The four Shepherds Of Cassini are Omar Al-Hashimi, Vitesh Bava, Felix Lun and Brendan Zwaan, and together they make music that is every bit as exotic and colourful as their respective names. Referencing the heavens in their collective handle, the band describe their output as ‘space music/progressive rock’, which, as Ania Glowacz discovers, is fundamentally accurate.
Shepherds Of Cassini met by chance, or maybe rather by some grand design that none of them could have predicted. The Auckland four-piece includes Vitesh Bava on bass and drummer Omar Al-Hashimi, who met care of the University of Auckland Rock Club around 2008.
After other experiments the two played together in a prog-rock band called Pilgrim’s Pyre. Around the same time they intersected guitar player Brendan Zwaan, and by no small miracle, violin player extraordinaire Felix Lun. He had been to Berlin and back with An Emerald City, and was invited to join them for a jam in February 2012. Omar and Vitesh were fully focused on starting a new band and the results were so successful, Shepherds Of Cassini was born.
Hailing from Iraq, Omar arrived in NZ in 1998 and gigged in traditional hard rock bands before getting into prog rock with Pilgrim’s Pyre. He enjoys playing complex time signatures.
“I really noticed an improvement in my drums, so I listened to more prog music – something I hadn’t listened to before, and now all I can play is prog rock music! We wanted to keep the prog rock thing going, but explore something different than what we were doing with Pilgrim’s Pyre. Vitesh and I – we just knew this is the kind of music we wanted to play.”
Vitesh was born and raised in Pukekohe, son of an Indian mother and Kiwi father. The bands’ diversity of backgrounds also includes European and Malaysian ancestry for violinist Felix Lun, and Dutch descent for Brendan Zwaan who plays guitar and provides (occasional) vocals.
“I always wanted to do music that wasn’t mainstream, I wanted to do something quite experimental and different,” Vitesh explains.
Brendan, who is an across-the-board-music fan, was studying at SAE.
“I was in a band with classmates from that course, playing all covers. At the time I met these guys I was really into post-rock. I’d seen some Jakob shows and it completely blew my mind. And Russian Circles and that sort of thing. That was kind of the bonding between us at the start – Mothra as well – and it was the turning point for the kind of style I was into playing.
Bands such as Tool, Pink Floyd and King Crimson were part of their early exploration. Songwriting responsibilities are shared and combined, with one often writing a rhythm, melody or riff and practice room-jamming fleshing things out.
“It’s very free flowing in a way. We get inside a room and we discuss it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work,” says Vitesh.
“It’s about throwing caution to the wind and following ideas that can seem to come out of the blue at the time,” explains Brendan of his take on ‘progressive (prog) rock’.
“Exploring them fully, and then not being afraid of that – resulting in a quite drawn-out song, a lot of movements, a lot of exploration. A song may have a lot of chapters that sound completely different from one another, but still having some overarching progression, something tying it all together. So it’s kind of like a movie in a way…”
“A pop song is like a video – a prog song is like a movie,” sums up Omar.
And in a movie-like way, there is often very little singing amongst the epic Shepherds Of Cassini soundtrack, the music meant to tell the story as much as lyrics.
“I think partly because we approach from the instrumental side rather than approach it from the song side, the words kind of creep their way in there,” Brendan explains.
“It’s kind of easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to flesh it out with lyrics that don’t need to be there. Less is more in this instance. And I wouldn’t want to do too much singing because that would leave no room for Felix,” he adds, pointing to the value of his instrumental contribution. “The violin is the closest thing to a human voice.”
People have such notoriously short attention spans these days – how do they get over that barrier with their super-long prog rock numbers?
“I guess that’s not really who we’re catering for,” shrugs Brendan.
“We’re writing for people who have the same taste in music that we do,” Omar takes over. “These are the people that listen to an album start to finish, and want to buy a hard copy – a CD or an album.”
Their newly released second album, ‘Helios Forsaken’ features six tracks running to an hour of playing time. As with their earlier self-titled album it was recorded and mixed by Dave Rhodes at Depot Sound in Devonport, Auckland.
“He really went the extra mile, says Brendan about Rhodes and their first recording with him. “He came to our shows, got under our skin, found out what we were about and showed a personal interest.”
Recorded ‘live’ with few overdubs, that album took 10 days to record and made it to #14 in the local charts. A different approach to ‘Helios Forsaken’, with an even tighter budget and just five studio days… but the results are stunning.
Helios, of course, was the mythical Greek god of the sun, who drove his chariot across the sky on a daily journey. Track five is recognisably named Pleiades’ Plea and the albums striking artwork has a strong astronomic sense, enough to safely assume there is a focus on space here. Indeed the band have labeled their own musical genre as ‘space music/progressive rock’.
“It’s in the name,” Brendan erupts. “We’re all about it!”
Cassini comes from an Italian astronomer – Cassini-Huygens is the name NASA gave to its unmanned spacecraft launched back in 1997 to check out Saturn. It reached the planet in 2004, the Huygens part separating from the orbiter craft and incredibly landing on Saturn’s moon Titan.
“This album is about us leaving planet Earth because it’s doomed,” Brendan continues. “We don’t avoid that. It’s kind of the product of anyone who’s ever star-gazed. It fills the human brain with all kinds of weird chemicals and emotions and stuff. Taking that and injecting it into the music. Trying to come up with a soundtrack for an imaginary space opera epic. Because space is such an amazing thing to think about. To draw inspiration from that – there’s so much to draw from.”
The influence of space is integral to their music, and so too is the Middle Eastern influence. It resonates not just in the heritage of Vitesh and Omar, but in Felix’s musical journeys with An Emerald City, and prog rock in general.
“We all arrived at the Middle Eastern sound from different sides,” Brendan elucidates. “I got into it from the ’60s and ’70s psychedelic music – The Doors, The Byrds…”
“As a kid I listened to a lot of legendary Middle Eastern artists,” recalls Omar. “Their composition is very different from western music. Very progressive. Middle Eastern rhythms are very dynamic and I try and incorporate that a lot into this band. It’s nostalgic and it just comes to me. It’s different to the norm in the western world anyway.”
“Definitely for me starting this band, I was listening more to non-western music – Middle Eastern, Indian… I found a lot of scales are quite haunting. Mysterious and quirky,” adds Vitesh. “It’s actually quite refreshing when someone says, ‘I’m not really into metal’, or ‘…not into all these long songs but I really like you guys, I really enjoy your album’. We write and perform music that’s outside the norm and like to share that with people. Express yourself and how you see the world…”
Speaking of which, Felix is these days living in Wellington and Shepherds Of Cassini are not planning on touring this very special new album. Omar has taken on the role of activating online interest and attention.
“Every day since the album I visit different blogs, websites. Sometimes you have to pay a couple of bucks, but you won’t get as much exposure touring as you do online.”
That may be so, but this music is so epic and beautiful, apart from the home/headphones option, the ideal is totally experiencing this music live. Their Auckland album launch (mid-July) was a sell-out, the crowd refusing to let them leave the stage until their repertoire was fully exhausted. Shepherds of Cassini is unique, and not just for their prog-rock appropriate name and sound. There’s a magic happening here, and the exquisite sounds and melodies pouring forth from Felix’s violin just seals the deal.