Combining elements of jazz, funk and psychedelic rock, Wukong The Monkey King are a five-piece band with a knack for expressive and invigorating live shows. Their self-titled debut album was recorded halfway around the world, in China, as part of an epic trip, the group embarked on earlier this year. Now back in Auckland, the band has been active on the local scene while planning the next move. Jean Bell sat down with the WTMK boys in a kebab shop on K’Rd, over some shisha, to learn more.
“It started many years ago on a lonely street in Henderson,” Jordan Neal, the drummer of Auckland’s Wukong The Monkey King, begins in explaining the band’s genesis.
Jordan was skating buddies with bassist Kyle Ranudo and Bryan Arriolla (keyboards, saxophone), and the trio soon started jamming together. From there, James Smith (guitar) and Wade Wu (vocals, trumpet) joined the ranks. Before joining, James stumbled across a video of the band performing.
“I thought it was real punk rock, as Wade was singing in Chinese and playing the trumpet and shouting and stuff,” he laughs. “From jamming with these guys I’ve gotten into hip hop and jazz a lot more because I see it as a rebellious kind of music.”
The boys are big on having a community-orientated vibe. While there is plenty of “good creative tension” within the band, things run fairly democratically.
“We’ve gotten a lot better at communicating what we want from each other,” says Kyle. Ideas are thrown into the mix where the group collectively smooth it out and decide where to take things. “It’s like a collective of musical taste, we all fuse our sound together,” Jordan says.
“We don’t think about our sound too much. People always ask us what kind of music we make and we’re always loathe to say,” admits Kyle. “But we’ve been told we sound like Pink Floyd, The Pixies, Snarky Puppy.”
An inclusive mindset moves beyond the inner dynamics and ranges to the intent of the group that evidently gets the biggest kick out of playing live. With lyrics mainly in Mandarin, lead singer Wade aims to make music that that is universally engaging, rather than just catering to a certain demographic
“I don’t want to make music that just makes 20-year olds feel good. I want to make music that makes everyone feel good,” he asserts. “Singing in Chinese I can put more narrative [into the words].”
“The most enjoyment I get is when I make people move or dance – if people are feeling the music, I’m happy,” says Jordan.
“I have the view that if the audience is feeling the music and vibing with it, it contributes to the music itself,” adds Bryan. “There’s no way you can reach that vibe as a player without the audience. You are all in this collective consciousness together.”
The organic and flexible aspects of live performance are what Wade enjoys, particularly in the setting of a house party.
“When we do it live it’s always different. We can’t play it the same all the time and we don’t want to,” he says, citing Kendrick Lamar as inspiration to playing lots of live shows. “In an interview, Kendrick was talking about where he came from and how he got that good. [One thing was that] he kept freestyling and kept jamming. That’s really my vibe. Get real people, play music for them and learn from that process. House parties break the boundaries.”
James sometimes plays his hand at organising ‘5 Bands for 5 Bucks’ gigs, shows that promote a variety of acts.
“It’s a really cool crowd. Last one there was a sludgy-as metal band and then we were playing to the audience they pulled,” Bryan says. “It’s real crack up seeing these punk dudes jamming out to our music.”
“In some ways, I really like playing in bands with really different style to us,” picks up James. “Like if it’s really jazzy and hip hop, or if it’s really heavy and metal, or punky. It’s more of an event if there’s lots of different styles.”
Wukong The Monkey King embarked on a self-funded overseas adventure in China from the end of 2016 through to early this year, travelling, playing gigs and recording their debut album.
“Going there was like a pipe dream,” says James. “We were just DIYing it.”
“I remember talking about it and thinking, ‘This shit is never going to happen,’” Kyle laughs, the others joining.
A lot of the venues the band played at are known as live houses, which form a chain or network of independently run places.
“They have mean sound gear and everyone was super hospitable… we got free drinks everywhere,” smiles Bryan.
The album was recorded in the big smoke of Beijing, but in the rather unconventional location of a desolate, run down shopping mall. With the area undergoing construction, it was a chaotic experience, the studio was in a basement that would take a good 10 minutes to walk all the way down to. The group recruited local Yang Haisong to record them. The resulting album was mastered back in NZ by Morgan Allen of Auckland’s Depot Studio and local band Lakes.
From here, the band is looking to record an EP and continue playing lots of live shows.
“We reckon there is potential in this band [with] different people writing and different instruments. I think we’re gonna keep experimenting, I don’t think we have our sound yet,” says Kyle. “If you’ve got a house party and want us to play, hit us up!”