Kate Robertson talks to Auckland hip-hop/electronic/jazz band Yoko-Zuna ahead of Seamless, an all-ages show in Auckland this weekend.
For Yoko-Zuna, 2018 looks set to be a tipping point. Consistently gaining momentum since their 2015 debut album This Place Here, the Auckland-based four-piece are finding themselves ready to break through the alternative sphere and well into the mainstream.
They’ve earned a reputation for their eclectic, hard-to-define brand of hip-hop, electronic and jazz influenced beats. No Yoko-Zuna set is the same, and every single they drop brings something fresh to the table.
Their latest single ‘Day Job’ (featuring SWIDT) is the kind of track that has you both fully immersed in it and wondering how on Earth they actually came up with such wizardry. With their forthcoming album – with features ranging from Jess B and Noah Slee to P Money and Ladi6 – due later this year, it’s time to set your hype alarm, because release day will be big.
I caught up with band members Frank Eliesa, Swap Gomez and JY Lee ahead of their set at this week’s all-ages event Seamless to chat big sets, big features, and their forthcoming sophomore album.
You’re playing SEAMLESS this Friday, an all-ages concert series. What do you make of the underage gig scene at the moment?
Frank Eliesa: I don’t think there are enough gigs. We’ve probably only played three underage gigs in our life cycle, but the crowds just go wild. Like, crazy crazy crazy. It’s really cool with younger crowds because they’re totally into it, but yeah, probably not enough.
JY Lee: We definitely need more underage gigs in Auckland. We need to be supporting that scene and encouraging younger kids to get into checking out gigs, listening to music or starting their own bands. That way we can get them involved in the community and they can help grow the scene. It’s pretty vital supporting that. And also alcohol-free gigs, that’s a big thing as well. It would be nice for no alcohol at gigs to be a norm. Alcohol and gigs are really seen as synonymous, it’s like if you’re going to a gig you’ve gotta drink, you’ve gotta get wasted. It’s cool having gigs where people can do that, but separating it would be nice so people can just check out the music.
When you’re getting ready to go on tour, do you spend a lot of time figuring out how to arrange your songs in a way that works for a live set?
FE: Usually about a week and a half.
Swap Gomez: We had Rhythm & Vines then Rhythm & Alps straight away so before that, we didn’t have any days off, except for Christmas. We rehearsed Boxing Day, the day after and the day after because we were creating a new set for those shows. That takes a bit of time. Luckily we had this cool gym that we practised in.
JL: Yeah, Swap’s flatmate and our artwork director, it was his boss’ uncle’s.
SG: It’s a free gym for the community, but no one was there. It’s a boxing gym so our rehearsal space is on the floor, then there’s a big giant ring that’s still got blood stains on it and stuff. It’s pretty gnarly.
Does performing your songs live lend itself to a bigger sound than what people hear when they listen to your music on Spotify or Soundcloud?
SG: Because we do a lot of collabs, it’s different when we don’t have the artists with us. What we end up having to do is take the song and remix it for live purposes. We do play the songs, but they sound different. They won’t sound like the recorded track. You’ll get a live version but it’s not only that, it’s a live remix of it. We’ve done that with heaps of our tracks because the artists can’t be there. Instead of just playing the track, we end up chopping and changing it. We have our own show, then we have a show with the artists, then we have a more mellow show, a dancier show, a hip-hop show.
JL: It’s basically just a catalogue of songs. We’ve got roughly 100 songs that we kind of just know.
The scope of your music in terms of the genres it pulls from is super far reaching. How does that affect how you approach songwriting and heading into the studio?
FE: We do literally anything we want.
JL: Sometimes we’ll just jam together and see what comes out, or we’ll have an idea and then build on it. Sometimes with certain artists, we’ll have something in mind and we’ll create something for them.
SG: We’re musically all very different to each other so I think that plays a part in it. We’re all influenced by different stuff, so I’ll like stuff that these guys don’t. We all come from different backgrounds. I think that’s what happened. It also depends on our moods.
Your album coming out later this year is stacked with features, including the likes of P Money. What’s it like working with local artists who I’m guessing you probably spent a long time looking up to?
SG: It’s really cool. We didn’t expect any of it to happen because we started out on ground level. We’d have a couple of friends on our songs and that’s it. I think what really helped is that the couple of friends we got on the first album ended up doing so well that we all kind of grew together. Once that growth came about we started getting opportunities that we’d never thought about, ever. Everyone got wind of it and we started making relationships with different artists. New Zealand is so small that you end up meeting all these people anyway. We met half of the artists before we approached them to do something. Plus we’re all musicians outside of Yoko-Zuna, so we’ve played on someone else’s record or whatever. It’s a community vibe which is really cool. P-Money is probably one of the guys that is really conditioned into New Zealand culture, whereas we feel like we’re just starting out, so to be working with him and Ladi6, it’s crazy.
You’ve got a single coming out in June, ‘Chunky Monkey’, could you tell me a little more about that track?
SG: This track is something we play in its entirety live, we don’t remix it at all. We just love the track, it’s really dancey. It’s got um, should I say what it is?
SG: We have a song with Raiza Biza and Bailey Wiley, and it’s the same track, the instrumental, but we sped it up and it sounds like a completely different track. No one will actually figure it out unless we tell them. I don’t know how much it was sped up by.
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JL: Yeah I have no idea. It just sounded good.
SG: The vocal samples on it are from a song on our last EP called ‘One Question’ with Laughton Kora. We took his vocal sample and put it on this song. There’s a lot of going on. It’s like two songs in one. It’s the Laughton song and the Raiza Biza/Bailey Wiley song, but it sounds totally different and no one will be able to tell it’s from those two songs.