First published at: https://www.ambientlightblog.com/womad-2019-interviews-congress-of-animals/
As part of our series of interviews with artists playing at this year’s WOMAD, Tim Gruar talks to fellow Wellingtonian Ben Lemi about the new Congress of Animals Collective, mixing with the ‘Muppet-man’ and strange men in his garden.
When I talked to Ben, just prior to Christmas, ‘at the studio’ preparing material for upcoming gigs for The Congress of Animals, the new super-folk- collective under the ‘leadership’ of Age Pryor and Justin Firefly, alongside Nigel Collins Ben Lemi and Bret McKenzie (yes, him).
“We just released an album,” says Ben, referring to the very low key release that appeared late last year, almost under the radar, “so we’re letting that gestate and see how it disseminates into the world.”
How do you describe this music, it’s such a diverse collection.
“I’ve been trying to find a better word than ‘eclectic’. Which is over used, these days. ‘Broad spectrum song writers’ music. That’s the best I can do, I guess.”
So, to kick off, paint me the picture. How did this whole thing come together? We’ve got Bret McKenzie, obviously. Age Pryor and Justin Firefly (Fly My Pretties, Woolshed Sessions), Nigel Collins (who was in The Wellington International Ukelele Orchestra with Age and Bret) and yourself (French For Rabbits, Trinity Roots).
“It’s an interesting question as everyone has a slightly different version. I’d known Justin for several years. We’d played together in various jazz groups and improv things. At a certain point he mentioned that he’d been working on some songs, jamming in the lounge with Bret and hoping to take that into the studio. He needed a drummer. He and Bret go way back, of course, having also jammed together in various Wellington bands. And, we all know Age and Nigel through the ‘Ukulele Orchestra and Woolshed Sessions.”
Yes, about Nigel…
“I’ve known him through the Wellington music scene. Though you may know him as “The One Man New Zealand Symphony Orchestra” from that recent Flight of The Conchords HBO TV Special. Did you know he’s a trained opera singer, too? He’s also contributed a cool little song called Depends on You. That one originally was a folky acoustic instrumental but it grew into a lyrically thematic piece about helping others out. That’s what happens when we all get together. Ideas morph.”
And Depends On You is the first track on the album…
“Yes, we were with Lee Prebble at the Surgery in 2016, and while we were getting set up in the studio Bret was talking to Nigel about how the song went – we’d only been practising it in previous home jams. We strummed through Depends, and Bret went over to the drum kit and started playing the groove. Then I came in on bass and Justin plugged in his guitar. The song was recorded in only a few takes. Nigel added cellos later at home. Plus we had ‘a one man woodwind band (courtesy of the ‘great’ Oscar Laven). It came together kind of effortlessly – pretty cosmic really.”
Now, Bret McKenzie is in the band but none of his material is on the album.
“Not this time. He’s got so many projects that, I guess he’s not completely satisfied with his material and wants to take time to complete it. He’s very busy and needs that space to get it to the level he wants. But he’s really keen to galvanise that stuff. He’s quite transient at the moment, so that doesn’t help. He’s been keen to make music that’s different from what he’s being doing, maybe back to what he did earlier in his career.”
You’ve just done the Strange Caravan Tour over the last 2 months. How did that go? Was that similar to your first gig as a jug band at the Houghton Bay School Fair?
(Laughs) “Ah, no. That was a one off. We did that as a bit of fun. A debut and a test. But the Strange Caravan Tour was really a way to road test the songs on the album before they came out and do something coherent in the live setting. We came off that feeling really good about it.”
With WOMAD, what will you bring from those gigs and the album?
“I’ve played there a few times with Trinity Roots, French For Rabbits and others. Definitely a privilege to be there. I think Bret will be there. He’s got some top secret stuff he’s planning to unleash. And we’ve got our mate Deanne Krieg helping out as another member. She’s a vocalist in her own right, singing with Pacific Heights. She has a solo project called Whim, experimental electronica stuff.
Funny story: right before we were about to go on the Caravan Tour, Nigel lost his voice. His partner had just had a baby and the many late nights had exhausted him and his voice was just gone. So we hit up Deanne to come on tour to sing his songs. She’d done some vocals on Age’s songs and was super keen (to help out).”
The sound on the album is so collaborative. This is not a collection of individually written and played songs.
“No, It is more a collective approach. Though we did all bring our own songs, originally to the band. Then we all contribute to shaping them up.”
Ben, I’ve never really heard your singing voice. You don’t really do solos in Trinity Roots, and yet here are all these sweet harmonies. And your lyrics are so profound!
“Yeah. Very different from Trinity Roots and French for Rabbits (Ben’s other band). We’ve just released the fourth single of the album called To the Lookout (which he wrote). That is a bit of a curly one. It’s an account of an incident that took place in my garden, here in Berhampore (Wellington). A hot sunny day. A random guy had wandered onto the property, possibly he was homeless, being scruffy and looking downtrodden. He was filling up his water bottle using the garden hose on the side of the house and shouting. I had gone out to see what the commotion was and he started rambling lots of incoherent things. I remembered a few lines and used them in that song. It was almost like poetry, with the lines falling out of his mouth. Abstract but, like you say, profound. I was quite affected by the encounter. As he was running off, he turned and he said “Everybody knows my world and I feel like a slave.” I often walk around the Green Belt of Wellington, which you can access from the back of my place. I can just imagine that guy, who was a sort of vagabond I guess, running off up the hill shouting “To the lookout!”.”
You also have contributed a more substantial piece, Skin and Bone. What’s the driver behind that?
“Substantial. Yes. More full on. It’s a stream of consciousness, more a Beat Poetry piece. That’s the freedom with this band. We all get to try things that are outside our usual styles. It was inspired by Black Mirror. I was taken by the way the narrative moves, between the specific episodes. So I wanted to write music that did that, as a collage of feelings and images.”
And then there’s Protector, Reflector. It’s almost choral in places. I mistook you for Marlon Williams on that one!
“Yeah, a colleague said it reminded him of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. That one’s about how artists often have a lot to say but who then are also plagued by things. It’s about how music is written in troubled times. It’s a bit of a meditation on that state of mind, I guess.”
When you wrote this, did you have the whole song completed in your head?
“No (not entirely, we all brought 4 or 5 tunes and then we work on them, slowly whittling them away. Record the bare bones, listen back to see which work and then, through a process of elimination, hone them down to the final set.”
You’re a pretty busy lad these days. What else are you up to?
“Well, I’m also preparing with Trinity Roots to do support for John Butler Trio, including one with Fly My Pretties and L.A.B on 2nd March in Nelson. I’m also working on a new project called Dawn Diver. A five piece playing jazz and Indie influenced originals of mine. Over the years I’ve been listening to composer Steve Reich, a minimalist composer from the USA. Simple, repetitive ideas. And also Dirty Projectors. Their musical arrangements are really influential to me, especially how they mix up the vocalists and tempos.”
Have you seen the WOMAD line up yet?
“Yes, and I’m really looking forward to checking out Maalem Hamid El Kasri. He plays the guembri, a three-stringed bass lute found most in gnawa, the North African music of former black slaves. It has a range of emotions, from mournful and melancholic to uplifting and celebrative. And he has this deep, sonorous voice. He’s a ‘maâlem’, a master-musician. He’s played with (Austrian jazz legend) Joe Zawinul and Justin Adams. His stuff is this exhilarating blend between East and West. Should be awesome!”
Congress of Animals will be holding a WOMAD workshop on the Te Paepae Stage at 6.15pm on the 16th March 2019, and performing a headlining set on the Dell Stage at 7.45pm on the 17th March 2019. Tickets to WOMAD 2019 are still available from the WOMAD website, but get in quick as this is looking like it will sell out!