Black Seeds trumpet-player Michael Taylor walks SALIENT volunteer Andrew Feltoe through the hectic life of being in one of New Zeland’s most in demand bands.
Ever thought what it’d like being famous? The intoxication of a crowd’s adulation, tantrum-trashing hotel suites, getting photos of you nude in NW Weekly. It’d be cool, wouldn’t it? Michael Taylor from the Black Seeds gave me the lowdown on the giddy heights of success in, arguably, one of the most famous bands in Aotearoa today: The Black Seeds.
No-one needs an introduction to the Black Seeds. A Wellington institution that has made it into the big league, their tunes ‘Fire’ and ‘So True’ destined to stand the test of time in the Kiwi music canon. I’m chatting to Michael Taylor, one of the horn players for the Seeds. He’s been with them for two years now, after being spotted by Barnaby and co in Indigo as the then-trumpeter for Cornerstone Roots. A chat after the gig, and the rest, as they say, is history.
It’s been a wild ride for Mikey. Already a successful trumpet player, the pace has stepped up a few notches. He’s on tour a third of the year, travels often and travels light. I’m eager to ask him about the high life as a Seed. I want the sweet stuff. He gives me manure. “People think it’s a glamorous life. It’s definitely not as glamorous as what I think people perceive it to be – it’s not five star hotels, it’s not limousines…” he trails off. Perhaps he’s not pitching it right, everyone wants to be a rock star, live the rock and roll lifestyle… right?
Wakeup is around 7am with check out from whatever motel or backpacker they’ve crashed in. There’s normally enough time to steal a coffee and a fag before they hit the road. Cue long-haul drive with ten bodies stuffed in a van (with gear). It’s the makings of a road trip for anyone else, but to the Seeds, it’s the daily grind.
Maybe. It appears that tours are punishing, more boot than band camp. As Mikey confesses, my dreams shatter. Wakeup is around 7am with check out from whatever motel or backpacker they’ve crashed in. There’s normally enough time to steal a coffee and a fag before they hit the road. Cue long-haul drive with ten bodies stuffed in a van (with gear). It’s the makings of a road trip for anyone else, but to the Seeds, it’s the daily grind. Anywhere between two and six hours later the vehicles pull up to their new venue, be it a bar in Dunedin or a hall in Palmerston North, and the boys make it straight into sound check.
Sound check’s a killer, a two-hour ordeal not dissimilar to a waiting room at a dentist. Already wasted from late nights, early mornings, and long travel, they force themselves through set-up, methodically working the venue, tuning their sound to the acoustics of the room. It’s sound, not music. A numbing mixture of boredom and technicalities. From the crack of the snare to the hum in the PA, everything has to be on the money. Their engineer, Lee Prebble, is in his element, and Mikey can’t stop singing his praises. Lee’s been with the Seeds from the beginning, a Wellington music icon in his own right, and is entrusted to make the Seeds sound mint no matter what the venue throws at him. Finding a good soundie is as hard as finding a decent coffee. They’ve hit paydirt with Lee, and he’s stuck with them, mixing their shows, and producing their albums.
Once satisfied, it becomes a race to check into their motel and get some rest. By now it’s late afternoon, and the stomachs are growling. A few hours to kill, a bite to eat, then back to the venue. In only a matter of hours a buzz grows as the room begins to fill with bodies. Mixed in smoke and sweat, the tension builds. They’ve done this for years but it still doesn’t kill the rush. The boys come on stage, a groove picks up and before long the drop. Everyone goes wild. Showtime.
It’s gruelling for a day’s work, and it doesn’t stop. Last year, on the heels of a NZ tour, the Seeds flew to Europe, playing 23 shows in 28 days. It was a killer. Highlights included three sell-out shows in London and a gig in a storm tunnel in Aberdeen. Storm wha-? “Yeah, we played in a storm tunnel – that was crazy. That was quite a nutty gig, I mean, the town looks medieval, it’s all stone, underground, yeah… it was all weird.” I wonder who still uses ‘nutty’ in a sentence, but it’s his day off so I let it be.
Deprivation, sleep deprivation that is, is a big thing on tour. “Touring in New Zealand’s quite tiring, but when you’re touring overseas it’s even worse. You have to catch international flights and stuff like that so you have to get up even earlier. Quite often if you’re out at the gig you’re out ‘til three, [then] quite often you have to get up at half past six.”
That’s ‘A.M.’ He tells me about their wake-up after the Christchurch gig in August. 6am Sunday morning. The Seeds have crashed in their hotel room to steal whatever sleep’s left from the night. The fire alarm goes off, along with a stream of profanity as they’re wrenched from their sleep. Dreary eyes and groggy bodies stumble their way out of the hotel into the crisp morning air. Asking around, they discover some dick attempted a cook-up in a suite down the hall. They’ve only managed three hours sleep and they’re pissed.
Air travel’s a bitch at the best of days, and with a troupe of ten Seeds on tour, getting around gets tricky. It becomes a logistical nightmare navigating people and gear. A touring band, let alone a dub band going through customs, conjures every negative stereotype to a security jock, so checking in instruments and merchandise makes for a hard slog through airports. The Seeds have their share of horror stories as time and again they have to coax airport personnel to let them on.
But they still get around. They’re hot property at the moment, their live show regularly selling out. And just like last year they’re back in Europe, living it large for six weeks on tour, heading straight through the Continent: Germany, France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and the UK. Mikey tells me they’re coming back via the States, and are trying their luck with a few US gigs. Good luck with LAX.
The Seeds are, if you’ll excuse the in-joke, still pushing themselves. More gigs, bigger shows, and of course, the new album. Into the Dojo has made it to Gold in New Zealand, and after seven weeks is still kicking at number 3 in the top forty, no small feat for a Kiwi album. Anyone who’s listened to it knows the boys have taken a turn in their song-writing, with Barnaby handing the reins to the other members. It’s no surprise then that the album reflects a more diverse set of tastes.
So is the album a success? They seem to think so, as do the public, who’ve bought it in droves, although critics aren’t as sold. Mikey laughs as he tells me how The Southland Times gave the album one out of five. He reckons it’d make a fantastic quote for their posters: “See The Black Seeds, as rated 1/5 by The Southland Times.” Somehow I get the impression they’re not worried about anything.
Judging from their live shows, they’ve got no reason to be. I ask about Mikey’s standout tracks. He’s digging ‘The Answer’, and ‘Heavy Mono E’, which he tells me “is actually in F sharp, not in E.” Oh. A musical joke? ‘Mono’ already stands out as track of the album, and the thumping poly-rhythmic groove has all the elements of a live tune that’s set to bring the house down.
I bring up shows. In a classic understatement, he mentions playing to 500 people in London as a “cool show”. Perhaps it’s me, but travelling 18,000km around the world to have hundreds of fans groove along to your tunes needs more than a ‘cool’, right?
Damn straight. We carry on, but while I try and keep the topic to the big shows, the stuff we’re secretly envious of, he keeps changing the subject to small bar gigs. “They’re so much more intimate. It’s like, you feel like you can really connect with the crowd, they’re right there, you can see them, smile at them, laugh, you know, have a chat between songs.” And it dawns on me what he’s on about. The big stuff is exactly that, big, and that’s it. The magic for him isn’t measured in size, but distance.
You get the impression that they’re just a few Wellington boys who love life and play music. Perhaps it’s a Kiwi thing. Success hasn’t driven away the smalltown attitude. Perhaps that’s why New Zealanders do alright overseas. When I bring it up, I get chided. “You can’t snob people, it just wouldn’t be right.” Onya. Even though Dojo has hit Gold they wouldn’t call themselves rock stars, and you can’t help but like that. This is what New Zealand music is. Like Tip-Top and sunscreen, they’ve become a part of our summer, and they’re bringing our NZ to the world. We should be proud.