Tommy: Aroha & Wairua
Author: Melanie Selby (photography by Garth Moon)
While they have recorded plenty of material, toured the South Island extensively and played with many of Wellington's darlings including TrinityRoots, the Black Seeds and Fat Freddy's Drop, Tommy have been waiting until the time was right to release their debut recording. They chose to delay until they had great material, a solid album and were signed to a record company that suited their style.
'4000 Years', as the album is entitled, may be an exponential overstatement, but Tommy have been together for four years, and have had to resist pressure from fans and interested industry players to commit to plastic.
The Wellington band's founder and songwriter Tommy Benefield (vocals, guitar), says not releasing anything until they were ready was a strategic decision and one they're pleased with.
"There were a lot of people interested in releasing our home made demo recordings as an actual album or EP and we fought those offers off. We said 'No, we want to come out with something really strong that we feel really uniform about and can support and promote proactively and feel like we're putting our best foot forward'. So we waited four years to make this."
After two years of talking to label manager Mikee Tucker, Tommy - comprised of Benefield, brothers Iain (bass and vocals) and AJ Hickling (drums, percussion, flutes and 'colours') and Paul Pascoe (keyboards) - decided LOOP Recordings was the label for them.
"We wanted to try our hands at something new that wasn't a typical Wellington sound or Loop sound. And it's definitely a different direction for us," acknowledges Tucker.
The Tommy sound, which is a blend of reggae, rock, soul and pop, can be summed up by the term 'folk roots', sits comfortably alongside the likes of the John Butler Trio, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper.
The album was first recorded a couple of years ago "...in the middle of a Takaka forest" on an eight-track deck. AJ Hickling then re-recorded parts at Matrix Digital and at a later point the work was handed over to sound engineer Mike Gibson who has credits with Fur Patrol and TrinityRoots among others. Gibson mixed and mastered the third and final version at Wellington's Inca Studios. Tommy Benefield takes production credits for most of the tracks, along with Hickling and Gibson. Some of the early recordings still made it on the album.
"There are a few songs that survived the original demo that were remixed in the studios but had their initial tracking all over Nelson," says Benefield. "You can actually hear to cicadas on the roof of the tin shed we were recording in if you listen hard enough."
"The original demo has its own unique flavour. What we've done is re-recorded some of those songs and remixed some and recorded a whole bunch of new songs and it's a lot fuller, a lot more lush - and we think a lot more interesting and exciting with more depth and movement to it. But the original recordings were really raw and they had a vitality of their own, they had a different energy."
Perhaps it's this mix of the raw and the refined that make Tommy's music something unique and quite beautiful. While fans will appreciate the irony of the title '4000 Years' - the album is actually named from one of the songs on the album.
Benefield says it is an important song.
Tommy are from left: Tommy Benefield, Paul Pascoe, Iain Hickling and Al Hickling
'4000 Years' is, he says, an "affirming album" that leads the listener on a journey of sorts.
"There's a lot of negativity going on at the moment and the album is a real empowerment of spirit and an empowerment of soul to people to just be conscious. To be conscious of how your actions affect the whole," he explains.
"It's an album about people who gain their integrity. A lot of the songs are redemption songs. They come from the perspective of someone who has lost his/her way perhaps and it's definitely an album of hope."
In typical Wellington style there are guest performances including Adrian Dick on guitar (Stylus 77), Hollie Smith (who contributed to the recent TrinityRoots release) on vocals and Fat Freddy's Drop trumpeter Toby Laing. The 12 song album is divided into two 'sides'; Aroha and Wairua.
"One side is called the Aroha side because it's more about messages that are heart felt and pertaining to emotional matters. Then there's the Wairua side which is more about messages that are perhaps more philosophical," says Benefield.
The whole is packaged in a recycled-looking cardboard case accompanied by a foldout lyric sheet in which substance is not sacrificed to style.
With their album destined to be one of those that accompanies summer, Tommy will be supporting its October release with a national tour. There has already been interest in the band from Australian and American parties and Loop Recordings are aiming for the album to go gold. It seems the four year wait just might pay off for this band.