Trio takes solace in the Bay life

By Rebecca Barry Hill

If Jakob was a guy, he'd be a quietly spoken artist who gets along with almost everyone. But Jakob is a band, of course, a Napier trio comprising guitarist Jeff Boyle, drummer Jason Johnston and bass player Maurice Beckett. Despite making music for nine years without the help of a lead singer, they have friends in many diverse scenes.

Jakob's first gig was playing support for Salmonella Dub and Pitch Black. They've played alongside ambient acts like Amina, the experimental Icelandic band with members in Sigur Ros, and metal bands the Hidden Hand and Pelican.

After their gig tonight, with such disparate acts as Dimmer, the Ruby Suns and the Kingsland Vinyl Appreciation Society, they support US metal kings Isis on February 10.

Perhaps it's because their music is as universally appealing as its scenic equivalent, the sunburned plains and jagged hills of the Hawkes Bay.

"People who really love instrumental, post-rock music understand it immediately and know how to react to it," says Boyle. "But sometimes when we play in front of crowds that don't know what's going on, it felt pretty awkward. They're like, 'Where's the singer? Is he sick or something?' "

Jakob have always bucked convention. Their music hinges on expansive soundscapes that call to mind New Zealand bands Bailterspace and HDU but with a more cinematic approach.

"I think language is a barrier in many cases. It restricts you in lots of ways. Singing tends to draw you into the typical way of writing music: verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge. It gives you more space to create dynamics and control them without a singer."

A song like Everything All of the Time from their new album Solace - named after the bleak yet beautiful album artwork - opens with what sounds like the string section of an orchestra warming up.

"I'd love to do film soundtracks," says Boyle. "The reason they sound like strings is because half the time I'm writing guitar stuff I'm hearing strings in my head."

Not surprisingly, their music has been used frequently on TV, from Australian reality show Big Brother to TV3's Outrageous Fortune and ads for insurance.

"We'd get emails from our fans: 'How dare you? How could you?' But the great big cheque at the end of it so wasn't so bad."

But listening to Jakob in the background and going to see them live are different experiences. For one, they don't rely on theatrics to engage with the audience, and because there's no frontman, the music does the talking.

What they do rely on is the venue's acoustics and PA system, which has to be able to handle their reverb-heavy dynamics.

"I like the idea of being as natural as you can on stage. People can see that as being pompous or whatever but I can't see the point of practising some moves to keep the crowd happy."

The temptation is there to go off on epic, indulgent prog-rock jam sessions but Jakob have reined that in over their many years together. And you can hear their experimental side come to life on Solace.

The new album is not a huge deviation from the previous two, Subset of Sets (2001) and Cale: Drew (2003), but a song like Pneumonic tinkers with rougher textures and angrier discord.

Producer David Holmes also had a greater influence, acting as a hip-hop producer by sampling the band's jam sessions and splicing parts of them together.

Jakob waited until they had heard the new albums by fellow post-rockers Mogwai and Mono before committing any ideas to record.

"We didn't want to repeat what they're up to. They're doing real samey stuff over their last couple of albums and we were determined not to go down that path.

"We went into the studio with just ideas as opposed to songs and jammed with them until we got to this really ugly sound. We were purposefully busting out of our comfort zone."

Still, Jakob's zone is a confined area. Over the years they've had the good fortune to be inundated with offers for singers, pianists and everything in between but have never been swayed. Nor have they moved out of Hawkes Bay, the place that has long influenced their sound.

There is talk about living in Europe or the United States but Johnston has a 1-year-old daughter and another on the way. So touring might be the option. Wherever their music takes them, it will always "come from the heart", says Boyle.

"It's hard to explain it without sounding cheesy. But if you play music as honestly as you can, you've got nothing but emotion to draw on."

* Jakob plays Galatos, tonight, with Dimmer, the Ruby Suns and the Kingsland Vinyl Appreciation Society

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