By Poppy Tohill
After relocating to London in 2008, Kiwi progressive rock band Agenthave quickly become regulars on the live music scene playing alongside numerous bands including fellow Kiwis, I Am Giant and Jayson Norris. Releasing their second studio album ‘Kingdom Of Fear' late last year, the album produced by I Am Giant's Paul Matthews, is continuing to create a buzz in the UK and Europe. Recently releasing an outstanding video for single, ‘Collecting Scars' which premiered on UK'sprog.teamrock.com, I caught up with the bands' frontman, James Donaldson via Skype for a chat about their upcoming return and shows in their home country of New Zealand.
Kicking off the interview Donaldson filled me in on the reasoning behind the band's relocation to London back in 2008. "Basically we formed in New Zealand and played a few NZ tours, after we'd released our first album (Expand/Contract)," he began. "I think we did Battle of the Bands and got into the NZ final," he added. "But basically we felt that we probably couldn't have gotten much further at home, with the style of music we were playing, without doing something drastic. So we decided to move to London. Here you've just got a lot more opportunities. Obviously you have Europe at your door step, but yeah, it was a tough decision and it has been a long process, because it's so competitive, but we're slowly seeing some fruits of our labour," he continued.
"Yeah I think so!" Donaldson enthusiastically replied, when asked if he thinks the move has had a big impact on the band and their sound. "Saying that though, New Zealand is a really good place to get inspiration from for music. It's slightly more free and your mind can wander a bit more. But I think, moving over to London probably brought us closer as a band and also forced us to really up our game, look at what we were doing and the music we were writing, and basically just taught us to cut out the bullshit," he laughed. "Bullshit is definitely one thing there is no room for here!" he added.
Relocating to London in 2008, it was another five years before our ears were graced with the presence of Agents rocky sound once more. Donaldson filled me in on what else they got up to during that time. "After the release of ‘Expand/Contract' in 2007, we toured the record for a few years back home, and then made the decision to move. For the first year we were over here we had a pretty unlucky time. We lost a drummer and then we got a new drummer and then lost him. Our bass player had two motorbike accidents, where he broke his neck in one of them, he's got really bad luck," Donaldson cheekily added, laughing. "So we then had about a three year gap before we started working on ‘Kingdom of Fear.' Then because we were doing that, obviously with the rest of our lives in the background, the album took about a year and a half to record," he explained. "It's pretty crazy really, but we finally released ‘Kingdom Of Fear' here last year and we've been getting a decent response in the UK and Europe, which has been cool! We don't want another big gap obviously, but we've already started working on tracks for album number three now, so there won't be such a large gap next time," he promised and assured me.
"There's been a few comparisons," Donaldson replied, when asked how he'd best describe Agent's sound. A guy was trying to be slightly rude one time, and described our sound as ‘Tool meets Bush'," he chuckled. "The guy wrote in his review, 'if you like your music with a mixture of muscular and melodic, this is Tool meets Bush," he laughed again. After joking about the intriguing combination of ‘muscular and melodic' for a while, Donaldson continued, "Yeah, I wondered where he got that from actually, but that's okay. He's quite a big online reviewer here, and he liked us, so I wasn't going to question what he said!" he laughed again. "Although I'd say our sound is more progressive, alternative rock with a bit of power but quite a lot of melody."
"It's always difficult because as soon as someone asks who you sound like, obviously if you start mentioning bands, they narrow it down and put you in a category. But the good thing about us is we can go either way really. We can go lighter and we can go heavier, we're not strictly heavy metal and we're not strictly rock. We sit somewhere in the middle between those two genres," he explained.
When asked if he believes ‘Kingdom Of Fear' is a very different album to ‘Expand/Contract,' an enthusiastic, "Yes!" followed by a laugh was the response I received. "Categorically yes," Donaldson repeated. "Obviously we had a few more years to grow as a band and songwriters for ‘Kingdom Of Fear.' ‘Expand/Contract' was very DIY," he admits. "We literally recorded that in a warehouse down south in New Zealand. I think we did the drums in like 2 days, so it's a very live album," he explained. "Back then there was a market I guess, but obviously everyone was doing it DIY and no one really wants to take a chance on a heavy band, so we had no choice but to go for it ourselves," he declared. "Meanwhile with 'Kingdom Of Fear' we got some international quality help with the mastering. Especially over at Stirling sound in New York and Paul from I Am Giant helped us with production. So we spent a lot more time on the actual songwriting for this album. The lyrics and all the recording took a lot longer, but it was definitely worth spending the time," he admits. "We'll probably use a similar approach to our next record and hopefully it'll be even bigger and better... production and sales wise too," he added chuckling.
Following on to chat more about the album, Donaldson went on to explain the story behind the name of the album, and talk a bit about whereit was recorded and what it was like working with Paul Matthews. "Yeah, I guess there is a story behind the name," Donaldson began, referring to their latest album ‘Kingdom Of Fear.' "We've had a lot of stuff going on, with our friends and family over the last few years. There have been a few sicknesses, deaths and all that kind of stuff, and basically we came to realise that people constantly worry about those aspects of life, and spend their lives living in this kingdom of fear. The whole meaning isn't really a five minute conversation," he admits, laughing, "but that's the gist of it. Basically we're all kind of existing in this state of slight fear that something is going to happen and quite often nothing does," he remarked. "There are some nice parts on the album too though, it's not all dull and dark," he assured me. "We're not really conspiracy theorists or anything. We just write from inspiration of life around us. Especially over in Europe there's all sorts of stuff going on with corruption, policies, the European union and all of the politics and games going on, which you're exposed to here, a bit more than back home I think. Mind you I was looking at all the mud slinging that was going on during the NZ election and it was almost just as bad," he sniggered.
"As for the songs on the album, they were all pretty much written before we went to the studio this time. With ‘Expand/Contract' we wrote a few in the studio which is not very cost effective," Donaldson exclaimed. "So once we had an album full of songs, we hooked up with Paul Matthews the bass player of I Am Giant, and recorded it at his London Studio. He helped with the production of the record, and also mixed it, then it was mastered by Tom Coin in New York, who has also worked with Karnivool, who are a big influence of ours, so that was awesome!" he continued.
"Not in our genre he's also worked with Michael Jackson, Adele and Beyonce, so he's obviously reasonably good at what he does," Donaldson chuckled. "Obviously it costs a bit more money to work with these people, where we did, but you just can't compare the results," he confessed. "We mastered ‘Expand/Contract,' ourselves, but now when I listen to it, it just makes me cringe. It still captures the moment of where we were at that time though, but it's slightly embarrassing," he laughed again. "As long as we see progression though, we're going to keep doing this. Taking a step up each time is just what you've got to do, I reckon!"
Remaining on the topic of songs, I asked Donaldson about the band's songwriting process. "It's actually changed a bit lately," he began. "Because now we've all got Logic and other programmes on our computers. We use Dropbox a lot too," he continued. "Basically, one of us will start a file and then everyone can log on and add their bits in where they want. Then when we get together, we rip it apart. So it's quite a collaborative process for us really," he exclaimed. "I still do all the final lyrics and vocal melodies, but that's mainly because the other guys haven't had as much experience as I have, at doing that. It's a very communal process, which is kind of good because then you really get the best of the best. We're all also very honest with each other, so if an idea's not working we just ditch it. That's what I mean when I say moving over here made us a bit more cut throat. If it's not going to work, we find a better idea, because there's no time to mess around with an idea that just isn't going to work in the end," he truthfully remarked.
"Ohhh man!" Donaldson sighed when asked if he has a favourite song on the record. "At the moment, just because we spent so much time on the video, I definitely think 'Collecting Scars' is my favourite to play live. But again, it changes regularly. 'Made Of Gold' is pretty fun too, but when we come back to NZ we're going to play 90% of Kingdom Of Fear, plus one or two new/old tracks. So yeah, it should be right- I'm really looking forward to it!" he gleefully chimed.
With the mention of their latest video for single, ‘Collecting Scars', Donaldson filled me in on the back story behind the song and video, and told me about the ongoing support the band have received from the Prog Rock Site team. "We filmed it in Waterloo, in the middle of London," Donaldson began. It was kind of cool and quite funny because Peter Andre had been in there the day before. I mean he's not exactly the pinnacle of cool, but yah know..." he chuckled.
"It was very cool that it premiered on the front page of the Prog Rock website too, we definitely were not expecting that at all!" he enthusiastically remarked. "Those guys have been really awesome to us. They picked us up in October last year and they must really like us because they've been very helpful ever since. I think we've been in the Prog mag about three times in the last year or so, and we've been on their CD too," he continued. "They also nominated us for an award at their special awards ceremony this year, which is next Friday in town. It's quite a prestigious one too so it's pretty exciting," he added. After getting majorly caught out by not knowing who Peter Gabriel is (He's a Prog Rock legend who was in a band called Genesis- in case you were also wondering). Anyway. "He won the Prog Rock God award this year, and the rest of the award recipients get announced next Friday," Donaldson went on to tell me. After passing on my good luck and vibes, he thanked me, concluding by mentioning, "It'd be really good, because I don't think a New Zealand band has ever won one before."
Still on the topic of ‘Collecting Scars,' Donaldson went on to explain the meaning behind the song. "Basically, we've had a few tragedies over the past few years, and it's a song where I guess the main message is talking about how we literally go through life collecting scars. Whether they're physical or emotional, you've just basically got to get on with it," he remarked. "It's like fuck it!" he laughed, "You've got no choice really, but to pick yourself up, move on and try to be happy, otherwise the only other option is to mope around. You only get one life you know." Joking about the term Yolo (You Only Live Once), "Exactly!" he erupted, laughing. "Maybe that's what I should have called the song. YOLO!" he joked, laughing once more.
With the earlier mention of influences, Donaldson filled me in on who else influenced the band when working on ‘Kingdom Of Fear.' "I'd definitely say, at the time Karnivool were big influences," he declared. "When I first started writing the songs I was still listening to Scars on Broadway, which is the guitarist from System Of A Down's new band. I was going through a heavier phase then," he admits, "but we all listen to very different styles. My tastes change depending on the time of the day," he confessed. "Some days I hate heavy music, other days I really like Drum n Bass, it's really strange."
Nearing the end of the interview we moved on to talk about touring and Donaldson also filled me in on what he misses the most about New Zealand since moving to London. "To be honest," he laughed, "this is going to sound really bad," he chuckled again, struggling to keep a straight face, "but one thing I really miss is pies! Getting a decent pie back home is easy, you can just walk into any dairy. But here they don't have pies in dairies and you have to be very selective," he stated seriously. "So yeah, the pies are definitely one thing I miss, but also just how easy it is back home. Everyone's slightly more friendly and laid back," he concluded.
Heading back to our shores this month, Donaldson went on to explain what the band are most looking forward to about returning homeand playing some shows here, (apart from the pies of course), which he made very clear, jokingly replying, "Seriously it's ridiculous. I literally get off the plane and go straight to the dairy to buy a pie, and I probably eat at least one pie a day when I'm there. Even after I've had dinner, I'll go to the shop and get a pie, it's really bad. but I'm not here often I guess, so why not? When in Rome, hey..." he joked again. "Okay on a more serious note anyway..." he continued, "We love playing back in NZ and we've always had decent crowds there, so we're really looking forward to coming back and reconnecting with the NZ audience, because it's been far too long since we've seen our old friends, played the venues we used to play and obviously we've got families there too, so we'll be with them on our downtime," he exclaimed. "But we're just really looking forward to it!!" he eventually erupted.
"Yeah, it's an energetic show so it's not going to be quiet," Donaldson enthusiastically responded when asked what fans can expect from their upcoming shows. "It's a proper stage show, so we've got some visuals going on too. We've basically just got it to the point now where hopefully people who know the album can come, sit back, watch the songs being played and enjoy the show and just let it happen!" he concluded.
When asked if Agents play many shows around the UK, Donaldson quickly responded, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we play here all the time!! We've just got a few weeks off at the moment because we're trying to actually make a conscious effort of starting this new record. But we did a small UK tour throughout April/May and then we've been playing a few one off shows around the place recently too. We've got about 2-3 shows left over here for this year, supporting a big band from Australia called Voyager. They're heading over here and are currently doing quite well so we're going to play with them which should be cool. In the first week of October we had a small UK tour also, so we definitely get around a bit," Donaldson went on to explain. "We don't really push those shows back home though, because people are just like- ‘So what? We can't come!'" he laughed.
Still chatting about touring, I asked Donaldson which country he'd love to tour someday. "I'd have to say America would be awesome," he quickly responded. "And just because I loved them so much when I was a kid, I would love to support Tool," he added, after being asked who his dream support slot would be for. "So supporting Tool on an America Tour would be career sorted!" he chuckled. "I mean, that's a while off because I don't think they're doing anything anytime soon... but you never know! A friend of mine is on tour in America right now on what started off as a one-month tour. Then they just began supporting bigger and bigger bands and basically he's not coming back home to the UK for another month, meaning he would have been gone for six months!" he excitedly exclaimed, "So you really never know what's going to happen. They're playing bigger and bigger venues too and it all just began very slowly, eventually turning into this big thing. Obviously his girlfriend isn't happy because he's not here," he laughed, "but he's living the dream!" Donaldson gleefully chimed.
"Yeah I think we'll always stay based in London," Donaldson replied when asked if he thinks the band will ever move over to America or another part of the world. "Well for now we'll stay here anyway, just because passports, visas and everything are way easier here, America is just so different," he concluded.
Having already played ‘Kingdom Of Fear' a million times over myself, I went on to ask Donaldson about the bands next musical project, also not so subtly slipping the question of whether we can expect another album from the group in the future, into the conversation. "Yeah! I mean ideally we'd like to get one out next year," he replied. "There will definitely be a single released next year anyway. Ideally the album too, but it's just you never know how long the writing process is going to take," he continued. "A lot of it is cash related," he added, before explaining, "We could have done more by now if it didn't cost so much, but if touring goes well and we can get a bit more money behind us, then who knows."
"I don't know how we do it, but we've found a number of ways lately to make everything work and be more cost effective for ourselves," he continued. "We've managed to make things on a smaller budget, but still produce them at an international standard which has been incredible. Basically we've got some friends who do things for a living and we just hassle them until they give us something for free," he laughed. "You've got to be resourceful" he joked, "Why not make use of what you have, right!?" he concluded, returning back to his humorous self.
Realising we had been talking for almost an hour, Donaldson, craving another coffee to keep himself awake (after waking incredibly early to talk to me) managed to answer one last question before his brain, running low on caffeine fuel, totally refused to co-operate.
Being the small country that New Zealand is, with the small but strong music scene we have, I've heard a lot of people recently say that "the rock scene in NZ is dead." Knowing that I Am Giant, another popular New Zealand rock band are also based in London now, I asked Donaldson if he thinks the rock scene in NZ really is dead, and apart from the obvious size and population differences, what he thinks the main differences between the NZ and UK music scenes are. "Hmm," Donaldson sighed. "Everything here is just more international," he declared. "Like if you meet a booking agent in a pub here, he's probably working for Kings Of Leon or Coldplay," he continued. "A guy I met in the studio, was actually good friends with the producer of the last Coldplay album," he added. "So it's just a lot more of an international scene. Obviously it's more competitive, but it encourages you to be a bit better and I think in New Zealand it's always the usual suspects. I love I Am Giant, but they've been big in NZ for quite a while now, which is great. But over here they're in a similar boat to us, you know."
"We basically started on level playing cards over here. But in saying that I'm friends with the guys in Devilskin as well and those guys have been really carving out in NZ, with a few #1's. Obviously the rock scene in NZ is a lot smaller, so it's a bit harder, because you've got to think of things in percentage," Donaldson went on.
"If one percent of the population buys your music, and you've only got 4 and a half million people, then that's just not enough! In London alone there is 9 million people in one town so if you make it big here, even then you're doing okay. Then you've got Europe right at your doorstep and the Germans, and Polish people love rock music. You've got to look at it that way," Donaldson repeated.
"People say okay what about Australia... but Australia is as far as London is from Marakeesh. It's quite ridiculous. Obviously you can still make a living out of music in New Zealand, but it's far more rare than over here. Obviously we still love NZ and it's always going to be home, but for us as a band to be able to make a living out of music, we have to be here and obviously ideally we'd love to be in America one day too, but small steps, one at a time, is how we go," Donaldson finally concluded, nicely drawing the interview to an end.