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Interview with Nathan Haines

March 3, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I managed to volunteer myself to interview New Zealand producer/saxophonist/flutist/gold album selling musician Nathan Haines, who is soon releasing a new album. This is the full interview, with only minor editing. A severely cut down version should appear in Canta magazine in a week or two. I think it turned out to be more of a fun rambling chat than a proper album-boosting interview but it was my first ever interview…

Q: Have you had a busy summer finishing up the album or is it one of those ones where it been done for months and not released yet for some reason?

A: No, no. Some of the tunes are very new, I’ve been working on it for over a year I guess. I was over in London for two months recording some vocals. Still finishing off the cover work that my friend Martin Popplewell who’s a wonderful artist is doing. We’re in the very final stages, as well as all the gigging and stuff, I’m doing some more this weekend so it’s pretty full on. We’re off to Indonesia in a week and a half as well.

Q: A lot of big jazz fans in Indonesia?

A: Well, it’s the Java Jazz Festival which is one of the biggest in the world, and we don’t just play jazz either, we encompass all sorts of music. Did they send you a copy of the album?

Q: Yeah, they did

A: Oh, well there you go, well you wouldn’t call it a jazz album would you?

Q: That was one of the things I was going to ask you about actually, the publicity is always “Nathan Haines, New Zealand’s Number One Jazz Artist”…

A: For me it’s always been about music. That’s what I get classified as, but anyone who actually goes to my gigs or has any of my records knows that I’ve had a rich and varied life in music, and it would be a shame just to confine yourself to one style, you know? I like all styles equally, for me it’s just about music. But on iTunes for instance I’m classified under “Electronic” so it doesn’t concern me too much.

Q: So listening to the album, on the first few tracks there’s not a lot of sax and flute at the forefront…

A: No, but I’ve written all the tracks obviously and I’m playing, for instance, on the first two tracks I’m playing all the keyboards.

Q: So you’re into the production side of things now?

A: Absolutely, but this is my first solo record where I’m producing the whole record myself. The album you’ve got isn’t even mastered so it doesn’t even have track listings, but for people who get the album they’ll see that for instance on the very first track, well apart from the introduction, there’s only three people playing on that and that’s me, my brother and the drummer. My brother played the bass and guitar and I’m playing the keys. So people do think of me as a sax player but I’ve been many other things for many years around the world and it’s time for people in New Zealand maybe to catch up with what’s going on.

Q: Most of the time if you talk to someone about saxophone, I play a little myself and if you say you play saxophone people say “Oh, I love the saxophone” but nobody seems to really listen to the saxophone that much…

A: That is the thing, I grew up in a jazz environment and I left New Zealand in 1991 and moved to New York and then I moved to London. I was playing with musicians around the world. One of my first record deals was with Verve in New York, and I had a record out there. That still wasn’t actually a jazz record either. But it was marketed as such in New Zealand and that got me my first Gold record in New Zealand. Pauly Fuemana from OMC was on there as a guest. It was encompassing all these things, and it was a real muso’s album. Some of the young guys we meet say “Oh we grew up with that record”. So I guess my challenge has been to, even though I have my skills on the saxophone and flute has been to learn other things, to learn about production, learn to play keys, and also to make saxophone relevant, or actually, to make it irrelevant, because I think it’s irrelevant what musical instrument you play, it’s more about your musicality, your vision as a bandleader, and the records you make. So I don’t even think about that I’m playing saxophone sometimes. I also sing as well, I mean I’m singing the track “Heaven and Earth” on there.

Q: I saw you play at the Civic a couple of years back and you sang a couple of songs.

A: Yeah, now I’m moving away from doing the more jazz ballad stuff, but I guess my thing was to just put together music which reflects a lot of different influences, and if there’s saxophone in there then so be it. I mean, I also play synthesizer on stage as well, I love my keyboards obviously. I’ve been collecting for many years, back when you could buy analog synthesizers for a few hundred dollars…those days are over.

Q: I wanted to ask who your inspirational players and people are for you. I know you’re influenced by the old-school jazz guys but I’m kind of interested in who do you find influential now?

A: Very influenced by Can, and there’s a Persian poet called Rumi, who’s is one of my biggest influences. I love every kind of folk music, I’m such a huge fan of Indian music, and I play a lot of bansuri on the album which is a kind of Indian flute. There’s a guy called Hariprasad Chaurasia who’s like, if you just Google “Indian flute master” he’ll come up first. I’ve seen him a few times in concert. I love folk music because it’s completely devoid of any artifice or commercialism, it exists beyond the realms of commercial music, that’s the sort of music I’m into, because there’s many bands who come or go, you can be on the cover of NME and in five years you’re called shite, it just goes round and round. Being in London for ten years and being in the middle of it, it becomes a bit wearying after a while. So, folk music, yeah. And then, things I grew up with I would definitely say Weather Report, very influential 70s band, they’ve been sampled by so many people, that’s the thing, when hip hop came in when I was a kid, they were sampling all the records I knew, it was amazing being born in the 70s.

Q: The last track sounds a lot like one of those Pharoah Sanders epic albums kind of things, but kind of smoothed out…

A: Well picked! Pharoah Sanders is one of my absolute heroes.

Q: Yeah, those late 60s albums he did, they’re all kind of endless grooves and good times kind of stuff.

A: Yeah, the thing is, it all went very rubbish in the–I saw it happen in the 80s where it went away from that. There are spiritual elements in my life which are incredibly important to me, that’ve kept me going and saved me from certain destruction and despair and a lot of the music from Coltrane through Pharoah Sanders there’s a spiritual element, and I’m not talking a Christian element or a Muslim element but there is definitely a spiritual element there which is far bigger and more beyond than just making records and stuff. And those records that those guys made on Impulse in the 70s are very–they’re spiritual journeys. “A Love Supreme” was totally dedicated to God but in its own way, not a particular church or anything. So devotional music, that’s the other thing, as well as being sort of devotional music once again it’s made without any ego, without any artifice. So Pharoah Sanders, definitely, but then, I wouldn’t necessarily make a whole album of that. I think nowadays with the information and everything that everyone’s got available it’s more about putting a soundtrack together. So every track reflects the last one, but can take you in different directions, and different directions of my life and recording techniques and things that I’ve learnt and picked up and loved on the way.

Q: I read in your publicity stuff that you’re now teaching at Auckland Jazz School?

A: Yeah, just one day a week with third year saxophone students, which has been really great, cos they’re very advanced, and I wasn’t, I mean I studied, but I never went through a full Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Music like these guys are doing. So that’s been really great.

Q: So you still remember all the old rhythm changes sort of stuff?

A: Absolutely! Absolutely, I’ve still got all that, it’s just that, very early on when I was that age, when I was one of those guys in my early twenties and living in New York I thought, there’s got to be something else here. And then of course I met some DJs and then saw the whole hip hop thing happening in New York at that time, early 90s, and that took me eventually to London. And then by 1996 I was making drum and bass and getting really involved in that. I’ve got loads of projects out there under the production name Psyclone, huge tunes. And I worked with Goldie and did that whole 90s drum and bass thing. But then that led onto the other records I made in London. But that was like a different scene again, the broken beat scene out of West London is where I was sort of based, working with different producers. Like Damon Albarn guested on one of my records, so it’s taken me in lots of different directions.

Q: I don’t know how much of the new album is improvised on the fly or whether most of it’s kind of sequenced and stuck together, do you still find that group improv, playing off each other good?

A: Well, unlike a lot of my records this records all the drums are live, and the bass is played live to tape, and some of the keys as well. A lot of it I’ve made in the luxury of my studio myself and I’ve taken it in to be mixed, and then I’ve put live drums on it. Some of the tracks, particularly something like “Crane of Good Omens”, I played everything at home and then I got the percussion on it afterwards, but it was very much a stream of consciousness track. Whereas some of the other ones are very worked up. “Dervish at the Door” is another very stream of consciousness track, that was quite heavily influenced by Weather Report. Everyone who knows their records will recognize that’s sort of like Heavy Weather, a song that I have always loved, and I tip my hat to without stealing it. And then some of them are very composed. “Etched Into Gold” is probably one of the most complex ones, and that’s very much influenced by Steely Dan, and the sound and the production and the way there’s a big long sax solo on the end. I’ve never actually committed a saxophone solo like that to record ever, so it was good. And I just did that in my home studio by myself and then took the track in and put in all the drums and everything. It’s also the first song that myself and my brother have written together, that’s quite exciting, cos he’s a big part, a huge part of the band now. He did all the guitar, like a rock god. We both had the same upbringing but he went more into rock, and of course I went and did my thing.

Q: And now you’re back together again?

A: Absolutely.

Q: The publicity says you’ve got club remixes coming of some of your singles. Do you aim towards that with your music, or is that just a byproduct?

A: I used to, I was very much a part of that worldwide scene, I had some big club records. When I say big, every DJ in the world was playing them at one time, we had multiple releases. One song of mine appeared in over a hundred compilations from Ministry of Sound to all of those cheesy Ibiza ones. I was playing all over the world all of a sudden. But that thing’s changed, there was a more live music sort of thing going on but it just changed so I’ve had to sort of reinvent, rethink things. So the club thing isn’t as important to me now. For me it’s the live thing, and I wanted to make a record which represented the sound of us live. I’d never done that before, because I’d been working with co-producers, or other DJs beats and stuff, which is great, and I love that, but I’ve done a lot of that and I’ve been doing it for sort of almost 15 years now. And I just love the fact of coming back and playing with a great band and a great drummer, it’s timeless. Now that Roundhead Studios is here, which is Neil Finn’s studio, I don’t have to record overseas anymore. For the last four years I’ve been here since coming back I have been going over to London for three months every year and recording over there, and also did the mixing down there as well. But now that there’s Roundhead I don’t have to do that, the studio is just totally world class and totally awesome so that’s why this one’s got live drums on it. And it hasn’t got any producer’s beats or any of that sort of London sound, it’s very much the sound of us playing, which is great. It just took me a while, that’s all.

Q: There’s always something about playing with live musicians…

A: Absolutely, more than ever! You can’t download a live performance, you know, and that’s why live has become even stronger than it was. It really has you know.

Q: So do you find it tricky to play with beats that someone else has come up with?

A: Well, I guess in DJ situation you know what you’re getting yourself in for so you have to stick to form. But I don’t do those kind of performances anymore. I have done, over the years, played with DJs but…

Q: Now it’s more of a band thing?

A: Band for me, and also when I first came back here to New Zealand I thought, “oh well, if I publicize things and say “DJ set” then people understand that” but they didn’t. I’d get some people coming along for the DJ set and loved it, and then I’d get a bunch of other people, older people, and they’d sit down, and it was really frustrating for me because I wanted to do it all. But I sort of figured out in New Zealand that people know my name, they’re going to come regardless. So that’s why I’ve decided to do the band thing because I think all of the people who like my DJ sets and stuff, they’re going to love the band anyway. People who don’t like the DJ stuff, well, I might still do some quiet things but really the important thing for me is to just get the band out there, because the musicians are just fucking awesome. I’m flying down three members from London. One of them arrives next week, the guy who did “Pathway”, that’s the first single off the album. He’s arriving next week and we’re doing a set on Sunday. And then Vanessa Freeman, the other vocalist, and Mike [Patto], are coming down, Kevin Clarke’s coming down. We’ll all be meeting in Jakarta and we’ll be playing two nights there, and then we’ve got a gig in Bali, and then we come back to New Zealand for the whole month. So that’s an opportunity for people to see this amazing group. We’ve been playing together for over ten years in London so we’ve got this real–not to say there aren’t great musicians in New Zealand because there are, but you know, there’s a certain level which operates in somewhere like London that you just can’t compare. Not better or worse, just different. To hear a great vocalist like Vanessa is just really really special, just, phew. It’s world class stuff. I think it’s good for Kiwis to see us.

Q: I guess if you’re in a place like London you can just call someone up and say “You got a world class singer for me?” and they’ll send one you one?

A: Yeah, but these guys are my very close friends so we’re a real musical family, to use a cliche, but we really are.

Q: Are you still an obsessive practicer of your sax?

A: I wish I was! Because now I do a lot of production and a lot of computer work, producing other people’s records. For instance, it can take me months to get a tune into shape so that’s sort of my focus. Before a gig of course I take it very seriously, but I feel like also I’ve got to a place now where I don’t have to practice obsessively, because I’m on an even keel where I can pick up more horn and pretty much do what I want. But I would like to play it more but unfortunately living in New Zealand I can’t play all the time like when I was living in Europe or in London because you get overexposed. So I sit in with friends sometimes, or in the winter I go away. If it’s summer I’ve always got lots of gigs. I guess I should practice more, everyone probably says that. You can overpractice, it depends what you’re practicing. If you’ve got the right frame of mind I think you can achieve anything, you really can. Your muscle memory will follow and that’s all it’s really about is muscle memory, and I’ve done plenty of practice and study in my life. So I know that when I get on stage it’s all gonna still be there, touch wood, God willing.

Q: Do you ever wish you could just go and play an old fashioned acoustic jazz set somewhere?

A: Thing is I can, it’s always there for me. I’ve got two weddings this weekend for friends. That’s what I do, I do a little trio set with my father, and there’s a certain beauty. But it’s sort of like lying in an old comfortable bed, there’s no challenge in it for me. And I wouldn’t put out records–I’ve done my record, and that was with the NZSO and Alan Broadbent, he’s just amazing, one of the greatest arrangers in the world. That was like a dream come true and after that I was like well, done that, the record went really well, I’ll put that to rest. I’ll never do a standards gig ever.

Q: So with your teaching now, do you still agree with the idea of the jazz school stuff, how it’s become sort of like classical music, a standardized form?

A: It is, but I think the slight difference with a lot of people who go through jazz school, I mean a lot of the guys who are in [Fat] Freddy’s [Drop] went through jazz school. A lot of people went through jazz school, like the Wellington jazz course, because it equips you with amazing musical knowledge so that you can break down the rudiments of songs and how they’re put together, and if you’re cool then you can write music which doesn’t set up a barrier between you and the audience, which is what a lot of jazz does. I think that’s what the Freddy’s guys have done, that’s what I’ve been trying to do my whole life, trying to be inclusive, trying to get people to listen to the music, simplify, simplify. With this record I just had to simplify, simplify so much. The songs on this are, most of them, very simple. Some of them are just two chords, not like listening to jazz with so many–but you know, the difference is those guys back then, it was the time for it and they had this incredible ability and it was natural. Whereas it feels unnatural now sometimes to be playing too many changes.

Q: You’re not just simplifying things to make people understand it, you enjoy that sort of stuff yourself?

A: I’m definitely not, I never think commercially. What I’m trying to do is just simplify my personal whole approach and I know that it’s actually working out really well because the band are finding it much easier, without all these fucking changes to play (laughs).

Q: So you have a bit more freedom?

A: More freedom. And with this record I’ve really tried to leave space to let the music breathe, which is something I haven’t done in the past. But I’ve learnt a few lessons. It’s taken me a long time. I bought a load of analog synths which I’ve been coveting since I was a teenager, because they’re cheap here, so I built up my studio. So everything had to have a thousand synthesizers in it. But with this, it’s still quite synth-heavy, but I try to leave space in there for the music to breathe, it’s very important.

Q: Have you already got plans for another album?

A: Right after this, I’m producing Kevin Fields album, he played a bit of keys on the record and I’ve been working with him for twenty years. He’s a wonderful keyboard player. So I’m going to produce a sort of Herbie Hancock 70s style jazz-funk album for him. Similar to what I’m doing but maybe a few vocal tracks, so that’s one to be looking out for. When Kevin and Mike Patto and those guys come back over from London we’re going to start writing and we’ll probably have a whole record ready by the time they leave. Because we only get together a couple of times a year so we’re like, get in the studio and check this out, what about this. It’s exciting, that’s what I love. It keeps me going, gets me out of bed in the morning.

Q: I guess you must get sick of endlessly trying to fix up these tracks for the album?

A: I mean for every track that made it onto the album there’d be a hundred more, probably literally, that never made it. It’s the process that’s important to me, when you get to a point where you’re like “yep, that one’s on there, that one’s on there, that one’s on there”. Constantly refining, but I’m quite good at just letting things go as well. And also, really trying not to overproduce. It’s really hard to not overproduce but I’ve really tried on this record to not overproduce.

Q: Keep things clean and simple I guess?

A: Yeah, well not clean, because the way we recorded it is totally analog, we even mix to tape. When you record digitally, it’s because it’s so clean that you sort of fill it up, whereas with this record because it is analog and live it’s got so many other things going on.

Q: Not just a whole bunch of little sections stuck together.

A: Yeah, like for instance, tape hiss. There’s so much tape hiss in the record. And particularly, when they master they bring up a lot of highs. So if you turn it up really loud, as soon as the track starts it’s like ‘hssss’. But that’s cool because all the records we know and love have got that, nothing wrong with it.

Q: So it’s got a bit more freedom and openness in it compared to the more electronic stuff you’ve done?

A: Yeah, we’ve been recording on the big Neve desk they’ve got up at roundhead, and it just gives the music just a very, very different quality. I have recorded digitally over the years, I have recorded every which way, but it’s funny that a lot of big studios are going back to analog. A lot of the big studios never even got rid of their analog gear. And all of the 80s stuff I love has been mixed down on either and SSL or a Neve desk. The Studer 24 track we recorded to, that’s done all of Neil Finn’s records, that is the industry standard. I can guarantee it that your Jay-Zs and all of the big bands in the world at the moment will be being mixed down on an SSL and going to a Studer 24 track. All of them! It’s the industry standard, and we didn’t used to have the gear like that in New Zealand. There’s two places, there’s Roundhead and there’s a studio in South Auckland called Revolver which I recorded at many years ago, but he’s got an 18 track SSL that used to belong to Aerosmith and loads of great gear. So there’s no excuse to make thin sounding records.

Q: Do you worry that you get a bit carried away with all that stuff? Like back in the day—

A: Well that stuff still hasn’t been bettered, all the big bands in the world were all using that gear at one stage, so it’s just an industry standard. It’s like saying I’m going to make a really great sports car but I’m going to use the mechanicals from a shitty Trabant from Eastern Europe, or I’m going to make it out of tin, you just can’t do it. There are certain industry standards that you just can’t get around. But saying that, the music can say everything so it’s good to be in a position where we’re free within the music but we also know about this sort of stuff. It’s taken bloody years.

Q: It’s a hard balancing act I guess, figuring out all that stuff to the point where you don’t have to worry about it?

A: Well now that’s the way I’ll always do it, I’ll never ever record drums any other different way except to tape now, so I’ve learnt that lesson.

Q: Well I’ll let you go now…

A: No worries man, so what’s the magazine?

Q: Canta, the University of Canterbury student magazine.

A: In the South Island?

Q: Yep.

A: Oh cool man, it’s a shame we’re not coming down, we were down a couple of years ago. But hopefully next summer, if the record goes well I’ll bring the guys back down and we’ll be able to do some good shows there.

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