Since the 2006 release of their debut album ‘Awake At Dawn’ dDub have toured NZ six times and visited Australia thrice, with a bundle of festivals and events thrown into the mix. When Lydia Jenkin queried their hard-working frontman Derek Browne on where they found the time to write and record new album ‘Medicine Man’ between this relentless tour schedule, he quickly put her straight.
“Oh I hate that word ‘relentless’. It’s fun. I love it!”
Clearly. Derek’s enthusiasm and energy are catching, on stage or off, and I can only imagine the party that touring with the band behind catchy dance-friendly singles like Give Up Your Love, The Flow, and No Smoke would be. But that doesn’t change the fact that dDub must be one of the hardest touring bands in the land.
Putting together sophomore album ‘Medicine Man’ must’ve taken some application. Crafting the songs in rehearsals and jam sessions, the band have been writing and road testing them for two years, but hadn’t felt they were ready to release a new album until now.
“I think, when you’re an independent band, your key is to get out there and play, and support an album. Get people hearing the music, putting it in their hands, putting it on their iPods and sharing it with their friends. We didn’t really see the point in creating another album straight away.”
Indeed, crowds seemed more than happy to continue lapping up ‘Awake At Dawn’. It has sold over 5000 copies here in NZ, and given dDub five video hits, along with the opportunity to play some big concerts like the 13,000 strong Rhythm & Vines crowd earlier this year and 10,000-plus at WOMAD in 2007. Their extensive live experience comes across clearly in the mature, developed sound of the album. A warm, fat, rhythm section provides that resonant lower layer, over which bright horns flourish and Derek’s inherently memorable vocals and lyrics cruise on in, getting stuck in your head. dDub have honed their sound without losing the interesting textures and influences which make them a party crowd favourite.
“I think we’ve actually developed our sound a lot more as a group with this album, got a bit more direction with what dDub is. But we also don’t want to get stuck in that. We definitely want to keep diversifying and be reasonably bold… I guess I think if you’re really being creative you don’t have an easily identifiable sound. I think it’s good for us as musicians to keep our sound options open.”
Diverse and bold are both certainly words which spring to mind. While they’re still undoubtedly a dub/ska/reggae band, you’ll also find rock and folk making remarkably stylish appearances, and the odd eastern-influenced scale or riff adding spice to the herbal remedies. First single Hesitate No has been firing up the radio since December ‘07, giving a taste of their fresh sound.
Having learnt a couple of things from ‘Awake At Dawn’, the band did plenty of pre-production before hauling Singapore-based engineer Stu Newman (who produced ‘Awake At Dawn’ and has also worked with Stellar and Greg Johnson) into Eden Post studios, for close on a month of intensive work. They did however end up repeating the all nighter studio hours of the previous album.
“They were too busy during the day, so we went in at night. And sometimes, you’d be thinking, ‘Nooo, I don’t still wanna be there at 8am in the morning, it’s three weeks in a row’. But it turned out alright really. There’s something about doing it all in the wee hours. You get a bit weird. It was quite good. No interruptions, no phone calls, no txts. It’s good for your focus.”
And focus is hugely important to Derek in the studio.
“I figure if you don’t really put all that effort in, and add heaps to it, you might as well just record yourself live, and release a live album. You want to give people something with depth and subtlety and difference that they can listen to over and over again.”
You can tell that this was an album produced in a close relationship between engineer and band – all the energy and momentum of their notoriously pumping live sound with the intensity and nuance of studio refinement.
Having produced ‘Awake At Dawn’ Newman already had a good feel for dDub’s sound.
“He’s not living in NZ, so he’s got quite an international approach to the sound. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because we’re only really releasing here and Australia, but it brings a fresh perspective. I quite like it ‘cause it takes you out of your comfort zone a bit, and also to try and expand the sound a little bit more.”
Newman is also an extremely efficient engineer, according to Derek, which allowed them the opportunity to exploit and explore the many options which technology opens up.
“I think technology is great. It’s amazing. And seriously I can’t tell the difference between Pro Tools and tape. It’s not just Pro Tools either, we’ve used a lot of digital outboard gear. Like we used a digital compression unit, largely for vocals and bass, and I think Stu bought that unit for a couple of grand or something, but to buy the actual analogue hardware, you’re looking at $30,000-$40,000, so it just makes things much more accessible. A lot more fun, and a lot more experimentation goes on.”
Fifteen people are credited with working on the album, which may seem a little odd, given that dDub are usually a six or seven piece, but that too was all part of the fun. An evolving line up, plus geographical location issues were part of the reason, but the band’s high standards and desire to keep a wide perspective also contributed.
“We really wanted to get the best possible sound out of each instrument. For example, we don’t have a keyboard player in our band, so we got Craig Denham in. We could have played those parts ourselves, but he was really good, and it just helps having other people interpret your music sometimes. I think that’s a real balance. You can get a bit caught up in doing it a certain way, and having your own creative ideas… If you keep your mind open you’ll often find things come out better. But also if you keep listening to everybody else’s ideas, and not listening to yourself, you can get a bit scattered, and the sound can reflect that.”
They’ve currently settled on a six-man line up – Derek on lead vocals and guitar, new faces Dan Antunovich (bass) and Chris Grant (drums). Steve Fullford plays guitar, and Andrew Hall and Tim Atkinson are both on sax. They’ve got their creative balance sussed, and the album is out, so what’s next?
“Commercial radio doesn’t really support us, so videos are really important. Big ups to Juice TV and C4. We did our very first video on our own (2003’s Give Up Your Love) and gave it to Juice TV, and it just got played and got played. Dan Wrightson and Juice TV just became our saviours.”
Having since made several videos on their own, and some with funding from NZ On Air, Derek sees music videos as a key way to tap into new audiences which radio excludes them from.
“You know we do try and get our songs on the radio, we send them to the right people at the radio stations, but I understand. It’s just not commercial radio format. Student radio help out and community radio play it heaps, which is great.”
When it comes right down to it, however, there’s nothing better than actually getting out there and playing live – as dDub do so well.
“You have to have solid music, and a way of connecting that to your solid fan base. What I’ve learnt is that it’s all about your music reaching someone and them having a relationship with the music, and with the band. And not just in the short term.”
In the six years that dDub has been in operation the music industry has seen some pretty comprehensive changes, which has altered some of their plans and visions. Although the simple goal to create great music remains, the road to success has changed somewhat. “When you have certain goals, you usually set your vision on someone that’s already done it, and you have all these little reference points. And in the past there’ve been pretty narrow paths for ways you can succeed in the music industry, things had to be done a certain way. Even for the alternative indie bands, they were often signed to someone, be it Flying Nun or whoever, and that was a reference point, but now it’s so variable. There’s no one way, or one set of rules to make it happen.”
The band maintain autonomy, having their own record label Vunderchick Records here with Border helping out with NZ distribution. In Australia they’re signed to Shock Records, giving them some necessary offshore support.
“We’ve actually got a licensing agreement with them, which I’ve kind’a changed my view on a little bit, ‘cos they take 70% of every CD sale, but we pay to get over there and push ourselves over there. So we’re trying to balance it out a bit more at the moment. I think for them, you know, we’re not gonna be a huge seller. A lot of these record companies are really tightening up. They don’t wanna put money into something that’s not a sure bet so… But we’re still wanting to do that, we’re still wanting to plug our music to radio over there, and it all costs money.”
They do have their sights set on gaining an international profile and have been particularly focused on Australia where they’ve been building up some big crowds. But ultimately Derek feels home is about as good as it gets.
“We are really keen on NZ. We’ve set up a really good little touring circuit, know a lot of people round the country, and have good relationships with them. And I love NZ and NZ people… when you’re doing heaps of touring, and your whole life is the band, there’s a limit to how much you want to make it hard for yourself. So we just need to figure out a different angle over in Oz, make it a bit easier on ourselves. And I just love Kiwi audiences – they love our style of music. Our genre, or whatever you want to call it, has become more mainstream here.”
There’s no doubt that the dub/roots/reggae sound has gained great popularity here and despite our tall poppy tendency to start criticising as soon as anyone becomes successful, there is a good reason for this music’s popularity. It taps into the laid back Kiwi lifestyle; it’s danceable, ideal for outdoor and festival gigs; combines impressive musicality with sing-along vocals and allows us a little patriotism.
Besides all that, dDub always bring the party. As they gig their way across the country in support of ‘Medicine Man’ be sure you get out there and have yourself some musical healing.
Main photo by James Little.