Dunedin is renowned for fostering musical talent and has a long history of successful bands. Most recently there seems to be a trend occurring that has seen bands doing extremely well playing to university audiences that in turn has launched them onto the national scene and if lucky, get some international exposure.
For Summer Thieves, this trend holds true as they have gained momentum and are on a similar path to another recently successful band to come out of Dunedin; Six60.
I caught up with the full band that includes leading vocalist Jake Barton, Drummer Johnny Ward, Bass player Adam Spencer and Angus Cleland on the keyboard. We discussed how they got into music, where they met each other and how the band has got to where it is today.
Jake first picked up a guitar when he was about seven years old after receiving one for his birthday. He proceeded to teach himself and took lessons for about a year when he was 8 and hasn't looked back. Adam started with the Piano and Saxophone when he was five years old to the age of 13 when he picked up a Guitar and in his words "realised what a dork I was being." He grabbed a Bass in 6th form and completed a degree in Bass performance. Johnny Ward aka 'Bongo John' first played the drums at a school assembly at Macandrew Intermediate. Having never played the drums before in his life, he jumped on stage and started playing a simple 4 / 4 beat. Since then he never put the sticks down and has been playing ever since. Angus, the most recent addition to the band, originally played drums that he has played for the past 12 years. He has also been teaching himself the keyboard over the past five years with no formal training and started producing beats over the last four years.
It was interesting to discover this band all met at King's High School in Dunedin and have been friends ever since. The band started as 'Thelonius' and included Jake, Johnny and two other members who played for about five years. The original band would have played at least 300 shows together. Where they played every week at numerous events, including an Orientation gig at the Bowler when they were 15 that required their parents to be there as guardians on a licensed premise. Finally, starting to make some progress they managed to secure an opening gig for the Jordan Luck band. On completion of the show, Jake and Adam were surprised that the other two members were calling it quits. Especially after they thought it was one of their greatest achievements to date.
Following the split Jake and Johnny continued to play together. In their own words, they were "sort of taking the piss." The two wrote a song titled 'Summer Thieves' under the name 'Jazzy Jake and Bongo John'. The duo played about 20 shows from which started the ball rolling for what would be the beginning of 'Summer Thieves.' However, to create some actual pulse in their music, the duo invited Bass player Adam to join which officially formed the Summer Thieves band at the end of 2011. From then the band has been going from strength to strength and has been playing as many shows as possible.
After seeing signs of success running the band as a trio, they wanted to lift their performances to the next level. They trialled Adam playing both the Bass and the Keys, but found it to be a bit too difficult. Knowing they needed to introduce a fourth member the search was on. Despite this, they knew they could not just bring any member into the group. The trio needed to find someone that was the perfect fit. Not just a good musician but someone who fits within the group. As the boys put it, "you can be the greatest musician on the planet but you could be the worst person to tour with." Luckily, Angus was the perfect fit. The trio had gone to High School with him, and Jake had been family friends with him for as long as he can remember. Their dad's had been surfing buddies before they were born and remained close to this day.
A great example of true friendships that the band knew they wanted to mimic. To them, it is more important to form a tight group of mates who are almost like brothers. This way they know they can be honest with each other and deal with problems that arise. They confront their problems like you would with your own sibling (even tho that can sometimes result in some physical disputes). Instead of letting things build up and get out of control they have a close enough relationship to deal with it. Something other bands have struggled with in the past and has seen the fall of some of the greats.
The first EP titled 'Summer Thieves' was released before Angus was involved. Produced by Jake and Adam and mastered by Dale Cotton. The EP created as part of Jake's postgrad project at Otago University. A release that is made up of 5 track's and did not really reflect the full bands makeup. But more so, acoustic tracks Jake and Johnny had put together with Adam adding some Bass over it.
The trio enjoyed it for what it was, but wanted to target a bit of a different demographic. Their original music appreciated by those who live for music, but they wanted to focus on music that creates good vibes and appeals to the masses. All being around Otago University they saw the rise of Six60 within the university crowd and the popularity they gained around the country. Summer Thieves have a lot of respect for what they have achieved and acknowledge them as one of their greatest inspirations. They described to me, "they are normal guys that started out in the same region, playing to the same people they play to and look where they are now. They create music that people want to party too, their not trying to create the next Mozart." More importantly, they have learned from them that it is about creating an experience that people will remember and having fun doing it. The challenge to create the full package that makes a night special, as opposed to just playing music.
Following this mindset Summer Thieves have pursued the university market. They understand that these students are looking for a good night, and that's what they try to provide. Even tho they are now playing at some pretty notable events, they still support a great flat party despite the risk. The boys said, "there is nothing like turning up to a flat with 50k worth of gear and a sound engineer to create the atmosphere that people will talk about for months."
Under this new direction and the addition of Angus, has seen the level of production being raised significantly. A course that has caught the eye of one of New Zealand's top producers, Tiki Tane. A producer that has worked with some of the most successful groups to come out of NZ like Shapeshifter and Six60. After keeping tabs on the boys for about two years, Tiki Tane invited them to record their next album. They were lucky to spend two weeks in the studio with him back in February last year and will have him return in April this year to finish off their new ten track album.
Although they have been working hard on their new album, it has been the tours that have raised their profile to date. Prior to spending two weeks in the studio with Tiki, they had just finished an NZ tour that included 28 shows. Summer Thieves have also been pretty privileged to go on tour with their idols Katchafire. They opened for the band on both of their south island tours over the past two years. Playing in a 3 and 4 show tour of the south island.
Following the success they have seen to date, it was a proud moment to be asked to play at New Zealand's biggest festival over new years in Gisborne at the 'Rhythm of the Vines.' They played this highlight show as part of their second NZ tour that saw them complete five shows across the country. Starting in Taupo and included shows in Whakatane, Gisborne, Riwaka and the final show in Kaikoura. A final show that made their milestone list. Being huge Kora fans since they were kids, (some of the boys even suggesting it was their religion growing up) it was a special moment when Francis from the band got up on stage with them. He sang the lyrics with Jake in Summer Thieves encore song where they played a jam of one of their Kora favourites 'Burning'.
Other personal milestones the boys have noted included being asked to open for Macklemore at an Orientation gig that would be their first big stadium event. The kicker was that they would only play if they could prove to his managers that their music would fit an opening spot. Given one night to be able to prove this, they included a hip-hop artist and recorded and produced a new upbeat track by the morning to send off for approval. Luckily the effort was worth it, and it was huge to be asked to open for such a large international artist, in the biggest event and stage they had ever played at.
Despite all the success that has been discussed here, it has been their commitment to what they do that has impressed me. Everything they have done to date has been totally self-funded and organised by themselves and their managers. Jason Schroder and Tim Couch who work under the name Crescendo management have done a lot of the behind the scenes work to get them the gigs they have played recently. However, it was incredible to discover that every dollar they have made as a band has been reinvested back into what they do. Each of them works other jobs to fund their personal lives and have saved the band money to progress their careers.
Summer Thieves is a great example of if you stick at something you love and give it everything; anything is possible. It is also great to see guys who are proud of where they come from and have remained close since meeting in High School. I have no doubt this band will go on to great things, and it sounds like they have a very exciting year ahead of them (although we can't go into detail yet until things are confirmed). You can catch them headlining the notorious Orientation Toga party this year in February or better yet check out the music they have released below.