by Kat Parsons

Rhombus: What Happened At The After Party

by Kat Parsons

Rhombus: What Happened At The After Party

Since its inception in 2001, producers Simon Rycroft, Koa Williams, and Thomas Voyce have accumulated a catalogue of electronic, reggae, soul, and funk sounds that has helped make Rhombus a Kiwi music staple. Their 2002 debut album ‘Bass Player’ got to #18 in the NZ Top 40 Album charts, and they’ve since played alongside other Kiwi heavyweights such as Shapeshifter, Fat Freddy’s Drop, and TrinityRoots. Following the release of recent single Treat You So Right, Kat Parsons caught up with one-third of Rhombus, Thomas Voyce, to chat about that track and others on their fifth album, ‘After Party’, which dropped at the end of May. Made with support from NZ On Air Music.

With a PhD in Sound Art from Victoria University, audio engineer and musician Dr. Thomas Voyce has explored some very different avenues of music, like environmental sound composition and audio mixing and mastering. As one of the founding members of Rhombus, he also teaches audio engineering, spatial audio, and post-production audio for film at Victoria University in Wellington.

“I think listening to music at home with my parents,” says Voyce, describing his earliest memory of music. “They had a double LP of American Graffiti, the George Lucas film, and one of the songs on there, I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos, has stuck with me my entire life! It’s one of my favourite songs of all time.

“As a listener I’m just always engaged with music, and listen to a lot of different kinds of music,” Voyce explains. “I’m always listening for interesting new things. Then as someone who makes music, I enjoy the process of it and the variety that happens when you’re making music. Sometimes something comes together really quickly, or takes a long time, or you’re working with someone new, or an older collaboration, and all these processes are just a lot of fun. So for me, I just find it really entertaining.”

Between 2002 and 2008 his band released four albums, but there has been a 14 year dry spell since, making new long player ‘After Party’ all the more desirable. Released in April, Treat You So Right was the first single of 2022 for the group, with Wellington-based artist and producer TK Paradza performing alongside regular Rhombus collaborator Lisa Tomlins. This is Paradza’s second feature with Rhombus, having performed, again with Tomlins, on the 2020 release Your Love. Soulful instrumentation paired with Paradza and Tomlins’ sultry vocals elevate the track and create a smooth and enticing melody.

Surprisingly the two vocalists weren’t previously acquainted, they did their vocals for the two songs separately, and only met in person for the first time after they were recorded.

“Yeah, Treat You So Right is quite an interesting one because it started off life as kind of a sketch,” begins Voyce in describing the creative process behind the single. “I had played the drums, and the sample embedded in it as well, and the organ. I think they were the main components of it. It had a slightly different baseline.

“One of the ways that we produce music is by bringing sketches to the table. There are three producers; myself, Simon Rycroft, who is based down in Christchurch, and Koa Williams who is based up here in Wellington with me. Sometimes we produce stuff online together, but in this particular instance, I had come up with this track. I didn’t think it was going to pass muster. I thought it had some cool elements; it’s pretty downbeat and a bit smoky, but Simon, in particular, was really enthused by it.

“So I re-recorded the drums, new baseline, and all of the bits and pieces to it and started developing ideas for vocals and melodies and things like that,” he continues. “TK had been a student of mine and I had had him in the back of my mind, that he’d be great to get on a Rhombus track, but I wasn’t quite sure which. He’s quite a different kind of vocalist for Rhombus historically. I played some of his music to Koa and he agreed he’d be absolutely great. So TK got him in the studio and recorded the vocals in an evening basically. We co-wrote the words and bounced ideas off each other. So that’s kind of how that came together.”

The captivating black and white music video for Treat You So Right was directed by Wellington stalwart Sarah Hunter. Hunter is a Kiwi producer, writer, photographer, and director who heads up her own company Transmit. With stunning imagery and production, and knock-out performances from Paradza, Tomlins, and Rhombus, the music video transports us to a smokey, seductive world.

“I’ve known Sarah Hunter for many years now,” explains the Rhombus producer. “She runs a production company and does all kinds of media, a lot involving moving images. She did a documentary on the TrinityRoots, so she’s interested in narrative storytelling.

“I work at the NZ School of Music as a lecturer and when we went into lockdown we had a situation where we could no longer put on an opera performance. I was brought in to help make a film of students performing various arias and bits and pieces. So I got Sarah Hunter along to help out and we put together like an hour and a half feature film. It was shot in black and white at the Miramar Creative Centre, which is a facility in Wellington where postgraduate students and post-production audio, film, and animation do a lot of work. We have this kind of black box space out there.

“So when it came to the Rhombus video, I thought it would be great to basically do the same thing. We knew that we could control lighting and didn’t have to worry about environmental stuff like if it was raining or windy,” he laughs, contemplating the Wellington weather. “Sarah and I put together the concept and we produced it together, and she directed it and we managed to put it together relatively quickly. I mean TK and Lisa in particular just look fantastic.”

After two decades working together, if separately, Rhombus has explored a lot of different genres and sounds. Typically ‘After Party’ encompasses multiple genre mixes and styles, and Voyce expresses the importance of collaboration and working collectively.

“I think the key is that we do it all together, in the sense I’m talking about Koa, myself, and Simon. Individually, we all do quite different things; Koa’s a DJ, Simon’s interested in studio technology and electronic music and I’m interested in playing music and musical arrangement. We’ve got different sorts of skills and interests. Ultimately we produce a lot of music. We have archives and archives of stuff that we sort of half-finish, and move on to the next thing. It’s this kind of collaborative listening process. It’s very difficult for us to judge in a lot of ways because we’re so close to it. The decisions can be difficult, but I think as we get older as well it’s a lot easier to kind of let go and just commit to the decisions and move on to the next thing.

“I guess another part of the sound relates to how it’s produced,” he expresses. “With Simon based down in Christchurch, we have these two kinds of production methodologies; one of them would be people bringing stuff to the table that they’ve worked on already and the other one is working online. A lot of the online stuff we would make it to a certain point and then it would need further stuff; that next layer that we couldn’t achieve remotely. We’d bring Simon up for that and the three of us would be in the studio and we’d work on that kind of content.

“We’d bring Simon up to Wellington for the mixing process too. We’d put all of the tracks onto a mixing console with all of the outboard effects that we have in our studio, and we’d mix everything through all of that equipment. We used a lot of analogue drum triggers, and Mu-Tron Bi-Phase or Space Echo or spring reverb. Things that we have in our studio at the time, we pushed all the music through it to give it a flavour. When I listen to the album, that’s what I hear. There’s all of those little moments and that kind of glues it together.

“It’s quite different from what it used to be like! When we first started out I was living in Japan and I used to send Simon Zip discs and DAT tapes of ideas. They would go in the post and he would put them into his machine, listen to them, add vocals and send them back. The whole thing would take weeks and weeks and weeks,” Voyce laughs.

He cites Falling Away as a good example of this process. Track seven on the album has an intriguing mix of electronic sounds blended together with the vocal lines and instrumentation.

“It is a mixture of stuff,” chronicles Voyce. “Some found sound, some stuff off vinyl, and there is a Juno-106 which is playing an arpeggiated pattern in real time; all just trying to build texture. There are all kinds of things on that track actually. It’s quite complex in terms of the way it’s put together, whereas some of the other tracks are a bit more straightforward.

“Yeah, and we use Matt Allison, who’s played with Rhombus in the past,” Voyce continues. “He’s an amazing trombonist who plays with the NZSO, and we brought him into the studio to do these trombone lines against some kind of vocal harmonies that Raashi Malik [Kiwi/Indian Wellington-based artist and yet another longtime Rhombus collaborator] came in to perform. It’s quite an unusual track because it’s quite atmospheric in a way. From a composition perspective, it’s quite unusual for us in a way.

“​​Another thing that we do quite a bit of is we use a lot of found sound; like field recordings and bits and pieces in our music just as texture. Border Patrol has some recordings I made in South Africa in 2019 just before the pandemic. I was over there on a sound art residency with a bunch of other people who are interested in field recording and that recording that I used was along the border where a great big river stretches between Zimbabwe and South Africa and you hear this helicopter at the beginning of the track and that was actually the Border Patrol. That whole soundscape sits underneath that track and gives it a certain flavour and when you take that element out, it feels like a different track.”

Another contrasting song on ‘After Party’ is Settle In, featuring seductive, resonant vocals from Maree Lawn, (aka Shannon Lawn) a NZ-born artist currently based in Portugal. The blues/jazz vibe of Settle In creates an utterly unique listening experience whilst still supporting the album in its entirety. The producers of Rhombus have brought together so many different artists, musicians, styles, and sounds, yet as a body of work, it flows freely and feels complete.

“As someone who writes music, it’s really difficult to understand or even influence how people listen to your music,” Voyce says. “When you have tracks that are unique but still fit together, that’s what makes a good album. That’s what you hope for the experience, but it’s very hard to actually make that happen for people, because everyone brings their own kind of history to that listening experience.

Settle In is a great track. I enjoyed putting it together. I met Maree Lawn as a student as well. The version of Settle In that made it onto the album is essentially a remix of another song with a completely different harmonic progression. It just so happened that this remix ended up being the most complete articulation, I love listening to it.”

Rhombus has had what you could call a revolving door of guest artists over the years, from rappers to vocalists, drummers to trombonists. This assortment, ever-changing, allows the group’s music to be fluid and fresh; that quintessential ‘Rhombus “sound’, that never sounds the same twice. Voyce, Rycroft and Williams’ ability to weave electronics, instrumentation, and melodies together is a crucial part of their creative process.

“I mentioned Matt Allison before, the trombone player; he played on Treat You So Right and gives it a lovely mellow trombone tone. I love the trombone and I love the way that he plays it. He’s also on Falling Away. Then we’ve got Lex French, who’s based in Montreal at the moment, playing trumpet on Woven and Your Love. Kirstin Eade is a flutist in the NZ Symphony Orchestra, and she plays on the last track, Border Patrol. She’s playing the bass flute. My office at the music school is through the wall of a place where a lot of artist-teachers come in and do lessons with the students. I heard her playing just as she was warming up and I just sort of walked through, introduced myself, played her the track that I’d been working on and she was interested in being involved. So really lucky to have her on the album as well.

“We’ve also got another album that we’ve recorded at the same time as ‘After Party’; a second ‘Remixes and Archives’ album. We released an album in 2006 called ‘Onwards, Remixes and Archives’ which was basically some remixes that other people have done for us and some stuff that hadn’t made it onto the other albums. We produce so much music that doesn’t make it to the main albums we thought we’d do another one of those. So we’ve already recorded and mastered another album which we will release at some point.”

Looking back over 20 years of Rhombus, Voyce has had some amazing experiences to think about, but says there has always been something about his NZ homeland that stands out amongst his memories.

“There’s been a lot,” he reminisces. “I always enjoyed touring in Japan, in particular, because I’d lived there for a while and every time we went over there, it felt like inviting my friends into a world that I had experienced and wanted them to experience as well. So that was always really special. But I think on reflection one of the things that I miss about touring is just the experience of touring around NZ, particularly in summer. When I think about the last 20 years or so, it’s those kinds of experiences that are the most cherished. Like getting to some of those ‘out-of-the-way’ places and connecting with locals who were really into our music. The generosity of people around the places; that’s what it’s all about. And so I think yeah, yeah playing NZ is a really important part of it for me.”

Having led a richly diverse musical journey, Thomas Voyce has some final insights for artists and producers trying to find their place and make their mark on the industry.

“It can be difficult. I know that the obsession with what’s happening outside of the music can take over for some people; making sure that they have a decent Spotify following, a good social media presence, etc. Those things can detract a little bit from the thing that’s important to musicians, which is music. Working on the music is the best way to spend your time.

“I think that’s probably the best advice I can give because the world changes so quickly in the music industry. It’s hard to keep up. So you have just got to focus on the thing that makes you happy. For me, that’s been the studio.

“We’re not really tied to any particular genre, we’re just exploring music. Part of that is an appreciation for different kinds of music. We’re not just one thing, we’re exploring and producing what feels right to us. And really, at the end of the day, we’re just trying to keep ourselves entertained and happy doing stuff that we enjoy.”

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