Leading an eight-piece band and locally string sections recruited from each city, in October musician/composer/all-round creative genius Rhian Sheehan played album release shows in Dunedin, Nelson, Wellington and Auckland. The shows also included visuals and stage design by artist collaborators and Weta Workshops. The album, ‘A Quiet Divide’, is his first since 2013, and cinematic in scope. Aabir Mazumdar talked with the artist back home in Wellington.
Fresh off a four-city audio-visual tour of his new album, ‘A Quiet Divide’, Rhian Sheehan is back home in Wellington, looking forward to taking a break and spending some time with his family. Describing his feeling as “… a coming back down to reality” after the intensity of the tour, he’s happy to talk and even to begin with a bit of background exploration.
By now with a nearly two-decade career to look back on, Rhian started out playing guitar in teenage cover bands. A one-year contemporary music course at the Nelson School of Music was his first foray into learning how to record. Leaving his Nelson home he moved down to Canterbury University, studying composition which pushed him more into using computer technology. He would record his ideas at his flat and that’s where things really got started.
“I was really heavily into instrumental acoustic guitar, like Chet Atkins’ finger picking-style stuff. I played in a duo with a guy called Jol Mulholland, who actually co-produced a track on the new album, Soma Dreams. We’re old friends. We studied at the NSoM together as well, so we’ve known each other since we were 17 or 18.”
He names veteran acoustic guitar genius Paul Ubana Jones as one of many who have supported and encouraged him, in this case putting Rhian in touch with a promoter in Australia.
“Paul has been a huge help. He was one of those people in the beginning who believed in what I was doing, and what other people were doing and just helped a lot of people out. Special guy.”
In Australia, Rhian met and opened for international guitar hero Tommy Emmanuel.
“I had a jam with him for two hours at his hotel, which was pretty amazing. I had been working out his licks for years. I showed them to him and he thought it was really funny because I played them in a totally different place!”
His debut electronica album ‘Paradigm Shift’ arrived back in 2001, with five more albums and a couple of EPs following since. 2009’s ‘Standing In Silence’ saw him move into more of a ‘shoegaze, post-rock ambient, chamber music direction’ as has been described elsewhere. 2018 has brought ‘A Quiet Divide’ which is described as ‘a marriage of orchestral chamber music, cinematic guitar and synth-based soundscapes – fused with post-rock and ambient /electronic moments’.
As prolific as he has been as a recording musician, over the last decade Rhian has been more deeply involved with film, game and television composition. Alongside less prestigious locals, the music he’s written has also been used in Google, Facebook, Nike and GoPro commercials.
“I ended up in a position maybe eight or nine years ago where I started getting soundtrack work. My first big gig was for a 12-part television series and I was really thrown in the deep end. I guess that’s when things started to move in that direction for me.”
That TV drama, The Cult, saw him winning the Best Original Score trophy at NZ’s 2010 Qantas Film and Television Awards.
His musical life has since headed in several directions, scoring a cosmic variety of gigs that include lots of music for UK and American planetarium shows, a fully orchestral, spy-themed rollercoaster score for Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, and for the David Stubbs’ 2015 NZ documentary Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses, to names a few.
His most recent project involved him taking on the complex task of composing for augmented reality game, Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders. Released in October, the game prominently features the voice of Stephen Fry.
“The medium of mixed reality is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s just insane. That was interesting and fun., like nothing else I’ve ever worked on,” says Rhian of his first, but rather massive project in the composition for AR arena.
“When you’re writing for documentary or television you’re writing in a linear fashion. Gaming is very different. Especially when the interactivity of what the player’s doing changes the story the music is trying to tell them.”
‘A Quiet Divide’, his first studio album since 2013’s ‘Stories From Elsewhere’, was released around the same time. Track titles tellingly include Elegy For The Past, The Absence Of You and Lost Letters.
“I was in a very nostalgic mood when I was writing the music. I think it’s really about my or our relationship with the past. And how time is always fleeting. Every moment is ephemeral, it’s gone in an instant, and hopefully, some will last in your memory. I was thinking a lot about my childhood and my own kids’, and also about the future. The quiet divide being the distance of time and events and things in our life.
“I recorded a lot of instruments through old tape machines to make them sound degraded and wobble away. The solo piano piece, Last Time We Spoke, ends with a piano that kind of evaporates into this nostalgic world of tape noise and sounds. It really summed up the feel of the direction I wanted to go.”
At the heart of his composition process is a lot of experimentation and crossover between acoustic and electronic, analogue and digital.
“I enjoy the experimentation of trying to degrade sound and making it sound like it’s coming from another time or another place. Atlas, which is the most electronic track on the album, I ran through an old VHS tape and re-recorded it back through, and it kind of squashes the sound. It gave it that wobbly nostalgic sound.”
Despite the ability to change the characteristic of a sound in desirable ways, these technologies can also bring about their own problems as Rhian and Mike Gibson, who co-mixed and mastered the album, experienced.
“Mike used this huge, old tape machine from the ‘60s and it was really problematic. He’s based at Park Road Post, so there’s a lot of people with cell phones around and you’d be running off a piece of music into tape and it would pick up cellphone noise across the other side of the building. It took him a good couple of days finding the right spot for this tape machine. But I was adamant that I wanted the album to be mastered to tape. You can hear the odd wobble on some of the tracks but I kind of like it. It adds some unpredictability and uncertainty.”
Alongside the orchestral sense that he has evidently mastered (as a solo composer), Rhian has long been an adventurer in the realm of creative delivery – regularly incorporating unusual ideas, artworks and photography, and staging elaborate album release events.
October’s four-date album release tour promised ‘full band, string section and immersive projections’. He put together a core band of super talented musicians.
“The band I had on this tour, they’re all my heroes. We had Jeff Boyle, he plays guitar in Jakob, my favourite NZ band. We had Marika Hodgson who I think is one of the best bass players in the country, she’s incredible; Raashi [Malik, his wife who played piano and helped co-produce the album] on piano; Ed Zuccollo on synths who’s like a synth god; and Steve Bremner who’s played on many of my albums on drums and percussion. Just a great band.”
He had decided early on that the album’s live show would include visual elements.
“When I was working on this album it was at the back of my mind that I wanted to replicate it in a live environment. Because of the nature of the music, being instrumental, you really need something visual for the audiences to bounce off, and I think it really helps with the emotional response to the music.”
Rhian had spent a couple of days setting up prior to the first performance in the Dunedin Town Hall, and the sheer scale of the show seemed to cause some worry.
“In Dunedin, it was like, ‘Wow how am I going to get this done?’ because you arrive on the same day in other cities and all the visuals have to be set up. It all has to be assembled and set up with the projectors before the band can even set up. It was petrifying. In the Michael Fowler Centre, we were doing our run through, which was also our sound check with the string section. We had a pretty large string section and it was right up until the last minute!”
He says he’d like to just take a bit of a break over the summer and spend time with his kids, but there’s already another scoring job that needs to be started and there “might be” an exciting film job on the horizon for 2019.
“Maybe I’ll make another album in another five years,” he laughs.