Over a dozen or so years Auckland bassist Cass Mitchell has played with more of our favourite local artists than we’ve got space here to list, be it as a permanent band member or gun for hire on album recordings and tours. In recent times she’s probably been most visible as part of Hollie Fullbrook’s Tiny Ruins, but it was playing and rehearsing with Bic Runga and partner Kody Nielson’s Silicon that led to Mitchell finally stepping up to the mic as the front woman of joyful disco project King Sweeties – with Runga on drums and production duties. Only a few months into existence as a band, their first single Let’s Just Stay In Bed was a top 20 finalist for this year’s Silver Scroll Award, and independent radio nationwide has enthusiastically supported their cool bops. Silke Hartung caught up with the lady of bass.
Studying and graduating from Auckland University with a jazz degree had its benefits for Cass Mitchell as a working musician, one being that it introduced her to what she now calls her music family.
“That’s where I met Alex Freer, who I play in multiple musical outfits with, and my Carnivorous Plant Society bandies. When you study you play with a lot of different people every day, the groups are always changing, and so it definitely taught me how to play in different ensembles, how to listen. I think that is one thing that has really stuck with me and that I can apply to all musical situations – listening and vibing off others whilst playing.”
Not long after graduating Mitchell could be seen live around town on stages big and small with acts such as The Shades, Bannerman, One Million Dollars, The Subterraneans (frontman Hayden Booth now curates music for Air NZ), Cool Rainbows (Djeisan Suskov‘s project before Leisure), as well as Lisa Crawley and The Conversations.
All that band work laid the foundation to working with name solo Kiwi artists such as Finn Andrews of The Veils, Ladyhawke, Jamie McDell, Hollie Fullbrook and Bic Runga. Along the way she appropriated the name Cass Basil (earlier Cass Fresh), perhaps as a cover for the fact that she was quite so ubiquitous on the Auckland scene.
King Sweeties marks the first time Mitchell has taken centre stage, fronting a band.
“Both Bic and I were wanting to try things that we weren’t developing as much in our other projects. For me this was being more a part of the songwriting, and for Bic it was engineering and production. It was this and a good excuse to hang out!”
“The first jam was actually really the start of the whole EP in hindsight. We got together with Bic on drums and me on bass, and we threw out a bunch of different ideas at each other and jammed them. I’d suggest a bass line, or Bic a drum feel, and we would jam each for say 10 minutes, and we recorded them all on a phone. We then talked about the ones we really connected with and began to craft the songs with them. It was an exciting time!”
Mitchell recalls that both always wanted the new project to sound like they were playing in a room together, keeping the instrumentation sparse with just drums, bass and vocals.
“Each part has to really earn its keep. This really informs our songs and sound.”
The resulting EP, ‘We Are The Bosses’, is groovy, funky, quirky and full of danceable numbers with toe-tapping rhythms. An EP of many interesting touches like the epic backing vocals throughout. For all that the music is simple, with the joy of its creation nearly palpable in listening. Runga has been quoted citing post-punk NYC influences like Blondie, which does help to give the EP a place among genres, considering the danceable happy doom feel of Atomic or Rapture.
One moment on the EP that Mitchell mentions personally enjoying every time she hears it happens at the end of a song called Lydia.
“There is this electric guitar being strummed. It was on the tape my vocal was put onto – in the correct key and so we left it in there. It’s the only guitar on the EP and it makes me chuckle when I hear it.”
Their first live show in support of Opossom, Kody Nielson’s project that in a live setting features both the King Sweeties as well as fellow ex-Mint Chicks’ Michael Logie, was a joyous affair. The crowd was caught up in the band’s enthusiasm, dancing to the upbeat, bouncy vibe of their sound.
For anyone who has seen Mitchell sombrely playing bass on stage with any of a number of quite earnest projects in the past, there is an evident contrast, begging the question of how she switched to writing/playing genuinely joyful music without the potential cringe that’s always lurking around the next corner?
“I think when you are writing you have to take out the critical part of your brain to an extent – because that will stop ideas coming through. Just let everything come out, you can edit and be critical later. Having two writers really helps in this department also.”
While already a seasoned pro in her early 30s, she explains that working closely with someone as accomplished as Bic Runga did teach her a thing or two.
“I have learnt so much from Bic about writing, singing, but also recording! All of the things. Watching her engineer and produce the EP was a massive learning curve for me.”
It seems Mitchell and Runga are keen to see where King Sweeties might lead, with more writing and recording already planned.