Formed by mates Semisi Maiai, Tim McNaught, Oscar Johns and Hamish Morgan, Marlin’s Dreaming has since been riding a fast-breaking wave into the limelight, at home and abroad. The Dunedin band’s dreamy surf rock style features reverb-y laid back guitar and catchy vocals reminiscent of Mac DeMarco, who Maiai cites as an early inspiration. The band has enjoyed sold-out tours, over five million streams of their 2017 album ‘Lizard Tears’, and Spotify listeners around the globe – all before they themselves pass 25. It should come as no surprise that the band has been on a journey of coming to terms with their identity and evolving their sound. Frontman Semisi Maiai talked with Kirsten Marsh about that journey, dark times in Dunedin, the music techniques that inspire their sound, and what’s next for Marlin’s Dreaming.
Formed in 2017, Marlin’s Dreaming line up remains largely unchanged; with Semisi Maiai on lead vocals and guitar, Oscar Johns on bass, and Hamish Morgan on drums. Newcomer Leith Towers (Charlie Freak) joined on guitar this year, in time to record new music with the band. But how does any band break out of the Dunedin scene and achieve global listenership in a year?
The band credit a mix of organic growth in the country – and great management in New York and LA. Maiai says he had a core fan base from his first band, Gromz, who came along to Marlin’s Dreaming gigs and spread the word to their friends.
“Just being in Dunedin with a whole network that would come along and support was really big, and that can be infectious nationwide. It seemed like a lot of people were just keen to come along for a fun night!”
Their many thousands of overseas Spotify listeners suggest a global appeal that goes beyond the loyalty of supporting local and could be attributed to another Kiwi, Kirk Harding of Bad Habit Management.
“Kirk had a good relationship with someone at Spotify and we showed them the album before it was released. They liked it, so when it came to release time they wanted to put it in some playlists.”
Being playlisted has become synonymous with a big break for many, opening doors to an already engaged audience for immediate exposure. Maiai suggests this was one of the biggest reasons for their success.
“We had three or four songs off our first album ‘Lizard Tears’ get into really good playlists with a lot of followers on Spotify and iTunes, we got a few blogs posted, and we were covered by some YouTube bloggers. All of that came together and made it a decent release – so we got a good head start, rather than waiting to play shows so people would find out about us slowly,” he points out.
Beyond good management and luck, their music stands on the shoulders of talent like producer Justyn Pilbrow (The Neighbourhood) and Jeff Ellis (Frank Ocean). It also has an authenticity that comes from Maiai’s real-life experiences, and from the band coming of age in a rich music scene.
“We used to play with a lot of the same bands, and there’s similarities for sure – I guess that’s the by-product of playing lots of gigs together and being in the scene,” he laughs. “We’re grateful for that and it’s the reason we could play shows and start to be professional, but we want to become our own brand.”
Listening to different music over the last year combined with the desire to carve out their own space in the music scene, as well as the band, has led to developments in new directions.
“We opened for Kirin J Callinan recently – a year ago I wouldn’t even have seen that happening at all! As we’ve started doing different stuff and splitting away from the scene, it becomes more natural to do kind of random, off-kilter stuff like that.
“The audience was the quietest crowd we’ve ever played to – which was pretty nerve-wracking. The first gig we played was in Auckland and I pretty much butchered it. When I’m nervous I can’t find a key… but it’s alright.
“You win some, you lose most,” he adds wryly.
This kind of dry take on life is also evident in Maia’s writing.
“Generally I’ll be feeling moved by something, in a good or bad way. A lot of social commentary, talking about the way people act, and I guess how it feels [when] you’re not really in control of how things are gonna unfold.”
“The upcoming album is a product of last year, living in Dunedin and not working, living in a flat that’s so cold. Dunedin’s a funny place. I love it and it’s really beautiful and there’s a lot of space but sometimes things can feel a little bit stagnant – for myself at least.
“I was just feeling the worst I’ve ever felt in my life. There was just nothing going on at all and I became quite depressed. I wrote a lot when I was feeling like that, because it made me feel moved in a certain direction.
“It comes from a bit of a darker place, which I guess is not for better or for worse,” he reflects.
Maiai has recently moved up to Auckland, while the rest of the band remain down south.
“That was a resurgence of energy for me, I wrote a lot in that first period. I think it’s definitely changed the way that I create. It’s not like I was unbelievably happy or anything, but it did give me this feeling like I was gonna fall behind if I wasn’t writing!”
Admitting the band has released songs in the past before they felt they were truly ready, they’re taking their time on this album.
“I think more clearly about how I want the songs to sound,” he reflects. “Justyn [Pilbrow] is bringing my vision to life. I’ll go in every day and listen to what he’s done.
“For these tracks, I’d written out the demos for the skeletons of the songs and we all jammed them together and rearranged bits and pieces. But for the most part, I did all the writing, so I guess I feel like it’s my duty to finish things off with the mixing. I know exactly how I want it to sound… I feel like I can represent them and we have a sort of unison opinion of how we want the record to sound.”
While Maiai handled the writing, the band has what he calls a “unison opinion” on what the end result should be.
“We’re experimenting with new sounds – new for us, anyway. We’ve been putting a lot more distortion on the guitars, which is a stark difference to our last two albums. Our first album was all clean tones, whereas this one has some moments of quiet and dynamics but definitely there’s a lot of heavier parts to it.
“I’ve been inspired by bands that don’t use a lot of reverb, but they achieve this rough-around-the-edges sound that creates a kind of human phaser or echo. So this time, for the vocals, we recorded four different vocal takes and layered them over each other, to create a natural chorus effect. We recorded one song in the staircase actually, at Roundhead, because it had a really nice natural reverb, a really beautiful ring to it.”
Recording at Roundhead Studios with Patrick Hill was yet another step up for the band.
“I was playing on Neil Finn’s Gretsch, which was the best guitar ever,” he smiles. “We just had access to a lot of cool equipment there. It was slightly overwhelming, but it meant we were able to get a pretty nice sound.”
The recording of their second album completed, Marlin’s Dreaming is keen to also shake up their live performances, adding sample pads and synths into their live set so the new pieces will work live.
“It’s hard because once you have all these ideas and you record them with lots of different stuff going on, you realise, ‘Shit, I’ve gotta actually make this work live’,” Maia laughs.
“This next album might divide people, and maybe people who were on the fence and would just go because their friends are going. I feel like it’s a little bit less accessible in some ways. Our music has been quite dreamy and chill, and feels like you could put it on in any situation. The new stuff is fuelled by a certain energy that you can’t really listen to like that.
“So there might be a few people who fall off the bandwagon, but in saying that, we might gain a new audience that is more engaged in the music,” he philosophically concludes.