Admired by fans worldwide for their ability to jam single tracks for as long as many a punk album, live as well as on record, Fat Freddy’s Drop have specialised not just in milking the groove but in milking their albums. Together as a musical family for a dozen years now they have released just two studio albums to date, ‘Based on a True Story’ in 2005 and ‘Dr Boondigga and the Big BW’ in 2009. Now, in June 2013, they have a third, this one more simply, but no less enigmatically titled ‘Blackbird’. While very evidently a product of FFD’s Wellington jam factory it is nonetheless fresh sounding and as the mighty Mu (producer Chris Faiumu) tells Laura Dooney, was made with the knowledge that even their fans no longer have the attention span necessary to be listening to any track wander on for long durations.
Kicking trombone player Joe Lindsay out of his flat might have been the best thing Fat Freddy’s Drop ever did – at least in a creative sense. Lindsay was living in an upstairs apartment in Bay Rd in Kilbirnie, adjacent to the great space where the seven-piece band would come to practice.
“For years we’ve worked on kicking him out. We eventually got rid of him two winters ago,” smiles producer, beat maker and band leader, Chris Faiumu, aka DJ Fitchie, aka Mu. It’s come up because we are talking in what used to be Lindsay’s bedroom, but is now where Mu works away on a powerful computer, refining and perfecting what’s been recorded in the next room.
“We had to actually go and find him a house down in Lyall Bay, and said, ‘Move out bro’ – then started turning this into a studio.”
Why was it such a good move for the band? As Mu says several times during our interview, having a space to base themselves and call their own to record their latest album has given the band the freedom, flexibility and time to create something that truly encompasses what they do.
Fat Freddy’s albums are a rarity – ‘Blackbird’ is just the band’s third studio album, alongside 2001’s ‘Live at Mattherhorn’ and ‘Live at Roundhouse’ from 2010. Over nine tracks the album encompasses and at times mashes together almost as many different genres. In typical Fat Freddy’s style there’s plenty of reggae, dub, soul and jazz, but the album also delves into some pretty funky places, and towards the end there’s evidence of Mu and keyboardist Iain Gordon’s shared love of electronic music.
Mu says the album was put together in a bit of a journey. Starting with title track Blackbird it then moves into Russia which he describes as “… a new type of reggae thing”. Three old school FFD tracks infused with soul, reggae, funk and jazz follow before Soldier moves the album into more of an EDM sphere.
“We’re definitely into where music’s going with electronics,” he confirms. “We don’t fully go there as we need to be able to perform songs live with instruments, but we always go to a bit of an effort to indulge the electronic side, especially me and the keyboard player. We’re really into that music so that’s kind’a like the second half of the album, it gets a bit housier and deeper.”
Fat Freddy’s are known to take slightly longer than the average band to get tracks recorded and produced. It’s been four years since ‘Dr Boondigga and the Big BW’ saw fans getting down to Shiverman.
As Mu explains, they are seven people and the production process is very slow because it’s fairly democratic. It’s also important for them to do a decent job of touring the album, to get the most out of it.
So how do FFD distil it all down to create a product people can take home and listen to that can compete with their improvisational live performance? Essentially, they go into the studio and play the songs wherever their mood or the vibe takes them. They record it all, then come back and, according to Mu, “…throw away the rubbish and keep all the good stuff.”
“It’s just that sort of space. People find crazy instruments, old instruments out there; we just bring them in and record them. We’ve got the freedom to just record it, chuck it on the computer and sift through it later.
“I think we’re better songwriters than we were five years ago. I think in the early years just jamming for 40 minutes kind of made sense, just putting those recordings out there – but now it’s about honing what the essence of the song is.”
He tells me he has just bought a hard drive to do a back up of the new album, and there’s well over a terabyte (that’s a trillion bytes) of recording. To put it in perspective, only about 650 megabytes (way less than one thousandth of that) actually make it on to the final CD.
“We still like to jam, but the average attention span of the person listening isn’t as long as it used to be – you’ve gotta condense and make it all make sense.”
For a band that has quintessentially based its sound around long improvisational jams, that must be a challenge.
“Yeah,” Mu agrees, “I think that’s why it takes so long.”
Once recording has finished it takes about two weeks get each song to down to what you’ll hear on the album. The band comes back to it, work on it, stop listening to it for a few days, then come back to it again. The process continues until the whole band is satisfied with the result.
They call the upstairs apartment they recorded the album in ‘Bays’, after Bay Rd. It comes complete with a room full of almost every instrument you can imagine, and some you can’t, a room next door where the recordings are worked on, and a kitchen for cooking up meals when everyone’s around.
Their previous two albums were recorded at Mu’s own place in Lyall Bay, and he says having a separate space that everyone felt some ownership of really helped the band along in terms of playing, recording and capturing the good stuff. The building even comes with its own musical folkore. 20 years ago it was where Polygram Records had a vinyl pressing plant. Upstairs where the band play would’ve been the mastering studio Mu tells me, and downstairs was where they duplicated albums.
“There’s a story within the industry that Polygram threw their vinyl press into Cook Strait to kill off vinyl and bring in CDs. That’s all shit I think, but within the industry it’s a very famous story.”
‘Blackbird’ is due out in a couple of weeks when we talk – but the band won’t be home when it happens – they’ll be touring in summery Europe, where they continue to attract and retain a huge following.
Most of their business now is in Europe, and while they haven’t forgotten Aotearoa by any means, in order to make money from their music they need to make the most of the eager festival market they’ve found over there, where FFD can regularly play gigs to crowds of 3,000 or more.
They will return for a quick NZ tour before heading back to Europe, and will naturally be home to grace our own summer festival circuit, which just wouldn’t be complete without Fat Freddy’s Drop. Things are speeding up and Mu promises it won’t be such a long wait to their next album.
“There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it on to this album, and we’re keen to put out another one quicker than the last two – not wait three of four years. Two years, maximum.”