April/May 2014

by Mohamed Hassan

@Peace: Intergalactic Aspirations

by Mohamed Hassan

@Peace: Intergalactic Aspirations

‘To celebrate the one year anniversary of Pluto’s independence @Peace & The Plutonian Noise Symphony will be traveling to co-ordinate ^728.oP (commonly known as planet earth) to broadcast their latest musical work at The Auckland Stardome.’ So read the irresistible invitation to the album listening party. Outer space, outta space, spaced out, outstanding and standing out, @Peace has been an original, quirky and chameleonic driver of our hip hop scene since first surfacing in 2011. Mohamed Hassan accepted the challenge of interviewing the latest psychedelic incarnation, @Peace & The Plutonian Noise Symphony, to discover more about the just-released album of the same name. 
Having agreed to meet in front of a nearby record store, I fortunately discover the @Peace five wandering around the Ponsonby Central complex on the other side of the road, looking slightly less than orientated. Tom Scott, one of the group’s two MCs, asks if I need any money, then shuffles a little nervously away from the organic store, admitting he’s just left a banana skin on the counter and gained a packet of vegan snacks.

Ten minutes later, once the shenanigans subside, we hunch together on a nearby park bench, trying to compete with the chorus of cicadas.

“You know the other day I heard a dying cicada, and it was the loneliest sound I’ve ever heard,”” Scott opens. “It was like a 60-year old at a club, still trying to get laid.””

Mishearing, I ask if that was him as a six year old? He laughs.

“Nah, that’s gonna be me as an old man, once my wife leaves me for a young, fly cicada.””

Also hunched around my dying voice recorder are fellow MC Lui Tuiasu (Nothing 2 Nobody) and three producers, Christoph ‘El Truento’ James, Hayden ‘Dick Dastardly’ Dick and Brandon ‘B-Haru’ Haru. Once a side-project for some of NZ’s most exciting music names, they’re now a solidified band and the closest thing we have to a hip hop supergroup. After putting out two head-turning EPs, ‘@Peace’ (2011) and 2013’s ‘Girl Songs’, they’re back with a debut album.

Atpeace T-Shirts nzm154@Peace and the Plutonian Noise Symphony is a stark departure from the grassroots hip hop sound we’ve come to love about our local scene, much of which the members of the group helped nurture. Instead, it’s a fully flexed psychedelic exploration into the ideas hinted at in their first self-titled release, and presents a tight group that have learnt how to work together to maximum effect. It’s jazzy, minimalist and existential; all the things hip hop isn’t meant to be.

“It was really the first time we’ve really worked together,”” says James. “The other times we were just pulling different parts from different groups, but this is the first time we came together into the studio and made it from scratch.””

True to the album’s convoluted title, first track Weightless, is a collection of noises that makes a convincing argument for what an intergalactic noise orchestra trying to communicate with Earth might sound like. It then delves into the drowsy Hug Your Mum, and we’re introduced to what the rest of the record has in store – a chilled and at times chilling journey through time and space, literally. An epic undertaking, but one to which the group commits itself convincingly. This isn’t a concept album though, they insist, it’s just an album with a purpose.

“It doesn’t make sense otherwise, you might as well just release 10 singles,”” says Scott. “If you’re making an album it should be a cohesive piece of work. If you’re releasing a movie then every scene should work to tell the story.””

We don’t hear any ‘rapping’ per se until the third track, Stars in the City. By this stage, the theme and musicality of the record begins to fully form. Smartly layered bass lines and live drums that feature on most of the tracks, courtesy of Haru, add a depth that solidifies the vision. Alongside Dick’s cautious drum loops and James’ spacey arrangements, each song is birthed to life colourfully in a way that extends beyond simple backing tracks.

“I think it was cool working together just to take the focus off the lyrics, and let the music speak,”” says Scott. “These guys are amazing musicians and they shouldn’t be overshadowed or overlooked.””

Tracks like Made speak to musicians not afraid to stray outside the borders of a three and a half minute song, with a hook and a bridge, and the @Peace members have really let the music become a vital part of the story-telling structure.

“I think it’s our form of escapism,”” explains Haru. “It’s sad that people don’t really practice it these days as in depth as they should, in terms of really getting involved in your music and playing something that words can’t describe, and trying to convey a point.””

Gravity, the album’s lead single, also seems its most perfectly formed. Impressively complex in arrangement, flowing between slow bass-driven harmonies and switched-up time signatures. Just as the mood is set, they give only a two-note warning before masterfully igniting energy into the track, as Tuiasau jumps in and rips it to shreds. It would have been great to have more of this level of energy on the album, and while it’s hinted at nearer the end, it never quite solidifies.

Beyond the music, what’s also refreshing are some of the more serious conversations taking place on the album. Playdough’s Cave, Lite Year and Dust speak quite soberly about time, existence, spirituality and death; conversations that clearly represent the headspace of the group as it stands.

“We read a lot of Alan Watts and Buddhism,”” says Scott. “These days I wonder if religions were talking of God as some sort of metaphor for the universe, and they were saying worship that, give in to that entity that we belong to.””

About 60 blueprints for the album were put together at the band’s quiet getaway batch in Taranaki, but they were soon whittled down to 10 and recorded at Auckland’s Redbull Studios.

“I’ve heard Erykah Badu say that – I’ve written it on my wall on a Post-it – that she usually writes 60-70 songs per album. And so I didn’t stop until we had that many,” claims Scott.

“Some of our favourite songs didn’t make the album cause they didn’t fit,”” adds Haru.

The 10 tracks were mixed by Daddy Kev, but the majority of the production decisions were kept insular, as the band felt any outside influence would distract the fine balance of the relationship the three producers had built over time.

“Over the past two or three years I think we’ve gotten to a point now where we’re willing to compromise, because we all know how beats work,”” says Hayden. “It’s cool having everyone on the same page with what we’re trying to make. It could be your favourite song, [but] if it doesn’t fit then it doesn’t fit, and there’s no hard feelings about that.”

Overall, their debut major release is infectiously eclectic, dominated by James’ jazzy psychedelia that’s reminiscent of Sun Ra, who the group single out as one of 10 primary influences, alongside Pink Floyd and The Beatles. It’s precisely this eccentricity that’s quickly raised comments about whether they’ve strayed too far outside the ‘acceptable’ parameters of hip hop. It’s an idea that irks them greatly.

“Because hip hop is a rebellious art form, they try to make it out to be a simple art form,”” says Scott. “They love seeing it on chocolate milk ads and they love seeing it represented as an ignorant art form, but it’s taught me everything I know.””

For the group, it’s hard to shake the feeling they’ve been too easily dismissed, or worse, that they’ve outgrown NZ altogether. They maintain, however, the importance of not underestimating their fan base. And, as divisive as they predict this album will be, there’s been much hype surrounding the release of ‘Plutonian Noise Symphony’. After all, each member has been their own respective beacon in the blossoming local hip hop scene, and their collective faith in it remains firm.

“I love it man, it’s so inspiring, more inspiring than the rest of the world to be honest. I’m more inspired by dudes like Johnny Rescue (Oui Groove) and Lucky Lance (Team Dynamite) than I am by ScHoolboy Q.”

After some initial hiccups with their national tour – venue managers forgetting bookings and taking others to court for not paying them – the crew heads off to tour Australia next. Their eyes remain focused on seeking out the right listeners, and mammoth US indie labels like Stones Throw Records are the mountain peaks for hip hop heads that want to stay true to their sound.

“It’s hard when you have to do everything yourself,”” says Tuiasau. “But in order to make music, you have so much responsibility for making sure it gets heard. It’s so much work, but I think it’s worth it.””

@Peace are already planning their next musical escapade, joking that maybe they’ll be even more controversial and make happy music instead. Who knows what to reasonably expect… but are we ready for that just yet?