Back in early August last year Wellington trio Mermaidens released their most recent long player, Perfect Body. Since then the band has toured at home and across the ditch, gaining accolades and respect for their unique sound. Now, this February they’ll get to play at their home crowd, at Wellington’s second Coastella Festival. Tim Gruar caught up with drummer Abe Hollingsworth, who along with bandmates Gussie Larkin (guitars and vocals) and Lily West (vocals and bass), make up this very creative three-piece.
For those that missed the memo, here’s a bit of a recap on the band. Mermaidens are a three-piece outfit based in Wellington. They are renowned for their intricate and unique songwriting which is boldly raw but increasingly undergoing more refined studio production. On stage, they are reported as creating a hypnotic live synergy that leaves audiences enchanted. Their entrance onto the NZ music scene was extremely strong following the releases of their widely acclaimed debut EP O in 2014 and subsequent album Undergrowth in 2016. As a result, they’ve done dozens of national shows, and have now been picked up by Flying Nun Records. If you’ve been to any big tours lately you may have seen them supporting international acts like Death Cab For Cutie, Sleater Kinney, and Mac Demarco, and Windhand. And then there was last year’s show for Lorde’s birthday in Dunedin. More on that later.
So how do you describe their sound? Abe likes to quote his bandmate Gussie Larkin on that one “A bit of stoner rock; a smattering of ‘60s surf; some dark-dream psyche-pop and some moody ‘80’s punk – and there you have it. Plenty of pedals and reverb and long, long notes.”
Over the past three years as a trio Mermaidens has put out a couple of EPs and secured themselves a name with high rotation plays on student radio. A hectic tour schedule in 2014 saw them playing a heap of shows, both in their hometown Wellington and around the country. Then Gussie Larkin and Abe took off overseas for a bit – Gussie to the UK for six months, and Abe for a three-month stint in south-east Asia and Japan.
Before they left Mermaidens recorded their debut album, for the first time swapping out flat bedrooms and lounges for Blue Barn Studio in Newtown. That’s where James Goldsmith, known for his work as an engineer at Munki Studios, go in on the act. Sadly Munki was levelled to make way for a new park. But Blue Barn rose from the ashes just in time for Mermaidens. Goldsmith is described by Gussie as “our number one favourite person.” Following a bit of a revival the and got to work again making music and were able to put out Perfect Body, recorded and mixed by James at the aforementioned Blue Barn Studios back in August last year.
For today’s catch up it takes a few text message exchanges to line up it all up. You see, Abe is a busy man these days. He’s on a shoot today, helping out his friends Hans Pucket, another Wellington band, who are holed up at a secret location making a new music video. And the band just returned from an Australian tour.
“It went pretty well”, reports Abe, ‘given we were an unknown band and a bit gutsy to just rock on up to the shore and tour. We did it all ourselves. Organised the tour. Booked all the shows and all the support bands. It wasn’t super successful, but we had a great time and got our music out there. That’s what you have to do.”
How did the band go down with Australian audiences? “We had pretty positive reactions. People who came up after the show were pretty positive. New Zealand might have more supportive little enclaves in each town but culturally, we and the Aussies are not so far apart.”
So, what was their best gig? “Sydney. We found this pub in a place like Newtown (Wellington). We rocked up. It was very much a ‘pub’ with green carpets and mahogany woodwork and paisley wallpaper. Old pub vibe. There were old men (maybe Dads) with stubbies on, watching the footy, drinking Fosters. And we were like ‘Oh, no. This isn’t going to work.’ Then the game finished and the ‘beer punters’ left and the indie rockers all turned up. Just like that. And we met this guy called Dean who helped with the show and put us up for the night. Drove us to the beach and the airport and helped out a lot. And the ‘snake’ did not break, in case you are asking. It was really cool to do such a seat-of-the pants show and for it to come off”
This, of course, was in contrast to supporting Lorde – on her birthday no less – late last year in Dunedin.
“Definitely. Most of our Australian shows had no dressing rooms or green gooms. They are foreign concepts. We’d use toilet cubicles or the back of a car. Lorde was different. You have a dressing room down a corridor. People with clipboards and radios and strict schedules and headsets.” So, how was the ‘Lorde’ experience with the ‘roar’ of the crowd that you don’t get in a ‘pub’. “Super exciting. We were amazed at how supportive the crowd was, given that they were mostly teen who wouldn’t have known us, but they were so cool to us. They weren’t like “you’re not Lorde. Get off the Stage.” They were very supportive. It was at the Dunedin Town Hall. The biggest capacity show on her tour. So, an extra buzz. 3500 people. The biggest audience we’ve ever played to. They were her people, obviously. But I think we won a few hearts.”
So, did they get to meet Lorde? “Unfortunately, not. But we hung with her band and had a couple of beers. So that was almost as good. It was a much easier conversation, too. Because as much as I’d like to meet her I think I would just choke. I’d be, like, ‘Hi. I love your album.’ Then what? But with the band there’s no pressure. You can just talk shit and that’s fine.” Abe also acknowledges the difference between himself and big artists like Lorde. “I feel for her because everyone wants 5 minutes of your time – so, you have to protect yourself and your sanity but be polite and gracious under pressure. She’s still human. So…”
Given the intimacy of their sound, how does it change between a pub show and a Dunedin Town Hall, like a Lorde concert. “Obviously the better the equipment, the more epic it will be. Especially, in a big room with all those speakers and a captive audience that reaches back so far. Compared to smaller speakers and people chatting and beer glasses clinking and cash registers and all that. But in both cases, we have to perform a captivating show. The vibe is different, and you have to get on top of that. Audiences can smell the fear (he laughs).”
He says that the best rooms to play are the ones where there is an absence of noise because the silence can give power to the notes and the sounds. “Notes can hang in the air with this fervency. That’s the effect we’ve been trying to effect in our Newtown studio. It’s definitely harder. That song Satsuma, that we played in Marty’s space, for the video. There’s a lot of space in it. And that’s actually the power in it. Because it’s Gussy’s guitar for a long time. Every four bars there’s one note. So, it creates the atmosphere of that song. On the record, the soundscapes are performed live so they will sound different when performed live on a different occasion. That’s the beauty, I guess.
And now they are back in the country. Back to earth. Gearing up for some shows on home turf, starting with one up the Kapiti Coast. “Coastella has a family kind of family vibe. Kinda chilled. We are looking forward to it. How will we go down? Well, we seem to have a big ‘Dad’ appreciation vibe. So, I think we are looking forward to collecting some more ‘Dad’. We’re not BBQ reggae but still listenable, but with a real appreciation from those intellectual family members (laughs). The Dads.” Not the dad that tell bad jokes then. “Ah no. I’m thinking of the ones that collect vinyl. Our new album is on digital and vinyl. Dad appreciate that I think.” Were there many dads coming to those Aussie shows, I wonder? “Perhaps the more bewildered ones who’d stayed too long in the pub after work and should have cleared out before the gig got underway.”
Mermaidens play Coastella Festival 17 February – Southwards Car Museum, Paraparaumu, Kapiti Coast
Watch The Mermaidens 13th Floor Video Session Here: