It’s always summer when listening to New Zealand multi-instrumentalist Mike August, aka Lord Echo. Time slows a bit and the feel-good haze of a good time begins to percolate in the mind. These hazy vibes are generated along a rhythmic blend of cultural sounds that spans the likes of Afrobeat, disco and dub to rocksteady and funk. Take any one his last three records and give it a listen. Nice, right? Three records that Echo intentionally created with the “same musicians, and have the same types of songs.” This self-enforced limitation has led the Wellington-native over the past ten years in what has become a rhythmic trilogy that will surely transport listeners for many more years to come.
I hopped on a chat with Echo to discuss the completion of this trilogy, his current hiatus from music and what is to come ahead.
What was the inspiration behind the name Lord Echo?
I was ripping off old Calypso singers names – so many good ones. Lord Melody, Mighty Sparrow, King Radio, etc. But the restriction that really dictated it was that I had fallen in love with a font for which I had only the first few letters of the alphabet. Couldn’t find it anywhere on the internet (along with, weirdly, any information on how to bury a dead horse.) So Lord Echo was one of the things I could almost spell using the letters I had – I only had to make the R and the H from memory. Any artist will tell you restrictions play an important role in creativity. If none are naturally arising you must create them for yourself.
You’ve practiced music as far back as a child when your mother taught you to play the ukulele at eight. How many instruments do you play and was there a certain point you realized this practice was more than just a hobby?
I play a few instruments not-so-well rather than one instrument very well. So guitar and bass I’m competent on, percussion I do fairly well at, drums I love but am inconsistent, keyboards I am fairly rudimentary. If I had to choose one it’d be drums, I’ve always fantasized about being a drummer. There wasn’t really a moment for me when it became more than a hobby – it was just something I’ve always done and haven’t stopped.
As a born-and-bred Kiwi, how would you categorize the types of music popular in New Zealand for those unfamiliar?
Well, I wouldn’t say I’m at all in touch with what New Zealanders actually listen to, I wouldn’t have a clue. But I think it’s fair to say reggae has played a big part in a wave of music that became popular in the 2000s and was either linked to or concurrent with a developing sense of pride in local cultural identity and art forms.
African music plays a huge inspiration in your own production. What were early draws to this sound?
I was fascinated with Fela Kuti’s afrobeat when I first heard it in the early 2000s. He had developed such a distinctive style all the way down to the song forms, it was its own world in a way. What I came to really appreciate was the way many simple repetitive elements that interlocked in rhythmically exciting ways could become really hypnotic. But also the way those records are engineered and mixed are very interesting, the sound of Tony Allen’s drums, the challenge of making sense of so many parts from an engineering point of view.
You state that you enjoy collaborative work as opposed to making music alone. Who are some artists you are currently in the studio with and who would you like to make music with?
Haha, well the reality is I mostly make it alone but I think that statement may be in reference to the desire to work with others more. The next album I make I swear I’m gonna try and get more people around, more often. I have this slight shyness going on, or perhaps a lack of confidence in regards to inviting people over to jam. It’s silly. I’d love to make some music with my friend Victor Axelrod who’s a great producer and engineer who unfortunately lives in New York. Unfortunately for me. And perhaps him I sometimes think, haha. One of the great things about New Zealand where I live is that even if you live in the city, within 45 minutes you can find yourself deep in Nature.
Japan holds a special place in your heart, is there a particular facet of Japanese culture that excites apart from their deep passion for music?
It’s really just that same deep passion which is applied to almost everything, as far as I can tell. They basically just clock the game at so much stuff. The food is just so good. But it all comes at a cost to the individual, I think. There’s a huge pressure to succeed, to be excellent. There’s a huge pressure to work ridiculously hard. And there’s a great sense of failure and shame waiting for you if you don’t succeed, which of course the majority of people probably won’t. They have a saying ‘it is difficult to be Japanese’. So I’m very grateful to be able to experience the fruits of their culture as a foreigner, it seems unfair sometimes.
With Melodies, Curiosities and Harmonies you aimed to “make the same album three times,” featuring the “same musicians, and have the same types of songs.” Initially what was your reasons behind it, and having completed the trilogy, what’s next?
I think I just thought ‘everybody is always trying to do something different, so I’ll try and do something different to that and try and make the same thing over’. Kind of like a creative challenge – can you limit yourself to the same pool of sounds, the same palette and still come up with something that’s worthwhile and alive? I took a break after finishing Harmonies, it’s been great! I’ve been really happy, haha. Making an album really takes everything from you, everything you have. At least it’s always been that way for me. I’m gonna start again this year, and I’m just gonna let myself make whatever I feel like for a while, with no thought of albums or audiences or pleasing anyone but myself. I have some ideas that are interesting to me that I want to try and realize.
Having had some down time to spend with your kids since “Harmonies,” is there an album or project we can come to expect in the near future?
There are a few older things I may try and release this year. Soundway is reissuing my second record Curiosities. I may try and compile all the Japanese tour 7”s I’ve made into an album. I’ve probably got enough DJ edits for a 2nd bootleg edits compilation. There are a few tunes that didn’t make it onto Harmonies for one reason or another which may come out on 12”. There’s one, in particular, that’s a real banger – I don’t know why I didn’t put it on the record, I think it just fell out of favor with me – but we always end the live set with it and people are always asking what it is, so I should really get round to finishing it. There’s always much to be done. But I don’t believe any of it is as important as trying to live a relatively simple life in which I can pay attention to actually being alive while I have the chance, so I try not to get too hung up on doing things just because I could or because other people would like me to. Art must come from life, you have to make sure you’re actually living for it to have any substance.
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