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A rare quiet moment for L.A.B (photo: Gladys Smith; additional design: The Spinoff)
A rare quiet moment for L.A.B (photo: Gladys Smith; additional design: The Spinoff)

New Zealand MusicSeptember 30, 2020

For L.A.B, the air is clear

A rare quiet moment for L.A.B (photo: Gladys Smith; additional design: The Spinoff)
A rare quiet moment for L.A.B (photo: Gladys Smith; additional design: The Spinoff)

They’ve been on the album charts for two years, they’ve had a number one single, and now they’re one of our biggest live draws too. So what comes next for L.A.B?

Even in a year marked by disruption, L.A.B’s 2020 has been more eventful than most. Forced to postpone local shows and an Australian tour by the arrival of Covid-19 and both countries’ initial lockdowns, the band celebrated Aotearoa’s initial release from restrictions in the most triumphant style possible: by playing a sold-out show at Auckland’s Spark Arena.

After half a decade of steady graft, the show represented something of a watershed moment for the band – initially booked for the Powerstation, then relocated to the Auckland Town Hall after selling out in just minutes, they’d made the call to try for Spark after their upgraded venue again quickly reached presale capacity. “Originally we were going to push it back to October,” frontman Joel Shadbolt told me, “But then [the country moved to] level one, so we were like “Why don’t we try and do a Spark Arena show, and bring it back to July?

“It only gave us about three weeks to sell another four-and-a-half thousand tickets, so it was a bit of a risk, but the timing seemed to be right, and the people were keen to get out and watch a big gig. So it just worked out.”

Speaking via Zoom from his home in Tauranga just a few days after that night in July – “I’m still just coming down from the weekend,” he admitted, only the slightest hint of hoarseness detectable on his characteristically deeply relaxed voice – Shadbolt could’ve been forgiven for wanting to rest on his laurels for a minute. As it turns out, though, L.A.B aren’t the type of band to take their foot off the pedal.

Joel Shadbolt in full roar, Spark Arena, July 2020 (photo: Mark Russell)

Initially a side-project of brothers and dub-fusion legends Brad and Stu Kora (best known for the band that shares their surname), Shadbolt had first entered the L.A.B orbit after a chance viewing of an early-morning TV appearance in late 2015. “I met Brad through Facebook,” he recounted, “He’d seen me on Good Morning singing with the Batucada Sound Machine, and sent me a message asking if I’d be keen to record a song. From that moment, that was it.”

The band went through a number of iterations before eventually recruiting former Katchafire bassist Ara Adams-Tamatea and solidifying the core of the band in late 2016. They’d record the first of their three self-titled albums the following year, first cracking the New Zealand Top 40 albums chart in December 2017 and barely leaving since. 

But while the band’s dedicated touring schedule and tightly polished live show has seen them build a substantial following, it wasn’t until relatively very recently that the mainstream started paying attention. “I wouldn’t say we’re an underground band,” Shadbolt told me, “but with those first two albums we had a really grass-roots following. We’d go to Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, up to Whangarei; all these little spots around the country. The following’s just grown organically, and the only real spike has been this ‘In the Air’ thing.” 

About that thing: as strange as it may seem in a world where Six60 can effortlessly sell out bonafide stadiums, no local artist has topped the New Zealand Top 40 singles chart since actual international pop star Lorde reemerged with ‘Green Light’ in 2017. No local artist, that is, until L.A.B. 

‘In the Air’ is, in simple terms, a perfectly pitched summer song. A sea-scented, very-lightly reggae-tinged groover that feels as referential to the work of local predecessors like The Black Seeds and Breaks Co-Op as it does the Doobie Brothers’ deadset classic ‘What a Fool Believes’, it’s the rare song that feels as comfortable on the Mai FM morning show as it does on the More FM drive. And after debuting in the local top 10 in January, and eventually taking out the top spot in early March, it’s still up there – currently 39 weeks deep, and still sitting comfortably at #7.

Although it was undoubtedly the kind of thing they’d hoped to one day achieve, the success of the single came as something of a surprise. “We didn’t write it with the intent of writing a number-one hit,” Shadbolt explained, “We’d done that with a few songs on the second album, like, “This is a banger, it’s got the big chorus, it’s going to be the one.” But we’d always been wrong. So it caught us all off guard.”

It was in large part that breakthrough which made it possible for L.A.B to sell out Spark Arena, and to immediately afterwards announce the first show in a massive 2020 summer slate, headlining a huge bill at New Plymouth’s Bowl of Brooklands. It’s also had slightly weirder flow-on effects, like the emergence of first-album crowd favourite ‘Controller’ as another radio hit – now 11 weeks into its own chart run, a mere 2.5 years after its release. 

And while the reemergence of Covid-19 and the subsequent second round of lockdown measures in late July made things difficult for large parts of the live events industry, L.A.B’s 2020 run of good fortune has thankfully continued unabated. Currently in the studio working on their fourth album with longtime engineer Lee Prebble – this one, as with their previous three, timed for a pre-Christmas release – and having just last week announced another huge 2021 headline show on the upper fields of Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium, they’re well aware that their stock has never been higher. 

When The Spinoff called between vocal takes to get an update on how things were going, however, Shadbolt remained as confident as he was in July that the band’s sudden shift in profile wouldn’t change too much about the way that they operate. “This album is definitely up a level from anything we’ve done,” he acknowledged, “We’ve got strings, we’ve got horns, we’re playing a lot more funk stuff.” 

“[But] we’re down here in the same studio, with the same engineer, the same band … the pop world is a big machine, and we’re getting a taste of it, but we wanted to keep that realness in the songwriting. ” 

Once things outside of Aotearoa return to something resembling normalcy, it’s likely that L.A.B will look to spread their wings internationally – ”We’ve kind of just been pushing for Aussie, but there’s a lot of talk of the States or Europe,” Shadbolt said – but as for what happens next, they’re taking inspiration from a source somewhat closer to home.

“Having a Powerstation show turn into a Spark Arena show is a good gauge for where our band sits in the industry. We could do a Villa Maria, we could do a Western Springs. Six60 have set the bar, now we just want to push the limits and see how high we can go.”

This content, like L.A.B’s upcoming fourth album, was created with the support of NZ on Air.

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