Featuring as Fresh Talent in NZM back in 2014 after winning Smokefree Pacifica Beats, it took until mid-2017 to see the release of the debut album from livewire reggae/ska act Strangely Arousing. The self-titled release subsequently garnered them a finalist spot at the Taite Music Prize for Best Independent Debut. Describing themselves as ‘five musical gypsies from Rotorua, New Zealand’, bandmates Forrest Thorp, Lukas Wharekura, Shaun Loper, Liam Rolfe and Oliver Prendergast skipped the cold for much of August in order to play a round of gigs in China and Korea. It was an extraordinary experience that they hope will lead to more of the same.
After 18 hours of delays, 15 hours of flying and a healthy dose of excited/delirious humour, we finally arrived in Seoul, South Korea. Our party of eight naturally headed for local food to attend to our deep hunger, and flex what little Korean linguistic skills we shared. You can get away with not knowing the language of the country you’re in, just make sure you’re good at using visual cues!
We promptly discovered the locals to be extremely hospitable, generous and merry as we found ourselves being shouted fried chicken and beer for about four hours straight. Other nighttime activities included, but were certainly not limited to, virtual reality zombies, a high-stakes basketball tournament at the arcade, and of course searching for some live music. Naturally, our desire to play was sparked in that scenario, and we asked at one bar if Lukas and Forrest could jump up for a jam. They cheerfully informed us that we would have to pay if we wanted to jam – our desire waning marginally.
Later in the week some of the band (fuelled by Shaun’s burning passion for history) ventured to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the border of North and South Korea. The rest of us were meanwhile busy trying to translate, “Where is the nearest music store”, in order to buy equipment that was neglected in the packing stage. (Tip: Always pack a spare surprise guitar strap.)
The history encountered on that trip to the DMZ was absolutely fascinating and invigorating. We will never forget running through an underground tunnel and coming within 200m of North Korea.
9:30am Saturday found us in the lobby ready and excited to be transported to our first gig which was at the Incheon Pentaport Rock Festival. This country hands-down knows how to run a dope festival. Two massive stages and two smaller stages and no act would play at the same time as another. Giant hoses in the mosh-pit, a pool, plenty of shade, free baby-wipes with sunscreen in them, although the heat was out the gate it was the most accommodating festival I have been to thus far. And all government-funded!
Our set was very hot and not as long as we would have liked, nonetheless we enjoyed an excellent reception and spent a good portion of the rest of the day taking photos with people who had loved our set. And some that just loved our hair…
Our next tour stop was the Dream Maker Travel Club in Beijing. Our new friend Blue picked us up at the airport and made us feel extremely welcome. Blue has a deep passion for NZ and its culture. His English is not so good, but he isn’t afraid to give it a thoroughly good go, and with the help of a pen and paper we always managed to understand each other. The night before our gig we were up until the deep a.m eating spicy as fffff little lobsters and enjoying Chinese whiskey. We quickly learnt that spicy food and alcohol is a popular combo throughout China and we were not mad about it.
Despite mild weariness, we all perked up as the gear truck arrived on gig day. Had anyone read our tech rider and supplied what we needed? The answer – somewhat. Apart from a lack of amplifiers for bass and guitar, we were in pretty good shape. Three of us ventured off into central Beijing for a weird and wonderful interview on Metro Radio, a station with up to 10 million daily listeners. We arrived back at the club to find a lovely set up and a grand night was ahead. Listeners of all ages enjoyed our performance and we met so many great new friends.
The following day Blue had organised for us to visit the Great Wall. Again we had been up well into early hours and the impact of a lack of sleep, relentless humidity, numerous beverages and consistent activity was starting to creep in. The stair-ridden ascent to the wall saw two cheeky voms and one member on their hands and knees at one point, but we all made it and loved it. It is an unfathomable piece of work.
Following days included visiting Tiananmen Square, tattoos and sprinting to catch an overnight train to our next destination. The tattoo artist we were with worked through the night to fulfill our requests before we left and we were absolutely blown away with his commitment and skill.
Up to this point, we already felt we were being treated like absolute kings. When we rolled up to our next accommodation – a five-star grand hotel with an almost all-day buffet, a 50-story view from our rooms with a temple just across the road and the entire management staff waiting outside to greet us – we almost died.
We were the main entertainment for a pool party the hotel was throwing for its staff and special guests. We went to check out the stage and were met with a lifesize 5x2m canvas with five shaggy musicians on it and “STRANGELY AROUSING ROCK ON THE POOL BY SWISS GRAND”.
Production for the night included two giant LED screens either side of stage, a foam cannon, dry ice, a Victoria’s Secret models show, a balloon drop and one of the more insane lighting rigs we’ve ever had. Our sound guy Liam worked through the previous night and through the performance day with the local sound techs to make the giant room sound the best it ever could and probably ever will. We are so fortunate to have this guy, I really am not sure how this whole thing would have gone without him. (Get yourself a Liam). This show is not one we will forget anytime soon. Special vibes on stage and behind the sound desk.
Our final tour gig was at Friends’ Bar, much the same as your good old gastropub in Auckland, except with a much healthier attention to production/equipment. Again we were met with a huge LED screen behind us, epic blinders and movers, and an excellent L-Acoustics rig – more than enough to produce a banging show.
We encountered a local flamenco guitarist who ended up jamming with Tim and Lukas before we played. After the gig, we were in high enough spirits to explore the nightlife of China (again) a little deeper. Amazing. Everyone is there to have an expressive and empowering time whilst taking care of each other. The collective conscious vibe of the people and the environment inside those clubs – all epic.
Not so much outside. There are so many people in China. So many less-fortunate. Throughout the trip we were constantly reminded of how lucky and privileged we are. Our entire journey we were held in such high regard by the people for what we do and who we are. It was incredibly humbling and insightful. We were lucky enough to visit a high-quality recording studio at a university in Hefei City and record piano and vocals with some local students, for our upcoming single, Ladeda. Again, we had the privilege of creating relationships that will last forever.
Our last days in China involved more seeing of sights, more food, more ink, more new friends and some rather tired boys. We really squeezed every drop out of this opportunity and I’m incredibly proud to be with the crew we have. We’ve planted the necessary seeds to see us back in the future more equipped and better functioning than ever.
The journey back to NZ was delayed by 12 hours (maybe think before buying the cheapest flights!) and I almost kissed the 20 degrees colder tarmac when we stepped back onto Auckland ground.
Asia was amazing and I can’t wait to go back for more. A trip like that gives you the opportunity to fall in love with your home all over again and that I have. Huge thanks to the team – Shaun, Forrest, Liam, Lukas, Oliver, Liam, Tim and Phil, and all those who supported us and made this amazing-crazy-last-minute-hectic experience a possibility – Creative NZ, Poutama Trust and Stone Cold Records.