Through jamming and occasional stints as bandmates, longterm Christchurch musician mates Tim Driver and Henare ‘H’ Kaa became trio Dillastrate. If you’re wondering how they can be a trio when there are only two people on stage who create the actual music, well, keep reading. Their recent single Vibe With You, a danceable, finger-snapper of a song, made it onto NZ On Air Music‘s NewTracks compilation this November.
Dillastrate is Henare ‘H’ Kaa (drums, lead vocals) and myself, Tim Driver (keyboards, bass synth, loops, vocals). Technically Dillastrate is a three-piece including our sound engineer Jamie Thomson, but that gets difficult to explain to people… “But there’s only two of you on stage!” “Yeah, but he’s making us sound good over there.” “But…he’s not on the stage!” You can imagine the confusion sometimes…
We all hail from Ōtautahi (Christchurch) – the dirty South if you will.
You can go for obvious things like learning music theory or practising your instrument, but they’re kind’a boring to talk about. I think for both of us it was the experience of playing in bands and thereby having to play with other musicians, rather than just practising alone in your bedroom. Also learning to use your ears and actually listening, rather than going off charts, was an invaluable part of our training!
We first worked together in a band called Ahoribuzz, led by the monster musician Aaron Tokona. We also played together in a roots-reggae-electronica band called Soulsystem for many years. Individually, our original projects have included the reggae band Merchants of Flow (H) and the neo-soul band Apollo Suite.
Having worked with each other for a long time in much larger bands (than a duo – go figure), we decided to start jamming together as a holiday from our other projects. In the process, we discovered that we were able to play pretty much every instrument that we needed to by ourselves. This led to much greater flexibility and mobility, not only in terms of writing and performing songs but in touring the country with a party of three!
Oh man, thinking about some of the songs that I wrote when I first started songwriting… It’s just leaps and bounds away from that nowadays! I think the first songs you write are usually when you’re in high school and you want to present yourself as being waaay more worldly and collected than you actually are. Plus inarticulate teenage angst.
As a group, the process of getting our songwriting to where it is now has been a lot more diverse and rewarding. Our first EP, ‘Black Diamond’, was recorded fairly soon into the beginning of Dillastrate, and serves as a signpost to where we were at at the time. I think in the beginning we didn’t really know what we wanted to do, but rather brought our own backgrounds and influences and loves in music and laid them all out. When it came to our first album (to be released December 6 this year!), we spent a much longer time trying to hone each song individually. Also, we took a more ‘production-based’ approach, getting our long-serving producer Ben Malone all up in the album business for the songwriting process.
Our name pays tribute to the late, great Detroit beatmaker J Dilla. He was an incredibly prolific producer making music tantamount to genius, but sadly passed away in 2006 from an auto-immune disease at the height of his career. A lot of hip hop and electronica producers have been deeply inspired by his life and works and the rich legacy he left behind. As live musicians, we were also deeply influenced by his music in that he had an incredible ability to produce grooves that seemed to roll along with what we like to call ‘the rub’.
This gives a lot of his beats a sensation of going in and out of time, like somebody is variably turning the swing ratio up and down as the beat rolls along. Having jammed along to a LOT of his beats, we’ve tried to include an element of ‘the rub’ into much of our music, as well as try to even approach emulating the work ethic and dedication he showed to his craft. In this sense, we want to try and ‘demonstrate’ what ‘Dilla’ was all about – hence Dillastrate.
Vibe With You has this infectious, feel-good Prince flavour to it. When we play this song live, we actually can’t wipe the stupid grins from our faces. It stands out from the rest of the album material exactly for this reason – it sounds silly-happy. It’s easy to sing along with, it’s got the funk, and we just love playing it.
Vibe With You is one of those juxtapositional tunes where the theme of the lyrics is totally offset by the joyousness of the groove I was just talking about. The song has a couple of layers of meaning to it. On the surface it’s about the guy who falls in love with the cool girl but is always being messed around by her. On a deeper level, it’s about a man who simply accepts that his partner treats him awfully, but naively hopes she will change at some point. In a way, it touches on the stigmatised subject of the battered man, with the upbeat instrumental showing this man’s willing ignorance in his situation.
There’s a breakdown section at the end of the tune where the music drops out to just keys and gospel choir. While this is a pretty sweet moment (especially live), on the recording you can hear H screaming outrageously in the background. I think he had had a few wines at that point and was ready to party. The sound of that scream was just so entertaining and fitting of the song that we had to keep it in there, and it’s subsequently become, not only my favourite part of the song, but probably my favourite moment on the whole album!
We wrote this song with our long-standing producer Ben Malone across a series of venues, ultimately recording it at BigPop and Parachute Studios in Auckland. Ben brought the bones of the song to us initially as he had intended it for another artist he was hoping to work with. We snapped it up, working on it together from there. Incidentally, the working title for the song that we used in the production of the album was just the other artist’s initials, which was maintained right up until we came up with the chorus lyrics (well into the production of the track).
I think I would love listeners to have a recursive experience with this track. On the first listen, I would love for them to just feel the groove of the song, to sing along stupidly loud out of their car windows, etc… Then on subsequent listens, tuning into the lyrics a bit more and thinking about some of the themes of the song. Maybe we could even get a good discussion going eventually. But mostly, just enjoy it – that’s what we recorded it for!
That’s a great question. With this album project, it was incredibly difficult for us to choose the singles – partly because we had no idea what people would want to listen to most prominently, and partly because we were equally proud of the other songs we had written! Eventually, it came down to which songs we could imagine people listening to on their car radios on the way to a festival, or on their phones on their daily commute – that’s usually a good binary sort for single selection!
This is definitely our main musical vehicle, and at the moment we’re running it at 100 miles an hour! We’re always in the process of making sure our live shows are as exciting as possible – definitely something to watch out for there. An obvious one would be our debut album, which is set for release on December 6. Very excited for that one, obviously! I think we’ve made something really special and we can’t wait to be able to share it with everyone!
Oh damn! There are so many great local artists we could include here, so we’re just going to have to pick the tunes that we think would fit best musically with Vibe With You – for smooth listening purposes… Ideally, if we could make a list it might go something like this:
I know Ladi6 and Shapeshifter are big acts nationally, but they’re from Christchurch originally, so there! Also, honourable mention to Skelter (particularly their track Suffocate) – one of the hardest working original bands in Christchurch. We didn’t include it in the list because it might be a bit heavy comparatively – again, thinking of smooth listening here.
We applied for the October round of NewTracks and didn’t make it, but managed to make it into the November edition. We’re absolutely stoked to be included in this, and it’s really quite unexpected too!
I think people who make music are so close to their songs that it can be really disheartening when they get rejected. Our advice would be basically to keep on pushing and submitting your tracks, even when you feel like you can’t take much more rejection. There is a niche out there for every kind of art – you will find your people eventually. Being able to weather rejection is a skill that all musicians eventually develop, but it takes a while for the hurt to subside initially – the first cut is always the deepest!
It was a process, alright, but I think we got there in the end!
I’m personally obsessed with Amoeba Records Hollywood’s ‘What’s In My Bag?’ YouTube series where they get big musicians to come into the store, buy a whole bunch of records, CDs, etc, and talk about why they chose them. It’s such a great way to explore artists’ influences and motivations for making music and to see where they’re coming from. Also, the Pickup Music community (New York) always has great musical content on their channels. Other than that, I keep a pretty close eye on Stones Throw Records’ YouTube channel for new artists and tracks and they usually have some awesome videos.