Mihi: An interview with Beastwars
Some places are endowed with a profound and manifest connection to the roots of all creation. The musical output of New Zealand’s BEASTWARS is drawn from a deep well of inspiration and is inseparably linked to the awe-inspiring majesty of their native land. TBR sat down with drummer Nathan Hickey and vocalist Matt Hyde for a discussion about the band’s history and how their music is building bridges that span the the whole of the earth.
TBR: Legend has it that it all began for Beastwars when Nato and Clayton met in a bar a few years back. Nato, tell us a little more about that night and the early discussions that followed: Your getting to know one another and building your vision for the band.
Nato: Clayton and I had a bunch of mutual friends but hadn’t met each other before. We were in this bar and were talking about what was “fashionable” in music at the time in our country and how we hated it all. Then Clayton revealed that he was a guitarist who owned a Gibson Explorer signed by Metallica and I was so impressed I said that I would buy a drum kit and we’d start a band. We were very drunk at that point of the evening so I’m quite impressed with ourselves for following through and making it happen.
TBR: You guys didn’t wait long before performing live as a instrumental trio. Was that the original configuration that you guys had envisioned or was is more a case of being eager to get out there and jam and see where it went from there?
Nato: We started by jamming some ideas together and it came out as heavy but melodic music. We were really just learning how to play our instruments together and hadn’t thought too much about what we wanted the band to be or sound like – it just happened organically.
TBR: As it happened, you guys had a fateful encounter with a member of the audience who got into the music and took it upon himself to step up and perform along with you – that person being vocalist Matt Hyde. What are each of your recollections about that night? Were you at all concerned at first, Nate when some strange guy just started in on your set or did Matt just click right in from “go”? Matt, was it something special about these particular guys on that particular night? Or were you just a couple of pints in and doing what you would have done on any other night?
Matt: Actually, I just went saw them play. It was not long after that I had my first jam with them. I always remember wondering how they got a Friday night spot at San Francisco Bath House which is one of our best live clubs in Wellington and thought that maybe they could be destined for bigger things. It’s strange because years would pass before we did our first live show together. That first gig was on a tug boat anchored at port – a fantastic first gig.
Nato: I liked your version of the story much better! Actually, Matt came along to our next band practice and I remember we had just finished a dinner break and were launching into another song and Matt just started stomping all the left over food into the carpet without realizing what he was doing at all. After that we knew then that he was the singer for our band.
TBR: Had either of you guys – or any of the other band members – played in many “serious” bands before Beastwars?
Matt: I played in a Auckland band called The Larry Norman’s where I meet Nato years before. We were playing a show with his band that was touring from Wellington. Apart from being wasted and screaming on pool tables, I told Nato he should quit his band that he was in. Strange, really, seeing what happened years later.
TBR: Tell us a bit about the other two guys: What are their roles/contributions/super-powers within the band outside of the instruments that they play.
Matt: James seems to be our technical whiz with all things that involve sound as he is a sound guy by trade and brings a great punk ethic to his sound and playing style. Clayton seems to be the quiet one preferring the company of racehorses, greyhounds and one-armed bandits but he also plays a mean guitar.
TBR: I think that people generally have an idea about New Zealand being a unique and exotic place – if not “magical” in some ways. Is the truth stranger than fiction? Seriously though, what’s “the scene” been like for heavy music there?
Matt: Man this place is remote and can feel really ancient. I visited Canada about 11 years ago and see similarities in the people and its terrain, but you guys feel more attached to the rest of the world. We are the last stop before Antarctica and it only take about 3-4 days to drive the length of the country with crazy terrain of snow capped mountain to rain forest in the north. You guys all must come and visit before we drop back into the ocean!
New Zealanders seem to being embracing a heavier sound at the moment. It could be that its year 3 of the recession here and you just have to turn on your television to see that we’re in the age of chaos.
TBR: With the advent of the internet, it’s practically impossible to grow up in total isolation these days. But before that, I’d imagine that there would actually be some degree of solitude between the developing music in NZ and what was going on in other parts of the world. If that was ever true, do you think that has ever played a significant part in your musical development?
Matt: The isolation is one of our strengths. In the 80′s, records would come in on import so we where only 3-9 months behind. But that has also created some crazy sounds that may not have been made without the isolation.
TBR: Not sure how much you would have ever reflected on this sort of thing, but I can’t help asking the question: As New Zealanders, I’m especially interested in knowing how you think you’ve been influenced by your surroundings and environment – both as people and as musicians.
Matt: This land can seem remote and new but very old with Maori stories of gods in the forest and monsters in the lakes. We have this underlining history of the musket wars between the Maori tribes, then the Maori wars between settlers and British Empire. Crazy stories of New Zealand’s first capital, Russell, being “the whorehouse of the South Pacific”, it was frequented by whalers and traders then burnt to the ground by the local Maori tribe. This land also moves: we have a lot of earthquakes it can all be found in the sounds we make.
TBR: Nate, when did you first start to play the drums? Were they your first instrument? Who or what inspired you to start playing?
Nato: I had always wanted to be a drummer but instead of a drum kit for my seventh birthday, I got an acoustic guitar which really was a great present. Apart from jumping on a drum kit from time to time at band practices where I was a bass player in other bands I’ve only really being playing the drums for as long as Beastwars has been together. I’ve had 2 drummer friends show me a couple of tricks but I’m pretty much just learning on the job and trying to get better. The learning on the job thing is pretty scary for me know that we have more people coming to the shows. It definitely makes me work harder and concentrate more.
TBR: Matt, who are a few of the vocalists you admire most – either as vocalists and/or performers – and what particular draws you to them?
Matt: Nick Cave. I have always liked Chris Connell in the early days of Soundgarden. Tex Perkins from Beasts of Bourbon too. I believe they all a started out with a punk rock ethic and took it down a different path.
TBR: You’ve got a pretty unique sound as a vocalist. Obviously, the voice is a natural instrument and it strikes me that you probably allow for things to occur naturally, but how much of your style is this something that you sat down and consciously decided to develop, if at all?
Matt: The growl has been growing for years and singing in many been bands has lead me here. Just before we recorded the album, I listened to a lot of early Soundgarden and Celtic Frost. In my head I imagined the combination of those two vocals coming together to make Beastwars.
TBR: Let’s talk a bit about the actual album: It was released May, 2011, correct? (wondering if this is accurate or if it the recording was actually done awhile before that) Kind of refreshing, but there isn’t much info put forward about the label who released it. What’s the story with that?
Matt: The record was released in New Zealand on May 9th, 2011 but we recorded in August, 2010. Dale Cotton had a lot of other projects to work on that year so mixing was slotted in when he had spare time so it was about February, 2011 that we had the final mixes ready to master. The less you know about Destroy records the better but we’re looking forward to working with them in New Zealand for future releases in New Zealand. Still looking for a distributor in Europe and North America though.
TBR: It’s a great sounding record, tell us a bit about the recording session: How you come to work with the producer, Dale Cotton?
Nato: We recorded the album in four and a half days in Dunedin. We recorded at Dale’s home and as it was the middle of winter, we basically didn’t leave the house unless it was to buy more beer and wine. Dale is a very accomplished producer in New Zealand and James, our bass player, used to run a studio with him in the 90′s so it made sense to approach him about recording us.
TBR: Where was it recorded? Did you guys have any criteria for the actual studio environment or was the idea simply to get in there, bash out the tunes and have Dale put the spit and polish on it?
Nato: Yeah, that was pretty much the idea – just to bash out the songs in the small window of time that Dale had between other projects. We’d be playing a lot of gigs and felt confident that we could do it in the 5 days he had available. We wanted quite a raw sound but I think the late nights drinking meant we layered up the guitars a bit more than we had initially planed to.
TBR: Did you guys have everything written before going in or did you do any writing in the studio?
Matt: Most tracks were already written. “Lake Of Fire” was performed for the first time the night before the recording session began in Dunedin and Cthulhu was just a very rough sketch of an idea and we basically created it in the studio.
TBR: In terms of the lyrics – and in keeping with the amazing cover art – it seems that there’s something of an apocalyptic theme… Who does most of the writing? Was there anything in particular on your minds as a whole or were you guys just rockin’ out and coming up with powerful lyrical imagery to match?
Matt: Most of the lyrics arrive from what i was reading, seeing on television just the feeling of chaos that we seem as a species to be falling into
TBR: Gotta know: What’s behind the title of the song “Mihi”?
Matt: Mihi is a Maori word meaning greeting. When you’re about to make a speech, to do a Mihi means to introduce yourself and say where you are from in the land. I envisaged in the song a farmer/settler/preacher at loss for his loss of faith which leads to a vision of destruction of everything he once held dear. I suppose it to be a very dark greeting from a troubled man.
TBR: “Iron Wolf” is a personal favourite in the sense that there’s a tremendous amount of feeling on it. Any thoughts to share on this one?
Matt: “Iron Wolf” came about from just growing old and the trials and tribulations of the journey that is a bridge between birth and death.
TBR: Everybody loves a good tale of or song about Cthulhu. Are there any literary geeks in the band or was this just a casual reference to one of metal’s time-honoured muses? If so, hit us with a few of the things that have been on your reading list.
Matt: There’s a crazy story with this song: The night it was recorded, a Korean fishing boat sunk off the coast of Dunedin killing five people. The next day, we were watching the news in a break from the recording when we saw the survivors been taken off the port at Port Chalmers and realized the ship had sunk when we where recording the song Cthulhu. All the lyrics were ad-libbed on the spot and it was done in one take.
The last book I really enjoyed and would recommend was When Giants Walked the Earth - a biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall. But if anyone is interested in reading about the New Zealand Maori Wars, search out Season of the Jews by Maurice Shadbolt – this is one book in his trilogy on the wars. Monday’s Warrior is another one you should read – you’ll never see New Zealand in the same light again.
TBR: The album cover is an absolute stunner – one of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. How did you guys hook up with the guy who painted it, Nick Keller?
Nato: I was working with Kick’s girlfriend and he was coming to all our shows but all I knew was that he was an artist and I hadn’t seen any of his work. His girlfriend showed me his blog www.nickbkeller.blogspot.com and it really did blow my mind. I asked her if he had done any album art before and she said that just last week he mentioned that he would love to do an album cover. So it all worked out pretty good. He’s just finished painting the label for our beer that is being released over here in the next couple of weeks too.
TBR: There’s also a track called “When I’m King” hanging out there that isn’t on the album. What’s the story behind it?
Nato: That was one of the first songs that we got together. I had a friend who owed me a favor so we went to his studio and bashed it out in a day. It was our first experience in a studio and took a while to settle into it but we got there in the end. We tried to re record it for the album it the first version just felt so good so it’s now just a momento from the past.
TBR: Beastwars have had a chance to share the stage and open for some pretty impressive international acts. Did you have much of a chance to kick it with those guys? Any opportunity to talk much about music or just hanging out?
Nato: We have been really lucky to open for some great bands this year – Melvins, High On Fire, Kylesa, Kyuss, Helmet. I have found that everyone who we’ve played with has been really cool and friendly. Nick Oliveri spent a good part of our opening set for Kyuss side of stage head banging yelling out “This is fucking rocking!” or something like that.
TBR: As far as I’m aware, few if any of us here in North America have had a chance to see you guys perform yet… How far have you guys been able to travel outside NZ as a band, to date?
Nato: We haven’t toured outside of New Zealand yet unfortunately. Australia will be the next step for us I think but we really want to get to North America and Europe and see what we can do over there. I wish it was as easy as just hopping in a van and driving there but flying from NZ is stupidly expensive. If we can hook up some good shows we’d be over there in a second.
TBR: Any upcoming tour plans to support the new album? If you could pick 2-3 bands to go out and hit the road with, who would they be?
Nato: I’ll get in trouble if this looks like I’m speaking for the rest of the band but for myself personally I’d be pretty happy to be opening for Soundgarden and Black Sabbath. That would be a good line up. We’re playing at the Big Day Out festival next year that Soundgarden are headlining which will be really cool to see. But yeah – back to reality, we are just about to start our third tour in New Zealand since the album came out in May and for two of those shows, we have Mountaineater and Arc of Ascent coming along with us – they are two brilliant bands.
TBR: Red Witch are some fellow countrymen who make some fine effects pedals. Ever seen ‘em lingering about on your guitarist’s pedal board?
Nato: Pedal board? Clayton? Hahahahahahahaha!! The less knobs and buttons the better as far as our guitarist is concerned. To avoid his own confusion he only has a wah-wah pedal and a tuner then plugs straight into an amp. James on the other hand has more pedals on his bass – a vintage Rat distortion and another great New Zealand overdrive pedal called a Hotcake. You’re right though – Red Witch do make amazing effects.
Photos granted by kind permission of Alistar Wickens
Cover photo by David James