The Black Seeds: The 13th Floor interview

The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar talks to The Black Seeds’ Barnaby Weir in anticipation of the release of the band’s new album, Fabric, due out this Friday.

Having just arrived back from a 10-date US and Canadian tour, Barnaby Weir, founding member and one of the main song writing forces behind Wellington’s enigmatic reggae outfit The Black Seeds is happy to be back home.

The tour was intense and busy. “It was exhausting, but fulfilling,” Barnaby tells me, over the phone from his home in the Capital.  “12 Dates in 15 days!  But, the usual… low budget, all in the van, all out, set up, sound check, play the gig and off again.  Plenty of fan time, though.  2 days off in the entire tour!”

The band has had a strong following Stateside for a number of years and continues to nurture that with regular visits.  That works both ways.  Kiwi fans will remember a memorable local a few back here with US dub crew John Brown’s Body.  Barnaby reckons the Reggae dub scene in the US is still strong.  “Smaller than mainstream but very dedicated.”

Some fans even turned out to one of the Black Seeds gigs at a Las Vegas bowling alley.  Luckily, their played loud enough to drown out the sounds of crashing pins and strikes.  They also got to play the Victoria Ska Festival in Canada.  “This is a 5-day thing, plenty of variety with the bands.”

I asked him if America felt any different, post-election.  “You mean now Trump’s in?  No.  Not really.  That’s what I noted.  Americans just seem to get on with everything the same as before.  He might be in the news a lot but most of the people that were up with politics and that were foreigners.  The locals were too busy with their lives.  They were (resilient) enough to keep going.  Most of the people we met wanted to know about New Zealand.  They were keen to learn about us.  That hasn’t really changed”

It’s been a while since we’ve heard from The Black Seeds but that doesn’t mean that Barnaby or any of the other band members have been sitting on their hands.  The last time we talked, Barnaby reminds me, was just before Christmas, when he was knee deep in preparations for the upcoming Fly My Pretties (String Theory) shows.  At the time, he’d hinted that the Black Seeds had been recording again and something was ready to drop.  And at last, he says, “Yes, it is ready.” The new album, Fabric, due for release in early September, and will be the band’s 6th studio album.  Five years on from Dust and Dirt the band returns to a more upbeat party feel.  That’s a result of their constant touring as perennial festival favourites that have seen them funk up the stages in nearly every corner of the globe.  “We’ve learned what makes people move.”

Earlier this year they dropped the single Better Days, penned by Barnaby, to mark the Band’s return.  It’s an upbeat and positive feel good song, he says.  “We wanted to install that good vibe again.  I wanted to write a really good Rock Steady tune.  So, I sat down and got this one out then took it to the band.”

“Taking it to the band” is always a small challenge with this group.  Between world touring, festival commitments and juggling individual projects (these guys are always busy and in high demand) The Black Seeds finally found some solid time to focus their efforts.  Barnaby says that the bulk of the work went on last year and early this year at long-time collaborator (Dr) Lee Prebble’s famous Wellington studio The Surgery.  “We tend to ‘binge’ record.  We did this over four big bookings, working 24 hours a day in shifts.  Efforts are tense but good.  It’s like the project needs to start and end.  If it drags on we lose interest and momentum.”

One result of that ‘focus’ is the intense kinetic energy you get within the album and that makes it physically infectious.  “You definitely want to ‘move’ when you hear this.”  And there are definite moments times for this.  Styles change.  From the uplifting dance hall stomp of Better Days to the gorgeous nostalgic late 70s/early 80s R’n’B funk of Freakin’ and the dirty bass groove you can hear in Everybody Knows.  They continue to rethink and rework all their influences.  And there’s plenty more to discover, too.  The title track is a nod to previous more experimental efforts but with a deliberate intention to be a crowd pleaser.

Having worked long time with both a steady band and an ever-changing collaboration like Fly My Pretties I have to ask what he’s learned from this experience and what he enjoys best.  “I can be pretty intense at times about my work.  I have a distinct idea about a song.  I learned with Fly My Pretties that you have to let that go and give up the ‘baby’ sometimes.  The results are always better if you just trust in that.”

As always, Barnaby says, the song writing was shared between himself and Daniel Weetman but the product, as a whole is always a collaboration from everyone.  Over the years the makeup has changed slightly.  It’s been two years now since Mike Fabulous left to pursue his Lord Echo project.  He’s been replaced by Ned Ngatae (Guitar).  But other founding fathers like Jarney Murphy (Drums) and Nigel Patterson (Keyboard) are still firmly ensconced.  Francis Harawira looks after Bass and the all-important brass section are supported by Barrett Hocking (Trumpet) Matthew Benton and Wellington jazz ‘legend’ Lucien Johnson (Saxophone).  Johnson also lent a hand to Mike Fab recently on his latest Lord Echo album and WOMAD gig.   In actual fact, all of the band members help each other out on other assignments.  This is one reason why every Black Seeds album feels so comfortable.

The band’s collaboration goes further that just music.  Daniel Weetman, for example, is also behind Fabric’s distinctive cover design.  “Daniel cut out paper and arranged it and photographed it for the cover.  He wanted it to have an abstract look, influenced by Pacific designs. But it also looks like a shield or coat of arms, which you get with some traditional reggae designs.   So, it really feels like part of our story, I think.”

There’s no denying the band has a definite ‘Kiwi’ sound .  Barnaby reckons this wasn’t something that was intentionally nurtured but being citizens of the South Pacific it’s difficult to separate out the accent or the influences.   “I don’t think it was ever going to work – us singing in Jamaican accents.  It only works if we a genuine”

Next year marks the band’s 20-year anniversary.  The band was originally pulled for a 1999 Radio Active gig.  “We did these ‘jokey’ Kiwi covers like Dobbyn’s Love You Like I Should and that led to some regular time at (Wellington’s classic bar) Bodega.  Which is sadly gone now.  We’d charge $5 on the door to survive a night with us.”  No hints yet as to how the band will celebrate.  20 years on the survivors are looking pretty good.

Tim Gruar

The Black Seeds – Fabric is out September 8th 2017