December/January 2023

by Richard Thorne

Sweet Mix Kids: Multi-genre Pop Eclectics

by Richard Thorne

Sweet Mix Kids: Multi-genre Pop Eclectics

Playing seven album launch parties in almost as many different time zones, and almost as few days sounds like the stuff of fantasy. Not so for Auckland DJ/producer act Sweet Mix Kids who achieved the feat in promoting the arrival of their new multi-genred collaborative pop album ‘Stargazing’ this October. It’s an exclamation mark on what has been a travel-filled 2022 for Chris Scott and Sandon Ihaia, performing at parties, clubs and festivals around the world, and recording tracks in environments as contrasting as Nashville and Rakiura/Stewart Island. Richard Thorne tracked them down at the race that stops the nation.

It has been a challenge lining up an interview with Sweet Mix Kids, every time they reply email it seems to be from a different time zone. According to Sandon Ihaia (aka Sandon James) they’ve crossed more than 90 borders during 2022.

“I’ve spent more nights this year sleeping on planes than I have in my own bed at home in Auckland. We’ve been on the road all year really, eh?” he prompts his partner Chris Scott.

“Yeah. We’ve only played 20 or 30 different cities, but some of them three or four times each,” Scott affirms.

When we do get to talk they’re in a hotel room just over the ditch, there to perform at the Melbourne Cup Festival. The lineup for the week includes big-name Aussie acts Sneaky Sound System, Birds of Tokyo and singer-songwriter Wafia, as well as Brit DJ legend Carl Cox – and Kiwi DJ duo Sweet Mix Kids.

It’s perfectly timed Aussie exposure for Sweet Mix Kids who launched a new album titled ‘Stargazing’ just weeks before. Their feet have barely touched the ground since, making the stay in Melbourne almost holiday-like.

Described as ‘a disco-influenced intergalactic journey featuring an eclectic lineup of NZ and international guests’, ‘Stargazing’ mixes disco, funk, rap, soul and various shades of EDM into 16 tracks that fit neatly into an hour – and is available on vinyl (double), CD, USB and, ahhhm, Sauvignon rather than Spotify.

The album kicks off with a real-sounding countdown to a rocket launch, a soundbite that is indeed genuine, and Kiwi. Appropriately it has a good story attached, one Ihaia is pleased to tell.

“We had this song, Electron, and needed an intro for it to add some drama. We went on the internet and stole the audio for the launch of Rocket Lab’s latest big rocket that went to space. We stole it, and used bits and parts for the intro – and it worked really well ‘cos it made it sound spacey and cool, and it suited the song.”

They took (stole, as he verbally emphasises) the song title from that rocket as well.

“We then premiered the song on George FM, which is a dance music station for tradies, along with a couple of other songs from the album. Two hours later we got an Instagram DM saying, ‘Hey my brother just heard my voice on the radio. That’s my voice on that rocket commentary. What’s going on? Can I hear it?’

“So firstly, ‘Hello, sorry for stealing your voice, we should have cleared that sample…’ and then we tweeted Rocket Lab, which has half a million followers, and said the same thing – and they replied that they’d love to hear it!

“Two days later we got an email saying they think it’s amazing, and can they use the song as the soundtrack for the worldwide broadcast of their next rocket launch into space? And also, would we like to come to a launch in the future?

“Bearing in mind this has all come from theft and piracy!” Ihaia reminds with glee.

He’s galvanised by the warmth of reception, their own cheek, and the way that result fits into Sweet Mix Kids’ narrative of thinking outside the box and running with a brave idea, to hell with the consequences. As a marketing strategy it has served them well, and certainly meant that this unsigned duo makes a major label-size splash down when they choose to.

“It’s not so much spending, it’s doing stuff that looks really good, and is effective, and is a little bit of an investment. Every time we put a billboard up, or do something cool, we’ll get an email or a call within days, for a booking, or for some press or some promo. So we do spend big on some stuff, but it comes back. And we have to, like what else are we gonna do?”

“We are our own management and record label,” Scott adds. “So we’re only investing in ourselves the same way that labels should be investing in their artists.”

Ihaia is big on the fact that Sweet Mix Kids are self-managed, self-produced and happily independent, as this October 2022 Twitter statement reveals: ‘No one is more indie & underground as us. Funded our own album, promo, release, merch, videos, fully independent. Get onboard before we blow up so you can say “I was into them ages ago”. We are alternative.’

What was that about?

“You see a lot of artists [generally], and in NZ, that are given a lot of credibility that they’re really alternative and underground and that they’re indie acts – but they couldn’t be more supported – with record label money and funding behind them, and stuff like that.

“It’s like, ‘No, actually, an independent artist is an artist that’s independent. It’s not just generalised by what they wear, or the perception of them struggling or being from the underground.”

Along with ‘shrewd’, Scott describes his music/business partner as ‘a firecracker’, and it seems apt. He’s certainly colourful, entertaining, explosive and unpredictable like home fireworks were in childhood. Pursuing the analogy, it would be reasonable to picture Scott as the sensible H&S guy, paying attention to ensure no one actually gets burnt.

“It’s sort of having a bit of fun with dissonance, between the idea of indie, in terms of aesthetics or the sound of the music, compared to where the money’s actually coming from, I suppose.”

Originally from Christchurch, Scott moved to Auckland to finish his uni studies and was working as a DJ and live sound tech when they first met.

“I studied marketing and information systems, but the idea was always to use it for something more creative. And I’ve been DJing, and writing and producing music, always hoping to do that as a career, but I guess without the opportunity to do so until joining Sandon.”

That was a decade ago, Scott then in his mid-20s and Ihaia early 30s, in the first few years of a new musical entity he’d conceived as Sweet Mix Kids. His initial DJ partner had given up on the scheme, opting instead to seek fortune in the mines of Western Australia.

“Chris was looking after our stage at a gig I played for NZ Music Month, and I needed someone to DJ for me when I was going overseas, to cover all of my NZ gigs. He seemed like quite a nice guy and I asked, ‘Hey, do you want to step in?’ He said yes.

“When I came back from overseas I said to him that I probably needed someone to do this duo and make some music with – and he was keen and up for it…”

Their first international tour came about six months into DJing together. It hasn’t exactly been a quick trip to the moon since, but these guys very much understand the need to mix pleasure with business, and that progressing their business means not standing still.

Ihaia reflects back to when Sweet Mix Kids were signed to Warner NZ, releasing singles and high-quality music videos, networking and all the label promotion stuff.

“It just went absolutely nowhere and Warner did nothing for four years, they were really, really useless.

“And then a couple of years later we decided to just do an album for ourselves [2021’s ‘Radio With Pictures’] and chuck it on Spotify. It was quite nice to step back and just not care if it did well, just wanting to do a really, really good bit of work.”

It was, as he points out, time for them to try a different method of delivery.

“Obviously, singles make more sense for a lot of artists at the moment because of streaming, and the way that music is consumed nowadays. But the album is still important as a statement, as a whole body of work, and I think we were pleasantly surprised by the process of putting out that first album, and the difference in reception.

“You know, you put out a single that people might listen to, might not. But putting out an album, I think that people took more notice and gave us more of their attention.”

Actually, Sweet Mix Kids have ways of getting attention, but more about that later.

“The really important thing was that it was multi-genre. Most acts will put out an album in all the same kind of genre, and it’ll flow with what they kind of do. We don’t play like that. We’re not only into one or two types of music, we play a big array of music – so let’s put out an album where pretty much every song is a different genre? So we did.”

Six months later they followed up with ‘Remix With Pictures’, essentially an exercise in giving friends and associates the opportunity to remix their stuff, the focus tightening on newer sub-types of dance music and DnB.

“And it was kind of fun to drill down into a few of the genres,” says Scott. “It’s like, when we’re doing the album every song’s a different genre, but there’s a lot further you can go into different scenes, especially in dance music. We’ve both been around that since we started DJing, so it was nice to nod to that with some remixes.”

While neither album really took off up the charts, the launch of ‘Radio With Pictures’ did establish an innovative promotional blueprint.

“We flew people to Christchurch and they didn’t know where they’re going to end up,” Ihaia recalls energetically. “We drove them through Arthurs Pass, then out to a breakwater near Greymouth. That coincided with Radio Hauraki having a big party down there that we were the headliner at, and we used that fee to offset our own party costs for 100 people!

“We like to do shit that’s different, and fun, and is unpretentious, which is quite important. We see a lot of scenarios with labels trying to make their acts something that they’re not, selling them in a certain way and packaging them up in a certain way. So it’s kind of nice to offset that and do something different.”

The early October launch of ‘Stargazing’ saw them take that idea up a notch. This time the destination was Stewart Island and they sold tickets to fans both inside and outside of NZ, as Scott happily explains.

“Those tickets included transport and accommodation to a secret destination. The transport ended up being a flight and a bus, and a ferry to get them over to the island! We put them up on the island overnight and we had a private launch party where we played the album through for a small group of people in this beautiful house, along with some amazing food and drinks as well.

“Of course, we couldn’t invite the whole island to that, but we did want to do something for the locals who had been so receptive to us coming down and writing the album there, and hanging out. So we decided to throw a public event on the same night as well, which we did at the social hall at the Community Rec Centre, and brought a lineup along with us. So it was like a small festival for the island!”

“It was incredible,” fizzes Ihaia. “We wrote most have the album down there, it’s a beautiful stunning place. You can take musicians with you – they can’t leave, so they’re stuck and they have to record with you! It’s healthy, it’s clean, it’s amazing. You don’t have to invest lots of money into buying pizzas for bass players and stuff like that. You can have a good feed of seafood and relax – and we thought we might as well do the album launch down there.

“It’s nice to do something no one else is doing. Then to be able to pull off a side little side festival at the same time – and have the 60% of the locals population turn up for that – it was a good party.”

Collaboration is central to the way Sweet Mix Kids operate. They’re both producers, but describe themselves as a ‘musical act’, rather than as a DJ and production duo. They do live performances not just DJ sets, and release records featuring other singers and musicians.

“Yeah, we don’t know how to describe what we are anymore. We just say we’re Sweet Mix Kids, we’re maybe, not a band…” Ihaia cracks.

While Scott often plays percussion live, and Ihaia raps, neither claim to be musicians of the instrument-playing variety.

“We do bits and pieces,” details Scott. “Our DJ sets have live elements. I wouldn’t call myself a drummer though, I definitely focus more on the production side of things. So I write, record, and produce music without necessarily any instrumental chops.”

“We are very talented at picking up a cellular phone and calling in the best musicians possible for everything,” Ihaia notes with barely discernible irony. “Chris can hum a tune if you hold a gun to his head, and I’m classically trained with singing. We haven’t really sung on any of our tracks yet though, just some BVs. Hopefully, we’ll start doing that more, so we can easily perform live instead of dragging people around the world to perform with us.”

Presently that is just what they do, regularly performing with a sax player, electronic violinist or other musician. Often Kiwi friends they take along with them, increasingly artists they’ve met on previous trips.

“We’ve always got a couple of mics on stage, and it’s quite common that I’ll come out rapping over an intro,” Ihaia elaborates. “We use dancers and we’ve always got an MPC and percussion on stage.”

“We’re the basis of the act,” says Scott, “but for most every gig we’d be joined on stage by somebody or other. Mostly we take a musician away with us, it depends on the travel arrangements and what have you. The whole thing about being a DJ act is we’re very flexible with regards to the demands of every gig, and how we approach it.”

With the Stewart Island ‘Stargazing’ album launch party held on Saturday, October 7, they hopped on a plane the next day, and thanks to the magic of time zones played Sunday night in LA, then New York on Tuesday. Their ‘album listening party’ tour also took in four European capitals in a whirlwind week.

“We wanted to do listening parties, but it was us turning up and DJing really,” Ihaia admits. “Los Angeles was at a really cool big nightclub we play at regularly, and then the next night was a wine bar in Brooklyn, and wine bars in Lisbon, Rome, London and Paris.”

DJing at wine bars across the globe, no matter how swish, might possibly sound a bit less-than-success, but in what seems typical Sweet Mix Kids’ fashion, there’s good reason.

“Because our album’s not on Spotify yet, we’ve got our own wine – an organic pinot noir and an organic sauvignon blanc. The wine bottle labels have got a QR code, and for now the only way you can listen to our album online is by buying the wine and using the QR code link to Soundcloud.”

Unusual certainly, but the thinking behind their non-streamed album landing is considered, and the launch tour revealed surprise benefits.

“Every single person overseas loves it,” according to Ihaia. “It’s exclusive and makes them feel special. That’s why vinyl is so massive at the moment right? People need something tangible and physical so they are connected to something – otherwise it’s free and worth nothing to them. People are having their relationship with music via their cellphones and for free – it doesn’t make sense!

“People don’t listen to full albums on Spotify,” he continues. “They might listen to it on their phone, or a few songs in their car. So first we’re putting it on vinyl, selling it on CD and on Bandcamp, and doing it with wine – we made the album so people could sit down, listen to the whole thing, drink some wine and enjoy it.”

“That’ll be the case for a time,” Scott takes over. “Then we’ll start putting singles out on Spotify and eventually the whole album will be available, but we do want the people who want to consume the whole album to be the first to be able to hear it.”

With the album not being streamed it’s not Shazam-able either as he notes.

“That was the most interesting thing with all our listening parties – people coming up and asking, ‘What is this music? I can’t find it on Shazam, where can I get it?’ They can’t Shazam it, so they had to actually come and talk to us!”

Bottled for them by Still Life Wines, their QR-coded red wine is badged Stargazing, while the fizzy pet nat white is Gravitate – the lyrics to those songs faintly printed on the labels.

Featuring vocals by blossoming Kiwi electronic artist Rei, Stargazing is the easy-hit pick among the album’s 16 tracks. In fact, it features twice, the second version including te reo and titled Arorangi Te Tiro.

“Playing ‘Stargazing’ live, and knowing what we do from our history of DJing and making music that we play live, that song’s got the most potential, and we have put the most time and effort into it. It will be mixed and mastered differently for Spotify release as a single. We love it. We’ve got two or three versions of the music video as well and can’t wait to get it out into the world,” Ihaia enthuses.

strategic about when we do release, because we don’t want it on Spotify and then fade off into oblivion, you know? We’d rather get it out some other way, and let it reach its full potential without it having to be streamed. Not sure what that is…”

The funky Gravitate features the big soulful voice of Lou’ana, whose debut album ‘Moonlight Madness’ earned her the Best Pacific Female Artist title at the 2021 Pacific Music Awards. Other Kiwi artists featuring include Hawkins, Cee Blu, Pati, Dillastrate, InDuna, Get Sert, Mikeyy and Vikae.

While Sweet Mix Kids are determinedly supportive of local talent ‘Stargazing’ illustrates their wider network, with several songs involving international artists they’ve befriended.

Los Angelean Quinn Devereaux is one such collaborator, featuring on Electron and a second track, Delilah (Freestyle). A few years ago Devereaux saw them perform at a party in LA and asked if they wanted to hear him sing. The next day they made a song together.

“He’s a 27-year-old white dude who makes the most amazing RnB and hip hop. We’ve seen quite a lot of him this year, taken him on tour with us as well,” says Scott.

They both describe Zado as a fantastic rock’n’roll star from Nashville who performed at one of their shows there. They enlisted him long distance for the very house track Never Going Home (ft GetSert & Zado).

“We sent him that beat on Instagram and said we needed a hook for it,” Ihaia explains grinning. “He said, ‘I have two pools to clean today,’ (because that’s his daytime job), but he recorded a hook later and sent it back on Instagram. We pitched it a little bit, cut it up and made that song out of his voice memo!”

Nashville proved a launch pad for several album tracks and is home to other featured artists; Classic Williams (Midnight) and Mr 110, who shares Butter with Christchurch singer Laura Lee Lovely.

“We’ve got a really great rap track, so what better way to offset one of the coolest black rappers from Nashville, than having a white girl from Christchurch singing the hook?” asks Ihaia rhetorically. “It worked really well with Smashproof and Gin Wigmore so…”

Originally from Belgium, now Florida, Sens F they describe as a breaks and tech house producer in his mid-50s, who’s linked them up with a couple of small stage gigs at Coachella. They worked together on the breaks track Indian Palms prior to Coachella this year, taking the name from the Palm Springs country club Sweet Mix Kids were staying at.

Now with a London-based distributor, Sweet Mix Kids have international gigs every month of 2023, Ihaia admitting they are maybe too busy.

“To offset that we eat well, we travel well, we’re fit and healthy.

We’re having fun with it, so we’re investing a lot of money and time into it all too.”

“We make really, really good music, multi-genre music, pop music and commercial music. I know we make some of the best music in NZ because we collab with some of the best people in NZ to make music with – and we should be on high rotation on radio.”

Scott says that it’s about cut-through for their eclectic take on pop.

“I think that pop music that aims to be popular, rather than of any scene or genre, is quite a young notion in NZ especially, and it still doesn’t necessarily jibe with the idea of authenticity as far as NZ music goes.

“We want to be part of that change. We make a lot of music that is pop-forward, and we want as many people to listen to our music as possible. We want to do it from here, but alternatively, it’s very doable for us to do it overseas and let it trickle back.