If the music quiz challenge was to name one artist/band that has tipped the NZ music industry up in 2017 and given it a bloody good shaking, then the answer would have to be Alien Weaponry. Lorde may have introduced us all to the idea of new musical stars breaking big while still wearing a school uniform, but even her inspirational story pales in comparison with that of the thrash metal trio from rural Waipu who have this year won one of the nation’s most prestigious annual songwriting awards – and signed a management contract with a German music agency – at a point when two band members were still 15 and the oldest just 17. Sam Holdom spoke with brothers Henry and Lewis de Jong, and their bass-playing cohort Ethan Trembath, before and after their first red-carpet walk to the annual NZ Music Awards.
I first met up with the three teenagers who make up the Northland thrash metal act Alien Weaponry on the eve of their first-ever NZ Music Awards night. Of course, it wasn’t their first music awards night – they have a string of competition wins to their credit and were a stand out feature of the annual Silver Scroll ceremony held in late September – taking home the APRA Maioha Award for waiata featuring te reo. But still, finalist in the Kiwi music awards – it’s a big deal surely?
“The VNZMAs, actually,” I am politely corrected by the now short-haired singer and guitarist Lewis de Jong, before he adds, “I’m really excited for the food.”
Not “really excited” about possibly winning the Best Māori Artist Tui as a matching pair to their songwriting award note – indeed there is no sense of such expectation from any of this trio who have already achieved so much before completing their secondary education.
“I finished school a week ago and I’m straight out into the workforce, trying to get a job as a mechanic,” offers Henry de Jong, drummer, co-lyricist, and at 17 the band’s elder statesman.
Lewis, Henry’s younger and blonder brother, is next year heading into Year 11 (5th form for any pre-millennials), and admits he actually wants to try a bit more at school next year. Their brother-from-another-mother Ethan Trembath, the quiet one of the band (he is the bass player, after all) has just finished his Level 1 NCEA exams. It’s a fact – they’re whipper-snappers of the NZ music industry. However, I’d happily put money on it that anyone who happened to stumble unknowingly across their music wouldn’t believe they are a band that legally cannot play in the majority of the places they do, without parental guardianship.
It’s this blend of youthful enthusiasm and surprising practical maturity that distinctly stands out as they reminisce about a time when they were far less experienced, before making music as a career had become such a very real possibility.
“We’ve been Alien Weaponry since 2010…” Henry begins before his brother excitedly cuts him off.
“… But then we grabbed Ethan in 2012. I actually met Ethan at the local circus school. Me and him…”
“… They were unicycle lads,” teases Henry.
“Uni lads, juggle lads, fire lads,” Lewis continues. “He came back to my house one night, I had a few mates over and we were pissing round in the band room and Ethan was the only kid there who could actually reach the end of the bass guitar. So we abducted him and locked him in the basement for a couple of days.”
“You WILL be in the band,” growls Henry in a most menacingly friendly way.
For his part Ethan seems quite okay with how it all played out.
“I was pretty much abducted by aliens to be taught the bass and be in the band. I played ukulele before that. They said, ‘It has four strings so it must be the same thing’. Niel [Alien Weaponry manager and the brothers’ dad] is a guitar player, but he was able to give me enough tips and tricks to sort of figure it out. I’ve just gone on my own after that.”
This pragmatic idea of going out and doing it on their own is incredibly prevalent within the mindset of the three adolescents, being entirely aware that this is not the normal path schoolkids take. Numerous NZ artists have come up through the ranks of the Smokefree Rockquest, Pacifica Beats and the Play It Strange Foundation, as Alien Weaponry has done. Some have found enough momentum through those avenues to continue following their passions, and etch out a successful and sustainable music career.
But this is a band with an intangible difference. Thrash metal is a very narrow musical niche in this country, they are so young and they live in a small Northland town. Yet Alien Weaponry are soon to achieve their very early goal of playing European metal festivals – before the oldest member of the band leaves his teens.
“Yeah, that’s happening,” Henry admits with a sheepish and almost apologetic smile. “We’re going over next year, I’ll be 18 and we’re playing this one festival…”
“We’ve dreamed of playing this festival and now we need to think of a new goal,” adds Lewis, before showing a level of professionalism beyond his years. “But we can’t tell you what it is yet… We’re not being shady cos we’re dicks – they’ll announce in December. We haven’t played it yet and we still want to!”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what turns an already good band into a successful one, especially in an age when a successful band is a rarity. Some have good fortune, being in the right place at the right time for the right people to see them. Others have good management who project and shape releases and gigs around timelines and goals. A few have put up a song or video on the internet only to see it blow up around the world.
There seem to be a few constants in those bands that achieve and sustain success. Good songs obviously help, and hard work is always involved. Most importantly though, a sense of modesty, which seems to be the quintessential Kiwi way, can stop the hang-ups of an often fickle industry getting in the way of long-term success. These young gentlemen know that all too well.
“There are definitely a lot of sacrifices that the average teenager wouldn’t usually have to make,” Ethan starts before Lewis jumps in like a bottle-rocket.
“We’ve never made it. Anybody that says they have life figured out is so full of shit. There’s so much that goes on in life. I don’t even know, I haven’t had a life yet. But I’d way rather be doing this than working a 9 to 5 for the rest of my life… Stuff that.”
Henry, typically the group’s media spokesman, offers his perspective.
“It’s just… kind of awesome to be in such a different situation for people our age. Sometimes you feel like maybe you’re missing out on your childhood a bit, but at 17 years old it’s starting to get to the point where I’m thinking my childhood is almost over anyway, I may as well make the most of it cos this is awesome. At the same time, it’s kind of scary because it’s not a situation you can ask someone else about.”
He laughs about other pupils at Bream Bay College, who enjoy taking the piss out of the band.
“They’ll be running around school with bluetooth speakers playing our music and stuff and screaming ‘urutaa!’ And I’ll be sitting there like… ‘Bro. I get it. You think you’re great.”
Lewis gets the same thing.
“I feel like kids these days…They used to really take the piss out of me and calling me ‘long haired mop’ and shit, and telling me that I was screaming into the microphone. But they realise now that ‘…oh my god, you’re going somewhere. Shit. Let’s maybe not insult him.’ Their passion is just running around annoying people. I focus my passion. Taste the passion.”
Despite the years spent practising together, Lewis admits the band has been on one hell of a ride since releasing their first single, Urutaa, in November 2016.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, this probably will happen if we keep at it’, but I never thought it’d happen this fast! It’s very all of a sudden. Everything’s going a hundred miles an hour, no stopping the train of doom. It’s impressed us more than anything.”
With three singles now out – Urutaa, Raupatu and Rū Ana Te Whenua, the latter spending two weeks on Spotify’s NZ Viral Chart (a fairly impressive feat for a metal song any day) – the band have begun focusing on their debut album. No punches are being pulled in the making of the album, with production credits including the likes of Shihad’s Tom Larkin (responsible for their singles so far) and Simon Gooding, who has worked with artists as varied as The Phoenix Foundation and Fazerdaze.
The change in producer is not aimed at a change in sound, as Henry explains.
“We try to keep the whole idea of where we’re coming from and what we’re looking for with the sound of the songs on the album very similar, and Simon is thus far doing a very good job of that. We’ve learned things from Tom and that’s definitely helped us to keep a uniform feel.”
With recording set to take place over three weeks at Auckland’s famed Roundhead Studios, they know there’s a lot to be accomplished – but they’re still expecting to have a bit of fun.
“Henry’s looking forward to the coffee machine,” says Lewis with a grin. “He’s doing the drums first though, which means Ethan and I get to hang out with it. Henry used to be a barista. I’m not so much of one.”
“He made a coffee once,” retorts Henry, adding a slightly-too-thick layer of pompousness. “He doesn’t know how to run the extraction, how to set the grind just right.”
Lewis, like a good younger brother, doesn’t back down.
“Every time Henry goes to a not-quite-as-fancy-as-you-would-imagine coffee shop he sits there slurping quietly before mumbling something about, ‘They don’t know how to make coffee.’ He’s the guy that goes up to the staff and says, ‘By the way, you burned the milk.’”
For teenagers, they’re surprising connoisseurs of the legal narcotic, possibly a side effect of already being exposed to touring band life. Henry clearly enjoys the finer art of coffee.
“I’ll tell anyone who’s interested, not that anyone would be, but my favourite coffee is a short black with a bit of steamed cream in it. I do believe it’s called a macchiato. Deeee-licious!”
“I’m a cappuccino pansy,” Ethan admits, “…but it’s gotta be a double shot. Or even a quadruple shot.”
A lot has been made of the songwriting and lyrical content of the material Alien Weaponry has released to date. As the titles of their singles suggest, a good chunk of the lyrics are written in te reo Māori, the language of the de Jong ancestors, the importance of which is certainly not lost on the band members.
Their most recent single release, Rū Ana Te Whenua, tells the story of the mighty battle at Pukehinahina, or Gate Pa, in 1864 where an ancestor, Te Ahoaho, lost his life.
This direction in songwriting has not come without backlash from internet commenters – the de Jong brothers, of Ngati Pikiāo and Ngati Raukawa descent, call themselves ‘stealth Māori’ due to their flailing blonde locks and Viking appearance. Trolls aside, it was a decision that came from an unlikely source, but has embedded itself in the band’s psyche since.
“It certainly wasn’t like we were writing one day and suddenly started singing in Māori,” Henry explains. “It was something we were inspired to do by our mates who play in a band called Strangely Arousing. They inspired us to start writing in Māori and once we started doing it, the feel and the energy of the songs really came quite naturally, and mixing that with the Māori lyrics worked really well.
“As far as most of our English lyrics go, Lewis is the main songwriter. But with the stuff we do in Māori, I have quite a big part in that. Often what we’ll do is get the main theme that we want to be talking about down and then I take that and actually write it in Māori. It’s not a direct translation of anything, so I’m normally writing the lyrics straight from an idea.”
It’s a very different take on a trend that has been appearing more in popular music over the last few years, where vocalists sing in their native accents rather than putting on any classic American twang. But the power of their music combined with the emotion of the brothers’ native tongue creates a new, more intense atmosphere that puts the listener right into the heart of the band’s stories.
Catching up with them again a few days later with their first – and no doubt not the last – VNZMAs under their belt, I’m keen to hear stories of their first taste of NZ music’s biggest night. With Maisey Rika having withdrawn they were a 50:50 bet (against Teeks) for the Best Māori Artist Tui. No surprise that the story is as youthful yet level-headed as everything else they’ve done in their brief career.
“It was awesome just to be there,” Henry reports. “It was kind of overwhelming for us. It was so big and as we were walking down the …the red carpet, but you can’t really call it a red carpet cos it wasn’t red, there were crews wanting to interview us and none of us heard them. We ended up walking straight past them because we were so nervous that we couldn’t hear!
“There are definitely things that we’d change for next year, we’ll learn from what we did wrong and what we did right, and it’s just like playing live, that new line in between in songs that you try that doesn’t really work and everyone goes ‘uhhh…’ It’s all experience.”
They are more than happy that Teeks won the Tui and keen to praise him.
“I think he has done very well this year and it’s awesome that he’s won the award cos it’s given him so much recognition for what he does. He’s an amazing artist, and he puts so much soul and so much of his mana into his work so he’s definitely got the same passion as we do, and I think it was a hard decision for the judges, but big ups to him.
“In his interview he did afterwards with RNZ he did acknowledge us and say that he feels honoured to be on the same level as us – as we are with him. It’s funny because I think a lot of artists are prone to feeling that they are much smaller than the other artists around them. In reality, I think we’re on a relatively similar level, us and Teeks. I think we’re much of a muchness when it comes to the stage we are at in our respective music careers.”
Except for them school still figures large.
“We want to be a touring rock and roll band, same as it’s always been,” says Lewis. “I’ve gotta be back at school next week though…”
Henry plays the big brother to a T.
“It’s good to have something under your belt because it shows you can stick to something other than music.”
Lewis is quick to get enthusiastic again.
“But don’t let Plan B get in the way of Plan A, that’s what we’re always saying to ourselves. We wanna be a touring band, that’s Plan A all the way.”
Plan A, after five full years of existence as a band, seems to be going fairly well so far.
In 2016 they followed up 2015’s two commendable seconds with wins in both the annual high school band Rockquest and Pacifica Beats awards – competed for on consecutive nights. Niel de Jong leveraged it like a publicity pro, and with just a sign written Ford Transit (that’s done over 400,000 km) and the three singles released since, the band has gained a significant national profile.
Within a year it was announced that Alien Weaponry had signed a three-year management contract with Berlin-based music agency Das Maschine to represent them in Europe and other parts of the world. The deal came about after the band was approached directly by one festival, prompting them to begin exploring options in earnest for making a European festival tour feasible.
Winning the Maioha Award was revelatory in overcoming any still-sneering local critics, and placing them into mainstream industry consciousness. All-in-all, not also winning the 2017 Best Māori Artist Tui was probably a good thing. Time is very much on their side. With a debut album on the horizon, everything so far suggests that these teenagers will be achieving well beyond their years throughout their musical career – and it seems very unlikely they’ll be needing Plan B anytime soon.