By Paul Ballard
Auckland seven-piece Tahuna Breaks are back and there are some wiki-rumours that we might be seeing more of an electronic side to this funk band. I caught up with drummer Tim Gemmell over a couple of cold ciders on a very balmy Newmarket evening. The intention was to investigate the rumours and find out what these guys have been up to over the past three years...
Here you are seven years in, two albums down and ready to drop your third, 'Shadow Light'. First, how does this album define the 'Tahuna' sound in 2013?
Our first two albums were very much about using those elements of funk, rock and dub, although we have always been about playing a diverse mix of stuff. Since then it has sort of progressed and as the years have passed we've had more people come on board and naturally the musical influences have shifted. Being seven people strong now has allowed us all to have more input and this album is a reflection of that process. We decided that this new project would be centred around what has worked with us in terms of our live performances, still retaining the funk element but also taking on board that higher energy electronic sound which the audience has really enjoyed.
There's also the benefit that this allows you to keep your gigs quite varied in style
Absolutely. We still do the downbeat stuff, which is very much part of who we are, but I think it's also about not being afraid to change a bit, have a go at something. I mean, we want to keep challenging ourselves and enjoy what we're doing and from the get-go it was all about the live element. The hardest thing is always trying to capture that live sound on an album, but this has allowed us to get the most enjoyment out of that aspect of what we do. When the audience responds, we just grow from that and from the higher energy stuff we had started doing, the response was so huge that it gave us the confidence to really focus more on that electronic dance angle.
...as well as learning some new tricks along the way?
For sure, we have very much adapted to a little bit more technology, not that we didn't know of it before, but now it's a case of "shit, look at what this machine can do!" and "wow, that does this?" So yeah, we have embraced that and we thought that if we are going to do this properly, then we need to get the proper support. We needed to get the right people on board and the right production team involved, and we were stoked to get Crazy P, who really helped bring Shadow Light to life.
'Shadow Light' is an interesting name; can you tell me more about it?
Johnny our saxophonist would be better at explaining, but it basically was something that our manager suggested after we had all seen the cover artwork. The design depicts a brain with two hemispheres, left and right, or yin and yang if you like. It seemed right to use a name that also fitted lyrically to the songs as they are all centred on love. There is the true rollercoaster journey of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl vs the world etc., so equally the good and the bad played out in those songs - the shadow and the light - and became a strong metaphor for things.
I thought you just explained it perfectly...
(laughs) I'm just the drummer mate, I just get to sit down the whole time.
You have already mentioned that the new album is more on the electronic tip, so what has been the kind of stuff that has influenced you guys of late?
Since our last album in 2009, I've been listening to whole heap of stuff. I was thrashing the Meters for ages and getting into everything from Jamiroquai right through to George Clinton. Some of the others have been cranking the hiphop but funnily enough collectively we have been really getting into some of the later Groove Armada stuff and even Faithless! I know it sounds weird but it is basically from the whole live aspect of what they do. We all stood side of stage when Groove Armada came over for the Big Day Out, and essentially they are a band producing some really amazing dance music. It was inspirational to watch them translate those tunes into a live stage performance. I mean, along with bands like Faithless, they were some of the first to answer that question of 'can a dance act be a band?', so they have been a bit of an influence for us, as well as Crazy P of course...
What was it like to work with Crazy P on this album?
We've always liked their stuff and thought it would be a good opportunity to help us make that move into a different style, so we emailed them, simple as that. Bit of a long shot really - but they were more than happy to help us co-produce it. We were lucky enough to have worked with them when they remixed We Funk The Party from our second album, and it was then we realised that these guys have an amazing ear for things. For us it was about the intricacies, the small things that they added which just blew us away. It made our songs more complex and gave them great depth, so for that part it was a huge learning curve for us.
So you enjoyed the process?
Man, we would send over the tracks to them, quite proud in the knowledge that we had done absolutely everything we could have done, taken the track as far as we could have taken it. Then the tunes came back and stuff has been shifted and moved ever so slightly, but with amazing effect. We ended up just sitting there thinking "wow, why didn't we think of that?" Even the silliest of things like moving a vocal track across say, half a bar, literally changed the whole dynamic of the tune, it was like turning everything into HD. Even recommendations on how we could actually play things in a different way, or get Marty to sing things slightly differently, was invaluable. Just the subtle addition of strings here and there, that was something we didn't even think of without feeling we needed to get a full quartet in or something (laughs), but just those extra layers were the icing on the cake for us.
Did you actually work with them here in NZ?
Unfortunately no, and I think that was the only real downside. The distance was definitely the toughest challenge. With them being based in the UK, the whole process took so much longer. We joked that we should have just bitten the bullet and flown them down here for heaven's sake (laughs) and in retrospect it definitely would have eased the process and we would have finished a lot sooner than we did. But it was still an incredible experience working with them.
By the sounds of it, you are relieved to finally have it completed?
Totally mate; we are so relieved to be at the point where we can finally share it with the world. It has been such a long process. We have pretty much been working on this for the last three years, so it has been a long time between drinks. It has been challenging, we won't lie it's been stressful at times. The pressure of getting new stuff out there was huge, and you have all these worries that the fans will think we had just deserted them. But we got our heads down, worked through it and the patience has definitely paid off. There was also the fact that we were embarking on a whole new direction musically, so it needed the time it needed. We weren't happy with simply putting ourselves out there with the new material until we were 100% happy with it, especially if we were to be happy about playing it live.
Time to celebrate all that hard work then?
Definitely, but it is only just beginning. Sure the album is finished and within the band we know how much time and effort it has taken - but the true work starts now really. It's now time to release the album and get people very much excited about seeing it played live, and once that starts to happen everything will fall into place for us. We really hope that the fans can embrace the new direction as much as we have enjoyed taking it.
Taking the time factor into consideration, this sounds like it would be the perfect summer album. Are you guys content that this is getting an Autumn release?
You know what; it actually takes the pressure off as it takes a while for people to dissolve new material, to take it in. Granted we have trickled out a couple of singles like Moves and Smooth over the last year, and we have just released Fearless in the run-up to the album launch; so there definitely has been stuff out there to keep heads nodding. We have a couple of festivals coming up in March and a nationwide tour across April and May, so we feel it will give us a good opportunity to really get this new stuff out there with the hope that come next summer we can continue to keep momentum.
So, finally what can fans expect from this new album?
Without the fear of waffling too much, it has more of a dance feel in terms of tempo but there are some darker elements on there which some may not have really heard from us before. There is still very much that over-riding funk disco element, but it definitely has more of a modern feel than some of our previous roots work. Pretty much all of the songs are love songs, so that's in terms of the lyrical component - but they are all more dancefloor-driven this time round, which we are hugely excited about. We hope that everyone out there will be as excited too, it has been a long journey and we can't wait to get our shake on again!