On the face of things Groeni is an electronic act producing a deliberate, almost minimalist, percussive rhythm-based ambient drum’n’bass-meets-trip hop. We’re thinking bedroom producer with a laptop and USB mic, right? Well no, at least not when the Wellington trio play live on stage. Shared between Mike Isaacs, James Paul and singer Alexander Green there are samplers, sequencers and digital percussion, a Prophet 6 polyphonic analogue synth and MiniBrute analogue bass synth, a Telecaster (!) and heaps of pedals for both guitar and voice. Martyn Pepperell talked with synth maestro Isaacs about Groeni’s recent fast track and latest EP, ‘Hinde’.
As Groeni, Wellington musicians Alexander Green, James Paul and Mike Isaacs make a shimmering and textural form of live techno music. Placing an emphasis on gorgeous soul-folk vocal arrangements, rich textures and driving hypnotic rhythms, their music serves as both a lush and detailed listening experience on record and a compelling live experience.
In a testament to their musical ability, over the last year, Groeni have released two EPs, ‘Hewn’ and ‘Hinde’, toured nationally several times, and performed at the Auckland leg of Laneway Festival. They also received substantial support from the Red Bull Sound Select and NZOA Making Tracks programs and won acclaim from overseas radio and media outlets like BBC 6 in the UK, KCRW (US), Australia’s Triple J, Indie Shuffle and EDM.com. It’s been an excellent run for 12 months.
Along the way, Groeni has progressed from Alexander’s solo production project (with Isaacs and Paul acting as session players) to a fully fleshed-out group collaboration.
“When we released ‘Hewn’ James and I were just there to do the live stuff,” Isaacs explains. “After about a year of playing together, we realised that our favourite bits of the set were the parts we had written together.”
With that realisation the three set up a shared Dropbox folder and started leaving sketches and ideas (recorded at their home studios) inside for collective listening. In subsequent group writing sessions, these ideas began to expand into fuller songs.
“While this all sounds quite straight forward, it was actually pretty difficult as we’re all quite emotional,” he admits. “We were tip-toeing around each other, not wanting to offend anyone. It got to the point where we realised that it was actually an enormous disservice to the music. To get the best music possible, we needed to be brutally honest with each other. It took us six or seven months to be able to say to one another, ‘That sucks’. It works now, and it’s been great for our relationship.”
While this was going on, the trio also went through the process of transforming their live set from a laptop-driven performance into a hardware heavy exercise. They got hold of keyboards, samplers, drum machines, effects units, and began learning how to play their old and new material in a live and improvised manner.
“The software was actually confining us, and it was temperamental,” Issacs says. “We’d be playing, a cable would come out, and everything would crash to a halt. Hardware is way more fun to work with as well. The possibilities in front of you are endless… We wanted to move towards having more improvised elements and provide audiences with a unique experience every time.”
In October last year, these processes lead them to the release of ‘Hinde’ and a national tour in support of it. While their prior EP ‘Hewn’ came out through German record label/distributor combo Project Mooncircle/HHV.DE in digital, vinyl and cassette formats, ‘Hinde’ began as a digital self-release.
“The contrast between the two release experiences last year was really kind of crazy,” he reflects.
While Project Mooncircle/HHV.DE provided them with a level of support and coverage they couldn’t achieve on their own; it also meant they’d had to wait a year and a half to release that first EP. He says they used that time pretty productively, to write new material and put together the live show, but looking ahead they wanted to a shorter gap between recording and release for ‘Hinde’.
“Self-releasing was definitely a hard slog in comparison to releasing with a label. Credit should go to James, who took this whole process on and probably sent about 5000 emails… I think he did a really great job of getting the new material to some people who were willing to put their necks out for us.”
As part of that process, James managed to convince Wellington company Coffee Supreme to help fund a limited edition vinyl release of ‘Hinde’. He also did the legwork on an application for a joint funding grant from Red Bull and NZ On Air. Groeni used the money to work with Wellington director Joel Fear to create a gorgeous god’s eye view music video for the Hinde track. They are supporting its release with an art exhibition of stills from the clip and playing a series of live shows around the country in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin at the start of March.
What next though?
“Good question,” Isaacs chuckles. “The next step is an album. We haven’t had much writing time lately. The plan is to knuckle down after this tour. We have no real direction yet, but we want to explore different types of synthesis and some new production processes. We are hearing prepared piano on the album as well.”