Marlin’s Dreaming have a new single out ahead of their next, ‘least accessible’ album. Frontman Semisi Maiai sat down to talk about how a bunch of jocks from Dunedin became indie darlings.
Semisi Maiai embodies the duality of man. He’s a barista and a basketballer; he’s a jock and an indie musician; he’s from Dunedin and loves LA. Maiai’s scattered passions and pastimes can make him seem unanchored, but he’s not. He knows where he’s going, and what he wants.
His band, Marlin’s Dreaming, is almost three years old. Their 2017 debut album, Lizard Tears, has over five million streams on Spotify. A teenage Maiai wrote and recorded skeletons for the album in his bedroom, and then properly with a full band of hand-picked fellow grommits.
Maiai’s earlier band, Gromz, started out in much the same way. Within a year they were playing to 400-strong student crowds and packed-out pubs. When he describes his work, he plays down these achievements.
“I think it’s just the students in Dunedin,” he said of the crowds Marlin’s Dreaming pulls in. “I don’t reckon half the crowd is listening to the music. They’re just there.” When pushed, he acknowledged it’s not just drunk students who bought tickets throughout the band’s just-ended national tour. “We’ve been getting some really awesome crowds lately.”
It could be easy to explain away Marlin’s Dreaming’s success as riding the wave of the fabled “new Dunedin Sound,” but it’s becoming clear there’s no such thing. “There’s heaps of cool bands, but there’s not much of a cohesive sound across them,” said Maiai.
The Dunedin Sound of the ‘80s was an indie pop phenomenon built around the critically-acclaimed bands signed to the Flying Nun label, including The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, and The Clean. Nineties indie bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices would later cite the city’s musical scene as an important influence.
In recent years, plenty of other, younger bands have come out of Dunedin, like Six60, Opposite Sex, Soaked Oats, Julian Temple Band and Kane Strang. There’s little to link these musicians together, except to say that people like them.
“I can understand where [“the new Dunedin sound”] is coming from, because it was a popular term to use for people who came out of Dunedin, and there wasn’t a term like that for anywhere else in New Zealand,” said Maiai. “There’s a bunch of bands that sound similar in Auckland, but there’s no term for it.”
Of all these new bands, the jangle pop “sound” of 1980s Dunedin is probably echoed most clearly in Marlin’s Dreaming. They’ve been described as indie, psychedelic, and post-punk. They’ve even played with The Chills themselves, in Starters Bar (formerly the legendary Oriental), no less!
Maybe it’s because they hark back to the glory days of ’80s jingle-jangle and catchy choruses that Marlin’s Dreaming are so successful. Very few local indie artists will call themselves “pop”, but Maiai’s happy to do so.
“It’s pop music, for sure. I think pop is just something that’s really catchy. When people think pop they immediately think Britney Spears or something, but I just think it’s whatever gets stuck in my head.”
The band’s new single, ‘Sink or Swim,’ launches with the band’s trademark pop-guitar sound, but Maiai knocks his voice down a little to make the chorus more sonorous and introspective. “This album is perhaps the least accessible music we have released, from first listen,” said Maiai. “But with a bit of time, perhaps some of the hooks are the catchiest we have ever made.”
In the music video, two ruffled jesters push Maiai around lush green forests and fields. “Martin [Sagadin, the director] wanted it to be quite slapstick. The rough idea was to have me being clown bombed by these malicious jokers.”
The song’s theme is the risks of apathy. In the video, Maiai dresses in an ugly suit and is pulled in different directions. It’s a feeling Maiai knows well. Despite making music since his teens, for a long time he wasn’t sold on it as a career. “I grew up playing sports. I loved music, but I never really thought of it as something I would do seriously. I’m a jock, and [Marlin’s Dreaming] is the kind of music you’d never associate with sport.”
He might be sporty, but he definitely has a more natural affinity for music: “I wouldn’t be in the Breakers if I’d kept it up, but I’d be playing some very lit social league.”
Marlin’s Dreaming just played the Shipwrecked festival at the end of a 25-show national tour, and is set to tour Australia – then, hopefully, Europe – later in the year. They’ve moved past the social league, though that could be because music is a more forgiving pastime than basketball. “Sport’s a cruel world. If you’re not the best, you’re the worst.” Does this mean he’s not the best at music – just mediocre?
“I settle for being mediocre at heaps of stuff, including music. I can hardly even play the guitar. I know a few chords.” He’s joking, but in case anyone takes him at his word: the successive successes of Gromz and Marlin’s Dreaming say this really young man is really talented.
Maiai lived and wrote in Auckland last year, and the band’s lead guitarist, Leith Towers (Charlie Freak, Ohney) is Auckland-based. Marlin’s Dreaming’s dream team – Maiai, Towers, Oscar Johns, and Hamish Morgan – now spans across New Zealand. They’ve played with Kirin J Callinan, The Chills, and Ocean Alley. They’ve sold out shows in Australia, and the rest of the world is at their fingertips. This Dunedin band is moving out.
That said, they aren’t ruling out pulling a Six60 and returning to play at the old flat.
This story, and ‘Sink or Swim’, were created with the support of NZ on Air.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.