When critically acclaimed Auckland five-piece The Checks called it quits in 2011, having given the European market a good but ultimately unrewarding crack, charismatic singer Ed Knowles and tone-maestro guitarist Sven Pettersen set about creating a new sound, and a new outfit. Following a year spent working on demos and ideas they were joined by former Sherpa bassist Daniel Barrett, and drummer Izaak Houston (ex-Space Creeps), and Racing came into being. As 2019 approaches that might sound a long time ago, but Racing are just now hitting their stride as the high dynamic groove-rock band readily convince Mike Tweed.
With a steady stream of singles and two EPs already to their name, November 2018 saw the release of Racing’s first full album, the aptly titled ‘Real Dancing’. As guitarist Sven Pettersen is quick to point out, getting people to move is key to just about everything they do.
“I’m most interested in the groove. You want to make a decent groove into a decent song. I think that’s what we are trying to do. Having Isaac and Daniel as a rhythm section helps perfect that feeling far more than me and Ed could ever imagine. I can come up with half a bullshit riff, and they’ll take it and make it into something pretty special!”
One spin through their new record reveals a series of masterfully shaped rock and roll-to-indie pop songs, pairing driving dance grooves with Ed Knowles’ trademark vocal howl and Pettersen’s shimmering guitar leads. From the very first note it’s obvious that the band has tapped into something quite special, and Knowles is only too keen to get ‘Real Dancing’ out into the wild.
“Even though it’s taken a minute or so, we are super happy that there is a full-length album to promote. At the end of the day albums are the things you’re going to leave behind, so you want to make sure the songs are tip-top.
“We basically started the album process in the middle of 2016. We laid down 12 or so songs at Roundhead Studios in Auckland, four of which became ‘The Bass’ EP. That came out in 2017. During the recording process, we got involved with Dave Eringa, who has worked with Manic Street Preachers, The Who, Kylie Minogue – a whole bunch of stuff. He ended up mixing the whole record and the EP. He’s a great dude, and we’d love to work with him again.”
Bass player Daniel Barrett confirms Eringa’s input was key in taking the band’s songs to a new level.
“We were kind of the guinea pig band for an industry showcase at Roundhead called The Producer Series, where Dave flew in from England to give a masterclass on mixing and producing. He came on board with us pretty quickly after that, and with his help we found there was another place we could take our sound. Before Dave came along we thought we were already pretty much done with the album, but he ended up producing three new songs with us at The Lab in Kingsland. He really brought the sounds in our head to life.”
A showcase of Knowles’ falsetto agility, the album’s lead single, Motel Pool, reached number one in the NZ rock radio chart, a feat that took the band by surprise. With increased airplay and exposure, Racing are finally seeing their live audiences also expand.
“We knew Motel Pool was a good tune, but to have New Zealanders latch on the way they did, that was something we definitely weren’t expecting,” explains drummer Izaac Houston. “There are all sorts of people at our gigs nowadays, from office types to builders to young hipsters on their very first trip. And everybody in between! A diverse selection of people seems to dig the songs we make, and we couldn’t really ask for anything else.”
While songs like Motel Pool and Drugs and Affection bristle with dancefloor rock swagger, it’s really the slower numbers such as Sweet Bedlam and The Alcoves that have broadened Racing’s musical scope. The band seem particularly proud of how these songs have turned out.
“Writing a song like The Alcoves was kind of like the magic zone,” laughs Petterson. “You have a buzz, you’ve had a great rehearsal, and then it just clicks into place. It’s really fun to do something new. After practising a setlist for so long, it almost feels like a release to play a different kind of tune.”
Sweet Bedlam paints a picture of the world’s imminent end, with nothing left but nightclubs and parties. With a musical bond forged over many years Checks mates, Knowles and Pettersen were able to extract the best out of each other when putting the parts of this slow burner together. Pettersen takes a sip of wine before explaining the process.
“I had most of the tune for Sweet Bedlam, the bassline and stuff. Everything was there for the taking, but I needed Ed to come in and put his stamp on it. His lyrics really completed it. It added this really weird beachy vibe, on the stones and surf thing.”
“The melody was there ready to go, and I could just come in and let loose,” continues Knowles. “I had this idea of a post-apocalyptic Brighton Beach, where everything is ruined except the nightclubs. A kind of bedlam, but you can still go have a boogie. Each verse is kind of a snapshot of a night out in that scenario. In certain ways, I don’t think the world is far off that at the moment!”
Knowles maintains an abstract lyric writing formula that has worked for him since his early days in The Checks. With results like… ‘Swing in my jelly boots/ Spit cherry stones in the motel pool/ In possession/ Fire at the garrison/ My eyes blue skin and bone/ When I let it out…’ (Motel Pool), the method clearly produces some fascinating results.
“I don’t think there is an overarching narrative to the album, or at least there isn’t yet. Maybe I’ll listen back to the songs in a little while and discover something I didn’t see before. I’ve always written lyrics the same way. I find images and pull the best to the top. It’s almost like a photo album. You don’t want to tell people what to think. Songs are better when they’re open to interpretation I reckon.”
The album title and its shark pic cover (pink-hued as all the Racing artwork has been to date) similarly fit the enigmatic bill, the band saying it’s about being temporarily suspended from the real world.
“On one level it is about when someone genuinely loses themselves to the music, but it also hit us on some weirder levels,” says Knowles. “That’s why we felt the shark on the cover was connected to ‘Real Dancing’ because things like sharks are always lost (or not lost) in their own world, unaffected. This record is a late-night joyride.”
The changing face of the music industry is something that the band couldn’t ignore when compiling ‘Real Dancing’ – choosing to remain independent for the release of this first album. Knowles admits the current industry climate is something he is struggling to get his head around.
“I can tell you what picture A looks like, but I think we’re still figuring what picture B is. Like a before and after type thing. Nowadays like it’s like the wild west. We are releasing the album ourselves, because really, who buys records anymore? At the end of the day, good tunes are good tunes. That’s what we strive to make first and foremost.”
A cracking live performance is one thing that remains irreplaceable, and ‘Real Dancing’ seems designed for rock and roll dancefloors. Having built a fearsome reputation for their live shows over the past five years, Racing will spend the summer months on the road, both home and abroad. A decent NZ tour is in the planning, with Australia (also the name of the album’s 13th and final track) and Europe to follow soon after, the band keen to play just about anywhere that will have them.
“As long as they’re serving some blue sugary cocktails we’ll be there,” cackles Pettersen, as the rest of the band guffaws with him. “Blue drinks, way out of town!”
Bartenders everywhere should have their shakers at the ready.