Interview: Chopper Reedz of Fat Freddy’s Drop

The formidable force of Fat Freddy’s Drop continues to spread around the globe five years after the release of their stunning debut, Based on a True Story. With another album down and several European tours under their belt, they released their first live album, Live at Roundhouse London in late September. We sit down with Fat Freddy’s saxophonist, Chopper Reedz aka Scott Towers, for a chat about the thinking behind doing a live album, their recent US tour and what the future holds for Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Every time I’m overseas, whenever people hear I’m from New Zealand, the first thing that comes out of their mouth, is their love for Fat Freddy’s Drop. How do you guys feel about the loyal following the group has garnered overseas?

It’s great to have something like that and most of it has actually come through either playing live or people being told about our live performances through their friends. So most of it is word of mouth and it’s a really great way to put your music out there because the way people buy and consume music nowadays is all quite a trasitory sort of thing, someones hot for a minute and not the next. If people aren’t seeing the band live they’re not kind of getting what we’re about so it’s important for us to cultivate that.

A lot of people come through to NZ as tourists, and are here over summer and check out a concert or a festival or people they meet have got a CD and they hear the band and take that away with them. I mean we’re meeting in a record store and a lot of people will come through that are traveling through NZ and say “recommend me ten local acts to listen to”, and luckily for us, we’re one of the ones that tend to go on that list. I mean, when we were in the States last year, which was our first proper tour there, we had people that had bought the CD or heard us on the internet or radio or had seen us live five years ago and had driven across the States to come to the live show because we’d finally turned up to do some live shows, so yeah it’s a really powerful medium for us that word of mouth.

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In many ways, I believe Fat Freddy’s Drop has shaped what people overseas would label “the New Zealand sound”, they hear Fat Freddy’s and associate it with NZ because there’s no other sound like it, it’s so unique…

A little bit maybe, possibly for reggae and dub based music I’d say and perhaps even a little bit of the electronica thing, but I mean, there’s heaps of really good NZ musicians that sound nothing like we do, The Datsuns, The D4, Die Die Die, The Mint Chicks, Liam Finn, all those bands have made big in-roads into the other scenes overseas. Yeah, so we feel we’re probably involved with part of the music scene but we’re not “it”.

Since first starting out, have you noticed a difference in how NZ music is being perceived overseas?

I think possibly they do that thing where they connect the dots and you maybe go and check out a Fat Freddys gig and someone will say “well hey if you like them, you should go check out The Black Seeds”. We had Riki Gooch on tour with us a couple of years ago when we recorded the Roundhouse gig, we had him playing percussion and drums with us, and so people were then going and finding out about Eru Dangerspiel, Trinity Roots and once people find out about Eru Dangerspiel, Parks is involved in that, they find out about Ladi6, it’s kind of a snowball effect.

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What was the thinking behind releasing a live album with Live at the Roundhouse?

We actually record every gig that we do, and we do that because we like to know what our performances are like. And often you go man, that really wasn’t happening and you go back and listen and there were actually some really good bits in there, or vice-versa when you get caught up in the excitement of the crowd or the gig and everything gets a bit rough as a result. So we’re constantly trying to improve what we do and to do that, you need to record it. So everything’s recorded at quite a high level, our front of house engineer has some pretty flash equipment that he records to. We listened back to that gig and it was a long tour that tour, and those were the last two gigs we did , those two nights in London before we came home and the band was humming, we were really in good shape, and we also had the energy of being in London and seeing a lot of our friends and also the excitement of the tour coming to an end, so the energy was great. The more we listened back to it, the more we felt it was a pretty good representation of what we do.

That was my next question…why was that particular recording significant for you to make the album from that?

Well it was a really nice sort of companion piece to the studio album Dr Boondigga because some of the material was there in its almost sort of finished state and all of the material we release comes from songs we’ve written and performed and then re-arranged and re-arranged again and re-written over live performances. All those songs that appeared on Dr Boondigga were songs we’d been performing live in Europe and we weren’t playing them live here cos we wanted them to be fresh in NZ. It’s kind of nice to see how that material was coming together in its live state before being committed to a studio version.

Having the benefit of seeing Fat Freddy’s Drop live many times, you really do come to realise that the essence of your music lies in the live shows where you guys will just jam for ten plus minutes on one track. Were you trying to capture this in this live album for an overseas audience that may not have experienced Fat Freddy’s Drop live?

Yea absolutely because when you talk to promoters and industry type people in America, they kind of get where we’re coming from but of course our real audience is the live audience, we want them to get where we’re coming from. People in NZ are used to that approach and they know that at times, it’s gonna take a while to get to the point of what we’re doing, but we’ll get there. That’s part of the fun, it’s challenging for us and it’s challenging for the audience. Last time we were in the States, we did three shows in San Francisco, and people came to two or three of those shows, and the penny was dropping you could see they were saying oh you played a different set than the night before, so I think you get enough people like that and they start being able to tell this is what it’s all about.

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Fat Freddy’s embarked on a mini US tour earlier this year? Are there any plans for a more extensive US tour?

We’re in the planning stages yeah, we’ve got nothing committed at the moment. At the moment we are focussing on more of the West Coast, simply from a logistical perspective, it’s much easier for us to get to and we feel like we’ve got a good sort of home base in California now , we did 3 shows in San Francisco, did a really nice show in LA, did a few festivals up and down there. KCRW which is a radio station that have supported us for a long time, they’re based out of Santa Monica, and we were lucky to do a live-to-air thing on the breakfast show on KCRW, which was an amazing opportunity, I think the listenership is about 10 million. So it makes sense for us to solidify that and make little darts out of that, we would love to do some festivals out there. Festivals are a great way for us to present what we do to a crowd that may not necessarily know absolutely everything about you. We played a great reggae festival and that was up in the country sort of, North California and that was a crowd that would’ve kind of heard one or two tracks on the radio or something but then we were able to do a full hour and a half show to a crowd that knew Gregory Isaacs songs but didn’t really know ours, so to be able to play to them was great, that’s the sort of thing we’re looking for.

What’s in the pipeline for FFD in the next 12 months?

We want to record some new songs, we’ve got some material that we’ve been playing in our sets overseas that’s coming together really nice and it’s a progression of some of those sounds that popped up on Boondigga, some of the new sort of versions of things. And we’ve got a whole bunch of material that’s just in it’s very formative stage that we need to concentrate on and develop into fully-fledged songs, so we want to do that in the next couple of months. We’re doing some shows over summer in Australia and around the beaches in NZ and then it’s about planning about how we get back to the States, how we get back to Europe.

Where do you see Fat Freddys Drop in 2015?

Well I’d like to think that we’re still performing, that would mean the band is 16 years old. That’s not impossible to have a band that’s been going that long. Stylistically, I feel like we’re kind of moving along, there’s definitely dub and reggae in there and that’s an inescapable part of our sound but we’re really starting to get some chops together, that soul and electronic sort of area and being able to pull that off live. We sort of feel like we’re developing a proper sort of show as opposed to having just a good bunch of songs, we’re working with really good sound technicians and engineers, lighting guys now and produciton in terms of the tours. I think it’s really about stepping up to that level of presenting a really impressive show, so yeah…I hope we’re still doing it.

Special thanks to Conch Records