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Interview: Six Questions For Ben Lemi Of Dawn Diver

Interview: Six Questions For Ben Lemi Of Dawn Diver

C.C. / Interview by Flo Wilson / Tuesday 8th October, 2019 11:49AM

Led by Pōneke multi-instrumentalist Ben Lemi (Trinity Roots, Congress Of Animals), Dawn Diver have been steadily attracting fans for their kaleidoscopic, soul-inflected tunes with last year's superb DEMOS EP and rare yet highly memorable live appearances. They'll be playing a special After Hours headline event at Wellington Museum this coming Saturday 12th October, featuring Lemi alongside bandmates Deanne Krieg, Rose Blake, bass player Will Sklenars and drummer Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa, and promise a raft of new material is due to drop soon. Fellow sound explorer Flo Wilson (fka Foxtrot) caught up with the artist via cyberspace for an insightful chat, read their conversation below and catch Dawn Diver with projected visuals courtesy of the mega-talented Lady Lazer Light on Saturday...

After Hours: Dawn Diver
Saturday 12th October - Wellington Museum (entry by koha, from 8.30pm)

Flo Wilson: Kia ora Ben! You’re playing some shows soon with Dawn Diver – can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, and what Dawn Diver has been up to lately?

Ben Lemi: We’re a group of musicians who have come together as a result of the artistic melting pot that is Wellington. Deanne Krieg (voice / synth / guitar), Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa (drums), Will Sklenars (bass / synth) and I all studied Jazz at Massey Uni. Rose Blake (voice / synth) comes from a Classical background but also composes in an experimental electronic pop sensibility under the moniker Blaek. DD is fairly ‘green’ in the scheme of things so we’re still in a phase of refining our approach for the live show. As a composer it’s one thing to write some pieces that might sound okay as demos, but a completely different process seeing what happens when you attempt to place those ideas in a live performance setting, thankfully we’re all pretty open to musical exploration and trying out new things. Both Hikurangi and Will have been on decent overseas jaunts for music and other work this year, so it’s nice to be back in the rehearsal room working on material that hopes to challenge both us as performers and the listening audience.

For those people who are new to your music and shows, what would you like them to know about it?

We’ve come together with the understanding that DD’s music isn’t so much about replicating old formulas or sticking solely to the well trodden paths… but to be fair there is a 4/4 beat here and there, and the odd verse / chorus / verse / chorus structure somewhere along the way, so a few decent dollops of stability throughout! I’ve always liked how Split Enz skipped around with genres, so I’ve probably borrowed from their pop brochure. Without going full Sonny and Cher mode I like to experiment with assigning different parts of a narrative to different people, so the lead vocal part is sometimes given to different singers within the same piece. Occasionally a ‘groove’ based idea might seep in to the mix, and Deanne plays a mean tambourine to keep us all sane, so I guess there’s a little something for everyone who’s willing to stick it out. I’m also a big fan of curating the shows so that the experience is about more than just the music. For the Wellington Museum show I’ve asked Will’s sister Lady Lazer Light to contribute with her talents as an AV artist so there will be a crafted visual element to show. 

One thing I’ve been struck by with your live shows is how characterful and visually-charged the polyrhythms and interlocking melodies seem to be! The rhythms seemed to be creating musical dialogues between members of the band i.e. with De and Rose’s vocal hocketing. What do you imagine when you write music?

Musical Dialogues indeed! Yes, Flo I’m stoked, but totally unsurprised by your observational skills! I see hocketing as having a great old time sharing a melody with someone, admittedly it’s not the most chill way of ploughing through a syncopated sequence of music, but hey, it’s good vocal training… and I’m glad that I’ve managed to palm those responsibilities off to Deanne and Rose because I’m often quite busy thinking about my reverb pedal during those times. In terms of images that I have in my head throughout the writing process, I’m often trying to visualise how separate ideas might fit together to create a new energy. I think the hocketing approach does exactly that where you might start with a melodic line written for one voice. That melody is then split between two voices in an alternating fashion so the two voices are working together but in more of a rhythmic fashion as opposed to the conventional “harmonised” approach. A visual demonstration could be that of cars merging like a zip.

Another thing about DD, there is a huge respect of space in the production, as viewed on your DEMOS release from 2018. It seems like the invisible band member! How do you approach the idea of ‘space’ when it comes to your live performance, if at all?

Oh cool! Thanks for bringing this up! I would first comment on how I observed a unique use of ‘space’ employed by your good self in your recorded works '(Please) Keep Breathing' and live performances which is one of the reasons that I was so eager to get you on board for our debut show last year! I need to fact check this but I heard that Fleetwood Mac have a whole bunch of players hidden behind the stage playing additional parts for their concerts, so yeah, great to have invisible members doing a bit of the work for sure.

I think there is a contrast between what DD aims to achieve sonically as a live band, and the layered production of the DEMOS that I initially constructed in the studio at home. In a live performance context I like the idea of using ‘space’ in a way that might be hard to articulate in a recorded work via production techniques. The DEMOS inform us of the essence of the compositions, but I think it’s important that our approach to live performance is not dictated by the static nature of those works. The compositions are there, and if we’ve had enough sleep (or single malt) then the energy is also there, so I would hope that the ’space’ in the music becomes apparent in a more organic fashion.

DD is made up of a supergroup of very talented musicians, how does the range of experience contribute to the dynamic of your performance?

Having other great humans on board means that the music of Dawn Diver can come to life in ways that I could never conceive by myself. I spent a bit of time chucking the ideas together, but when it’s all happening organically in real time with your mates it gets a whole lot more exciting. ‘Range’ is a great word in this context and as I mentioned before 4 out of 5 of us scaled the Jazz school slopes (I’m the only one who slid off the side without a degree, whoops!) but in addition to the wide range of technical proficiencies on offer, I feel like my band mates are all bringing essential nuances to the table that are more personality based than anything else. I guess that feeds back in to the idea that everyone in their own way has adopted a certain amount of dedication to their instrument or voice because it’s important to them.

I think I’ve said this to a lot of people at bars, but one of the great things about playing with Hikurangi is that my understanding of rhythm becomes greatly enhanced due to the fact that he has spent time actually comprehending and demonstrating concepts to do with technique and theory that I only scratch the surface with. Hik’s attention to detail with timbre and tuning are luxurious things to work with in a band context, and it’s just really apparent when you’re locking in with someone who has spent time with Time.

Deanne who writes and performs under the name Whim has been putting together an album for her Masters degree and I’ve been lucky to get some sneak peaks. In terms of production, imagery in the lyrical & aural concepts, and the overarching narrative it’s already a treat to experience. That’s all without mentioning the fact that as a trained Jazz vocalist De’s singing is uniquely silky and powerful. I think as a result of her musical influences outside of Jazz (Björk, Little Dragon to name a couple), and possibly her experience touring with Pacific Heights, that she knows how to place her sound within different contexts, so her versatility has really allowed the concept of DD’s vocal arrangements to come together.

Will is someone who I’ve worked with in quite a few projects over the years. We’ve done tours of NZ and Europe together and he has always been super reliable and level headed both inside and outside of the music, so I really didn’t do much thinking at all in regards to choosing a bass player. A fair amount of DD’s harmonic content sits in murky waters so having someone who’s confident about the sound of their instrument, and has the ability to push the momentum is super important, also having worked with Will the longest I can just trust that he will ‘get’ any musical confusion that I throw his way and make it work.

Rose is the newest member to dive in and it has been an absolute pleasure to work with someone who, like Will, takes on quite undercooked ideas that I’ve dished out and makes them sound good to my ears pretty much straight away. I find that because of the predominant Jazz sensibility in DD’s live iteration, it’s very refreshing to have someone like Rose in the group who has traversed a path between a Classical background and the progressive side of Folk and Alt Folk songwriting, also Rose is a bit of a synth geek so that’s helping the cause greatly.

Got any plans after your shows?

I’m super focused on getting the first album done. I did all the tracking back in January (my new years eve / day was spent in the control room at The Surgery by myself EQ-ing snares and kick drums!) and I’ve been chipping away at the mixes since then. I’ve got some singles lined up for release before the year is out, and our first Auckland show coming up in November at Whammy. So yeah, just keen to get the music out there a with the hope that it resonates far and wide.



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