December/January 2016

by John Paul Carroll

Ekko Park: Playing With Words

by John Paul Carroll

Ekko Park: Playing With Words

Featuring a blindfolded and gagged newspaper reader and clever two-colour printing on its fold out cover, Ekko Park ‘s new album ‘Know Hope’ looks for all money to be a statement of rock activism. Track titles such as Probable Cause, Whistleblower, Revolution Evolution reinforce that expectation, but as guitarist Joel Halstead and drummer Nick Douch tell NZMs JP Carroll, rather than any unfortunate global politics, the album really owes its willful, big energy to the pubs of Ireland and a sleepy Coromandel holiday township.

There may not be a more appropriate setting to discuss the nature of Auckland rockers Ekko Park than an Irish pub located not too far from the centre of Auckland city. While the band’s Irish front man Joe Walsh was missing from the conversation, he was still present in spirit, as yarns were spun and glasses of Guinness were dealt to by drummer Nick Douch and guitarist Joel Halstead. Bassist, Callum Tong, was also absent from proceedings, likely deep in study.

Ekko Park’s cleverly-titled sophomore album ‘Know Hope’ was released on 30-10-2015, two years to the day after the band’s landmark first, ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Today’. Like the debut, it entered the local album charts at #5. Such synchronicities were not planned according to the drummer, but rather organically developed on a journey that viewed opportunities as stepping stones.

“After the first album we were busy for a year and half, but kept writing,”” Douch explains. Enter the production dream team of producer Greg Haver, recording engineer Nick Poortman and mix engineer Adrian Hall, who combined for lead single Validation, that served as the first waypoint on the expedition toward ‘Know Hope’. Validation piqued the interest of radio and fans alike mid-year, serving as a metaphorical gateway drug for the band to record their second album.

“Once we got that we were really inspired to get the whole thing finished. We were like, ‘Crap, let’s do this’,”” Douch laughs.

Momentum cannot be overstated as a driving force for Ekko Park. It’s a nurturing source of energy for any group, but always having something to look forward to is what keeps this band together – jamming in the same room, developing new material, keeping an eye on the big picture. Should the right opportunity fail to present itself, Ekko Park aren’t afraid of trying to make their own luck.

“There’s never an excuse to not rehearse,” reckons Douch. “We’ll make something happen.””

Since their first album, a tour at home with I Am Giant, a tour of the UK under their own steam, international support opportunities and a NZ Music Awards’ finalist chance for Best Rock Album in 2014 have given this band every reason to believe their momentum will continue.

“We just saw the opportunity to keep going,”” he laughs in explaining the release of ‘Know Hope’. And so they did. Two of the new album tracks had live debuts within the walls of a (genuine) Irish pub, when for many Kiwi bands, playing shows so far from home is a concept as foreign as the UK itself. The writing process was an holistic amalgamation of contributions from all comers, punctuated by an unwillingness to let a good idea die. Faking Shadows provides one example.

“We had this start for ages, like, that drum beat. Callum had a bass line, Joe had a picky intro bit, but we didn’t know where to take it. So each week we’d start jamming that, then we’d go and work on something else.Then one day we got the chorus and  it was like, ‘Oh sweet, we got it!’””

Guitarist Joel Halstead describes the collaborative process behind Whistleblower.

“The bridge was from another song. That was one where I had come in with a riff, and we just kept working on the song, but we couldn’t quite get it.””

“Then when we were writing Whistleblower, we had everything but a bridge,”” interjects Douch .

And so, via the course of an apparent key change, the strongest riffs survive, and ‘Know Hope’ was born out of songwriting evolution. It was also born from 10 days of comparative recording isolation in a well-appointed bach in the tiny ocean beach settlement of Onemana, on the Coromandel.

The idea came up while recording Validation late 2014 at Roundhead Studios. Engineer Nick Poortman had a portable studio available and the band liked the idea of getting out of Auckland to zone in to the album recording.

“After the drum tracking was complete in early August we packed up our gear and ventured down to the Coromandel, loaded in, set up, soundproofed and locked ourselves away for 10 days.””

Nothing’s ever so easy of course. When the band and production team turned up to the house a leak had caused flooding. Handily, Poortman never travels without a dehumidifier and after the obligatory mopping up the band lived in the house for the duration; recording, cooking (mainly master chef Joe Walsh), recording, cleaning and recording.

“Our day was structured, with a morning coffee run to Whangamata before getting into recording around 10am, where we would focus on guitars for the day. Then after dinner we would work on vocals. It was a great place to be, right next to the beach, there were no distractions and we were 100% focused on the music… it helped create a vibe that we wouldn’t get anywhere else,”” explains Douch.

Using the band’s own equipment meant the production team could get closer to the goal of making an honest, exciting record. The bach-turned-studio played its own distinctive part in creating the album’s unique energy. In counterpoint, working with now Auckland-based Welsh producer Greg Haver instilled a sense of calm on the project.

“You felt like… he knows what’s going on, he’s got it under control, just play,”” Douch continues.

“We all had a vision of what it might sound like… and he knew how to make that happen.”

A shared vision lay in the pursuit of the band’s individuality.

“Greg wanted us to sound like us,”” Halstead adds. “We just wanted to do a balls-to-the-wall Ekko album.””

Haver’s approach to the sonic direction of the record was, he says, simple. Within two minutes of hearing the band rehearse lead single Validation, he knew what he wanted.

“The band sounded great playing together and had the confidence of being on the road since the release of their first album,””  recalls Haver.

Mix engineer Adrian Hall has plentiful credits – Alicia Keys, Black Eyed Peas and Goldfrapp among them. Haver describes his perspective and directness as refreshing, supportive of the goal of capturing and portraying that energy present in the rehearsal room.

We live in a time of such heated dialogue over world events such as terrorism, dodgy trade agreements and the terrifying prospect of wholesale spying on the public, so it was appropriate to ask if the album’s title and content, were politically driven? Apparently not.

“There’s no concept the whole way through,” Halstead stresses. “I mean you’ve got songs written about Breaking Bad. Joe is not the new Bono.”

“The first album almost guided us into how we wanted the second album to be,”” he continues, meaning the process of recording helped the band identify exactly what they wanted to extract from the second. ‘Tomorrow Tomorrow Today’ was recorded at Studio 203 and York Street, with Andrew Buckton producing. It got to #15 on the national album chart, with lead single My Crime finding good radio support. Faking Shadows and opener Surface Breaks were the last two songs written for the new album and Douch indicates they were also band favourites, suggesting they might provide a direction for a next album.

The ‘Know Hope’ release happily coincided with a NZ tour support for Aussie rockers Dead Letter Circus in November, a tour shaded by disappointment with the closure of Christchurch’s Allen St Rock Club in the lead up. Looking forward the band have some activity planned across the ditch, intend to return to the UK and perhaps even to dip their toes in the Asian market. With two albums under their belt, ad there is a sense anything is possible for Ekko Park.

“We’ve been on the same page, like, ‘We’re gonna do this’, and we kind’a just do it. We go out and make it happen,”” says Douch on the band’s unified direction.

“There’s no guarantee that anything’s going to happen,”” adds Halstead. “The amount of effort that an independent band puts into something [like a record release]…  so for anything to happen, it makes it all worthwhile.””

Ekko Park are keen to do their part in helping rock bands coming through as well. A channel of communication with Kaipara College was formed after a student from the school messaged the band, asking if they’d be interested in helping with the preparation of their Rockquest acts. The relationship blossomed, and saw Ekko Park’s first public show following the release of ‘Know Hope’ staged in Kaipara, in conjunction with the school and featuring five local high school bands in support.

In the light of the lingering aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks on Paris the album’s inevitable question has gained added pathos. Is there really k(no)w hope?

“Oh nah, there’s hope all the time. If you put your mind to it, there’s hope,”” Douch responds promptly.

More introspectively, Halstead adds his angle.

“Hope’s a thing that makes everything work. You hope that shit doesn’t happen, you hope that if it does it gets sorted out, but, I dunno. I guess it depends on perspective, who’s in control of things.… Hopefully, people just get their shit together.””