Things are pretty busy for the Fat Freddy’s Drop guys right now, with a new album and world tour to fit in between their familial duties. Trumpet player Scott ‘Chopper Reedz’ Towers is helping his young son in and out of the shower while juggling interview duties for Fat Freddy’s, which is “fairly typical” for the band these days, he says – they’ve been going for a while and they’re all a bit older now.
The revered seven-piece has been touring its brand of live Aotearoan soul all around the world for 14 years, and in two weeks they’ll depart for another string of 40 back-to-back dates in support of their new album, another slice of exceptional and inimitable soul music rooted in dub and reggae.
Blackbird is a concise nine tracks that flow as smoothly as one of their live shows, the rhythms driven by Fitchie’s basslines and the horn section, as Joe Dukie’s sublime vocals float over the top. The new record’s live feel was a conscious decision, Towers says, and a product of the band’s habit of refining songs on the road.
“We’ll spend a couple of weeks putting beats together on the keys and MPC, and then we take those bare bones out onto the road to play live,” Towers says. “Then we bring that into the studio and try to pull together a studio version.
“We really approached this album like a classic 1970s recording session, where everyone was in the room playing at the same time, using big chunks of performances. I’d say the main thing with this album is that the songs flow quite naturally, a lot like our live performances, we’re not trying to force a bridge in there or anything. Our overriding principle is that we have to let the music dictate where the songs go, instead of trying to force a particular genre or style onto each one.”
The band returned to their studio Bays just outside Wellington – which they built by hand in an old vinyl pressing plant – to record Blackbird over the course of nine months. Having their own studio allows the band to work at their own pace, Towers says, and to be more like a family.
“It’s really handy [recording at Bays], as most of the band live in Wellington, so they treat it like a nine to five – or, really, an 11 to 11 – job; come into the studio, do the day’s work and leave. It’s like a local drop-in centre, there’s always people coming by and things going on, even when there’s no ‘work’ being done. We eat a lot together – Dobie Blaze, our keyboard player, would have to be the best cook, he’s great at Asian inspired seafood; he makes this abalone wonton that’s beautiful.”
The latest tour will take them from Ireland right across Europe and then back to Australia, where they’ll premiere Blackbird live at Splendour in the Grass before a quick trip around the capital cities, a stopover to play Auckland and Wellington, and then it’s back to the Continent for another 17 dates in Western Europe. An enviable life – not that they get much time to take it all in.
“The itinerary comes through and you look at it and start thinking, oh great, we’ll have some time in Paris, or Berlin, or London,” Towers says, “but more often than not you’re arriving in the early morning, setting up and doing the gig and then getting on the bus and leaving. But when we do get the chance to get out and eat the food and see the sights and visit the music shops, we really make the most of it. You can’t complain, getting to travel to Europe all the time.”
Fat Freddy’s Drop are renowned for bringing the party with them everywhere they go – anyone who’s seen them live will have witnessed trombonist Hopepa’s famed onstage dancing antics. By the time they hit Australia in late July they’ll be a finely tuned touring machine – but Towers says, by that stage, the partying might be limited to the stage.
“We tour in two sleeper buses, about eight to ten people per bus, so we split into the party bus and the not-so-party bus,” Towers says. “The party bus tends to go hard for their first week, and then the non-party bus slowly winds up to being the party bus. We all have our moments, but we’ve all got kids now so we’re a bit calmer.”
BY NICK JARVIS