If there is a simple lesson to be learnt from ex-Wellington four-piece Weta’s warm welcome into the Australian music industry it is that you can never underestimate the value of a smile! NZ Musician’s Jennifer Scott talked with Weta’s rock star guitarist/frontman Aaron Tokona ahead of the major label release of their debut album, ‘Geographica’, due at the end of July.
Signed direct to Warner Music Australia in May last year and now living in Melbourne, Weta have a number of people ready to back them and their album to the hilt, largely it seems due to the fact that they are just so bloody nice. Warner’s A&R manager Dan Hennessy reckons that in the 10 months Weta have been living and playing in Australia they have charmed promoters, agents, managers, record company employees and other musicians.
“It’s so refreshing to meet people who are willing to work hard and who have no ego,” he comments.
Backing up their no bullshit, salt-of-the-earth reputation is the fact that Weta are a great band. Named Most Promising Group at this year’s NZ Music Awards, Aaron Tokona (vocals/guitar/charm), younger brother Clinton ‘Tookie’ on bass, Gabriel ‘Gabes’ Atkinson (guitar/vocals) and Clinton den Heyer in the drum seat now have the album that they hope will prove the title is on the button.
Although they enjoyed a strong live profile in New Zealand before they left, Weta’s previous recorded output is sparse. Calling On featured on the 1997 Wellington compilation ‘Infocity Overground’, and Got The Ju featured on the B-side of Shihad’s Yr Head Is A Rock CD single. The only pure Weta release prior is the four-track ‘Natural Compression’ EP released in August last year, with songs dating back to 1997.
‘Natural Compression’ was recorded at Marmalade Audio in Wellington and produced with Shihad drummer and good friend Tom Larkin, which was heavyweight enough at the time. Their new album, however, has the sumo power of Warner Music Australia behind it. This means a ‘name’ producer, top-of-the-line facilities and Warner’s enviable marketing might come release time.
If investment in an album relates to a record company’s support, then Weta’s confidence is justified. Their debut album started with a recording budget of around $A100,000 and went beyond, as so often happens.
“It’s been good,” understates Aaron. “I don’t think any record company spends that much money on an album and does nothing with it. We certainly are very fortunate and very lucky to be in such good hands. Dan Hennessy’s got a lot of faith in the band and what we do. If you’ve got that from your record company I think you should be okay.”
So how does a new band from Wellington wind up signed to a major label in Australia? The common assumption may well be that Weta rode the wave created by Shihad. The longtime friends certainly have a lot in common with both bands moving to Melbourne at the same time, both signed directly to Warner Australia and sharing a manager – and of course they both rock!
But in fact it was Aaron’s association with Australian band, The Superjesus, that eventually led to the Warner deal and the decision to relocate Weta to the land of Oz. Aaron was recruited by The Superjesus in 1997 to fill in on guitar on their tour of New Zealand. At the end of the tour Aaron decided not to take on the job fulltime, but to stick with Weta. Turning down this plum gig obviously made a few people curious about his ‘other’ band.
One such person was Dan Hennessy, who was managing The Superjesus at the time (he also founded Aloha Management with Weta’s current manager Steven Betts). Tom Larkin had given Hennessy a Weta tape and Aaron’s guitar playing on tour impressed.
“Aaron’s an absolute genius, a major talent and the whole band’s great,” Hennessy enthuses. An intention to ‘do something’ with Weta formed and when Hennessy left Aloha to take on the A&R role at Warner Music, these good intentions came to fruition.
Back in NZ, Murray Cammick, who had supported Weta’s successful NZ On Air applications, was keen to have Weta on his Felix label, but at the time his distribution agreement with BMG NZ was entering a phase of uncertainty – so it seemed better all round that they sign directly to Warner Australia, and make the international move.
With this solid infrastructure in place, Weta found themselves able to make music a proper job.
“It only got serious a year ago,” says Aaron. “Before that it was wicked but a hobby, almost. Now there’s ‘the machine’, and things have got dates next to them and stuff! We’ve kind of got a firecracker up the arse with everything now, which is good.”
Working in the much larger territory makes management essential.
“lf we were in charge of our own finances we’d be back home by now. They come up with ideas on how to keep everything afloat because it gets really tight. It’s certainly no bed of roses, that’s for real.”
Tough it may be, but not many musicians get to make their teenage hobby a career. Aaron and Clinton den Heyer first met at high school, through the Rockquest.
“We both played in rather geeky bands that would be better not talked about!”
Tookie was also in a school band, which Aaron describes as a cross between Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus: “… which is a bit geeky but way cooler than what Clint and I were doing!”
Gabes’ band history has more street cred, playing in Welly band Hustler, although, observes Aaron “… he really should have been playing in a Guns’n’Roses covers band!”
Without any album to hawk, Weta have spent the past 10 months quietly pushing the ‘Natural Compression’ EP, which sold about 5,000 copies in Australia, peaking at number 12 in the NZ singles chart. Got The Ju and Let It Go from the EP received extensive radio play both here and in Oz. They have also done a few tours in Australia, building a live fanbase that includes many of the musicians they have toured with.
“I think we’ve been inducted into the Australian community,” Aaron laughs. “That’s been a big thing about coming over, we’ve met some awesome people, (met some nutcakes!), but met some awesome people. We’ve been on the road with a few Australian bands over here and those relationships are lasting, which has been good.”
The home of AccaDacca is, as Aaron says, a “rock town”, yet while Weta went over with a penchant for turning their instruments up loud and packed into the “tightest fuckin’ jeans in the hemisphere”, ‘Geographica’ has ended up less rock than expected.
“I think we thought we were going to make a rock album but there’s quite a lot of ambient textures and stuff, and a lot of the songs that were written as rock songs ended up coming back on acoustic guitars. We found the right way to find the songs in the studio as opposed to turning our guitars up really loud and drowning the vocals!”
Only two days out of the studio when we speak, Aaron sounds a bit shell-shocked, but the experience is one he talks about fondly, describing Melbourne’s prestigious Sing Sing Studios as being like a big house.
“It’s like being under a microscope in there and it was a really good learning experience. Everything changes in the studio.”
Taking a not so minor role in these changes was producer Steve James, an Englishman now living in Sydney who Aaron describes as having recorded everyone from the Sex Pistols to the Teletubbies.
“He stripped a lot of the songs down to the bare bones and then we kind of dressed them up from the start again. Some of them turned out in a way we didn’t expect them to turn out… it was all for the good. We used lots of organs and pianos and a whole lot of stringy, synthy sounds. It’s an area we haven’t had that much to do with because we’ve always been kind of balls-to-the-floor AC/DC kind of rock, you know? The producer’s words were; ‘It sounds grown up,’” he laughs.
Warner’s Dan Hennessy glowingly describes the album as a cross between Straitjacket Fits and The Verve.
“It’s a mixture of classic NZ bands and the kind of English production values which have enhanced Aaron’s influences.”
Aaron is the chief songwriter of the group with Gabes also writing songs duly credited.
“The songwriting process is pretty much me living in my bedroom going through head-fuck frustrations trying to make ideas work,” says Aaron. “From there it goes into the band room and everything gets put on top, then in the pre-production part of the recording process it can go anywhere with the producer adding ideas to what’s there.”
Songs have otherwise been inspired by lots of jams with brother Tookie’s funky bass lines and a drum machine.
“Tookie and I will programme a beat and come up with riffs, which has inspired good songs and is fun stuff. Gabes writes his own stuff which is awesome and when he comes in with songs he will take the reigns and pave the direction for them.
“This album’s really a reflection of what has happened in the last few years – as first albums mostly are. There’s some old stuff on there and lots of newer tracks.”
It is clear that recording the album was a lot of fun for both Weta and James. His father is the late English comedian Sid James, famous for his Carry On roles, and king of the double entendre – and Aaron says the humour is hereditary.
“I think it was important for us to have someone in there with a sense of humour so we can laugh at ourselves, which you’ve got to do [and he does] because it’s just not that serious, eh!”
Aaron says his English way of working suited the band, capturing the all important ‘vibe’. When they first went into the studio they were working with American producer Jonathan Burnside.
“We were trying out this American producer and it wasn’t really our vibe. He used quite a lot of technology and stuff like that. Steve James kind of brought it all back to being organic. Our stuff, well the stuff we’ve been writing lately, has got more of an English flavour to it really in its production style and he [James] was brilliant, a laugh a minute.
“He was saying it was the easiest thing he’s done, and this is a guy who’s done nearly 60 albums. It was fun for him too and I think we got that vibe down on tape.”
Tape, indeed it was, with James opting to record onto analogue two-inch over digital options.
“Steve’s really kind of old school when it comes to things like that and just in his production style.”
He also proved a fan of capturing songs the first time around, to a sometimes disconcerting extent.
“We did a couple of weeks pre-production with him and it’s funny actually because I thought the songs would change radically arrangement-wise, but they didn’t. He didn’t really touch the arrangements that much, which was pretty cool.
“His method of working was like; ‘What do you reckon, you want a guitar sound? Well you take the mic, you put it there, and then you turn the fucking thing up really fucking loud, and then you push Record!’ He wasn’t the kind of guy to arse around too much. It was real straight up the guts and I think that’s a very English thing.
“We usually warm up into the track, especially for guitar takes and stuff Gabes and I can be quite anal. But he was like, “Yep, great, next! Yep, great next!’ And he was really going after the first take for everything. That took a while to get used to. He was like giving us one, two, three chances, and that was it. It gave everything much more of an edge as opposed to sitting there and being too anal.”
The resulting 11-track album was mixed at Sing Sing by David Baskin (Tears For Fears), whose professionalism also impressed Aaron.
“He was amazing, just watching him work, and the mixes sound fucking awesome. It was just really fast.”
The files were then sent to the UK for mastering, with artwork being completed as we speak. ‘Geographica’ will be released on July 31, 2000 and a homecoming tour will definitely follow giving NZ audiences the chance to experience the full Weta sound – and charm – for themselves.