Fat Freddy's Drop Blends Reggae, Soul And DJ Culture

New Zealand band Fat Freddy's Drop is made up of — as they say — "Maori musicians, a Samoan beat master and a Kiwi horn section." NPR's Guy Raz speaks with band members Chris Faiumu and Toby Laing.

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GUY RAZ, host:

(Soundbite of music)

Take the swagger of Jamaican dub, throw in a little Memphis soul and send it halfway down the globe, and what comes back? The band Fat Freddy's Drop.

(Soundbite of song, "Boondigga")

Mr. DALLAS TAMAIRA (Lead Singer, Fat Freddy's Drop): (Singing) Well, the more I try to change, well, the more I feel the same...

RAZ: Fat Freddy's Drop is a seven-piece outfit from Wellington, New Zealand. The band, in its own words, is made up of Maori musicians, a Samoan beat master and a Kiwi horn section. They all perform under stage names - DJ Chris Faiumu is Fitchie, trumpeter Toby Laing is Tony Chang, and they both join me from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Hello, gentlemen, welcome to the U.S.

Mr. CHRIS FAIUMU (DJ, Fat Freddy's Drop): Greetings.

Mr. TOBY LAING (Trumpeter, Fat Freddy's Drop): Hey, thanks.

RAZ: First to you, Chris Faiumu. You are actually that Samoan beat master I just described. For those of us from the Northern Hemisphere, can you explain what that is?

Mr. FAIUMU: Obviously, in radio land they cannot see, get a visual on me. But I'm a particularly large character in size. And so it's quite easy to come up with terms like master. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: So, what do you actually do in the band? I mean, you actually provide some of the beats?

Mr. FAIUMU: When we perform live, we don't actually have a live rhythm section. I kind of take care of that part of the live performance.

RAZ: Now, I described your music as sort of a hybrid of Jamaican dub and Memphis soul - that's one description. How would you describe Fat Freddy's Drop?

Mr. LAING: This is Tony Chang talking. You know, if you listen to the album, it really is just a hybrid of the different influences that various members of the band bring to the project. So definitely, reggae is an influence. Techno, Detroit techno, dub music, ska music, Afro beats - you know, no songs like the last, really. We're always just approaching each song fresh, and distilling new influences through the music.

RAZ: Break down the production here for me. What sort of studio trickery are we listening to here?

Mr. FAIUMU: Our process for writing usually starts with rhythms. We all in the band know how to use a fairly famous drum machine called the MPC, made by Akai, which actually these days, quite an old-school way of writing beats and rhythms if you're not using a live drummer. A lot of people these days are using a lot of software. We're stuck with these drum machines that are kind of more from the '80s.

That's usually the starting point. Someone will come up with a simple idea that's looped up and then eventually, once we've got a good beard of rhythmic ideas, then we'll start to throw the rest of the band on top of it.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: There are seven of you in this band. And as I mentioned, it's a multiracial. Toby Laing, how did that shape your sound?

Mr. LAING: I think the strength of the group, really, is that it reflects the place where it's from. You know, Wellington is a very small city. I mean, it's tiny. You know, it's like 700,000 in the greater Wellington area.

RAZ: So, you know, I mean, you recognize people all the time.

Mr. LAING: Yeah.

RAZ: You see people you know every day.

Mr. LAING: Especially if you're a musician there, you know, you do run across the same people around the way and you end up experimenting, you know, with different music projects and things. Everyone's worked with lots of different groups around town. So yeah, I mean, Fat Freddy's, for me, is the perfect band, really, because all of those sounds that are current in Wellington get reflected in the music of our group. I mean, we don't need to stay in any one genre; we can actually experiment with mashing them all together.

RAZ: The other famous New Zealand band we know here in the U.S., of course, are the Flight of the Conchords. The fourth most famous band -

Mr. FAIUMU: We know those guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAING: We are very influenced by them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LAING: They come from our city.

Mr. FAIUMU: They played support for us a few years ago.

Mr. LAING: That's true, that's true.

Mr. FAIUMU: We're waiting for them to return the favor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Pull the Catch")

Mr. TAMAIRA: (Singing) Now, I could never ask for help, but so many times I tried. But we learn to forgive ourselves and now I...

RAZ: Chris Faiumu, the sound of Fat Freddy's Drop, of course, is sort of rooted in kind of American soul and Jamaican dub. And I'm wondering if there is something, also, that comes out of indigenous New Zealand culture.

Mr. FAIUMU: Well, I don't know if there's actually any sound, particularly in our music, that's derivative. Possibly more in the attitude and the way we write, maybe.

RAZ: How so?

Mr. FAIUMU: I mean, well, there's lots of space in the music. In fact, we don't write short songs; we write long songs that evolve over a number of minutes. That stems from our kind of island life, our pace of the way we live. And New Zealand is a lot slower than, say, here in America or the U.K.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TAMAIRA: (Singing) You better run for shelter, don't leave it too late. You'd better do it now, just ever latch your gate.

RAZ: Talk to me a little bit about sort of breaking through into the music scene in the United States. I mean, you're from Wellington, New Zealand, so obviously, geographically, you're very far away.

Mr. FAIUMU: I think we've always, up to this point, have viewed - from our small town and New Zealand a long way away - viewed America as such a huge, enormous beast. And when you begin, when you start trying to take on America, it took us - it was a lot of work to get visas to come here and perform in this country. And we now have those visas for 12 months, so we'll definitely be back, for sure.

RAZ: That's DJ Chris Faiumu. He's also known as Fitchie. And earlier, we heard from trumpeter Toby Laing. They are two members of the band Fat Freddy's Drop. Their new record is called "Dr. Boondigga and the Big BW."

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Mr. FAIUMU: Thank you.

Mr. LAING: Thanks a lot.

(Soundbite of music)

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