Some publicists just love to over-use the typically meaningless chestnut of ‘eagerly anticipated’ when announcing new EP and album releases, even those from acts of little or no real profile. No doubt the same tag will be attached to the first long playing release from genre-twisting South Auckland band Vallkyrie, but in this case it will hold true. Thinking he was getting in just weeks ahead of the trio’s (since-delayed) debut album, Sam Carswell talked with guitarist Rebel Reid and vocalist Omer Gilroy about the genesis, vision and musical identity of Vallkyrie.
“After we got back from radio school, I dropped Rebel home and then we just didn’t see each other again for another seven years,” is not your typical start to a band’s origin story. Then again, Vallkyrie aren’t your typical band.
Hailing proudly from South Auckland, Rebel Reid (guitar), Omer Gilroy (vocals) and Brandon Haru (drums/samples) make a strong point of being completely different from their surroundings – whether musically, visually or thematically. With a number of recordings, two self-funded videos, performances at Big Gay Out, Music In Parks and a third place at 2015’s Battle of the Bands, the band have received the Toi Tipu Toi Rea grant for emerging Māori artists, from Creative New Zealand. Needless to say, they’re keen to deliver something people haven’t seen before.
The music is a melting pot of genre after genre and sounds like it, too. Their first release, Voodoo, is a classic R’n’B-style pop song built on the kind of electronic drums you might hear on a Daedelus record, packed with lyrical references to classic rock and featuring a guitar solo that sounds like Van Halen.
If that sounds like it doesn’t work, that’s because it shouldn’t. But it goes deeper! The song gets even more confounding when watching the video. The band are all dressed strikingly in black, depicted performing in a Game of Thrones-style setting, surrounded by bonfires and silhouette-like dancers. Rebel plays a Flying-V style guitar that might otherwise be seen in a thrash metal group, and there’s no sign of the obligatory ‘rock’ drum-kit – instead Brandon drums furiously on the pads of a Yamaha SPDSX.
Broken down on paper (as it were), it seems so out-of-place, like the pieces wouldn’t, and couldn’t, fit. Yet in the video and song, it all feels natural, as if what happens next was always meant to happen. It’s striking and odd – and quite evidently meticulously crafted.
In discussion with the band, it’s easy to get the impression that the music and image is very much an extension of who they are as people; an eclectic expression of their combined experiences, interests and identities – hence the natural sense.
“Me and Omer are hard-out obsessed with mythology and history”, Rebel states, explaining a feature which can be found manifested throughout the whole image of the band, even down to their name. According to their website a valkyrie is ‘… a female goddess whose job it is to choose which of the fallen Vikings on the battlefields are worthy to spend their afterlife in Valhalla, alongside the god Odin.’
The music comes out so inter-disciplinary because they’ve fostered interests in so many styles – so much so that asking them what they’re influenced by brings up an endless list, beginning somewhere in the spectrum of Timbaland and Rihanna, before passing though Jakob, Coldplay, and VAST. Likewise, the theatricality of the band embodies, represents and becomes their personalities.
“We really like the idea of creating our own world, and we want the listeners to come into our world,” explains Omer.
“We want to take people on a journey, so anything that does that for us, we put into our music. No matter what it is – a movie, a song, a civilization,” Rebel adds.
For those reasons much of the band is thought out in painstaking detail. The chain Omer is wearing in the pictures that accompany this article (a gift from fashion designer Phillip Hawkins) also features in both videos, and is planned to be featured in some way throughout every video the band releases.
But Vallkyrie hasn’t always been world-building. Rebel and Omer have been friends since the age of 11. They went to high school together, supporting each other musically, rapping together (“we wanted to be TLC”) and eventually going on to do their stint studying radio broadcasting together at the NZ Radio Training School. The story picks up seven years later, with the gap unexplained. “We still, to this day, don’t know why that happened.” A chance meeting at a petrol station in 2012 reunited the pair, rekindling a common ambition.
“It was just so odd, but not awkward at all. Like she had dropped me off the day before.”
The next thing Rebel remembers is an early morning phone call to Omer.
“I was like, ‘Do you trust me?’ and she was like ‘Okay?’, and I was like, ‘I think we should do music together. I’ve had an epiphany’ – this was at 2am.”
They had both been making music on their own during the time apart, but their attempts had flown mostly under the radar, with Omer having some particularly bad experiences with collaborators. “I think we both felt like it wasn’t working with whoever we were trying to fill the gap with… I had let go of the dream, but then Rebs brought the dream back to me.”
What followed was a period of exploration, out of which they found their feet and direction in the name.
“Vallkyrie was perfect because it was a strong name and we were such big fans of TLC and all that hard, girl-band feel. So we kind’a went from there and that name kind’a gave us more direction in who we wanted to be. It’s a very feminist, girl-power kind of vibe, without being ‘flowers and daisies’ about girl-power.”
In 2015, Rebel and Omer were introduced to Brandon – whose addition to the live ensemble, following his role in @peace and drumming for Ladi6, provided the group with the confidence boost they needed. “Having someone like Brandon believe in us and back us was like, ‘Wow! We need to believe in ourselves more!’” Rebel mentions.
With this last piece of the puzzle in place, the band began to arrive at their current sound. Distinct, yet eclectic and near-impossible to describe accurately. Even they have trouble putting words to it.
“The best description we have so far is if Lorde were to have a baby with Coldplay, and then Rihanna was that baby’s babysitter, and if it was best friends with Imagine Dragons. We would be that child. Maybe it has a cool uncle, Lenny Kravitz?”
Perhaps another reason the sounds and visuals of the band are so wide-ranging is the intense collaboration process each song goes through. Omer and Rebel make the tracks together at home, before record the vocals at Kog studios. Videos have been shot with Shae Sterling (Stan Walker, Vince Harder, Brooke Fraser), who they are quick to praise, with make-up by Sylvia Kara and support from Jo Pilkington’s First Scene. In involving so many people – building up what they like to call their ‘team’ – the band have been able to achieve their vision clearly and early on in their careers, without relying on funding. Their artistic freedom comes through their collaborations. And it’s this freedom to make their statement that the band value.
“Behind all of our actions, we want to break this stereotype that surrounds; 1. being Māori, 2. being from South Auckland. There’s a lot of negativity from that, because we are three Māori musicians from South Auckland. There’s a lot of talent out there, and there’s a lot of musicians out there, but our sound is completely different from that. We want to show that you can be from where we’re from – or from anywhere – and not have to make the stereotypical sound that everyone expects of you. We’re on our own path. We’re doing our own thing. Fuck whatever the template is! We want to make what sounds good and feels right to us.”
This boldness is crucial to the group’s identity. It has defined every move they’ve made. It’s the reason why their first single was the one they felt defined them the most concisely, and it’s the reason why they’ve decided to forgo the standard EP as a first release, instead working on a full album. An EP was first expected late in 2015, the album now scheduled for mid-2017.
“Whether people like it or not [doesn’t matter], Rebel clarifies. “As long as they go, ‘Who the hell are these guys? And how did they even pull this off?’ As long as it’s stirring the pot.”