AU ABROAD

The AU Interview: James Mangohig of Sietta (Darwin)

Darwin electro/soul duo Sietta have been making waves, not only in Darwin, but on a national scale as well. Their recently released single "What Am I Supposed To Do?" has been flogged on Triple J over the past few weeks, hitting the most requested spot more than once, and their recent dates in the eastern states have garnered excited response.

The most recent additions to the Elefant Traks family, Sietta are more than two friends from the Top End jamming together, lucky enough to be noticed. Vocalist Caiti Baker and percussionist/guitarist James Mangohig both come from musical backgrounds and aren't new to the live music arena. I caught up with James to chat about their forthcoming debut record The Seventh Passenger and tour with label mates The Herd.

How have the last few months been for you guys? Did you anticipate such a warm reaction to the single?

Yeah they’ve been good; we didn’t really know what was going to happen. It’s been awesome.

It’s all come really quite suddenly hasn’t it? It’s really taken off.

Totally. I think the fact that we’ve played around for a couple of years is really awesome… You always hope that your music will go well; you never put it out there going “Oh, I hope no-one listens to this”. But when it does take off you’re like “Whoa, this is kind of weird now”!

Can you tell me a bit about how the two of you got together?

We basically met in Brisbane through mutual friends… You know at parties, where people are just relaxed and then they do some crazy stuff? She [Caiti] just sang some blues one night. I don’t think she’d had heaps of wine, maybe a couple of glasses (laughs). But yeah, she just sang some old school blues and when I heard her sing I was like, “Wow”. I’d only just started making beats; I was playing bass and a little bit of keyboard in bands and stuff. I love synths and that, but I hadn’t started making beats yet.

Were you with (Australian hip-hop group) TZU at the time or were you with other bands then?

No, no, I didn’t join TZU until after. This was before that in Brisbane and when I first started making beats. You know, your friends kind of all give you some love, or they don’t give you much at all. As soon as I started, Caiti heard my very first beats and she was like “That’s wicked”, she was feeling the vibe. She must’ve seen something, you know, that she could relate to.

The debut record “The Seventh Passenger” has some real moments of emotional tenderness and darkness on it. When you’d gotten the tracks together for compilation, were you surprised at all at how frequently these themes came up, or was it always the intention to have this sort of really deep premise forming the majority of the album?

I reckon we go in between a lot. There was one point last year, where I wanted to write a really 90s record. I just wanted to write a record that was about big drums, big bass lines and that really good era of 90s hip-hop and RnB; sort of channelling that early Destiny’s Child sound! I kind of had this idea that I was going to write this, not club record at all, but this 90s hip-hop thing, also using a heap of Wu Tang influences and early Dr Dre and stuff. But it didn’t come out like that! We just made it about the songs and I think a lot of the songs I wrote on piano with Caiti; I think that’s really what’s changed us as a band right now. We’ve just started writing songs a lot more than thinking about genre. I think our album and our first EP; they both have a certain sound. But with the album, we really just wanted to write good songs, basically, rather than just funky beats and cool hooks. We thought, “Let’s write some songs that we could easily play on piano or guitar, or even acapella”.

There’s a real organic and unique quality to the music on the record – can you tell me a bit about any influences that impacted on you in the composition of the material?

Well Caiti listens to heaps of music, but she doesn’t…not like me. With me, I hunt music, I follow it and I hunt it up. I know who produced it, I know who did what on it, kind of like most music nerds! Caiti’s a little bit like that, but not really like I am. That’s what I think is cool. She didn’t really listen to anything before the record, she just writes what she feels to the music. Which is why I guess she’s purer, in the creative sense. Purer’s the wrong word… You know how some people are just creative and can just blurt it out? I’m a little bit more… I plan my attack a little bit. Sometimes I’m like that when I’m making beats, but recently more with making beats and music; I’m sharpening what I want to do to them. But she’s awesome, I suppose it worked out as a good combo!

You can definitely see that, while there is a sharpening of certain musical genres on the record, there’s still that very individual element that comes through.

Yeah, having Count Bounce [producer] I should probably say, he’s a big influence on me by just being in the studio. He’d track Caiti’s vocals and then me and him do a little bit of production. There were some days where she wouldn’t come in until after lunch and me and him will spend the morning twiddling knobs for three hours, finding one sound that we love. I guess I’m influenced a lot at the moment by TV shows and people that I’m around musically, as opposed to direct music that I’m listening to. At the moment I’m just listening to music that I like, I’m not even thinking “Oh I’ve got to do something like that”. Sometimes I’d listen to a track and go “Shit, I’ve got to go make a beat with that drum pattern because it’s awesome”!

The album is being dropped in a few weeks; for those who are completely unfamiliar with Sietta’s sound, or have just heard “What Am I Supposed To Do?”, what can people expect; which track/s are you vibing the most on at the moment?

I guess, with every artist, it changes. Obviously, I’m hearing “What Am I Supposed To Do?” heaps so I’m not going to listen to that in my own time! But I love all our music, so I think with the record… the next single; we still haven’t 100% decided on. But there’s nothing that’s really strict about it, you know? I think that people who haven’t heard any of the other tracks, there’s going to be a bit more of a hip-hop theme that’s going to come through, I reckon. I guess for people who’ve never heard it, there’s going to be a bit of variety on the record. It’s funny, because I hate saying the word ‘eclectic’, I think it’s a horrible word.

In terms of performing live, Sietta is fast gaining a reputation for producing some pretty sick and intense live sets. The last few dates in Melbourne, Sydney and here in Adelaide turned heads and brought a fair few people out to see you. Is it hard to prep for these live gigs, especially to crowds who may not know who Sietta are or what you’re about at all?

I reckon the set you’ve just seen [in Adelaide], was a set that we’ve just gone and written. You weren’t there the second night, but I did flip it into a more party vibe. I like to be able to break it down and not feel like we’ve just got to entertain this drunken club crowd. But I think our music, without seeming arrogant, means more to me than doing that. It does mean doing that, like I still want drunk people to dance and feel like they can vibe to our music, but you know, I don’t think I’m always going to make time to put in a club set. I’d rather just DJ and have Caiti just jump around! We’ve done that a few times at festivals; I’ll just DJ a party set and Caiti sang along and just jumped around and hyped the crowd, and that was kind of like the Sietta Soundsystem set. But I reckon, preparing for it, we just think about it as a show that we want to present to people, and if people just want to listen, that’s cool too. When I was with TZU, we’d have these discussions: how would you react to watching ourselves play, if we were a punter? With Sietta, I reckon I’d just bounce, not really dancing like crazy. I’d just be listening to the vocals, chilling to the mood. There should never be a rule on how people should enjoy music, you know?

You guys spent awhile in Melbourne, but then relocated back to Darwin. How did that affect the musical aspect of things? What prompted you guys to leave Melbourne, which in comparison to Darwin I would think, has more opportunity to get a band out and about?

I’ll come out bluntly and just say that Caiti does not really like big cities. She can experience them and enjoy them for short periods of time, like when we’re touring – no worries. But she just does not like big cities, it’s not her vibe. She’s from the Adelaide Hills and then spent a lot of time travelling to Darwin with her dad, who was a blues musician. He used to drive up to Darwin and tour and that’s how she got the connection with the Northern Territory. Ever since she was young, she’s always thought about how it’d be to live in Darwin; over her life she’s lived there for a couple of months here and there, but when it came to doing this, we thought “Let’s launch from Darwin”. Why not? This is home, you know. It’s changed a lot but there’s still elements of the lifestyle, there’s just good vibes here.

Being from Darwin, I suppose you’d have some insights into the music scene up there. How would you say it’s going at the moment; because in all fairness you don’t really seem to hear much coming out of the NT at a consistent rate?

Totally. I mean, you’ve got the Leah Flanagans and Dave Garnham and a few people… I really like Dave, he’s one of my favourites, I think he writes great songs. Tonight there’s these two rappers, who’ve just been doing work in their bedroom, they’re called Sono and Cynic. But they’re at Happy Yess tonight, so I’m going to check them out. I think it’s there, but it just needs to be amped up a bit. It may be in the presentation especially; the way the internet presents music now, maybe it’s time to step it up with that presentation. You’ve got to take risks when you live in Darwin, you need to risk and lose money in some ways, but it can always build up and turn around.

Being picked up by Elefant Traks has really been a blessing, hasn’t it? Your label-mates seem to be so supportive of Sietta and are really getting behind you guys.

Definitely, it’s like signing a label to an old family friend, in a way. You’ve known them for 10 years and you’ve always had a positive experience with those people in any way you interact with them. When you go to this level, it’s just been a really positive thing. I think having a good manager makes all the difference. They’re really good people, like you said, they don’t make it shy that they’re supporting us. It’s really cool when bands are like that. Bands should always be really passionate about other bands that they know, I reckon; even if you don’t fully feel their music exactly, it’s good to have a community.

You recently played alongside Little Red and The Jezabels in Singapore. Can you tell me about how that gig came about and what the experience was like, to play alongside acts that are in a completely different genre to Sietta?

Well that went through Sound Australia and The Jezabels and Little Red had been touring through Europe and we basically applied for the Singapore Showcase and there was the notice that we were going to get it. I didn’t even know who we were playing with or anything, I just knew we were playing two gigs in Singapore. But when we got there we saw that we were playing on the same Aussie BBQ gig, which Millie from Sound Australia had set up. She was awesome and really positive. So one night, we did this club show… and then the next night, we did the Aussie BBQ with Little Red and The Jezabels. Showcases are weird; I’ve seen Little Red backstage at the Big Day Out one year, playing to thousands of people and then I saw them in Singapore, playing in this pub to a small crowd and still just rocking it hard.

Sietta will be heading out on tour supporting The Herd. What were your first reactions on receiving news that you’d be out on a tour so quickly after being signed?

Yeah totally! I mean, they were awesome, I reckon it’s going to be a really fun tour. They’re really good guys to tour with; they love poker and table tennis and reading books… some of them will party pretty hard too, I’m sure. I’m sure there’ll be a few nights where you’re just going to go and have a good time, but it’s a good vibe. I’ve toured with them before, so I’ve spent some time at length with some of them and yeah, it’s always positive.

Sietta will be supporting The Herd on their upcoming national tour. Head over to www.elefanttraks.com to find out when they'll be hitting your city.