Despite enjoying considerable student radio success over five or six years, two EPs and an album, Sherpa’s path to date has been decidedly up and down. Management and label support seem elusive and commercial radio has yet to embrace their fruity indie-pop, that has frequently drawn Mint Chicks’ references. Matthew deKimble caught up with three of the Auckland (now) four-piece in their practice room/recording space – singer Earl Ho, bassist Daniel Barrett and drummer Vince McMillan – to colour in the picture of their new Kody Nielson-produced sophomore album ‘Blues & Oranges’.
Talking in an echo chamber with Sherpa’s bassist Daniel Barrett, we turn as a dusty elevator door slides open and Earl Ho, grinning, offers high fives all round. We connect. Earl is Sherpa’s flamboyant lead vocalist, primary songwriter and also plays synth and guitar. He leads us to a familiar practice room as drummer, Vince McMillan, unlocks the door and apologises for the absence of lead guitarist and backing vocalist Benjamin Tindall.
“It’s his mum’s birthday, I think.”
Vince recollects how the band originated in 2007 to compete in Rockquest.
“I was in a band with Sam Cussen, doing covers. Earl entered Rockquest with his band and then they split up, but still had the application, so we just jumped on board.”
“You had to have a name though,” Earl chimes in. “Sam was nicknamed ‘Sherpa’ after the ice cream vans and we just chose that as we went into the venue.”
They won their Manukau regional finals that year, and again in 2008, but never quite made the cut for nationals.
“I think it was good we didn’t win Rockquest,” says Vince stoically. “You’ve gotta learn that it’s not a competition. When we didn’t get to nationals it felt like the end, but it was really the beginning.”
After two well-received EPs, ‘I’m Sparklers’ (2009) and 2011’s ‘Pretty Cool Optical Illusions’, their debut album ‘Lesser Flamingo’ (co-produced with James Dansey and released mid-2012) won very favourable reviews from indie-friendly commentators. Rip It Up’s review reckoned Sherpa gave us “…a peek into the mind of surrealist artist…. Their newly released second album, ‘Blues & Oranges’, is then the painting. Earl relates how it was named.
“My girlfriend did a painting I really liked, which was blue and orange, and looked like me. When you’re creating music you try to link things up and it’s got songs about the blues, and it’s vibrant like orange. They’re opposites but they’re complimentary.”
Aural colouring aside, ‘Blues & Oranges’ is an album bursting with power pop hooks and distorted synths. Produced and mixed by the band’s idol, Kody Nielson, and mastered by Olly Harmer, you couldn’t imagine a better sonic combination for the psychedelically-inclined Sherpa.
“The whole process with Kody was awesome,” beams Earl. “I met him when we played at Laneway. We sent him some songs via email and then he asked us to play for him.”
The in-demand Auckland producer was evidently impressed and within a month recording was underway. The new album was created entirely in the Newmarket practice room we’re sitting in, with the exception of Love Film, which was recorded at Roundhead Studios, back in January of last year. Now the premier single off the album, it was originally written by Earl for a university project, which culminated in him winning the University of Auckland Songwriter of the Year title in 2011. Produced by Nielson, the single topped bNet charts and gained the band some useful media interest.
“The producer of [TV show] Step Dave heard Love Film on the radio and really liked it, so they bought the rights to use all the songs on the show,” smiles Earl. “Step Dave funded the whole album!”
Love Film and second single Quit Time are the oldest tracks on ‘Blues & Oranges’, both being written before their debut album.
“I guess they didn’t really fit on ‘Lesser Flamingo’, Earl says, and he’s right. Just as the excited punk riffs of their first album were accentuated by quality DIY production, the distorted synths and filtered vocal delays of ‘Blues & Oranges’ have been maximised by Nielson.
“We have more of an understanding of the recording process now,” says Earl. “Kody set everything up. We’d mix up my demos with the band while recording, and just take risks like that, go with our instincts.”
“We put it off for a long time. Dan had joined the band and he was better at jamming on the bass,” say Earl. “We were just honest with him and it was hard but we’re still friends.”
Counter-intuitively, the decision to drop a member has allowed the band to expand its sound. Dan brings fluidity to the bass, which has seen Sherpa enter much groovier territory on this album, noticeable particularly on Blind Buzz, Quit Time and Glass Dawn Morn.
The confident new sound comes not only from the line up change and Nielson’s production, but also as part of their natural progression of songwriting.
“The way I write lyrics has changed a lot, explains Earl. “I’ve had people critiquing my lyrics, so for this album I’ve tried really hard. I’d rewrite them a million times – but often the first one ends up being the best anyway, he laughs.
For the first time Earl hasn’t been the sole songwriter. Ben wrote bookend tracks Beach and Sunrise and contributed to Bzzy and Homeless. Earl says he’d like him to write more.
“He just came up with Beach, then he wrote Sunrise and it blew my mind. I shed a tear playing that guitar solo. Ben’s blooming into a great songwriter, I better step up,” he grins.
Sherpa have never had a problem getting their tracks airtime. All but one of their singles has topped bFM’s Top 10, and given the strength of this album that trend is likely to continue. As impressively, they have delivered eight music videos to date.
“It’s about what you can do with what you have,” says Dan. “I feel like videos are so easy to make these days that it’s kind of silly that bands don’t. Synaesthesia makes the sound stronger. Humans are primarily visual creatures.”
The band has dreams of engaging multimedia performances too, perhaps even a magical mystery tour…
“It’s definitely something we want to do. We’ve got plenty of ideas, we just don’t have the time and funding,” Vince exclaims.
Despite press accolades and hitting all the right notes with the indie crowds, Sherpa has yet to sign to a label or manager. It was only weeks before the planned release of ‘Lesser Flamingo’, when the pressing was held back by Muzai Records, as Vince recollects.
“We organised everything with the album, recorded it, paid for it and then they gave us an agreement saying they would have 50% of everything. We said we’d get it checked out by a lawyer and then they tried to put the pressing on hold.”
“So we just got it pressed ourselves,” laughs Dan, now two years later. The album was pressed, on time, under Vince’s production name, Little White. Having left Muzai they were aided by The Checks’ manager, Tim Bern.
“He started off just giving us advice on things but it got to the point where he was our pseudo manager. Then he moved to New York. When he left he set us up with Kevin Nolan of Hark Entertainment, explains Dan. “He’s since left Hark and took us with him, but we’ve never signed anything.”
“Kevin cares a lot about us and he’s helped us out a lot,” Vince agrees. “The changing management hasn’t had the best results but it was nice to know people wanted to be involved.”
Cementing their role in neo-psychedelia zeitgeist, ‘Blues & Oranges’ could well be the one to seal a deal for Sherpa.
“We’d love to get signed, quit our day jobs and just write and record music all day, sighs Earl.
“The more time you have, the better you get,” Dan adds, “and it’s heartbreaking when you know you could do better. You just want to go as far as you can. You’re never finished.”
The three all nod knowingly as Earl plainly states, “You get to the point where it’s the only thing you really want to do. It is our purpose in the universe.