Lately, on Auckland’s bFM the odd slower, beautiful, enigmatic track has been slipped in among the dance beats and rock tracks, resulting in a number of listeners phoning to ask ‘Who was that?’. The answer many times has been The Relaxomatic Project.
The Relaxomatic Project is primarily guitarist Dan Sperber and drummer Luke Casey, along with a cast of talented collaborators. The Relaxomatic album is the result of the two songwriters/producers’ desire to record songs cultivated from sporadic live outings.
In fact, the pairing up of Sperber and Casey was also a happy accident. Sperber elaborates: “We were in a band together many years ago. It was a really happy musical association so we kicked it off again about three years ago. We both had bands that were doing similar things (Casey’s Freedom and Sperber’s Relaxomatic) and they kind of just melded into one – they sort of ate each other.”
Casey continues: “In terms of playing together, we never sat down to form a band. It’s always been that we’ve played with the same people and it’s just evolved. It was very informal.”
‘Informal’ and ‘relaxed’, also sum up the recording process. They funded the album themselves with the 10 tracks recorded over two days last year with Simon Braithwaite at The Lab. These tracks were subsequently built upon at Helen Young Studios with Andre Upston. They have released the album on their own fledgeling label, Space Baby, with marketing taken up by Antenna Records, distributed through EMI.
While ‘commercial viability’ is an abiding phrase for many acts, theirs is music based on principles of simplicity and honesty and a creative space given time to develop. In Jamie Oliver terms, if most music is microwaved, then The Relaxomatic Project use the crock-pot method, letting their songs slowly simmer until they are ready – the result seeped in flavour.
“All we’ve really done is applied our ethos of wanting to make honest and beautiful music,” says Sperber. “Everything has had that ethos, including the artwork (by Crispin Schuberth) and the way it is distributed and marketed. All we’ve really done is apply that ethic in the material and channelled everybody else’s input through that.”
Having both been involved in many other musical collaborations including The New Loungehead for Sperber and Eye TV for Casey, they had a deliberate mandate to make The Relaxomatic Project about one thing only – pleasing themselves.
“In the past projects that I have been involved in, other bands, whatever, have tried to push too hard,” says Casey. “There is a difference – and Dan has made this distinction to me – between energy and effort. Often when you put in effort you are trying to force something that may not be there, but when you have energy it’s a positive thing. Often there is a sense, particularly in New Zealand, that when you are involved in a creative industry you’re beating your head against the wall all of the time and it was very much a conscious decision with this project to remove any of that feeling of hard work or graft. Everything that we did with this project was always pleasurable.”
The word ‘relaxomatic’ could serve as a genre coined to define the music. Just as the word conjures up images of spaciousness and smoothness, so does the music. Creating musical space is something both songwriters embrace and admire in others. Musical influences are varied but share a similar ideology.
“One of the people who originally inspired me when I first came to New Zealand,” says Casey, who moved here from the UK when he was 15, “was Frank Gibson Jnr. He was the first person who introduced me to jazz. One of the first local jazz recordings that influenced me – and I think lifted the standard of New Zealand jazz – was the first Nathan Haines record, ‘Shift Left’. I thought it was beautifully recorded and he was obviously a musician who was very intense and committed to his craft with a nice musical ear as well. Much of what The Relaxomatic Project is about for me musically, and personally, is space. I’m very much of the ‘less is more’ school and love lots of space in music.
“In a compositional sense, someone who has influenced me immensely is a French classical composer from the early 20th century Erik Satie. He has a very famous piece of music called Les Gymnopedes (The Exercises) and he is very minimal, very spacious, very beautiful, pretty and romantic. Brian Blade is an American jazz drummer who plays for Joni Mitchell, is on the latest Wim Wenders soundtrack, ‘The Million Dollar Hotel’, and has released a couple of his own albums. It’s a beautiful marriage of jazz and poetry, produced by Daniel Lanois, so is also very spacious.”
Dan Sperber’s turn: “One person who’s always influenced me directly and by association is Manuel Bundy. He’s the kind of guy who just by being in a room can make music sound better. I’ve really learnt a lot philosophically from him in that he never pushes his presence onto anything but just has a very Zen aspect, being humble, honest and genuine, and doing what he does out of a love for music. You can see it in other people he’s worked with like Nathan Haines and Mark de Clive-Lowe, that he’s brought something really positive to their sound which is so unique and really subtle, but it really shifts the whole sound – takes all of the tension out of the song. He’s someone who is really good at creating new space which, as Luke was saying, is what we are all about.
“The second Shihad album ‘Killjoy’ is an album which really captures that band at that time and the space in their sound really beautifully. It’s an odd comparison to make but at a basic level, there’s a real simplicity to that album. Songs are worked but you don’t really hear that you don’t hear the effort, you just hear the energy. I’ve never stopped listening to the Bressa Creeting Cake self-titled album since I bought it.
“That’s another one that captures a real New Zealand spirit as well, a real kind of pastoral feel which I feel there are elements of in The Relaxomatic Project. It’s somehow capturing in music that sense of always being 30 minutes away from some of the most amazing beaches in the world, or that thing that you get when you’re at home writing a song with your tape recorder and you listen back to it and you can hear all the birds singing in the background, things like that. The Able Tasmans are another band, again with that pastoral sound and there is a classical aspect to the songwriting which makes it quite timeless. They’re not that easy to define within a genre which is something that really interests me.”
In talking about the album Sperber and Casey express much admiration for their musical collaborators. One of the biggest thrills for them releasing the album is that it may provide a springboard for some of these artists to record albums of their own, something they are keen to develop with the Space Baby label. As with their influences, the album’s roll call is eclectic: Justyn Pillbrow plays bass; John Highsted contributes percussion; Cam Allen adds his alto sax to the mix; Godfrey de Grut the soprano sax; Manuel Bundy’s decks feature on Every Day There’s Something; Anna Coddington from Auckland band Handsome Geoffrey bestows At the Onset with ear-capturing beautiful vocals; Julia Dibley plays violin; Julia Brown plays viola; and Georgina Cooper contributes cello.
Sperber and Casey describe the involvement of these musicians as a “gift from the universe”.
“They just kind of drifted in almost,” says Sperber. “It wasn’t a matter of going out and looking for people to come in as session players, it would never have worked on that level. It was all people who understood what we were trying to do with it.”
There are no grand plans for the album or to tour live, although they will play some select shows out of Auckland. They are instead happy for the music to seep into people’s aural awareness over time.
“It’s a really good sign if people are responding well to the music,” says Sperber. “It’s quite rare for people to make the effort and call up radio stations and enquire about music. I know that from doing the jazz show on bFM and I notice that particular songs will engender responses.
“I guess another advantage we have is that we don’t fit into an open category. At the moment there aren’t a bunch of other albums in the country where you can’t put it in a pile and say ‘This is this kind of music’. We’re happy that we’re in the New Zealand music pile, but we don’t really fit into any other category that’s up and running here.”
And the final word to Casey: “If you are very big in your own country and very commercial, other countries usually have an act that fills that criteria. So I think that in many ways our uniqueness and the fact that you can’t label it as a jazz record or whatever, strictly speaking, is actually a blessing because I think it will mean it will last a lot longer.