This article is the follow-up to Nick Bollinger’s recently published 10 Great New Zealand Rhythm Sections – click here to read the earlier story.
New Zealand music can claim its share of great rhythm sections. Some have worked together for decades, cementing their bond through touring and live performances; others came together only for recording dates and left the evidence in the grooves of a disc. Here are a few of my favourites, and a few of the places you can hear them.
– Nick Bollinger
Tom Leggett and Amanda Cheng
There’s ample room for rhythm in guitar-less trio Wax Chattels. While Peter Ruddell’s keyboards combine the role of a drone with that of a power-chording guitar, bass player Amanda Cheng and drummer Tom Leggett fire cross-rhythms like rockets across the soundscape. Cheng must have the meanest bass sound in the country, while the noise-sheets Legget creates with his drums (cymbals especially) belie his deceptively minimal kit. In ‘Glue’, the opening song from their 2020 album Clot, Ruddell advises the listener to ‘just relax’, a tall order with beats as unsettling as these. It may not be relaxing, but it is tremendously exciting. Hear and see how it all fits together in a version from the elegant stage of Mount Eden’s Crystal Palace.
Charley Hikuroa and Colin Henry
There may never have been a more intrinsically funky New Zealand band than Collision. Originally from Tokoroa, they coiffed their ’fros, adjusted their headbands, and honed their soulful sound in Wellington’s Speakeasy bar in the early 70s before heading to Sydney where they accompanied Dalvanius Prime and recorded their only album, today a collector’s classic. The band was centred on brother vocalists Harry and Ali Morgan, but the heart of the funk was the rhythm section of Charley Hikuroa and Colin Henry, who also contributed to the rich vocal harmonies. Hear how they cook on their disco-era update of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’, or the bubbly backup they supply for Dalvanius and the Fascinations’ ‘Voodoo Lady’.
Todd Hunter and Kerry Jacobson
Back when they were effortlessly turning out pop hits such as ‘April Sun In Cuba’ and ‘Are You Old Enough?’ Dragon used to complain that their records sounded like what they derisively called “ant music”. True, the records may not have had the magnitude of their live sound. However there’s a punch and precision that underpins the singalong hooks, thanks to a rhythm section seasoned in funk and soul. In Dragon’s early days on the pub circuit, founder Todd Hunter pumped out the basslines to Stevie Wonder and Little Feat covers, while drummer Kerry Jacobson had played James Brown and Motown in Wellington band Mammal. After the sudden death of Dragon drummer Neil Storey, Jacobson was summoned to Sydney with a telegram that read “Fame and fortune awaits”. You can hear how his inherent feel for funk locks in with Hunter’s snappy R&B-style bass on ‘Mr Thunder’, an overlooked gem from 1977’s Running Free. And there’s enough of that live grit, with a side of funk, on a live late 70s recording of ‘Blacktown Boogie’.
Mike Chunn and Paul Crowther
An electric organ circles through a sequence of chords. The sharp report of a snare drum is answered by a bass guitar, which starts out walking but quickly veers off into a zigzag melody. These are the opening bars of Mental Notes, the first Split Enz album, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Intricate, ornate, characterised by extravagant flourishes; call it baroque ’n’ roll. While Tim Finn and Phil Judd deliver the songs like a pair of bewildered vaudevillians, it is the rhythm section of bass player Mike Chunn and drummer Paul Crowther that provides the platform on which their performance takes place. No jamming or laying down a groove; the basslines and drum parts are as meticulously written and rehearsed as an orchestral score. Split Enz would later make hugely successful pop records with a more conventional rhythm section, but for sheer wealth of invention, the playing on this debut was never surpassed.
Darren Matthiassen & Nick Robinson
It might seem a no-brainer to include in a list of drummers and bass players a band whose genre is described as Drum and Bass. But as a live band Shapeshifter has always had an intense physicality not often found in a predominantly electronic, deejay-driven music. These days much of the muscle comes from drummer Darren Matthiassen, a versatile musician who played with Trinity Roots, Hollie Smith, Darren Watson and Bella Kalolo among others before taking over the drum seat for Shapeshifter in 2013. A “drum cam” treats us to a close-up view as he brings his power and skill to a live version of ‘Dutchies’ (first recorded with previous drummer Redford Grennell in 2009). Add in Nick Robinson’s synth bassline, played with 10 times more squelch than the original, and you’re hearing this unstoppable rhythm section in full effect.
Fred Faleauto, Jack Allen / Charlie Tumahai
Herbs were among the first wave of New Zealand groups to take inspiration from the rhythms and rhetoric of reggae. But rather than simply emulate the great Jamaican drummers, Fred Faleauto combined the classic reggae “one drop” with the percussive traditions he had grown up with. Listen to any of the tracks on Light Of The Pacific, their first full long player, and you’ll hear his tom-tom fills chatter like pātē, the island log drums. Jack Allen plays bass on Pacific, but the group took on more modern tones once bass player Charlie Tumahai returned from England and joined the group. Though a reggae-Pasifika-fusion remained close to its heart, you’ll find a distinctly 80s sheen on a track like ‘Rust In Dust’ – produced by another great New Zealand bass player, Billy Karaitiana.
Ryan Monga and a drum machine!
Has one human vessel ever contained more funk than Ardijah’s Ryan Monga? From the mid-80s he not only wrote and produced a succession of dancefloor hits for this South Auckland soul institution; he was also effectively their entire rhythm section, programming the drum parts as well as playing the thumb-numbingly funky bass lines. For a sample of what Monga christened “Polyfonk”, try this live version of ‘Time Makes A Wine’, from 1987.
Caroline Easther and Jane Dodd
Here’s a rhythm section that, sadly, you won’t be able to hear. During their long existence The Verlaines saw a succession of bass player and drummer combinations, but the team of bassist Jane Dodd and drummer Caroline Easther, which lasted for six months in 1983, was never committed to disc. And yet years later there would still be audience members who, seeing Easther on stage with one of her subsequent bands, would mouth the words “Verlaine Verlaine Verlaine…”
Easther had previously played swing jazz with Wellington’s Hot City Cats, and the intricate, cerebral songs of The Spines, before finding her happy place with the minimalist Beat Rhythm Fashion; they wanted her to play less and she liked it like that. A Dunedin sojourn saw her recruited to The Verlaines, but the closest thing to a record of her time in that band is Peter Janes’s atmospheric video for ‘Death and the Maiden’. While it’s Alan Haig on drums, Easther is clearly visible among the crowd of extras, mostly fellow Flying Nun musicians and their friends. Jane Dodd comes from a family of bass players, her brother John Dodd having played with everyone from Midge Marsden to Delgirl, while another brother, Tim, can be heard playing bass on some of the obscurely brilliant recordings by 499m. You can hear too, how Jane deftly maintains both momentum and bottom-end harmonic action on all the Verlaines records up to 1987’s Bird Dog. Try the live recording of ‘Pyromanic’, from The Windsor Castle in May 1986. Caroline went on to play with The Chills, Barry Saunders, and with Alan Galloway co-fronted the long-running Let’s Planet. Hear her play a perfectly poised 6/8 on ‘I Believe You Tonight’, from her 2018 solo album Lucky.
Kate Walker and Matthew Fisher
Stalwarts of the early 80s Wellington “Terrace scene” Naked Spots Dance had a distribution arrangement with Flying Nun for their 1982 EP New, but the group remained independent of the label. Musically, too, they did their own thing. While their Dunedin counterparts were rediscovering the 60s, all jangling guitars and velvet drones, Naked Spots, with their brittle beats and staccato bass lines, had more in common with post-punks Young Marble Giants or even New York disco minimalists ESG. Listen today and unlike much music of that era, the playing sounds crisp and fresh, especially Kate Walker’s bright syncopated basslines and Matthew Fisher’s occasionally Beefheartian beats.
Rio Hemopo and Riki Gooch
Perhaps more than any other group in the early 2000s, Trinity Roots had a rhythmic signature that was distinctly their own. As I noted in the book 100 Essential New Zealand Albums: “It has the depth and space of the best Jamaican dub, with subtly implied cross-rhythms and bass notes as deep and inexorable as waves, and yet you couldn’t call it reggae.” Nor could you call it jazz, though the trio formed while its members were all at jazz school in Wellington. What they took from jazz was tangential; the notion that a musical thought can be explored and expanded ad infinitum. Listen to ‘Sense and Cents' from their debut album True and you’ll hear drummer Riki Gooch and bass player Rio Hemopo traversing sonic and rhythmic space.