Jakob is set to return – in just a couple of weeks – with its best album and a tour to follow. This would be news anyway – it is news. Jakob is one of New Zealand’s greatest bands, despite, still, being a hidden weapon of sorts, a secret – a special story: three guys who live in Napier, with their families, running their lives in the normal way: day jobs, the usual responsibilities…they just happen to come together to make truly beautiful, awe-inspiring music. Music that is about so much more than them as just three people – but music that could only ever come from these three people.
The sound of Jakob – a cascade of tumbling drums that builds up beneath a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race spiral of guitar and a fierce prod of bass, instrumental post-rock for want of a term, a genre, a resting place – is so much bigger than the three musicians who humbly toil. But shift one of these guys from their role, replace one element? No chance. Jakob is Jeff Boyle (guitar), Maurice Beckett (bass) and Jason Johnston (drums). Jakob is heavy metal and punk and the best soundtrack to a movie you’ll never see. Jakob is modern chamber music arranged by and for post-rock trio. Jakob is Napier. Jakob is the families behind Boyle, Beckett and Johnston. And it is the fans around New Zealand. And the world.
Jakob is something profoundly moving, serene and beautiful. Jakob is the sound that all of these elements have combined – and sometimes conspired against – since 1998. Jakob is something that goes so much deeper than even that.
And Jakob’s new album, Sines, is the band’s masterpiece. Their latest, their bravest, their biggest – it’s an album some six years in the making, arriving eight years after the band’s last sonic cathedral, Solace.
“Well, the first attempt to follow up Solace was in 2008 – we were approached by Isis to play shows with them in Europe and it was amazing. The shows were great, we had a great time, it was all shaping up and we were signed to this label, Conspiracy Records. They had bands like Isis and Pelican, Sun O))) and Earth, Mono, Boris and that sort of thing, all bands we really loved and in that “post-rock” area I guess, you know, which is where we sit, so it was a dream, really. Perfect”.
I’m vaguely aware of what’s coming, I’m familiar with some of the setbacks the band encountered, so whenever Boyle pauses I know – in a sense – what is coming. I know the tone is going to shift. But he’s lived this story across a half decade – and then longer. He has his story down pat. He chooses his words so carefully that were this an interview for a documentary around the band an editor might soon find themselves looking elsewhere for work.
“And then I found out I needed surgery on my wrist”.
Another pause, before the full explanation.
“I had an elongated ulnar bone, which apparently happens in one of every 300 people. I was out – on the shelf for 18 months. So that was that. No guitar – which was, of course, devastating. I mean I work in a guitar shop, I play in a band where, you know there are other elements, but it’s based around my guitar. So, yeah, it was devastating. But at the same time I was a new father so there were some positives. Being forced into taking time away from playing meant concentrating on family time – so that part was really wonderful.”
“And then”, Boyle lines up the next setback, “Maurice breaks his hand, right before the tour, so that had to be pushed back, we hold the shows so he can recover.”
This was a New Zealand tour with Isis – but that band was such fans of Jakob that they extend the offer, Beckett’s hand fixed, to Jakob touring America as the support act for Isis. Hands and fences mended, Jakob is up and running again…
“And then”, Boyle’s got this timeline so clear – he’s mastered the ebb and flow of storytelling through the triumphs and tribulations of Jakob’s eight-year ‘drinks break’ between albums, “we meet Tool. Which was, you know, huge. We’re all big fans of the band, we played that stuff in school and they were one of the bands to follow, you know. Jakob actually played Tool covers in school. So we’re playing on the bill with Isis, in L.A. at the Troubadour, it’s the last gig of the tour and we’re the first of three bands on the bill so we’ve got five minutes before we are due to play. And Adam [Jones] from Tool comes into the Green Room – which is this mezzanine where you can look down onto the bands that are playing – and he introduces himself. And then we’re offered to tour with Tool. We’re like ‘fuck yeah!’ – but our visa was due to run out right then. So we had to say no. Which was tough obviously, really gutting”.
But through it all there were silver linings – moments of joy (“We were invited to see a Tool rehearsal, basically a private concert, just for us, which was amazing”) and practical solutions to playing where one of the three was unable. Boyle has been a crucial element in the work of Rhian Sheehan across most of the last half-decade, the pair connecting through a mutual friend who was sure they’d see eye-to-eye on music and, particularly, music-making. And he (Paul McLaney) was right.
There was never any thought – ever – that Jakob could continue until all three members, the only three members that could ever matter – and make sense – in conjuring this sound were back in the fold.
In 2011 Tool invited Jakob to open shows for them in Australia – this time it worked. They played (“it was amazing”) and were – once again – back on track.
“After the Tool shows we booked into Roundhead for nine days – we’d saved up all we could, obviously we’d made a little bit of money from the Tool tour, so that all went into the recording of the new album.”
Ideas had been bubbling away – some of them caught, surviving, even making it to the finished album – since the release of Solace, since the first earnest attempts to record its follow-up back in 2008.
Oh yes, and in this time since Jeff’s surgery and Maurice’s accident Conspiracy Records – the lifeline, a label that also worked as a booking agency, had shows lined up around Europe for its acts and promises of tours for Jakob, of lush vinyl packaging, the works – folded. The cash ran out. The company closed its doors.
“So yeah”, Boyle says with another flashback to feeling crestfallen, “there was that”.
It became about making the record – the label stuff would be sorted after. This record had to come out, be extracted from their aching heads and heavy hearts.
“We had gear troubles. It was pretty gung-ho of us to try for nine days in this studio and think we’d get a record, but we had to try. And then both my amps and my delay pedals just died. I was crushed. It was a disaster”.
Piecing together what they could from the troubled sessions it was to L.A. for five days of mixing (“again – pretty gung-ho really”) with Aaron Harris (drummer for Isis), Boyle says “he’s always been a fan, a really big fan of what we do and when Isis split in 2010 he had moved into the production side, so he was going to mix what we had”.
Boyle felt that the album just wasn’t quite working. Now it was the album that required surgery – he chuckles explaining that one of the finished pieces on Sines starts off as something recorded in the state-of-the-art Roundhead and concludes with a passage “recorded in our rehearsal space with just a handful of mics around us and going into a laptop; it was about stitching together these bits and trying to make it work. I started getting consumed by the process”.
“So then it’s a case of just leaving it for a bit – and feeling paranoid, and the usual sorts of feelings…”
And then, possibly because bad luck comes in threes, and maybe because life just has a habit of getting in the way, Jason Johnston cut his hand open right before a 29-date tour of Europe.
“Yeah”, Boyle adds a subdued laugh, downtrodden chuckle, the laugh of the disconcerted. “He’s making dinner for his family and cuts his hand open – so we have to pull out of the shows, we have to cancel the tour.”
At this point the schadenfreude is unbearable. Boyle reminds, “I’m a guitar player – I’ve played like seven shows in two and a half years, you know…”
So when people ask, when people wonder – as they will, as they already have – why the new Jakob album, the band’s fourth, took so long, the answer is that it required the fall of a label, leaps of faith from two international bands, injured hands for all three members, new family members and the commitment that this band would do it themselves, would surge on, funding the work, finding time for the work, having the energy to create – and collate – and shape and capture the work.
“Some of the things on Sines have been around for years, yep. Other things are ideas that were half-formed and we worked them out, adding to them. We’ve had a few things that we have played live over the last two years or so – tested them out and they’ve made it.”
But if that sounds simple, that end result – an album, seven tracks – Boyle says it was often close to excruciating. The self-doubt, the frustration, “and just wondering – really – if we even had anything, it became impossible to know and people started telling me that I just had to get this finished. I was telling myself that I had to just get it done, sign it off. But it was hard to walk away from; it’s been living with us for so long. We’ve all been consumed by it”.
Boyle says there were plenty of people that helped them on the journey – Rhian Sheehan, his friend and collaborator, added string arrangements to some of the tracks, “our families have been incredible, so understanding” and they know that when something special happens on stage it’s because of the sound they make but also because of the fans.
In 2015 they’ll take Sines to the world – Boyle says “we’re looking at booking American and Europe shows for next year, so, yep, it’s going to be pretty big. Pretty busy”. And of course as announced yesterday, they’ll be part of the bill for 2015’s Laneway Festival in Auckland.
Sines had a troubled birth – but it’s the peak for Jakob. It’s the band standing on the top of the sound they created. They are there on the mountain, the album the soundtrack to the journey up that steep hill. It is their masterpiece. You hear it and you can hear the blood, sweat and tears, the toil and trouble. A sense of tension – of the build and release – has always been a crucial element, part of what defines the Jakob sound. Sines is the most magnificent journey – it speaks to Solace, it’s that album all grown up, the next phase, another degree from the University of Life; it’s everything Jakob’s ever been trying to create – from right back to the days when, fresh out of school, three guys from Napier figured they had something. Or hoped at least that they did. A sound worth exploring. A sound that’s travelled around the world already. And if this, in some senses, is a victory lap of sorts, and most definitely a huge – towering – comeback it’s been at a price. A price that Boyle believes is worth it – “though it’s a bit hard for us to tell right now, but we are pleased. We do think it’s pretty good. But it tested us. It really tested us”.