Shepherds Reign are a Kiwi heavy metal band from the Polynesian stronghold suburbs of Tāmaki Makaurau. The band have reached a pivotal point in their career with the 2023 release of their sophomore album ‘Ala Mai’, which sees them breaking new ground, taking the striking incorporation of Samoan culture into their music even further. Guitarist Oliver Leupolu talked with Dean Blackwell about the album and their recent tour in support of ‘Ala Mai’ that included two shows in Samoa.
“There’s not a huge heavy metal scene there, but I will say they are fans of music in Samoa. So, people will come out to check out a new act or an act from overseas, and there were a lot of people that know of us through our music. This was our first time going to Samoa and performing there, so there was quite a bit of interest generated,” Oliver Leupolu, who has credits as Shepherds Reign guitarist and producer, explains.
“We timed our trip to go over at the same time as the Teuila Festival, which is Samoa’s biggest culture festival that they do every year. That was our first performance, at the Teuila festival. There’s a nice little highlight video of that too on our social media! The second one we put on our own show with heaps of support from some of our contacts and friends in Samoa. That happened at the Le Manumea Hotel and we turned it into a venue. There’s a couple of production companies there, so we linked up with one of them, Corey, he helped us out. He brought in the PA and we had the stage brought in, and turned it into a live band set up… it’s a real nice hotel.”
Formed in 2013 as a trio of Leupolu, drummer Shaymen Rameka and chief lyricist Filiva’a James on keys and vocals, Shepherds Reign have (with little fanfare) notched up some major achievements over the decade since, but it’s no surprise to hear Leupolu say playing in Samoa was one of the highlights of his career so far.
“Just connecting with the people there, with our families. For Joseph (the band’s second bassist Joseph Oti-George) that was his first time going to Samoa and seeing some of his family there. And yeah, just seeing people that knew of the band, and performing there. The performance was a bit of a shock to a lot of people, but I’d say overall we got a really cool response, and heaps of people coming up afterwards, and the kids really got into it. At the Teuila Festival, coz it’s a public event, heaps of families were there, all the kids were sitting up the front and they got really excited. So that was cool.”
The rather longer North Island leg of their tour included some centres that are often overlooked.
“We did Auckland, Whangārei, Otaki – that was the first three. Then Whanganui and New Plymouth were the last two. That was our first time being there in Otaki. We played at the Māorilands Film Festival venue’s performance area. That gig definitely had a different feel to it, it wasn’t our usual rock/metal crowd coming out, it was more the local people that always come out to check out music. All the shows were really, really, really good – we got a nice response to our new music.”
Having long experimented with incorporating traditional Samoan instruments into their music, singing in Samoan was a conscious decision, but one that didn’t happen overnight.
“At some point after we wrote the first album we started working on new material, then the riff for Le Manu came up… We were jamming that and Fili came up with the idea to apply the Siva Tau to it, and just to see what it would sound like, and that was the first time that he actually sang in Samoan in his heavy metal style with us playing, and we just felt it straight away,” Leupolu reflects.
“That first time we tried it, we just felt something. The song wasn’t even finished, it was just him singing in Samoan, and to be honest it kind of felt weird… well, not weird but, it was a different feeling that it created. We carried on, finished the song, and put that out, and that just took off – that’s been our biggest song… That’s when, I guess, we fully decided to go down that path with our music and truly embrace it.”
Released in the first days of 2020, Le Manu went viral, with over three million views on YouTube and just under the same impressive number of listens on Spotify to date. Coupled with the response from their live performances, Le Manu’s outstanding success reassured the band their lyric language decision was the right one.
“Once we actually put the song out, the response to it… it’s almost like what we felt, anyone who listened to the song could feel it too. And that really kind of cemented that, ‘Okay, this is what we’ve got to do. This is the path we shall take.’ And we just carried on from there.”
Almost four years old already, Le Manu features as the third track on ‘Ala Mai’, just behind the fierce December 2020 single Aiga. The title means ‘family’ in Samoan and the song is a heavy metal nod to the support for and from their family, friends and community. Combining deep metal grooves, a sense of present day family ties along with ancient ancestry, it’s a brutally powerful track especially when performed live.
The album cover art is a visual rounding-out of this determined cultural inclusion. Depicting a blindfolded Samoan warrior standing waist-deep in a black pool and holding two nifo’oti (traditional Samoan weapons), the image is directly linked to the album’s name and themes.
“Yeah, it goes with the album title, ‘Ala Mai,’ which is Samoan for ‘awaken’,” explains Leupolu. “And that term on its own kind of relates to what we’re doing – our journey with this album is a kind of awakening. It can mean anything really. It could be like, awakening to embrace who you are and where you come from, or awakening and drawing power from your ancestors. It’s him awakening from this dark liquid, and he’s blindfolded, like he’s awakening from the darkness.”
The album has a big sound with tight production, credit due to the mixing capabilities of Auckland metal production guru Zorran Mendonsa, and mastering by a technician prominent within the global metal realm.
“We got Jens Bogren from Fascination Street Studios in Sweden to master the album. He’s done heaps of big metal bands. He was actually a recommendation from Zorran when we did one of our singles before, and we really liked what he did, so we went with him for the rest of the album.”
Leupolu is candid when discussing some of the more personal themes within the album, explaining that music has a way of helping the band members through times of grief.
“We definitely use music as a way to express ourselves fully and – I guess we don’t hold back when it comes to writing our music as well. There’s Never Forgotten, that’s very close to my heart, that song. It was written as a tribute to my son who passed away because he was born too early. Music can have that healing effect and you can use it to process and help get through things you’re going through, but at first I wasn’t able to write music about it.
“Filiva’a encouraged me a lot to try and work on a song about it, and eventually at some point there was this little piano thing I was working on, and I sent the ideas to Fili one night. Then he came back – I think it was just two days later – with this whole vocal arrangement that he said just came to him suddenly, from hearing that piano part. From there we started turning it into a song. It was quite, what’s the word, uncanny how that came about.”
The genesis of the new album’s lead single Ua Masa’a was a riff by Rameka – Shepherds Reign’s drummer. Leupolu describes as a gnarly kind of riff, windy and grating. In writing lyrics to match that Filiva’a James’ previously told NZ Musician that he felt it needed a subject ‘…that’s real serious, sort of devastating, that will hit people right in the heart’. The resulting song title translates to ‘it has spilt’, and it tackles the topic of domestic violence from an unusually personal angle. He had long wanted to write a song about his sister who was murdered in Samoa.
“You know how songs for loved ones who have died are usually nice and soft and real emotional? Well, this one, I took the emotional side but flipped it, and made it the most angry-sounding piece that we could write,” said James. “The lyrics are actually me speaking as if I was my sister, at the very end of what happened between her and her husband. What she would have been thinking, and what she would have been saying, before she passed away. Which is why there’s a lot of anger there, a lot of frustration in my lyrics that I wrote.”
“For a band doing what we do, there has to be the passion for it – that passion for music, and the type of music we make – that’s what gets us started,” says Leupolu. “More and more so these days it’s also the responsibility to and dedication from our fans that motivates us too. Seeing that people are really into what we’re doing and are, kind of, inspired by it – that gives us a lot of motivation and passion to continue doing what we’re doing. Especially when we hear stories of people saying, ‘I thought I was alone in what I do, what I’m into.’ It inspires us to really be ourselves and do what we want to do. We get a lot of comments like that, and that’s always cool to see. Providing a community a sense of pride in who you are and what you do. And it doesn’t just have to be for Pacific people, but anybody… just being proud of who you are.”.
Now a decade and two heavyweight albums into their increasingly hard punching career Leupolu says the band really want to try get a bit more overseas touring done before starting on another album.
“We definitely wanna try to go overseas. Might look at Australia next, it’s kind’a in the works. Would love to tour with similar bands, maybe do another show with Alien Weaponry, tour with The Hu, something like that. That’d be awesome… we’d love to go round Europe. Also we have a lot of fans in America that have been asking for us to come over for years. There’s a few real hot spots for metal, and where there’s a lot of Pacific peoples in America, as well. We’d be keen to get over there.”