The Lord of the Rings put New Zealand’s beauty and creative spirit on the pop culture map. Flight of the Conchords revealed New Zealand’s unique wit. Now reggae/funk sensations The Black Seeds—Conchord friends and former band mates—are ready to take listeners one step deeper into the Other Down Under, with infectious grooves, slamming brass, and booty shaking beats on the group’s first North American release, Solid Ground (Easy Star Records; Released exclusively on iTunes September 15; everywhere else September 29, 2009), and on their debut U.S. tour with John Brown’s Body this September.
Down-and-dirty dancehall and the deep throb of dub may sound like a Kiwi novelty but New Zealand’s sparkling beaches and green, rolling hills proved the perfect place for transplanting Jamaican sounds. Reggae has been a passion for New Zealanders since the 1970s, marked by a pivotal Bob Marley concert in 1979 and the growing support and struggle for Maori cultural and political recognition in their native land of Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand.
The Maoris’ battle for their rights and their land was mirrored in classic reggae’s socially conscious lyrics, and Rastafarianism resonated with young Maoris and European-heritage New Zealanders alike—New Zealand even boasts a Rastafarian MP, the Green Party’s Nandor Tanczos. The music and lifestyle flourished in the laidback island vibe of Wellington, the country’s small coastal metropolis with its village feel, vibrant arts scene, and penchant for jazz, dub, and hip hop.
“It’s all about the island sound,” laughs The Black Seeds’ guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Barnaby Weir. “Speed ukulele, church choirs, the rhythm of the Samoan log drum. After all, if you live on the island, are you going to put on AC/DC?”
Departing from the keyboard-heavy underground scene of the 1980s, today’s New Zealand reggae, thanks in part to bands like The Black Seeds, has dug into 1970’s-flavored funk and soul, and spawned popular reggae festivals, #1 hits, and multi-platinum album sales. “New Zealand reggae is not strictly reggae. We have our own sounds. It’s been a small but influential scene for a long time, and as a teen, I remember going to hear big sound systems,” Weir recalls. “We’ve been playing parties for something like fifteen years. But the scene now has hit a popular phase. It’s almost a trend in a way. Being from an underground band, I’ve watched it really come into its own over the last five years.”
Coming into its own has also meant hitting the world stage, as audiences and critics across Australasia and Europe have embraced The Black Seeds’ brand of Aotearoa dub. Along with going double-platinum in New Zealand for previous releases and earning strong reviews worldwide for Solid Ground, The Black Seeds regularly sell out shows in Europe and perform at major festivals such as Denmark’s Roskilde, London’s Lovebox, Holland’s Lowlands Festival, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as playing on popular television music shows like France’s Canal Plus. Now, North America, home to its own burgeoning home-grown reggae scene, will finally get a taste of New Zealand’s increasingly popular reggae vibes.
The Black Seeds have ridden this rising reggae tide, working out of a studio dubbed The Surgery that the band converted from a once condemned Wellington karate dojo. A maze of halls, rooms, and nooks, it’s practice space, recording studio, and funky spiritual home all in one. “The Surgery is a fairly humble but well-used studio. It’s our headquarters. It’s not flash. But it’s f*ckin’ good!” Weir exclaims.
The Surgery has incubated a shifting sound over the years that the band, tight from months of touring when they recorded Solid Ground, wryly calls “future-retro.” Strictly roots, molten bass and punchy brass collide with edgy funk beats (as on “Rotten Apple”) and what Weir calls the “spacey textures” of tracks like “Slingshot,” all with a gently optimistic Kiwi twang.
The new reggae rage in New Zealand rose from the grassroots, much like its counterpart scene in the U.S., as groups like The Black Seeds and John Brown’s Body spend years pounding the road with hardcore touring. Now with support of renegade label Easy Star—the devious masterminds behind Dub Side of the Moon, Radiodread, and Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band—unconventional reggae groups like The Black Seeds and JBB are creating a new generation of devoted fans hungry for the music and the spirit reflected in the Seeds’ name: the legendary panacea of Black Seed Oil and the roots that remind humanity of our common origin.
“We are all from the cradle of civilization in the Congo, and it all developed from there and migrated all the way to the islands of the South Pacific,” muses Weir. “We made it down here. There are African rhythms in every music, and we believe you can find the journey of the rhythm all the way down to New Zealand.”
“… soulful 70’s styled reggae … single ‘Make A Move’ is one of the snakiest reggae pop tunes on planet earth, and the subtle message of one love is woven into Barnaby Weir’s lyrics on tracks such as ‘Love Is A Radiation’ and ‘Rotten Apple.’”
--Mojo Magazine (UK)
“This New Zealand octet possesses, in spades, the funky rhythms of all good dub. It’s hard to sit still throughout Solid Ground… It boasts the rhythmic, melodic stabs of Studio One’s ska-reggae keyboard master Jackie Mittoo and the bass-driven dance-soul of funk pioneers The Meters. With an eight-member strong band, The Black Seeds can’t help but project a wall of sound …. Those who aren’t exactly smitten with the sounds of Jamaica will be hard-pressed to stop this album from growing on them.’’
--The Advocate (Australia)
“Following up the critically acclaimed Into the Dojo, which spent five weeks at number one, was never going to be easy for The Black Seeds, but the boys from Wellington have well and truly done it with Solid Ground, pure rhythm and energy blasts from the word go.’’
--The New Zealand Herald