Interview with TeMatera Smith,
I first became aware of TeMatera some years ago when Mice For Stilts were put forward for inclusion on ProgArchives and I was running one of the approval teams. We quickly became friends, and until I moved to South Island, I was often in Red Room Studios, and to this day still write press releases for his label. But for some reason, possibly because we are such good mates, I have never formally interviewed him, so the other night we finally got that sorted out, and there were very few questions as I just let the conversation flow.
Kevin Rowland: How would you describe yourself?
TeMatera Smith: I am passionate about music, It’s my life, as a musician and producer foremost, and that really led into everything else. I’m inspired to use my experience to help artists create the very best record we can make, sonically and musically: I get laser focussed on making the record the best it can possibly be. I am passionate about music and musicians realising their best potential. It has always been my driving force to push excellence as an artist, recording engineer and a producer. That combined with a sense of playfulness allowing us to engage with our artists audience in a fun way. It’s a roundabout way of saying I think of myself as someone who is very fun-loving, but also quality driven.
What came first, Red Room Studios or AAA?
Red Room. The Symphony of Screams (my old band) and Red Room came about at the same time because I went to an open home, to rent a house, and the guy who owned the house was Mike Coney, ‘Bones’, who became the drummer with TSOS. We became friends immediately and as soon as I rented the house, we agreed to form a band and build a studio. We both had a love of recording, he had a mobile recording set up, so we agreed to join forces and built our first studio under the house in Arkles Bay. We called it Red Room Studios as I’d picked up some coloured gel offcuts from the lighting dept. at Oceania where I worked and used them to wrap the fluorescent tubes in the studio, so it was completely red in there all the time. After a few years we moved the studio into Helensville as we had outgrown the basement, needing a dedicated commercial space. We were in Helensville for 10 years.
From there you have moved to Puhoi. How would you describe where you are now?
It is the old Beach Haven Methodist Chapel which was sold off and relocated here five years ago. We’re situated in the bush in an elevated position overlooking Waiwera, so it is a really beautiful and tranquil place. It was originally only going to be a temporary location for us, because there are some things which went against it such as it is a little bit of town, the control room is a little small. But, as we settled in, we just felt so much at home. The more music that was made there, and the more artists spent time there, the more people just loved being in that space and great music was just flowing out of it, and as Greg Havers said, it is probably the best sounding drum room in New Zealand. We fell in love basically, and it is just a great place to create. That vibe is really important in a studio, some studios are very formal and that’s ok, but our place is more like a residential studio where people can take the time and make the art and follow a journey.
How did the label start? Originally it was very low key, but you have had a lot of chart success this year.
The label started because of two reasons really. One, as a band, TSOS were dissatisfied with the experiences we were having with labels and management: we had a very bitter taste left in our mouths with some unscrupulous people and so were looking for an alternate approach. Added to that I had just produced an album with Te Aratoi called Ancient Māori Music which had won the APRA Maioha Award in 2009 at a ceremony which was held in the Christchurch Town Hall. At the after show, I was approached by Thomas Coffey who said he really wanted me to produce an album for him. Once the album was complete, he was trying to find a label, and that planted a seed in me. The biggest obstacle to most musicians in getting an album out is production costs, and we owned a recording studio so I thought “let’s start a label, how hard can it be?”. Of course, that was a really naïve perspective.
After Thomas there was The Kaipara Jammers, which is a brilliant record and I think they had the potential to be a Six60, but they broke up just as their star was on the rise, which was really sad. Next then I think we did the first Tony Daunt record, Miss Peach and The Travellin Bones, and then in quick succession of bands like Radio Glo and 71 Sunset. This created a huge amount of work not only to produce the music but also promote it, and I had to learn a lot on how the label side of the industry worked quickly, which was so foreign to me having come from the artist and production side. I went to the States and travelled down the West Coast, visiting every student radio station that I could, from Vancouver to California, including Hawaii, building personal relationships with them that to this day work well. I was so nervous as I knocked on those doors, but they all invited me in, and to my surprise they found me somewhat exotic. They were blown away that a label from New Zealand was visiting them. We built a cool network of people we still send music out to. Later down the line it ultimately led us to opening AAA America.
After a while and learning some tough and sometimes expensive lessons, I took stock of the people I wanted to work with as a producer and as a label. I started to recognise that my approach was unbalanced and was actually harming me both financially and emotionally. When I am on a project, I invest all of myself into it, I cannot do half measures. If I am working with you, I am all in, my creativity, Imagination, experience, and drive, so I am thinking about how to improve how the artist interfaces with their audience, their image, their videos, how they communicate with the world, their live performance, everything.
I realised I needed to make some changes and not just sign people because I think they are amazing but spend more time with them to understand their personality types and whether they have got what it takes to be successful. Instead focus my (now our) talents on artists that demonstrate the required staying power, the tenacity, the pure desire, and grit of what it takes to become a successful artist, on top of having great writing ability and musicianship.
That decision was timely. I was commissioned to produce the sound design for the launch of a brand-new theme park in Orlando, called Volcano Bay for Universal Studios. That was a huge project which resulted in me travelling to different islands across the Pacific, recording First Nations people, and then producing the music for the show. Working with Rewi Spraggon, we brought these artists over to Orlando to perform at the launch which was to be televised live and was watched by at least 24 million people.
The key performer and star of the show was Maisy Rika, we re-arranged her song and recorded it with members of the NZSO. Part of Maisy’s brief was to perform corporate / media shows as part of Universals Park opening week. Troy Kingi travelled with her as her guitarist. At that time, he had made Guitar Party at Uncle's Bach, and he was also building his acting career, but he was unknown to me. I had met a guy who was in a huge amount of discomfort, but he was still performing. On the flight over to Orlando he had become deaf in one ear, which he still is to this day, and his equilibrium was thrown. We got on almost immediately and I realised this was someone I really liked. When he said he had another album he wanted to make, I told him I had a week’s gap in the studio schedule coming up, so come into Red Room and let’s have some fun. There was no expectation of him signing to AAA Records, or anything else, it was just about wanting to make a record together. He came in, with Mara TK as producer and a bunch of simply incredible musicians.
It was special, magic was happening in the studio and there was a moment when I had the overwhelming sense that I needed to pay attention to everything which was going on. I NEEDED to remember all of it in in as much detail as I could as this was one of those once in a lifetime moments you get where you are in the presence and resonance of something really magical. I remember thinking that this must have been what it was like for the Engineer/Producer when The Beatles, Hendrix or when Rage Against The Machine etc, were recording, making musical history with landmark records. Troy stood in the doorway to the control room listening to the playback. I pressed stop, turned to Troy, and said, “I hope you like travel, this is going to be huge”. That album was Shake That Skinny Ass All The Way To Zygertron. Once the album was finished and Troy’s mind turned to next steps, he said, “I think I’ll just do the AAA thing, is that alright?” and I said that was fine (very stoked) and that was about as formal as it got. At that time, he was touring with Love & Hope, (Mara TK and Mark Vanilau) and was only playing three songs from Zygertron in the set, I watch Troy at the Leigh Sawmill as the penny dropped … the audience were singing his words back to him, Grandma’s Rocket Poem was an anthem and they loved it. I said to him ‘Bro, put a band together, people want to hear your songs’, and that is when it really started to take off. I’m inspired by the invisible connections of pure potentiality born from intention, thinking four or five steps ahead and the strategy, it comes naturally to me from a place of playfulness and gratitude.
For example, when we started the Red Room Radio Sessions shows, it was to provide a platform for musicians to have somewhere where they could come and play live, get a recording, and interview they could use for their press kit, but it also a way of spreading the word about the studio, me as a producer, the label and building a musical Whanau / community. I believe we achieved all of that, and I would like to revisit making that show again one day. We shot a music TV show Piot called Live At Galatos with crowd funding, but at the time the television stations were only interested in popular music competitions. We felt strongly that they were missing the point as this was a Kiwi TFI Friday meets The Tube, Live With Jools Holland entertainment show. Hopefully we can do it again in the future. It was fun and I believe there is a gap in the market, that this show would fill.
The first album on vinyl that we released was Mice On Stilts … they blew my mind. Working with them we managed to get them open for Yes, which was amazing, that’s how you and I met through that band, then you became part of the Whanau and helped us build connections internationally with your prog contacts. Some of those still support us to this very day.
As this is being recorded, I would like to talk about someone who was really special to the history of AAA, Lindsey Cottingham. Lindsey ran our label in the US and was one of the fiercest women I think I have ever met. She was a solo mum in her 30’s, tenacious, she simply wouldn’t take no for an answer, she was fearless. I flew up to Arkansas to meet with her and found out she had this rare heart condition and could die at any moment which is why she was so bloody minded and just got on with life. She had already been opening doors for us in the US and so we agreed terms and launched AllGood Absolute Alternative America. On New Year’s Eve two years ago, I received the news from a mutual friend and artist that she died suddenly, leaving her four-year-old daughter behind. This was one of the toughest moments in the label’s story and I personally felt her loss deeply as she was an awesome human being who inspired and challenged me. It had been incredibly exciting as we worked together to develop the US for our artists, and new US signings. We miss her thinking of her often and send our Aroha to her Whanau.
I’d also like to acknowledge the input and development of the label by Markus and Lisa Couldrey, who worked tirelessly in the early years on the brand, music, album art and in fact every aspect of the early company. I met Markus through working with him on the sound design for a Game Loft Game called ‘Silent Ops’, It was a bit of a flop… but it sounds great.
What’s next for the label and the studio?
We are growing our roster in Wellington with new signings which I can’t discuss yet, but this will allow us to put on some very special shows in 2023, while continuing to grow up here in Auckland.
Next year there’s gonna be some awesome music released including a new Outside In record (which we have already started recording) and we are already well under way for the next Troy Kingi record for 2023, with most of the music recorded. Troy, the band and I are heading up to Rancho de Luna in Joshua Tree in June to record the 2024 album, and album 10 we’ll record at Abbey Road. We have a French For Rabbits EP coming out in the New Year (around March we think), the new Albi & The Wolves album is going to blow people’s minds and is, I think, some of my finest work as a producer. Of course, I feel that about every record I do but this one is really special, I can’t wait to share it with you. We have Adam Tobeck on drums, we’ve got electric guitar, we have horns sections, we have strings sections, keyboards. We are going to do shows with them with that expanded universe, and they are beautiful, beautiful, songs and it will be out mid-2023. I am also back in the studio in November with Lee Martin for a week recording, again with Adam Tobeck on drums, and this time with Hannah Elise on Bass, which I am looking forward to.
We’ve also got new Dilz material, an album from a new and exciting North Shore band called Bliss, We recently signed Stray Dogs who are away working hard and when they are ready, we’ll get their record out, I am also excited about Speech Act Theory, a Wellington based Prog band that I really enjoy, plus albums and EPs by our other new Wellington artists.
There’s also going to be a very special album from Delaney Davidson, stay posted for info on that I’m so excited about it. It’s going to be a full-on year of great new music!
With the current team at AAA, Mel Jacka is my rock, particularly since I had my accident (TeMatera had a very serious motorbike crash last year). I’d like to say she is my personal assistant, but she would hate me calling her that! She is our Operations Manager and she’s the one that makes sure stuff gets done. Jamie Crerar is studio manager and Head of Creative. The latest Troy Kingi album cover is hand drawn by Jamie (which is just a glimpse into this guy’s pure talent) and it’s Troy’s favourite album cover to date. Jamie came over to NZ travelling and we persuaded him to stay, which is really very, very cool for us.
The three of us are the AAA team now. Our aim for AAA is still for it to grow as an internationally recognised and operating label that has the ability to assist and grow artists internationally. We want to be able to take our ethos of ‘Empowering Creativity’ to other territories around the world.
For many in the creative industries including myself a lot of passion was replaced with uncertainty during the Covid period, and in addition my accident didn’t help, but I’ve learned the importance (essential) of hope, and the power of focussed intention with playfulness.
Surrounded by an incredible team, inspired by wonderful artists, and sense of deep responsibility to represent them in the very best way we can, I’m looking forward to the coming year with renewed vigour.
Photo credits: The Symphony of Screams © Kev Rowland, Stray Dogs © Ginelle Cocks @ Ginny C Photography, all others provided by TeMatera Smith.