The four-piece has received 24 Platinum certifications to date, surpassing over half a billion streams with their music, collaborating with Hailee Steinfeld and performing as the opening act on tour with big names such as Ed Sheeran, Christina Aguilera, Camila Cabello and Lorde – it’s been quite the journey for the group who first began with busking on the streets of Wellington back in 2014.
After reaching number two on the Official New Zealand Music Charts with their 2019 self-titled album, the band has followed up this success with their sophomore album ‘Upside,’ released last Friday (November 24).
The 10-track album promises an infectious blend of Pop and RnB, not forgetting their signature jazz-inspired roots too – with the band’s name being a portmanteau of 'drums' and 'sax'.
Double bassist Sam Thomson and guitarist Ben O’Leary spoke exclusively to Indy100 about the recording process behind their new album, their special headline show at London’s Jazz Café next year on July 19, as well as their career highlights so far.
Almost a decade ago, lead singer and saxophone player Shaan Singh and drummer Matt Beachen were studying jazz performance at Massey University when they began busking, before recruiting fellow classmate Thomson to form their band.
O’Leary a music student at nearby Whitireia joined a year later after meeting through mutual friends to make the final line-up for Drax Project.
“We started writing our own songs and playing high school balls, corporate events and everything in between, we kind of just worked our way up from there,” Sam told indy100.
From left to right: Matt Beachen, Ben O'Leary, Shaan Singh and Sam Thomson make up Drax Project and they dropped their second album 'Upside' last FridayDrax Project
Given the band’s jazz origins, it was no surprise to hear this genre alongside “old school funk,” are sources of musical inspiration.
“We have we all have quite different musical tastes personally, but our common ones are people like D'Angelo. Justin Timberlake is probably our biggest common inspiration as a band but we honestly love all types of music,” Ben said.
“That’s always changing as well,” Sam added. “I think that we are all people constantly wanting to learn that's part of our collective motivation, listening to new music is part of learning.”
Five years on from their first album release, Ben noted the process for ‘Upside’ has taken a “fair few years,” with their jubilant opening track ‘Atmosphere’ being written during their first LA trip back in 2018.
“That song and a few other ones were made through that period 2018-2019 before COVID and we were just living in the States, writing heaps of music with a bunch of writers,” namely Rogét Chahayed (Drake, Travis Scott, SZA), Imad Royal (Doja Cat, Chainsmokers), Ferras (Katy Perry, Dua Lipa), and Marlon Gerbes (Six60).
While Sam recalled they had “a short list of about 40 different ideas” for the record that they had to cut it down from.
Then the Covid pandemic hit and like all of us, the quartet were stuck at home which is where the final touches of the album came together.
“We were in New Zealand and bunkered down and couldn't go anywhere like the rest of the world and we would kind of just locked away in the studio where we finished all the songs over the last year or two, and pieced the album together that way which was cool,” Ben added.
However, this resulted in an opportunity to become hands-on with the production side of things as the band produced five songs from the album themselves.
“I'd say that in comparison to the first record, we've taken a lot of the processes on board ourselves and it's kind of cool because it means that it's not us trying all the time to express something that's in our heads to somebody else,” Sam said.
Ben agreed with this and added how the experience forced them to step back and “become a lot more self-sufficient as a band.”
It is always interesting to learn about an artist’s creative process and for Drax Project who are all “primarily instrumentalists,” the instrumentation tends to formulate first for the former music students.
“We all come from an instrumental background and I think that that is the thing that comes most naturally to us,” Sam explained, giving Singh as an example who has been playing the saxophone since the age of eight.
“But sometimes it might be you just have a flow of something and there's lyrics and melody that come out.”
‘Luxury,’ the third (and lead) track on the album is all about living in the moment and with this, Sam says the guitar riff came first while “the lyrics and melody came pretty quickly after that.”
Making music is always a collaborative effort between the four as Ben described how “Everyone gets involved,” so that by the end they have created a “product everyone’s happy with.”
“Sometimes it takes a long time for us to get a song done because we kind of have this rule that we just try everyone's ideas no matter how other people might feel about it. So sometimes it takes a while for everyone to land on the same page.”
Often we see bands who break up after so many years, so perhaps this is one of the keys to the band’s longevity, with almost a decade under their belt.
“We're all we're all really, really good friends,” Ben said, and noted that their time as music students has helped them to develop honest relationships with each other to voice their opinions on their sound.
“We don't really beat around the bush and I think that's kind of a culture from like coming from music school where if you're rehearsing and you're playing a song and something's not sound sounding right, there's no egos in the room or anything.”
Sam believes the success of this long-term collaborative relationship is also down to choosing a “good collection of personalities to work together.”
“I think the way that we write, the fact that we work together on every part of the music creates this culture of everybody being on the same level.”
Although it was 10.30 pm with the 13-hour time difference for Sam and Ben in New Zealand when chatting via Zoom, the pair were excited to share some of their favourite songs from ‘Upside.’
For Ben, “Luxury,” is a particular highlight to listen to and writing the song was also “super fun,” while “Oh My,” the last song to make the album is also a favourite of his as it’s “a glimpse into how we play live,” with the saxophone going off.
“We wanted something that kind of was a bit of a nod to how we play live like our live sets are quite energetic and higher,” explaining the song’s sound.
Sam’s pick is “Good Life,” which is the fifth song on the album and has a catchy bass line hook.
“I believe we hadn't played ‘Good Life’ live before and we played it last night at the album release party and it was like so fun to play.”
He added: “I really also love the song Supernova. I really like it lyrically and it's kind of a different sound for us.”
Following the release of 'Upside,' Drax Project have upcoming shows around New Zealand in December and January and is flying across the world to the UK in July to perform a special headline show at the Jazz Café.
It’s not the first time the group has performed here, having previously been the opening act on tour for Christina Aguilera and Camila Cabello as well as playing a headline show at the O2 Academy Islington back in 2019.
We had such a good time when we were there, and we spent quite a bit of time like when we were like, going back and forth from the States to London for promo and other stuff. So yeah, we really cannot wait to get back it's really one of our favourite spots,” Ben said.
Sam also added: “We have a bunch of friends as well who have either moved there recently or have been there for a while but we haven't seen especially some in music who are absolutely killing it over there. So I'm pretty excited to see them.”
For New Zealand, Lorde is no doubt the biggest Kiwi musical export but the country has a thriving music scene and “amazing music culture,” according to Sam and Ben.
“New Zealand's tiny and then the musician circle was even smaller,” Ben explained. “So it's like everyone knows everyone,” and commented on how artists are “for the most part really supportive as well, which is good and we're really lucky.”
“This new wave after the world has opened up [post-Covid] and this new scene is maybe coming through in New Zealand there's a bunch of really cool artists,” Sam said.
With the release of their second album, the pair reflected on some of their career highlights so far which include travelling to different countries, opening for some of the biggest artists as mentioned earlier and performing for their album release party on a boat sailing around Sydney Harbour.
“Coming to London is right at the top of the list and just below that, I would say probably opening for Ed Sheeran or New Zealand that was massive,” Ben recalled.
“It was by far the most people we had ever seen in one spot when we did that and we just kind of had our first song we're really well on radio.
“So 40,000 people were singing our song back to us which was a pretty crazy feeling.”
“We played our album release show last night, and it was on a boat going around the Sydney Harbour so there was like the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House while we were playing, which was a really good feeling."
He continued: “It kind of just hit me it was like, ‘Oh, this is our second album now cool, this is this is what we're celebrating. This is a nice feeling.’”
After the pandemic, Sam thinks releasing the second album “getting past the first album stages is going to be nice,” and playing this new material live.
“I think one of the most fun shows that we've played was at this venue called Broadcast in Glasgow,” which he describes as a basement that has 200 capacity and the crowd were “really up for it,” as which lived up to Scotland’s reputation as a country known for having some of the best crowds.
“It was just a good time. I'm really, really excited to go back to Glasgow as well.”
Now that the album has been released, Drax Project is looking forward to the year ahead of them and shared their aspirations for 2024.
“We just want to play heaps of live shows and to tour lots we've really missed doing which we will be and then get working on the next album.”
Drax Project’s sophomore album 'Upside' is available to listen to on streaming platforms now and tickets for their show at London's Jazz Cafe on July 19 are available to buy here.