On the back of WOMAD and a self-titled EP, Auckland-based An Emerald City are set for bigger things. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talked to Sam Handley, guitarist, one of the key founding members of the band.

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AUCKLAND six-piece An Emerald City played an impressive set in the heat of WOMAD’s Saturday afternoon a month ago. Their music fitted right in at the festival, a blistering melange of Eastern and Western instrumentation and riffs, and some impressive interplay between the performers. The band have just released a self-titled EP, complete with four, hypnotic tracks that give a taste of their talent. With more music coming later this year, they’re definitely one to keep an eye out for in the future.

The band formed together nearly two years ago, when Handley, former Auckland youth orchestra violinist Felix Lun and Reyahn Leng (drums) formed the band. “We all just met through friends or through places, we just came together like that.” The band kept on expanding, and reached their full size when Handley’s good friend, guitarist Reuben Bonner, came back from overseas.

Right from the start the band decided to mix both Eastern and Western sounds, and they’ve been getting a name for themselves for their fusing together of a number of styles. “It was very much the root of the music for some reason. I’m not an accomplished musician or guitarist, but the kind of style I was messing around with and connecting with was with an Eastern edge. From that, it just naturally developed with Felix who plays the violin and is just super talented.” This involved picking up specific instrumentation, including this “old lute which I found at the Chapel Street bazaar in Melbourne” and had been dusting around in his cupboard. Ede Giesen, who played the sitar and the flute, and was a friend of Handley’s brother was “one of those gifted characters, so he took on the role of playing the lute.”

Handley himself was influences by a considerable range of music from classical to classic rock to Jonny Greenwood’s Bodysong soundtrack. However, it’s not just the traditional radio sources that excite Handley. “I kinda feel there’s music everywhere in the world, in the sound of waves breaking in the ocean or the wind rustling through the leaves that fall onto a pond you know, there’s just sounds and music everywhere. I think that it’s a matter of connecting with something you really like and listening for the music and what’s out there”.

The band have found themselves winning fans from unusual sources, such as fashion designer Karen Walker who used a song from the band to open her show at the New York Fashion Week. “It was something that we felt comfortable testing, and we are particular, very particular with what we choose to get involved with. But it seemed like a good thing to test out and experience and we got some really kind of positive response and feedback from it.” They also managed to win a few fans at WOMAD too, an experience that Handley describes as “such an amazing experience and an honour to play in.”

In my WOMAD review I described the band as “Godspeed [You Black Emperor] meets the sitar”, but Handley is not particularly comfortable with being labelled a post-rock band. “It certainly has this eastern essence to it, but I wouldn’t call us a post-rock group. I think we are still evolving, we have a lot of material and we have a lot of creative writing and jam sessions.” The direction isn’t clearly set yet, and Handley admits this EP was a collection of four songs that worked together well. “We’re really proud of this first offering. We’re writing lots of music and there’s always new and interesting ideas coming in. There’s lots of experimentation, and vocal based stuff and sound effects.” The “gist” for each song is mainly written by Handley and Bonner, and “then everyone added their parts of it went through a bit of a creative process, but there were already formed structures.” However, Handley admits now that “we are also having these awesome jam sessions and letting things breath and letting things happen. Thankfully we can record some of our jamming sessions, and that’s also another side of the song-writing process.”

The four songs on the EP are vocal-less, and I ask how the band come up with titles (how do non-vocal bands come up with titles in general?) “Usually with the song that has been brought, if someone brings forward the gist of the song, quite often they’ll have a name for it.” ‘Qing Song’ is Lun’s middle name. ‘Mr Finn’ was not named after Liam Finn who assisted in the making of this album, but actually a Jack Russell who was hanging around them when they were recording south of Auckland. The title was “a reflection of a place or a moment. Nothing to do with the Finn family.” The name of the band would suggest The Wizard of Oz, however Handley was coy as to the origins of the name. “It’s related to that [Oz], but it’s not drawn directly. I can’t say.”

Their live show is very tight, but unlike the EP which predominantly has shorter three to four minute songs, the songs live are much more expansive, and play with dynamics and tension more. “We’ve got quite a lot of material and some of our songs are a lot longer, getting around the nine or ten minute mark, and then we’ve got some ideas and a few concepts of things that could potentially be twenty minutes to half an hour.” For future releases Handley even suggests “who knows, there might be something forty minutes.” Their live show is however, a great way to experience the band. “We’re very particular about where we play and who we play with. We feel that every show should be special, it should be unique, we kinda feel like we’re presenting this form of art and we want to do it justice by creating the right atmosphere, and so on, we tend to take a creative approach as well.” Their EP release show was in a “beautiful old movie theatre – it’s gutted now – but it’s got beautiful ambience and space. We art-directed the whole thing” and were “trying to really work in the whole visual aspect.”

It must prove incredibly difficult to try and capture in a studio their live show, something which the EP manages to achieve rather well. “Some songs we have attempted to record and it’s quite difficult to really capture them how we play it and how we feel it should sound. It’s part of the experience of recording more and understanding the whole procedure and different spaces in which you can record and different equipment.” Handley’s keen to try out different recording locations too. “I was out on the beach out on the west coast, Bethels Beach, and there’s this incredible cave out there. That’s a potential spot we’d like to experiment in and do some recordings in and have the ambience of the tide in the background. There are certainly no boundaries with how the recording process should be done.” The band are going to take a bit of a break from the live scene – “we’ve worked hard in playing these live shows over the last few months, and we’ve hit our pinnacle at WOMAD. Now we want to move on and go and have this great creative session for a few months or so and create some more material.” Their EP certainly suggests considerable promise, and their compelling, stirring sound is well worth checking out both in record form and live.