Live Review: Rhian Sheehan at Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Rhian Sheehan Wellington
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Rhian Sheehan

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Friday 12 October 2018

To say I was excited about this gig would be an understatement. Rhian Sheehan’s album Stories From Elsewhere is one of my favourite records. It helped me zone in as I wrote countless essays throughout university. It sets a calm and playful tone as I teach toddlers every day. It helps me unwind late at night, and makes me happy to be alive on sunny weekends.

Not to mention his other works. As a composer, Sheehan is prolific. I guess you have to be, if that’s what you do for a living. From his early electronica albums, to ambient soundtracks, to vivacious planetarium scores, to brand new album, A Quiet Divide, Sheehan’s works have never failed to inspire.

Arriving at my seat in the Michael Fowler Centre only increased the excitement. First off, it’s a great venue, known for brilliant acoustics, and especially suited to a show like this. Secondly, I’d bought tickets as soon as they came available, so had front row seats. Looking upon the stage sparked my imagination: drums, synths, a row of guitars, a grand piano, timpani drums, percussion rigs and an area for the string section. Such an array of instruments told of infinite possibilities.

As well as being a musical concert, it was also billed as a visual spectacular. The first thing that stood out was a prismatic disco ball hung above the stage. Three sheer mesh screens were draped from the ceiling, making a triangle around disco ball. A range of lights and multiple projectors were at the ready, and the room was slowly filling with atmospheric stage fog. Sheehan has been working with local special effects company Weta on a few projects recently, and in turn they’ve helped him to develop a visual show worthy of his music for these performances.

At 8pm the string section took their places, soon followed by Rhian Sheehan and the rest of the musicians. I recognised a few faces: Sheehan’s wife, Raashi Malik (formally of Rhombus), Steve Bremner from the recent The Adults show at Meow, Jakob guitarist Jeff Boyle, Ed Zuccollo with his signature mini-moog. A veritable star-studded line-up.

Golden lights bathed the stage in misty warmth. Strategically placed projectors shone images onto the mesh screens. The music – ah, such brilliant music – plays. Houston, we’ve hit Nirvana!

Of course it all looks incredible. The imagery varies greatly from song to song – sometimes as basic as geometric shapes, lines, boxes, pyramids… but always interesting. Images of spectral figures dancing about, of bustling cities; scenes of serene nature and of man-made destruction. Vast landscapes befitting of epic soundrack compositions. Ethereal animations alternate with powerful time-lapse footage. My favourite was “Soma Dreams”, which was similar to the video clip, with a flying whale, dancing woman and splashes of vibrant colour towards the end.

Of course the music was everything you’d hope for. Many of these songs have soundtracked my life for the past few years, and hearing them played live is electrifying. I write about mostly instrumental music on this blog, but seldom venture to the ambient or neo-classical end of the spectrum, so seeing a string section in a setting like this is a rare treat. And all the more interesting, with the electronic elements marrying the classical elements. Glitches and samples sat alongside harmonious swells. We heard wildly different versions of piano – with the traditional grand piano, and then the digital counterparts like synth and moog adding their own unique timbres. I appreciated little touches that deviate from the recordings – like Zucollo adding improvised solos on the moog, or the intense bass swells from the pedal-boosted cello – that made songs sparkle more in this setting.

This is evocative music. Songs that sweep you off your feet, grab you by the hand and tug you along on an adventure. Songs that explore the emotions that lie deep within the human psyche. Songs of beauty and joy. Samples of children’s music boxes and trickling streams, and busy traffic interplay with the music, grounding it and adding depth. This is the sound of magic.

The show was split into two sets, with a 20 minute intermission between. The first showed more new material, with fresh unseen visuals. The second set included more old video clips. The selection of music was diverse, with a good mix of old and new, studio songs and soundtrack work, and a few electronic tracks to spice up the sets. All up the show lasted two hours.

Rhain Sheehan is not a performer. He’s a studio musician who creates soundtracks for a living. But somehow he managed to bringing his other-worldly music to life in an unforgettable way, creating a audio-visual spectacle that completely enveloped the Michael Fowler Centre last night. I went in with high expectations, and left completely in awe.

 

Joseph James

Album Review: Tash Sultana – Flow State

Tash Sultana Flow State
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I often wonder about why certain artists are household names, and why some of the best musicians I can think of are virtually unheard of. It’s not a case of talent equating to fame. Many major stars don’t even write their own music.

The reason I bring this up is because Tash Sultana is huge, but has only just released her first album. One of my American friends suggested that I look her up when I was travelling last year. So I did. I dug her sound – chilled out songs that utilize looping pedals. Next thing I know, I’m seeing her name everywhere. She’s headlining festivals, and even sold out a sizable show here in Wellington [which I sadly missed] a few months ago. How has she made such a name for herself without even having an album out?

Let’s be clear: Sultana deserves the attention. Flow State is a great album, and is all the more impressive when you consider that Sultana recorded every instrument herself. Much like Drax Project, Sultana’s story began with busking on the streets, and has arrived at the point of her ascending to stardom.

Solo multi-instrumentalist albums are nothing new. Mike Oldfield is one of the more classic examples. A more recent high-profile example is Dave Grohl’s Play. And Will Not Fade has covered countless more such projects. But Sultana’s work falls into a different category, partly because she sings, but also because her entire feel and approach stands out as separate from the post/prog rockers. “Blackbird” heads in a different direction (think Kaki King or Rodrigo y Gabriela) but on this album Sultana owns a distinctive sound.

Sultana sets the mood instantly with album opener “Seed”. She shows us that she’s no stranger to guitar as her fingers dance upon the fretboard, masterfully conjuring notes rich in reverb. Her voice is just as great as her playing, transferring from angelic coos to smokey singing.

Lazy campfire strumming lays the base for “Big Smoke”, while a shuffled drum beat extends the laid back feel. Bright finger picking and a contrasting solo allow Sultana to show off the breadth of her guitar playing chops.

I cannot tell you why “Cigarettes” isn’t one of the singles, but in my mind it is undeniably the pinnacle of Flow State. The laid-back groove is simply sublime, but it’s not until we reach bridge that things begin to stand out. A jangly riff and fast paced drums come into play, before Sultana lets loose with a scorching solo that simply rips for a few minutes.

In fact, this appears to be the template for many of the tracks. Mellow for the most part, with a searing solo that emerges during the bridge.

The soundtrack-esque “Seven” is also one of the more interesting tracks. An early violin melody adds Oriental flavours, which stall for a piano segment that transforms into a tense ostinato, with ominous Godspeed vibes. This is a track that takes you on a journey, through a variety of interesting terrains.

“Free Mind” feels a lot different to many of the other songs. It still retains groove, but with synthetic sounding drums it sounds like it has been produced differently to the other tracks, and the polished feel doesn’t sit well alongside the others.

One could argue that an hour is slightly too much. The mellow style works, but isn’t the most memorable – especially when many of the songs seem to follow the same formula. But Sultana does enough to mix it up if you listen carefully. “Salvation” has organ sounds, “Mystik” features horns and sweet, sweet bass lines. “Mellow Marmalade” takes the campfire feel to a new level with acoustic guitar, while “Harvest Love” gives Sultana a chance to show us how well she can wail.

Summer is fast approaching this part of the world, and I can see this being the perfect soundtrack to a carefree day in the sun. But likewise, Sultana’s smokey singing and smooth playing could be just what you need to warm you up in less desirable weather.

Tash Sultana is the whole package. Whether rocking you to sleep with smooth lullabies, or setting you ablaze with furious riffing, she plays with masterful ability. And her voice complements the playing brilliantly. Flow State is worth your attention. Do yourself a favour and give it a listen.

 

Joseph James

Live Review & Photos: Listener at Valhalla, Wellington

Listener Au NZ tour poster
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Listener

w/ Yor Cronies and New Age Leper

Valhalla, Wellington

Wednesday 3 October 2018

In typical fashion, I missed the opening set tonight because I was ordering food [burgers that took an hour to come after we’d ordered, and were disappointingly inadequate – thanks Bristol!] So I cannot report on Yor Cronies’ set. I can, however comment on New Age Leper.

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In short, they were great. Hard rocking, drawing on a mix of styles, they impressed with their intense, wah-heavy jams. They collectively picked on Bjorn the singer, making jokes at his expense. All four members were fun to watch, but the best was seeing the lanky tumbleweed on guitar and synths, whose ‘fro bobbed up and down with his every movement. If they tighten up their set a bit by rehearsing more and cutting down on the time spent tuning between songs, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

Listener at Valhalla

Pre-show huddle

Listener precluded their set with a small pre-show ritual, the four of them gathering in front of the drums for a pep-talk to get into the right frame of mind. I’ve heard that on their rider, they request a personalised note of encouragement from each venue, which is so endearingly wholesome. It shows how much they value positivity.

They started off the set strong, with two of the heavier songs from recent album Being Empty: Being FilledNow I am a fan of Listeners early work, but this recent album really upped the ante, bringing the music to the forefront to match frontman Dan Smith’s impassioned vocals.

The quartet were firing on all cylinders, bringing such visceral energy to the foray that I was surprised at how big of an impact they made.

Listener at Valhalla

Dan Smith

Smith stood front and centre, barefoot and playing bass guitar. I see his poetic lyricism as one of the major factors that draw you into Listener’s music, and thankfully the mix was clear enough that we could hear most of his vocals. He stood half a foot back from the microphone, eyes closed and passionately swaying his head side to side as he sang.

Smith’s equally mustache-blessed partner Kris Rochelle injected life into the music from the drums. He was a wonder to watch, reaching up to hit cymbals set so high that they threatened to tip with every strike against them. I noticed that many songs featured steady continued beats on the bass drum, giving a throbbing urgency to the music that I hadn’t picked up on before. Apparently Rochelle recorded all the music of the recent album himself, so hats off to him not only for his drumming performance, but for his multi-talented musical abilities.

Tim Stickrod and Jon Terrey stood on either side, both on guitar. They helped to fill out the sound, be it frenzied, intense rock, or more sombre numbers.

Listener at Valhalla

Jon (L) and Kris (R)

After a few songs Smith stopped to thank us for the applause, before opening the floor for a Q&A sessions. Turns out Smith’s favourite colour is black – yes it is a colour – (I thought October was his favourite colour?), but no-one had decent questions worth addressing so the band delved back into their set.

Valhalla is traditionally Wellington’s venue for metal music, so it seemed like an odd choice for Listener to play. But on the night it seemed ideal. Size wise, it felt intimate for the 60-odd people present. The sound mix was great. And Listener rocked out more than I had anticipated, making them feel more suited to this heavy venue.

I was loving it. And looking around the crowd, others were gaining something special from the night as well. I noticed a few people mouthing along to Smiths busy dialogue for Wooden Heart era songs, clearly feeling a connection.

The set drew from new and old, heavy and mellow. I was certainly moving along to some of the more rocky songs, and completely immersed in the stories of the more solemn songs. Songs like “Seatbelt Hands” are real tearjerkers, but “It Will All Happen the Way It Should” took the pain and rawness to the next level . And when Smith brought his trumpet out for a few songs it felt so perfect.

Listener at Valhalla

Fantastic music, riveting performance, immersive showmanship. You can tell that these guys have paid their dues gaining experience on the road. There were no encores; Listener are not a band of pretense. But they were extremely gracious, and happily gave their time to all who chose to linger around to chat to the band after the show. I had a total blast and feel more enriched for having attended.

Listener at ValhallaListener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla Listener at Valhalla

 

Words and photos by Joseph James

Stayin’ Gold: An Interview With Lookin Up’s Luke Cooper

Lookin Up
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New York hardcore legends Gorilla Biscuits came to New Zealand back in 2015. A group of us from Wellington all pitched in to rent a van and drove up for the gig. It was a great trip, with positive vibes and fun times all round. The show was a total blast. It was also where I first saw Lookin Up play, who had a supporting slot.

Lookin Up also played at Declaration AD’s final show, which was also an amazing night. It was bittersweet, because Declaration AD had been a huge part of my life for the past five years, and this show signaled the end of an era. But it was also the best night, with so many people coming together to celebrate their legacy.

And I’m sure I’ve seen Lookin Up a few other times – sometimes with a line-up of smaller NZ hardcore bands, and sometimes opening for bigger names like Turnstile. But those shows I just mentioned are the two that stand out for me. Every time I saw them, I remember being impressed by the intensity, positivity, and the sheer fun nature of their sets.

Lookin Up are releasing their second album, Gold, on Friday 5th October, so I had a chat with Luke Cooper to hear about recent changes the band have gone through, the new album, and touring around the world.

Will Not Fade: Lookin Up have dropped off the radar for a while. Now you’re back, with a new album and a different lineup. Talk me through what you’ve been up to.

Luke Cooper: Oh man, we have been up to so much. A few days after the Rise Against show in December 2015, Rowan and Levi told us they were leaving, so we knew the Turnstile tour in January 2016 will be our last shows with that line up. Jamie and I were thinking about whether or not we wanted to carry on and decided to take the rest of 2016 off to reset. I continued to write and by the end of 2016 we were ready to go again. We spent most of 2017 building the band up again in the rehearsal room  and at the start of this year we had over 20 songs that we were proud of. We were ready to get back to playing shows again, so we booked the NZ tour and then headed off to Europe to record the new songs and play a bunch of shows.

Are you still playing Reborn material, or did that era of the band finish when Rowan and Levi left?

Yeah definitely, we still really like that album and all of those songs are fun to play, so I don’t think we will ever stop playing at least a few of them. We wrote the new songs to intentionally integrate the 2 albums into our set and all the new songs are a natural progression from what were we doing in Reborn.

You’ve been through a number of lineup changes over the past few years. What were the key things you were looking for when trying to find new members to join the band?

Yeah, we had a really good dynamic and understanding with Rowan and Levi. When we first started the band, we set some goals and achieved every single one of them. This got us to a point where we either had to start investing a lot more time and finances into international touring or to just call it a day. Rowan had already been there with a bunch of other bands and he and Levi both didn’t want to commit in the way that they knew they needed too. Jamie and I still believed in what we were doing and saw potential in it, so they encouraged us to keep going.

Since we had already done over 4 years of ground work, we needed to find people who were ready to take the next steps with us. This has taken a few different combinations of people to really work out, but with Chow on board we are good to go.

Dylan’s nickname is Chow Ming. I remember this being super confusing when I first met him. Have you got any funny stories about this?

Haha yes it was very confusing. I remember when Chow changed his name on Facebook and lost hundreds of friends because no one knew who Dylan Stubbins was. Back when he was in Blameless and they toured with my old band Punisher, we played in Christchurch and took the ferry down. On the ferry ticket I listed his name as Chow Ming, because I was so used to calling him that, and he had to get a note from his mum saying that he although his ID says Dylan Stubbins, he is Chow Ming also hahaha

Do you ever dress the same to be cool onstage? Just wondering if a Brave Sons influence rubbed off.

Oh yeah man, Brave Sons are the reason we started playing music. 

You recorded Gold in Norway. Why Norway?

Once we had an albums worth of new songs, we started looking at recording options. I have a studio at home and it would have been really easy to just record it there and do what we have always done. But we wanted to try something new, so I typed into google “Cool recording studios” and a picture of Ocean Sound Recordings popped up. It was one of the most insane things I had ever seen. I contacted the studio manager, it turned out to be affordable and we started to plan our year around that. Since we were already in Europe, we decided to play some shows so I reached out to a bunch of promoters and booking agents and made it happen. 

How long are your sets? I have 23 minutes of Lookin Up music on my computer. How much music do you need (duration-wise) to warrant touring?

Haha with Rowan and Levi our sets were about 15 mins of pure carnage but that was enough for those sorts of shows. With the new album we have built more of a sustainable set and can play up to around 45 mins if we need too. I think that if you are supporting a show and can cram 9 insane songs into a 15 min set, it helps people remember your band without burning everyone out before the headliners come on.

What happened to the 2017 demos? (“Break” and “Proud”).

Oh yes, we got restless for a month or so and with the line up we had at the time, we recorded those 2 songs and booked a few shows. That line up didn’t last very long so we took them down and re-worked them. A new version of “Proud” is on Gold 

I’ve tagged along with bands on tour around NZ, America and Europe. All offered vastly different experiences. Can you tell me about your favourite places to play, and why?

My favourite place to play was Aarhus in Denmark. The venue was a youth building, a lot like Zeal and we had driven 6 hours from Netherlands to be there. We weren’t expecting much but it was one of the best responses we have seen as a band. We ended up getting about 100 Euro for the show and didn’t have to eat stale bread and apples for dinner again hahaha 

I’m sure that you have played a wild range of venues. Are there any unusual ones that stand out?

We played a café in Prague where the show was free and the café was open to members of the public. People brought their dogs and children in to get dinner and had to deal with some of the loudest most aggressive music you can imagine. The toilet was right next to the stage and I remember young kids and old people walking right past me terrified and blocking their ears all night. No one spoke English either so it was really interesting working out what to do in between songs.

A world tour of 100 shows is a big commitment. What strategies do you have in place to stay sane on the road?

There will be a whole lot of kick boxing sparring, a whole lot of jiu jitsu a whole lot of bombs [I assume Luke means jumping into water here] and a whole lot of Astrid S and Sigrid in the van. If everyone in the van gets in a routine and eats well, its pretty easy to stay sane on the road.

Lookin Up

Image: Dylan Gerschwitz

Luke, are you and Jamie brothers? How does this affect the band dynamic?

Oh yes we are, its one of the worst things you can ever imagine. I definitely would not recommend it.

 Is music a viable career in 2018? Can you break even – or better yet – make a living as a musician? I know that you are an engineer, and do recording and mixing for a living, Luke. What about the other guys?

I think a career in music is more viable now than ever. Bands definitely aren’t selling as many albums as they used too but they are all making way more money touring than ever before. Like every industry in the world, you have to work hard and make wise choices. At the moment we all have other jobs that enable us to pay our bills, fund the band and generally be functioning members of society. But we wont need to do that for much longer and we have every intention of making this as financially viable as possible.

What has been your highlight to date? And what are you most looking forward to?

That trip to Europe on the whole was an incredible experience. We learned a lot about our selves and what is actually possible as a band and we came back from it with a defined sense of direction. Writing and recording an album is a massive strain on time and energy so we are really looking forward to playing as many shows as possible in as many places as we can.

 Tell me about Gold

Gold is 11 bangas that we have been working on for the last year. There are some songs that will confuse people and some songs that are reminiscent of the Reborn era. We got our friend Greg Haver to help produce the songs, his engineer Brendan Davies came with us to Norway and was an absolute wizard. Tom Lord Alge mixed the 3 singles and helped me out with the remaining songs and Ryan Smith at Sterling Sound mastered the album. Everything sounds exactly as we intended and we couldn’t be happier. We can’t wait for people to hear it.

 I really dig the two singles I’ve heard so far. “Don’t” has a mean groovy riff. And I love how the vocals on “Enough” alternate between sounding strong and distant. It’s quite moody but at the same time direct. Neither song is as heavy as your early material, but I am thoroughly enjoying them.

Thanks man, we spent a lot of time working on structured song writing and arrangement of those songs and wanted to record them as well as possible. Recorded, they aren’t as trashy as Reborn but live they are some of the heaviest songs we have ever written.

 What is the key message that you hope people hear as they listen to your music?

We just want people to leave our shows feeling better about their lives in general. We focus on positive messages with our lyrics but everything is open to interpretation.   

Do you ever get the urge to have Joel Little produce you so you can become the next Lorde? [Rowan who used to sing for Lookin Up was in the band Goodnight Nurse with Little]

Hahaha absolutely, watch this space…

Can you please list your favourite dog breeds?

Bonobo Chimpanzee


Lookin Up are releasing Gold on Friday October 5th, with a NZ tour taking place in October and November, and international tour to follow.

Lookin Up Gold Tour Poster

Lookin Up are:

Jamie Cooper – Lead Vocals / Bass
Luke Cooper – Guitar / Backing Vocals
Dylan Stubbins – Drums

Lookin Up links:

www.facebook.com/lookinuplookinup
www.instagram.com/lookinupnz
www.youtube.com/channel/UCcr6h3zhC8ojBAfLZET5z6Q/videos
www.lookinup.bandcamp.com
https://open.spotify.com/artist/54bc4MYPlOY1WdwmiAbfGS?si=r4kRMnh_QIqixWO-e8e1DA
https://itunes.apple.com/nz/artist/lookin-up/1406543174

 

Interview by Joseph James

Photos by Dylan Gerschwitz

Live Review: Amy Shark at Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Amy Shark Love Monster NZ tour poster
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Amy Shark

w/ Neil MacLeod

Hunter Lounge, Wellington

Saturday 15 September 2018

 

Hot off the sold-out Australian leg of her Love Monster tour, Amy Shark stood onstage, silhouetted by a powerful spotlight, softly picking at her guitar strings. The stark lighting looked fantastic, revealing a shadowed figure opening her soul to Wellington.

Possibly a risky move, opening with the last track from her album – and a slow burner at that. Usually artists tend to choose high energy – or at least more popular – songs to kick off their sets with impact. But when the bridge hit… when the drums and synth smashed their way into play… when the strobes began to flash… when Shark shook off the meekness and bellowed into the microphone… we knew that we were in good hands.

Keeping the mood up with the boppy “Blood Brothers” from last year’s Night Thinker EP, she presented us with the chance to dance – the first of many throughout the night.

Shark stood front and centre, rocking her trademark look of a sweatsuit jacket with her hair half in a loose topknot, and half down. She was flanked by drums to the left and a musician switching between guitar and synth to the right. A backdrop of Shark’s portrait was at the rear of the stage, with an intermediate sheer banner emblazoned with the word AMY stretched between the musicians and the backdrop.

I had wondered how Shark’s music would translate live. A lot of her songs have programmed samples, and I didn’t even know if she would have a band joining her. Things sounded great as a three-piece though. Shark played guitar during many songs, switching between acoustic and electric. The drummer had both a standard set up and a Roland trigger pad. And the guitarist played synth at times. They obviously used backing tracks for some parts too.

The crowd screamed with approval as Shark mentioned her lifelong infatuation with the band Blink 182, knowing that this meant Shark was playing “Psycho”, which features Mark Hoppus. She switched to an acoustic guitar, deftly picking the melody as she cooed into the microphone.

One point that I feel compelled to touch on is that the volume wasn’t too loud. I always wear earplugs to protect my ears, given the amount of gigs I attend, but I took them out for a period to compare, and the levels sounded quite adequate, and not excessive.

The Hunter Lounge wasn’t quite at full capacity, but the passionate crowd made it feel full. And Shark reciprocated the love. One can never tell whether an artist actually loves the audience they’re playing to, or is paying the same lip service every show, but Shark appeared to have formed a real connection tonight. She playfully interacted with the crowd, allowing a small group to start a Baby Shark (do do do do…) chant, and stating how she hates the meaningless pantomime of encores, but obliging tradition regardless.

Shark walked us through her career, taking the time to share anecdotes that explained meanings behind certain songs.The best was when she imitated a NZ accent, playing out a funny phone conversation between a former [Kiwi] boyfriend and his mother. 

Shark was at pains to highlight that she has flaws, and wants her songwriting to reflect that. This vulnerability she demonstrated helped her connect with the crowd.

One surprise highlight was a cover of Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag”, which prompted the biggest singalong of the night, as everyone joined in on the nostalgic trip.

I found the choice of set list fascinating, with intimate ballads alternating against high energy hits. But the audience was with her each step of the way, eagerly clinging onto every word.There were no surprises for the end of the show, with Shark playing three of her biggest hits: “Weekends”, “Adore” and “I Said Hi”, which is a certified banger. She may have started out softly, but she certainly ended on a major high.

It was a brilliant night, filled with great music, awesome lights, and a sense of community. As I left the venue I noticed that my cheeks hurt from smiling so much. 

Amy Shark set list Hunter Lounge Wellington

Joseph James