By Bill Gordon
Earlier in the year The Strange Brew reviewed On Sunset Lake by Kontiki Suite. Intrigued by Jason’s review I decided to investigate and listened to the single from the CD – Magic Carpet Ride. For me it was one of those eureka moments when you realise that you have discovered something special. At this point I have to admit to being of a certain age and having been an avid consumer of music for over 40 years, such moments have become increasingly rare.
At a time when music is marketed as merely something to be consumed, like tins of beans, it seems that great songs, played and recorded with warmth and emotion are overlooked. So it is great to see the many very positive reviews, in the UK and internationally, that On Sunset Lake has gathered. My enjoyment of the CD led me to the bands website, where the experience is enhanced by the visual impact of the videos which impeccably reflect and enhance the songs.
I was determined to find out more about the Kontiki Suite and how they created this musical gem. Happily for me Craig [Craig Bright – keyboards & percussion] and Jonny [Jonny Singh – guitars, lap steel & backing vocals] from the band gave me some of their time to chat about the creation of the CD and how they achieved a warmth and clarity that is both vintage and modern. Something not often heard in contemporary recordings.
Firstly, I want to say how much I enjoyed the album.
Thanks for the kind words. We’ve been absolutely blown away by the response we’ve had. It’s weird, we really never knew how folk would respond to it, but it really seems to have been embraced by like-minded music lovers.
My particular favourite song is Magic Carpet Ride, both the original and remix versions are great. It achieves that rare feat of being both familiar and new at the same time. There is some great guitar on Magic Carpet Ride. However, it is the longest track on the album. What was the reason for choosing it as the single? Hollywood, for example, struck me as being a more likely candidate for a single and may have wider appeal.
We’ve been ending our live sets with Carpet Ride since, pretty much, the beginning and it quickly became a live favourite. It was usually the track that most people would be buzzing about after gigs. I think its crossover potential helped us out on occasion too if we were playing showcase type gigs to a varied audience. I think the track has got longer and longer over the years. I’m sure we’ve even clocked in a 20 minute version on occasion but managed to restrain ourselves to under 9 minutes for the album.
I don’t recall there ever being a discussion about singles, as I’m not really sure if we ever planned to release one as such. If there was then this was made easy for us anyway as Richard Norris had produced a great remix of it and kindly released it as a double A side on his 5D record label.
Jonny is right, in that there was no conscious decision to release a single, let alone for it to be Magic Carpet Ride. I guess I understood that in order to make any waves in a music world increasingly awash with all types of self-released music, good and bad, we had to make a statement from the get go. To do so, asking a well-respected DJ in Richard Norris to put his stamp on our 9 minute set closer was an obvious choice. As contrary to the norm as that is.
Richard, as one half of Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve with Erol Alkan and had given me some memorable nights at Glastonbury spinning their take on 60s psych and garage tunes as well as great re-edits of more recent folkier stuff by Midlake and Findlay Brown. The decision to release it as a double AA side 12″ was again, the obvious thing to do, because we wanted DJs out there to pick up on the ‘dancier’ mix by Richard and be able to play it at its best, on vinyl.
I felt that Magic Carpet Ride had a bit of a Madchester vibe going on. How did you come to write it?
I wrote the track when I was living in Manchester and back when I was only really a part-time member of the band, if I recall correctly. I’d only recently finished producing the first Kontiki demos, so it must have been 2007. I think even from the moment of strumming the chords on the acoustic, I knew what sound I wanted from it. It came from an appreciation of what Ben [Ben Singh lead vocals and guitar] had already been writing for the band and our more obvious 60s influences. It also came from our, or really ‘my’, less obvious influences from early 90s shoegaze bands like Ride, Swervedriver and My Bloody Valentine.
I’d also been spinning Notorious Byrd Brothers heavily at the time, which all helped the trippy swirling grooves and harmonies of Carpet Ride just fall into place, even in the first demo I put together of it. In fact, that demo is probably more psychedelic than the proper version.
Where and how did you record the album? Was it a local studio and if so do you think familiar surroundings contributed to the warm feel of the album? The production is very supportive of the songs. Did you get involved or if a producer was used, were they known to you before recording?
We recorded the album ourselves between our rehearsal room and my basement studio, so really recording technique decisions were kind of made easy by what equipment I had. The number of available mics and inputs was usually the main factor. Having our own studio was a huge benefit to achieving the right sound. It allowed us to take our time to get it all just how we wanted it. Although, sometimes this luxury can lead to too much time being taken.
Did you record any of the songs as a band, with overdubs as required or did you all lay down your parts individually? I feel some of the warmth that comes through in the songs is not just the recording techniques but also to do with closeness of the band.
Initial tracking was generally performed as a 3 or 4 piece to get the drums down at the right tempo and groove. Everything else was then tracked individually to get the best performances down. We are generally a well-rehearsed band anyway so I think that adds to capturing that “closeness” sound that you mention. A lot of recording techniques went into it too. I experimented with “vintage” mic’ing techniques, for want of a better description, such as only mic’ing up the kit in mono with 3 mics, which I think adds a lot to the sound of the album.
The production of album sounds excellent and perfectly complements the music. It has the clarity of digital with the warmth of analogue and you have avoided that overproduced, pro tooled to death, sound that to me blights some contemporary recordings.
I couldn’t agree more about a lot of stuff being pro tool’d to death and was very conscious about wanting to achieve something that sounded old and warm, but still with that professional clarity.
It’s a fine line, I guess. That said; sometimes to achieve these things you do have to delve into the power of the software and pro tool (or in my case – Logic Pro) an individual take to death. I think it’s just a careful balance of embracing the technology to achieve the best results but keeping it natural and true to the original performance.
Being mindful of how geeky this may all now be getting, but I also used analogue bussing techniques and a wealth of luscious Universal Audio vintage plug-ins to gel the sound and create those big reverbs, but the real icing on the cake comes from the fine people at Peerless Mastering in Boston. They did an incredible job and really understood what sound we wanted by adding that tape warmth.
Everyone I have spoken too about the CD has commented on the how good it sounds, along with how much they have enjoyed the songs, a complete package. Speaking of a complete package there are a number of videos on your website. I found the videos beautifully put together, very atmospheric and “in tune” with the songs. To me they feel personal to the band, what involvement does you all have with the videos? Do you contribute ideas or otherwise get involved in the process or is it just a case of final approval?
We are often quite lucky to be approached by people wanting to get involved or just having good friends that do us huge favours. My mate, Ian Howe, directed the video for Magic Carpet Ride on a Sunday afternoon, in a field, in the middle of nowhere. Just him, a good eye and his HD camera. Ian also filmed the two videos of Ben playing acoustic tracks at our rehearsal room.
The second video we released, for Music Man, was, would you believe, put together by me on my Mac using footage I had recently recorded on my iPhone in New Orleans, Texas and Chicago. Ian was kind enough to put a great deal of professional effort into the Magic Carpet Ride video, and although I was concerned that putting a video out there which would in essence be the production value anti-thesis of it, the footage I had shot in America seemed perfect to capture the mood of a song like Music Man.
On the theme of capturing the mood the cover of On Sunset Lake, like all the great covers, reflects the musical contents and sets the mood for what is to come. How did it come about, did you commission it specifically or was it a pre-existing piece of work that you felt was suitable?
The artwork for the album was indeed commissioned specifically and was done by our designer and all round space gent Luke Insect. We first used Luke for the Magic Carpet Ride single artwork and wanted to maintain that style from that point on. He managed to blend together feels of dreaminess, rurality and summer in a great organic and psychedelic way, which is exactly what we wanted.
Most guitarists are influenced to pick take up the guitar because of a “hero”. There is some really excellent slide guitar and lap steel playing, – not something widely associated with British bands. Was there a lap / pedal steel player who was a prime influence, British or American, that led to slide playing or was it a case of that instrument being an essential part of the sound of some of your influences?
I’d never owned, played or even touched a lap steel until I joined the band in 2007. With already having 2 guitarists in the band, I was enlisted to add the lap steel element and occasional keys to the sound, as well as the odd guitar track. I think the slide sound was crucial to what we were trying to achieve as we all loved pedal steel players like Sneaky Pete and Jay Dee Maness. Albums like Sweetheart, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, Safe At Home, Gilded Palace of Sin etc are all favourites of ours and form part of the Kontiki blueprint. I think I’ll need to blow the cobwebs off my pedal steel and lock myself away for the next 20 years to come anywhere close to those guys, but for now, the lap steel is doing ok for us.
A lot of the bands you have cited as influences are more my era than yours – where did you come across / hear the bands that influenced you – a parents’ record collection or other sources?
In terms of other influences, our (mine and Ben’s) dad used to have a blue BASF cassette that lived in the Singh family car. Elvis on one side and the Beatles on the other. It’s what we grew up listening to. There were also Simon and Garfunkel and Carpenters tapes in there, but it was the blue BASF that was the family favourite.
Craig (the Music Man) has been a huge supplier of feeding the Kontiki hunger for knowledge of great music from years past. I don’t know how he finds some of the stuff that he throws our way but he rarely lets us down. Ben has always listened to good music and I think that’s evident in his classic song writing style. My CD collection holds several embarrassments but also probably more varied than the rest. Dirty affairs with the likes of hip hop, trip hop and dance music have graced my past, but it all adds to the melting pot when I’m producing, I guess. Even writing things like bass lines, believe it or not, but a lot of that comes from producing hip-hop grooves back in the day.
Kontiki Suite – a great name – where did it come from, why choose it, does it represent anything. To me the name reminds me of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition, named after the Inca god of Sun and storm. Heyerdahl sailed 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean in a self-built, balsawood raft to demonstrate that ancient people could make long sea voyages – creating contacts between apparently separate cultures. It could be said that your sound is a merger of American / British musical culture – the North-West Coast sound.
Your suggestion that our name is connected to the Thor Heyerdahl tale is true, albeit by association. Kontiki is the name of an album by a band called Cotton Mather, which I love, and I believe that Robert (Harrison, from Cotton Mather) named the album after the expedition story. Your theory about it being a metaphor for the connectivity of, trans-Atlantic in this case, musical styles and culture may well be true and have formed part of Robert’s thinking.
The ‘Suite’ part of the name actually came from another band I love, the Olivia Tremor Control, and in particular their epic tune, Green Typewriters Suite, from their classic Dusk At Cubist Castle album.
The album is getting lots of good reviews across the world (Spain, Germany, and New Zealand). What is next for Kontiki Suite? In the old days it would be touring, radio exposure etc. Technology has maybe decreased the need for the old ways to increase exposure, so any plans for more videos, or perhaps an online show, or more gigs.
Our second album is pretty much all recorded and Jonny is due to start mixing it soon. We want to get it out there as soon as possible, while trying to give as much space to On Sunset Lake to live a life of it’s own without having a younger sibling in tow demanding the attention of its parents.
We will certainly continue to find ways to get our name and music known more widely, and that will no doubt involve live shows and more videos, possibly even more remixes but perhaps other ideas we have yet to think of. We are currently a band self financed and doing as much as we can in the time left over from life’s other more menial obligations, so touring, especially abroad, is a tricky prospect, but something which is certainly on our radar.
One of our immediate priorities is releasing On Sunset Lake on vinyl, which we hope will happen this Spring.
Jonny and Craig thank you for your time. I am looking forward to hearing what you do next and hopefully catching you live if you play in Yorkshire.
If you haven’t yet heard On Sunset Lake do give it a listen.
Also check out the bands website for the latest new, video clips and other information: http://www.kontikisuite.co.uk/