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From Lyall Bay to national treasure: Fat Freddy’s Drop releases new album

by Howard Davis
Wellington’s self-styled “seven-headed soul monster,” Fat Freddy’s Drop have come a long way from their humble origins in the 90s as a group of local lads jamming together. They now regularly play sold-out shows across Europe and hold a place in the hearts of their home fan base similar to that of Los Lobos in LA.

NPR’s Guy Razz neatly described their salmagundi sound – “take the swagger of Jamaican dub, throw in a little Memphis soul, send it halfway round the globe and what comes back? Fat Freddy’s Drop”.

Remarkably, ‘Bays’ (to be released on October 23) is only their fourth studio album. It juxtaposes the funky New Orleans feel of ‘Wairunga Bust’ with the heavy reggae backbeat of tracks like ‘Slings & Arrows’ and ’10 Feet Tall.’ ‘Razor’ is overlaid with echo effects which convey a sinister sense of impending catastrophe, it’s slow build leading up to some shrieking synth riffs that confirm the track’s minatory message. ‘Makkan’ shifts the tone toward the soft island lilt of Taj Mahal, evoking the sheen of sunshine over a glistening ocean as a gently haunting sax solo laments a lost love. ‘Fish In The Sea’ slips nicely into a slick melodic lines that morph into typically funky triplets, extolling the virtues of “reaching for the feeling higher than the ceiling.” ‘Cortina Motors’ is destined to be another toe-tapping dance floor favorite, while ‘Novak’ wraps up the album with a lazy, laid back, behind-the-pocket blues groove, here sounding strangely reminiscent of Savoy Brown. Overall, the album is another solid outing from these sultans of swing.

The band’s founding impetus was provided by first generation Samoan/New Zealander Chris Faiumu (aka “Mu”/”DJ Fitchie”). In 2000, he and friends Toby Laing (“Tony Chang”) and Dallas Tamaira (“Joe Dukie”) held a number of informal jam sessions at his Lyall Bay home and invited several local musicians to sit in, including Warren Maxwell (“Fulla Flash”), Joe Lindsay (“Hopepa”), Tehimana Kerr (“Jetlag Johnson”), and Iain Gordon (“Dobie Blaze”) on keyboards. Maxwell and Lindsay were students at the Conservatorium of Music in Wellington and all the band members played with other groups such as Bongmaster, The Black Seeds, TrinityRoots.

Self-producing and promoting their music on the independent label The Drop, their first release was Dallas Tamaira’s five-track EP ‘Better Than Change.’ This was followed by a single – ‘Hope’ – famously written and recorded during a two day acid trip. Each LSD tab was printed with the image of Fat Freddy’s Cat from Gilbert Shelton’s comic strip ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ – hence “dropping the cat” became “a silly name that stuck.”

Their first album ‘Live at the Matterhorn,’ was released in 2001. Divided into four tracks averaging 18 minutes each with minimal re-mastering, it shifted 9,000 copies in a few months, largely through word-of-mouth. The first studio album, ‘Based on a True Story,’ was released in 2005. It went nine times platinum and remained in NZ’s Top 40 charts for over two years, the first independently-distributed album to reach the top of the NZ charts. It’s still the highest-selling album by a national artist in the country’s history.

Warren Maxwell left the band in 2007 and was replaced by Scott Towers (“Chopper Reedz”), who attended the Conservatorium with Maxwell and was trombonist Hopepa’s tutor. In 2009 they released ‘Dr Boondigga and the Big BW’ – the best selling NZ album for five weeks – and remained in the Top 40 charts for thirty-eight weeks. ‘Blackbird’ debuted at number one with a bullet and remained there for four weeks in 2013.

Extensive improvisation provides the basis for FFD’s uniquely euphonic sound. Trumpeter Laing insists that “live performance is the most natural state for music.” Most songs begin as a rhythm on Faiumu’s MPC and are progressively built up during jam sessions and live gigs. Both studio albums and singles are the result of constant refinement over years of touring which have honed their repertoire to the bone. ‘Blackbird,’ ‘Ernie’ and ‘This Room’ all regularly turn up on the setlist, while the deep bass lines and catchy synthesiser pulses of ‘Clean the House’ and ‘Mother Mother’ have a more soulful R&B feel. Live performance peaks are provided by Joe Dukie’s Bill Withers inflected vocals, mellifluous solos from guitarist Jetlag Johnson and trumpeter Tony Chang, saxophone arias from Chopper Reedz, modish funk vibes and bass drops from DJ Fitchie, and the wordsmith talents of MC Slave’s reggae-raps. While riffs and hooks are shared among band members, multi-instrumentalist Hopepa (a play on the name Joseph in Maori) inevitably steals live shows with his exuberance and raw zeal. Rarely has a performer been so proud to shake his booty, nor so acutely aware of exactly how much time he’s got to scramble back across stage for his next melody, be it on trombone, tuba, or harmonica.

All three live albums (recorded at the Matterhorn in Wellington, London’s Roundhouse, and in Munich) substantiate their reputation for never playing back-to-back hits in concert. They much prefer to mash up the old with the new. Singles often become difficult to recognise, so meticulously are they reworked with fresh instrumentals, riffs, and raps. Many of their songs are too long and elaborate for most mainstream radio stations, making the group’s success on the international stage even more impressive. Exuding the best of old school cool with their eclectic combo of soulful tunes, danceable beats, and electrifying instrumental solos, Fat Freddy’s Drop are a national treasure – true ambassadors of “Aotearoa roots music.”

Howard Davis is Scoop’s Arts Editor. Educated at Cambridge and UCLA, he worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles, and is now enjoying life in Wellington.

1 comment:

  1. Slow Boat Records, 23. October 2015, 13:40

    Brand new Fat Freddys Drop album “Bays” out today and here now on LP and CD!!