The history of Wellington’s pretty well legendary Trinity Roots stretches all the way back to 1998, allowing for a five year hiatus from 2005 until late 2010 when they announced the original band was back together, and embarked on a tour of the country they had eulogised so beautifully in Home, Land & Sea. The re-formed line up of gutarist/frontman Warren Maxwell, bassist Rio Hemopo and drummer Riki Gooch changed then changed again – and again – with Ben Lemi occupying the drum stool for the recording and March release of their comeback third album ‘Citizen’. Martyn Pepperell caught up with them shortly after the band returned from a quick northern hemisphere excursion.
They say the tale is in the telling, but some stories feel like they’d stick with you regardless of how they were related. It was a snowy January afternoon in Glasgow, and the latest iteration of Trinity Roots had just arrived at the hotel they were staying at. They’d forsaken New Zealand’s summer to travel to Scotland to showcase ‘Motu :: Oiléain’, their new collaboration with a group of talented Irish folk musicians at the prestigious Celtic Connections Festival. Trinity and their friends weren’t the only visiting entertainers though, not by a long shot.
“When we were waiting to check in at the lobby, and these Romanian gypsy musicians Taraf de Haidouks rocked up, reflects dreadlocked drummer Ben Lemi. “They pulled out their piano accordions and violins and went straight into some virtuosic shit. Funnily enough, there was a scrum happening between the Irish and Kiwi contingents at the bar. They were like, ‘Come join the scrum bro.’ I thought, ‘I think I will listen to these Romanian cats do what they do best for a bit before I join the scrum.'”
With that short story, Ben makes an illustrative statement almost emblematic of Trinity Roots. First and foremost, they’re here for the music and the potential of what can be explored within it. Yet as much as they can be informed musically by what frontman Warren Maxwell will self-deprecatingly describe later as “… a wanky arty point of view” when the time is right (or even wrong), any pretence that suggests will be left checked at the door.
“It’s the Kiwi way,” Warren laughs. “You gotta drink beer and have a scrum anywhere in the world, in the hotel foyer.”
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in early February, and we’re at an outdoor café in the Wellington suburb of Newtown. After spending some time listening to some new recordings extremely loudly at Dr. Lee Prebble’s nearby Surgery Studios, I’m sitting in conversation with Ben and Warren. The third (and other original alongside Warren) Trinity Roots member Rio Hemopo is absent, occupied with unavoidable tasks.
Thankfully, Ben and Warren are generous conversationalists, leading to a sprawling hour long conversation. Over the course of it, we discuss Trinity’s new return-to-form album ‘Citizen’ and other current projects. ‘Motu :: Oileain’ and the Celtic Connections Festival hangs heavy in the air, as does Warren’s involvement in Masterton venue King Street Live. We also touch on Ben’s entry into the band replacing recent drummer Jean Pompey.
Let’s start with that collaboration, which by the way, translates into ‘Islands’ in Te Reo and Irish respectively.
“It came about through [guitarist] Gerry Paul,” Ben recalls.
“Gerry is a mover and a shaker,” Warren elaborates. “He is the epitome of the global minstrel. He’s a gypsy, a traveller and he plays everywhere he goes.”
Born to an Irish mother and a Kiwi father, Paul had evidently been thinking about how to connect his two cultures through music for over a decade.
“I think it was just a matter of the dots being joined and finding the right people to do it,” Warren suggests.
In 2014, Paul brought American blues/jazz guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps to NZ for a series of shows – and Warren helped put the tour together. They got talking, and ‘Motu :: Oileain’ blossomed from there. The British Arts Council and Creative NZ came on board, proposals were put together, and it began to take shape.
“In November our Irish cousins came over and we worked on tracks and a concept,” Warren reflects.
‘Irish cousins’ is shorthand for fragile-yet-firm singer Pauline Scanlon, flute player Alan Doherty, and fiddler Tola Crusty. The three have long played together in a trio called Keeva. Together, Trinity and Keeva began to explore the parallels and commonalities between Celtic and NZ music, culture and history through song.
“There is always that fear or risk that these sorts of collaborations will be shallow or token,” Warren admits openly. “You have to make sure you go deep.”
While joking around about both bands wearing the same Swanndri shirts and connecting socially over whisky, they’re quick to highlight the weight Scanlon brought to the table as a vocalist.
“Pauline has a real activist streak,” Ben says. “I don’t want to use that term lightly, but she lives in Belfast, which is a real stronghold for the politically and socially driven community. When she is singing, you can totally hear that happening in her tone.”
Following rehearsals and three well-received performances in the Wellington region, they repeated the whole thing at Celtic Connections, playing a couple of surprise shows along the way. When the festival was done, Trinity Roots flew over to London and played a sold out show at Bush Hall.
“It was really great man,” Warren smiles. “It was hard, fast and pretty productive.”
Discussing Celtic Connections, Warren is open about the importance of networking. Admitting that in the early days of Trinity Roots they’d just get up and have a jam at showcases, he concedes his approach has dramaticallyshifted.
“I’ve just realised how important the backend of it is,” he says. “That’s getting out there and forming relationships with people in the industry. It’s really beneficial. That’s something I’ve recently learned.”
Having spent the last 2-or-so months co-running the 250-capacity King Street Live venue in Masterton, with local businessman Carl Schdroski and their respective partners Ange Kalogeropoulos and Toni Schdroski, Warren has been learning a lot more about the business side of things recently. They’ve turned the part time venue into a regular touring stop-off for both local and international acts, helping reinvigorate the culture for live music in the Wairarapa region – as indeed has his own highly productive Featherstone Studios, located in Featherstone.
“I was recording a young band from Masterton,” Warren recollects. “I was having a conversation with their dad [who happened to be Carl Schdroski]. We realised Masterton needed a live music venue, and he owned a building that was vacant.
Warren checked it out and saw all the aesthetics and potential for a great live music venue. Handling the bookings with partner Ange, he’s built it up from the ground.
“We get emails from overseas saying, ‘Hey, we are touring, can we come play?’ There are local promoters around as well now. It’s on the circuit.”
As enthusiastic as he is, Warren measures his considerable energy with caution. It might be satisfying to bring live music to a provincial town, but it is hard work.
“It’s really tough getting bums off couches and into venues, he admits. “Just educating people that $15-20 is not a lot to see a band or artist who has worked their arse off is a challenge… We’re stubborn, ignorant and stupid, but I think you have to take those risks.”
His key takeout from the experience is the extent to which musicians are in the hands of their own dealing.
“It’s really important to keep up the quality and integrity of your performance and songs. I think that is where we built most of our fans as Trinity Roots in the first place. We’ve never pulled huge numbers to shows. We’re not really about that. But if you can secure the ones who are genuinely about what you’re about, you’ll be alright.”
Over the last three years, Trinity have been quietly working towards the band’s forthcoming third album – which will arrive five years after its predecessor ‘Home, Land and Sea’. Advance notice of it came with the release of first single Haiku in spring 2014, a sublime piece of work that had the Trinity Roots’ stamp of quality all over it.
The genesis of ‘Citizen’ began about a year after their first reunion shows in 2010.
“We realised we were just playing the old material,” Warren admits. “That’s great, but I think our fans were quite keen to hear if we had anything new to say. We were keen to find out as well.”
With Jean Yern (nee Pompey) sitting in the drummer’s chair at the time, they started writing and recording demos at Warren’s Featherstone Studios, just over the Rimutaka Hill from Upper Hutt.
Two weeks into recording, they woke up one day to learn that Jean had moved to Melbourne without telling them.
“Classic sis aye,” Warren laughs. “She’d met a new love and she was gone. Me and Rio were like, ‘Oh shit! Now what?’”
The solution came in the form of Ben Lemi, a talented drummer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Warren and Rio were well familiar with from around the local scene. Actually, close to a decade and a half earlier, Ben had been a student of Warren’s when he was teaching a foundation jazz course in Wellington.
“I remember a very quiet and gifted young man, Warren says. “Who was covered in ladies right?”
“No!” Ben chimes in with a cheeky grin.
Warren chuckles back. “Foundation is interesting, he continues. “All these different strangers from around the country get together and start learning this language called ‘jazz’.”
In the years following, when Ben was playing with the likes of Hikoikoi Reserve, Urbantramper and French For Rabbits, Warren says he got to really see him for who he was musically.
“I chatted with Rio about getting Ben in, and it made sense – I’d noticed his spices.”
Together, the three painstakingly carved out ‘Citizen’, testing songs out live along the way. Retaining the heavy rock motifs, soulful group vocal harmonies, psychedelic flourishes, and occasional reggae rhythms of the almost legendary band’s past work, the album sees them drawing substantial inspiration from modern folk music. Warren cites Thomas Dybdahl, Iron and Wine, and Bon Iver as key inspirations.
“In the recent decade I’ve been loving those vocalists. We referenced the odd Bon Iver track during recording. His production is amazing, there is such an ethereal nature to it, it’s human.”
Using an anatomical analogy to describe the process, they built the bones and muscle tissue of the record at Warren’s studio, then moved down to Surgery Studios in Newtown to work with guest players and vocalists, before mixing.
“As those guests came in, and we began mixing, the spirit just arrived in the songs,” Warren enthuses.
The three began with a rich mixture of guitars, drums, percussion, strings, brass and keyboards. From there vocalists and instrumentalists; Tami Nielson, Ed Zuccollo, James Illingworth, Lisa Tomlins, Vanessa Stacey, Holly Beals, and Ria Hall (and others) helped expand their sound world substantially.
“We let the music tell us what should come next,” continues Warren. “If Ben heard a cello over something we’d put it on there. But that only happened because we built it right. I spend a lot of time on bone work. Ben will come in and add little colours and details. The word that comes to mind is ‘beauty’.”
There is plenty of that word’s meaning on display throughout ‘Citizen’, especially in some of the guest-assisted vocal performances.
“We always tried to attempt harmonies. The vocal harmony has always been a big part of Trinity, I feel like it is essential to our makeup. On Bully, Clarity and the 11-minute Citizen they expand on this through the support of Holly Beals, Lisa Tomlins and Vanessa Stacey.
“When we needed angelic sounds, we called on Holly, Ben grins. “She has that real crystalline tone. It’s pure.
On Village Man and Bully, Warren hands over some verse duties to Tami Nielson and Ria Hall respectively.
“Tami has some mean gospel country pipes,” compliments Ben. “When you hear that, you go, ‘That’s a different sound!’”
“For Bully we had the idea of the verses being in the old Maori waiata koroua chant style,” Warren continues. “We had Ria Hall come in with a kapa haka group. She just took charge. When I listen to that song the hairs on my back stand up.”
While they’ve been back together as a band for close to four years, ‘Citizen’ marks their first new material since reformation.
“After our break, I felt like we had unfinished business,” Warren finishes. “Even though we are releasing this new album, I still feel like we have something to do. What that is, I don’t know. It might not even be related to the music, but you only live once.”