Graham Reid | | 6 min read
The guys in the young Auckland band Artisan Guns remind me it was four years ago that I first saw them, in this very same room -- the boardroom of EMI in Auckland where the harbour views can be so distracting.
When they played four years ago -- an acoustic set to maybe a dozen people on a beer-drinking Friday after work -- the room hushed and everyone was impressed by these high school students from deeply suburban Howick.
I became a fan in a way that I don't usually: I e-mailed them afterwards and asked them to keep me informed about what they were up to --- and they did. So in the past four years I have caught a few of their shows and have always come away still impressed.
Singer-songwriter/guitarist Matt Hope has a cracked and emotional voice and sometimes writes lyrics which sound well beyond his years, and the band is tight, economic and delivers rock music with referencess to country and classic blues-rock. They also play like their lives depend on it, but convey a sense of enjoyment which is rare.
Their Bird and Bone EP which appeared in late 2009 seemed rather overlong in coming, but as we talk (in the absence of drummer Alex Freer) about their new EP Hearts, the careful logic of these guys becomes more apparent.
They are smart, have musical background which reach from bluegrass (Hope) to jazz (guitarist/keyboard player Jonathan Pearce), their classy artwork is in-house (bassist Reuben Stephens) and they shouldn't be mistaken for young men in a hurry.
In fact quite the opposite: they have and are taking the time to get things right --- and it shows in the expressive maturity of their current music. But I never knew exactly why and how a bunch of schoolboys were there at EMI's boardroom during what was usually a boozy afterwork hour or so.
That much of their career did happen fast: they'd recorded a couple of songs, put them up onto My Space, added bFM as a friend and within a fortnight that student station was in touch and got them a slot on the Fancy New Band showcase gigs. Matt Headland of EMI was in touch almost immediatelyy asking what else they could do and so . . .
"And it just domino-ed from there," says Stephens.
"But we came out the end of high school wondering, 'What are we going to do now?'," says Hope, now in his final year of music at Auckland University. "We went to uni and realised there was a whole of crap we had to learn, and there was a whole lot of time we needed to put into this or else we would fail.
"I study music now but I hadn't studied it at all at high school so I couldn't tell you what a note or a stave was."
Pearce ("more or less" in his final year in music also, studying jazz piano) also admits there was growing up to do -- and Headland let them go away and do it.
“They were probably expecting six months," laughs Pearce, "but it took 26 months or whatever."
When Headland finally came back and asked if they had anything they'd already recorded their EP some six months previous -- although by the time it came it out in late '09 it was already a year old for them.
But they were, as they say, "a complete package" with music, artwork and ideas for staging and presentation already in place.
They toured the main centres, played in Australia on the back of some Triple J radio play, made fans and steadily sold the Bird and Bone EP. And all the while were figuring out where they needed to go next.
Pearce: "We're very sure of what we wanted to achieve and the easiest way to articulate it is to say, 'This is the kind of package we want'. People get that because we want them to have an engagement with the band, and to make a connection and receive something that feels good, something that you want to have and hold and enjoy."
Mission accomplished then with the Hearts EP in a Stephens-designed cover which conveys not just their sense of enjoyment at the recording process but also, they hope, will resonate on different levels with people.
Pearce: "The person who gets this EP will have associations with a swimming pool and a big inflatable duck and that draws people in -- and they bring something of themselves to it."
Stephens: "The whole [new EP] thing was playful, and the things around it like the photo shoot and the video, and how we want to perform it and play the songs with much more of a sense of fun."
That stretches to making their EP launch at the Rising Sun on April 24 an event with the place being decorated in keeping with their sensibility of enjoying making music and breaking down the barrier between musician and audience.
"We want to really connect with an audience," says Hope.
And they seem to be already: they are amused that the rugbyheads from school who used to give them the fingers or call them "faggots" now come up and say "You guys make my kind of music."
And although the EP is far from frivolous -- quite the opposite, there are lyrics of emotional depth here -- that sense of pleasure and experiment comes through in the track The End where they use the dreaded Auto-Tune -- but deploy it to relevant effect.
They discovered it while fooling around with their computers.
Hope: "Auto-tune gets a bad rap because people say it's not really music, but it's there and you can use it however you like. And we're trying to convey a point, on this song it really works."
Pearce: "It's a different sonority and in The End it address a double meaning because the whole song degenerates into an electronic mess at the end. It adds a dual meaning to the lyrics which are about the world degenerating into chaos."
Recorded in five days at Dave Dobbyn's Dogtown Studios in Auckland, Hearts is intended to offer another angle on the band and extends the folk-rock of Bird and Bone by adding a welcome and often exciting touch of vocal drama and guitar crash.
Much of the angle they come from stems from singer-songwriter Hope's interesting musical background: his father was a huge bluegrass fan so he grew up with classic country music (he namechecks the Dillards) of the kind that came to prominence on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
But since being pushed into other musical areas at university he is now bringing other influences to the mix.
"University opened my ears, so now I'll go on a hip-hop binge and try writing a pop song based on that. I spent a week listening to Coast FM and all those classic Fifties and Sixties songs and then wrote something in that manner, they play stuff that isn't typical classic hits.
"I even went on a bossa nova binge once, and I listened to lots of jazz, like Chet Baker who is one of my favourite singers."
Jazz "that swings real hard, like Oscar Peterson" is among the music that Pearce listens to although Stephens -- at Whitecliff Art School -- admits his fellow students are only into music "with enough fabulousness like Lady Gaga, and that's not my cup of tea".
"But the boys started feeding me music they were listening to and I don't know its history or how to listen to it, like alt-power pop band] The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Some of it I reject but others I really like.
"Me and my eldest sister are big listeners to Bjork and Tom Waits . . ."
"The weirdos," laughs Pearce.
" . . . but they have the whole concept that goes with their music too."
And increasingly Artisan Guns -- pulling from diverse musical influences but with a singular sense of purpose -- are getting their own concept together on the back of dramatic, vibrantly original and mature music which nods to sources but has its own identity.