Eighteen months ago NZM reported on the outstanding debut EP (‘The Ends’) from The Means, the Auckland three-piece of Abraham Kunin, Tom Broome and Marika Hodgson. Writer Sam Carswell described them as ‘a kind of super instrumentalist group that ropes in quality female singers to bring out the soul in their electro-jazz arrangements’. Esther Stephens featured as one such quality guest vocalist. April 2015 saw the release of an album eponymously titled ‘Esther Stephens and The Means’. Things have clearly changed. Chip Matthews met up with Stephens and Kunin to join the dots.
With the anxious thought of trying to condense the history of a group of prolific musicians –– each of whom could take up this article’s word count –– at the fore of my mind, I sat down with Esther Stephens and Abraham Kunin to discuss the release of the new self-titled album, ‘Esther Stephens and The Means’, with a sense of anticipation.
While the band in its current incarnation came into being in 2014, the roots of their musical relationships date back a decade.
The four members of the group (alongside vocalist Stephens and Kunin on guitar, the band features the equally monstrous talents of Marika Hodgson on bass and drummer Tom Broome) began their musical liaisons through a variety of bands. Motor City Family Funk, a brilliant Motown-inspired covers act, was one.
It was whilst Stephens and Kunin were in the interestingly named House Of Broken Strings, and flatting together, that songs which would later resurface in recorded form by The Means featuring Esther Stephens were born.
“There were a lot of songs written in that band that we really loved and felt were really strong. Love Me Not, which was released on the first EP, was one of those tunes.”
‘The Ends’ EP she is alluding to was completed when the band were still essentially an instrumental three-piece. Stephens featured on three tracks (including the fantastic Modern Marvel which also appears on the new album), solidifying the musical relationship between her as vocalist and The Means as band.
Jumping forward to 2014, Stephens was residing in Melbourne, The Means in NZ, forging careers as individuals and also as a group. Stephens talks of her attempts to get a band up and running in Melbourne, but says it just wasn’’t the same.
“I guess the two things ran alongside each other,”… Kunin embellishes. “When Esther came over we’d do gigs as her backing band, or vice versa. All of this amounted in a realisation… that we were one band basically, anyways.”
As they chuckle Stephens adds, “…as we always had been!”
They agree that the process of making Esther Stephens and The Means official was something of a fait accompli, a confirmation of their combined musical direction.
“We had done some work to establish ourselves individually, and then brought that thing together… realised that this kind of music we’re making, and this style… the most natural fit for this music is the four of us together,” says Kunin.
The natural fit he talks about can now be heard in LP form via their self-titled album, ‘Esther Stephens and The Means’. Gorgeous opener Cloud Shapes sets the tone for what is to come over the following 45 minutes. It is hard to categorise; soulful, great pop sensibilities, strong jazzy tones, beats-oriented and more. The sound is warm and each musician gets to showcase their ability, not just as the amazing instrumentalist they are, but also as a collective of friends, creating lush soundscapes for the listener and for one another.
Tracking for the album was done between Auckland’s The Lab, with Olly Harmer, and Black Orange Studio with owner Vivek Gabriel, the overall production duties largely taken care of by the band. With Stephens resident in Australia, and the remaining members also committed to various endeavours, adherence to strict timelines became a necessity; something that in the end galvanized the process as Stephens explains.
“We’ve been more productive since doing things long distance, than we ever were when we lived in the same country!”
“Limitation… is one of the keys to creativity,” Kunin chimes in. “Everyone easily has the ability to create something good if you give them perimeters to do them in, and not much time.”
Adding another layer of time-complexity to the equation, the album was mixed in New York by Kiwi ex-pat, Aaron Nevezie.
“Aaron would be like, ‘The track will be up at this time,'”…’ Stephens gestures. “And then we’d all figure out what time that was in our respective time zones… and we’d get on Messenger, listen to the bounce, and add feedback.”
Mastering was handled by Chris Chetland back in Auckland. The result is an album that seems spacious, with an invitingly warm lower end adding a sense of weight and balance. With older tracks such as Modern Marvel featuring on the new release, we talk also of the chronology of the album, a timeline that sees this release more as a marker of what the band members have been up to, to this point.
“This is like a greatest hits, of all the albums we never released,” describes Stephens.
Kunin and I having just traded new tattoo-displays, he adds: “It’s a little like tattoos as well, that what you record, or get as a tattoo, is significant and true to you in that moment.”
The album provides an opportunity for both existing fans as well as the uninitiated to get aboard this musical train. A trip well worth the effort.