Erena Shingade talks to singer and big band leader Sal Valentine about originality, not fitting in, and his forthcoming album, This Party Blows. Plus – a video premiere!
When we meet in St Kevin’s Arcade on a Sunday afternoon, Sal Valentine is a vision in monochrome. He wears a grey beanie, grey t-shirt (sleeves rolled up), silver rings, silver bracelet, necklace; glasses with thick grey-stripes frame his face. The only interruption to this palette is a series of bright tattoos and a pinky ring with the words “fuck forever” in red. I think back to the music video in which he dances at grungy Auckland locations in a grey sweatsuit and wonder if grey is his favourite colour, but I forget to ask.
Valentine (real name Ivan Luketina-Johnston) has been on the Auckland scene for seven years now. He works as a DJ, plays the drums for multiple groups, and writes for an eleven-piece band. Previously named Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes, the band has been variously described as a hot-stepping rhythm and blues, soul, rock, jazz, and funk. All the musicians are professionally trained and regularly pull crowds of 200-350 people to their live shows.
The fact that an 11-piece band of this calibre has been running for over seven years with no support from any label, the New Zealand Music Commission, NZ on Air, Red Bull, Spotify, or any other “powers that be” is incredibly impressive. It’s daunting to think of the sheer organisation needed to schedule, rehearse, record and perform, let alone the time it must take to create and write out 11 parts to every song (yes, writing everything out on sheet music, painstaking though it is, is actually the quickest way). It’s taken nearly three years, Valentine tells me, to put together their sophomore album which is due out in a few months’ time.
It started for Valentine in 2004, when Blink 182 and Green Day were going strong, Usher had just released his lyrical hit ‘Yeah’, and Avril Lavigne hadn’t yet been replaced by a doppelganger. A young Sal had long graduated all possible grades on the recorder and could play the drums better than 10-year-old Justin Bieber. He’d moved on to Ellen Melville Hall, Rockquest and school assemblies, playing with the marching band Pink Fluffy Islands, and in the 80s Jacket Club (in which he and his mates borrowed their dads’ navy anoraks for every performance and did their best to sound like the Mint Chicks).
When he finally surfaced from the education system five years later, it was the graceful emergence of a multi-instrumentalist with a resolve to play the music that moved him most. He began Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes, a rhythm and blues style band that played all-original music with the energy of Ray Charles. Hits such as ‘Shirt Shop’ and ‘She Ain’t No Good’ ensued, and live performances began to build their audience from the ground up. Soon they were hitched to the festival circuit, playing at Splore, Camp A Low Hum, Wellington Jazz Festival, The Nelson Arts Festival, and New Zealand International Jazz and Blues Festival in Christchurch. Their 2013 debut self-titled album charted in the top ten.
Every gig they played would pull impressive audience numbers. Young and old, white collar shirts and tattered army khaki: the crowds were a mixed bag. Most exciting of all, they would dance. Valentine tells me it was flattering having people dance to his music. “I guarantee they won’t know all of the songs, and so it’s even more amazing that they’re dancing. As a DJ, I see it so often: people will not get up and dance unless you play ‘No Scrubs’ or Beyoncé. If you play something they don’t know, they’ll leave the dancefloor.”
Despite the popularity of live shows, the band attracted criticism. Some young people, it seemed, ardently believed that music which sounded like it could have appealed to a previous generation should be buried with their grandparents, or at least reserved for middle New Zealanders. A damning review appeared on music website The Corner in 2013, labelling the single ‘Ain’t No Good’ as “all professionalism and mimicry”. “This song – and the band from which it was birthed,” wrote one reviewer, “is basically that scene from The Mask where Jim Carrey dances with Cameron Diaz except cornier and very, very depressing.” “The band is probably talented as all hell,” wrote another, “but I can’t be fucked with stuff like this.” And finally, “Sal Valentine and co. are exactly the kind of music the Good Morning show probably has sex to.”
The comments that were not pejorative still managed to typecast the band: “I’ve always had a soft spot for jazzy rhythm and blues for its ability to transport me back to the shiny idea of a more innocent time, when men went out a-wooing and women batted their eyelashes while they shimmied on the dance-floor. The Babyshakes are no different in that regard,” wrote Chloe Cairncross. James Manning agreed, writing that ‘She Ain’t No Good’ was “the kind of track that would be popular at drunken groom parties, wedding receptions and English Lit ‘drinkies and thinkies’ nights where fans of Fitzgerald debate the resurgence of Jazz Age themes in popular music thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation.”
I bring The Corner comments up with Valentine. It must have been rough, I suggest, to have such a clear display of animosity and misunderstanding so early on in your career. “That [discussion] killed me,” he replies. “It totally killed me. I was trying to make good party music at that point…we just wanted to fucking party. Yes we were wearing suits, but at no point were we ever like ‘you’re not invited.’”
Admittedly, the songs from Sal Valentine’s early days were, he says, “all about partying, getting loose, and heartbreak, on a very basic level: ‘I’m heartbroken, this person has done me wrong, I’m going to do something about it’” just like “the A to B of blues songs in the ‘50s and ‘60s.” But The Corner reviewers went far beyond early rhythm & blues in their comparisons, namechecking musicians as varied as Al Jolson – a minstrel artist from the 1920s who performed in blackface – Norah Jones and Bing Crosby. “We’re not like any of those, it’s not even in the same genre,” Valentine shoots back. “The comparisons were like if you google ‘jazz’ and you took the first three results.”
But the image of Sal Valentine as a showman out to revive the glory of bygone eras caught hold. In the early days of the band, much of their crowd support came from swing dance groups and vintage crews. And while Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, and even the local singer Tami Neilson had proved that it was possible to make careers out of throwback aesthetics, Valentine wasn’t comfortable becoming an icon of all things retro. What troubled him most was the frequent accusation that he was inauthentic. How could a white New Zealander in the 21st Century genuinely play traditional rhythm and blues? Was it all for show or for a dubious motivate like commercial gain? “Some people have this idea that I’m this Bublé figure… some kind of razzmatazz-jazz singer…It put me off,” he reflects. “I’m not interested in living a vintage lifestyle. I don’t have a vintage car, I don’t date a pin-up girl.”
At the same time, their musical support came from very different places: they were often on the same bill as punk bands, playing alongside groups like Rackets and the Beach Pigs at venues like Snake Pit and Khuja Lounge. Valentine was surprised that those groups took an interest in them, but he reasoned that “if you ignored the way the music sounded, it was the same genre, same feeling. Coming straight out of jazz school we were way too ruckus for the jazz crowd. We never did jazz shows at the School of Music or the big auditorium. [Those punk bands] accepted us for what we were, at face value.”
But accusations of imitation and demands for greater “originality” continued to shadow the band. Even though music often allows far greater liberties for artists to play “under influence” than do other art forms, audiences are still eager to define what is “contemporary” and thus “authentic.” Valentine takes the view that an “original” idea is always an amalgamation. In his words, “it’s like that dessert, ambrosia, where you get cream and lollies and mix it up – it’s just your brain doing that: here’s a bunch of shit that you liked at one point or another, and I’m just going to conveniently rearrange it and put a bow on it and push it back across the table to you.”
A heavy dose of influence from a style not currently in vogue has never been a recipe for disaster. Nearly all of Bruno Mars’ top-played tracks on Spotify draw heavily from well-established ’80s styles, and the musical allusions of ‘Finesse’ to Michael Jackson or ‘Locked Out from Heaven’ to The Police do not dampen the songs’ popularity. Or, in the case of folk music (one of our top musical exports), artists can pay tribute to long-established traditions without trouble. Folk by definition been around since the days of troubadours roaming the countryside, and if musicians like Marlon Williams, Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding aren’t aiming to do revolutionise the genre, that does not detract from their consummate songwriting.
Part of Valentine’s challenge in growing a support base is actually that he is doing something unique within his context, something different to anyone else in New Zealand. If you are operating within a music scene and there’s support group of bands which have a similar sound to you, it means you can go on tour with them, and record labels and Spotify playlists will be able to categorise you. The listening public will be able to easily understand you. If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else, you get pulled into the scene’s orbit and support network. Sal Valentine’s band, as he puts it, “is in the middle of so many fucking Venn diagrams that we don’t fit in anywhere. I don’t think we could do a tour with Holly Smith; we’re not on the Yoko Zuna, Bailey Wiley, Eno x Dirty thing; we’re not in that community. We’re not street enough, we’re not indie enough, we’re not jazz enough.”
“Maybe the Good Morning show does have sex to the first Sal Valentine and the Babyshakes album,” Valentine tells me, “and I’m okay with that cause we met those guys and we played on that show twice and they’re nice people… Not every band can spend their career jacking each other off on student radio.”
Sal Valentine’s sophomore album This Party Blows is a significant step forward from his earlier music. It’s just as catchy, just as impossible not to dance to, but has a depth and complexity that makes you want to listen over and over again. Bringing in a wider range of influences than ever before, there’s as much Steely Dan as Marvin Gaye, as much D’Angelo as Earth Wind and Fire. The tracks themselves include the upbeat, optimistic ‘Cherry Blossom’ (“probably the least cynical piece of music I’ll ever write”), which competes in my imagination against Lorde’s ‘Green Light’ for Best Song for the Credits of a Feel-Good Movie 2017-2018. Then there’s ‘Manhattan’, which has all the intimacy and dreaminess of a Michael Jackson ballad, and the heart-grabbing ‘Maxine’. “Maxine,” Valentine sings, “I know you’re struggling to see the funny side of this world steeped in sin / this catcher in the rye must do the honourable thing.”
The lyrics are defiantly contemporary. Even in his earliest days, Sal Valentine’s use of language offered satirical commentary on New Zealand society: from the chorus line “I’m going to drink until I pass out” to the name of the original band, the “Babyshakes” – a reference to the “never, ever shake a baby” campaign. While a little more politically aloof, the new album doesn’t disappoint, with bangers such as ‘Nicki Minaj’ and a track which successfully rhymes “Will Smith” and “Christmas” – no mean feat.
The performance, is as always, polished. Valentine’s vocals soar and show a greater variation in timbre that on any previous album, with the ballad-like ‘Manhattan’ bringing out the softness and warmth of R&B. In short, if you follow Valentine’s music through his discography (2013, 2014, and 2016 albums), it’s a clear trajectory – but This Party Blows is the definitive peak. With more funk, more groove, and richer supporting instrumentation than before, the album brings a heavy dose of 80s jazz-pop-disco on top of the band’s earlier Ray Charles rhythm and blues style. It’s a beautiful coalescence: nuanced, complex, and sure to have everyone dancing by the first chorus.
In short, This Party Blows is the whole package: songwriting at its best, with accomplished and soulful performances. It’s easily a contender for the Silver Scrolls and the Taite Music Award. But, now, it’s up to everyone else to come to the party.
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