April/May 2003

by Stephen Jewell

House of Downtown: Second Spin At Success

by Stephen Jewell

House of Downtown: Second Spin At Success

The debut ‘Release’ from Auckland dance duo House of Downtown was hailed as the album that would put New Zealand house music on the world map, when it appeared in mid-2001. Unfortunately, ‘Release’’s release was protracted, plagued by squabbles – and then the album itself didn’t live up to the unrealistically high expectations that surrounded it.

Even though the album failed to set the charts alight (no one’s talking numbers), neither HoD’s Christiaan Ercolano and Emerson Todd nor their label have been deterred. The pair are set to release their sophomore effort, ‘Mutha Funkin Earth’, again on Universal Music, in early May.

“‘Release’ sold what any other album by any other dance duo was selling at the time, but unfortunately, it was only in New Zealand,” says Todd.

“It was as good as I expected,” Ercolano adds. “But a lot of people don’t understand that we’re writing our own albums, we’re not doing mix tapes.”
The two say that their first album’s release was so drawn out that by the time it came out, they were “… so over it.” Problems were mainly caused by the numerous samples that they had originally included on the debut.

“There was a lot of bad things that happened between us and our record label, which have now been sorted out. We were probably over-reacting about the samples,” says Todd. “But it wasn’t us at all. We were the ones who, when we finished the album, were saying ‘… the samples are sweet, you try and find them.’

“The problem was that (Sydney dance producers and HoD’s friends) Pnau got majorly screwed over just before our album came out. Their album, ‘Sambanova’ was pulled from the shelf because of big, obvious stuff like huge Miles Davis samples. So Universal freaked out and gave us an ultimatum – it all had to be cleared or they weren’t going to release the album, and this was after they’d said ‘Go ahead’.”

Because of all that, he says, with this album they haven’t worried about New Zealand so much.

“This is us trying to push ourselves overseas. And it’s very much our second go at doing the first album because we felt so restricted on ‘Release’. For this album, we were, for the first time, free to do what we wanted to do.”

According to Universal’s MD Adam Holt, the band and record label have agreed to put the debut album behind them and approach ‘Mutha Funkin Earth’ with a blank slate.

“While ‘Release’ didn’t sell quite as well as everyone hoped, Universal were still passionate about what House of Downtown were doing,” says Holt. “We sat down with Christiaan and Emerson in mid-2002 and reviewed ‘Release’s performance and talked about the new album. Having listened to what they wanted to achieve, we had no hesitation in funding their second album.”

‘Mutha Funkin Earth’ is not so much a radical reinvention, more a subtle shift, with the album’s many vocal tracks conveniently placed at the start and the more experimental, dance-floor tunes relegated to the back.

“This album is taken from where the vocal tracks on ‘Release’ were going,” explains Ercolano. “We’re now working solidly with vocalists. We wanted to hear singing and we wanted to hear big basslines. Everything we do would be much better understood by Americans. To me, what we do is American singing styles done by Polynesians over traditional good grooves.

“We wanted basslines that were classic pieces of rhythm and melody. It’s the music that we love. We quite often look at ourselves when we’re in the process of writing: ‘Why are we writing this kind of music?’ We wanted big, attractive, pull you up and get you grooving kind of songs.”

Ercolano and Todd are keen to distance themselves from the local house scene, which they believe has been devalued by homogenous club nights, and instead proclaim ‘Mutha Funkin Earth’ to be their “funk album.”

“For me, listening back to the album after we’d been away from it for a bit of time, it almost sounds like we’re waving goodbye to house,” says Ercolano. “We did a hip hop song, a slow jam, a two step song… but all at a house tempo. The album’s got a classic, Parliament P-Funk feel. I still love Masters at Work and other classic house stuff, but house in this country has been so watered down and experimentation has gone out the window.”

In fact, Ercolano believes that HoD have more in common with hip hop label-mates Nesian Mystic, whose single For The People they remixed last year. Ironically For The People celebrates Friday night, just like ‘Mutha Funkin Earth’’s first single, Friday Drive.

“We’re calling our style ‘new country funk’ and the Nesians come out of that as well,” laughs Ercolano. “It’s just heaps of Polynesian harmonies. Nesian Mystic are talking about the same vibe, how Friday is the big night for going out in Auckland. But it’s taken a while for anyone to talk about anything positive and up.”

“We first started the album just after September 11 and the mood was really down,” adds Todd. “We actually wrote a whole heap of dark stuff but then made a conscious decision to move away from that.”

Ercolano and Todd have worked with numerous vocalists on ‘Mutha Funkin Earth’, including R&B duo Brace and former King Kapisi foil Tha Feelstyle, while Sydney-based Samoan Tulele Faletolu, who sang on ‘Release’s best tracks, makes a welcome return.

“It’s a completely different approach to the last album,” says Ercolano. “We decided that we’d heard too much similar-sounding dance music over the last year before we began writing the new album. The dance scene had got a bit flat, so we decided to go a bit more traditional. We got in musicians and wrote more by hand. We wrote all the lyrics on paper rather than typing it up. Just to keep it out of the computer for the longest imaginable time. We just used the Apple Mac to record the audio and Pro Tools turned into a kind of tape deck. We didn’t write at all into the computer.”

The pair first began recording at Todd’s house, using an Allen & Heath 16-channel desk, before tracking half the album at Revolver Studios in May with engineer Andy Morton. An Andromeda A6 keyboard was then purchased, using an equipment budget provided by Universal. The record label also paid for ‘Mutha Funkin House’ to be mixed in Australia by veteran producer Jeremy Allom, whose credits include Massive Attack’s seminal album ‘Blue Lines’ and Bjork’s first solo record ‘Debut’, as well as ’80s acts like Robert Palmer and Heaven 17.

“We did it on this old mixing desk that had done Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, which was the twin to one that George Lucas used in Star Wars,” says Ercolano. “We went to Sydney to do it because we wanted to use traditional gear. We didn’t use any plug-ins and stayed away from Pro Tools because we wanted to have a sound that feels wide and clean and has got a breadth to it that you can’t get from samples or software-based stuff. We used ’70s technology to give us the warmth of easy listening.”