Six60 – two new NZ Top 10 songs in 2 weeks – how do they do it?
The word Authenticity (in existentialist philosophy) is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life’.
Other words that are sometimes used as synonyms of the word authentic are genuine, real, true, and honest. Talking with fellow MAINZ tutor Buzz Moller after he had just read my article on the APRA Silver Scroll Finalists, he recalled that during the deliberation process all finalists and their songs were deemed to contain an authentic quality – though it seemed that at the time, this term wasn’t defined by any members of the panel.
I tend to define authenticity in music too, perhaps coming from the other direction. I may judge a piece as containing a lack of authenticity if my experience of it makes me feel it is contrived, generic, lacking depth, excessively commercially driven, or motivated by assessment and deadline (in my role as a music tutor), rather than a genuine attempt at creativity.
To avoid these traps is no mean feat, as popular music is defined by lyrical and musical idiosyncrasies, sub-cultural traits that help contextualise and popularise any given song. There is even a science for this! The study of musicology and the semiotics of popular music, developed by Philip Tag is a way of understanding the literal denotation and contextual connotation found in popular music.
Anyway, enough of that – let’s get back on track. The Dunedin-formed band Six60 is a five-piece band comprising Eli Paewai on drums, Chris Mac (bass, synths), Ji Fraser (lead guitar), Marlon Gerbes (synths, samples) and guitarist/singer Matiu Walters. Named, as I am sure you will know, from the house they lived in – 660 Castle Street – the band have released a couple of albums, three EPs and numerous singles in their 10-year career so far, earning several platinum and gold awards along the way.
Listening to (and watching) Rivers, the second of two tracks currently in the NZ Top 10, the vibe is relaxed and uncontrived. [Note by Silke: At the time of writing -they’ve released a full, self-titled EP since of which all tracks subsequently also charted.] There is no sense that the track is ‘trying’ too hard at all. Even the video is simply sketches of the band in a studio environment, seemingly either listening, reflecting on, or hanging in the studio; very low-key.
Congruently, the music is minimal of course. An economic and efficient production style is very fashionable these days, but this track is also very musical, employing a range of solid melodic techniques (melisma, use of coloured tones e.g. 9ths 6ths etc., appoggiaturas, clever lyric writing etc.) creating interest, on a backdrop of reassuring familiarity.
There is nothing challenging here, think beer on a sunny Sunday afternoon and good vibes. The core of the tune is a synth bass that holds the rhythmic pulse, a choral harmony and the lead vocals. Dashes of acoustic and electric rhythm guitar are scattered sparsely, throughout, as is the electronic drum track.
Vocal harmonies are R’n’B derived with a gospel feel, and consist of I and IV chords mainly, with the occasional non-diatonic IVm-I progression (e.g. 48s) and the cadential V-I at the end of each strophe. Use of occasional non-diatonic harmony seems to be a current trend, another spice to enhance but not overpower, the minimalist production style. A tresillo rhythmic feel that Rivers has adopted is also reflective of current production inclinations.
Six60 have a very happy knack for simultaneous sales success with multiple tracks and Don’t Give It Up is currently also in the NZ Top 10. This is more of a band track with some programmed elements. This track also contains tasteful vocal harmonies, is diatonic, and borrows from a familiar rhythm – this time from the ‘60s (think Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison – chorus and post chorus sections).
Interestingly there are a couple of unique sonic identifiers (sounds specific to a particular track). The first is the unintelligible vocal sample that plays throughout the entire song, slightly off key – a great use of intonation as a production tool, sparking interest from the start. The other is the affected synth-like vocal that is first heard at 53 sec, at the beginning of the first chorus.
The keyboard skank pattern and the track generally is reminiscent of NZ reggae and could reveal some of the answer to why Six60 are able to produce two NZ Top 10 hits in two weeks. I think the key is in the band’s combination of authenticity, NZ stylistic popularity, and sub-genre familiarity.
Perhaps when a band is permitted over time to evolve organically and naturally, conditions are ripe for them to maintain a sense of authenticity. The band’s music is a mix of soul, rock, and reggae and Six60 perform it well, without trying to re-invent the wheel, maintaining currency in terms of production within the subgenre of pop music that is perhaps yet to be defined. Six60 can easily be (and have been) described as no-frills, roots-flavoured, pub music for the masses, but they do it well and their music is consistently popular as a result. Importantly though, amongst all of that Six60 are authentic, genuine, honest to themselves, and their ever-growing international audience.
Dr Mark Baynes is Programme Manager for the Bachelor of Musical Arts degree at MAINZ, Auckland, a degree program that fosters students’ ability to find their own musical voice. For more information visit www.mainz.ac.nz