Independent for almost 20 years, Fat Freddy’s Drop have racked up close to a thousand shows across Europe, returning home as prodigal sons each summer to play for the people of New Zealand. Superfan Don Rowe talks to trumpeter Toby Laing, aka Tony Chang, ahead of the group’s third appearance at Splore.
I have loved Fat Freddy’s Drop for about as long as my cochlea have turned vibrations into sound. Forget Salmonella Dub, with their dark intimations of food poisoning, and Katchafire can (respectfully) do just that, for there is only one group worthy of the Kiwidub crown, and they don’t even believe it’s a genre.
The brassy funk of ‘Wandering Eye’, the unifying call of ‘Hope’, the Nintendo-core jamfest that is ‘Slings and Arrows’ – it’s enough to make this neurotic mess dutty wine. And at Villa Maria last month, I did just that. My new sunnies were martyred in the name of dub but it was worth it all. Trumpeter and chief FFD historian Toby Laing certainly thought so.
The Spinoff: That Villa Maria show was pretty amazing, right? There were something like 10,000 people there, many drinking straight from wine bottles.
Toby Laing: It was extraordinary, and it stands out to me as one of our best shows in living memory.
It was awfully close to your 1000th show, right? Where does that put you compared to other New Zealand groups? That’s got to be a record.
I dunno if the stats are readily available but I’d definitely like to know. We’re proud of it and the thing is that playing live is sort of the life force of the whole project. We’ve been together a long time now, I joined the band in 1998, so we’ve had a long time to accumulate those shows.
The band has retained your intensity on stage. It doesn’t feel like Fat Freddy’s Drop just goes through the motions.
I think we’re way better than that. What we’ve picked up along the way playing some big stages – because a lot of what we do can be quite improvised – I think we actually have learned a lot as musicians and with our group. We’ve learned ways of making the show effective and ways of being effective on stage, communicating with each other. Keeping that intensity, like you say, is very important to everyone. It’s good when it comes off, and it definitely came off for us at Villa Maria.
You’ve toured so extensively overseas – I’ve heard Fat Freddy’s from Serbia to Spain. How has that European penetration helped?
That’s where all of our shows have been, mainly. The vast majority of those 1000 shows would have been in places like Germany, UK, Scandinavia, Poland, Italy, Czech Republic – we’ve been to a lot of places over the years. The whole thing with recognition overseas… we’re a niche group but it’s a niche where people share the music amongst themselves, and we’ve got a good presence with people around the world sharing our music with other people, and we’re very, very grateful for that. But I dunno, I just think we’ve had a lot of feedback over the years, the way that Dallas writes songs has a universal quality which helps the music to travel around the world.
I read that your focus on Europe was a strategic decision. Was that because of the proximity of different countries for touring?
When we say strategic I think what we mean is that there was only one strategy available. To a large extent, major labels and radio stations and things like that weren’t showing interest, and we struggled to attract money from NZ on Air – that’s probably still true to this day. So it was all about having a live show, and trying to travel to different territories whenever we could to keep the band going.
Is there a reason that the band hit it off in Europe as opposed to North America?
We have a lot of interest in North America but we can’t travel there. We’ve got trouble going to North America because the visas are so prohibitively expensive, and they’re single use so if you go, you have to stay for a long time to make the most use of it. For our whole tour party to get visas to the States it’s over $20,000.
The other thing is that it’s a very insular type of place for promoters – they don’t really care how much success you’ve had overseas, you’ve gotta start on the ground floor in the States, and that means playing 50 shows in 50 days, playing in pubs. It’s something that we’ve lost the appetite for, that type of intensive touring in a small van. We just can’t do it, we’re too old [laughs].
A lot of your music is written and tested on the road, and like you said there’s a lot of room for improvisation – how do you retain your ‘Kiwidub’ elements?
The culture of the group is definitely established, and what it’s based on is very unconscious in a way. This sounds ridiculously cheesy, but it’s true: it is the sum of all of New Zealand, and everyone in the group is a leader in their own right. Everyone approaches our shared musical output and has their own niche within it, and often the only way we can affect the sound generally is what we play in the set list, and whether we’re trying to interpret it in a dub style, or more of a rootsy, reggae feel, or maybe a little more unusual and electronic, a bit more techno. It’s interpretation from there. It’s cool.
But the other thing is that New Zealand roots music, ‘kiwidub’ – that genre was made up by Sony Music sometime in 2002, so it’s a funny one. It sort of lingers around. I definitely know what you mean, though, it’s a sound and it’s there, but we’ve got a few other things that we do, and we’re always trying to change up the recipe.
There has been an evolution towards a more electro-heavy feeling overall, particularly with Bays – is that a conscious decision or osmosis from so many Amsterdam ravers?
When I first was going out at night and listening to music I was raving, and the same would be true of Mu, he was DJing a lot of rave music in the ’90s, and that’s sort of deep down in our bones, and it’s something that we’ve always really liked.
We were definitely feeling the sonic dub sound when we got together, and that was the kind of thing we had a lot of success with at festivals in the South Island, hitting these huge, heavy soundsystems with that dub, but when it came to electronic production we didn’t really have the means to do it. We were just making all of our music track by track, building it up piece by piece, with some crappy organs and drum machines that we happened to have around.
When you adjust your sound for a particular gig, is there a consistency to that? What do you factor in?
If we’ve played somewhere a lot, if we go to Berlin, we’ll pretty much just play wherever we’re at. We’re not thinking about what we *should* do for the audience. But at home, because we don’t play much in New Zealand, when we go home we’ll put a lot of thought into the overall consistency of the sound, or what’s going to fit together. I think in Europe at the moment we’ve really just been promoting Bays, and trying to fit in as many songs from there. Back home it’s much more from across the different work we’ve done.
What about the specifics of festivals themselves? You guys have played a ton of international festivals and you’re closing out the summer with Splore. What are the key differences you see?
I think that festivals that we play in New Zealand, things like Auckland City Limits and Splore, all of those places compare really favourably to what happens in Europe. The production standards are high, the fans make up a great crowd and it’s a great atmosphere. I know how difficult it is for people who want to go to festivals to actually go. Ticket prices are so high, the expenses are so high, just transport to venues is going to set people back. In Europe you just get on a train and there are festivals perfectly situated for you to arrive and leave. Festivals in New Zealand are doing a great job to provide a necessary service and there is really very little difference in a big European festival.
You shot the video for ‘Hope’ at Splore fully 15 years ago in a big geodesic dome from Burning Man. What was that about?
We were playing one of the small DJ stages, I think we got invited to play, I don’t think it was very much an official appearance or anything, but it was such a cool gig in this very Buckminster Fuller type of structure. The footage came out and the dude had shot it in this sepia, vintage style. Someone said we need to play ‘Hope’ when we come to Splore this time, so we’ll have to put work into that.
We’re really looking forward to Splore. It’s in such a lovely spot, and it’s a completely different type of proposition. I don’t think we’ve ever played festivals in Europe that are on the beach, and in which you can sail right up basically to the stage, or camp in a lovely native forest. It’s pretty special.
It’s appropriate too, because, and I’m not sure whether this is an urban legend, but I heard that song was quite possibly composed under the influence of the LSD that was circulating Wellington in the ’90s. Can you confirm that?
I believe so, yes, sometime around 1998. It’s pretty cosmic. It’s great to have a foundation myth like that as well, which is actually true. I’m sure over time it’s taken on even more crazy significance than just a shivery, shaky morning on the beach of the South Coast wondering if it was all a good idea or not.
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