It’s a great name for a rock band and Villainy have done it proud in terms of success and errm, sticking-togetherness. This July, the Auckland four-piece will see the release of their third album in a nearing decade-long career and with it the chance to go an impressive three-for-three in terms of rock album Tui-wins. Amberleigh Jack spoke with singer/lyricist Neill Fraser and bass player James Dylan about why ‘Raised In The Dark’ has taken longer than expected to see the light of day, and the way ahead for Villainy.
Not quite a hard-rockin’ Kiwi household name in the way of a Shihad or Devilskin maybe, but Villainy are no Wannabes either. They have earned sufficient recognition that they get to be interviewed in their major record label’s boardroom, lubricated with beer and entertained with stunning views of Auckland’s harbour bridge and surrounding areas.
With a history that goes back almost a decade and includes two very well received rock albums, the band sit in that slightly Uncomfortable space of being too successful to quit, but perhaps not successful enough to be anyone’s top priority. Maybe album number three will sort out the Growing Pains and resolve that dilemma?
As a local rock act, Villainy has seen incredible success from the outset, their attention-grabbing first single Alligator Skin produced and mixed by Shihad’s Tom Larkin. The four-piece – Neill Fraser, James Dylan, Thom Watts and Dave Johnston – won the 2013 NZ Music Awards’ rock album Tui with their debut album ‘Mode. Set. Clear.’, beating out co-finalists The Datsuns and Beastwars. They followed that success promptly, releasing album number two in 2015. ‘Dead Sight’ won the Aucklanders another Best Rock Album award the year following.
Bassist James Dylan takes a sip of his beer before talking about the process of recording their soon-to-be-released third album.
“We won a music award for our last record, and that was a Thursday night,” he starts. “I think we got on a plane the next day and flew to Melbourne, for two weeks. We ended up cutting six songs, but we spent the first week just writing and finding direction.”
Singer and guitarist Neill Fraser takes over, explaining that 2016 recording was initially planned as a quick process.
“The idea was that we were going to go back within a couple of weeks of Christmas, but we ended up fleshing it out until April. And then, as all good album projects go, it turned into this protracted process… not helped by the fact that we wrote about 120 songs along the way,” he adds laughing.
All in all it has been a prolonged four years between albums for them, but finally they now have ‘Raised In The Dark’ ready for release in July. It’s an album the band is rightly proud of, though they’ve definitely felt pressure to come up with something good.
“That’s why we wrote so much music,” Dylan explains. “We wanted to get as much content as possible and figure out what’s good. We all got into that headspace of writing and producing music. Being in that world.”
The result is 10 tracks of the tight, melodic rock songs that Villainy has become known for. Ten tracks that inevitably span a few years of writing and living too. The first song the band recorded, Wannabe, sits alongside Dreams – the last song recorded and written for the album. It’s a weird feeling, says Dylan, to be finally playing live tracks that encompass the band’s last three years.
“When we played Homegrown the other day [March] we played one of the songs that’s on the record that made the cut. That was the first song we wrote in 2016 and we’ve never played it live!”
“We wrote it two Homegrowns ago,” Fraser laughs.
It was back in March 2018 that Tiny Little Island was released as the upcoming album’s singalong first single, but restructuring at their new label killed any resulting momentum. While none are quite as jaunty, the rest of the album manages to blend that kind of post-apocalyptic outlook with an optimism born of self-determination. Villainy make crowd chantable, energetic, Skeletons-moving, happy moshpit rock music. Despite some now being a few years old, the songs are still relevant for the band, and hopefully their fans.
“Rock doesn’t really change,” says Fraser. “I think the thing is the emotion that’s captured in that song isn’t an emotion that people don’t feel anymore. It’s still a relevant thing.”
The pair do admit to feeling the need for ‘Raised In The Dark’ to continue the band’s earlier success.
“The pressure is definitely on,” says Dylan. “Now that we’ve set the bar, the pressure is there to achieve a certain outcome.”
It’s a bit like making film sequels Fraser suggests.
“If the first album is really successful, the second or the third one often sucks because people try to capture what they did in the first ones.”
“Are you saying this is Jurassic Park 3?” Dylan asks, following a thoughtful sip of beer.
“Maybe Return of the Jedi,” laughs Fraser.
“You’ve got to really consciously make sure that you’re not trying to hold onto the past success,” he recovers. “You’ve got to look forward, not backwards, and I think we’ve done that.”
And those past successes for Villainy are pretty substantial. As well as those Tui awards they’ve had the opportunity to grace the stage ahead of some pretty impressive acts over the years. The highlight? For Dylan, it’s a pretty easy call.
“The obvious one is playing with AC/DC on their NZ tour. The night before we played a warm-up show in Masterton, so we went from 50 people to 30,000 in the space of a night!”
While they both agree there’s something special about playing a rock show to a pretty intimate crowd, he isn’t dismissive of living the stadium life.
“I wouldn’t complain if we were playing to 30,000 people a night,” he laughs.
But the best kind of gig according to Fraser is one that’s big enough to have a decent crowd, yet intimate enough to be able to play off the emotions of everyone there. It’s why they’ve decided to end their album release tour at Auckland’s Powerstation.
“I think for any local act it’s a career highlight.”
Their tour starts the day the album is released, with six shows around the country. Dylan agrees the highlight may well be playing their show at the Powerstation and making it their own.
“It was always – ‘You know you’ve made it as an Auckland band when you can headline the Kings Arms,’” he starts. “Then it was, ‘You’ve made it as a NZ band when you can headline the Powerstation.’”
“One of those isn’t there anymore,” Fraser points out. “I guess the other frustrating thing is in NZ you play 10 shows and you’ve done the whole country.”
Yes, they have got Dreams to take ‘Raised In The Dark’ beyond this Tiny Little Island, to go international, and this time around, with the backing of Warner Music, they’ll have the benefit of global release and promotion.
”We just need to do the hard yards and figure out where we want to go and do it,” chief lyricist Fraser says. “Which is harder when you’ve got four people rather than one.”
While stoked with the success they’ve achieved over the years, and proud of making it locally, going global is definitely the next step according to Dylan.
“I don’t think any of us started a band to play in New Zealand.”