Ngā Tamatoa Waiata: An Interview With Alien Weaponry

Alien Weaponry

Alien Weaponry are not your standard band. The three of them – brothers Henry (drums) & Lewis de Jong (guitar and vocals), and Ethan Trembath (bass) – are all still at highschool. They are also known for their unique brand of thrash metal delivered in both English and Māori. Singing in Te Reo sets them apart, but is by no means a gimmick. The music not only stands up on its own, but it crushes. After gaining success in two national music competitions, the trio have begun to garner notoriety, and are now booked to tour Australia and Europe in the near future.  

After a string of relentlessly good singles, they are working towards recording their début album, which they are using Indiegogo to help raise funds for. I’ve wanted to interview them for a while, and I figure that now is a great time to do so, catching them on the cusp of the next stages of their success.

Alien Weaponry

Image: Lisa Crandall

Will Not Fade: How are you at the moment?

Alien Weaponry: We are absolutely hammered by media requests but it’s a great problem to have and are so grateful that people seem to like what we are doing and want to write about it. It’s very humbling.

Do you ever expect to get far in Rockquest and Pacifica Beats, considering the nature of your music?

In all honesty we totally expected to fail and be hated at Rockquest. Looking at videos of other years finals we couldn’t find any metal at all and entered as much to make a statement about what we wanted to do with no expectation of winning anything. It took a few years but to their credit Smokefree Rockquest embraced what we were doing and the rest is history. I think the turning point was when we entered Pacifica Beats (also run by Rockquest) and decided to write a song in Māori for that. Some mates had entered in to Pacifica Beats two years earlier and they were a ska band and they won so we thought let’s get noticed and enter a thrash metal song. We fully expected to get noticed but not win. We won, go figure.

Do you feel like a success story? You already have tours lined up overseas before you’ve even finished school.

It’s pretty exciting really, yeah it’s happening fast now. People think of it a bit as overnight success but we have been together now for six years and we have spent plenty of nights playing in pubs around NZ to small audiences. It’s really hard to get your name out there. We are real happy it’s happening now. The European thing is happening faster than we expected. We fully had a goal to be playing at festivals like Wacken Open Air in Germany and thought we might achieve that by the time Henry was 20. It’s crazy to be doing that shit next year – it’s booked and happening! We have five festivals already and counting. We were approached by a big festival promoter in Europe straight after we released “Rū Ana Te Whenua”. A friend of his had seen it and showed it to him on his iPhone at the airport in Athens … next thing he is messaging us on Facebook offering us a slot … Crazy. We are now signed to German music agency Das Maschine.

What are the biggest struggles of being in the band? Does age factor into it?

Not really our age, although we do have to go to school and that can be a major drag when we are trying to get band stuff done. On the other hand it gives us a context for writing songs about frustration and conflict. We have occasionally had people write us off as a “school band” without ever hearing us but that’s not much of a problem anymore. We are obliged to have our parents or legal guardians with us at all times on tour because of the legal stuff with licences venues so that’s a bit dumb sometimes but they are not really a problem and they are a good support when we need it. I think now that we are all over six-foot tall the “little kids” tag line can finally be shaken off.

Does it make it easier or harder having two brothers in the band?

It’s both. You go from wanting to punch each other hard to understanding exactly what they are trying to do or say with songwriting. We haven’t had a serious punch up in a while now but we do get on each other’s nerves. Living in the same house makes rehearsal easier but it’s hard to get away when you need peace. In the end we will always come to an understanding because we are brothers. We can be pretty rude to each other though at times.

Many of your songs reference stories from Aotearoa history. Are these stories something you grew up with, or do you actively seek it out?

We know most of these stories from our dad and stuff he told us when we were kids. He used to point out landmarks and important Māori battle sites when ever we went on a road trip. He has a lot of books too. A history of Te Arawa has some mean as stories in it about early Māori conflict with English settlement. We are from Ngati Pikiao so the Te Arawa stories are often about our tīpuna. Now we live in Northland (Ngāpuhi) we are learning more about the northern conflicts and songs like “Urutaa” are partly about Northland events.

Obviously, as well as honoring your tīpuna with these stories, there is underlying political subtext. What are some key messages you want to share with your listeners?

It’s hard to grow up in a Māori speaking whanau and attend a Kura Kaupapa without having your eyes opened to the recent history of this country. Anyone learning our recent history will in some way or other adopt an activist mentality. It’s inevitable. We try not to be one-sided and songs like our upcoming song “Kai Tangata” tell the story of Māori on Māori conflict and the musket wars. It’s important to say it as it is. talking about the difficult and ugly subjects is what thrash metal does well.

I think it is awesome that you sing in Te Reo Māori. It’s like combining the passion of haka with the heaviness of metal. What prompted you to sing bilingually?

As we said earlier we had mates who had entered Pacifica beats, They are in a band called Strangely Arousing. They had also entered in Rockquest as a band called Aftershock. As Aftershock they played metal and we thought they were cool. They made it to the finals one year but won Pacifica beats as Strangely Arousing and playing as a ska band and it got us thinking what if they had entered as a metal band. It came naturally for us to write a song fully in Māori, it was a no brainer, we didn’t even really think about it we just did it.

I saw a Wireless video that involved you playing a koauau [a traditional Māori flute]. Are you planning on integrating some traditional instrumentation that one wouldn’t expect to find in metal music?

Yeah we have already recorded an intro to “Rū Ana Te Whenua” that will probably end up on the album version. We recorded it last year in the Waipu caves. Tom Larkin came up with a mobile recording setup and we went out to the caves. We had to do several takes cause tourists kept coming through. They must have thought we were nuts doing this stuff deep underground. The reverb is awesome though and total organic. Sounds wicked with the koauau and purerehua.

Ethan, I read that you scored your spot in the band because you could play ukelele. Are we going to hear you thrashing it out on uke for any songs on the album?

Nah probably not. I have just landed a sponsorship with Spector basses in the USA so unless they do an electric Spector uke then i can’t see it happening.

Do you have other contemporaries who sing in Te Reo? This is something I haven’t come across much – or at least within rock music.

We have met heaps of Māori guys in metal bands but non singing in Te Reo. Johnny from Amachine is a pretty wicked Māori speaker too and an awesome guitarist, We played with them a couple of years back. Average Mars Experience have Māori guys too. Wicked musos. They are an instrumental band but these guys should fully do some Māori metal.

What has your reception been like in other countries? Does it compare to how we listen to bands like Rammstein? I played your songs to many of my friends when travelling in America recently and most people loved it.

Yeah we have been overwhelmed by the number of positive comments from fans all around the world. Metal is a good genre for “foreign language singing” I think as the vocals are often more of an instrument than in other genres. Really we have nothing negative coming back at all. We do sing a lot of stuff in English too so yeah something for everyone I guess.

You have some creative options for your Indiegogo campaign. Who came up with the idea of jumping into the Waipu river?

When we first looked at the crowdfunding thing we looked at what other bands were doing and a Polish metal band was offering to immerse themselves in the freezing cold swamp behind their house. I guess the Waipu river is our swamp, but cleaner.

What’s it like working with Tom Larkin? I’m a diehard Shihad fan.

He is a hard man. We mean that in a good way and he is really good at calling bullshit if he thinks things are not going as they should or reaching full potential. As a drummer he worked a lot on Henry’s drum technique and is a perfectionist. We have another producer also working with us and it will be interesting to compare their production styles.

What can we expect from the upcoming album? I’m loving the singles that you already have out.

We have a bunch of new material written after “Rū Ana Te Whenua”. Some of it in Māori like “Kai Tangata” and quite a lot in English too like “Holding My Breath” and “Cult of Sanitised Warfare”. We are pretty excited to be going into the studio next month to finish it off. We will probably be doing some Facebook live streams from our sessions too.

What are some of your career highlights to date?

We have had so much happen to us lately. Being included in the lineup for Soundsplash is pretty awesome given we will be the first ever metal band to play there. We have a number of cross genre festivals coming up over the summer. Also we are booked on some huge European metal festivals next year. The high light as of today must be the Apra Silver Scroll Maioha Award. That was so unexpected and such a privilege.

And what are your upcoming goals for the future?

We would really like to be in a situation where we are doing this full-time as a living. Touring the world and being recognised for our unique approach to metal. It would be cool to think we had inspired a younger generation not only to get into music but into te reo Māori too.

Alien Weaponry

Image: Lisa Crandall

Alien Weaponry are currently raising funds to record their début album. To support them check out their Indiegogo account:

Alien Weaponry links:



Joseph James.

All photos supplied, taken by Lisa Crandall.

Thanks to Niel Hammerhead for setting this up.

Interview: Judith Hoorens – We Stood Like Kings

We Stood Like Kings USA 1982

We Stood Like Kings are a Brussels-based post-rock quartet who specialise in re-imagining scores for silent films. Their upcoming album, USA 1982 (out 22 September 2017 on Kapitän Platte), was written to accompany American cult movie Koyaanisqatsi, directed by Godfrey Reggio. The film explores the imbalance of nature when mankind takes over. The original film was scored by Phillip Glass, so Judith Hoorans explains why her band decided to write music to fit something that already has a soundtrack.

Hi Judith. How are you?

Hi Joseph. I’m absolutely fine, thank you. Happy to be here!

Tell me about your personal musical journey. How long have you been playing piano and when did you first discover post-rock?

I started playing piano as a child. My parents really wanted their three children to have a musical education, so we didn’t really have a choice. I first learned violin, before figuring out it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I remember being very afraid of my teacher. Then I switched to piano. It’s only later, in my late teenage years , that I became conscious of how much music meant to me and that I could do something worthy with it. It’s about at the same time that I discovered post-rock through a good friend of mine. The first band I really enjoyed was Caspian.

How did We Stood Like Kings come to exist?

I’ve known Mathieu, our drummer, since a very long time. We were both students at the same boarding school in Aalst, a little Flemish town located between Brussels and Ghent. Our supervisor loved music a lot and even provided us with a rehearsal room. We started writing pop songs, playing covers. A few years later, we had lost sight of each other but met again by chance, almost literally bumping into each other at university. That’s when I let him hear some post-rock, and he was totally up for it. We started a new band, and over the years, We Stood Like Kings took shape with Colin on bass and Phil on guitars.

Who is your favourite film director and why?

I don’t really have a favorite film director. I’m not a movie know-it-all, I like to enjoy good movies and I don’t really watch them the way that I like listen to music (which I do in a more professional way, you might say, paying attention to meter changes, tonalities, etc.). The best movies for me are the ones which make you forget all the things you have to take care of.

What process does We Stood Like Kings go through when deciding which films you’d like to cover?

Of course we watch a lot of movies, and at some point, it becomes obvious which one we should choose. I guess we discussed the choice of Koyaanisqatsi for like, 5 minutes. Our second project for Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World was a bit more tricky, because we knew that the movie was a difficult one and would raise many questions from the audience due to its political nature.

We Stood Like Kings

One your website you include a quote from Godfrey Reggio that includes the sentence “Copies are copies of copies”. How well do you think this applies to your current project?

The way I would interpret your question is that in my opinion, nothing is ever really new. We are all different but identical at the same time. Though I would say that we have consciously chosen a musical direction that was different from Philip Glass’ approach. Bands are always inspired by other art forms, be it music or other kinds of art, and there are always many others doing stuff that’s close to what you do. The only way to make it really personal is to put all your soul in it. Trying to create something to really resonates within you. Therefore you have to find what’s yours and not someone else’s and use it as your strength.  

You’ve covered Berlin, USSR – two lost empires.  And now you’ve chosen the USA. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes definitely. We had the idea of making a kind of trilogy on the subject of fragile empires. BERLIN 1927 is like a snapshot of Berlin right before the outbreak of World War II. USSR 1926 shows a glimpse of the Soviet empire at the height of its power. It was only logical to focus on the USA, the Western lifestyle and how it came to its actual form thanks to the technological evolution of the last decades. How knows how it’s going to end?

How does copyright factor into what you do, seeing as you are playing music to match other artists works?

We certainly have to handle copyrights. The two movies from the 20s are still protected by what you call “screening rights”, which we have to pay for each screening of the movie to the Film Museum who has restored to movie and commercialized it on DVD. For Koyaanisqatsi, we have made an agreement also. Of course it’s never free to use existing movies and one should be really careful about this to avoid bad surprises.

Have you ever received feedback from people who were involved in the films you write soundtracks to? And were you in contact with Phillip Glass at all during this process?

Well, not for our first two albums obviously, because the people who made them are dead now. We have not been in contact with Philip Glass. But we have recently sent our soundtrack to the directing team of Koyaanisqatsi. We are eagerly awaiting their feedback, that’s the least we can say.

Last year was the anniversary for the battle of Somme. I watched a documentary about it which was filmed during the the battle, and a live orchestra played the score in time with the film. Do We Stood Like Kings do something similar?

Yes, it’s what we do. We play live, below the screen, while the movie is playing and we are synchronizing our music with it. Of course there’s just 4 of us and not a whole orchestra!

This work has taken We Stood Like Kings a whole year to write. Talk me through the writing process.

Of course the first step is to choose a movie to work on. That took us quite a long time, as we had to watch tons of silent movies before finally coming across Koyaanisqatsi. But it was love at first sight. Once the choice is made, the next step is to watch it over and over again while trying to decide which overall mood fits in which part. Of course you have to split it up in different parts, and that might be a bit tricky as we have to take into account the fact that the album’s going to be released as an LP (which can’t hold more than around 20 minutes per side).

The musical writing process itself has taken us about a year. It’s a kind a puzzle really. You’ve got ideas and you have to make them match the length of the movie scene you are working on. We can’t just let ourselves be carried away by the music. Some songs were very easy to write, other have taken us months. I think one of the oldest songs we started working on, “Night Owl”, was one of the last songs to be finished. We just tried out dozens of different versions of that one before we felt satisfied.

The album features 11 songs. Had you considered writing a seamless, feature length track instead?

In fact, the album is divided into 11 songs but live, they flow seamlessy into one another. I think it’s much easier to fit in today’s standards to have separate tracks. Movie soundtracks released on CD are also always divided into tracks.

You recently featured one of your songs from the upcoming album on the Open Language Volume II comp that our friends at A Thousand Arms put out. Has this help you reach a new audience?

Yes, we definitely reached new people by being on the compilation. We were also thrilled by the review from Heavy Blog Is Heavy. They seemed to have enjoyed the track a lot.

How are you feeling about the upcoming tour you have planned?

Obviously we are incredibly excited. We just came home from the first 6 shows of the tour. These shows were a kind of test because we’ve added a new light show to our set. Technically, there were a lot of new things to take care of, but it was a success and we’ll carry on that way for the whole tour. We’re super happy to visit a few new countries and cities we’ve never been before, like Ljubljana in Slovenia for instance. We’ve planned several shows in Eastern Europe too, for which we got help from Colossal Bookings. Were looking forward to these as well.

The message of this silent film is implict, rather than overt. Post-rock and instrumental music in general is also often up to the listener’s interpretation. Do you feel confident that your music matches the themes of the film well enough?

Of course, you can’t discuss taste and it’s up to every single person to decide whether our music fits the themes of film. Obviously, we hope that we succeeded to give the movie, which we love so much and has influenced so many directors, a new breath and approach. Our goal is not to try to replace Philip Glass, we simply were so touched by the images that we wanted to express musically the feelings that the movie had stirred in us.

After a show, a woman has written us that she felt our music was more hopeful than the original soundtrack. That it made her believe that our world might still as well be saved. Because if there is no hope, there is no point, right?

You are planning on releasing this album on CD and vinyl, as well as digitally through Kapitän Platte. Do you think the music is best listened to on its own, or with visuals supporting it?

I think we wanted to make music that both would stand on its own and mix up with the screening in a way that wouldn’t be too disturbing for someone wanting to “watch a movie”. For me, the ideal setting for this project is a venue with comfortable seats, a big screen and a nice stage. It’s really meant to be half-concert, half-screening. If people just want to see a movie, they should go to the movies, not the a movie concert. I guess the balance changes in every venue but we definitely don’t hide behind the screen.  

We Stood Like Kings are currently touring Europe to promote USA 1982. Head along to and click “shows” for more information regarding dates and locations.

We Stood Like Kings links:






Beats, Collab Dreams, and The Hawaiian Shirt Mafia – An interview with Jamal of SWIDT


SWIDT (See What I Did There) is on the rise. A 5 man Hip-Hop collective from Onehunga, Auckland, they enjoyed huge success with their début album ‘SmokeyGotBeatz Presents “SWIDT vs EVERYBODY”’ which was nominated for the “Critic’s Choice Award” and won the “Best Urban/Hip Hop” Album of the year at last year’s VNZMA.

They have just released ‘Close One’, the third instalment in a new 4 Part series focusing on the guys teenage years growing up in Onehunga.

The first instalment, Alfred & Church was produced by Tae Beast of Digi+Phonics (Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q). At the time of the interview, part 2 “Little Did She Know” was their latest release, a reflection of the trouble they would get up to behind their mothers’ backs.

In my first interview for Will Not Fade, I was lucky enough to have a quick chat with Jamal, a rapper/producer in the group that also includes producer SmokeyGotBeatz, rap duo SPYCC & INF and Boomer-Tha-GOD.

After connecting on how relatable “Little Did She Know” was (and reminiscing on the punishment when we got caught) we talked about SWIDT’s process for choosing a beat and theme for each track.

Jamal: We just sit there and go through each beat, and we only use the beats that everyone likes. Because we like to have a feeling, if one person’s not feeling it for a reason, then we don’t [use it], it’s not the one. Our main process is just getting together and vibing out, and the subject always come from how we’re feeling at the time.

Jayden: It must be so easy for you guys.

Jamal: I think it is, because we’re talking about ourselves, we’re not trying to be something else.

Jayden: You guys came up together right?

Jamal: Yeah, all of us grew up in the same hood. I met these guys later on down the track. These guys have known each other since the age of 4 or 5, and I met them when i was 16, we all went to the same school, all knew the same people. It was a connection that was too easy to not work with, we just banded together so easily. We weren’t even meant to be proper artists, but that’s how everything fell into place, and it just worked really well. We’ve been making music for years, it’s an organic thing that’s happened and we’re riding with it.

Jayden: Does it feel surreal, how fast you guys are blowing up?

Jamal: BRO. Hard out man. I’m still living normally, and I get family and friends coming up to me saying “You’re doing so well” and I’m like “Are we?” it just feels normal, we’re just trying to make music. Because we’ve been putting out music for so long, but we’re doing it as a crew now, and it’s getting a lot more recognition. We always sit back like “Man, this is cool!”

We talk about the 4 part series, and I compare it to drip feeding the mixtape that always comes before the album. He agrees, suggesting that it may be a first in New Zealand rap.

I grew up around music and wanting to do music, and like any budding artist I would dream about people I’d like to work with. So I’m always curious if already established artists feel the same way. The answer is obvious for Jamal: Kendrick Lamar.

Jamal: He’s at the pinnacle of his career right now, to work with him would be an experience.

Jayden: Imagine writing with him, just being in the studio, understanding his process.

Jamal: The way his music works, it’s not normal, it’s an actually well thought out process, there’s a reason why he’s making every song.

We discuss Kendrick’s new album Damn, and it’s ranking against his other albums. Jamal puts Damn in at 2nd, behind Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, which I strongly agree with.

Jamal: I’m a producer, and I put beats first, I’m not that great at understanding lyrics, and when I heard Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, I could listen to it from start to finish and not skip a song. That’s rare in albums these days.

Other dream collaborations were Prince and Andre 3000 (of Outkast). I though Andre 3000 was an interesting choice so I asked him to elaborate.

Jamal: Growing up, we really listened to music in the 2000’s, because we were born in the 90’s, Outkast and Dipset (The Diplomats). And it was cool because Outkast was a duo of rappers, and Dipset had rappers and producers, and we connected with that so well. Even to this day we still look at things the way they would. Like fashion, Dipset had the whole New York swagger, and we have the Hawaiian Shirts.

Remembering that they sometimes refer to themselves as The Hawaiian Shirt Mafia, I asked him about the colourful Pacific Island shirts they are often seen wearing.

Jamal: We’re pacific people, so why not show off pacific visuals to an audience that don’t understand why Islander people wear Hawaiian shirts. They’re mean colours, mean to wear, and I think they popping now. I’ve seen people releasing Hawaiian patterned clothing in popular stores like Hallensteins, and it’s crazy, we didn’t think they would pop, we just wanted to wear them because that was us.

But it’s true, pacific printed clothing is starting to trend again, and I commend him on the timely fashion choice.

SWIDT links:






Vice feature:

Cult of Personality: An interview with Will Calhoun (Living Colour)

Will Calhoun of Living Colour. Image: Andre Betts

Will Calhoun laughs when I tell him how old I am. I was only three years old when his band Living Colour split back in 1995. I explain to him that because of this, Living Colour isn’t a known name within my peer group. However many of my friends do recognise their hit song “Cult of Personality” because of its inclusion in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He’s delighted by this.

“It feels great,” he tells me, “I have to say that I’m quite thrilled that it has transcended the rock and roll arena and has branched off into other arenas. It’s nice that the song transcended the music industry – which has come into an interesting phase – and is getting into the gaming industry and into television shows.”

Living Colour formed in New York in 1984, offering a unique fusion of politically charged rock, funk, jazz and metal. The band rose to fame, touring with rock heavyweights like Rolling Stones and Guns n Roses. They parted ways in 1995 with three records under their belt, but thankfully in 2000 the band regrouped. They are visiting Australia and New Zealand on tour in May and have a new record, Shade due out later in the year.

Despite the amount of time passed since Living Colour were at the height of prominence, the themes of their music remain as current as ever. Calhoun shares how the band wrote their biggest hit, ‘Cult of Personality’.

“We wrote that song in 1988. The fact that people still love it [is great]. I think it still sounds relevant today.

“The four of us have very strong ideals about the world and we talk about them. ‘Cult of Personality’ was written while we were setting up for a rehearsal. The topic of discussion was: what makes people follow people? What makes people follow Hitler, or Ghandi, or Dr King? Or Medgar Evers or John F. Kennedy? What is it about what someone is saying, or their charisma – that personality – that makes people want to follow them? And that was the conversation. And we were wondering: is it the same thing? Is it the same thing that made people follow Ghandi that made people follow Hitler? What are those intrinsic values? What are those definitions? How do you, as a person, identify with that person’s dialogue?

“And that was how the song was written. Vernon played a riff. I played a beat. And next we knew we had a song. All while we were setting up for sound check.”

Living Colour’s most recent release is an EP that centres around a cover of Notorious BIG’s song ‘Who Shot Ya?’. This track, along with another cover of Robert Johnsons ‘Preachin’ Blues’, are due to appear on Shade. I ask if there is a process that Living Colour go through to select songs to cover. Calhoun stops to think.

“We just covered ‘We Are Afraid Of Americans’ by David Bowie and I’ve been a fan of that song for so many years and it just felt so great to play it. We just cover songs we like as a band. We choose songs based on relevance to us, but often it is just playing homage to the person. It’s about paying respect to a person who, in our opinion, has done a creative amount of great work.

“As for Biggie Smalls… Corey Glover, our singer, is a massive fan of Biggie. Most of his hit songs he can rap to by heart. But it’s the impact. When you think of Robert Johnson verses Biggie… I just love that Living Colour has this wide open variety of songs to choose from. There’s no formula. We just pick what we like and we fool around with it and change the arrangement while still paying respect to the artist.”

So we already know two songs – both covers – appearing on Shade. Calhoun says that the rest of the record is the same Living Colour we know and love, but updated for 2017. He also adds that he loves the social commentary on the album.

He corrects me when I ask if the issues that the Black community faced 20-30 years ago are still the same today. He’s not rude, but informative. Clearly he is passionate about the themes that his band explore.

“These songs go beyond the Black community. They deal with the Māori community – down there where you live. The Aboriginal community in Australia. The Native American communities and indigenous communities around the world. They’re not relegated to black and white issues. Some of our songs deal with gender, discrimination, chauvinism, bullying, and those kinds of things. We write songs based upon what we experience in life. That’s what’s most fun about being a member of Living Colour.”

Again he corrects me when I try to rephrase my question, asking if the songs are for people of minority and those facing oppression.

“I think people of colour are not minorities. I think that they are a majority of people on the planet if you look at it in academic senses. I don’t like people using the term minority but I read that and I hear that all the time. In fact if you were to do the numbers or any real census of all the people on the planet, the people of colour are by far the majority. That’s neither here nor there, but when you use a term like minority, what you’re doing is you’re homogenizing a concept of people. You’re diminishing their value and painting a kind of a picture. That’s something that we want to break down in Living Colour – this homogenizing of culture. Even for black music.”

Living Colour by Karsten Staiger

Image: Karsten Staiger

“When Living Colour first came on the scene in ’88 many people were surprised that we were black. And for us, we were shocked! Especially in our own country, to see that. Because black people invented rock and roll.

“The music’s for everyone – no doubt about it – but we are very careful with terminology and expressing ourselves in a way that’s all inclusive.

“We have a great song called ‘Wall’ that goes: ‘The wall between us all must fall.’ These walls that separate us by gender or by race, by skin colour, by financial interests. Ironically, that song was written mid-eighties. And here we are now in North America, with an administration that is discussing the possibility of building a wall.”

“Our music and lyrics are very present and relevant. And we hope that the music reaches people and might be . As an artist you always want to have present impact upon your audience.”

Calhoun is a nice guy. He comes across as friendly, and genuinely interested about me. I tell him that I’ve been up since before dawn for an ANZAC service, and that I play drums. When I mention that work as an early childhood teacher he showers me with encouragement.

Plus he’s patient. My calls kept cutting out annoyingly, but he remained accommodating the entire time. He tell’s me that this is the most interesting interview he’s ever had. This is possibly because I tried to come up with great questions, but it’s more likely because I keep having phone troubles.

As a drummer myself, I love Calhoun’s style. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Youtube videos with him playing, and explaining his approaches to drumming and the equipment he uses in his set up.

His interest in using electronics with drums started at a young age. Growing up in the Bronx, with his older brother’s generation responsible for pioneering hip-hop, meant that drum machines were commonly accessible. Seeing friends using the drum machines to programme beats and later hearing those beats on the radio prompted Calhoun’s desire to experiment with them himself.

“I didn’t want the drums to sound like drums,” he explains, “so I thought I could plug the drum machines into effect pedals and rack modules and delays and reverbs. And I thought about how I could manipulate that drum sound to get out of that idiom of being a drum? What would a drum sound like if it fed back? If it was looped? If it was sampled, or re-sampled?

“The same way a guitar player thinks about his or her guitar sound. Jimi Hendrix had a huge influence on me as an artist. Jimi was disconnected in a lot of ways. He was like an alien being. He took sounds and fed them into the guitar in ways that, as far as we were concerned, no-one had come up with before. And that’s the process I wanted to have with drums. So the influence came from both the increase in technology, and knowledge, experience and exposure with drum machines in my childhood and it just transcended.

“The experimentation with the technology forces you to create and change your sound. And that’s why I got into smaller drums. With my Nomad snare I wanted a bright sound, with a smaller drum for a smaller frequency response. I went to Sabian because I wanted cymbals that could work with electronic and acoustic music.”

This interest in combining electronic and acoustic sounds stepped up when he enrolled to study at Berkley, where he was a recording and engineering major. He had to choose a principle instrument – drums – but he chose to focus more on the stuff he didn’t know: learning about how microphones work and how to build consoles and create sound.

“I was a freak about sound. I wanted to know how Led Zepplin records sounded so amazing. What were they doing with the drum sound, the reverbs? The Old Columbia recordings… Why do James Browns recordings sound so great – so clean – today? We know they were great musicians, but how is it that they were able to make those great recordings with little 8-track recording studios?”

Later on in life he traveled around the world, living in places like Mali and Senegal where he learnt more about traditional drumming. Berkley was great as an institutional setting, but studying in various African nations gave Calhoun insight into thousands of years of teaching. Like his drum set uses electronic and acoustic elements, his style draws from both scientific and spiritual approaches.

It was fascinating hearing about the concept of ancestral beats. I asked him if he includes said beats in his playing, which launched him into an engrossing explanation. At first it sounded like something I’d dismiss, but Calhoun explained it in a way that made it sound plausible.

“I absolutely include them at all times. More so live because when playing drum solos I can introduce them to the audience in their traditional form. But at all times I include those beats. Sometimes it’s just pieces of the beats – a hit hat pattern, or a snare pattern or a kick pattern – but I’ll play them in their entirety in a drum solo because I can control what the beat means. Those beats have meanings and definitions. Those beats are like sentences. It has a subject, it has a verb… this kind of thing. So the beats are like a language, in a way.

“Those beats are part of rock and funk and James Brown style drumming. They are already borrowed bits and pieces. That’s the nature of music, with things able to be borrowed and transferred. I  use them as much as possible, but they’ve been used by many great drummers before my time. If you listen to James Brown, a lot of the grooves on his records are Nigerian festive beats. And that’s why, in my opinion, James Brown’s music is loved by everyone – because historically it’s a celebratory rhythm being played.”

He explained how the body reacts to vibrations and tone. Certain sounds will make you feel happy, or relaxed, or upset. Think of fingernails on a chalkboard. Now think of waves lapping up on the shore at a beach. Our bodies have innate reactions to certain frequencies, so by extension it makes sense that specific alncestral drum beats can have particular effects on us.

He even takes the vibration concept another step, using a machine.attached to the drum throne he sits atop. The machine, called a BC2, sends vibrations up Calhoun’s body as an alternative to having a monitor. Calhoun dislikes monitors, comparing the act of a speaker blasting your own music back at you to riding a Harley Davidson and having the exhaust pumped back into your helmet.

Some Living Colour tracks are almost 30 years old. I ask Calhoun if he plays the songs differently now that has access to new equipment and technology. His answer revolves around a brilliant analogy of a hamburger.

There are formulas to the songs that he likes to keep, but he has changed as a parson over his career, living in different countries and using different technologies.

“A hamburger is a hamburger. You can put ketchup on it, or mustard or relish. You can make it well done, you can make it medium rare. But it’s still a hamburger. I look at my songs with Living Colour – my previous beats as a hamburger. I don’t want to eat it the way I used to eat it twenty years ago. I want to change it up and add different feels. A pocket or a groove or a feel is just a beat. But what are you adding to it? What spice or twist are you adding to it? Not pissing off the listener, but making it feel like it’s 2017.”

To conclude our chat I ask Calhoun one last question to make him laugh: does the British spelling of the name Living Colour ever lead to confusion? I can picture his grin down the end of the phone line as he answers. The band founder Vernon Reid is English, so made a deliberate choice to spell “colour” with the “U” included. But most Americans spell it incorrectly out of habit. It’s not much of an issue.

Before we finish Calhoun tells me how he’s looking forward to returning to New Zealand and getting another taste of our unique scenery, food and culture. I’m just as excited to see Living Colour play live for the first time.

Living Colour AU NZ tour 2017

Living Colour are playing the Powerstation in Auckland on Thursday 11 May.

Tickets from AAA Touring

Will Calhoun links:




Living Colour links:






Joseph James