From Street Side Busking to Sold Out Stadiums: How Drax Project Became New Zealand’s Latest Jazz-Pop

>> The jazz-pop quartet Drax Project has shared the stage with major acts including Lorde and Ed Sheeran, but their journey to artistic success began in an exceptionally modest location. Forming in 2014 as a sax-drums duo, Shaan Singh and Matt Beachen combined their musical abilities to perform jazz-infused covers of contemporary pop songs on the street corners of Wellington, New Zealand. As the duo established notoriety in their community, Beachen explains that they found themselves scrambling to find a name for their project, stating that, “We were just playing covers on the streets in Wellington, busking, and people started filming us and wanting to put us on YouTube or whatever, and they’re like ‘What’s your name? What’s your name?’ And we had to come up with a name, really quickly. So drums and sax, DRAX, and it stuck.” Developing their sound through reworking these covers, the band soon added on double bassist Sam Thomson and guitarist Ben O’Leary and started to play at prominent clubs and venues in the area. While Drax Project found gratification in performing as a cover band, Thomson shares that the quartet quickly caught on to the importance of producing original material: “We kind of realized that there was a limit to how far we could go and how much we could do with just playing other people’s music. We realized that yeah, there was a point that we were going to get to-- probably in the next year or so, where we would’ve been like ‘Okay, we’re basically just a covers band, we can’t really do anything else.’ And we wanted to write our own material anyway, so we ended up doing it together because we were already playing together.”

After the highly-acclaimed release of their EP ‘Noon,’ last summer, it can be confirmed that Drax Project’s choice to write original music has been an undeniable success. Receiving double platinum awards for their 2017 single “Woke Up Late,” the band reached the number one slot on the New Zealand Billboard Charts and has recently opened up for American-Cuban pop star Camila Cabello on her 2018 tour. Instilling the spontaneity and improvisational skills of classical jazz standards into their live performances, Beachen expresses that, “You know how recorded music doesn’t always come out the way you want it to live? Especially with the band, you’re turning electronic drums into live drums, a synth bass into a live bass, sometimes a synth line into a saxophone line, so we definitely change what we do, all the time. We love making a different version of a song for a live gig. People love it as well! You know, they’ve heard a song a bunch of times, and they’re ready to hear it, but I love when you go to a gig, and a band’s done something really cool with a song.”

Using their experience as a former cover band to overcome struggles of writer's block, O’Leary unpacks the creative processes that Drax Project undergoes to cultivate a successful track, explaining that, “We’ll be writing a song, and some parts aren’t working, and we’ll say, ‘If this was already a song, and we were going to cover it, what would we do? What would we change?’ And then we approach it from that kind of angle.” Keeping their brand consistent, Drax Project reflects the exuberant and adventurous energy of their writing style into the activities that the band members pursue in their personal life. As the band shares stories of Beachen’s fascination with basketball and the gnarly collarbone injury which resulted in the end of Thomson’s snowboarding career, they concluded that the penultimate Drax Project bonding activity would have to be jumping ‘fat manus’ into the river. Explaining the New Zealand slang, Singh tells us that a ‘manus’ is a specific type of dive-bomb where the objective is to make the biggest possible splash in the water. During this helpful interpretation, Thomson put the ‘manus’ into context and recollected a comical experience that occurred at one of Drax Project’s shows: “We actually played at this festival, like a one day concert kind of thing in New Zealand, and it’s right near a lake - Lake Tikitapu. And they had a ‘manu’ competition, like a bomb competition- like who could do the biggest bombs. And it was really high! Entry, exit from the water, highest splash, general style. It’s definitely an underground New Zealand sport.” Despite their lengthy repertoire of dauntless outdoor activities, the members of Drax Project know how to kick it back, leaving ample time in their schedule to play classic video games such as Crash Bandicoot.

While on tour overseas, the band started to realize that the cultural differences between New Zealand and the United States expand much further than the extent of explanatory slang. Going over their time spent abroad, Thomson explains that one of the strongest shocks to the band has been the high amount of physical cash that people carry in the United States, expressing that, “Cash culture is really different here, people seem to carry and use cash way more than they do in New Zealand. You go into a store, and it’s like ‘Cash Only,’ and you’re like ‘What?’” Beachen chimes in on the conversation and notes that he hasn’t carried cash for over two years, and Thomson quickly replies stating that, “you don’t need to, really, anywhere you’d need to pay- even our parking meters are cards. Maybe if you wanted to give a busker money- maybe that’s why we made money in New Zealand because people didn’t want their cash, they didn’t use it for anything! They just gave it to us, to get rid of their cash.” Finalizing his thoughts on the differences between Drax Project’s home nation and the United States, Thomson voices that, “A lot of people in New Zealand don’t wear shoes. Sorry, I’m gonna rephrase that! It’s not a weird thing to not wear shoes. Now, if you’re walking down Queen Street in Auckland, that’s different! But I feel like people in The States would never not wear shoes if they leave their house, you know? Like doing sports, running around at primary school, that’s when you’re 5-10 years old. Kids just don’t wear shoes, you just run around on the fields, and it’s totally fine. There are no snakes, not really any dangerous animals or anything. Kids just don’t need to wear shoes; they just run around on their feet.”

Riding on the success of their debut studio album, Drax Project is a band that is constantly in motion. Producing new material and recording demos throughout their travels in the United States, Beachen shares that, “We were writing a song in the car on the way here, actually! No, actually we were. We just work together off our laptop, we’ve got heaps of songs we write, and then we decide how to release it.” Frequently introducing new material at their shows before its official release, O’Leary explains that the crowd’s initial reaction to the debuted songs holds a huge influence on the changes that the band will make to the track: “There was one, we opened for Ed Sheeran in Auckland, New Zealand, and we were working on one of our songs that’s on the EP, “Toto.” We weren’t sure about the lyrics in the pre-chorus, we kind of wrote them and were like, ‘oh, they’re alright, they could be better.’ And then after one of the shows, we got a message through our Instagram or Facebook from this girl, being like, ‘What’s this song?’ And she’d written all the lyrics from this section; she must have recorded it. And she’s like ‘I love these lyrics so much. I really connect to them, where can I find this song, when are you guys releasing it?’ And we’re like, ‘Oh woah, okay, guess we won’t change those lyrics then!’” As 2018 comes to a close, the band has a set of shows scheduled throughout New Zealand to ring in the New Year, and O’Leary admits that these upcoming tour dates may have something special to offer: “The shows coming up we’re gonna play some of the unreleased tunes to see what works, what doesn’t work- or if they boo.” Whether he’s hinting at the start of Drax Project’s next studio album or not-- only time can tell, but it can be assured that jazz-pop lovers from all around the globe will want to keep their eyes peeled for these bright musicians’ next big move in the music industry. <<

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