The New Zealand band on busking, bringing the sax back and their new jazz-infused debut album.
Drax Project are smashing it.
Having met at music school whilst studying jazz, Shaan Singh, Matt Beachen, Sam Thomson and Ben O’Leary joined forces back in 2013, choosing their portmanteau name to pay tribute to the drums and saxophone combination that’s driven their growing popularity in recent years.
After mastering their craft busking on the streets of Wellington, the global success of breakout hit “Woke Up Late” in 2017 catapulted them into the limelight, winning single of the year at the 2018 New Zealand Music Awards. It’s re-release – featuring actress-singer Hailee Steinfeld – recently charted in the US, racking up over 57 million streams. With their debut, self-titled album just out, we met the guys to speak about their meteoric rise, opening for the likes of Lorde, Camila Cabello and Ed Sheeran, and bringing the sax back.
Hi guys! Looking back… Do you miss busking? It must have been good preparation for the music industry.
Matt [drums]: We definitely go through moments of nostalgia with busking! They were fun times, that helped shape our musicality and get a taste of what people like. If people don’t like what you’re playing, you get dirty looks and not a lot of money… It helped ingrain our desire for people to leave happier after seeing us play or listening to our music.
You’re a classically trained band mixing elements of jazz, funk, R&B and pop. Do you think this gives you an edge?
Matt: Learning how to play and interact musically is a huge part of studying jazz and it was cool that we were playing and learning that together before we started busking. In the studio, it makes it easier to communicate ideas.
You’ve described your sound as hip-hop influenced, ‘musical pop music’. Does it help creatively to have four different voices coming together?
Matt: Absolutely! It makes for a better song when we can bounce ideas off each other. Every song is 100% collaborative between us and we always try everyone’s ideas, but most of the time a song starts with a guitar riff from Ben and we build everything from there.
Jazz is sometimes dismissed as inaccessible – or described as ‘the musicians having more fun than the audience’. This obviously isn’t true at your shows, which are full of energy. Do you think jazz – and the saxophone in particular – are unfairly derided? You’ve managed to bring elements of jazz into pop, combining different genres – that’s one of your greatest strengths and USPs.
Ben [guitar]: Elements of jazz have definitely helped us with writing and playing music, but it’s not something we think about too much. The saxophone does sometimes get a bad wrap, but for us there is nothing more satisfying than watching Shaan run around the stage absolutely abusing one.
I lived in Dunedin for a while, and I was introduced to some Kiwi music – from Th’ Dudes and Dave Dobbyn, to Six60 (who you guys have played with) and Fat Freddy’s Drop. Who are your biggest musical influences? And who are you listening to at the moment?
Matt: You’ve just listed some of them! Individually we take inspiration from a bunch of artists, but as a band, Justin Timberlake, Ariana Grande and Chance the Rapper are definitely up there. We’ve been listening to anything new. The latest Jaden album is sick, but we’re always playing tunes from home as well.
Can you give us an insight into your songwriting process – who writes the lyrics? Is it always collaborative or different each time? How long did it take to get the track “Woke Up Late” down on paper, for example?
Matt: Every song is 100% collaborative between us and we always try everyone’s ideas, but most of the time a song starts with a guitar riff from Ben and we build everything from there. We’ll often sit in a room for hours coming up and crafting lyrics, which can take a while because we slave over every little word! We’ve written songs in three hours before, and also taken two years to finally be happy with a song. “Woke Up Late” was about five months, from the very beginning of Shaan coming up with the first verse and chorus, to being fully finished.
“All This Time” dropped in June. It’s long been a show highlight and fan favourite. What’s the story behind that song?
Shaan [vocals/sax]: Since we were started as a band, we covered a lot of songs with heavy drops and we played them with dirty sax and guitar and those were the highlights of our set at the time. We wanted to write something of our own with a big dirty drop, so “All This Time” was born. We played it live for so long and it wasn’t until this year we got Rogèt and his team on it and they sauced it up and got it pumping in the recording. Our favourite song we’ve released so far for sure.
How is it performing that one live? The vocals are impressive!
Shaan: It’s hard, but fun!
The full debut album has just arrived – what can you tell us about it?
Ben: We absolutely can’t wait to have the album out! It’s been in the works for the past two years, so to have it finished and ready to release is an amazing feeling. It mixes pop, hip- hop and R&B, and shows the different sides of what we feel Drax Project is.
This summer you played a sold-out show at O2 Academy Islington and Great Escape Festival in Brighton – how have you found the UK crowds?
Shaan: Really fun, it’ll never get old travelling to the opposite side of the world and playing your music to people.
Earlier this year you supported Christina Aguilera across Europe. What were your highlights?
Shaan: We visited some amazing old war sites in France and Belgium we probably wouldn’t haven’t had a chance to go to if we didn’t go there for music. Watching Christina’s set was inspiring, of course. And German McDonalds is legit. Seriously, rest of the world: up your McD’s game!
What have you learned from opening for the likes of Ed Sheeran?
Shaan: Fans are everything, be nice ‘cause the world’s a small place, connecting with the audience is key. It’ll never get old travelling to the opposite side of the world and playing your music to people.
You announced recently you’re going to be part of a project celebrating 20 years of the New Zealand anthem being bilingual. How was that?
Sam [bass]: It was amazing. Shaan did most of the work in singing it all, but it was really awesome to be involved and to work with Hinewehi and the team. Growing up in New Zealand and being surrounded by Maori culture, but not being a fluent speaker of Te Reo made the experience of translating our music and message in a way that makes sense really interesting. There are so many great artists and songs on the album that I’m really excited to hear.
It’s crazy how you went from relative obscurity to 57m streams. What would you say to any buskers out there grafting on the streets?
Sam: To us it never really felt like grafting, I guess because we were having a good time. I think that’s a really important thing to note, if you’re not having fun then it’s really hard for an audience to enjoy what you’re doing. I also think busking is a great way to craft your music and to put yourself out there for people to see what you do. Take notice of peoples reactions and what works and what doesn’t, that’s really valuable. Also, think about how you can get those people who walk past invested in what you do on a long term basis.