INTERVIEW: Barnaby Weir (THE BLACK SEEDS)
For a band edging ever closer to their two decade milestone, New Zealand's reggae-soul legends The Black Seeds have never put a funk-laden foot wrong, bewitching audiences all over the world with their heady grooves and upbeat vibes. Starting life in the late '90s, the group has weathered all the challenges you'd expect to find over nearly twenty years in existence, including line-up changes and the rise of the digital music generation. But in true Black Seeds style, they've constantly stayed true to their South Pacific roots while embracing their natural eclectic nature; evolving without fraying, maturing without fading, and always ALWAYS having a good time.
Currently comprising eight insanely talented members, the group has in the past played home to some serious Kiwi creative powerhouses (including Bret "Present" McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame among others). And with each new outing over the years the band has managed to transcend beyond being a typical "reggae" band - this is a full-blown party machine hell-bent on spreading their swooning grooves, while exploring the fringes of everything from afrobeat to '80s RnB.
After gracing soundtracks for TV shows and movies, multiple sold out international tours, and being dubbed "the best reggae band on the planet right now" by Rolling Stone Germany, The Black Seeds gents would be forgiven for playing it safe these days - but safe isn't in the dictionary for this boundary-crossing lot, perhaps best proven by their latest release 'Fabric' that unleashed in September this year. Already drawing critical acclaim around the globe for its lush and innovative tones, 'Fabric' showcases a band still at the top of their game, and lucky for us Aussies they're taking this show on the road kicking off a whirlwind tour in honour of the album next week. But before the grooves hit town, frontman Barnaby Weir took a few minutes to share some incredible tales behind this legendary group - good vibes ahead!
TIANA: Hi Barnaby, thanks so much for chatting to me today! So The Black Seeds obviously have been kicking around for a while, officially since the late '90s, and you yourself obviously since day one. But how different are your audiences nowadays compared to say the late '90s and early 2000s? Is there a significant difference?
BARNABY: Well, good question. I think there is a difference, obviously we're a bit older...so when I was in my early 20s I started the band, and I guess our fans were mainly in their early 20s as well. And now it's 20...well 19 years later and the fans are a bit older, we're a bit older, but we still have quite a young fan-base as well which is cool. And often they're either the children of the initial fans or just young people that like what the Seeds are about. It's not just an older crowd, it's quite diverse, but we're lucky that we can appeal to younger people and older people as well. But I guess in say the 90s, what everyone was wearing and what pop music was then...it was a different time. It was a different time, and music's evolved a lot since then in terms of what people listen to, and how we listen to music obviously has changed heaps. So I guess the difference is that our audience can now be in Brazil, or Mexico without us having played in Mexico and we actually have heaps of fans there. Technology has just boosted our listenership around the world and that's really a positive thing for us.
TIANA: Back in those really early days the Seeds debut album 'Keep On Pushing' was released on a very minimal budget but went platinum in New Zealand, and there were massive follow ups with 'On the Sun', and then 'Into The Dojo' especially kicked you into the international world. It all looked very seamless, this quick trajectory...were you guys just doing your own thing back in the day or were you consciously trying to tap into what would get airplay?
BARNABY: We were just doing our own thing, especially with the first album, but we never expected the band to still be around now, and we never think about making our albums to be really poppy or really popular on radio because we've never really been that band. However, with the second album the song 'So True' that just seemed to strike a chord with people in New Zealand and that got us onto some commercial airplay and therefore opened us up to a slightly bigger demographic, a bigger audience and that was great for us just to be able to survive. But we've done a lot more musically since those times and I think the new album shows that, it represents a longer career, a bit of experimentation and show that we're not afraid to play around with new sounds. I think we've really matured as a band, we've got our own sound, we don't really sound like any other band which is really cool, and I'm really proud of that, and proud of the history of it, to still be making music and still be current.
TIANA: And to even get to a sixth album these days is a mammoth feat for any band no matter how long you've been around. Now you're on guitar and vocals duties for the Black Seeds, but I believe you learned to play the piano as a kid...what kind of stuff were you into when you were younger, did you grow up listening to this sort of music?
BARNABY: One of my best friends discovered we had mutual interests in music and weed and that sort of thing and we were interested in bands and that kind of flowed on from there, and we next discovered reggae music and Jamaican stuff like Bob Marley and from there it just went deeper into the producers like Lee Perry and King Tubby and The Congos and things like that...and my group of friends as teens we were listening to that kind of music as well as the British stuff like Massive Attack and Dub Syndicate. So we listened to a lot of styles, and then the band initially started with a group of radio DJs that were into that kind of music, and we thought "hey it'd be cool to have a party band that played this kind of stuff". And we loved it, we started playing some clubby dub music in the club, played some real shitty bars and shitty gigs and that's how we started The Black Seeds, we started charging $5 for gigs and people started to come along.
TIANA: And here you are nearly 20 years later!
BARNABY: I know, it's strange saying that but actually it's been a total joy and a pleasure. Yeah, there's challenging times being in a band that long, but the passion and the heart and soul's in the right place...we haven't stopped because we've got more to express musically and so the band has evolved and we're still leaning into it.
TIANA: In terms of actual songwriting, the music itself always seems to have a kind of personal expression, whether the lyric content is upbeat or a bit more on the melancholy side. How do you manage to achieve that sense with 8 people in a band? I know you share a majority of the writing with Daniel Weetman...but how does that mammoth collaboration work?
BARNABY: So Daniel and I as vocalists obviously generally take care of the lyrics side of things, and the band are in charge of the rhythms, but we can jump on the rhythms as well. And in terms of sharing the songs, the band totally ebbs and creates cool riffs, ideas and beats and often they're just recording and then the lyrics come after. And then sometimes we write individually, so I'll write at home by myself and I generally come up with a groove before the lyrics rather than lyrical content first...for me it's usually music first then lyrics. But I guess in terms of personal expression I think it comes down to the lyric writer and what they are feeling, I guess Daniel and I have always had that slightly emotional, personal, inward-looking view to what makes us tick, matters of the heart and feeling human - and just expressing some of those key subjects which we all relate to...depression, love, friendship and the drive to be better people, and making mistakes, having success...but usually the melancholic things are a bit more challenging, and I think people appreciate when you wear your heart on your sleeve and it's sincere. It might be a bit corny for some people when not played at the right time but I think people enjoy that in terms of content.
TIANA: Having something genuine to connect to is quite rare these days, especially so with music.
BARNABY: We don't want it to become too much talking about ourselves and that, but actually it becomes about people, and we're often actually talking about sharing what's common with us all. And not everybody gets to record and express themselves in that way so this gives people who don't necessarily play music a chance to hear what they're thinking and feeling as well, and express it that way.
TIANA: And we're very lucky over here because we get to see you back in action in Australia in November in honour of your new album, your SIXTH one: 'Fabric'. And there is so much to love on that album, it's such a groove-fest. How does it feel now that it's finally out in the world?
BARNABY: Yeah! Oh, so good. It was quite a long gestation period for this album and, you know, good things do take time and we're proud of it, and now we've learnt it, so we're feeling more confident about playing the album live. And it's quite a breath of fresh air for us, it's really cool to have some new fresh material for us to play and to share with people, and some new sounds. And technically some slightly trickier ways of performing with different samples and triggers and things like that we haven't really used before. But we've also looked back into our older material and learned how to play that again, and we listened to how our fans remember how they go so that we are actually doing all the songs justice as well, and playing them as they should be played, as opposed to vaguely making it up what we used to remember. We looked at back and re-learnt all the main songs we love to play and actually discovered that we were playing them a little bit long or a little bit slow or missing that riff..so we really feel like we've got something new, but we've got the old stuff there too.
TIANA: So your previous album 'Dust and Dirt' was self-recorded and produced, was it the same for 'Fabric' this time round?
BARNABY: Yeah, so Mike Fab (previous Black Seeds guitarist Mike Fabulous) produced that album with us, he played guitar in the band for many years. And the band has basically self-produced this one - having said that, there's Lee Prebble who we've worked with on almost every album. And he didn't take front producer role, but he was there and he was giving us advice, we were like "is that cool, do you like that, should we do it this way" that kind of thing, and he'll be really straight up and tell us yes or no. And being one of the songwriters, you have a big vision for what you're doing and you have to allow and invite the rest of the band to add their bits, you know? But at the same time you have to respect that you've got to keep the vision, keep the songwriting in the first place and then go from there. So everyone had a bit of a go at the helm and at the steering wheel, and that's cool, that's why there's a bit of variety there stylistically and I think that it shows off the character of what the band is - it's not just me writing, it's not just Dan writing, it's all of us and we shared the writing and the production. It gets quite intense, but we were in a good space.
TIANA: And now that it's been out for a little while....do you have a favourite song from 'Fabric'?
BARNABY: I think that changes every day or two, my favourite one at this point is probably the first track 'Better Days' and the last track 'Lost In The Bush'...'Lost In The Bush', being down the end of the album doesn't get as many plays, but I think it's a real goodie, a tight track.
TIANA: Your Oz tour is going to kick off in Queensland and wrap up in Western Australia...what are you most looking forward to about coming back here?
BARNABY: We love it there. Firstly, the people and great and friendly and we have quite a few fans there...less driving and travelling because the gigs are a lot closer to each other. And some days off mid-week that we get, I'm looking forward to just cruising around. Melbourne's a great city, but I love the Sunshine Coast, love Brisbane...we'll just go for a little stroll and investigate and discover and find some new places to be.
TIANA: And the interview wouldn't be complete without me asking you: what's a band or artist you love listening to that your fans might not suspect?
BARNABY: Well recently Tom Petty died, and like the story behind The Traveling Wilburys....so that's kind of dirty rock stuff that people might not suspect. I'm really into Chic, the early work of Chic and Nile Rodgers, I really like their production and some of those grooves, a track called 'Funny Bone' is a really cool track. Bohannon...more underground version of early disco, but not completely disco, kinda more funky, raw disco, so Bohannon's another artist that I really like. But I'm also a fan of "singer-songwriters", so I like Bruce Springsteen...I don't like all his lyrics, but I really liked 'Nebraska' as an album and 'Born in the U.S.A', and seeing him live is just...at 67 or something like that, he's just amazing. I don't pretend to be really up to date on new releases and that...but King Gizzard, the Australian band? That 'Rattlesnake' track, it's an awesome tune.
TIANA: Oh King Gizz! They're maniacs, they've already released three albums this year.
BARNABY: (pause) Wow. Prolific!! Actually I'll be listening to that 'Rattlesnake' when I'm Australia on the road, it's just a really cool upbeat rock track. I love it.
TIANA: Well Barnaby, thank you so, so much for your time, and can't wait to see you kick it with The Black Seeds starting next week!
BARNABY: Thank you very much for the interview, have a good night!
The Black Seeds brand new album 'Fabric' is out now. For album and Aus tour tickets info head to: www.theblackseeds.com
BY TIANA SPETER