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Good Laika

Good Laika

Monday 9th August, 2010 12:37PM

Interview completed by Robin Hinkley, vocalist/guitarist of Good Laika – July 2009.

Been around since?

We’ve been playing together in our current form for around six years, though there were a few preceding years of “will they, won’t they?” leading up to the time when we stepped outside and declared ourselves a real band.

Current lineup?

Robin Hinkley (vocals and guitar), Ricky Boyd (drums), Matthew Armitage (bass and vocals), Nic Marshal (keys) and Jason Fa’afoi (guitar and vocals).

Where are you based?

In Wellington. If you listen very carefully to our album you can almost hear the bucket fountain on Cuba street splashing intrigued tourists.

Musical History?

Looking at our individual musical histories and influences, Good Laika is a bit of a mongrel really. We have all played in other bands, and bring quite different musical backgrounds to the party. Ricky Boyd, who played in the Accelerants and masterminded the invigorating fifties and sixties covers band The Boomshack Band, trained as a jazz musician, and has been developing a new method of drum notation over the last few years. His book on The Boyd Method is close to being finished. Matthew Armitage, a guitarist by training, also studied at jazz school, but plays the bass for Good Laika. He was in the original line-up of funk/soul band Odessa, and is about to go on tour in Germany with his other band Ginger Brown. Nic Marshal played keys for lush art-rock band Verona, though she is a successful graphic designer and makes frequent trips to New York under the guise of managing a Jim Henson event for children. Jason Fa’afoi played guitar for The Stereobus, and divides his many talents between music, television and saying hello to well-meaning strangers. I sang and played guitar for the now defunct pop-rock band Bleakhouse, and have been juggling music commitments with teaching at primary school level for the last three years. If there’s an element of “come on children, let’s all clap and sing” to Good Laika’s songs, which there isn’t, it will be because of this.

Good Laika got together mainly because Ricky was very persistent. He and I came into contact when Bleakhouse played a gig with his old band Canvas [don’t edit this out Ricky – we must all embrace our former musical lives!]. I heard that Ricky was a football player, and enlisted him in my indoor team, which gave Ricky more opportunities to insist that we play some music together with Jason. It must have been like herding cats, but eventually we all ended up in the same house with the appropriate instruments. We never looked back (apart from the time when Jason hit the curb on the way home from an Auckland tour and scraped the hub-cap off our hire van). Nic, who was a friend of Jason’s, joined the band soon after (following a grueling audition of course), then Matthew picked up the bass and thought it wasn’t such a bad instrument after all. Seeing the damage he could have done to himself and others away from the watchful eye of caring friends, we let him in the band.

How do you describe your sound?

Our first album Heads I Win, Tails You Lose was quite mellow overall, with elements of folk, blues, soul and rock. The songs ranged from warm and homely to bitter and edgy, and if you put the album on for a dance, you might find yourself swaying gently a fair bit of the time, but there would also be times when shaking your hips wildly might be appropriate. Our new album is a bit more difficult to pin down, though again there are rock, folk, blues and soul elements to it. One friend also said that one of our songs, Patuna Chasm, sounded like Gypsy Jazz, but I think he was drunk. We have been likened to a great number of quite different bands, only some of which we have heard of.

What are you listening to at the moment?

As I have been travelling around Asia without a personal music player for these last six months (I left my MP3 player on the plane on my very first flight – moron!), all my recent music listening has been involuntary. In India, everyone was playing music. On the sleeper trains at night young Indian men would pull out their mobile phones and play their favourite music on high volume, looking around the carriage as if they were providing all the other passengers with the greatest gift. Not to be outdone in generosity, others would load up their own phones with their pick for best song and play them simultaneously. Walking through the streets, we heard lots of quite interesting cyclical devotional songs about Shiva and some of the worst of American R ‘n’ B. One Indian artist that stood out for me was A R Rahman, who wrote the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire, though calling him the Indian Mozart, as one Mumbai critic did, is probably going a bit far. In Southeast Asia we heard lots of soppy, bland love songs that made me feel like I’d eaten too much sticky rice pudding. Unfortunately I never really connected with the real Thai, Vietnamese or Malaysian music scenes, and just got the commercial dross. We saw some very talented covers bands play live, and I have no doubt that South-east Asia is teeming with under-exposed musical geniuses.

What were you listening to in high school?

Making appearances in my juvenile playlist were the Beatles, Dire Straits, Paul Simon, The Muttonbirds, Beastie Boys, Blur, Ben Harper, Radiohead, The Eagles, the Beach Boys, Crowded House, Split Enz, Don McLean, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Cranberries, Soundgarden, The Everly Brothers and Pearl Jam amongst many others. At my Dad’s house I listened to Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Bogle and a few obscure but beautiful folk records that he had picked up at various festivals throughout my childhood.

What is your writing/recording process?

Someone starts playing an idea that they’ve been working on at home. Everyone else’s eyes light up, and they start pookling along. Someone tries something crazy. Matthew laughs and Ricky shouts “Yeah!” from behind the drum kit. Jason plays along like he knew the song already and knows how this next bit goes. Nic writes down some chords that, miraculously, she has deciphered from the chaos before her, and Ricky asks her why she doesn’t just use the charts that, miraculously, he has already prepared. Matthew suggests an alternate chord progression for a particular section that is just crazy enough to work, and then he teaches me how to play D sharp minor seven diminished twelfth augmented. After playing along with reckless abandon for ages, someone decides it’s time to tidy up the mess and impose some form upon the ‘song’. Usually the duty falls upon the person who was rash enough to bring the idea to practice in the first place.

By the time we get to the recording studio, all of these creative events combined are starting to look like an album worth of songs, and so far we have aimed to capture them as truly as possible by recording them as live as possible. This involves setting up all of our instruments in one big room, building isolation chambers to prevent leaking between tracks and to punish wayward guitar amps, setting up mood lighting and sitting in an intimate circle, eating pies and drinking beer.

Your dream collaboration?

I would dearly love to work with someone very rich who could play the triangle, though they would need to realize that there is not a place for the triangle in every song, and that often hitting it just once, very quietly, is enough. Personally, I don’t dream of collaborating with the international musicians whose music I love, but love working with the talented musicians that I know from around home.

Tell us about your new album…

As with our first album, Followed by a Trail of Sparks was recorded by Nic McGowan at Island Bay Studios. Something that worked well on our first album that we wanted to try again was a trip away together leading up to the recording process. Before recording Heads I Win, Tails You Lose we spent a beautiful weekend at a bach on Waitarere Beach. This time we opted to stay in an old hunting lodge deep in native forest in the Wairarapa. I already had some unhappy history with this place, and was morbidly interested in how this would affect my experience of the trip and my creative process. The trip was a disaster in every sense apart from musically. One of our two vehicles overheated while driving over the Rimutakas and needed regular breathers for the rest of the trip. To ease the struggling car’s burden, we loaded all of the heavy instruments into the other, which made it so heavy that the rear spoiler scraped along the ground, causing sparks to fly off behind us.

We meant to pick up the key to the lodge from a dairy in Featherston, but discovered upon our arrival that it was closed. I went across the road to a shop that was open to ask how I could get the key, and the woman there scowled at me. “No, you’re too late”, she said, displaying severely limited PR skills. “Hey Darlene”, she yelled to her co-worker in the back of the shop, “There’s a young man here thinks he can get the key to the old lodge at 8pm”. “You’re joking!” Darlene scoffed from behind a box of Toilet Duck. “Tell him he’s out of luck”. “Already did”, yelled Limited PR Skills. Leaving the conversation that I wasn’t sure I was part of, we determined to head to the lodge anyway and try our hand at breaking and entering, which turned out to be a breeze. The real problem was getting our gear-laden cars through the locked gate, which we couldn’t, so we lugged everything through the spooky woods in complete darkness. After a successful weekend (apart from the minor event of losing all of our recordings), we were all packed up and ready to go, but Matthew’s car refused to start, meaning that we had to drive into cell-phone range to call AA to come and tow it away. We drove away from the lodge followed by a trail of sparks, our nerves frazzled and all in agreement that we should have another weekend like this really soon. That weekend turned out to be a formative one for us, and we carried the mood into our recordings.

Is this your first release? Tell us of others…

This is our second album. Our first, Heads I Win, Tails You Lose, was released in 2007 after just three days of recording. As with our new album, we played together in the studio, and kept editing to a minimum. All of the main vocal takes on Heads I Win, Tails You Lose were live apart from one, while only one vocal take is live on the new album. Still, all the instrumentals were played and recorded together – something that we found brought spirit and intimacy to the recordings.

If you could have any original vinyl release in the world, what would it be?

The Best of the Everly Brothers. The sweet harmonies and naïve but lovable themes would sound even better with a bit of old record crackle.

Of all the instruments you own or have owned, what is your favourite?

I really loved the bright red bass guitar I bought with my student loan when I was 18. I sold it the following year to pay for two weeks rent (not for a night of chasing women, as a song on our first album so slanderously suggests). But I have found some happiness with my Epiphone Les Paul electric guitar.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learnt musically in the last year?

Aside from learning how to play the D sharp minor seven diminished twelfth augmented chord, I’ve been using guitar pedals for the first time in my life, which is preposterous. I have, up until recently, been satisfied by fairly simple sounds and basic setups. Now I know how to plug pedals in, it’s just a matter of learning what all those knobs are for.

What has been your favourite show to date?

We played in the Wellington botanical gardens on the warmest, sunniest evening of the whole summer a year or so ago. We were playing to a bumper-sized picnic, and everyone was sharing their food with us, which is the kind of thing I dream about. It was such a balmy, relaxed atmosphere, and we couldn’t help but enjoy ourselves immensely.

If you could share the stage with anyone, who would it be?

Paul Simon, but I’d get paranoid that people would think I was trying to emulate Garfunkel. I’d have to sing really low in my register, and avoid white afros during the show.

The future holds?

In the short term, release gigs in Auckland and Wellington, then a national tour when Matthew returns from Germany in October. In the long term, there will certainly be a third Good Laika album, though we’ll need to get chased by dogs across some hillbilly farm or something before we’re ready to record that one.

The state of music in New Zealand is?

I left it in good shape half a year ago, so I’m guessing it’s still going strong, though I am concerned that the current government doesn’t hold the arts in as high regard as the previous one did. Programs aimed at promoting and strengthening the arts in New Zealand are being chipped away, and economic pressures are being pointed to as justification. Personally, if I’m going to have to starve, I’d like some good music to starve to, and a beautiful painting of a three-course meal to look at.

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