Fate, luck, love and aircraft brought Long White Clouds together.
Former Napier resident Andrew Birch left New Zealand for Bergamo, in northern Italy, 12 years ago. Today he is married, has "two wonderful half-Kiwi, half-Italian baby boys" and is part of a band.
"Some folk back home in the Bay may recall my escapades in various Napier Operatic productions, and also through the local Hawke's Bay music scene, as a musician and songwriter," he says.
He carried on his music journey in Italy and his band Long White Clouds have just released their debut EP, titled Everyone Around Here Looks Angry.
He describes the sound as having hints of post-punk or "indietronica".
"I have never stopped writing songs since emigrating here, and even if some modest success is happening here in Italy, I remain extremely proud of where I come from.
"Here in Bergamo we have been devastated by the coronavirus outbreak in the Lombardy region. In fact, we have been under lockdown since the end of January in our household! Crazy, times".
The band formed in 2009 when Birch met the other two pieces of the Long White Clouds puzzle, Matteo Pansa and Nicola Lazzaroni, who had been writing and playing together in a local indie rock group.
The trio had fun playing until 2014, then, due to family reasons, musical activities were suspended for few years.
It was in 2018 that the group came together again, and immediately began working on new material.
I asked Andy some questions.
Q. I'm guessing from their names that Matteo Pansa and Nicola Lazzaroni are Italian?
A. Yes. Both Nicola and Matteo are Italian, born and raised in Bergamo, the beautiful city I have come to call home. I met them both more or less immediately after arriving here in 2008, and we quickly started playing music together. They had an indie rock band called Club Fools back then, and they invited me to come and jam.
Q. Does the name of your band refer to Aotearoa?
A. Yeah it does. When Lazza (Nicola), Teo and I started jamming together, we decided to start off by playing my songs, which of course are written in English. We quickly discovered a nice feeling together and so we began jamming quite regularly. The band started to take shape. I suppose the naming of the band was left to me, as the "songwriter", and seeing that we would be performing in English, it made sense to have an English name for the project also. I thought that this name was pretty, and of course recalled my roots. It has certainly proved to be a name that peaks people's curiosity, and inevitably it leads to having a nice conversation about where I come from ... so it is definitely a nod to Aotearoa, and the meaning of that.
Q. How would you describe your music?
A. Indie rock/indie pop. Think: Atlas Genius meets The Killers meets Pavement. Others have mentioned hints of post-punk or indietronica.
Q. Tell us about your band's debut EP, Everyone Around Here Looks Angry.
A. This EP is our debut studio recording. We have waited a very long time to get it together and go into the studio, due to the wonderful fact that all three of us have started families over the course of the band's existence. For this reason, the band naturally took a hiatus between 2014 and 2018. The first single we released, called 1+1=1, was in fact the first song we wrote together, back in 2009/2010. The song Dreaming About You, also written towards the end of the period before our hiatus, and is a song that I wrote after a strange dream I had about my late sister Emily. The other two tracks are new for the band. Shane Says is a track that recalls some pretty hedonistic days that I spent living in the beautiful city of Melbourne, where I would consistently entertain/cause anxiety for my friends, including my brother-from-another-mother, Shane, who co-wrote the lyrics. Shivers was the second single. Its lyrics were written when thinking about the giddiness of young love.
Q. Music has played a huge part in lifting people's spirits all over the word during the Covid-19 pandemic. What do you think it is about music that brings us together in this way?
A. Music is a language that everybody can speak. From newborn babies to the elderly. In my opinion it's the most primal form of emotional expression we have. So, it's naturally there for us to use as a comforting blanket in times of trouble, or a bridge to allow people to connect.
Q. How old were you when you realised you could sing?
A. I don't remember exactly. I remember singing Little Donkey on the Taradale Primary School stage, at a school Christmas show or end-of-year break-up when I was 4 or 5 years old. My mum had to come and pull me off stage because I kept singing, even after the words on the overhead projector were all finished ... I remember feeling pretty cool, and having everyone singing with me was something that I have never forgotten.
Q. What advice would you give to young musicians starting out?
A. Practice makes perfect! Music isn't a competition! There are no shortcuts in meaningful music, so be honest and work hard! Never apologise for your art!
Q. How did you and your family cope during the lockdown?
A. Wow. Here in Bergamo the Covid-19 crisis has been devastating. I'm not sure how much of the reality of what's happening here has made it back to New Zealand. The lockdown officially began here at the beginning of March, and we're only now having some restrictions being cautiously lifted. My wife Stefania actually broke a bone in her foot at the beginning of February in a hilarious and not very heroic fashion (which I won't go into details about here), and therefore she has been on "lockdown" since about the second week of February. Both her and I have been able to work from home, fortunately, allowing us to look after our boys Oliver and Quentin. The boys have forged and strengthened their wonderful brotherly bond over this period - something that I have loved seeing in the middle of the mayhem around us. We have all experienced a rollercoaster of emotions.
Bergamo has been hit with a 600 per cent increase in mortality rate compared to the same period of 2019. The virus is real. Really real! We have shockingly become accustomed to ambulance sirens, they are like background noise. Stefania sadly lost a family member at the beginning of the outbreak, Zia Luigina, who was 96, and unfortunately died alongside many other elderly people in her retirement village.
Another member of our family here, Stefania's uncle, had a serious battle on his hands for an extended period, and thankfully recovered. A man in our apartment block passed away also, last month. A dear friend of ours lost his father.
Mistakes were made, as was unfortunately inevitable, given the overwhelming reality of the situation here, but I continue to hold the hospital staff and the essential workers who have had to steel themselves, and face the music every day, in the highest esteem possible.
Q. What do you love the most about Italy?
A. The food and wine! There are many amazing things to love here, but the food and wine, and the culture surrounding time spent together over a meal, the importance of it, is amazing.
Q. What do you miss the most about New Zealand?
A. The open spaces: lack of traffic, empty beaches ... the fresh air ... pool tables in pubs because here they play "calcetto", or table football, and I suck bad!