Hopetoun Brown might be the only two-piece hip-hop soul band of trumpet and bass-clarinet, well, anywhere in the globe. They're almost definitely the only gay-straight one.

You could say Tim Stewart and Nick Atkinson live and breathe music. And in their band of two, Hopetoun Brown, they breathe it deeper and harder than most.

That's because the duo -- who have been playing together since their teens as the Supergroove horn section -- use just voice, trumpet, trombone, percussion (Stewart) and bass clarinet (Atkinson) to blow up a storm of soul, jazz, blues and electricity-free hip-hop.

The evidence of that can be heard on debut album, Burning Fuse which is about to set off on a national tour, kicking off in Auckland tomorrow night.

Yes, they do occasionally play as a back-up horn section to other acts. They've been behind Tami Neilson recently and will head out on tour with mash-up World Music collective Weird Together during summer.


Last summer they backed Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan on the winery tour where a reunited Supergroove was the support act.

But Hopetoun Brown is their baby, a reflection of their long musical mateship - one which took a battering in the latter days of Supergroove when Stewart was fired from the band and Atkinson remained until the split.

The pair didn't speak for a couple of years.

But at an alcohol-fuelled house party one night, Atkinson was playing saxophone in his bedroom and one of his flatmates handed Stewart a trumpet.

Stewart says he only lasted 10 bars but it felt good. That started a revival in the partnership, one which started with the two playing instrumentals - Atkinson taking on the basslines on his newly acquired bass clarinet - and moved on to songwriting with Stewart's brawny soul voice in the lead when he's not parping on his brass.

"It's unusual to have a lead vocalist who is a very good trumpet player," says Atkinson, seated next to an extravagantly bearded Stewart in a inner city Auckland bar.

"It's almost like those old soul records where the vocals stop and the horns play a refrain and then the vocals go again."

A few days earlier TimeOut watched Hopetoun Brown open for Neilson before adding to her backing band later in the night. With Atkinson making his woodwind sound almost like a bass-synthesizer with his funky lung-emptying lines beneath Stewart's voice, they work up minimalist grooves full of space and singalong opportunities.


Though there are nods to the blues - their set includes the standard St. James Infirmary Blues and a cover of soul-blues singer-songwriter Ted Hawkins' Sorry You're Sick, which also appears on the album - it still feels vital, not yet another 12-bar revival. And original songs like Stewart's Costelloesque love song Knitted Into My Bones shine through the sparse instrumentation.

Yes, there are only two of them. And the debut album - recorded in Lyttelton and Auckland - stretches to only eight songs.

The pair make no apologies about that running time.

"I reckon eight songs is about the limit you can listen to a big bearded dude and a guy blowing into a stick," laughs Atkinson.

Nick Atkinson and Tim Stewart of Hopetoun Brown.
Nick Atkinson and Tim Stewart of Hopetoun Brown.

Being a two-piece band featuring only wind instruments (though Stewart played some drums on the record) might be considered a novelty.

Stewart: "David Byrne bangs on about limitations and I am totally with him. It forces you to come up with creative solutions. Otherwise you are running around hiring musicians and no one can afford that."

Atkinson: "I saw season three of Girls and there were two scenes in that season where there were these really awful extreme two-piece bands and I thought 'we could so easily be in one of those scenes'."

In their own minds, the Hopetoun Brown approach is an extension of the hip-hop they grew up with and which became such a big factor in the music of Supergroove.

Stewart: "So we think in loops and grabs and basslines and funky little bits and pieces. In my head is this Bomb Squad-produced funk machine. We're just trying to perform it with this minimal instrumentation. Hopefully the crowd is filling in some of their own rhythmic information."

Atkinson: "We have no drums. The only rhythm is the start and end of my notes and the start and ends of Tim's singing and stomps and claps and body noises ..."

Er, body noises?

Laughs Stewart: Yeah body noises are a big part of the Brown. As we get older, we're only going to get funkier."

They might be the only two-piece hip-hop soul band of trumpet and bass-clarinet, well, anywhere in the globe. They're almost definitely the only gay-straight one.

"Yeah there's some homo stuff in there," says Stewart of his lyrics. "But I think you wouldn't know it was there unless you put it an article in a newspaper. I don't try and make them neat tied up little bundles with a nice little message."

"A Dirty Shame is really my anti- song. I have bit of an issue with the assimilation of gay culture. I think it's boring as hell. Everybody is cool with each other -- it's really boring. It just means that everything becomes homogenous and there is enough of that in modern life."

"The thing with homo culture in the 70s and 80s it was about defining itself as clearly as possible against everything else, certainly against straight culture. So they spent a lot of time and energy creating this culture just like hip-hop culture did.

"And now we get tracks littered through the top 40 charts and all this laptop music and there are no scary gay leather bars to go to any more. It bothers me. Assimilation pisses me off, so I wrote that song in response to that."

Hopetoun Brown, says Atkinson, is also a reaction to something else -- the formality of being in a band where every performance is a regimented exercise.

"With Hopetoun I kind of hope we could be band that could happen in a living room or a porch," he says of being such a portable, spontaneous outfit.

Their upcoming tour features a couple of private house concerts. It's definitely something different to the band they grew up in.

"The way Supergroove did things was so particular and so effective," he says. "But at the same time quite restrictive and I think all the members have dealt with that in different ways with various degrees of success.

"In some ways this band is a total reaction against that.

Stewart: "We jam. We do shows with people. We play songs we have never discussed until we are literally playing them. That's a total deal-breaker with Supergroove."


Watch the video to the album title track Burning Fuse

Tour dates

Friday 30 October, Auckland Village Music (with guests Tami Neilson, Jol Mulholland, Finn Scholes), Mt Eden

Saturday 31 October, Nivara Lounge, Hamilton

Sunday 1 November, The Rouge Stage,Rotorua

Thursday 5 November, The Wunderbar, Lyttelton

Friday 6 November, The Grain Store Gallery, Oamaru

Saturday 7 November, Taste Merchants, Dunedin

Sunday 8 November, The Sherwood, Queenstown

Thursday 12 November, The Firehouse, Hokitika

Friday 13 November, Dharma Bums Club, Wairau Valley

Saturday 14 November, Private House Concert, Carterton

Sunday 15 November, Private House Concert, Napier

Sunday 22 November, Leigh Sawmill Cafe, Leigh