April/May 2017

by Martyn Pepperell

The Map Room: Atmospheric Pressures

by Martyn Pepperell

The Map Room: Atmospheric Pressures

The musical output of smart Kiwi production duo The Map Room is typically described as ‘atmospheric indie pop’. Clever then that the second album from them should be titled ‘Weatherless’, even if one roommate, Simon Gooding, lives in the country’s weather capital. Martyn Pepperell talked with Gooding about the new album and their musical umbrella.

When Auckland/Wellington duo The Map Room released their self-titled debut album, back in 2013, their elegant indie-pop songs arrived in the midst of a sea change. After experiencing a golden run in the late 2000s/early 2010s, the artsy indie rock, nu-disco and alt-folk sounds of Grizzly Bear, Metronomy, The National and Radiohead faded into the background. In their place, a boundary-pushing wave of hip hop, RnB and pop releases from the likes of A$AP Rocky, Tyler The Creator, Drake, Beyoncé, James Blake and Lorde took the spotlight.

Ahead of their debut The Map Room’s Brendon Morrow and Simon Gooding drew inspiration from the indie space. In the lead-up to their recently released sophomore album, they started to look closer at the turning musical tide.

“I think around the time of our last record, there had been a lot of amazing big indie rock records coming out, and a fair amount of pushing the boundaries regarding styles and sonics,” Simon reflects. “But for me now, I feel the best and most interesting work is coming from people like Solange and Kendrick Lamar in the contemporary hip hop and RnB arena.”

These sort of influences are evident throughout the sleek song structures, ascendant melodies and considered grooves that ripple throughout ‘Weatherless’. Aside from such touches, the album also bubbles with traces of modern electronica, a nod to the duo’s interest in the experimental dance music of contemporary US/UK artists like Caribou, Four Tet and Anohni, while still hanging onto the core indie framework of their debut.

In the process, they’ve arrived at a location where the freeform vibrancy of live instrumentation and the hypnotic power of programmed grooves fit neatly together as one.

“I think that’s another thing that’s really interesting for me, looking at how these factors can come together,” says Simon.

The term ‘freeform’ is key as well here because, while their aesthetic has shifted and evolved between releases, the emotional common thread is freedom. Long-standing collaborators and musicians, Simon and Brendon originally met while both studying audio engineering in Australia. Returning to their mutual hometown of Auckland afterwards, they began writing music together and eventually spent a year travelling through South America.

“For me, the trip to South America was quite an important marker in my life, so I refer to it all the time,” admits Simon. “Even though the first album was a snapshot of that time, I think that trip has a lot to answer for in terms of this new record.”

Moving north from Argentina to Colombia the pair were writing music together. Along the way, they played impromptu shows, appeared live on local radio and purchased some beautiful antique guitars.

Working on ‘Weatherless’ Simon found himself looking back on the freedom and excitement of that trip. In tandem with collective and individual assessments of their current situations and anxieties about the future, they began to find a recurring lyrical theme – the struggle to separate oneself from memories of the past and visions of the future, and simply be present in the moment.

With Simon based in Wellington and Brendon living in Auckland, ‘Weatherless’ was democratically created in both cities, recorded in multiple studios.

“I’m up in Auckland for work a lot, so we would workshop songs at Brendon’s house, or in studios around town. He would come down to Wellington to work on music as well.”

The bulk of the tracking was done at The Lab in Auckland, with overdubs tacked on wherever they could get time.

“In a way, the album feels like a travelling beast, that we would pick up and chip away at all over the place,” Simon admits. “It does feel like it’s already covered a lot of ground.”

Both in-demand audio engineers (Simon in music, Brendon in film and TV), they had to write songs, record and play shows in stolen moments when life and work commitments didn’t get in the way. Unlike their first album, this time they brought live session musicians (drummer Andy Keegan and bassist Jared Kahi) into the studio fold at points, to work up arrangements and offer some extra perspective.

“Brendon and I were still charged with the creation of the songs and ideas, but having two extra people to bounce everything off was invaluable. They’re amazing players, so it was a no-brainer to have them on the record.”

Between their two albums, The Map Room had the opportunity to travel to India and perform at the NH7 Weekender, the largest touring live music festival in that vast country.

“It was amazing to be able to see some of India,” Simon recalls. “We were able to do some exploring between shows, and being able to test new material out in front of large audiences was a huge experience for us.”

Those performances gave a new perspective on what their songs could be, and also provided a compelling reminder of the number of amazing music markets currently developing (or already developed) outside the traditional Western music industry axis.

They’ve again chosen to independently release the album. However where four years ago they might have been chasing newspaper reviews and radio play, this time they’ve been organising music video premieres on blogs and working to secure song placements on prominent Spotify and Apple Music playlists.

“The first record felt like we’d just put it out to our friends and family, but this time we have an established fan base to release to, which is nice.”