Mixed Tape 10 stars Fat Freddy’s Drop have crafted and refined a sound that does not compare to anything else out there at the moment. The same is true for their live shows – the proving ground for their studio sessions and subsequent albums. With seven guys – who love nothing better than playing together – sharing the stage, the band have attracted an enthusiastic and ever-growing fan base. And they have done so slowly, at their own pace and without making any musical compromises. Founded in the late 1990s, originally as a sound system, Fat Freddy’s Drop started out with DJ Fichie aka Chris Faimumu (short: Mu) spinning reggae instrumentals and the rest of the crew jamming along to the laid-back sounds.

In 2000, they went international after a friend of the band and fellow musician travelled to Europe and treated a handful of key DJs and radio presenters to the self-produced 12-inch vinyl version of Midnight Marauders. This not only sparked a lot of interest in this antipodean phenomenon, but also sent them on global tours with dynamic gigs that would vary from night to night, allowing the songs to evolve naturally over time. Fast-forward a good decade, and Fat Freddy’s Drop still work this way, culminating in their first ever foray into “club music” with their soon to be released album Blackbird. Heavily influenced by the iconic sound of Grace Jones or Sly and Robbie, these songs work just as well at home, bridging the gap between club and couch with the smart and insightful lyrics the band have been known for all along.

To this end, the band’s singer and illustrator, Dallas Tamaira, follows in the footsteps of iconic US songwriter Bill Withers, who shaped the sound of the 1970s with timeless classics like Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean On Me or Lovely Day. And just like Withers, Tamaira draws inspiration from the everyday life and love that surrounds him. “You first need to know what you’re running away from before you know where you want to go” (The Raft). And whether Tamaira delves into his own experiences, observations or tour impressions, his lyrics tend to reflect the vagaries and intensity of human relationships.

Relationships like the ones the band’s familymen cherish back home in Wellington or Auckland, both in private and in the studio. While interviewing some of the band over the phone, there is plenty going on in the background with jam sessions, conversations or other phone calls dealing with bookings and management details slipping into the noisy mix. To this day, the band are still in charge of every aspect: Mu’s wife Nicole takes care of Fat Freddy’s Drop’s management and all of the members weigh in and decide as a group which gigs to play. Or whether to do a photo book with their friend and photographer Shanon Moratti, whose images serve as a soundless soundtrack, providing very intimate glimpses of the band’s mood and conveying their spirit and enthusiasm.

To find out more about this unique and lasting set-up, we talked to saxophone player Scott Towers aka Chopper Reeds, producer, DJ and beatmaker Mu as well as trumpet virtuoso Toby Laing aka Toby Chang.

To what extent did New Zealand’s uniquely secluded geographic position play a part in Fat Freddy’s Drop’s sound and music?
Scott Towers: We work in some kind of vacuum here, which is good because we are not constantly exposed to what other people do. It also allows us to not feel pressured by what others might expect from us, musically. We simply do our thing without any stress or underlying pressure. On the flipside, we might come across inspirations more quickly if we lived in a bigger country. At the same time, it keeps us excited about going on tour where we gather plenty of inspiration and work it into our music straight away. We are always eager to revisit cities, check out record shops or get to know some nice new people.

Listening to your song The Raft I came across the following statement: “The industry will never find me, here between the trees, my footsteps are everything I leave.” Is that some kind of Fat Freddy’s manifesto?
Toby Laing: Yeah, that’s exactly right. To us this is the most natural way of spreading our sound because if we were not independent there wouldn’t be a Fat Freddy’s Drop. Our music simply doesn’t fit into the mainstream radio landscape or major label structures. It’s rougher, the songs are very long and difficult to pigeonhole. To us, it’s essential to let the tracks evolve without any outside pressure, without having to think about radio friendliness. We produce solely with our audience in mind and share new ideas with them via the live shows.

A very democratic approach – and one that is reflected in your productions and live shows?
Scott Towers: Yes, although we do have two chiefs and a few workers – that’s part of the game when you try to juggle a seven-strong crew. But each and every one of us influences the songs or hears things in the music that the other six don’t hear. Invariably, that leads to situations where it might take us a while to get on the same page. But every voice has a say. And that’s also why it takes us so long to release a new album.

Beyond Fat Freddy’s Drop you all have several solo or side projects. For example, Dallas Tamaira’s uniquely warm tone – and key Fat Freddy’s ingredient – would work just as well in a pure soul setting.
Mu: That’s true. Dallas has been meaning to do a solo album rooted in soul ever since we started Fat Freddy’s Drop. And I have been working on faster, straightforward house and techno beats for a while – still soulful and a little more black. That has certainly also left its mark on the new Freddy’s sound. Joe Lindsay aka Hopepa, our dancing trombonist, has a fun side project geared towards roots and calypso, Toby Chang plays in a few jazz bands and our guitarist Tehimana Kerr aka Jetlag Johnson produces glitch hop beats in collaboration with Rustie.

Do you see yourselves as musical ambassadors for New Zealand?
Mu: No, not really – there are simply too many musical styles around here. We are happy to be part of a certain scene, love to travel, meet people, do what we do – and try to be on our best behaviour when we are outside of Aotearoas.

More information on the band: www.fatfreddysdrop.com

Free download of Silver and Gold