Their approach to success was driven by the experience of founding member Brad Kora, who’d already been in top-selling band Kora with his brothers. In fact, their father had started them playing music in front of an audience from a very early age – doing four nights a week in the family band when they were all under 10 years old. Brad improved his skills by watching VHS tapes of great drummers of the era: Steve Smith, Steve Gadd and Dave Weckl. By the 1990s they were popular enough that they had a track on the Once Were Warriors soundtrack (under the band name Auntie Beatrice).
However, their real success came in the new millennium when brother Laughton Kora was inspired by hearing Fat Freddy’s Drop and The Black Seeds, and suggested they incorporate a similar style of music into their sound. The brothers’ new project, Kora, was formed in 2002 and led to a platinum selling EP and debut album coming out through independent label, LOOP (the album also debuted at No.1).
A remix album and second album followed, with the band becoming one of the most popular on the local live scene. However, as the Kora’s popularity grew, there were tensions within the group and limited room for each brother to gain creative satisfaction. This led to Brad’s decision to go his own way in 2013.
Brad’s next project was an odd one: helping his brother Laughton, who’d been hired to work on an album for Kim Dotcom. It nonetheless proved to be beneficial since it gave Brad a chance to work with US producer Printz Board, who’d received a Grammy Award for his work with The Black Eyed Peas. Seeing him in action made Brad want to learn more about what was required to work from that side of the desk so he began going on studio courses and taking master classes with producers from overseas. Yet what he really wanted was to start a new band so he could try out the skills he’d been learning.
Brad got his new group underway by bringing his brother Laughton on board and, soon after, Andy Keys briefly joined them. This led to the trio taking their initials as the band name: L.A.B.
Laughton eventually left to start a solo project, so the name instead came to represent the idea of a music lab where experimentation was encouraged.
Brad was running his own mixed martial arts gym which had recently moved from a casual non-profit organisation to a serious business. There was every chance that music might gradually take a back seat, but his plans for L.A.B. got a boost after he caught a television performance by singer Joel Shadbolt.
Shadbolt had also grown up on music, with his guitarist father teaching him ukulele from age three and in primary school he started playing guitar in his own band in Tauranga. By 11 years old, he was performing in pubs and by 15 was ready to leave school to focus on music. He attended Polytech first, then did a six-month programme in the US before studying music at the University of Auckland. He had moved into jazz over this time and spent six months in the UK as part of the house band for a friend’s bar.
Before L.A.B., Joel’s most serious musical outfit was Batucada Sound Machine, a funky live group that played festivals throughout the country. The band was popular enough to be given a live slot on TVNZ’s Good Morning though, in the weeks leading up to the filming, Joel cut his hands on a glass jar (hitting a nerve and damaging two tendons). He couldn’t play guitar, but his voice alone was enough to catch Brad’s ear, when he heard it echoing out from a TV in the next room.
After three hours of playing together, Brad asked Joel to join L.A.B.
Joel was teaching at Polytech when he received a message out of the blue from Brad and was so excited he had to leave his class for a moment to regain his composure. Brad sent through an instrumental demo of ‘Old Man’ so Joel could write and record a vocal part. This came out well enough that Joel was invited to visit Brad for a jam session. Also joining them was Brad’s brother, Stu, who was another early recruit for the band, since he could play guitar and keyboards and had also been with Kora since the start. This meant he had experience recording and had toured widely across the world (he initially played bass in the group). After three hours of playing together, Brad asked Joel to join L.A.B.
However, Joel found there was still some hard work that needed to be put in. “For the first year-and-a-half, I was driving back and forth to Whakatane two to three times a week. Brad would be doing classes in the morning and then we’d get together and jam.”
The group went through a few bass players and, when one wasn’t available, they often called on Ara Adams-Tamatea (Katchafire). He eventually he became a full-time member and brought his experience acting as band manager for Katchafire.
Joel recalls that the band relied on Brad, Stu and Ara’s connections in the early years of the band. “We did our first tour without an album. We were still playing some covers. We fully name-dropped Kora and Ara’s time in Katchafire. That helped us get in the scene, then we had to prove ourselves. It was important at that point to step away from the Kora/Katchafire thing and create our own sound and identity. That did take a couple of years but we got there.”
Now that the core of the band had come together, they were focused on getting serious. At one meeting, they wrote a list of lofty goals on a pizza box – record three albums in three years and make enough to buy each band member a house. They had no real idea if such aims were really possible, but within the allotted time they had already ticked off the first goal and were well on the way to the second.
Brad knew Mikee Tucker from LOOP through his time in Kora and sent him the demo of an early song, ‘She’s Gone’ – a track which begins with an atmospheric bluesy guitar solo before breaking into a slow stomping dub groove with soulful vocals. Tucker signed them immediately for an album and asked if he could book them as a live act too.
They received NZ On Air funding to record an album and went into the studio of legendary Wellington producer Lee Prebble. His experience meant there were no impediments to the group capturing their immense sound, though they primarily used Prebble as a sound engineer rather than producer since both Brad and Ara had their own visions for how the band should sound.
L.A.B. weren’t willing to constrain themselves to just playing dub music.
For their first album, they had all of the songs already mapped out and were mainly focused on capturing them as well as possible. Brad wanted them to be an album band, since he believed this created the strongest connection with fans and so over half the tracks were allowed to extend past the five minute mark, with long instrumental sections that showed the band’s skill for creating an in-the-pocket groove.
The tracks also showed that L.A.B. weren’t willing to constrain themselves to just playing dub music. What would become one of the album’s biggest tracks, ‘Controller’, sounded almost like an 80s pop hit with its upfront synths and percussive elements, while other standout tracks such as ‘Ain’t No Use’ and ‘Starry Eyes’ had as much funk as reggae in their rhythmic underpinning.
Fortunately the band had already built an audience from touring across the country. In 2015, they performed at Soundsplash and Raggamuffin festivals, plus toured Australasia in support of Katchafire. In 2017, they played One Love, East Coast Vibes, and Homegrown, as well as their own shows and supporting The Black Seeds at the Powerstation. Therefore it wasn’t such a surprise when their first album, L.A.B. I (2017), managed to reach No.15 on the charts.
It was on their second album that LAB began to show true confidence in themselves as a band. On this occasion, they turned up to the studio sessions with only half of the songs they needed already written, with the idea that they would come up with the rest in the studio. This required even longer hours at the studio and so they would keep recording even after Prebble had left for home in the late afternoon.
In the meantime, they’d also begun working with a second keyboard player. Miharo Gregory had been playing in neo-soul influenced bands around Wellington when his band was asked to be a backing band for one of Laughton Kora’s shows; this led to Miharo recording demos with him. When Brad asked Laughton to join L.A.B. on keyboards, he instead suggested Miharo and he began recording with the band from their second album onwards, eventually becoming a fully-fledged group member.
L.A.B. II (2018) showed the group’s growing confidence in mixing reggae, blues, rock, electronica, and funk. Opening track ‘Rocketship’, with its slow grooving rhythm, went on to be one of their most-streamed tracks, while super-funky song ‘Fashion Dread’ became a live favourite with Brad doing his best James Brown vocals for the chorus which was matched by Joel’s own contribution using a vocoder. The album hit No.12 on the charts and stayed in the Top 40 for seven weeks.
They continued to extend their presence on the live scene too – playing Rhythm and Vines, One Love, and Bay Dreams, as well as doing shows with established acts such as the John Butler Trio, TrinityRoots, and Fly My Pretties. They also made further forays into Australia where they would be selling out shows by the end of 2019. Yet even better was yet to come.
By the second half of 2019, L.A.B. were ready to accomplish their goal of completing a third album in three years. Yet this time they had laid themselves an even more daunting challenge: they went into the studio with only one song written. To get the work done, the members of the band decided to move into the studio. Ara slept in the vocal booth, Brad in the mixing area, Joel by his guitar amps and Stu in the kitchen area.
after Prebble left around 6pm, recording often continued until near midnight.
This meant they could pick up each idea while it was fresh and see it through to conclusion. Even after Prebble left around 6pm, recording would often continue until near midnight. Ara sometimes stayed up, mixing into the early hours of the morning. On one occasion, Brad stopped the others when they’d just sat down to eat dinner, so he could hurry them into the studio to record a new idea.
Often a good take was kept over an unblemished one, as Miharo recalls. “When we did ‘In The Air’, I used a Rhodes piano that was in the studio, but I thought I’d just overdub it later because it was quite an old piece of equipment. I did re-record the part, but the take wasn’t as good so we went back to the original.”
The band also expanded their sound by bringing in string players for some tracks, with the help of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper (The Black Quartet). At other times, they went back to basics; for example ‘Personify’ came after two hours of writer’s block, with Brad suggesting they just try a simple three funk-rock chord song in the style of Lenny Kravitz or Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Through their hard work, their gambit of writing in the studio paid off. In late 2019 they had a third December in a row with a hit album – it landed at No.5 and stayed on the charts for over a dozen weeks.
In recent years, it began to seem unlikely that a New Zealand act would ever take the top spot on the local charts again since the worldwide Spotify playlists were now so influential on listeners. It had been three years since Lorde had done it with ‘Green Light’ and even record-breakers Six60 hadn’t managed it in the meantime.
All the more stunning then that L.A.B. – an act more focused on albums than hits – were the ones to break the dry spell with their track ‘In The Air’. Its mid-tempo groove was almost understated in its simplicity, but with a rhythmic feel that couldn’t lose and was a perfect bed for Joel’s soulful vocals. The single first entered the charts just outside the Top 20 in December 2019, before creeping its way to the top spot at the end of February. The group had built a huge core fanbase, but had now leapt beyond it to reach into the wider pop world.
The growing success of L.A.B. soon had them considering what they should do beyond the three albums they’d originally planned. The group were soon arranging with LOOP to do a couple more, possibly a pair of live albums.
L.A.B.’s plans for their fourth album were delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but they soon found that the lack of touring bands from overseas meant that there was room for them to move up a level. Their show at Spark Arena in 2020 was publicised as the first arena show in the post-pandemic era. They were so popular as a live act that one of the tracks off their first album crept back on to the charts – ‘Controller’ dipped into the Top 40 in July and by the following year had reached No.3 (accumulating tens of millions of streams).
Their sound remained unpredictable, one minute they’d be at No.1 with a reverb-heavy reggae tune (‘Why Oh Why’) then they’d suddenly divert into a classic soul number with strings (‘Yes I Do’). The fans didn’t care, with their support pushing LAB IV (2020) to the top spot, then the following year LAB V (2021) achieved the same milestone, boosted by another skanking hit, ‘Mr Reggae’. They continued to reach higher as a live act too, booking the top area of Mt Smart Stadium for a show.
L.A.B. dominated the Aotearoa Music Awards for two years running, winning the same four categories in both 2021 and 2022: Recorded Music NZ Te Pukaemi o te Tau | Album of The Year, Te Waiata Tōtahi o te Tau | Single of the Year, Te Roopu Toa | Best Group and Te Kaipuoro Taketake Toa | Best Roots Artist. They entered 2023 with ‘In The Air’ still riding high on the local singles chart.
Despite having originally planned only to do three albums, Joel says that keeping the group going into the future is a no brainer.
“I can’t see why we would stop when we’re still in such a creative spot. We had a rehearsal the other day and we sat there for three hours and jammed. We’ve still got the energy and drive in us to write and push out new material, so we’re going to keep going until we literally can’t do it anymore!”
– Update by Gareth Shute, May 2023