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Interview: Katchafire

Interview: Katchafire

Interview: Katchafire

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"We’ll give you the shirt off our back, but if you cross us you’re out"

Sampler

Katchafire are relative veterans in New Zealand/Aotearoa’s thriving reggae scene. Formed in 1997 in Hamilton on the North Island they have travelled quite literally from playing Bob Marley covers in local clubs to becoming a platinum selling internationally touring juggernaut of blissful yet heavily rooted vibes. They’ve recorded four albums and made some tactical changes to a line-up that has crystallised around manager Grenville Bell, his sons Logan and Jordan, and their friends.

Katchafire

This year they released a compilation 'The Best So Far', distributed by VP records, to introduce their works to a wider audience beyond their strongholds in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Hawaii and California. It charts the progress of their sound - influenced harmonically by their own Maori culture and English groups such as Aswad and Steel Pulse - from fairly light-hearted herb-love metaphors, to weightier issues of police discrimination, to the inevitable experiments with soul and funk.

As Katchafire were prepaing to embark on a UK and European summer tour that took in the world famous Glastonbury festival, Angus Taylor spoke to lead singer and guitarist Logan Bell about the group’s trailblazing journey. London to NZ interview link ups are often a delicate balance between someone who’s raring to go in the morning and someone who’s had a hard day and wants to go to bed. This time poor Logan was the tired one but answered some of the heavier questions with good grace!

First question. The boring one for all non-Jamaicans. How did you get into reggae?

I guess really I was brought up in reggae. I used to listen to a lot of Steel Pulse and Marley growing up, even when I was younger than that. A lot of the older kids around our hood, around our street, would be playing reggae and a lot of indigenous Maori. We lived right in the middle of the ghetto and that’s when I first had contact with it until I got to the age of about 15 or 16 where I started wanting to play it.

I just used to listen to the old records and really gravitate to that stuff. And I still do. It was cool. I guess the lyrics… New Zealand’s pretty Marley-centric, so I guess Katchafire is too. I really dug what they were doing back then in the late 60s and the 70s.

One of the things that really comes across in listening to your music is the harmonies. Which harmony groups inspired you?

I guess first and foremost the Wailers, especially when it was all male harmonies, definitely Third World, Aswad, Steel Pulse, UB40, the list goes on. Maori people in general, we love to sing, to harmonise with each other. Early Katchafire days when we were playing a lot of covers, we just used to go through the songs with a guitar and do four part harmonies all day. And you know? We were good! (laughs)

We’re not Rasta, but we believe that you have a mutual respect for every living thing, we’re kind of “just be good” blokes

In what other ways does Maori culture inform your sound?

It’s at the lighter end of the spectrum. I think Maori culture here is very strong and very much alive, so we have a lot of the very traditional music, our cultural songs and music growing up. So where we see it mostly with us is off the stage, how we are with each other and family and the band very much is family. The most it comes through in the music is the harmonies and the lyrical content too, I guess.

One from our first record is “I don’t have many enemies but if you test me I’ll retaliate”, that’s one reference but also much more recent, if you look into the song Lead Us off the new album On The Road Again, that’s got some pretty strong cultural opinion.

What would you say your spiritual philosophies are?

Wow! Spiritual… well, you know, we’re not Rasta, but we believe that you have a mutual respect for every living thing, we’re kind of “just be good” blokes, you know? (laughs) It’s common sense with us; we treat people how we’d like to be treated and I think spiritually our culture binds us, and as I said before, family is a very huge and important central aspect of who we are. Spiritual… that’s some deepness right there!

The nucleus of the group is family and now you have families of your own to support, right?

Not so much when we were starting out, we were quite young, but we all have kids now. My father was actually the founder of the band and continues to play in the band as the lead guitarist, and my younger brother’s the drummer; so it’s definitely a family affair. The other brothers have kind of gravitated in over the years.

It’s definitely a strength. In up or down situations and life experiences I’ve had, I’d rather share them with family than not, you know?

In up or down situations and life experiences I’ve had, I’d rather share them with family than not

You’ve already mentioned two groups: Aswad and Steel Pulse, who I could definitely detect in listening to your music.

You know, it doesn’t really have to depend on where they’re from, we just love good music. UK specifically, some of the ones I mentioned just happened to have that sound and that essence that we love. I guess we’ve taken that in over the years and tinges are coming out, like you said, in our music sort of regurgitating that stuff. We just love good reggae, and as I said it’s definitely based on good harmonies and that soul sort of place, that spiritual vibe.

Tell me about other music you really love, it doesn’t have to be reggae. Do any of the guys in the band play jazz? Because that kind of Aswad sound is a slightly jazzy sound and I hear a bit of that.

Yes, we’re lovers of all types of music. Our keyboardist Haani Totorewa, he loves jazz and so does our saxophone player Jamey Ferguson, some of their backgrounds come from jazz, especially some of the horn players we take on tour these days.

We love all-guy male harmonies, even the Bee-Gees, even the Eagles of course, Little River Band from Australia; there’s some great all-male groups from America. It’s all across the board. I guess a little bit more these days since we got to play last year at Reggae Uprising and a few other great festivals around Europe; we got to play with Richie Spice and with Romain Virgo, Capleton, Gentleman, so we’ve definitely been exposed to a lot more to the Jamaican reggae coming through; the new school stuff. It’s definitely nice to keep up to date with what’s happening.

We love all-guy male harmonies, even the Bee-Gees

You weren’t originally the lead singer when the band first started. Can you tell me how you came to step front of stage?

The original singer Jerry was in two bands and he was a really good band leader and musician. He could play anything, singing, playing guitar, played lead in, rhythm, play lead breaks while doing kicks in the air. He was just a really talented bloke and I was just coming up, young school fellow, not much solid, just a whole load of passion. I was on the percussion, I started on the drums actually and my younger brother started kicking my arse on the drums, so I was kind of just the backing vocals and percussion.

The singer came to a crossroads in his career and his other band had a little bit of a break going Asia, playing some of the hotel circuits over there six nights a week, real good money but kind of soulless work. He chose that and I stepped into his shoes and filled that void and that was really the nudge I needed I suppose, to get up there in the front. It took me two weeks and I had most of the songs singing lead. Two weeks later the other band fell over for some personal reasons, he came home about a month later and it was kind of all too late.

So how did you go from playing Bob Marley songs to playing original material?

We started getting work and we sort of built a huge want for reggae music, essentially it was just in our home town on the night clubs scene and the live venues. We just forged our own way. If there wasn’t a club in a town we’d play in the local town hall and bring our PA in. We just kept at that.

The guys were always writing our own material. We actually got a chance to enter into a talent search; first prize was $5,000 recording time in a studio and we won that. That’s how we recorded our first two songs. It was probably about a year’s transition after we recorded those first two songs because we were still gigging really hard and making a name for ourselves, getting some big gigs. The Big Day Out was one of the crucial ones that helped early on. It was one of the ones where the scouts from Mai Music signed us. In, I think, 2001 we released Giddy Up. That was one of the songs we recorded for the $5,000 two days studio time. The songs were recorded, mixed and mastered in two days and one of those songs, Giddy Up, was the biggest selling single in 2001.

The songs were recorded, mixed and mastered in two days and one of those songs, Giddy Up, was the biggest selling single in 2001

That was kind of the meteoric rise, we recorded those songs and a year later we were releasing it. It was really just through live work. The boys loved reggae music and we loved to play live; and the fans here in New Zealand, we absolutely love reggae music and you can see it with how many reggae bands there are here at the moment, there are hundreds in our small country. It’s one of the most loved genres, live and commercially.

Why do you think it is so big there?  

I think it’s big in a lot of indigenous countries. We’re similar to Jamaica, we were colonised by the British, an island country. I think we can identify with a lot of the rhythms and a lot of the feelings and issues and the suffering. Not just indigenous too, all walks of life can take and learn from reggae music. It’s definitely a music for the soul.

Katchafire

Who would you say in the New Zealand scene are your friends, and are there any divisions in the scene?

It isn’t that cliquey. I think it’s very much still fresh, like over the last five years bands have sort of mushroomed up out of nowhere. Every big town and every little town in between has a reggae band that could open up a gig for us. It’s still very much a small country, so it feels very much like the reggae community is still quite small as well. It’s all pretty much one love and that’s the way that the native way is here; it’s very hospitable and welcoming and we’ll give you the shirt off our back, but if you cross us you’re out.

I guess there are a few divisions in that aspect from bands, which I won’t go into. For the most part it’s pretty cool. There’s a home-town reggae band favourite in every town, and I’m just glad that we’ve been a part of paving the way for these bands, who’ve looked to us as kind of inspiration, at least that they can do it and do what they love.

One pejorative term I’ve heard New Zealand reggae producers use recently is “barbeque” reggae. Do you know that term, and can you explain what that means?

Not really, but I can imagine what it means. I guess it means like bubble-gum reggae, that’s the term I use for a lot of reggae coming out of California and even coming out of Hawaii, is not essential enough for me, it’s talking about nothing, a lot of fun and sun and good vibes. To me I think, especially these days, music coming out has to be saying something, you’ve got to mean something, you’ve got to stand for something.

You talk about standing for something. In a song like Frisk Me Down, it sounds like a comment on police activity where you are. Can you tell me about that song and the story behind it?

Yeah, you know I was cuffed one night for breaking a liquor ban. I didn’t know you couldn’t drink on the streets in my own town anymore. I guess I don’t go out enough in my own town to know that (laughs).

I got arrested one night; I was walking with my friend, drinking a beer, and the cop slapped the cuffs on me, no questions asked, and told my friend who was a light-skinned Caucasian fellow, that he could throw his beer in the rubbish. He took me and it kind of caused a bit of a scene out on the main street because a lot of people knew me, and this young cop was confronted with several people sort of pleading for him not to arrest me, not to take me. He kind of just became overwhelmed and a couple of bouncers came over and they knew him by name. To cut a long story short, he arrested me and with the several people pleading around him, he was forced to just chuck me in the car (laughs). That night in the cells I wrote that song. I guess it is touching on racial discrimination and stereotypes… I think people should form their own opinions about the song, it’s always much better than mine!

We have a lot of freedom musically on stage, the guys go off on tangents sometimes and we thrive off following those tangents

On your band’s Facebook you posted a link to a documentary about Teina Pora – who has been in jail for the rape and murder of Susan Burdett since 1994. Many people believe he is innocent.

I think he was a very naïve young man. If you have a look at the documentary it doesn’t take a rock scientist to figure out that he’s kind of making stuff up. It’s all for the reward. He thought he was getting $20,000 reward for his family. But it is ongoing because he hasn’t admitted it. For him to get parole and be sort of rehabilitated he needs to admit to his crimes and then they can take it to the next steps, but because he hasn’t admitted to it, it just keeps going on to, I guess, the highest appeal it can, coming up. They’re asking for, I’m not sure of the terminology, but for his sentence to be turned around and for him to be free; but had he just admitted it, he would have been out ten years ago. He’s been in gaol for over twenty years now. At the moment we’re in the process of recording a song, possibly a Bob Marley cover, with the proceeds going to him for his lawyer fees for the case. There’s a lot of musicians an people getting involved here in the community in New Zealand.

Just going back to yourselves; you’re a very hard-working live band. How would you describe the experience of seeing you live to someone who hasn’t experienced it yet?

We really pride ourselves on making connections with our fans, so we really work hard on our live show. It’s a different experience. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the music is exactly like the CD, but I think that with the boys we change it up a lot live. We have a lot of freedom musically on stage, the guys go off on tangents sometimes and we thrive off following those tangents. We’re all kind of addicted to live gigging now; whether it be 300 people in a room or 30,000 in a stadium, at show time we’re always bringing our A-game. We love to see people dancing and having a good time and singing our songs back to us, so you can imagine a room full of 1,000 people just really vibing, and that’s a Katchafire concert, man.

You’re very much a worldwide thing. What’s been your favourite experience on the road of late?

We’ve just started cracking into the South American market, but I definitely loved the vibes within the 2011 tour through Europe. We got to see Slovakia and the Uprising festival, the ska festival in Bordeaux, we really did do a good EU tour for the first time. We got to see a bit more of Amsterdam, we stayed in Paris for a few days. I really enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to coming back to Europe. I still feel like Katchafire hasn’t really planted our roots deep enough in the UK and Europe, so I’m really excited, coming back with The Best So Far, it’s actually one of the first releases you can get worldwide and in Europe and UK of our music, so I’m excited to back that up.

I still feel like Katchafire hasn’t really planted our roots deep enough in the UK and Europe

Final question. Which reggae artists have you most enjoyed sharing a stage with or even just a chat with over the years?

It’s always a please playing with Family Man, as one of the last remaining Wailers or even the last remaining real Wailer. We’ve played with him a number of times. Here and throughout the rest of the world. The last time we caught up with him was in São Paulo in Brazil, and you know it’s really hard to understand Fams! (laughs) But I always love catching up with that guy, sharing some burnt offering and trying to understand what he’s going on about. We’ve shared the stage with kind of you-name-it in reggae. Caught up with Gentleman at the Reggae Ska Festival and he’s a really nice chap, we shared some good vibes. One more, I guess, on one of our first international tours Katchafire played with the original Word, Sound and Power band. This was early 2000s in New Caledonia, we spent 13 days, we stayed with Andrew Tosh and five of the original band. We met Fully and we met Santa Davis and some of the original musicians that inspired us and we learnt a great deal from them. It was humbling to share that time with them. 

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Read comments (1)


Posted by donatien on 08.26.2013
Thx to United Reggae for this focus on New Zealand band. BooOM

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