A sunny spring day in the capital means it’s time to get outside and soak up some vitamin D before the weather takes a turn for the less friendly. So it was that Briar Lawry stretched out in Civic Square with Barnaby Weir of The Black Seeds to watch the world go by, chat about the band’s latest album release ‘Fabric’ and 20 years of The Black Seeds, as well as (read on) the existential meaning of being targeted by seagulls.
It’s safe to say that 20 years of experience working with the band, through a few different line-up changes, has been an education (and a half) for The Black Seed’s guitarist, singer and songwriter Barnaby Weir.
“We’re just really pleased with where we got to with ‘Fabric’. We didn’t take any shortcuts. In fact, sometimes we took the longest possible path, and sometimes that was a bit frustrating. But now that we’re here, it’s less frustrating and more just about getting to hear what people think.
“The album was finished six months before release – and in that time, you can kind of forget that an album’s coming out. But we’re really pleased with it, and we absolutely gave it our best.”
‘Fabric’ covers an eclectic mix of reggae roots and funk fusion, providing some classic Black Seeds’ listening along with fresh sounds to mix things up a little and keep listeners – new and old – on their toes.
Barnaby’s a full-time musician – his name also familiar from several years of Fly My Pretties projects – but other members of the band have jobs and young families to keep them busy. So the process of making a Black Seeds album has evolved with time, as has the membership. The album that would eventually become ‘Fabric’ has occupied five years … in a stop-start manner.
“We started on an album and got almost halfway through then had some member changes – two long-time members, Tim [Jaray] and Mike [Fabulous] left at the same time. It was for absolutely understandable reasons, but it did shake us up a bit because we were part way through. So we started again.”
It can be hard to re-invent an established band’s line up, but reliable talent was not far away.
“Ned [Ngatae] had played guitar for us on the road, over the years – and Francis [Harawira] is a great reggae and roots bass player.”
The departure of Messrs Fabulous and Jaray didn’t mean that their indelible mark on the band’s sound was lost, and Barnaby waxes lyrical about the influence both had.
“Those guys had been in the band 13, 14-odd years and contributed amazingly. They’re both individually amazing players, really original in their style. Mike’s had a lot of influence as a groovy and tasteful, really specific player, and Tim’s jazz background makes him really original and creatively free. It’s not like you suddenly change and let that go.”
“We’re really lucky,” he muses, “to have had this 20-year build up to this sixth album!”
The band also had new experiences from the wide, wide world to draw upon.
“We’d recently done quite a bit of touring – we did Brazil and Canada a few times and went to the States recently. In Europe, we were well received, especially in Germany and France, more so than previous albums – and then, whoa, two years go by!”
Well ahead of the album’s release there was talk about a new funk sound coming through, something different for a band known far and wide for their particular brand of ‘barbecue reggae’. Quizzed on whether or not this was on the cards before the line-up change, or came about as a result, Barnaby answers that it’s a bit of both.
“We already had some ideas floating around that were really groovy and fun to play. We wanted something that was upbeat and not too un-danceable. It wasn’t sat down and planned, but it just sort of happened, with the end result of an eclectic mix of rhythms with that reggae flavour.”
The ‘Fabric’ title comes from a track of the same name, but it could have gone very differently. Other songs were in the running for naming rights – Ride On, Lightning Strikes and Better Days were all tossed around at various points.
“Fabric wasn’t necessarily even going to make the album – it wasn’t getting the best response from the guys. I think that’s because it’s melancholic – it’s got a bass line that doesn’t necessarily resolve. But we don’t always want to be ‘that sunshine reggae barbecue’ band!
“The meaning of ‘fabric’ as a word reflects what we are over the last five years, I think. You don’t have to know a person to like the same music as them – and then we started thinking about how we’re connected in our lives, and the essence of what those communities are, those many strands.
“You get a different understanding of that influence on all our lives as you get older.”
It made sense, the band agreed – The Black Seeds has been the fabric of their lives. And it worked well as a strong and simple single word title.
“Our previous records have had names like ‘Into The Dojo’, ‘On The Sun’, ‘Keep On Pushing’ – this was simpler. It’s one word, easy to remember. We do go through a bit of a voting and brainstorming process – but for me, the key thing is; is it intriguing, do you want to find out more?”
20 years of experience playing as the one band doesn’t necessarily guarantee a streamlined and cruisy album process. Like any group effort, tempers frayed at times admits Barnaby.
“Near the end, we got a bit too deep into it and a bit cranky. I’m always learning more about letting people voice their ideas. Though at the same time, when you’re working on a song, you really need to stick to your guns and crack on with it to a fairly finished state before you start mucking around. At the time you’re writing something, you’re writing it for a reason.”
It’s when our conversation turns to letting people do their thing and “not being too precious” that Barnaby is unceremoniously shat on by a rogue seagull. After a bit of shirt wringing in a nearby drinking fountain, he returns proclaiming, “That is definitely the universe telling me not to be too precious!”
Part of which has been reconnecting to the roots of the band’s earlier music.
“Last year, we had this moment where we realised we’re always playing our older songs live… and we’re playing them wrong. We’ve just got lazy over the years, we’ve got bored with the songs so we’re playing them however we want to.
“But that’s not actually cool for the audience – because they know the album version and that’s what they really want to hear. So we’ve worked on making sure that we’re not a selfish bunch of arrogant musicians playing what we want all the time. It’s okay to have some jamming, but we need to at least get the first part right – that’s what people like.”
They knuckled down and tightened up their performances so that those old classics like So True are back to top performance standards. Which means that this summer, if you’re at a Black Seeds gig, you can be confident that you’re hearing the band at their prime – both as they groove their way through the new sounds of ‘Fabric’ and as they bust out the tried and true classics of Kiwi barbecue reggae royalty.