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by Kar Parsons

The Black Seeds: Letting The Sun Shine Through

by Kar Parsons

The Black Seeds: Letting The Sun Shine Through

Five years since the release of their ‘Fabric’ album, The Black Seeds have emerged out of the bleak debris of the pandemic with multiple singles heralding their new album ‘Love & Fire’, dropping mid-June 2022 after four years in the making. With the famed Wellington band’s 25th birthday on the horizon, the eight members have necessarily adapted their writing and recording methods to meet the confines of a global pandemic, and bring new music into the world. Kat Parsons caught up with Barnaby Weir to chat about the album’s songs, a new multi-generational approach and explaining The Black Seeds’ sound. Made with the support of NZ On Air Music.

“People don’t appreciate an album so much anymore. They don’t listen all the way through, or they don’t appreciate that it’s one thing, as opposed to a bunch of singles. It’s really kind of comforting and interesting to hear a body of work that’s not too long but marks a point in time. It takes time to make it, and it takes time to listen.”

The Black Seeds’ chief songwriter Barnaby Weir was brought up in the age of albums, back when they came packaged as vinyl records.

“My mother, she had the music gene. So probably my earliest memory would be of the records that she was playing; Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, folky Paul Simon and Simon & Garfunkel; that kind of stuff,” says Barnaby Weir. “She would lean towards the more classic stuff. I’ve still got her ‘Harvest’ album by Neil Young.

“In terms of experience, at a very young age it was my great uncle’s birthday and I wanted to buy him a record. We went to a record store in Dunedin where I was living at the time, and for some reason I loved Boy George’s Karma Chameleon,” he laughs. “So we bought him a 7-inch copy of that. So that’s an experience where I actively chose some music for someone as a present!”

1998 saw the creation of The Black Seeds, and Weir has been there from the start. Spanning over two decades, through multiple world tours, eight albums, and several changes to the line-up, the treasured Kiwi festival act has had one hell of a career, including having their 2006 single One By One feature in the still talked about TV series Breaking Bad. Famous former member Bret McKenzie features on vocals and ukulele in that track. Now comprised of singer/guitarist and recording MD Weir, Daniel Weetman (vocals, percussion), Nigel Patterson (keyboard), Ryan Prebble (guitar), Jarney Murphy (drums), Francis Harawira (bass), Barrett Hocking (trumpet), and Matthew Benton (saxophone), The Black Seeds are ready for this new chapter of ‘Love and Fire’.

“We’re really happy with the album. It’s been a long and slightly strange process, but we just worked really hard on it,” explains Weir. “We did put our hearts and souls into it. ‘Love and Fire’; passion for our music, the band, life, and relationships. These rudimentary themes within our lyrics are what we feel is important to us.”

Writing for the album began in 2018, but the schedule was rudely interrupted by the pandemic, preventing them from recording in the communal manner they’d planned. Instead, the 10-track project was mostly constructed in parts from all across Aotearoa, making it a long process, and a labour of love from each member. Weir describes how they jumped hurdles to do what they all love best.

“Covid has affected everybody’s industry, and we all live in different cities anyway, so there are these physical boundaries. Usually, we’d fly and spend some money to jam together, so we can focus on recording an album.

“We did this one in lots of roundabout ways. We did have sessions in 2018, where we were together listening to demos, planning, getting inspired, and doing some tracking; some of which made it onto the final album. Then there were periods of isolation throughout Covid, where we were still working on songs, presenting demos to the band, and getting a vibe for who likes what demo. So that was kind of the early stages.

“From there it was, ‘We like these songs, let’s work on them. What have you got to add from wherever you live? We can’t travel to work together, so you can record it at home and send it through, and we’ll compile it.’

“It wasn’t always ideal, but it actually provided some benefits. One was that I wasn’t there annoying the drummer Jarney, or asking our bassist Francis to play a certain way or do a certain thing! Having that solitude whilst tracking has actually been quite freeing for our band.

“I’d say something like: ‘Don’t send me 10 takes of the drums, just send me the two best takes, where you feel like you have it.’ That trust goes a long way, and that’s how well we know each other.

“Some of them we did track together, but most of them we assembled through layering up the demos and building on them. Making them better and better until they sounded like they were a finished song. The last step of the process was going to finish the recordings and mix with Lee Prebble. Quite a bit of tracking, pulling in the files, and mapping out the album was done with Lee in Wellington.”

Illustrating the delays, The Black Seeds have already released four of the 10 tracks on the upcoming album. First single, Raised With Love, came out in 2020, followed by Let The Sun Shine Through in 2021, then Bring The Sun and most recently, It’s So Real. More up-tempo than the other singles, Bring The Sun, was released at the start of February this year.

“Daniel Weetman, our other lead singer, wrote that song with Nigel [Patterson] on keys. That song for Daniel was about family. He’s a bit more poetic in some of his language than I am, and I really like that difference between our lyric writing. For him that was about being away from family, not just due to Covid, but also physical distance. He has a son living in Australia, and I think that’s what inspired his lyrics. He wanted to do something different. He had a cool demo that we started working on, and it began to sound more and more like a Black Seeds’ song.”

Bring The Sun was backed with an almost slapstick video directed by Garth Badger, portraying themes of the past couple of years in a light-hearted and separated manner by messing with green screen and Zoom imagery. The video plays with some of the new trends and digital habits that evolved around life online, from live-streamed concerts to virtual meetings. It’s an upbeat and positive way of looking back at the Covid pandemic. Each track has a different tale of conception and somehow finds a unique twist on the reggae, soul, funk sound that the band is so well known for. From deliberately personal lyrics, to beautifully thick horn lines, the album’s story is laid out sequentially song by song.

“There are different approaches and different results. Another great song off the album is Love & Fire, the title track, which has got a bit of an edge to it. It’s got catchy lyrics that are deep, but it’s not too long. There aren’t heaps of verses. It’s really a chorus with some extra lyrical riffing around. Nigel had this cool early demo and I wrote some lyrics for that. It’s kind of a wee bit different.

Let The Sun Shine Through was a demo that was written just before the first lockdown. It is also about family and my partner; I guess navigating harder times, both individually and together,” Weir confides. “It has more of a hopeful, reflective vibe to it, and there was something about the chord progression that I really liked and stayed in my mind. It wasn’t meant to be too cheesy or anything, but it has got this catchy, ‘love-song’ kind of feel to it. I really like the sound of the synthesisers I was using, and the fact it’s quite dramatic and big.”

“With It’s So Real, that was a demo I had been working on for a long time. The band wasn’t sure initially, but then they were actually; ‘Yeah cool, that is a good track that we should make a Black Seeds’ song.’ So everyone added their feel, and I added lots of mine. It was definitely teamwork. It does show a bit more of the funk style from us and it’s kind of cheeky.”

It’s So Real was matched with another playful, perhaps surreal video, this one directed by Ria Simmons, depicting Weir as a superhero dad doing everyday tasks. The video also includes a very special guest star.

“We took quite a lot on to do it with a really small team and a really small budget, but we had help along the way. I had my son in it, which was really cool and fun for him. He loves to watch the video now! Ria is someone I know locally and she got the concept and really fleshed it out, thinking up cool, creative ways of showing the day-to-day kind of ‘daddy daycare’ approach. It’s just ironic and is meant to be a little light-hearted. The idea that we’re in superhero costumes doing normal, very un-superhero things around New Plymouth was kind of a cool approach.

“It was a shame not to have the other band members involved, but they were happy and had faith that we would produce something good. So hopefully in 10 years when we watch it we still like it,” he chuckles. “It’s very ironic and takes the piss. We’re stoked with it! We also had some great support from Venture Taranaki.”

‘Love And Fire’ is a warm, charismatic and funky album that will make any Kiwi listener feel at home, whilst also wanting to get up and dance festival-style. It has the flow and natural charm we have come to expect from The Black Seeds.

“It’s definitely cool when the band has demos, even if it’s just an early-formed song. We’re not solo artists. We are a group of individuals that come together with our different ideas. Sometimes it’s hard to add them all, but generally, we’ve gotten really good at that. Also, you let the person who had the demo idea drive it. You always respect their vision and try to serve the song as best you can. It’s only about making the best song out of what you got at the time and making sure it’s meaningful in some way; whether it’s a cool riff or sound, or the lyrics are amazing. If you can get all those things, great! But sometimes it’s just a certain tone of the song that’s really cool. Yeah, everyone is adding their bits for sure and trying to make it original and meaningful.”

Since The Black Seeds’ inception, they have been labelled with many different genre combinations and styles. In 2011, Rolling Stone even declared them, ‘…the best reggae band in the world right now.’ Elements of pop, rock, reggae, soul, and funk all entwine together to form an amalgamation of recognisable singularity. Weir takes a pause before expressing his take on what makes ‘The Black Seeds’ sound.

“Feeling included. A warm sincerity, without being over the top about it,” he describes. “The Black Seeds’ sound is a culmination of funk and reggae grooves in terms of the rhythm. The lyrics are definitely soul-searching. The positive vibes usually relate to relationships. Battles with dark times.

“The Black Seeds’ sound should be unmistakably ‘us’. We’re our own original sound. There’s a certain retro-element in the production. Real players playing real instruments, singing about real shit. It’s about groove. It’s important that The Black Seeds’ groove is there. I would say a reggae-fied, Pacific-soul of some kind that’s pulsing away.

“The brass is a big part of the band. It has such a huge, powerful colour. You can’t have it the whole time, it’s all about what’s appropriate and having that flavour in there. It’s about the dirty, more swung, funky feel they’re playing. You know they’re not just playing the notes, they’re playing the swing and the groove. A good horn line is a big part of the Seeds.”

Following an unusually long period being unable to perform together as a band, The Black Seeds are on the bill for early May’s Good Love 2022 festival on the Gold Coast. They’ll be joined at the Queensland reggae fest by almost a dozen other Kiwi acts including Katchafire, Sons of Zion and Stan Walker. They’re planning a more local winter tour to celebrate the release of ‘Love & Fire’.

“I’m really looking forward to getting together with the guys and putting some work into the tunes. The live environment where we exist is such a big part of who we are. It’s easy to forget what that feels like, everyone working together. All of a sudden some really cool, subtle things happen to the grooves and stuff. We’re not just playing the chords, we’re really playing together. That’s a huge part of who we are.”