It has a vaguely malevolent ring to it but the music of Carnivorous Plant Society is better labeled mellifluous. It’s jazz Jim, but not as we know it. Mariachi-like horn stabs are just one of the fun elements horns and keyboard-playing Finn Scholes himself adds to his compositions that meander languorously across a variety of musical genres, as illustrated by divergent track titles such as Battlefield Future, Spider Wolf and Arp of Sadness. In fact the name fits like a fox glove. As Sam Carswell discovers, Scholes has had a passion for carnivorous plants since he was a youngster and the ‘society’ is a collective of friends and flatmates who each contributed to just some of the album tracks.
From the ceiling of Finn Scholes’ Ponsonby flat there hangs a plant. Its long tentacles stretch down to just above my head, where a smattering of small pitcher-like pods hang from each one. It’s like no plant I’ve seen before and I understand when Scholes informs me it was fittingly the inspiration behind the name of his ‘cinematic-jazz’ band.
Fitting, for the band’s self-titled debut album ‘Carnivorous Plant Society’ is like no other music I’ve ever heard before. Miriachi-meets-trip hop; Miles-via-Portishead; the ultimate Lee Hazlewood acid trip – scored by a collaboration between Ennio Morricone and Kraftwerk. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but somehow when listening to the album, everything comes together in one collaborative whole. Each piece of the strange technicolour puzzle fits. Much like the collages hidden in the cover artwork (hand drawn by Scholes himself), it’s only with close inspection that you notice each piece.
The band presents such a balanced, cohesive and crafted sound that it becomes more than just a sum of its parts. This could be, in part, due to both Scholes’ intuitive creative process, as well as the environment the music has sprung from. According to Scholes (who plays horns and keys), Carnivorous Plant Society are, essentially, a ‘flat-band’.
“There’s only one person that doesn’t [live here]… It’s good to do it with your friends.”
Luckily his friends happen to be an excellent cross-section of the creative NZ music scene, the notable names including Alistair Deverick (Boycrush, Ruby Suns), Alex Freer (Artisan Guns, The Eversons, Tiny Ruins), Cass Basil (Bannerman, Tiny Ruins), Andy Smith (Andy Smith Trio), Siobhanne Thompson (Bannerman), John Bell (John Bell Trio), as well as Tam and Eric Scholes (Bannerman and the Rocking Roller-Coasters respectively).
Starting “…a bit before 2012,” Scholes recounts how the project sprouted out of boredom.
“Alistair Deverick [drummer and the album’s co-producer] – one day, we were bored or something in the holidays – said, ‘Why don’t we record one today?’ We did it really quickly, because it was just a funny holiday thing, thinking it was probably the kind of thing you would have to re-record. But he ended up getting a really good drum sound and it just sort of worked. That was Misty Magic Land, and we got a gig with that recording at Music In Parks – and that was a good reason to keep going.
With a few additional musicians (including Don McGlashan on euphonium) filling in when the flatmates couldn’t make it, Scholes and Deverick booked a room at The Lab studio and laid down rhythm sections for the album. Taking it back to the flat they proceeded to overdub mercilessly, adding layers of intriguing melodies and textures with just about every instrument they could find around the house.
“We’d just congregate downstairs and set up a mic,” he shrugs.
The result is as strangely wonderful as the carnivorous plant itself. Analogue synths lead into broken grooves and horn sections wail over distorted guitar lines. There’s clearly a strong jazz influence, but it doesn’t sound like jazz. It doesn’t sound like anything. Scholes says he wanted people who don’t like jazz to like it. That means melody-orientated, short solos, if any, and with a focus firmly on the songs, not the players.
“I always showed my ex-girlfriend the stuff I was working on because she had a very non-musician way of listening to things, which I thought was really good. For instance, if tracks were too long I’d notice that she’d stop listening, or if things were too discordant she wouldn’t like it.”
As a consequence, Finn Scholes has created an album, not a collection of tracks. Something you’ll listen to the whole way through. Forty-minutes long, ‘Carnivorous Plant Society’ flows immaculately. So sure and confident are the 11 tracks that it would be easy to feel like the album is a single composition moving through hundreds of different sections.
At age 28, Scholes is a veteran of a number of local ensembles (apparently his first band, The Shades got an unsavoury review in NZ Musician), as well as an alumni of the University of Auckland’s jazz degree. He’s been exposed to the finer details of playing a variety of genres, which has certainly influenced these compositions. But something about Scholes’ creative process hints that there’s much less of a sense of formality towards this project, than there might have been in previous bands.
“I definitely didn’t write songs thinking, ‘What do people want to hear?’ or ‘What would people like to hear at a festival?’ or anything. Heaps of people write things like that and I really don’t like when you can hear that in the writing. I think ‘Carnivorous Plant Society’ is written more along the lines of ‘What do I, conceivably, want to listen to?’”
“I’ve tried not to write to any particular genre. These songs have been composed more by ‘What note goes to what note better?’”
He sums up his approach by saying he enjoys starting something without knowing how it’s going to end, which is an excellent way to describe the feel of the album.
“That’s also how the videos started too,” he adds.
He’s referring to the entertaining hand drawn stop-motion music videos that go with the tracks, Misty Magic Land and Slave Song, providing cinematics to the (not) jazz. They were drawn by Scholes, who maintains he hasn’t otherwise drawn anything seriously since primary school.
“I didn’t know anything about it before I started. In high school I actually got told by the art teacher I was no good at art and that I shouldn’t do it.”
Much like the band, the album and video art grew out of boredom.
“One night, I was just really bored and felt like drawing a picture. So I drew this gigantic maze and it looked quite cool, and people liked it. It was really satisfying and really fun to do… so I started working on [the video for] Misty Magic Land. It was the first song we recorded and I felt like it needed a story to go with it.”
It looks like a lot of work and it was. Each frame was drawn, then scanned and finally coloured and stitched together on the computer.
“The scanning was the hardest part – having to scan for hours and end up with a few seconds of video.”
The completed videos though, have been quite a success. With the release of each video, and now the debut album, the weird and wonderful world of Carnivorous Plant Society is gaining quite a following. Like the hanging plant from which they take their name, they’re not easy to forget. There’s something about the music and the videos, so different from anything else that they stick in your head for days and make a cinematic soundtrack to your everyday life… Not that I’m complaining.