Four minutes of studio magic turned a Kiwi reggae band into chart-topping giants. L.A.B tells Chris Schulz how it happened.
It was shaping as a day of music-making like all the others. Holed up in Wellington’s Surgery Studios, the five members of L.A.B had spent so much time together that days and nights blurred into one. But the group’s legendary jam sessions were bearing fruit, and their third album, III, was starting to take shape.
That’s the way L.A.B have made all of their five albums. They refuse to pre-write material, preferring instead to show up, pick up their instruments, and see if they can create on-the-spot magic. “It’s a band, in a room, playing together,” says the group’s guitarist and singer, Joel Shadbolt.
It is, says Shadbolt, the musical equivalent of “capturing a photo”. Once a song feels like it’s ready, they hit record, and that’s the version of the song that makes it onto the album.
In mid-2019, a little magic happened during those sessions for III. Founder and front man Brad Kora came up with a new riff. The rest of the band dropped the song they were working on and instantly joined in, not unlike the moment Paul McCartney created The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ in a moment of inspiration.
“We just started jamming some chords,” says keyboardist Miharo Gregory. “We came up with the structure really fast.” The song felt different to their others, with an easy melody and breezy vibe. Shadbolt added lyrics, compiling three verses and a bridge. At the end of the day, it was done.
“We got it as we came up with it,” Gregory says. “It was just a mean song.”
With no chorus, L.A.B’s new song didn’t play by conventional songwriting rules. But they couldn’t find room for one, so they left it as is. It felt complete, but big things weren’t expected. “It isn’t No. 1 material,” says Shadbolt. “That’s what’s so weird about it. It doesn’t have the right concoction. (There’s no) banging chorus.”
Yet the band couldn’t let it go. During rehearsals for their upcoming summer tour, L.A.B – including Brad’s brother Stuart, Ara Adams-Tamatea on bass, as well as Shadbolt and Gregory – kept practising it. “We just kept playing it over and over and over,” says Shadbolt. “We were like, ‘Fuck, there’s something about this.’ It felt good to play.”
That song, called ‘In The Air,’ was released in November, 2019, as the second single from III. It came with a summery video that featured Shadbolt and Gregory cruising along a beach in a faded pick-up truck while the performer Anna Robinson danced.
It debuted at a live show three days before Christmas 2019, during a concert at Havelock North’s Black Barn Vineyards. Robinson joined them to dance on stage.
The group loved the song, and fans seemed to as well. But it was a slow burner. At the beginning of 2020, ‘In The Air’ started gaining traction. “It got bigger and bigger as the summer went on,” says Shadbolt. Radio stations started playing it, crossing over audiences between The Edge, ZM and Hauraki. It started topping streaming charts, and hit No. 1 on Shazam.
In March of 2020, the country went into lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. The song’s rise should have stopped there, dead in its tracks. Instead, it exploded. “It went next level,” says Shadbolt. “It was the song of lockdown.” ‘In The Air’ soon hit No. 1, and began breaking streaming records.
Gregory heard it play while walking through The Warehouse. “It felt pretty cool,” he says. Shadbolt remembers it soundtracking a TV news weather report. He thought: “I’ve made it. Now I just need to meet Jim Hickey.”
But that was just the start. ‘In The Air’ has continued its stratospheric rise ever since, spending 2020 becoming an inescapable earworm juggernaut, the kind of effortless anthem that will be added to the New Zealand music history books alongside Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Slice of Heaven’ and Crowded House’s ‘Weather With You’.
It total, ‘In the Air’ spent three weeks at No. 1. Right now, it has spent 100 weeks in the NZ singles charts, and, at the time of writing, remains at No. 4. It was the most played song across all New Zealand radio in 2020. That success has spurred more chart glory: L.A.B’s new single, ‘Mr Reggae,’ is currently at No. 3. Their album, V, sits at No. 2, behind Adele. They have three albums in the top 20. At December’s Aotearoa Music Awards, they took home four awards, including Best Group and Album of the Year.
All of that can be traced back to ‘In The Air’s’ strange, all-conquering run. It continues to this day: while researching this story, I heard it play at a public swimming pool, in a cafe, in the foyer of my local library, and blasting from a car’s window in my home suburb.
Ask the band why that song, at that moment, was anointed, and they shrug their shoulders. They don’t know. That’s the mystery of music-making. Gregory suggests the lack of a chorus gives the track a vagueness that may have helped. “People are just thinking whatever they’re think about. They can connect with it and put their own memory into it.”
Shadbolt says the “Steely Dan in the ’70s vibe” takes listeners to another place. “It’s the feeling it gives people: nostalgia, for a … certain sound of music. It takes people back to a place or a feeling.”
Where’s it’s taken L.A.B is onto another level. The success of that song has pushed them onto far bigger stages than they ever anticipated. Before that first lockdown, L.A.B were booked to perform at the Powerstation. Thanks to ‘In The Air,’ it was quickly upgraded to a Spark Arena show. It became the country’s first major post-lockdown concert, attended by more than 6000 people.
“It was … absolute chaos, a day I’ll never forget.” remembers Shadbolt. “I saw Stevie Wonder play on that stage.”
Still, there are worries. The band’s rise has happened so fast there are concerns one slip could take all that success away. What could happen? “Drugs, alcohol, ego, money,” says Shadbolt. “I could think tomorrow, ‘I’m better than these boys, I don’t need L.A.B, I’ll go and do my own thing.’ I’ll quickly realise I’m fucked with out them. You’re not going to go out and create another L.A.B.”
It seems unlikely any of that will happen. Sitting at a Grey Lynn cafe, as Shadbolt and Gregory sip on juice and coffee, the only sign of their status is a cameraman capturing content for the group’s Instagram page. They’re the same people they are on stage as off, and that’s important to them. “I don’t believe in the whole alter-ego shit,” says Shadbolt. “What you see is what you get. I couldn’t live my life like that.”
Across their current tour, 70,000 fans will see L.A.B perform. Tonight, they’ll play for thousands at Christchurch’s Hagley Park, and next Saturday, they’ll appear in front of many more at Auckland’s Western Springs Stadium, the biggest show they’ve played. They’re on the main stage this time, not the outerfield like last summer’s show. Sir Dave Dobbyn will open for them. They’re approaching the level of Six60, New Zealand’s most successful band.
Yet, all of this still hasn’t sunk in. Sometimes, when Shadbolt steps on stage and looks out at all those people, he thinks: “They’re all here for L.A.B? Holy Shit! What the fuck?” He also thinks: “How did that happen?” But he knows the answer. It’s the slow summery jam they’ll play in the encore, the one they made in just a day, the song that sends fans into “a trance”.
“People get into their own world,” he says. “That bass line takes them to another place.”
L.A.B perform at Christchurch’s Hagley Park tonight, and Auckland’s Western Springs next Saturday. For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.