26 Feb 2019

Alien Weaponry on bringing Māori heavy metal to the world

From Nine To Noon, 11:26 am on 26 February 2019

Alien Weaponry, the teenage band taking Māori heavy metal to the world, have played at some of the biggest metal festivals in Europe, and are now heading to the U.S. They're the subject of a new 10-part documentary series by RNZ Music. They joined Kathryn Ryan to discuss their journey so far.

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Photo: Piotr Kwasnik

Alien Weaponry's lead singer and guitarist Lewis De Jong is 16, his older brother, drummer Henry is 18, and their friend, bassist Ethan Trembath is 16.

Although they’re young, Alien Weaponry isn’t any ordinary high school band: they've already won Best Rock Artist at the NZ Music Awards, (which they also performed atscooped the Maioha prize for Māori songwriting at the Silver Scrolls, and have been signed by European label, Napalm Records.

Now RNZ Music has released a new documentary about the band’s European tour, called Rū Ana Te Whenua: Alien Weaponry shake Europe, which is available online now.

WATCH: Rū Ana Te Whenua: Alien Weaponry shake Europe

Lewis, Henry and Ethan joined Kathrin Ryan to have a chat about their journey so far.

Kathryn: You've always had big plans for Alien Weaponry. Can you believe how quickly things have happened?

Lewis: I actually can't believe how quickly things have escalated, eh.

Ethan: Yeah, just to think ... This is Ethan by the way. Just to think only seven years ago we were a couple of little kids that were playing around in the band room. It's turned into something quite serious for us. You know?

Ethan: I remember doing our first Rock Quest and Lewis was this little kid just screaming it. Little angry kid just yelling at everyone.

Henry: Yeah, everyone was shocked by that. But I think it's definitely grown a lot from there.

Your music is unique, as we said. Heavy metal in Te reo. And what was the reception in the Northern Hemisphere?

Henry: It was fantastic. I mean, it was great to see people that couldn't ... Some of them, not even being able to sing English, singing along to our Te reo lyrics, and it's really humbling to see people that actually know who we are and because of us they know about our culture, and that's really good to see, and it makes us feel good.

Ethan: It's not only our culture, but a lot of people, I think have been inspired to learn about their own history and where they come from, and the history of their culture. Which is really awesome to see.

What was this experience like? You played at the world's biggest metal festival, Wacken

All: Yeah.

In Germany? What was the scene?

Lewis: That was our goal actually, from when we started Alien Weaponry, to play at Wacken by the time Henry was 20. And last year when we played it, Henry was 18. So ... It was probably one of the biggest moments of all our lives-

Ethan: Smashed it, mate.

Lewis: Yeah, it was ... Imagine all of Whangarei just compressed into one big festival. That's pretty much the scale of how big Wacken is.

Is it the case of various acts performing and you just get your scheduled time?

Henry: Yeah, it is.

Is it a massive stage?

Lewis: We played on one of the smallest stages, but we played very late at night. But the crowd that came and saw us at Wacken was really mind-blowing because we completely over-flowed the area that the stage was at.

Ethan: Yeah, it was kinda flooding into the stalls, the food stalls and clothing stalls behind, and-

Lewis: It was really heart-warming to see that many people there, just to see us, and I mean, the other cool thing was the stage was a really weird stage, the fact that it had flame throwers all over it. So our lighting tech had a good bit of fun being able to operate all of those, and shoot flames like right up into the air.

Henry: It was summer in Europe, so we were all boiling hot, and we had these flame cannons.

Lewis: Yeah, it was like, 40 degree heat, and just flame cannons everywhere.

Henry: Yeah, completely drenched.

You must have just pinched yourselves. Did you say this was your dream from when you were primary school kids, and then here you are doing it.

Henry: Yeah.

And was this where people were singing along in te reo?

Henry: Yeah, well that's one place ... I have a specific memory of playing in Bloodstock in the UK and there was three, four, five people singing along to our Māori lyrics and it was awesome because after that we actually got to go and talk to them and it was really weird just seeing how much we inspired these people and one of them cried and it was this thing. We didn't expect to be this influential to people. So it was really awesome.

Were they Kiwis? Or were they Northern Europeans?

Ethan: I'm pretty sure I met a Kiwi when I was in England, surprisingly. But yeah, there was people from all walks of life coming to those festivals.

This is the home, really, isn't it of metal?

Ethan: Yeah.

How diverse is it? You guys are thrash, right, if we're talking about sub-genres, but what's the range of performances, and styles that are on display?

Lewis: There's a huge range of different genres in metal. There's even genres like pirate metal-

Ethan: Pirate metal and folk metal

Lewis: Nordic Metal.

Ethan: And at these festivals as well there's bands that are doing traditional Nordic folk songs-

Folk metal?

Lewis: Yeah. It's so diverse and a lot of people just think of metal and think of Cookie Monster vocals and crazy, intense drumming, and insane guitarists, but it's so much more than just that.

What is it's kaupapa? What’s it about?

Lewis: Metal's just an expression of the artist I think. It's a very uncensored kind of genre. You don't get many bands that are singing soft, lovey-dovey lyrics, and kind of sweetening it up for the audience like it's ... You get what you hear, and it's normally pretty raw, and pretty in-your-face.

And quite political?

Henry: Kind of the reason why we like it, especially in thrash.

Ethan: Yeah, especially in thrash. It's good to have the Māori side as well, because there's a lot of things that have happened in the past that can really work well with metal, especially thrash metal. It's funny because the language itself works well with metal too. Just the sound of the language, it kind of relates to haka in that way as well, it's very aggresive, so yeah.

That's true actually, you can see a real synchronicity there in a way of blending traditional Māori musical in styles, and dance styles. Do you find there's a really natural synergy?

Lewis: Yeah, when we first decided to start writing in Māori, we actually had no idea how well it would go, but the reception we got back from it, it sounded great to us, and it sounded great to everyone else, so it just kind of worked, and it's been our thing ever since.

What was the origin of all of this? You two brothers, Lewis, and Henry ... I mean you were eight, and ten I think.

Henry: Yeah.

What was the original musical inspiration for forming a band, and a band in this genre?

Henry: For us, we'd been playing music since we could remember. I think Lewis got his first guitar when he was three.

Lewis: Yeah.

Henry: We were always a very musical family, and we decided one day that we wanted to make a band, and write song that was absolutely terrible. We've come long way since then, but I feel like definitely we've been pushing it from the day we decided to actually start the band. Especially since Ethan's joined us, we actually started taking ourselves really seriously, and it's just kept on growing, and growing.

Ethan, how did you become part of the band? How did you guys get to know each other?

Ethan: That's an interesting story. I met Lewis at our local primary school, and I kind of knew him a little bit, but not very well, but at the time, we were both attending a circus school in Waipu.

Lewis: Riding unicycles.

Ethan: Yeah, unicycles. Juggling. Crazy stuff, but yeah one day we hd a circus gig, and for whatever reason mom couldn't pick me up, and take me home, so I had to go to Lewis' place with a bunch of other mates we were just sitting in the band roo , and Lewis and Henry having a jam. I thought it was pretty cool, and Henry and Lewis' dad passes me the bass, and I'm kind of playing around and I find out that I was the only kid there that could reach the end fret on the bass.

Lewis: Well and there was also the fact that we asked our mates that who were there do you play any instrument and you were the only one ad you played ukulele.

Ethan: Yeah.

Lewis: Which has four strings.

Ethan: So, I kind of had to become the bassist then.

Lewis: Yeah, he had no choice in it.

So, this is how it begins and the first gig was in school wasn't it? Was it high school, I think?

Ethan: I think it was at Green Bay.

Henry: Yeah.

Lewis: And the shortly after that it was Rockquest. We entered that for a number of years.

Henry: Abut six years I think.

So that catapulted you. How does a band go from Rokquest, which has launched plenty of acts, to playing at huge festivals in Europe? What was the progression? Did people just latch on to you, and people would get very interested from quite early on?

Henry: Honestly I don't think we could tell you exactly how we did it. I think it’s just a combination of luck, which is really just being prepared for any station that's going to me your way. Being able to take opportunities that are offered up to you. I think we've been incredibly lucky, but also the fact that people are really vibing with what we’re doing, and really feeling our music has definitely helped.

Lewis: I feel like we met all of the people that we work with at the right time, like when we signed with Das Machine that was right before Wacken decided who to put on their bill, and we got put on the bill for Wacken, as well as Middle Days, and I feel like that really helped boost our career at least in Europe.

A lot's happened in the last two, to three years. A lot.

All: Yeah.

Let’s talk about the song the new documentary is names after, Rū Ana Te Whenua, because we mentioned politics, right? You're young Māori, you're reo speakers, and what inspired the song?

Henry: So this song was inspired by a story that me and Lewis heard from our father, we were down in Tauranga for a gig, and he was telling us the story of how our family defended Gate Pa against British invasion in the 1860's and how our tupuna died there so we were quite inspired by that story and just the crazy battle that happened there, and so we thought we'd write the song as kind of a commemoration to our tupuna, so this song is about that battle and about our tupuna.

How does composing happen for you? Is it typically an idea, then lyrics, then the music follows? Or is it a bit random?

Lewis: It is very random.

Henry: Completely random.

Lewis: So currently, I'm starting to write my lyrics with the music, but usually we would just jam an find something we like and work from that and create a structure and I'll usually add lyrics later. Sometimes we'll collaborate on lyrics beforehand. It really depends from song to song.

With what's happening now, there's a lot going on in life ... because I think your mum and dad Lewis, and Henry are still playing quite a big part in managing the band and then there's obviously international managers. How is all that working?

Henry: Yeah, well on the road we toured Europe last year, we had both mom and dad with us. Dad's actually our manager in Austral Asia, so he kind of takes care of things around here and the rest of the world we've got our German management ad he was on as a bit of support and he's also our sound guy, so he does a lot for the band and mom comes along she manages all of our merch and does-

Lewis: Tour managing.

Henry: Yeah, tour managing which is just all the looking after the band that the band can't really do because they're naked from playing.

Lewis, you're still in high school, I think. Yeah?

Lewis: No, that's Ethan that's still in high school.

Henry: Lewis is a useless drop out.

Lewis: No, I've got a job.

So Ethan's still in high school?

Ethan: Yeah.

I suppose at the moment is music just what you're seeing in the future. Are there other plans immediately?

Ethan: Not immediately. Yeah, I don't have any other plans to go be doing anything else, but yeah just at the moment I'm finishing off my last year of school. It doesn't really matter if I don't make it through school, but I'm only going to be there for a couple of months this year cause be on tour for quite a lot of the year.

Henry: Five and a half months this year. It's pretty crazy.

Wow! Henry you're working as a car mechanic, or used to.

Henry: I was, currently I'm doing bits and bobs here and there. Coffee making, bartending. Stuff like that.

What's the significance of signing with Napalm. They’re a reasonably well-known label, they’re Austrian-based aren't they?

Henry: Yeah.

You were the youngest musicians to sign with them. This is going to see your debut album sold around the world. Will there be another album?

Henry: Yeah, well our contract with them is for three albums so we are definitely ... we're going to be working towards that over the next few years.

Lewis: We've already been writing.

Henry: Yeah.

Ethan: And coming up with ideas.

Henry: Yeah, this past month we've been writing for the new album, so hopefully we can get some stuff out before we get to Europe, even.

And there’s a U.S. tour in the pipeline?

Ethan: Yeah, we have a plan to head over to the U.S. in May, so we'll be over there for just May and then after May we head straight from May to Europe for a couple of months so yeah.

Lewis: Yeah.

It sounds like you're taking it in your stride, as much as you can really.

Ethan: Yeah, now we got some pretty cool things planned for the year. We're really excited to play in Mexico. We are playing a festival there, that's the first one we're playing overseas this year, so that's going to be cool, apart from Australia, which is-

Henry: Which is kind of overseas, but...

There's a New Zealand tour too, I think the only chance people have to see you in New Zealand this year is in March?

Lewis: So we're going to be playing in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington.

Ethan: So go run get your tickets mates!

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