December/January 2014

by Alex Harmer

Fresh Talent: Sweet Leaf

by Alex Harmer

Fresh Talent: Sweet Leaf

Sweet Leaf are Christchurch’s latest offering to the smorgasbord of top-quality NZ reggae fusion acts, active since (and despite of) the devastating Canterbury earthquakes.

Formed in 2009 against the ever-reliable backdrop of poker nights and loud jams with mates, Sweet Leaf have taken a long and ultimately rewarding journey to the release of their debut album, ‘Images‘.

“The first song written and the last song recorded had a lot of time in between,” says Kalem Mallon, who plays drums and percussion.

“We have been recording the whole time we’ve been together,” adds Steve Fowler, guitarist and founding member.

The album could easily have never seen release. The two earthquakes that ripped Christchurch apart took their inevitable toll on Steve’s studio where the music was being written and recorded, leaving it due for demolition and the future of their work in doubt.

“I was about ready to scrap the album,” he recalls. “Then our manager Darren Crothers heard the tracks, stepped in and encouraged us to finally finish it, in the new Clevetown Studios.”

Vocals on the album are very clear and light, almost as if their delivery is completely effortless.

“I’m heavily influenced by singers like Bjork and Erykah Badu, and the music of Massive Attack, Portishead and Zero 7,” explains singer Mel Hibbert, and this is evident throughout the album, as Sweet Leaf produce tunes reminiscent of some of the greatest trip-hop productions of the last 20 years.

“It’s a real hybrid blend,” says bassist Jeremy London. “Our music has elements of rock, metal, drum’n’bass and reggae in the mix.”

“My guitar playing is influenced by players like Hendrix and Dave Gilmour,” says Steve, and that too shows. The album easily blends the soundscapes, rhythms and guitar pyrotechnics of the 1960s and ’70s, while being anchored by the more laid-back grooves of ’90s trip hop, with the assistance of Andy Stewart on keys and synth.

Sweet Leaf recorded the album themselves, a daunting task according to Steve.

“I had to be making technical decisions all the time, while being part of the creative process as well. We wanted to have a real sense of community to the album, a kind of Kiwi DIY feel to it, but with a really good result that stands up to the work of our musical contemporaries.”

“I would love to work with vocalists like Che Fu and Hollie Smith in the studio,” says Mel, while Steve wants to tour with Shapeshifter, Kora and Katchafire. “We really feel like we would be a excellent act alongside these bands. We’ve had a lot of great feedback from the shows we’ve done so far.”

The release of the album was funded through a crowd-sourcing campaign, and the physical CDs exist only as a limited edition, each individually numbered.

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