Long established as one of New Zealand’s finest acts, South Pacific reggae-soul legends, The Black Seeds are set to tour the country in September, following the release of their long awaited 6th studio album Fabric, on September 8. While firmly based in the island grooves that inspired the birth of the band nearly two decades ago, we sat down with guitarist Ned Ngatae to find out more about the band’s forthcoming record and new era that launches with it.
Five years on from the release of The Black Seeds tui award-winning ‘Best Roots Album’ Dust And Dirt, you could say that with the announcement of a new record on the way, excitement has indeed been growing throughout Aotearoa. “We did several tours of the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand off the back of our last album, but we’ve also gone through a few personnel changes throughout the band since then which partly explains the hiatus,” Ngatae declared as we began our conversation.
“Around the release of Dust And Dirt I had been playing with the band as a kind of stunt double for Mike Fabulous, the original Black Seeds guitarist,” Ngatae exclaimed. “He has a couple of kids and was working on getting his Lord Echo project off the ground, so preferred to stay based in New Zealand, so he would do the Australasian runs and I would cover the more gruelling, overseas tours. That worked well for a few years until Fab [Fabulous] decided to leave the band and the boys asked me to join the band full time, which was a huge honour for me.”
Shortly after, bass player Tim Jaray also parted ways with the band, thus resulting in the recruiting of Ned’s long time friend and the band’s newest full time member, Francis Harawira. “Prior to Mike and Tim leaving, the boys had been well underway on a new album in the studio, so when Francis and I took over, it became a question of whether we release what they had made, re-do their guitar and bass parts, or just start completely start over as a new incarnation of the band, which ended up being the decision we agreed to,” Ngatae admit. “We kept a couple of ideas from the original sessions that the boys had done, but we completely re-recorded and re-worked them all to go with this new direction that we were feeling,” he concluded.
When asked what sets Fabric apart from the band’s previous records, Ngatae confessed,”It’s definitely still a Black Seeds album, but I think by having Francis and I onboard, the change of personnel set it off on a slightly different trajectory.”
“Mike has had a big hand in managing the production duties of the band’s last few albums, so for this record it has been a bit more of a communal experience with Barnaby (Weir), Nigel (Patterson) and myself handling the production duties,” he explained. “We all brought ideas both instrumental and lyrical to the table and put whatever demo’s we’d come up with in our own studios into a dropbox folder for everyone to listen over,” he continued. “Lee Prebble has engineered and co-produced all of The Black Seeds albums prior to this, so we wanted to continue working with him again, so around September last year we took about 30 tracks to his studio in Wellington to track them properly with the band, eventually culling half of that original list to a top15 that we all agreed on.”
Admitting that he’s never aspired to be a lyricist himself, Ngatae revealed just how some of his lyrics did indeed end up on this record. “There were a couple of songs that I brought to the table which up until the eleventh hour were still instrumentals, so to get the ball rolling and give the guys some inspiration for vocal ideas, I demoed a few of my own, but then Barnaby turned around and said, ‘great, lets sing that!” he chuckled. “We did a song together called Ride On which was really my first little foray into writing lyrics. It was a very interesting process for me because I don’t really consider myself much of a lyricist and I still don’t to be honest, but it seemed to work out really well and somehow I’ve ended up with my lyrics being on the album, which is pretty awesome!”
When it came to lyrical inspiration behind the tracks he penned, Ngatae confessed that Ride On is a song of celebration. “It’s a celebration of all the places we’ve toured over the last few years and the people we’ve encountered,” he acknowledged. “For me, touring and traveling the world, going to all of these places that I’d never even dreamt of going to, is one of the best things about being in a band. The thing that makes those experiences so rich is connecting with people and resonating with them on the same wave length, which quite often happens in places where people have a completely different culture and language, yet we still manage to connect.” A feeling, Ngatae admits came from playing shows throughout South America last year.
“For a lot of us it was our first time in South America,” he proclaimed. “It always blows my mind when touring throughout European countries and playing to a room full of people, many of whom know english as a second language, if at all, will be singing along to the lyrics at the top of their lungs. It’s such a special feeling and a true testament to the power of music, bringing people together regardless of ethnicity, culture and language. So throughout Ride On we give a shout out to a lot of the places we’ve been touring, from Canada to the US, Europe and Brazil, we’ve also snuck a few places in there like Hawaii that we haven’t been yet, but I’m a strong believer in self-fulfilling prophecies, so I’m hoping that by putting it in there, we might get some shows over that way,” he chuckled.
“Another song I wrote and produced called Wake Up is probably the most political I’ve ever got when it comes to writing,” Ngatae declared. In a similar vein to The Answer from the band’s 2006 album Into The Dojo, Ngatae explained that this song talks about ‘capitalism gone mad in the world.’ “It’s a call to arms to people to wake up and snap out of their complacency of going along with what’s happening and it also poses the question of ‘what are you doing to the world, what’s your end game and where are you taking this,’ to the one percent of the powers that be.”
With each song holding its own poignant message rooted in Aotearoa, Ngatae confesses that the album as a cohesive body of work is very inspired by their travels and experiences from the past five years, touching on how eye-opening touring overseas can be. “I think overall there is a positive, uplifting sentiment purveyed through most of the album. There are some darker moments, but even those moments exist with an optimistic outlook, aiming to make things better or find redemption from those negative situations or times.”
Speaking of touring, it’s no unknown fact that The Black Seeds eight-piece live show is legendary. Infusing raw energy and good vibes wherever they go, Ngatae revealed their transitional process, when it comes to taking their new material, from the studio to the live stage, as they prepare for their upcoming national album release tour.
“It has been a fun challenge recreating these songs as they appear on the album, but I like to think we’re rising to it!” he chuckled. “Each song on the record is so different to how it originally started out, so we’re having to figure out what is actually happening in each track. There’s so many different synth and keyboard parts with numerous layers and textures, so we’re incorporating some more sampled elements into the set which the boys will trigger live on stage too.”
“We can’t wait to play them! It has been so long since the original conception of the ideas, to recording, mixing, mastering and finalising the album, and for me, this will be the first time with the band playing songs that I’ve had a hand in writing, recording and producing, so it’s definitely like I’m putting my babies out into the world. Obviously the boys have got such a strong catalogue of tunes, so we’re hoping that this album is received as well as their previous releases. We’re certainly very proud of how it has turned out, so we hope that everyone loves it as much as we do!”
The Black Seeds – FABRIC is out September 8.