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Blue King Brown - Message In The Medium

Author: Cyclone
Friday, 12 October 2007
Blue King Brown aren’t just a band with admirable politics, they also know how to put on a killer live show that gets everyone from manic toddlers to baby boomers on their feet, as 3D can attest after catching them at Woodford a few years ago. Cyclone spoke with bassist Carlo Santone.

Blue King Brown are demonstrating that Australians can perform rootsy reggae, funk and R&B with depth, integrity and panache. The popular sound system, comparable to New Zealand's Fat Freddy's Drop, have established themselves on the national live circuit with rollicking shows. Last year BKB, favourites with triple j and on YouTube, delivered their message-laden debut, Stand Up, after generating momentum with the land rights protest song Water. And now the award-winning musical activists are attracting a following in, of all places, Japan.

Carlo Santone couldn't be happier with the response to Stand Up. "It's exceeded our expectations!" he enthuses. "It's been going great in Australia and also in Japan, which is at this stage the only other international territory we've got it available in. We've been flat out pushing it since the release, and we're only just starting to slow down now on the touring front, but we're still as busy as ever. It's been unreal."

Santone grew up a surfer and skater in Sydney. He eventually found himself in idyllic Byron Bay. Here, he met Natalie Pa'apa'a, who, born in the US, has Native American ancestry, on holiday from Melbourne. The pair, both guitarists-cum-percussionists, would form the core of the bohemian BKB. But, before that, they began busking and gigging under the name Skin. Skin evolved into the nine-piece Blue King Brown with Pa'apa'a as its vocalist. Salvador Persico is today chief percussionist. As for Carlo, he's the leader - and, somehow, manages the group's affairs at home.

"I'm the whip cracker! I wear many hats in this band but, you know, that's cool - someone's got to do it and, from early on in the piece, it was just becoming more and more obvious that I would be that person. I know what my role is in this band and I've taken that on and I just wanna push it as far as we can go - and, with a big band, someone needs to do it."

BKB have travelled to Japan three times. Most recently, they gigged at the Summer Sonic Festival alongside chart acts like the Black Eyed Peas. Yet BKB weren't treated as small fry. "There was no hierarchy - it didn't matter who you were, you just got treated on the same level."

BKB are incredulous at the extent to which Japanese audiences engage with - and understand - their music and platform. "They really get into it - they really appreciate and understand the message behind our music as well. They're really into that side of things, which is great for us - and especially for Natalie.

"It's great if they're still connecting with it because it's much harder to get that message across when you're speaking in English - and they do pretty well for their [lack of] English. But, when we do interviews, they really get us to explain that side of things - which is great because it shows that they're understanding enough to want to know more or to hear us speak about it more. They really dig the music. There's a big roots scene over there and a massive reggae scene. I think the biggest reggae scene outside of Jamaica is in Japan, funnily enough."

Carlo is gently amused by differences in custom, particularly when dealing with Japan's media. In Australia artists regularly sit down for back-to-back interviews, usually on the phone. Not in Japan. The interviewers come to lunch with an entourage. "Every time we do face-to-face press over there, it's a big ordeal. It's a whole process. It takes a lot longer than it would here in Australia. There just seems to be another level. There will be a meeting and you'll do it over lunch. There's this formal meeting arrangement around the whole thing. It's really quite nice, actually! They go to a lot of effort."

The band have picked up their first US dates supporting Michael Franti's Spearhead, with whom they share international management. "He's always been really supportive of our music," Carlo says of Franti. Nevertheless, Carlo has learnt that, beyond fostering relationships long distance, there is no substitute to visiting a new country. "Nothing will have as much impact as going there and starting to gig - even if it's at bottom level where you're playing to no one, you just do that first step."

Since their LP, BKB have cut a cover of Dawn Penn's '60s rocksteady hit You Don't Love Me (No, No, No) for triple j's Like A Version, and it also materialised on the Stand Up single. They're contemplating a second LP. "We're right in the headspace at the moment, actually writing, and in 'new album' mode. We're itching to get new stuff happening. It's cool to go to new territories, 'cause it feels really fresh again when you do that. It even gives new life to the old material, because people have never heard it before. We're gonna be speaking to producers and different people about the recording over in the States. We're definitely in that headspace and trying to pull it all together and writing - and looking forward to - the next one."

BKB have a strong social conscience. They've joined the eclectic line-up for the Legs 11 concert, raising money for Breast Cancer research, in The Domain along with Missy Higgins, The Waifs and the Sydney Youth Orchestra.

BKB, once an anomaly in rock-centric Australia with their "urban roots", are content to merge with the country's wider music scene. "The more you stand out or don't fit in, the more you fit in, in a way!" Carlo posits. "Me and Natalie have always had that approach - we need to be as fresh as possible, we wanna do something new.

"We have some obvious influences but, at the same time, we've always tried to do our own thing with those influences and have a modern or a new approach to it. We're constantly just striving for that - originality. We fit in somewhere. People are connecting with it so, whether it's a new movement or whatever, I don't know. I think people will always just connect with a fresh sound and something they can get a vibe on.

"These days people's tastes are so broad, it seems they're open to so much more music than, say, 10 years ago, so I think it's good timing."

WHO: Blue King Brown
WHAT: Play Legs 11 in the Domain / Stand Up out through Roots Level Records
WHEN: Friday 26 October / out now