As Fat Freddy's Drop prepares to help Nelson ring in 2010, the band will be looking back on a year which had its dramas. By Alice Cowdrey.
It was a dark night on a six-lane freeway on the way into Los Angeles when the members of Fat Freddy's Drop found themselves in a spot of bother.
A trailer containing all of their instruments came loose from the bus they were travelling in. The trailer flipped over a safety barrier, tumbling down a steep bank. Online video footage shows the band members at 2am grimly retrieving an amplifier, a drum and a smashed-up saxophone case.
Inside were the remains of a 1961 baritone saxophone.
"It was a complete write-off," says the owner of the instrument, Scott Towers (aka Chopper Reedz).
Word of the accident got around quickly and Towers says people were emailing and phoning him from around the world offering advice on where he could get a new one.
One guy holidaying in Holland who read a blog report about the accident told Towers about a friend who worked in a store about 30 minutes out of Amsterdam which sold the instrument Towers was after. On arriving for a gig in the city, Towers caught a cab to the shop and found a 1960 vintage baritone sax, similar to his squashed one. "Even the serial numbers are similar."
Looking back on the accident now, it actually seems a little scary, Towers says.
"It could have been a complete diaster. We were calm at the time and post-accident, but I think everyone realises that it could have gone horribly wrong. It would have been a nightmare."
Near-tragedies aside, it's been an epic ride for the band who this year released their second album, Boondigga and The Big BW. Now they are psyching themselves up for a big summer, and tonight will welcome in the new year at the Riwaka Hotel.
Most of the seven-piece "family" of musicians grew up together in Wellington and over the years have won a legion of fans and respect. Emerging through a multitude of groups including funk jam bands, reggae sound systems, jazz improvisation and live techno groups, the musicians have stuck to an independent attitude, releasing their music through The Drop, their artist-operated label.
Towers officially joined the Freddy's family in December 2007, but has been jamming with the band on and off since 2002. He has been a part of the New Zealand music scene for the past 15 years after completing a music degree in jazz performance.
Towers is a vinyl junkie ("like many of those other fools"), collecting vintage soul, funk and jazz. He is a huge fan of the masters, including James Brown, Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, but also has a "huge" soft spot for female soul and funk singers such as Aretha and Erma Franklin, Ann Robinson, Dee Edwards and Ann Peebles. "It's something about the boom-bap drums, strings, horns and bittersweet vocals that kill me."
Catching up on a bit of rest and relaxation before the hectic summer, Towers says Fat Freddy's Drop's tour to the States, Britain and Europe was a big success. Shows were sold out "and people were travelling for thousands of miles to see the gig". It wasn't only nostalgic Kiwis either, but locals who found the music through the internet or caught the band while visiting New Zealand.
"The telling thing for us was that the gigs sold out quickly after advertised."
Tickets were turning up on an online classifieds site selling for five or six times the original price. "That's really encouraging when it's our first time in a new territory and the response was as positive as it was."
London, previously an audience of expats for Fat Freddy's Drop, produced a more international crowd.
Since getting home, Towers has been weeding the garden and enjoying being a stay-at-home dad with his two-year-old son. Although he lives in Auckland, and the rest of the band are in Wellington, before a "season" of gigs they get together and practise. The set Fat Freddy's Drop are currently playing has taken on a different flavour and is a "more club-orientated show", Towers says.
"There's lots of deep percussion and groove-based areas. We are trying out some new songs in that vein, and rearranging some old songs off [first album] Based on a True Story so they fit into that vibe as well. It's really about bringing a really energetic show together."
The band had a dedicated lighting technician in Europe, which made all of the difference to the crowd, Towers says.
That will continue for the New Zealand tour. "It helps to enhance the mood of the music for the audience."
The band always leaves room for spontaneity, Towers says. "Their approach to playing is quite unique, coming from a jazz background and having to improvise, but the truth is that Fat Freddy's Drop adhere to that ethic more strongly than most jazz bands.
"Any departure and side journey is totally legitimate and you have to have your wits about you and listen hard. They are quite draining shows because you gotta be on your A-grade."