NewTracks New Artist: Castaway

NewTracks New Artist: Castaway

Ōtautahi-based five-piece Castaway started out jamming in their dorm while studying at the University of Canterbury. Supernova is the first single from their second EP, due later in the year, and NZ On Air Music added the driven alt rock song to their March NewTracks compilation. 

What are your names, where are you from and what instruments do you each play?

Jack Hassell, originally from Auckland – saxophone / keys
Rhys Blaas, originally from Wanaka – guitar / backing vocals
Jackson Stewart, originally from Invercargill – vocals / guitar
Joe Martin, originally from Oamaru – vocals / drums
Austen Rangi, originally from Wellington – bass

We all live in a flat together in Ōtautahi/Christchurch.

Was any high school or other music training especially important to you?

We all come from varying backgrounds of music training/study.

Jackson – I first picked up a guitar when I was six years old. Growing up I had out of school lessons and sat a few rock and pop guitar exams. I also grew up singing and playing music with my siblings which are some of my favourite music memories. My passion for songwriting began towards the end of high school when I picked up piano lessons and fell in love with the emotion of the instrument. When I moved to uni, I joined Sole Music Academy to work on my singing. I’ve been super fortunate to have had such great mentors and support from my family, who have played a massive part throughout my music journey.

Joe – Music composition at high school was really my first introduction to song structure and dynamics. Or at the least it provided an environment to think about what purpose each section is fulfilling. Being challenged on creative input really pushed my vision for the music as a passion project rather than achieving what is considered correct. I was lucky that my teacher was very open minded and encouraged this kind of thinking. Other than that, playing music since the age of 12 and being in heaps of bands is where I learnt most of my music knowledge. And there’s a looong way to go!

Jack – Getting into music later than the other lads, my musical journey began in my final year of school when I made a drunken bet with my mates that I’d learn Pink Panther on saxophone. I quickly fell in love with the instrument, and armed with nothing more than introductory lessons I went to university where I met the Castaway boys. Everything I’ve learned about music since has been picked up from jamming with and talking to my bandmates, and I am very grateful to have had such talented (and cheap) musical mentors.

Rhys – Growing up as the youngest of three siblings, we were all expected to play some form of music. Saturday mornings were ‘out of schools music’ where the local high school hosted all types of musical tuition. Being 10 I jumped around different instruments after my compulsory twp years of recorder, and landed on acoustic guitar,. I hated it, and gave up. Two years later I came back to the instrument and loved it. There was also a drum kit around the house which in high school led to formal guitar and drum lessons. I had been somewhat forced to learn classical piano when I was younger, which didn’t last long but taught me the way around the instrument.

Austen – I took piano lessons as a teenager, and learnt guitar online, but a lot of my exposure to music came from my high school – Tawa College. There was a strong music culture at the school and I was involved in barbershop, guitar group, choir, and concert band. This range of styles certainly played a part in forming my musical identity, but it wasn’t until starting university that I picked up the bass and I knew I had found my instrument.

Any other projects that we might we know you from?

We released our debut EP in 2021 titled ‘Chaos & Order’ – we had a small following then from university so it was all quite low key! Written in the freezing living rooms and bedrooms of our early flats, we explored themes of identity and isolation in a time of transition to adulthood, a pretty authentic and cathartic body of work for a group of young men.

What’s the background story of how Castaway came to be? 

We found each other in our first year at the University of Canterbury. We all went to Rochester and Rutherford halls of residence and ended up in the same building, Wilson House. Not long after someone brought a guitar out did we all start jamming together and our drunken nights of yelling “Wilson!” down the hall corridors lead to the formation of Castaway. We mostly played for fun at a few university events for the first couple years but we quickly found our hobby becoming a real passion.

A real turning point for us was discovering Sacha Vee and the team at Sole Music Academy. We all started going to Sole for music lessons and artist development courses, and years on Sacha has been a huge supporter of our band and helped nurture our artistry into what we have today!

Six years on from our first meeting, we live and breathe music from our band flat in Riccarton. We’ve got the garage kitted out to be a haven of musical creativity, and we get on just as well as we did back in the days of long sessions at the Foundry and woeful attempts at balancing music with cramming for exams. When we aren’t chasing each other up for not unloading the dishwasher or sharing a delicious meal at the dinner table, we’re hard at work on our sophomore EP, ‘Nondual’.

How has your  music evolved from your beginnings as a band?

We spent a lot of time playing covers and still do cover gigs at Fat Eddie’s in Christchurch. This really helped us learn about what people respond to in a song, how to arrange our instruments in our own music, and what makes a good song good. Writing originals is something that we have spent the last few years crafting and figuring out what works for us. Our very first original was called Land Of The Lover, and was a surf rock tune influenced by our local heroes – Mako Road and The Butlers. We’ve experimented with a lot of sounds from grunge to disco, but something about pop rock really resonated with all of us. Having been on a world tour of genre exploration, those fun, upbeat tunes that blend pop and rock are now flowing out of our instruments and it feels like a really natural space for us.

Our songwriting process is extremely collaborative. To start, someone might bring an idea to the group that is 40% of the way there and we flesh it out, bringing our unique skills to the table. We’ve all had a hand in coming up with stories, writing lyrics, arranging chords, crafting instrumentation – we all play a role in all parts of the song, and that makes our process very dynamic and collaborative. This translates to when we play live where we all swap instruments around throughout our set – we feel it’s really important to be a team and serve the unified whole of Castaway.

In saying so, we feel that songwriting is a lifelong endeavour, there is always more to learn and create. We’re always inspired by other local artists in similar lanes to us who are creating great music!

What else can you tell us about your second EP project?

This year we are releasing a single every two months building up to our sophomore EP, ‘Nondual’, which will be out in November. The project aims to build on our last work, ‘Chaos & Order’, which was a tribute to our unique duality in lead singers. Its inception came at the end of 2021 in Le Bons Bay, just south of Christchurch. We spent a weekend away together and came to realise that music is something that we want to take seriously and give it a real good go. This laid the foundations for our musical identity, and we agreed to live together in the same flat the following year. This kickstarted our growth as a musical unit and as songwriters who wanted to share the feelings and stories we had.

It was here we also discussed the idea of nondualism, which is all about how everything in the universe is connected. This resonated with us on a philosophical and musical level, and the songs that make up ‘Nondual’ signify the unity of the band and our growth, exploring our development as musicians and a collective. Something that sets us apart is our dual lead vocalists, and we have tried to bring these two voices together even more in this project, symbolising the unity. In weaving the powerful and hair-raising growls of Joe’s voice with the glistening and silky highs of Jackson’s voice we hope to create a truly special experience for our listeners. Ultimately, this project is about us growing into the musicians and people we hope to become.

Aside from this latest single, what’s been the big highlight to date?

A huge highlight for us was our release show for ‘Chaos & Order’. The atmosphere and magic of performing our originals is a feeling we have constantly been chasing and working towards again. We sold out the show with 300 Castaway fans, many of whom had been following us since the early days of bedroom jams, so that was extremely special. Watch out for us capturing that magic again with a nationwide tour later this year!

What makes Supernova stand out for you as a single?

Supernova has always held a special place in our hearts, even in its infancy. The song immediately caught us with its fun and infectious chorus. It’s one of those songs that you don’t need to know it to enjoy and dance along. We love how it pulls on 2000s pop rock influences which is the music of our youth, and there are real memories imbued into the lyrics about some of our first loves. That’s exactly what we hope the song captures – youth, fun, and love. Of course, we also have to shoutout bringing back guitar solos into pop music. (We hope they’re here to stay!)

What is the story behind Supernova?

In 2020 Jackson had a demo recorded for a song called Higher Place. It sat on the back burner for a while but we always knew there was something there to. We received some mentoring from Will McGillivray who encouraged us to push the song further and gave some great feedback on what we could develop. We took it back to our band flat and had some late nights rewriting the chorus, lyrics, and instruments until slowly Supernova began to emerge. 

Who did you record the single with and where?

We knew we were onto something but needed help to take it across the line. The legendary Greg Haver took a chance on us and we headed up to Auckland to record in The Lab studio. This is where the magic happened and Greg really brought the track to life with him as our producer and Scott Seabright as our recording engineer. We had lots of laughs in the studio, and it was an all round awesome experience – alongside our songs, there were certainly some lifelong memories made. One funny moment that stands out was when one of the boys was doing takes for recording his guitar line and Greg said, “That sounds great, except can you play it right, and in time?”. We’ll let you try figure out which guitarist it was… 

What’s your favourite moment, musical or lyrical, of the track?

The pause and then half time section at the end of the solo is a special moment for us. It really gives that release to all the energy that has been building up throughout the song. When we originally wrote that section,the pause was a lot shorter, but Greg had a great idea in the studio to sit in that moment and let it breathe, which makes the release so much more powerful. A favourite lyric of ours is “No, I don’t like it I love it”. It’s playful and the reveal is such a fun moment!

What would you like listeners to take away?

We want Supernova to shoot listeners back to that time they first fell in love. The innocence, the bliss, the longing for adventure, the teenage angst – we hope that the nostalgia of our youth that we infused into the song will ignite our listeners’ own nostalgia, and make them reminisce on those sweet memories.

How do you generally work out what song would make a good single?

In our band we have a very democratic approach to making decisions and everyone gets to have a say in what happens. This is part of the reason why we’ve managed to live together for three years in the same flat! Naturally, there’s different opinions on what songs would make a good single but we spend a lot of time talking through our thoughts and making sure everyone is happy with the final decision. A big part of this process is figuring out what emotional connection we have to the songs, and if the song executes that emotion well enough.

Who else is in your team?

We have Sacha Vee and Katie Thompson providing mentoring and management support, along with the resources at Sole Music Academy. We’ve worked with Greg as our producer on this track, and more to come, as well as Will McGillivray on one other track we will be releasing this year. We don’t have a label, and do all the gig bookings and administration amongst ourselves! We’re trying our hand at social media promotions, which doesn’t come easy, but it’s all worthwhile to find our audience.

Any other musical endeavours you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for?

We’re releasing five singles this year, with Supernova being the first, and the sixth song being packaged with our EP, ‘Nondual’.

Can you please name three other local tunes that would fit well on a playlist alongside your song.

  • Lunar Intruder: Off To Nowhere
  • There’s A Tuesday: Amsterdam
  • Park Rd: Save The Planet

Have any previous NZOA applications not gained funding or been included on NewTracks? 

We’ve submitted a few NZOA funding applications and haven’t had any luck so far. Our advice would be to always keep trying because you never know what song might get accepted! The NZOA criteria checklist is also a great place to find some goals to work towards that wherever you might be on your artist journey. One criteria that was challenging for us was reaching 1000 followers on a social media platform. This was one of those criteria that there was no way around it but consistent hard work, gigging and posting online. Every gig was worthwhile, even if we only got 10 followers, because it all adds up!

Are there any musical blogs, Youtube channels or podcasts you’re super into?

We really enjoy the podcast Creative Juice by Indepreneur. These guys dive into the music industry and what you can be doing as an artist to promote your music. There were so many strategies and ways at looking at the industry that we hadn’t even considered let alone thought. We would definitely recommend giving it a listen for any budding artists like ourselves. Notable mention to the YouTube channel That Pedal Show by Mick and Dan, they have some cool insights for any guitar and bass pedal enthusiasts.

Any last words?

Our hearts are full of love for all our fans, and we’re especially blessed to have a core community of mates who have been coming to see us since those fresher days. Thank you to everyone who listens and boogies to our music – and if you’re new to us, welcome to the Castaway community, it’s a pleasure to have you on board <3

And to the musos out there – remember, always be nice to your bassist. Just do it.