By Erik Thybony
Photos by Victoria Smith
We get to the venue early and the door guy tells us the band won’t be on for another forty minutes and the only music is a DJ spinning reggae remixes of Zeppelin and The Doors and so we sit there and drink and take pictures and eventually the place starts to fill up and we make our way to the front and everyone around us is moving and I get separated from my girlfriend and some dready hippie chick starts grinding in front of me and she’s swaying and bumping into me and swinging her dreads into my face and I’m getting claustrophobic and sweaty and I’m out of beer and so I decide to cut my losses and I turn and push through the crowd toward the back bar and wash up there, much happier, before Fat Freddy’s Drop has played a note.
Fresh bottle in hand, I watch the musicians take the stage. Holy shit, I think. It’s the Dave Matthews Ska Band. These guys look like they walked out of 1989 into 2010. I wonder if this is typical New Zealand fashion. Before I can wonder too far, the MC is telling us to put our hands together and the drum loop drops in and the keys kick up and the horn section purrs and the ambient echoes bounce down between the speakers and everything is flowing slow. Whoa, man, now I know what it sounds like inside a bong!
And that analogy is not a stretch in the slightest. Before I left for the show, Wikipedia told me that Fat Freddy is the name of the cartoon cat printed on the blotter acid the band was chomping down on (or, you know, “dropping”) during their first recording session. Also, the members have stage names like “Joe Dukie” and “Dobie Blaze.” Is this subtle? Nope. But at least the pieces fit.
Fat Freddy’s Drop formed as a jam band, and they still have a taste for improvisation. According to their bio, “no two Freddy’s shows are ever the same.” Their drum loops, however, are another story. An hour into the show, the dub reggae beat is still chugging away at just about the same tempo. It occurs to me I’m watching a band jam on stage without a live drummer. Can they do that? Sure they can. And they can do it well. But since I’m playing critic tonight, I get to say that I think it holds them back.
What makes great jam bands great is their ability to shift collectively with each other and with the vibe of the crowd, to hit peaks and then pull back, to build tension and release. But this sort of feedback loop requires a musician receiving the input and making corrections in real time. Twisting a BPM knob and cutting between samples, as good as it can sound, is not the same as having a drummer behind a kit being buoyed by same waves as everyone else in the room. Fat Freddy’s Drop effortlessly ascends to cruising altitude, but after that, all their improvisation is horizontal. They are tethered to the drum machine, and it makes it hard to soar.
But then again, I’m fairly sober. Let’s face facts: these guys sold out three shows at the Independent, in advance. They also independently recorded the highest-selling album by a national artist in New Zealand’s history. They’re also stony as fuck. Drummer or not, Fat Freddy’s Drop throws a fun party. Get into it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Fat Freddy’s Drop, check out their interview with SFCritic.