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June/July 2016

by Olly Clifton

Joe Blossom: Flower Power

by Olly Clifton

Joe Blossom: Flower Power

Wellington multi-instrumentalist Sean O’Brien, aka Joe Blossom, has just released his second album. Entitled ‘All Of The Above’, it’s the sophomore to his 2011 debut ‘Nocturnes’. Though surprising, the five year gap between albums has certainly not been uneventful as he tells Olly Clifton.

In 2011 Sean O’Brien went on a DIY tour with his band in the States after the release of ‘Nocturnes’, the debut Joe Blossom album.

“I think the thing about going to the States, is every gig you play you’re playing with these musicians who are all over what they do. Even if they’re rough and don’t have virtuosity when they play in terms of being able to play all the jazz chords, or shred, they can just perform amazingly.”

After the band got back to NZ, O’Brien spent time on his family farm, re-grounding, reflecting and refreshing.

“It was like living like a monk for two or three months. It was quite an amazing antidote to post tour blues… I went through long periods of interacting with nobody apart from cows and calves. I did a lot of thinking and reviewing ideas and that sort of stuff.”

When drummer and close collaborator Chris Fawdray returned they started work on a new album. First single Tyger Tyger was recorded and released in 2013, enjoying good student radio play. O’Brien says he has been tapping away at the project since. He’s also been performing a steady string of shows around the country, as well as playing the music for an arts festival show with film maker friend, and ex-flatmate, Duncan Sarkies.

“This record probably took about a year and a half to write and about a year to record. And there was probably about a year overlap of the two. One of the problems of modern day recording, you have ProTools and all your own hardware and software, and that leads to what I’d call ‘chronic project creep’.”

‘All Of The Above’ was recorded mainly in Munki Studios in Wellington, before the studio was moved from its ex-SIS premises.

“It used to be this pretty cool place with all these vaults and chambers and that sort of stuff. It had a particularly good drum room that was a massive old safe.”

Despite comparisons drawn between Joe Blossom and British pop singers of the ’80s, O’Brien explains that this record was an attempt to capture a more modern sound. The influences he lists are wide, from Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean to Radiohead, UMO and The Dirty Projectors.

In order to keep the sound progressing and evolving O’Brien and Fawdray tested out new technology and different songwriting methods. During their tour of the States, Fawdray had begun experimenting with an electronic drum pad, layered with drum and piano samples to fill out their sound.

“He really studies, he loves Radiohead and Hot Chip and all these sorts of acts that are doing interesting stuff,” O’Brien notes praisingly.

He himself learnt how to properly score music so that he could arrange the string parts for the musicians he would bring in to record. His lyrics are often quite specific.

“I know lyrics take me ages to write. So I really wanted to get ahead of the wave on this, so lyrics wouldn’t be the thing holding up the record. As it turns out they eventually did.”

Album opener Tyger Tyger shares its name with a famous William Blake poem, the inspiration coming from reading an anthology of British poetry while staying with his collaborators at a bach in Waitarere, near Levin.

“You can read a book on history, you can read about Elizabeth I or the French Revolution. You can read if from that historical perspective – someone looking back and writing it – but when you look at a poem, in some ways it’s the closest to getting a clear recording of someone’s voice, because poetry is so about emotion. It’s very distilled.”

The new album’s title track is also inspired by the history of Albert Einstein. O’Brien unwittingly took a photo of So So Modern (while he was helping them out on their European tour) underneath the clock in Bern, Switzerland that Einstein watched from a tram when he first thought of the theory of relativity. It took about several years for some of Einstein’s most influential papers to achieve the recognition they deserved.

“I’ve been thinking about that for a while, thinking it would be nice to write a song about what it must have been like to have been him, an unknown.”

Another noteworthy track is Here And Now, a cover of a song by Wellington band Terror Of The Deep.

“There’s a lot of people who know me who might not necessarily know Terror Of The Deep, or vice versa. I think it’s nice to be able to feature really good songs that are made by other people. It’s almost a bit boring to cover songs that are really well known. I reckon the NZ music community would be a little bit stronger if more people put other people’s songs on their own albums.”

Working with the 2011 song was also another chance to dabble in new methods.

“I thought, ‘Can I build a song from nothing?’ I used a drum machine in ProTools, I have a Roland XP-30 synth so I figured out a bassline that would work. The whole thing I wanted to do was not use a guitar. All the percussion and stuff is on that synth.”

Much of the music came out of the time O’Brien and band spent jamming in Waitarere. Other collaborators include the likes of Will Ricketts and Grayson Gilmour, who also added guitar and bvs on the considerably more rough and rocky ‘Nocturne’. O’Brien recalls first meeting him at Palmerston North’s The Stomach, when Gilmour was in his teens.

“This kid was hanging around… I got introduced and when he left my friend Craig [Black] who ran it said to me, ‘That guy is gonna go places, I guarantee you.”

His second album is a culmination of a wide and very unique set of experiences.

“It’s been a way longer gap than I thought. But I guess in that period of time – and this is part of the reason the album got called ‘All Of The Above’ – it felt like all of the above has happened”.