Good Things Take Time: A Fly My Pretties Interview with Barnaby Weir

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

An interview by Tim Gruar. Photography by Gareth Moon.

Most Kiwis over a certain age have seen super-collaborative Fly My Pretties on a big stage at some point over the last fifteen years. They’ve performed under various guises and released six live albums, all capturing the mood and feel of their specially curated performances. To date they’ve never released a studio record. That is, until now. The Studio Recordings Part One  was made over twelve months with twenty five total contributors and is the first in a series of planned studio albums. Tim Gruar talked to Barnaby Weir about heading back to the future past.

Given that Fly My Pretties was always intended to be a stage-only experience, isn’t embarking a studio project, especially when the material has already been previously laid down, a bit back to front? Yes, and no, claims Fly My Pretties founder and frontman, Barnaby Weir.

“In the beginning it was all live albums. I just thought it would be a challenging and fun thing to get together a group of friends. We’d make it quite theatrical, designed around a theme (and the earliest shows had a sort of pioneer spirit, which was a bit of a metaphor for the new approach they were taking). Then we tried to capture that magic on tape – as it happened on the stage.”

“I guess after 6 live albums, they (the recordings) get better and better. But I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Some of the fans still love the first album that we made from the shows at Bats (Theatre in Wellington). That’s fine but that’s fifteen plus years ago. The sound quality was the best we could do at the time. But, look, I’ve always wanted to do a studio album and avoid the whole live sound thing. Try to do justice to the tracks without risking it all on a few live takes from one or two shows.”

Barnaby says he’s really proud of the legacy he’s created with the shows and the Fly My Pretties juggernaut has produced over the years.

That first 5-night season was in 2004, with a ‘cast’ including musicians from the Black SeedsFat Freddy’s Drop, The Phoenix Foundation, Cairo Knife Fight and Paseload blending all kinds of musical styles into a contemporary collaboration project, with songs written by different members. Most of the first album (Fly My Pretties Live at Bats) featured songs written by Barnaby, Age Pryor and Samuel Flynn Scott.

That first collection did “pretty well”, according to Barnaby. A bit of an understatement. It went on to earn platinum-status and was released internationally in the UK. The LP received six nominations (Best Pop Release, Best Album, Best Producer, Best Cover Art, Best Female Vocalist, Best DVD) and won Best Pop Release at the 2005 bNet New Zealand Music Awards. And that’s just the start!

They went on to produce bigger and more ambitious shows, moving from small intimate spaces to large theatres and even vineyards, involving elaborate audio-visual displays, his dad as a narrator, films, graffiti artists, sponsorship deals and even give-aways like signed guitars and kowhai trees. I actually have one planted in my garden. It protects the whenua of my youngest.

“Those last three albums (The Homeland Recordings, Live At The Isaac Royal, String Theory) – we managed to achieve a really high quality of sound and you wouldn’t know the audience was there until they clap. The vibe is there and the mood, which is great. I think we achieved a high quality of sound with those. We’ve improved over time, a lot of learning with (engineer and producer) Lee Prebble over the years.”

The main driver, this time, Barnaby says, was to capture the best versions of these songs, capture the subtleties and the purest version of each song – the way each writer had originally envisaged it when it was first conceived. To make them the ‘definitive’ versions.

“It was kind of special to do these songs (off the first studio album) after so much time playing them, and do them real justice. And over time we’ve got better. Early on, we were partially work-shopping them every time we were on stage. The songs changed over time, over the concerts, as players came and went. We can now just go in to a studio and just play them a couple of times and nail it. I’m really excited for fans to hear these renditions, with the subtleties and complexities.”

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

But that doesn’t mean the songs have been re-interpreted or overcomplicated by tech-wizardry in post-production. “We haven’t totally changed how the songs ‘go’ so much but instead had the opportunity to create new layers, get the vocals right and add lush layers.”

In a way, he says, this is like looking back through a photo album and polishing up the shots, starting with Age Pryor’s song (Singin’ In My Soul).

The Studio Recordings Part One sees Barnaby Weir (The Black Seeds) accompanied by Anna Coddington, Bailey Wiley, A Girl Named Mo, Hollie Smith, LA Mitchell (Terrible Sons), Lisa Tomlins, Adi Dick, Age Pryor, Iraia Whakamoe (The Nudge), James Coyle (The Nudge), Jarney Murphy (The Black Seeds), Laughton Kora, Mike Fabulous (Lord Echo), Nigel Patterson (The Black Seeds), Paul McLaney, Rio Hunuki-Hemopo (Trinity Roots), Ryan Prebble (The Nudge), Samuel Flynn Scott (The Phoenix Foundation), and others coming together again to make this audio snap shot that spans the diverse material performed across the Fly My Pretties timeline.

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

I have to ask, given that the shows were designed as a point in time experience, how did he manage to get everyone back? Surely many have moved on or are now doing other things?
True, he says. But not all.

“We first started writing a track list, made a few calls, initially it didn’t always go to plan. Some people had ‘moved on’ from a song and didn’t want to go back. Others were really keen to be involved again. Some people didn’t feel they were ‘match fit’, like Ria Hall who’s just had a baby (congratulations, Ria!). But most were keen. We didn’t dangle any big carrots but we ended up getting everyone we really wanted. It was a chance for them to record it the way they wanted – so that the fans can hear the song the way the artists heard it in their head initially.”

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

Some songs like Bag Of Money are classics from the Fly My Pretties set, yet Barnaby wanted to create his own perfect version, returning the song to the dub inspired BBQ stomper that he’d originally visualised. On the other hand, Quiet Girl, one of the unsung masterpieces of their sets, finally has a clear, simple and elegant rendition. It Never Blown Like It’s Goin’ (from 2009’s Fly My Pretties – A Story), Ryan Prebble’s on-stage rock jam, to my ears, never really seemed to be a fully finished work. It worked well with a cast of thousands blasting away but needed some refining and editing to become holistically complete. This new studio recording does that.

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

Most of the new album was made at Fly My Pretties’s spiritual home – Wellington’s Surgery Studios with Dr Lee Prebble back on the knobs. Prebble is ‘an institution’ of Fly My Pretties, having played guitar on the first release (Live At Bats), and mixed each of their releases ever since. The album features four tracks from that initial release – Singing In My Soul, Champion, Quiet Girl and Bag Of Money, featuring vocals from Weir, alongside Samuel Flynn Scott (The Phoenix Foundation).

Then there’s LA Mitchell’s (Terrible Sons) divine Apple Heart, Bailey Wiley’s Take It From Me, Anna Coddington’s early career stunner Garden and Lisa Tomlin’s spine tingling gospel-tinged Angels. Trinity Roots’ Rio Hunuki-Hemopo returns to provide some sublime BV’s.

Fly My Pretties Live

Most of the artists could easily slip into the Wellington studios, except for Adi Dick, who’s now living in Scandinavia. He recorded his vocals in Norway and contributed remotely across the internet. His new version of Get Out (which originally appeared on The Return Of Fly My Pretties) is pretty true to the original, albeit a little less desperate sounding than the one he has on The Return…

Fly My Pretties Studio Image

There are plenty more songs in the mix for the next album, Barnaby says and promises a few more treats for the ears. In terms of sound quality, it’s amusing that formats have come full circle. The first 3 albums were released on deluxe CD packages to take full advantage. Since String Theory came out in 2017, the return has been to vinyl as the ultimate product and once again, Barnaby is promising that the disc will be something special – to hold and to hear. At the end of the day, he says, the album is for the fans, and that’s all that really matters.

This interview first appeared here:

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