In Defence Of: Fat Freddy’s Drop

There’s an odd comfort to be found in reading music blogs, where the consensus of opinion roughly matches your own tastes. The agreement about which bands are definitely in and which are out hardly needs to be acknowledged and so a site like The Corner ends up with everyone in rough agreement that the Mint Chicks were great and the ex-band-members get a fair hearing for their new projects. Meanwhile, there are other acts that seem pre-destined for a curt two-line takedown or a gruesomely meticulous dissection that cares little for what the artist was actually trying to achieve with their music. In order to turn things around a little, The Corner has asked its writers to each mount a defence of an act that they believe would naturally be shunned by a blog like this one. Even if you don’t agree with them, let’s hope you admire their foolish candour …

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A hell of a lot of people in New Zealand seem to like Fat Freddy’s Drop (FFD).

This is why the band can now charge $80 for their shows and why their first album sold over 135,000 units despite being released through an independent distributor. However, I sometimes get the feeling that although FFD fans are everywhere, I don’t actually seem to hang out with any of them. In fact, the only times I hear them mentioned is when people are making jokes at their expense. People complain about them being “barbeque reggae” or try to convince me that their trombone player isn’t very good. Yet I have a soft spot for the group and feel like the cursory arguments that are used to dismiss them, often don’t match up to reality when you examine them. So let me respond directly to some of these points and if I end up constructing a straw man to argue against then I’m sure you’ll let me know in the comments section…

“FFD is lightweight BBQ reggae. It’s nothing like the real stuff from Jamaica.”

There are a number of reasons why this misses the mark for me. Firstly, their music clearly isn’t trying to be straightforward reggae at all. All the critics seem to hear is the off-beat stabs of guitar and they don’t notice all the dub trickery that is going on in the background. Even the singing leans more towards R&B and soul than it does from a traditional rasta-accented reggae vocal. The horns might have some elements of reggae, but they soon turn to jazz whenever the chance opens up. Perhaps on this count, FFD are actually being judged more on the music of the bands that emerged alongside them (or in their wake). Black Seeds and Katchafire seem to fit the BBQ reggae tag a lot more to my ears (whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, we can leave aside until someone is brave enough to stand up for one of those groups). But no, I don’t agree that FFD are just lightweight BBQ reggae. Their music draws from reggae music – sure – but there’s a lot more to it than that and it would much less interesting if they were just trying to re-enact some recording of Prince Buster from the 60s.

“But dub and jazz are terrible music genres, so I hate them anyway!”

Terrible things happened to certain types of music during the 80s and you can’t just toss out the whole genre as a result. In the 50s, jazz was the indie music of its day and its rebellious spirit was evident far before rock’n’roll came on the scene. It’s not fair to just point to Kenny G or whatever lame band you’ve seen playing in some swanky bar on High St and say that jazz sucks. Reggae also had its own moment of being cutting edge (in the 60s and 70s) and the whole genre can’t be written off just because UB40 and Simply Red came along to ruin things for everyone. I suppose dub music might sound a tad dull if you’ve never been a weed smoker, but it pays to remember that we wouldn’t have Massive Attack or Tricky if it wasn’t for the innovators who created Dub in the 70s. Anyway, the Mad Professor is playing Womad this year, so if you wanna complain about dub then go tell him about it.

“FFD make music that’s too repetitive and boring.”

Well, that’s because it’s made for dancing or listening to at a party. Have you ever heard electronica music? Those lazy slobs just play the same loop for ten minutes. If you listen carefully to a FFD then you’ll find there’s always something going on in the background (their beat producer, Mu, is always fiddling around with some dub effect or another). Their songs are generally quite long, but if you don’t like the band then this has an upside since they tend to have less tracks that are obvious singles so they’re not a band that’s all over music television and radio (so if you don’t like them, they’re easy to avoid). I will admit that the vocals in FFD do repeat quite a bit, though the singing is often used as another soloing instrument when they play live, so the words are not as important as the vibe that the singer is putting across by repeating them in different ways.

“Ugh, I hate solos. The more you write, the bigger you dig your own grave here.”

Yeah, I’m not so hot on solos myself. However, when FFD play live, the focus is on keeping the groove going for an extended period, so that people can dance along to it and the solos that the instruments play are just a way to keep this interesting (since all the tricks of the studio aren’t at their fingertips). Having these sections in their songs also allows them to change the mood of each song to the vibe they are getting from the audience. Nonetheless if you listen to the actual hooks of FFD songs then you’ll find that they’re pretty sharp (and I noticed that a few people suddenly found their music more digestible once it was placed inside a hip hop track.

“Oh god. I can’t believe you said ‘vibe’ in both of your last two replies. I think you’ve pretty much ruined any chance you had of convincing me. Though before we finish, I want you to at least admit that their trombone player is totally average.”

Not gonna happen, sorry! I did a few months of playing trombone for a band at one point and I was fucking lame at it (even though it was just a valve-trombone). Joe Lindsay from FFD is a thousand times better than me and he even does some hilariously-shameless dancing along with it. If he played smooth, incredibly complicated jazz solos then it would be way more boring. Plus he features in a bunch of other bands (e.g., The Shogun Orchestra, Scribes of Ra, etc) and also has his own outfit The Yoots, so if all you trombone players out there think you can do a better job then ask yourself – why the hell does everyone keep playing with him instead of you?

“I still hate them.”

Well, I still like them, so I guess we’re even.

8 Comments

  1. Matt Plunkett says:

    Clothes?

  2. I dunno about this. The song you posted is okay, but I saw these guys at Summer Series once and they just jammed out each song to ten minutes long. It just makes me lose interest.

    Though I saw Phoenix Foundation on the weekend and they had a similar tendency to drown their pop hooks in extended jams, so maybe it’s just a Wellington thing?

    But don’t get me started on BBQ reggae…

    • Bro they were stoned as fuck. Hard not to jam it out when you’re that baked…

    • Gareth Shute says:

      Oh yeah, I like Phoenix Foundation too. Though I like to think of them as “soundscape-y” rather than jammy. Luckily Stevie Kaye isn’t here to (firmly) disagree with all this.

  3. Yes!

  4. Unconvincing article. FFD are no good for me because they sound smug, conceited and generally just insipid. Like non-On The Corner/Live Evil Miles Davis. As people they may well be lovely, humble and sweet as licorice pie but their music club of grinning goofball faces and ecstatic eyes comes across to me as some sort of dumb zombie cult where they themselves are hypnotised, as are their equally clueless followers. Good that they can play their instruments well and all but slap me when the things over cos I’m sleeping in the corner.

    The comment that annoys me the most though is this:
    “I suppose dub music might sound a tad dull if you’ve never been a weed smoker,” This is a stupid comment. I haven’t smoked much of anything for close to 20 years and still enjoy dub on occasion – King Tubby, Scientist, Twilight Circus, Prince Jammy etc… why do you need pot to get this? Its not that different in concept from a James Brown tune being minimal and groove based. Some of the arrangements are abstract, complex and interesting. Sure some of it is dull but that’s the same for any genre.

    You also try to equate the jazzy side of FFD to its early ‘rebellious spirit’. There sure has been some wild stuff put out under the name of Jazz – Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler etc… but I don’t get quite how FFD summon up the spirit of these sort of players.

    Same for Phoenix Foundation for me. Too caught up in their own sense of cool and what is tasteful to do anything approaching interesting. I havent seen FFD live but I have seen Phoenix Foundation and their strummy, meticulous songs all blended into a blurry long drag of an evening. I was quite open to them being good since everyone raves on endlessly about them but never at any point did I feel much beyond some kind of weak admiration at how ‘tight’ they sounded.

    But then I might be completely deluded.
    Actually I most certainly am.
    I am sorry. Goodbye.

  5. excellent idea for a column, looking forward to a spirited defense of t payne and lou bega. also, Ive never heard anyone in real life say they hate ffd, only ever on, people-who-really-follow-music comment sections, like this. my thought is the hate is generated by a combination of the terrible bbq reggae that followed them and perceived overexposure/hype.

  6. It is with great sorrow I inform you that I recently heard FFD being played over the PA in a Singapore shopping mall.

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