May/June 2023

by Richard Thorne, Silke Hartung

Mini Simmons: Foundation, Eye Shadow, Lip Gloss & Rock

by Richard Thorne, Silke Hartung

Mini Simmons: Foundation, Eye Shadow, Lip Gloss & Rock

The name may be slightly, if not downright mis-directional, because Mini Simmons are a big energy five-piece that readily fill the stage with their versatile and ever-developing bluesy Americana rock, now with a blush of ’70s glam! April saw the Tāmaki Makaurau indie rock act undertaking a more than decent eight-date national tour to promote their colourful second album, ‘Make Up’, which vocalist/frontman Zak Hawkins talked with NZM about.

Led out by main vocalist and occasional guitarist Zak Hawkins, the 2023 Mini Simmons band includes Yoni Yahel on drums, Jesse Hawkins on bass, Emily Mackie adding keys and guitarist Brad Craig. Craig is also a founding member of disco/house group Flamingo Pier, and indie-rock duo Two Cartoons. Previously in Debbie Fear, Mackie has previously been a touring member of Joe Ghatt and Michael Llewellyn & The Darlings.

According to their bio, the band was dreamt up ‘on the Pacific highways of Mexico in 2017’. Evocative hints of The Beach Boys and California Dreaming or was it more Cheech & Chong?

“Ha! It is true,’ exclaims Hawkins with some glee. “It just sounds more whimsical than it actually was. When you’re starting out you dress everything up to get more attention. I’m sure it used to have the words ‘fever dream’ in there. Thank god we took that out!

“Jesse, Yoni and I were on a surf trip in Central America. We bought a car in California and drove to Costa Rica over six months. When we weren’t surfing we had loads of time in the car and sitting around playing cards, in hostels and bars. We basically spent six months trying to figure out how we could keep the permanent vacation going when we got home.

“We’d all played some music when we were much younger so a band seemed like a good idea, but Jesse and Yoni needed a bit of convincing. They almost stayed in California because everyone was telling them how much money they could make trimming weed. I’m not sure how forming a band won out, but it did.

“The first song we ever wrote was on a borrowed guitar, towards the end of the trip. It’s one of Yoni’s called Slippery Gypsy Woman. It eventually came out on the [2017] EP ‘Whisky & The Witch’.”

Roundhead Studios Paddy Hill gets most of the recording/mixing credits for the 10 tracks on ‘Make Up’, but they are shared with Jol Mulholland at The Lab (Railroad For Two) and guitarist/vocalist Brad Craig who handled the album’s opening track Push And Pull.

“Brad’s superpower is engineering perfection. Push And Pull kind of speaks for itself. How the hell you get an early ’70s glam rock sound out of an east Auckland garage? Only Brad knows. It didn’t come easy!

“I’m a big benefactor of Brad’s perfection given he’s a much better technical singer than me. When it comes to recording vocals we usually spend a lot of time together getting things right, but Push And Pull is a great example of what we could get by pushing everything that little bit further.

“From my perspective, Jol added a lot to the overall musicianship. He drilled down on parts. He’d try shifting a guitar part from one spot to another or simplifying a drum fill. He was big into simplicity elevating the sound. And he’s absolutely right. The sessions with Jol were where the most parts changed in the room, which can be hard when you’ve rehearsed a song a certain way, but Railroad For Two is so much the better for it.

“For me, Paddy’s superpowers are sound and feel. By sound, I mean he got what we were shooting for spot on. Not only did he listen to the references we gave him, he researched the engineers, where they had recorded and the way they recorded. Then he honoured that sound while still managing to make it distinctly Mini Simmons.

“It’s one thing to know how someone got a sound, but quite another to get it with different instruments in a different room, all the while putting your own stamp on it.

“As for the feel, let’s just say we did a few takes… More than once it felt like everything was there, and the parts were played ‘correctly’. But Paddy was looking for more. When you’re playing live in the room (which we did to get the sound I’ve mentioned), the feel or the groove is 9/10ths of the record. Better to have a few imperfections but have the feel! Paddy always knew when he had ‘the one’.”

The band members have referenced various UK artists and styles from the ’70s in connection with ‘Make Up’, but there are also West Coast vibes all over the album, with an occasional dash of New York glam. This album sees Mini Simmons expressing a palette well beyond their early retro blues-rock fixation.

“It’s great being in a band,” Hawkins happily responds to the implied question. “Everyone’s got their own influences or anchors, no matter how hard you try to pull them in your direction. At the time we were writing, if it was left up to me, we’d just sound like Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’, which nobody wants because he already did it!

“Brad brings the US West Coast vibes you mentioned, along with a certain Country twang. Big Eagles, Tom Petty and Neil Young guy!

“Yoni was listening to a bunch of Nick Cave when he wrote Late To The War, but then wrote the chords to Gin With No Tonic after listening to The Verve. Go figure…

“Jess loves that Stones’ wobble, and Paul McCartney, and then Em’s drawing from people like Ray Manzarek (The Doors), Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) & Carole King. For a whole band, distilling it to a single artistic ‘anchor’ is impossible. But ’70’s is probably the era that you could most easily wrap us in.”

Which begs the question of who looked after the production (application?) of ‘Make Up’, and was there any initial discussion about the desired album sound?

“Overall, Paddy was in charge of production on ‘Make Up’, which is no mean feat when you’re bringing in two tracks from different sessions, but he did extremely well to tie it all together.

“He must have been cracking up a little when we came in for a pre-prod with references from Bowie, Lou Reed and T-Rex, to Nick Cave, Brian Jonestown, Twin Peaks, and The Nude Party. Bit of a range,” Hawkins smiles wryly.

“But we had a fairly good idea of what we wanted to take from each. Then it was up to Paddy to distil those down into what would become the ‘Make Up’ sound. You can’t have it all…

“I remember there was a point in time where he had us decide whether to go down a more ‘produced’ route closer to The Black Keys, or keep super close to a spacious ‘room sound’ like Twin Peaks or the Stones. We ended up choosing the former as we felt it was a good opportunity to divorce it a little more from our debut album.

“Paddy was great for those decisions because he’s got his own opinion, which helped guide ours. It also helped that he remixed the two tracks from the previous sessions and re-recorded the piano on Railroad to match the rest of the album.

“The only sleight-of-hand we attempted, which hopefully makes a three-studio album sound that little bit more coherent, was getting the track listing right for Push And Pull and Railroad For Two. It’ll be more obvious on the vinyl, but we decided to bookend Side 1 with those tracks, which meant they only have to truly marry up against one song each.”

Were there lessons learnt with their first album, 2019’s ‘Mini Simmons’ that made the challenge of a sophomore album easier?

“I don’t know if we had any less challenges because we knew better. I suppose we ironed out the kinks of being in a studio for the first time. But apart from that, I think with more experience you give yourself more challenges, because you want to squeeze more juice. Ignorance is bliss the first time around!

“The great thing about ‘Make Up’ though, was having Em in the band. On ‘Mini Simmons’ Brad had to overdub all the organ and keys parts. He did a really good job but they were more of an afterthought and to fill the sound out. This time they were baked into the tracks and prominent in the mix because Em wrote the parts when we wrote the songs – they hold the ‘Make Up’ tracks together.”

The songs were written during the 2020 lockdown, not an easy feat, especially with a fairly large band. How did they manage to write songs together, and even demo during that time? Smartphones answers the frontman of this ’70s-inspired band. Suitably ironic.

“Yoni and Brad were lucky enough to be living together at the time, so they could bounce ideas off each other. But then it was a lot of recording instrumentals (mainly guitar) on our phones and sending them back and forward to one another.

“If the others sent me an instrumental, I’d write some lyrics to it, then play their recording on my laptop while recording myself singing over it using voice memos on my phone. I’ve still got them all. They sound super garage. It’s great!

“Once we all got back together we rehearsed the tunes up and road-tested them to a degree with a short tour in 2021.”

This is a band that visibly thrives in a live setting, but Hawkins maintains that’s not a consideration given to the songs as they write them. Rather it comes automatically in rehearsals because that’s how they’re heard when the five of them sit down to play.

“There are some embellishments in the recording studio, but they’re almost always made with the knowledge that they won’t be able to happen live, because it’s a guitar overdub where Brad is already playing or something like that.

“There’s also the question of how much we want to sacrifice the performance element. There are five songs on ‘Make Up’ I play guitar on when we perform live, but given my limited ability on the guitar it can detract a little from the theatrics of the show. It’s all about striking the right balance of sound and performance.

“My own favourite to play live from this album is The Bellboy And The Longshoreman. The crowds have been responding to it well on our April tour. I think that’s one where we’ve got the balance right.”

Very much in line with the ’70s thematic approach, The Bellboy And The Longshoreman is pretty explicit. Neither are terms much used here in Aotearoa so what was the inspiration?

“We talked earlier about how the lockdown affected writing collaboratively, but it was also interesting to see how it affected lyrical material. Often when you’re writing, you write from experience, but being shut in a house, the experiences dry up pretty quickly.

“That song was my re-imagined ending to a play I read called, A View From The Bridge. It’s set in 1950s Brooklyn and the protagonist spends the second half of the play trying to discredit one of the other characters by proving he’s gay. I just wrote it as though he was secretly harbouring his own feelings and the two of them ended up having a hot and steamy affair.

“Getting the right amount of glam is a fine art, and we first recorded that with Jol but just never really found our groove on it that day. Some days you’re on, some you’re not. That was just one of those days, so it was later re-tracked at Roundhead. We had the same arm wrestle with Push And Pull, but with that we had unlimited time because it was in our own studio.”

April saw the band on a nationwide tour, not their first time. “The tour was fabulous – we had a blast! Auckland was the best show. The loudest crowd we’ve ever played to, but in all the right places. It looked and sounded slick thanks to Mason and Matt. The Gisborne and Raglan shows were a very close second.”

The band say they found this tour a little tougher than the previous one in 2021 when audiences were craving a live gig after being locked down.

“As far as dollars and cents…Put it this way, we didn’t make a killing. Ha. But I think we pretty much broke even. We actually did get funding too. We owe the NZ Music Commission big time. So does the rest of the country really. If it wasn’t for those guys a lot of artists wouldn’t be able to take their shows on the road. The work they do to keep live music beating needs more props.

“Thanks to them we got to play some new venues in different towns than we’ve played before, and grow our fanbase. This album also turned into the highest opening month of Spotify streams we’ve ever had for a release – so that was a nice cherry on the top.”

Previously looked after by a small team of managers, Mini Simmons are presently self-managed, making the success of their recent tour all the more impressive. Hawkins admits that self-management is a much bigger job than first expected.

“I say that only partially knowing how much time and effort goes into it because Emily has almost entirely taken the reins on managing the band through the release and tour. She’s been an absolute champion.

“Management duties kind of defaulted to Em because she was working part-time when we weren’t super busy, and she picked it up and ran with it. Brad and Jess have jumped in to help her as well. Brad with the live show elements and Jess on the marketing. But I can’t imagine how we’d have organised everything without Em. We’re all incredibly grateful to have her holding it down both on and off stage.