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by Gareth Shute

Opossom: Electric Hawaiian Psych-Rock

by Gareth Shute

Opossom: Electric Hawaiian Psych-Rock

Kody Nielson initially burst onto our music scene with his unhinged, magnetic performances as the lead singer of the Mint Chicks. Now he’s emerged with his own musical project, Opossom, which picks up on the crunchy pop of the late Mint Chicks’ recordings and takes it further into the territory of psych-rock. Gareth Shute caught up with him to find out how Opossom’s debut album, ‘Electric Hawaii’ caught the wave.

The early Mint Chicks shows usually saw eye-catching frontman Kody Nielson in constant motion, flailing the microphone around as if fighting with it. He is a much more relaxed figure these days when onstage in Opossom. That same frenetic energy seems to underlie his music, but he is evidently content to sit contemplatively behind a keyboard, or else tuck himself away behind the drum kit.

This new approach was hinted at during the last few years of the Mint Chicks, when the band became a three-piece and he started to play keyboard, rather than focus just on the singing.

“I definitely enjoyed having more responsibility during our live shows, rather than just being a frontman who has to be entertaining, without actually having any control of the musical side of things.””

In fact, his enjoyment of playing keyboard extends back to a set of toy instruments that his jazz musician father bought for him and his brother when he was just five. While his older brother, Ruban, gravitated toward the miniature guitar, Kody took up the keyboard. He also took an interest in drums and while at intermediate often headed up to the music room with friends during lunchtime to play on the school kit.

By the time he reached high school, he was already intent on forming a band and looking for any opportunities to play music.

“Me and some friends would turn up at parties with some portable amps and just start playing, making songs up on the spot. One of those friends was Michael Logie, who’s in Opossom now, and used to be in Mint Chicks… I also met Paul Roper, the old Mint Chicks’ drummer. He asked me to join the jazz combo at school and we played a little outside school. Then the three of us formed our own band – The Fat Controllers – and played the Rockquest. I played keyboards and programmed beats on drum machines or used samples. It just went from that to playing with Ruban as well.”

Kody says that some of the unusual aspects of the Mint Chicks’ sound may have come from the fact that his own musical contributions were written originally on keyboard, then switched onto guitar – without altering the chord phrasings. (Some of which had been influenced by his father’s in-depth knowledge of jazz). The Mint Chicks’ career progressed at pace – their off-kilter, aggressive sound received great reviews locally and they even managed a surprise hit with Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!

The band made a serious attempt to break the US by moving to Portland (losing Michael Logie in the process), but there were also signs of tension within the group – including a few onstage bust-ups. Kody believes that the weight of audience expectations was the thing that eventually brought the group to an end.

“We had been a band for eight years or so, and there were certain expectations that people had of us, which we were all keen to escape.”

During the final Mint Chicks’ releases, he had regained the chance to write songs on keyboard that wouldn’t have to be switched to guitar and he’d also begun to experiment with manipulating his voice as an instrument.

“I’ve always been into vocal effects. When we started Mint Chicks, I had a delay unit that I’d muck around with the whole time. On ‘Screens’, I just got this old school vocoder from Craig’s List – an early ’80s vocal harmoniser. I just liked how it sounded kind of robot-like and clunky. And it’s very full sounding, because you can play any harmonies you want to sing on the keys.”

Having taking some time off after the demise of the Mint Chicks, Kody found himself drawn to experimenting with the same machine.

Electric Hawaii was the first track that I made and that was using the vocodor. I just plugged the guitar in. I was using these very Hawaiian-sounding chords – sixth chords, like the ukulele tuning. That gave me the idea for the record. I wanted to have that Hawaiian, surf-y buzz, but recreated using a modern approach.”

Around the same time, Kody also began a relationship with Bic Runga and working alongside her gave him a new perspective on his own work. He says Bic had recently become obsessed with the album, ‘Melody Nelson’, by Serge Gainsbourg, and he encouraged her desire to take her new songs in this direction. The two began playing live as Kody & Bic, before she enlisted him to act as producer on her next album. ‘Belle’ was subsequently released in November to glowing reviews. Though this took him away from his own work, he believes it was a beneficial process.

“Production-wise I definitely learnt heaps. After it was over, I just felt really inspired. I’d worked with her for such a long time and tried to cater to what she wanted to do, so afterward it was great to know that I could do whatever I wanted. I could just make an album that I wanted to hear.”

Kody still had the laptop (running ProTools) that the Mint Chicks had used to record, so began recording his work at home – a small room in one corner of the house for most instruments and using the lounge to track the drums. The project allowed him to pursue his long-running interest in psych-rock.

“I listen to heaps of those ’60s pop bands, like the Byrds, the Zombies, the Small Faces, and the tracks off the ‘Nuggets’ compilations. But I also like the P-Funk/Parliament side of things and even Sly Stone, because they often had a crazy psychedelic rock sound as well. But those beats also make you feel like dancing and that’s a pretty powerful thing.

His attempts to draw from this era of music were aided by his use of a Nord Electro-3 keyboard, which provided the wide range of keyboard sounds that appear on the album – harpsichord, Farfisa organ, Rhodes, mellotron and marimba. For the most part, Kody worked alone, though Bic sang backing harmonies on many of the songs and also doubled the guitar line on Cola Elixir.

Kody admits one of his favourite tracks, Why Why, also involved some collaboration – with his father playing trumpet and some propulsive conga playing by Miguel Fuentes of Kantuta fame (and who also played on Nathan Haines’ ‘Soundkiller Sessions’). Despite recording digitally, Kody used a number of bits of analogue equipment to add depth to the sound.

“I used heaps of spring reverb, mainly from this budget home mixer I have that’s from the mid-’70s. It’s only got simple EQs, but you can turn the gain up to full and it still sounds really nice. It distorts, but it doesn’t sound that harsh. So I just found myself gaining everything out and trying to use a lot of analogue gear – old microphones, old preamps, an old compressor, and stemming some stuff through tape.”

Kody’s singular vision is what gives ‘Electric Hawaii’ a cohesive feel, extending from the artwork (which he also created) to the overall sound. Many of the songs have the drums and bass pushed up loud in the mix and Kody admits he recorded the drums last in a couple of cases so that they could be at the forefront of the sound.

“I like the production on a lot of ’60s recordings … On some of the Beatles’ records – like ‘Sgt Peppers’ and the ‘White Album’ – the snare is louder than the main vocal. I like that something other than the vocal is much louder than you’d expect.

Kody says his interest in the psych-rock sound extends to modern groups such as Jennifer Gentle, White Denim and Dungen. He was also an early fan of brother Ruban’s new group, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and has spent time recently as a touring UMO band member, as well as recording drums for their next album.

Opossom already has its own shows scheduled in Europe during April and May, which will be organised around a concurrent tour by Bic Runga. Both acts share the same line-up – Kody, Bic, and Michael Logie – though he says there are no plans for them to play shows together at this stage.

Opossom’s powerful mix of strong pop melodies and unusual production techniques seems bound to turn heads and win fans. This mix of accessibility and experimentation seems to be what Kody has gained from his interest in psych-rock.

“That music just resonates with me – the dynamics and the harmony of it. I like how that music is coming from the era when talented jazz musicians were drawn into session work, playing simple stuff for pop music. It still comes across as if it’s driven by a far more in-depth understanding of what’s needed. I’d love it if my music sounded old school in that way.’