Both individually and collectively the four musicians who make up Yoko-Zuna have earned themselves a great reputation in a fairly short time, and that with a sound and style that is very much their own. Jazz has long lent itself to fusion and integration with other musical forms, and the instrumentals that Yoko-Zuna ebulliently create readily finds enthusiastic lyrical/rap contributors to add that final window dressing that makes their jazz-based style readily enjoyed by a broad swathe of audiences. Michael Hollywood talked with the band and producer/manager Cam Duncan ahead of the release of a new , as yet un-named, EP and a year that could well see them breaking bad.
Following on from last years’ widely acclaimed debut album, ‘This Place Here’, 2016 is shaping up as a pivotal year for youthful Auckland four-piece Yoko-Zuna. There is currently an EP on the cusp of release, plans for a second album later in the year, and the band’s stock continues to rise on the back of its burgeoning reputation as a compelling live outfit.
None of this has come about by accident. It’s the culmination of two years’ of hard work together, and the core Yoko-Zuna collective of Frank Eliesa (keys, synth, bass), Swap Gomez (drums, percussion), Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway (guitar, bass), JY Lee (saxophone and flute), plus Cam Duncan (manager/producer) take nothing for granted. There’s a sense of professionalism about everything they do, something that perhaps belies the band’s youth and relative inexperience. If attention to detail counts for anything in the ongoing quest for musical perfection, Yoko-Zuna won’t be found wanting.
The group formed in 2014 when Gomez and Eliesa ran a regular midweek jam night at the now defunct Rakinos, in High Street, central Auckland. Eliesa fondly remembers how busy his Tuesdays were at that time.
“I remember I’d go to uni during the day practising and studying classical music for hours at a time, then at night I’d go to Rakinos and play whatever I want with a bunch of musicians.”
“I went down a couple of times and one day Swap and Frank had the idea of starting up an originals project which included Kenji and myself,” Lee embellishes. “We went into a practice room at jazz school and had a jam with no preconceptions as to what was going to happen, or what we were going to play. Afterwards one thing led to another, and thus Yoko-Zuna was born.”
Though he would have seen many great musicians play at those jam nights, Eliesa was particularly curious about JY Lee as a saxophonist.
“I remember looking at JY’s pedal board and thinking, ‘What the hell is that and can we jam sometime?’
“Yoko-Zuna was named not long after that when Swap pitched the idea of the name half-jokingly (because he’s a huge WWE wrestling fan). We thought it sounded real cool so the name stuck.”
The name is a homage to Rodney Agatupu Anoa‘I, a Samoan-American pro-wrestler who portrayed a sumo wrestler competing under the Japanese flag. In Japanese, Yokozuna stands for the highest rank in professional sumo wrestling.
Although the band’s intention was to move away from what they call a “jam vibe”, that impromptu, organic, almost free-form jazzy feel remains omnipresent in the music found on ‘This Place Here’.
“The way we write music is really raw,” drummer Gomez explains. “We write and record it on our phones, then later we do the whole computer/ProTools thing, but I guess in its most organic form it comes from all four of us in a room just jamming. It’ll always come from someone different. For example, Frank will come up with a chord progression, Kenji will jump on that straight away, or it might start with JY doing something, and then I might jump on that. It always changes. When we jam we don’t really have any boundaries or set rules.”
Their debut was lauded for its strong hip hop/R&B crossover vibe, and was rich with vocal contributions from the heavyweight likes of David Dallas, Team Dynamite and Bailey Wiley, to name just some.
As the man charged with keeping things moving forward, production whizz Duncan is an integral part of the crew, and his background as a sound engineer has been helpful in terms of building like-minded contacts.
“Bailey (Wiley), Spycc, Melodownz, and Rodney (Fisher) – they’re all just our mates. The way it worked with David Dallas was that I was a studio engineer at FMG Studios, which Dawn Raid and Dirty [labels] used, so I worked with him all the time. One day I just pushed the track towards him and said, ‘Hey bro, please’ … and he said, ‘Yes’, so we got that dope-as track.”
It went similarly with More Like You, which is partly former Goodshirt frontman Rodney Fisher’s baby.
“Basically the guys sent me a rough mix of the music. I closed my eyes and the melody jumped out at me. ‘Being true to yourself even though it can be hard, and how we are all searching for acceptance from someone who has the same moral ground’ is what the words I came up with mean to me.”
Yoko-Zuna is not a band readily pigeon-holed into a single genre. Even Duncan has difficulty pinning a label on the band’s sound.
“I’ve been producing Yoko-Zuna for two years and I still can’t put the music into a single genre. We always get asked … ‘What are you?’ but I can’t single out one type of music. It’s everything each band member plays – they bring their own taste and diversity to every track.
“The production is always based on feeling. The fan feels music before they listen to it. When we’re recording I use each instrument or part to create a tone that adds to an overall feel. Often the feel of a track will change as we spend more time on it. Until we all settle on a mix.”
Collaboration was a key feature on ‘This Place Here’ and is again a big part of what we can expect on their upcoming EP, with names like Tom Scott, P Digsss, Heavy, Lukan Rai$ey and LarzRanda, all loaded and locked in to feature with the band.
“The working title is just ‘EP’ at this stage. We’re still deciding on a name,” admits Duncan. “We have a potential deal on the table which will be confirmed shortly. Once that’s in place we’ll know the delivery schedule, but it’s looking like the first single will be mid-February, with the EP release in March. It will be a digital release with a short run of CDs. We’d love to do some vinyl, but will look to release a second album later this year on vinyl.
“We’re doing things way differently. With the first album, from the time we started to the time it was released was about a year and a half. We didn’t work on it for that time, we just sat on it for that long. We had a few road bumps getting it out so we ended up just putting it out independently. The way we’ve approached the EP is that we had everything lined up before we even set foot in the studio, so we had ideas for distribution and a timeframe. Whereas with the last album we said, ‘Let’s just make some music and who cares what happens with it’.”
When we talk it is looking like a five-track EP, recorded at Red Bull’s studio in Auckland. Duncan admits being a bit nervous about working alongside Ben Lawson, who he rates as one of the country’s top engineers, but the benefits were soon obvious.
“What that meant was that I could take step closer to the production side, working with each member of the band more closely. So we’ve been recording and mixing it there, and doing a bit of mixing outside of Red Bull as well. Frank has also been helping out on the mixing quite a bit.”
The band recently gained NZ On Air funding, a welcome contribution which was used to make a rather excellent video for One’s Cycle (featuring Bailey Wiley), the final single off ‘This Place Here’. Prior to that Gomez had already shown a deft hand producing visuals for the band’s music.
“I do the majority of the videos. For One’s Cycle we were able to have a proper production company and a director involved, but the other videos are all self-made.”
Self-made, as in, very professionally made. One viewing of an older clip for the album’s title track reveals the full extent of Gomez’s talent. Again, we come back to that attention-to-detail thing. Nothing around this group is done half-heartedly.
And that includes performances, with the band keen to play live as often as possible. One of the issues Yoko-Zuna face is how to translate what is effectively a very studio-centric sound into the traditional live environment. After all, it’s not as though all of the vocalists they work alongside or collaborate with are permanently available to travel with the band.
“Our live set is a combination of work from the album, but because we can’t have all the feature artists with us we sample their voices and we chop up their verses and things like that. We have remix versions of the David Dallas track and the Team Dynamite track that we play live,” acknowledges Gomez.
One benefit of an increased live presence, particularly in and around Auckland’s fertile club and party circuit, is the natural progression or improvement that comes with the added pressure of doing it week-in week-out in front of an increasingly discerning public. I sense that playing gigs and touring its work is something the band wants to do more of.
With their jazz backgrounds evident, the band always look to be having a great time on stage, their sense of excitement readily translating to newly impressed and enthusiastic audiences.
“I guess since the music we create and play is so diverse, our crowd and audiences have been pretty varied and eclectic too,” observes Lee.
“People really gravitate towards the big sound we create on stage and the general musicianship,” adds Eliesa.
Manager Duncan reveals their plan about where they want things going for the next six months to a year.
“I think this year we have a few key projects we want to work on, and the whole idea for all of us is just to keep building the band’s name so that it gets to a point where we can start booking some big gigs and some nice size international support spots. And hopefully one day we’ll be able to get overseas as well.”
“We’re all fulltime musicians, and Yoko-Zuna is our main baby, but we are all involved in other projects,” Gomez adds. “Frank and I play for a couple of hip hop artists, and Kenji and JY individually play for a whole heap of bands like Rewind Fields, Saturnian Noise Collective and Terracotta Cat. But Yoko-Zuna is at the forefront of everything.”
The discussion wraps up with talk about longer-term goals, both collectively and individually, and once again it’s apparent that each of the four band members – along with Duncan – have very mature heads on young shoulders. At no point are they keen to get too far ahead of themselves and the main goal at this stage is to just keep improving.
Doing it fulltime, without the distraction of a pesky day job, means they’re firmly committed to making the absolute most of the current wave of interest in their music. It’s also refreshing, to hear Gomez acknowledge that their cultural and ethnic diversity is a genuine strength. Those qualities, plus a large element of mutual respect, support within and out with the band, and strong networking reach are all things which will stand Yoko-Zuna in good stead as the band’s reach inevitably grows.
“We’re all pretty much still living at home – except for Cam – and we’re all strongly influenced by our families. We all come from different backgrounds, not just in terms of music, but culturally as well. Even socially we come from different scenes. I think that makes us diplomatic with each other, writing the music and listening to each other, hearing each other out.
“In some bands there’s always one person who takes the reins and makes all the decisions but with us there’s a good level of diplomacy going on. Especially with writing, we tend to write stuff fairly quickly, but then when it comes to refining it, we all collaborate and help each other out on parts. Like when I’m recording drums I love having Frank and Cam in the studio because although they’re not drummers they hear stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily hear. We do the same with guitars, and sax, and keys and stuff. We’re always there trying to improve each other all the time.”
He happily admits that their collective musicianship has improved considerably since the making of ‘This Place Here’.
“We’re really proud of this next EP, and it’s been so much easier putting it together because we’ve built up such good chemistry to this point. The goal is just to keep building that and to let the music do the talking rather than making big plans. We keep getting surprised by what our music has been doing for us and that’s always a beautiful thing.”