Hussein Moses talks to Tomorrow People, a sunny reggae band from Wellington who took the top spot on the charts while taking shots at a local music critic.
Last week, Wellington band Tomorrow People knocked Ed Sheeran out of the top spot on the NZ top 40 albums chart with a record that takes a dig at local music critic Simon Sweetman. The cover art features what looks like a caricature of Sweetman while the name of the EP, “BBQ” Reggae, was inspired by an article he wrote back in 2012 titled ‘Six60: Killing music since 2006‘.
In the post, Sweetman labelled Six60 as “a new low in New Zealand music” and went on to savage the new wave of “BBQ Reggae” – a term originally used to describe the rootsy sound of bands like The Black Seeds and Fat Freddy’s Drop.
“It is music for people who don’t like music,” he said. “Music for people who know they have thumbs but don’t really know what that means unless it’s time to turn the pages of another issue of Rip It Up. It is music made by people without a single original idea; by people with nothing to say.”
New Zealand musicians and the people that write about them haven’t always seen eye to eye. Duncan Greive, the managing editor of this very website, can attest to that. I can, too. It’s also not the first time a local artist has taken aim at Sweetman for something he wrote. Rap producer P-Money refused to be interviewed by Sweetman for his first book On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics. Then in 2012, Autozamm – sick of being criticised for the $200,000 in funding they received from NZ On Air – “decided to make an example of him on behalf of every other fucking band in the country” by releasing a song called ‘The Review’. The track was accompanied by a since-vanished music video that mocked the controversial writer. (This review that ran on The Corner sums it up pretty well.)
They might not always get love from local critics, but Tomorrow People have still found success. Their debut album, ONE, went gold and they’ve clocked up millions of views on YouTube. At last year’s New Zealand Music Awards, the band were nominated for Best Roots Artist alongside Sons of Zion and Israel Starr. On the phone from Wellington, band member Tana Tupai explained the band’s thoughts about the so-called “BBQ Reggae” genre and why he thinks music critics in New Zealand are just missing the point.
I want to get right into it and ask you about the title of this new EP. Run me through how you landed on “BBQ” Reggae as the name for the record.
You’re probably already aware that there was an article released by a very infamous journo in regards to how he phrased that term in a negative way towards our genre. It was quite hilarious for us at the time because of how he was able to term that phrase as a negative one. At the end of the day, you can’t tell me there’s a single Kiwi that doesn’t like BBQs. We’re all pretty laid-back and easygoing, and the genre has an eclectic feel, which we believe the typical Kiwi is anyway. It was also highly offensive at the same time that he would see our genre and everyone involved like that. We wanted to take that and use it as a positive thing for us. By the way, it’s become the number one album on its debut.
That article, written by Simon Sweetman, came out over six years ago now. What was it specifically that stuck with you?
Just the negative terms he used describing the sound of particular bands which we look up to – the likes of The Black Seeds and Six60. The way he found a way to totally disregard the majority of Kiwis that feel that way as well. Like I said, it was offensive but also quite hilarious that someone like this could be that crazy to think like that about our genre.
There wasn’t any mention of Tomorrow People in that article and I wasn’t able to find anything online that Sweetman had written about you. How do you feel you fit into that BBQ reggae stereotype?
The fact is that the reggae that we do is very much influenced by those people we’re talking about. There’s a whole lot of us reggae artists that were quite offended by it at the time. You can’t just use a term and not expect us to feel impacted by it. We’re part of a genre that has the largest one-stage festival [One Love] in the country at the moment. These things don’t happen accidentally. It’s the result of us working really hard to make our genre a vibrant one.
You’ve described Tomorrow People as “sunshine reggae”. What does that term mean to you?
Some of our friends and our peers take the piss out of us because we call our music “sunshine reggae” but we’re from windy Wellington. I guess the phrase more or less reflects how we feel about the style of our reggae and the way we interpret our feel for the genre. It’s pretty much that feel-good, positive vibe. It’s a real mid-tempo, bass kind of sound and the key thing for us is that we enjoy not just only spreading positive messages through our music, but instilling the listener with a real positive, feel-good vibe about themselves through listening to our music.
It’s not just Simon Sweetman who has made these sort of remarks before. The critical response to music made by Six60, The Black Seeds and bands like yourselves has not been kind. Do you feel like music critics in New Zealand are just missing the point?
Absolutely. They totally miss the point. If they bother to look at the stats of what bands like ourselves and Katchafire – they’re the number one world touring band in the country and it’s from the genre of reggae. You can’t tell me that this is not a commercially viable audience that people to want to be a part of. Yet, in terms of the media – and not all media – they don’t seem to want to help us share our story. It’s not that our genre wants to be seen as another mainstream genre as such, but we would love to have that attention and awareness and support. At the end of the day, everything that reggae has done in this country, everyone has pretty much done on their own and independently. This has been a real organic sort of growth just from the people within it. There hasn’t been crazy help from outside. We’re proud of that, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be assisted in helping to raise the profile of our music.
Sweetman’s article basically said that this kind of New Zealand reggae, if you will, is derivative and made by people with nothing to actually say. Why do you think there has been this kind of adverse reaction in New Zealand to this music?
They’re just uneducated statements and opinions. We get it all the time. People just seem to connect weed smokers and stuff like that [to us]. It’s a simple-minded and narrow-minded attitude towards life. At the end of the day, Bob Marley was a huge inspiration to our genre. He didn’t just impact people from our genre. He’s in the Hall of Fame. It’s hilarious, but also offensive. It just goes to show how much people really know. It’s this little underground market in the sense that it doesn’t have this external support, but once you get a taste of it, you’re converted. I’m sure it’s not an official stat, but I follow the scene closely and no one puts on more shows up and down this country than reggae bands. It’s loved right across from the major cities to the smaller towns.
In general, how do you feel about music criticism in New Zealand at the moment? Is it something you’ve given much thought to?
At the end of the day, all of those reviews I personally see as just one person’s opinion. That’s how they feel about music. There’s a lot of music out there that’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but because I appreciate and understand the work and the amount of effort that goes behind it. [I have] a huge amount of respect for that artist or group that puts in a lot of sacrifice to even get it to that stage.
Not only is the record called “BBQ” Reggae, but the cover art is this caricature of Simon Sweetman too. Some would say that’s a bit of a cheap shot. Have you had any negative feedback about it?
Oh, does it look like Simon Sweetman to you?
It sure does.
It may be, it might not be. That’s another person’s opinion. It doesn’t say Simon Sweetman on his t-shirt or anything, does it? [Laughs]
You went to number one in the country a couple of weeks ago, which is no small feat for a local band. You did it kind of unconventionally, too, where you released the EP exclusively at One Love festival. What was your thinking behind that?
The reason we went about it was that the people that like our music are so loyal and they’re the kinds of fans that will come and watch us 20 times in a single year. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Thankfully, they still take pride in holding an actual physical CD in their hands. As much as we love our music, we don’t want to spend all the hours we have in the studio, and whatnot, and only have the music sitting on the hard drives of our computer. We wanted to make sure people could easily access the music that we worked really hard in putting together.
You knocked Ed Sheeran off the top spot. What were you doing when you found out you were number one?
Who’s Ed Sheeran? Nah, just kidding. I’m sure he wasn’t too bothered by that for one week. We were touring in Australia and we found out just as we were about to start our soundcheck for that show in Melbourne. We only spent a couple of minutes sound-checking and then we just enjoyed a few cold ones, if you know what I mean. The show that night was one of our favourite ones.
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‘Don’t Want To Fight It’, one of your new singles, was released in English, te reo Māori and Samoan. How come you decided to record so many different versions?
For us, it was something that was in the pipeline that we wanted to do for a long time. Even though we’ve gone down the lane of wanting to have our music be mainstream in the sense of keeping it in English, we also wanted to celebrate the culture that is represented in our group. So we thought, what’s a cool way of doing this? Funnily enough, people are actually loving the language versions just as much as they are the English one. So much so that on social media, people were calling for us to do a remix that had all three languages in one song. It’s not part of the EP, but we responded to what the fans are saying and got back into the studio and re-recorded the song. One verse in te reo Māori, one verse in Samoan and one in English.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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