Valentine’s Day was more than just a day for sappy cards, flowers and chocolates for four musical Wellingtonians this year. On 14 February Hex dropped their first album – ‘The Hill Temple’ – in vinyl format, with a digital version of the LP following shortly after. Briar Lawry talked with Kiki Van Newtown and Jason Erskine over coffee, the morning after the band had played the Kings Arms.
On their Bandcamp, Hex describe themselves as “…the progeny of wives Kiki and GG Van Newtown, a musical love affair who draw on influences spanning classical to folk to punk to metal.”
On paper that sounds like a lot to condense into one cohesive sound, and yet, when you hit ‘Play’ on a Hex tune, or stand on a sticky pub floor watching them live, it’s clearly, purely, them. The different influences that push through, in different ways at different times, all add to a rich and at times raucous sound.
Kiki and GG (Greta) – are joined in Hex’s current iteration by Jason Erskine and Briar Prastiti, building what has historically been a trio into a kick-ass four-piece. The version of Hex you’ll hear on the record though is the threesome of Kiki, GG and Jason – giving the live experience of watching the band a whole ‘nother person-worth of power.
“It’s been in the works for basically two years,” Kiki explains of their album recording process. “We ended up recording it three times, sort of accidentally. It was quite a process with quite a few interruptions and changes of tack. But three times – now it’s done.”
The song material was there from the outset – any delaying issues were about getting that perfect sound for the release.
“It was us wanting to get the production how we wanted it… deciding on how we wanted it to sound in recorded format.”
The songs are written by Kiki and GG.
“Some are clearly mine, some are clearly Greta’s. But we all bring our own things to the band – so even if there’s one person who’s majorly written a song, the others will have their own opinions or ideas. And there are a few songs on the album that me and Greta co-wrote very equally. It’s sort of through necessity our way of songwriting, since it’s limited by our time together, which is in turn limited by having jobs and a family – that sort of stuff.”
Jason’s addition to the band line up isn’t his first foray into the world of Hex. He recorded and mixed the band’s first release, 2016 EP ‘Calling To The Universe’ – so coming on board to play with the band late last year made perfect sense. He explains the reasons for the multiple rounds of recording.
“The way we were tracking the record, we were able to keep some guitar parts from earlier sessions, and maybe a vocal part or two. I did a lot of the drum tracking on the record, and a lot of stuff was overlaid from what was existing there – and then we just built and built until we got to a good place.”
“We had originally intended to record it all live,” Kiki adds. “But in the end, with the time constraints, our scheduling meant that we basically just had to go to the room one by one with Jason and track it like that. But next time we want to all be in a room together.”
“It’s pretty luxurious these days, isn’t it, to think that we can get a space, spend two weeks making sure the sound is right,” Jason muses. “Though the reality of that is that I have a small studio in my garage at home, and I just had to think, ‘Okay, what gear do I have on hand, or can borrow from friends, and then set this up so it doesn’t sound like a clangy mess in a garage?’”
Title rights is always an interesting conversation – whether it’s a song title or lyric, or something different all together. This LP’s title – ‘The Hill Temple’ – is taken from one of the songs.
“Me and Greta had a few ideas for the album name,” Kiki recalls. “It was tentatively called ‘Past Present Future’, but it didn’t feel quite right.”
“It sounds like a greatest hits record,” Jason interjects.
“Yeah, we’ll save that for our legacy,” laughs Kiki. “But one day we sat down and went through all the lyrics, and pulled out all the lyrics we thought would make good song titles and that one won. But there were a lot of discussions about it, before we got to a place where we all agreed on ‘The Hill Temple’.”
The timing of bringing Briar into the band has also coincided with a shift in who’s standing where and playing what when the band’s on stage. Rather than just bring an extra set of hands and pipes on the stage, Hex took the opportunity to recalibrate and make sure that everyone is able to represent the best of themselves on stage. So while Kiki’s staying at a mic stand with her bass, Jason has stepped out from behind the drums to join Briar on guitar, with GG taking residence at her natural home on the drum stool.
“It’s about how we can each be doing the best version of our musical selves,” says Kiki. “Greta is a legendary drummer – she’s been drumming forever and she’s quite a mind-blowing drummer to watch. And for Jason, guitar is his primary instrument, so both of them weren’t playing their primary instruments before. Jason’s not even a drummer! We just got him in and were like, ‘Hey, can you play the drums?’, and he was like, ‘No… but I can give it a go!’”
Kiki and Jason both laugh at that memory.
“We had a show coming up, and we were like, ‘Hey Jason, you know how you’re not a drummer, do you want to be a drummer now?’ So it felt like a natural progression to now switch around – and it might not always be like this. We’re all multi-instrumentalists, I love guitars but I’m very open to other instruments as well. It’s just nice to have a change – and with Greta on drums I feel that she’s such a good, solid bedrock for the band.”
Jason’s learning of the drums on the fly isn’t the only piece of learning the band has handled lately. Adding Briar to the line-up has been invigorating for the band and, it seems, for Briar herself. The Hex gig at Auckland’s (late) Kings Arms was the first rock show performance for the masterful flamenco guitarist – she had never played an electric guitar until about a month before.
“I think the whole environment was quite a new paradigm for performing for her. I felt it was a bit cruel – ’Oh yeah, you’re playing your first ever rock show at the Kings Arms, after all these epic bands…’ Kiki laughs. “But she did so well, I would have been catatonic!”
Having a fourth member also meant a new layer of richness to the live sound.
“The guitar parts are quite complex, so we were arranging to elevate that overall guitar heaviness. It gave us a chance to figure out how can we really bring it, really fill out our guitars and our vocal sound.”
And fill it out they have. Their record is a treat – and catching them live you get the perfect balance of faithfulness to the record – plus an enticing something extra.
This autumn they’ve taken the plunge into doing the indie dream – hopping across the Pacific and a few state lines to take on SXSW in Austin, Texas where, according to eyewitnesses, they blew away international music business figures and impressively gained themselves an invite to take part in next year’s festival.