It has taken the best part of two decades of various musical endeavour, but in the last few years Tiki Taane has moved from enjoying the vast respect of those in the know, to becoming something of a national icon. Karl Puschmann talks to the Top 40 singer/songwriter and underground electronic producer about the strange duality of his life, coping with success, his uncompromising new album ‘In The World of Light’, and why two years ago he almost walked away from it all.
An acoustic guitar changed everything. For 17 years Tiki Taane had been at the forefront of bass-driven music and culture, pushing at the boundaries of what a dub act could sound like, what a remix could do to a song, learning the ins and outs of electronic production and sound engineering techniques for himself.
But it was an old, out of tune, acoustic guitar, strumming out some simple “hangi chords”, accompanied by a scratchily raw vocal, recorded through a microphone gaffa-taped to a broomstick, that would change everything for the ‘King of the Dubs’. Ironic, at the very least, for a musician so utterly devoted to electronic music.
The song was, of course, Always On My Mind, an incredibly earnest yet undeniably honest love song that would capture the heart of the nation (it’s sold well over 30,000 copies and the video, directed by Bret Nichols and Gary Mackay from Roundhead Productions, had over a million YouTube views), snare the attention of corporate marketers (remember the BNZ ads with the lively piggy banks?), and pluck Tiki Taane out of the comfort zone of his beloved underground music scene, delivering him to the masses.
“With Always On My Mind, it blew everything into a different kind of scene,” Tiki says down the line from Queenstown, where he’s working as live sound tech for Shapeshifter. “That was such a massive song and all of a sudden I became a household name almost. A lot of people only just clicked onto me for that one song. I’ve been around for 20 years now – back then [when Always On My Mind was released] it might have only been 17 or 18 years – but I’d been around doing a lot of music. I’ve been featured on a lot of albums and I’ve probably been on 300 songs, but a lot of people go, ‘Oh you’re that guy…’”
It was the classic ‘overnight’ success story, completed with almost two decades of underground groundwork. And, like all such success stories of instant fame and fortune, Tiki’s collision into the mainstream was something he found initially extremely perplexing.
“When that song blew up, I was like ‘really?’ I was quite confused. That little song with a shitty guitar and my singing’s really rough… that became the biggest tune? What the fuck?”
But then that whole period was a confusing time for Tiki. Having left Salmonella Dub, the iconic NZ dub band he’d sound engineered, then fronted for 11 years, to strike out on his own, he’d released the progressive and experimental solo album ‘Past, Present, Future’ to incredibly mixed reviews.
While his willingness to embrace and rep every musical genre that he loved impressed, it ended up almost a backhanded compliment as most critics complained of the album’s lack of cohesiveness. It was, most would agree, a very good collection of songs that fit and flowed together entirely not at all.
“All the reviews for the last album, that was the main thing,” Tiki says now. “A lot of the reviewers, were saying, ‘Oh this album, it’s just all over the place. It’s incohesive, it does this, it does that…’ and at the time I thought, ‘Well fuck… what a bunch of boring mutherfuckers!’.
At this he laughs heartily before conceding that yes, he may have been overcompensating a little in his ambition.
“Yeah, there was a lot to prove. I wanted to come out blazing and I wanted to come out on my own two feet and push myself, and it was very daunting and quite lonely,” he says reflecting. “I released that record almost like a mix-tape. Like a showcase of ‘This is what I can do as a vocalist and as a producer and as a singer/songwriter’. I was actually looking more towards becoming a record producer, that’s what I wanted to do, but it took off, and all of a sudden I was faced with, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to be this vocalist singer guy, a solo artist’. Then I went ‘Okay’ and I ran with it.”
“But I guess when I look at ‘Past, Present, Future’ now, that I’ve moved on a bit more. I’m more of an established artist now and I know what I’m about, and I know who I am and where my place is in this world.”
Turns out Tiki’s musical place in the world is actually two places; the plugged-in dub and bass culture where he made his name, and the upper regions of the Top 40 charts, whose supporters wholeheartedly embraced Tiki’s acoustic, unplugged side.
It’s a strange duality – and it’s hard to think of any other artist who can drop a thumping drum’n’bass set, then strum out an acoustic number without raising any eyebrows. But it’s one he’s worked hard to achieve, worked hard to cultivate and, as he’ll soon explain, will be working extremely hard to keep.
“It’s quite interesting and it’s very schizophrenic, but somehow over the years I’ve managed to build up quite a large fanbase just by having a diverse range of music, both produced and sung.”
But having such a widely diverse audience can create problems.
“I’ve got two massively separate kind of fans,” he says before launching into a couple of hilarious stories about some Top 40 fans who turned up to the maximum bass gigs of dubstepper Optimus Gryme, where he was billed as MC Tiki, later complaining that he hadn’t played any of his own songs – or any songs at all for that matter.
But lest you think he’s hating, he also jokes about the hardcore kids that turned up to a gig clearly promoted as an acoustic set. Predictably they were “pissed of” that he didn’t played anything heavy like Don’t Tell Me or Tangaroa. Laughing, he finishes these stories with a relaxed, “So it goes both ways.”,
Hard as it is to believe, it’s been four years since ‘Past Present Future’ dropped. The long-lived ubiquity of Always On My Mind makes it seem far less.
“I know, it’s crazy,” Tiki agrees. “I think it’s because I’ve kept a presence in the live scene and I’ve still released things with other people. In four years a lot can happen, but it doesn’t feel that long. And that’s the thing. I don’t want to rush anything as well. I definitely take my time with my music that’s for sure.”
So at his own unhurried pace Tiki began work on the follow up to his debut album. He began writing, recording and collaborating with various chosen artists and, as the pieces started to fall into place, started thinking about out how to fit the heavier drum’n’bass and dubstep numbers alongside the pop-friendly acoustic jams.
And it was right about then that he realised he had a problem.
“It was crazy. I had so much material and I was finding it hard to make a proper cohesive album. I was racking my brains going, ‘I’ve got all this material and I really want to put it on the same album but it just doesn’t feel right to me’,” he says.
“‘Past Present Future’ was really experimental and I threw everything at it. I wanted to do everything I was into, but with this album that didn’t sit right with me.”
After pondering it all for a while, and taking in his unique position in NZ’s musical landscape, Tiki came up with a novel solution – and one that matches the experimental nature of ‘Past Present Future’. Rather than releasing one follow-up album, Tiki will instead be releasing two.
“I only decided on it about a month ago,” he explains. “And once I made the decision that I needed to break the songs up and make two albums, once I did that everything just clicked. And I went, ‘Wow, this is exactly how it should be’. Make a cohesive, beat heavy, bass-driven album, and then make the next album a cohesive acoustic album. It’s about having that art and making sure that that art is delivered in the best way possible. And I thought that breaking them up and making two albums was the best way possible.”
So rather than attempting to please everyone and risking pleasing no one, Tiki has instead decided to please both his major fan camps by giving them exactly what each want. The first album, which comes out on Dirty Dub (his collaborative label with Dirty Records) in early March, is titled ‘In The World Of Light’, and aimed directly at the dance underground. The second, which has a pencilled release date of November, will, he says, be a purely acoustic record, filled with catchy sing-alongs and big anthemic choruses.
“With this next album it just seems right that I’m gonna strip it back and throw it back towards the culture that I really, really love, which is bass culture – especially NZ Aotearoa bass culture,” Tiki says. “Even though I know that ‘In The World Of Light’ won’t be a mainstream commercial success, because it doesn’t have any big singalong, Top 40 tunes on it. But it’s gonna hold its ground as a really, really progressive album that will definitely hit the underground nice and proper.”
In part it may be that he doesn’t want his bass culture fans thinking he’s sold out – a fairly laughable idea considering his history – but the main reason the stubbornly non-conceding, non-commercial bass record is coming out first is because of what Tiki describes as his “responsibility” to the scene.
“I feel like I’ve got to throw back to that because I was around at the beginning of it,” he says. “When I hooked up with Salmonella Dub no one else was doing what we were doing. I was there when drum’n’bass first hit, I was there when dubstep first hit, so I feel responsible for paying homage back to that. That’s what this album is about. ‘In The World Of Light’ is about pushing those boundaries again and the next album will be about, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna do some nice acoustic pop songs’. The acoustic album’s got some really big catchy acoustic anthems on it. Once I separated the songs, it just became very clear that it felt right.”
It’s an oddly sound idea, a most logical move for someone in his unique position to make. It must be nice, I say, to be able to dip into commercial waters and then retreat back to the familiar comfort of the underground scene.
“Oh yeah, without a doubt,” he answers quickly. “And I’m not dissing either of them. I’m just trying to really make sure that the fans that like their bass culture music, that like that progressive, underground, not-mainstream type of dance music, that they’re happy. And then later on I’m gonna make sure that people that like the acoustic stuff, who love the Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Tiki Taane styles, I’m gonna make sure that they’re happy as well.”
“I’m really grateful that I’ve managed to be able to keep my foot in both worlds. I’m just trying to very strategically make sure that everyone’s happy. I mean it would be nice to be able to drop the two albums at the same time but I thought that might be a bit too confusing,” he says, finishing this explanation with a sly chuckle.
So now that we’re all up to speed, it’s time to discuss ‘In The World Of Light’. It’s a suggestive title, one that instantly conjures up images, and it’s not surprising to learn that the title itself acted as the album’s inspiration.
“When you hear that title it’s quite a positive, uplifting, almost enlightening way to look at something. That’s the kind of vibe I wanted to come across. In Maoridom you have Te Ao Marama, which is the world of light, which is what we’re living in right now, it’s the present time.
“Another outlook is that sometimes you’ll see things one way, and then two or three days later, or a week later, you’ll see that same thing but in a different light, and it looks completely different. That’s what I want people to hear in the album. When you first hear it you’ll hear this, when you second hear it you’ll hear something different, and when you third hear it you’ll hear something completely different. It’s all about what you hear at that present time, and because of what you’re feeling at that present time you’ll pick up different things from the music. There’s a lot of different meanings behind it.”
This idea of things changing in the light – or with regards to music changing depending on your mood – is an incredibly tricksy musical feat, but one he’s amply pulled off. Getting that kind of emotional ambiguity happening is no easy task. At its most simplistic, major chords make you feel happy and minor chords make you feel sad. So on a purely mechanical level what chords do you use to write a song that expresses both these emotions depending on the variable state of mind of the listener? And on an artistic level, how do you go about creating a suitably shifting palette for the listener to emote their own ever-changing moods onto? Both great questions. Wish I’d asked them…
Instead I agreed with him, saying that many of the tracks on the album had generated that exact response out of me. Having listened one morning to the heavily slow, bass-driven dubstep number Soundtrack To Forever I found it musically inspiring and uplifting. The very next morning when I’d been running a little late and was fairly grumped out, the same track perfectly matched my much more melancholic mood.
“Yeah totally man, things can look different in different shades of light,” an enthusiastic Tiki responds. “You might listen to that track when you’re feeling good and it might be inspiring or uplifting, but if you’re feeling depressed or bummed out it might make you feel even worse. That’s the whole theory of ‘In The World Of Light’. It’s all up to the listener. I try to look at the more positive side of things but I’m asking a lot of questions. I’m looking towards myself and going, ‘Once a king / but now a fool / upon his broken throne,’” he says reciting from the track’s lyric. “So I’m being quite honest about shit that’s happened in my life. There’s a track called Light Years Away that’s about a good friend of mine who drowned two years ago. So it’s things like that I’m singing about. Things that are quite dear to me.”
Is it hard to bring so much honesty to your work, I ask?
“No, it’s too easy for me, that’s the scary thing,” he laughs. “I’m a Sagittarius man, we shoot from the hip. It’s a good value to have, there’s no bullshit. So singing about things is really easy for me because the best way for me to get my feelings out is through music.”
So, as you may have picked up, there’s a lot going on with this album. There’s also a third meaning behind the title, and it’s a major.
“I’m a dad now,” Tiki says. “My son’s nearly two, and having him born into this world, born into the light, is another big thing about it as well.”
He says becoming a father “totally” affected his outlook on, well, pretty much everything. At one point he even thought that he “… should stop everything and get a real job”. An idea he only dismissed because he later thought that, “If I was my son I would want my dad to be out there doing something that he’s passionate about”.
He didn’t stop but he did resolve to go at it a lot harder and to also involve his son in his music as much as he could. Tiki already takes him to festivals, gigs and even pulls him up on stage for a bit of a dance every now and then.
“One day it would be cool if he could start his own band and rock out onstage as well,” he says.
You do like to keep it in the family I respond, which prompts Tiki to crack up.
“Yeah, you’re right,” he laughs. “My sister manages my company, my other sister manages my merchandise. My dad’s onstage with me. My mum’s the biggest fan, she’s got a scrapbook and she’s been there since my first gig when I was 14 or 15. So my family’s definitely a huge foundation for what I do.”
We move on to talking about the recording process. Because the two albums had originally been thought of as one, recordings for both happened consecutively in Tiki’s home studio on a Woodhill farm block, augmented with the occasional session at his other house in Palmerston North. (The sales and serious sync revenues from Always On My Mind have allowed him to invest in real estate and a bar business.)
Describing his studio rig as “a really, really simple set-up” he nevertheless has an enviable array of toys at his disposal, including a Summit DCL 2000 duel compressor/limiter, an Apogee Mini-Me pre-amp compressor/limiter, as well as an Empirical Labs Distressor, two Korg keyboards, a Juno, a “whole bunch of beautiful guitars,” a variety of traditional Maori instruments like flutes, drums and shells and a small mixing desk everything runs through. An endorsement deal with Shure ensures he’s hooked up with microphones, his preference being the KSM313 dual-voice ribbon mic, and he switches between three sets of monitors to cross reference his mixes. Some “outdated” Event 20/20s (his main workhorse monitors that he mixed three Salmonella Dub albums, the ‘Shapeshifter Live’ album and ‘Past, Present, Future’ on), JBLs and also some Mission speakers.
His process is to mix the tracks himself and do the first steps of mastering, applying all the limiting and EQ’ing, before handing the dubs over to Evan Short “… the Rick Rubin of NZ”, to finish up and add the “icing on the cake”.
By now time’s running short but it’d be remiss of me not ask about the many collaborations sprinkled liberally throughout ‘In The World Of Light’.
“That’s something I’ve always been into, just working with heaps of people and heaps of artists,” Tiki answers. “It helps me step my game up and I think it helps them step their game up as well.”
“So there’s drum’n’bass tunes I’ve done on there with Dub XL and Concord Dawn,” he says. “There’s dubstep with Bulletproof, Optimus Gryme, Crushington and Truth. And I’ve done some crazy, crazy, crazy stuff that’s kind of tribal that I call ‘haka step’ – it’s got vocals from Hollie Smith and this Spanish chick called Bebe. The main thing was that I wanted to work with people I hadn’t worked with before for this record. It came out really good and it’s a really experimental, bass heavy, beat-driven album.”
During our 40 minute chat we’ve talked about the past, we’ve talked about the present, so to wrap things up, I ask Tiki about the future.
“March 5th at Homegrown at my merchandise tent, we release the album. So we’re booking a tour through March/April for NZ,” he says, “Then I go to tour Europe with Shapeshifter in April and May. They stay over there because they’re moving to Berlin, but I come back and tour my album through Australia for May and June.
“Then I go to Japan and then it’s back to Europe to do some Shapeshifter dates. Then I come back for the Rugby World Cup and basically during all that time I’m still working on the acoustic album. Then I go back over to Europe to do some stuff for Shapeshifter and then head to Australia in October. Then I come back, release the acoustic album in November, and then it’s touring December/January/February/March plus April. So yeah…” he says trailing off, “It’s non-stop bro.”
That is a full on schedule I say.
“Yeah it is,” Tiki answers with a laugh, before getting a bit more serious. “And during all that also trying to be a dad, and a partner, and trying to run a couple of businesses and trying to put on parties and stuff like that. It’s definitely full time. But it’s awesome. I’ve asked for this career and I’ve built myself up to have this career, so I’m definitely not complaining. It’s wicked.”
But with all that going on, are you sure there’s enough Tiki to go around? There’s a slight pause and then Tiki properly cracks up.
“Is there enough Tiki to go around, babes?” he asks off phone in between laughter, then he’s back talking into the speaker.
“My wife’s saying ‘Yes’, she’s nodding,” he says still chuckling. “Yeeeeah, there’s enough Tiki to go around!”