May/June 2019

by Oliver Emmitt

Ex-Pat Files: Oliver Emmitt

by Oliver Emmitt

Ex-Pat Files: Oliver Emmitt

Oliver Emmitt says it was on a whim that he first decided to try living in Amsterdam back in May 2011. The versatile trombone player had just spent time touring Europe with two Kiwi acts, so doesn’t blame naivety for the ensuing survivalist stint as a Dutch postie. Fortunately, his jazz chops were plenty good enough to get him into a post-graduate course, and out of those Amsterdam Conservatorium connections, he is now a member of Molino, with a second EP just released and a third one, recorded in Bogota, ready to go! Back here for a tour with Carnivorous Plant Society this winter, Oliver generously provided NZM with this glimpse into his new life.

In 2010 I had completed a back to back tour with the now-defunct Batucada Sound Machine and Mamaku Project. The latter’s European tour ended in Amsterdam, with a two-week gap before the last show of the tour – halfway home in Korea. In this break I met my girlfriend, along with a bunch of other new friends, and quickly fell in love with Amsterdam. Batucada Sound Machine would be returning the next summer, the working holiday visa was free for New Zealanders, and I already had some friends living there, so I figured there weren’t many reasons not to take the plunge!

In my first year here I can’t say I achieved all that much. Amsterdam is a bit of a transit city with a lot of wandering musicians, so it takes quite a while before people realise you’re not just passing through. It was difficult to find work as a musician and all my previous work experience outside of that had been teaching, which I would need to learn Dutch for. After a year playing with some amateur big bands, and delivering the post, I thought I had better do something productive. Life as a professional postman just didn’t appeal to me. I needed to perform and create.

I decided to study for a Masters in jazz performance at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam and was lucky enough to be granted a scholarship which made the fees affordable. I had finished my Bachelor degree in 2006, at Auckland University, so studying again after six years was quite a shock to the system. That said, it was great to be busy again and the CVA has such an interesting and challenging program the two years flew by in a flurry of breathing exercises and take-dimi.

I went from being the only trombonist at Auckland University to one of around 70 at the CVA! Awash in a sea of trombonists I was forced to find my own voice – something I wasn’t challenged to do at home as one of a handful of professional trombonists in Auckland.

While studying I met the guys with whom I would later form the band, Molino. When we started we didn’t really have a clear idea of what we wanted to do musically. We began as an experimental brass band, but when one of the writers, Linus Kleinlosen, heard of my dark past as a backing vocalist for Lisa Crawley, New Telepathics and Bannerman he started to write songs for me.

Matthias Sigurðsson, the clarinet player, was studying live electronics at the time and also wanted to incorporate what he was creating into the band. We spent about a year experimenting with new ideas and soon after Molino was reborn. The change was quite dramatic but we all knew this new sound was what we wanted to focus on.

Since I was at high school I was a bedroom songwriter and never found any reason to have a band to perform my songs. This new development was perfect for me – I didn’t have any experimental brass band tunes but I did have loads of old Garageband demos I thought would never see the light of day. I let Linus pick through all the old demos and quite a few of the songs ended up being recorded for our album. I still work as a freelance musician and teacher but Molino has quickly become my focus and given me a chance to hone my songwriting skills and work on production, something I never experienced in NZ.

We won a competition, which funded the recording of the album a few years ago, and this year we are finally releasing the material. We released a first EP, ‘Sinner’, last December and April 2019 saw the release of the second EP titled ‘Silo’.

The third EP is a collaboration with Colombian musicians – vocalist Sol Okarina, an old friend of ours, and Mauricio Ramirez who was our original drummer and now plays for the psychedelic cumbia band Meridian Brothers. This EP was partially recorded in Chango Studios, Bogota, and features three Colombian-influenced tunes. We are hoping it leads to some Colombian tours or more collaborations. The current band consists of Dutch, German and Icelandic musicians and we were lucky enough to briefly tour Iceland last November.

Amsterdam is a great city full of ferocious musicians and a healthy local and international arts scene. It is a strong option for a Kiwi musician wanting a change of scene. Flat as a pannenkoek, cycling is a breeze and you can save on transport and gym fees! Travel from Amsterdam around Europe is easy and avoids the 24-hour hell ride that is the long haul flight from NZ.

Cost of living would be comparable to Auckland. The food is cheaper here (usually when we have a guest staying the first trip out of the house will involve a Scrooge McDuck-style dive, headfirst into the cheese cooler of a local supermarket), but what you save on food you quickly spend on rent and compulsory health insurance.

One setback is the amount of time it takes to build a network here. It took me years when I was hoping for months – and is something that should be considered if you are thinking about making a move.

The music scene is very different to that of NZ. The live jazz scene is huge here, you can go to a jam every night of the week and see many jazz legends that don’t often get the chance to head down under. I have taken the opportunity to be a part of that scene and have ended up playing a lot more jazz here than I would have played in NZ.

That said, I think the alternative/pop scene is healthier in NZ. Because of the high amount of good quality venues Amsterdam attracts a lot of international touring acts. This is great as a punter. It means any night of the week you can go and see any number of bands or DJs. I have taken advantage of that since living here, but as wonderful as that is it can be of a certain disadvantage to a local band.

Here you are not just competing with local bands for gigs on small stages, but a plethora of international bands too. Venues that could be compared to something the size of the Wine Cellar in Auckland attract fairly big international names, so you are not only competing for an audience but also access to those small, independent stages. Living in a thriving European city is not without its challenges, but they don’t make me love Amsterdam any less.

I have stayed in touch with a lot of my old bandmates from NZ and I play a little every time I return for a holiday. This winter I will be returning to tour with Carnivorous Plant Society, filling in for Cass Basil on bass, trombone and vocals. I’m excited to be reunited with old friends and get to tour the country in the winter again, something I did many moons ago when I played for the likes of the WBC and The Rodger Fox Big Band.