Sam Thomson.
Drax Project Ben O'Leary, Shaan Singh, Matt Beachen and Sam Thomson.

Put drums and saxophone together, and you get "drax". That's where the name of this rising Wellington band came from, because they started as a drums and sax duo, busking on the streets.

"It was quite a new thing when we started, and actually we could make quite a bit of coin, just because it was unusual," laughs drummer Matt Beachen.

"I think particularly in Wellington, there weren't that many people playing pop music covers on the street in that sort of combo," adds bassist Sam Thomson, who joined them soon after.

Born out of jazz school, they'd play all sorts of top 40 hits in their own distinctive style, creating a celebratory atmosphere on the street, just keen to play for people, wherever and whoever they were.

"It was so much fun, playing late at night, 1am, people would come out of clubs, and there would be a couple of hundred people dancing around you on the street, just completely off their face, and people would throw money on the ground," explains singer and sax player Shaan Singh.

"We'd just play really loudly outside the club, so that when people walked out it felt like they were in another club," he laughs.

It's clear the busking was a formative musical experience for them, and demonstrates their huge enthusiasm for performance right from the beginning.

"It was interesting because it's a really easy way to find out what people like and what people don't like," Thomson notes. "If you're there for two hours and you only get 20 bucks then you're clearly not doing something that these people love. So then you work out how to make it better."

They also enjoyed trying to guess which song might catch the attention of different pedestrians.

"If we saw a stag party walking by we'd try Seven Nation Army maybe. Or a bunch of girls out on the town, maybe you go for Katy Perry's Firework," Singh laughs.

They seem to miss the busking - they have detailed memories of the times people bequeathed them pizzas or burgers or chips, and they had a brilliant time playing during the Sevens tournament held in Wellington a few years ago.

But Drax Project have moved forward in leaps and bounds since those chilly nights on the street.

First the bar managers started asking them to play paid gigs inside, then they added Ben O'Leary on guitar and vocals to the mix, and decided they should really start writing original material if they wanted to take things any further.

"Playing covers was fine, and was a good way for us to play a lot and get tight and so on. But I guess we got to a point where we thought, is this as far as this is going to go, if we just do covers ... ." says Thomson.

 Talented Wellington band Drax Project. Photo / Kapiti News
Talented Wellington band Drax Project. Photo / Kapiti News

" ... and then my friend hit me up and said, 'I want to film a video for you guys'," Singh explains.

"So I was like, 'Uhh, well, we should write an original song then'. So we wrote it in a night, pretty much, it was like whoah, this is happening tomorrow, we'd better have a practice, let's do it."

That first song was Real, which got a great response (it has been their biggest single so far), so they decided to do more. An EP in fact. Fortunately a friend of O'Leary's studying at Whitireia had access to the Whitireia studio and was keen to help them.

"I was in my final year and I had a friend there whose final year project was to record music. So we did that whole first EP ourselves, with him, just after hours in the Whitireia studio, and then Benny Tones helped us mix and master."

Those songs caught the attention of fans and festival bookers, and Drax Project ended up playing a bunch of festivals over the summer of 2014-2015, slowly forming a reputation as a strong live act with plenty of enthusiasm.

They also found their way to Devin Abrams (one of the founding members of Shapeshifter, and now known for his solo project, Pacific Heights), and began working on their second EP with him as a producer.

"There's a little bit of drum n bass influence, but also that's something Devin has moved away from, and it's more his electronic Pacific Heights sound which influenced us I think," Singh explains.

Moving into the realm of electronic sounds rather than creating everything live themselves gave them a new palette to play with, and they enjoyed learning from Abrams and exchanging ideas.

"It worked really well. Not to say that we don't still take influence from live situations, but it definitely opened things up for us. Devin definitely didn't dictate anything to us though, and he would try anything we suggested, so I think we all learned things" says Thomson.

There's a diverse set of tastes within the group, but acts like Disclosure, SBTRKT, and James Blake are influential. They listen to a lot of trap music, hip-hop, pop, Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake.

And they believe learning a lot of pop covers has given them a good grounding in songwriting, though they also draw on their jazz school learning too.

"The lines are blurring between pop, jazz, and hip hop a lot these days, so that's been a natural thing for us to get into," Thomson explains.

"Listening is really important though, recognising things, working out why you like something," says Singh. "It makes me really excited!"

Lowdown

Who: Drax Project
What: Recently released second EP T/W/O/O

- TimeOut

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