As the Kiwi veterans embark on yet another extensive tour, we get the full story of new album 'Special Edition Part One', and find out what's happening with Part Two…
Hundreds of shows, 20 years and five studio albums deep, New Zealand seven-piece Fat Freddy’s Drop continue to display a musical fluency and energy for the road that belies their double-decade tenure. Fresh from dropping their latest long ’un Special Edition Part One late last year, they’ve just commenced a tour of New Zealand, Australia then Europe that will last until mid-2020. It will also be loaded with brand new music from Part Two of the album, which will drop towards the end of 2020.
Road-testing and developing new tracks in their signature improvised/live jamming style is how the band have often collectively written and built their tracks. They’re rooted in New Zealand’s longstanding soundsystem culture and, if you’ve ever seen them perform, you’ll know the freeform collective experience is just as key to their appeal as their five superb studio albums (all of which, going back to Based On A True Story back in 2005, have matured remarkably well). But right now, they’re in the thick of both.
Impressive, especially considering they rescheduled this tour due to the troupe’s band leader DJ Fitchie undergoing a hip operation. Musical fluency and road energy in full effect, we collared trumpet player Tony Chang during rehearsals to find out more…
How are rehearsals going?
"They’re going well. It’s been a lot of fun dusting off some vintage Fat Freddy’s material as well as the new stuff we’ve just released. It’s great to delve into the past and have this new bunch of tunes, it’s all fresh and exciting and fun when we get to this stage."
You’re on the trumpet… I’ve heard brass players can only rehearse so many hours a day or they damage their lips. Is that right?
"If you’re in good shape you can play as long as you need to. But you’re right, you just need to get into shape slowly, not blow yourself out too quickly. You need to build up to that type of stamina. It’s a bit like training like an athlete. It’s annoying, but it’s what you’ve got to do when you prepare to hit the road."
About these shows… it just seems like a wicked jam. Some of the songs from the new album come from the live experience, right?
"Yeah, it’s what we do, especially when we’re travelling a lot. The one time we can play around and develop ideas we have is during soundchecks before the shows. We come up with some really interesting things then. That was the origin of three of the songs from Special Edition Part One. And of course we’ve got a whole lot of material up our sleeves for Part Two which will come up some time in the future."
So we’ll hear these on the new tour?
"Yeah. At first we want to present these new songs from Part One to everyone, we’ve worked hard to where we’ve got them and we’re looking forward to playing them. But those even newer ones will be creeping into the mix."
That must be a buzz when you all lock into a new groove… do you all know when you’ve hit a jamming sweet spot?
"It’s funny. We’re all quite realistic about these things. Sometimes you just can’t quite catch it. Sometimes it's gelling together, the idea is great but it’s not quite going to tell the story. But we work away at things. It’s how we approach all songs. Once we start writing with the rhythms and how we improvise, structures kinds creep in and the way we think about the tune becomes solidified.
"That’s the great thing about the group; how we write collectively. If we all get onboard and work methodically and slowly, we can get these tunes to where we can perform them."
That’s very democratic…
"Yeah, we’ve been together for 20 odd years and that’s how it’s developed over time. It’s a culture we’ve developed among ourselves. Like a family thing but more in a soundsystem sense. We’re not just writing, we’re all collaborating and most of our songs take shape over the performances. It’s just the we’ve developed."
I recently read that New Zealand’s strong soundsystem culture can be traced back to a famous Bob Marley tour in 1979…
"That was a moment locally in terms of the scale of concerts that happened. It demonstrated that an underground form of music – well, not mainstream for the time, that’s for sure – could draw a big crowd. That definitely unified a lot of underground music cultures of the country. Whether it was the electronic scene or the punk scene or whatever was happening in the early 80s.
"That hasn’t stopped, the appetite for underground music, and electronic music especially, is very strong and there’s a lot of great exciting individuals all working very hard to pull things together and make this scene so strong in a country the size of ours. That’s not easy. Every place we go to, apart from Melbourne which is the only place I can think of where music culture and nightlife is supported by the local government, scenes are finding it hard to survive, even though there’s a strong interest in them."
I’m a bit surprised at that, because your Prime Minster seems pretty decent?
"Well, the central government don’t have much to do with it. It’s always city councils who don’t take a holistic view to these things unfortunately."
The new album sounds like it’s been treated holistically…
"With this one, we’ve tried to really pare things back to the arrangements and get the largest sound we can get. When those rhythms drop we want them to have the strongest effect. The sonic characteristics of our music are so important, so that’s where we’ve put a lot of our energy into this record and I think it sounds very strong and clear. It’s superbly mixed, that’s from spending a crazy amount of time on it and after 20 years of having a lot of strong ideas about what we’re trying to achieve, whether it’s the bassline or the instruments. All those characteristics."
Do you all have a say in production like you do in the songwriting?
"No, production all does come down to DJ Fitchie. He’s the main man, the founding father. He runs the MPCs and is the engineer. He mixes all the music so he has the final say, but for me he’s surpassed himself with every album. He comes back better and better."
The tour couldn’t happen without him. How is he?
"That’s right man and he’s in good shape now, thanks! He can’t wait to hit the road. We’re all really looking forward to it."
Words: Dave Jenkins
Speciel Edition Part One is out now on The Drop. For tour dates, click here.