Fat Freddy's Drop: Beyond Bob

By: Jim Welte

Fat Freddy's Drop by Kerry Brown
By official counts, Bob Marley fathered 11 children. But Tuff Gong's musical ancestry extends far beyond one man's fertility frontier, having spread his sonic seed across the globe in a period so fruitful that his progeny continue to turn up in far-flung places nearly three decades after his death.

In 1979, Marley performed a set at the Sweetwaters Music Festival on the West Coast of New Zealand's North Island. Jamaican riddims fit Kiwis nicely, and the socially conscious lyrics tapped into the longstanding struggle of the indigenous Maori people for cultural and political recognition. The aftershocks from that show continue to be felt to this day, as a diverse and burgeoning dub and reggae influenced music scene in the capital city of Wellington has blossomed and taken its own message on tour around the globe. Bands like The Black Seeds, Salmonella Dub, and TrinityRoots have all had a hand in spreading the New Zealand reggae gospel over the past decade-plus.

But none has done it like Fat Freddy's Drop, and there are a few crucial reasons why. For one, the septet boasts a multi-tentacled sound that seems to grow each time the band tours a new part of the world, while also remaining true to its dub and reggae roots. Its new album, Dr. Boondigga & the Big BW (released in U.S. November 10 on !K7), based on a fictional nemesis and his brain-washing robot henchman, reveals a beast of a band that seems ready to unleash the hounds. Secondly, they have taken their time since forming in 1999, touring the U.K. and Europe consistently and biding their time for a U.S. onslaught, which officially kicks off this week with a brief tour of California (full tour dates here).

Fat Freddy's Drop by Kerry Brown
Finally and most importantly, Fat Freddy's Drop is fronted by a voice for the ages. Dallas Tamaira (aka Joe Dukie) is a singer with so much warmth and soul in his voice that he'd captivate you whether he was busking on the corner or crooning intermittent verses amidst a cacophony of horns and techno thumps, as he is on Boondigga's marathon second track, "Shiverman." Dukie, who got his nickname by combining the names of his musician father and grandfather, is the best singer you've never heard of. He draws on verses from prominent Maori authors like Hone Tuwhare and Witi Ihimaera, and says that his early imitations of people like Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross "sounded [like] shit, so I had to kind of find my own voice."

As a result, the sound of Fat Freddy's Drop is a "Lovely Day"-era Bill Withers backed by the Aggrovators, with Mad Professor at the controls.

Like many intrepid musical excursions, it all began with some terribly good LSD. After their jam band Bongmaster fizzled out around 1998, Dukie, trumpeter Toby Laing and Samoan beatmaker Chris Faiumu (aka Fitchie aka Mu) began playing parties and club gigs. Mu had a host of regular DJ gigs, and he'd play all sorts of instrumentals, from house to soulful hip hop, over which Dukie and Laing could sing and play. Using vinyl limited the group a bit – "By the time they'd worked out some good ideas and some good melodies, the song would be over," Mu says – so he bought an MPC 2000 sampler and started making his own beats.

Dallas Tamaira by Kerry Brown
The trio was tasked by the college radio station where Mu worked to come up with a song for a compilation. The flavor of the month LSD at that time in New Zealand featured the image of the Fat Freddy's Cat from Gilbert Shelton's comic strip, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Over two days of writing, recording, mixing and mastering "Hope," a soulful piece of sanguine space-out jazz, emerged. "We indulged," says Mu. "We were quite young then."

When asked what their group name was and having given it no thought, they put down Fat Freddy's Drop. "We had planned to change the name but as time went on it was kind of too late," Mu says. "We were too slack to change the name to a proper one, but people who didn't know the story behind it liked the ring of it."

Mu created the independent label The Drop that same year and steadily began releasing 12-inch singles, including "Midnight Marauders," which was re-released by German electronic stalwart Sonar Kollektiv. Thus began a series of regular treks to Europe for the band and a growing following there fueled by tastemakers like BBC Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson. Mu also built himself a ProTools studio in the basement of his waterfront home in Wellington, a move that fostered a family vibe that has helped anchor the band through marriages and kids.

Fat Freddy's 2006 debut album, Based On a True Story, featured tracks they'd been playing live for up to six years. It was aggressively mellow, rarely venturing outside soulful head-nodding territory. It was also spellbinding, the kind of record that pulls you in deeper with each spin.

Fat Freddy's Drop by Kerry Brown
But unsurprisingly for a band that births most of its songs out of jam sessions, Fat Freddy's Drop has fortified its rep on tour. As a fill-in at the Movement electronic music festival in Detroit in 2004, the band took the stage in front of about five people. "No one knew who the hell we were," Mu says, "but we played a two and a half hour set and by the end, we attracted a huge crowd and people were digging it."

Other than that show, Fat Freddy's Drop hasn't performed in the U.S. and Based On a True Story never got a U.S. distribution deal. As a result, a band that has been doing its thing for a decade, selling out shows in Europe and winning a bevy of awards in its home country, is largely unknown in America. The band had previous plans to tour the U.S. but they never came together, either because of the length of the trip, dependable European support, or post 9/11 nerves.

"We're so far removed from America and it's easy to look at America as such a huge place that you think, where do you start?" Mu says.

"We took what we thought was a safe option," Dukie adds.

With Boondigga out through the !K7 label in the U.S. and the band set to tour California, all that is about to change, and both Mu and Dukie are thrilled at the opportunity. In the age of Obama, Dukie is sure that American listeners will take to older songs like "Hope for a Generation" and "Ray Ray," which asks, "What's the world with no soul?"

Boondigga sees the band spreading its wings, from the techno-meets-Gypsy jazz on "Shiverman" to a New Orleans flavor on "The Nod" that would be right at home in any second line parade. On the dubbed-out "The Raft," Dukie hints at big things with lines like, "Although my people may not be many/ we are ready for the storm to come."

"The time just feels right for us now to come to the States," Dukie says. "We've done a lot of material, and it's the kind of material that I would love to play for the American audience. We want to give them a taste of where we're from and show them what makes us who we are. I know that there are people over there that will be able to appreciate that kind of thing."

"It really feels like a long time coming," he adds. "I can't wait. And I'm nervous as well."

Fat Freddy's Drop Tour Dates
11/19/09 Thu The Independent San Francisco, CA
11/20/09 Fri The Roxy Theatre West Hollywood, CA
11/21/09 Sat WorldBeat Center San Diego, CA
11/22/09 Sun Saint Rocke Hermosa Beach, CA
11/26/09 Thu The Paradiso Amsterdam, NL
11/27/09 Fri Astra Berlin, GER
11/29/09 Sun Le Bataclan Paris, FRA
11/30/09 Mon Hammersmith Apollo London, GB
12/01/09 Tue Manchester Academy Manchester, GB

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[Published on: 11/17/09]

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