As the America's Cup becomes once again a fading memory and sleep patterns return to normal, I sit down to write about a very hot young band from Auckland's North Shore, an area traditionally better known for its yachties than its musicians. I'm reminded of a nautical truism that seems could apply equally well to rock bands as it does to helmsmen; good sailors make their own luck. What this is saying is that good racing sailors make the fullest possible use of any little breaks that come their way, while minimising the impact of any adverse conditions.
So while many struggling musicians may look at the meteoric advance of The Checks and think, 'Lucky little bastards, touring on the NME New Music Tour, recording an album in London, supporting REM, barely out of grey flannel shorts, mutter mutter...' the fact is that all of these 'lucky' breaks have come about because the band is so scarily good, they work hard and have moved to capitalise on every opportunity that has come their way. It's another nautical truism that when you're going fast it tends to make your tactics look very good, and The Checks are going very fast indeed.
Hailing from the quiet seaside suburb of Devonport, the band formed at Takapuna Grammar in 2003 playing an eclectic mix of rock covers and debuting at a 21st birthday party as 15 year olds. Monopolising the school music room inevitably led to a quest for original material, and it was not long before The Checks launched themselves into the great wide world of Proper Gigs.
The buzz from their slightly unhinged and raucous R&B-soaked live shows was immediate, with invitations to play at fashionable gatherings all over town, one being Li'l Chief's Xmas Party where they apparently impressed Sub Pop label owner Jonathon Poneman. Mike Chunn also took a shine to the brash young upstarts and got them to open the live 24-hour televised music marathon for his Play It Strange trust. They took out Most Promising Band at the 2005 bNet Awards on the strength of their only single (What You Heard), and so impressed Michael Stipe of REM when he discovered them on a compilation CD, that he personally invited them to play the opening slot on the New Zealand leg of his band's tour. Yes, one of those stories...
But the real doozie was when NME editor Conor McNicholas, who was in New Zealand at the behest of the Music Industry Commission, happened upon a queue winding around the corner and had his curiosity suitably piqued. The upshot of that was The Checks receiving an invitation to travel to England to join in the 2005 NME New Music Tour, and the rest, as they say, is history. From the contacts made there they eventually signed to indie label Full Time Hobby, and, after spending the best part of a year living together in a flat in Kilburn, North London, The Checks have recently finished recording their debut album 'Hunting Whales' with producer Ian Broudie (Lightning Seeds, The Zutons, The Coral, Echo and the Bunnymen), at the prestigious Rak Studios.
It's Monday night and Sony BMG, who look after band's interests on this side of the world, look like they're bringing out the silver service for their young protégées, with a drinks and nibbles evening to unveil the new album. The following day there's interviews divided neatly into 30-minute segments, with NZM deftly managing to wrangle an extra 10 minutes and that all-important first interview of the day. All this and an invitation to attend one of two sold-out shows, but sorry folks, no CDs to-go. Note to self; Sony definitely playing cards close to their chest with this one. All five members are at both the unveiling and the interviews; yet too young to be jaded by all the industry carry-on I presume. After a brief introductory spiel from frontman Ed Knowles, delivered from scribbled notes with delightful home town candour, we get our first taste of 'Hunting Whales'.
From the first fiery riffage of Mercedes Children it's apparent that there's a little more muscle on the wirey frame of The Checks' retro-rock than was evident on What You Heard. This is borne out later with a thicker and gutsier re-recording of that debut single, so I ask if this was Broudie's influence or something the band themselves were shooting for.
"I think it was us actually," replies lead guitarist Sven Pettersen. "I think we just got better at delivering the sound that we wanted to hear, and it so happened that it was a bit more gritty." To which rhythm guitarist Callum Martin adds: "It's also an environmental thing - we actually had a nice studio to work with, and when you have that your performance shines through more."
Resisting the urge to write new songs in their fabulous new Kilburn surroundings, the band concentrated instead on working with what was already in the bag - a 45-song swag of well broken-in songs that didn't require a whole lot of overhauling. "We did a little bit of structure stuff," volunteers bassist Karel Chabera. "But mainly it was already there. A couple of verses got dropped, adding a part here..."
"We fooled around and changed the feel and put them together to see how we could make them the best they could be," chips in drummer Jacob Moore.
"Anything we could try and do in those first three weeks we did in pre-production working with the producer," continues Chabera.
"And even before that we did about three weeks rehearsal, so it's all kind of gearing up for when you step into the recording studio, it's almost sort of premeditated [smiles from the rest of the band] and you can just get on without having problems."
Broudie's input seems to have leant more towards coaxing good performances out of the lads than pitching new ideas at them.
"He didn't push anything different too hard," says Moore. "He just sort of came on board to have strictly an objective point of view, someone who was there to listen to our ideas. It was small things, the sort of things you'd say in band practice, 'Let's go into this bit here...'"
The nine weeks they spent at Rak is a pretty expensive chunk of time for a well-rehearsed and fairly basic rock band, so where did the bulk of the time get chewed up?
"The guitar sounds," admits Martin slightly sheepishly. "The first day we got the drum sounds and the bass sound pretty nailed and we'd do small tweaks per song."
"It was about the guitar tones, Moore concurs. "But heaps of it was nothing to do with anything technical, because there were points in the recording where we would go in and play the song perfectly and we'd walk back into the room and listen to it and it's just so dry - there's nothing there. When you hear back what you're actually doing it's got nothing to do with microphones or tone or anything like that. I think a lot of the time was about getting our headspace together."
That they managed to do this is pretty evident on 'Hunting Whales', it's as soulful yet down-and-dirty a record as you're likely to hear in a good long time, and all the more remarkable for their youth and relative inexperience. I mean how many (successful) bands could lay claim to having two of their dads (Phil Moore and Alan Pattersen) as managers? The Checks as a collective seem to have a lot of innate wisdom, given their brief time in the industry, and part of that wisdom meant not signing anything or recording an album until they felt good and ready to make the sort of record they knew they were capable of.
They'd always planned on signing with a UK label, says Moore senior, and were lucky enough to have a few to choose from after the NME tour. They already had a working relationship with Full Time Hobby before the NME tour, having used them to release a one-off first single the UK to coincide with the tour.
"The deal maker for us was the FTH bosses Nigel and Wez. They're great guys, and extremely hungry to make their label a success. We felt that FTH was a label on the way up and we wanted to be part of that."
The deal is for four albums, with FTH taking care of the UK and Europe, and Sony BMG responsible for the rest of the world. They've been pretty focused on the UK up until now ("and still have a lot of work to do there"), but NZ and Australia are both important markets for The Checks. The US is also very much on their long term radar. They're planning to play at New York music festival CMJ later this year, and What You Heard has been used on a Playstation game in the US - MLB07. Meanwhile they are firmly set to go in the UK with all systems in place and a comprehensive support team that includes management partners Winterman & Godstein, booking agents Helter Skelter, an independent publicist plus hard working tour management, FOH engineer and roadie.
Going back to the beginning however, you couldn't tell the story of the rise of The Checks without factoring in Rikki Morris and his Devonport-based Bus Studios (now sadly wound up). The band readily agree that the hours they put in at Bus allowed them to record like seasoned pros once they got to London.
"He's recorded pretty much everything we've done in terms of songs," says Martin of Rikki Morris. "Whenever we wrote something we'd go down and demo with him, so I think he was constantly watching our progression through our songs. It was fantastic to cut our teeth with our first recordings and learn, because we learnt a lot before we were put into the recording environment - it was good experience."
Thursday rolls around and it's time to go out and see if The Checks can deliver on stage as well as their reputation suggests. The venue is a fairly insalubrious rock club on Auckland's Karangahape Rd with a cramped stage at one end and bar in the middle - perfect for The Checks' brand of snake-hipped, nifty-rifty rhythm 'n' blues. Remarkably, the two other bands on the bill -The Electric Confectionaires and White Birds & Lemons also stem from Takapuna Grammar, and further illustrate that London-domicility hasn't made The Checks any less aware of the value of old friendships and their Devonport roots. Arriving in time for the last White Birds' number and an endless changeover (sooo precious about their kits... drummers!), we were then treated to the proto-progressive-lounge pop of the Confectionaires who received a polite reception from a crowd obviously there for the main course.
When it arrived the reaction was immediate and undeniable as the choppy strains of What You Heard came hurtling out of a struggling PA system. And who's that behind the desk? None other than Mr Morris himself keeping a watchful eye on proceedings. I probably don't need to tell you the lads rocked the house down. Ditching the boots and suits in favour of a more boho vibe, Ed Knowles exuded the sort of effortless frontman aura that you simply can't learn or fake, although he seemed a little reigned in by the ungenerous proportions of the stage. In front of an audience he's reminiscent of a young Jordan Luck, while the band was locked in tight and demonstrating clear benefits from the experience of recording and gigging abroad. There's something genuinely exciting about The Checks music that translates particularly well in a sweaty pub, and sure as eggs when the guys get back to England after their current promotional chores, there'll be plenty more of those.
Gigging in London can be a humbling experience for a band used to hometown adulation, and things were no different for The Checks. A year ago they initially played their hearts out to a smattering of curious punters. Knowles informs me that their last show sold out, and the band are confident they can build on the foothold they've chiseled out for themselves over a relatively short time, in one of the world's toughest music markets.
For all the emphasis on things British, the guys speak wistfully about their desire to do a summer tour in New Zealand. It's like a rite of passage for most young bands, yet things have happened so fast and unconventionally for this young combo that it remains a sort of enigmatic, unfulfilled dream. For a band that had condoms thrown on stage at High School shows (complete with relevant contact information penned onto the wrappers), it's not too hard to see the allure that a Kiwi summer tour would hold for a bunch of young antipodeans locked into an English winter. But The Checks have an unwavering focus and determination when it comes to getting their music out to the world, and if that means putting the 'Golden Weather' tour on ice for a while, well so be it.