With an exciting New Zealand International Arts Festival and Big Day Out lineup recently launched, who better to profile than Fat Freddy’s Drop, one of the premium attractions? Lumière associate editor ALEXANDER BISLEY interviewed the supergroup’s guru, DJ Mu, at The Drop, his Lyall Bay home and studio.

“ONE THING that I’m proud of with what we’ve done with Freddy’s is that you listen to our music and it definitely belongs. It’s a fusion of heaps of different things but it does belong here in New Zealand, you can tell it came from this country.” Indeed. An innovative and original Pacifika fusion of soul, dub, funk, jazz, roots reggae, and blues, Fat Freddy’s Drop is a national taonga, a homegrown drop that does us all proud. In the best jam band tradition, Freddy’s are scorching live. Particularly outside on a beautiful, stonking hot Wellington day at a free gig, as they will be during the Festival. Even the notoriously tough-on-New Zealand British press gives Freddy’s kudos. “Definitely one of the best shows I’ve seen in One World Live, if not the best,” the BBC heralded them.

Kiwi ingenuity (number eight wire and all that) is a bit of a cliché. However, interviewing Mu, aka Chris Faiumu, at The Drop, the appealing studio he has innovatively realised in the basement of his seaside Lyall Bay home, you think the term – or rather its original ethos – could be used more to celebrate the extraordinary recent success of New Zealand music. “The whole digital thing has allowed us to be able to produce our music at home and not have to go to big studios and fork out big production dollars and that. Everything we’ve done has totally been on the DIY. If we do it that way we can do it exactly how we want it… Things have picked up in the last couple of years and it’s quite exciting,” Mu tells me. Their first album Based on a True Story, an intoxicating brew, is the first independent release to go number one on Aotearoa’s charts (and stay there for weeks). It’s delightfully laidback, word-of-mouth marketing campaign is so refreshing in our advertising saturated, consumerist society.

“Here in New Zealand we don’t have any rules to play by, we just do whatever.” Who is Fat Freddy’s Drop? Mu programs the beats on his Akai MPC; Dallas, with the lyrics, described by music guru Charlie Gillett as “the best soul singer in music today”; Jet Lag Johnson (Tehimana) on guitar and Dobie Blaze on keys. Then there’s the horn section Fulla Flash (Warryn) on sax, Suga Two-Tone (Toby Laing) on trumpet and Hopepa (Joe Lyndsay) on trombone.

Mu, laidback and gregarious, has real presence. A first-generation Samoan-New Zealander, Mu, like the awesome Tana Umaga, grew up in Wainui. He has always been into music, but it hasn’t always been his all-consuming passion. Mu was a leading rugby player for teams like the Wellington Under- 21s. A sporting career could well have been on the cards in a pro-era, music won out. “DJying [meant] too many late nights in clubs and bars, I stopped playing rugby. Sport was my life before music… Music just took over in the end.” The rules of the music lifestyle mean Mu no longer enjoys the physique of a number eight. “I was in much better nick back then,” Mu laughs. However, the Black Seeds/Scribes of Ra’s bassist Mikey Fabulous tells me Mu is the “Wellington scene’s” most imposing social soccer player.

High culture snobs might tell you otherwise, but there are actually similarities between rugby and music. “Playing and managing Fat Freddy’s there’s some parallels there with being a captain in a rugby team, you’ve gotta try and keep it all locked down,” Mu laughs uproariously. Mu cites Jerry Collins as a big inspiration. Jerry performing at his best at the Cake Tin is up there with any gig, Mu says admiringly.

Mu, who has a fearsomely good huge record collection, is self-taught. He established himself as one of Wellington’s top DJs at clubs and bars around town like the Matterhorn. He has an eclectic range of influences. “Musically a lot of them come from the dub side of things: people like King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry and on the soul, singers like Donny Hathaway and D’ Angelo. I’m a big fan of D’Angelo… Most of my influences are actually from my peers, people I actually hang out with here in Wellington… bands like Twinset and The Black Seeds. Initially my inspirations came from those records I use to buy, King Tubby and all those guys. These days it’s more going into town and checking out dudes I know that are playing in other bands.”

Mu has a genial sense of humour, witnessed in the Wandering Eye music video – one of many notables in New Zealand’s thriving scene – set in a fish and chip shop.

One of the reasons for Freddy’s popularity is their independent aesthetic, and Mu assures me they’ll remain true. “We want to maintain the balance really. We don’t want to be underground snobs, we do actually want our music to get out as far as possible, but just to maintain control of how we’re perceived publicly and how we conduct our business, and you can only really do that if you remain independent. If you go with a major label there’s too many outside factors that you can’t control.”

Say what you like about labels, but they’re not known for their generosity towards their artists. Interviewing Nesian Mystik, I was surprised to find that despite their album Polysaturated selling well over double platinum they were virtually making no money from it. Being independent cuts out the middle-man. “We’ve probably made more money out of our Live at the Matterhorn album than Nesian Mystik [with Polysaturated],” Mu replies when I recount that story. “I think the major labels are in trouble. Being independent’s becoming more and more obvious as the way to go.”

All the members of popular dub act Salmonella Dub bar one have day jobs. Making a living as a professional music in New Zealand has plenty of challenges. “Especially if you’re wanting to make good music with integrity. It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I’m doing it, our band’s doing it, no one in our band’s got a day job.” Originality is of tantamount importance. “That’s the thing, you’ve got to try and write music that does have a point of difference and just stick with it and eventually people will start to buy into it and realise what you’re doing is original. Hang in there, it takes a while.”

Despite some qualms about NZ on Air’s funding of “pop music”, Mu is very happy with the state of play in Aotearoa, paying tribute to the Labour government’s arts and broadcasting policies, funding and quotas. “There’s a willingness for New Zealand music the last seven years that’s just been amazing, that’s helped us go off. People want to buy NZ music at the moment, it’s been like that for the last few years and doesn’t look like its going to slow down… a lot of people are doing good shit.”

Mu, who lives by the beach, is fulsome in his appreciation of Lyall Bay. Appropriately, when the new, fantastic Maranui Surf Club café opened, Mu and co were there to christen it. Evocative, handsome photos of Freddy’s, shot by Ans Westra, graced the café’s four walls. Mu praises his family. “I get a lot of support from my family. My partner Nicole is our business manager, I manage the music and band side of things… I’m hopeless with money, always have been. I have a good vision and good interpretation of the big picture I reckon.”

Self-respecting music fans should take the Festival and Big Day chance to hear Cay’s Crays, Ray Ray, Wandering Eye, Hope ( from the beautiful 10” vinyl) and Midnight Marauders and the rest of them major flavours live. As ever, Mu’s explanation of Freddy’s success says it all: “The key to it for us is having fun… People can tell how good a time we having on stage and that definitely translates to the audience.”

» More at fatfreddysdrop.com, including Radio Fitchie