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Q&A: How James Kohler Channels the Raw Spirit of Indie Rock from NZ

Updated: May 28

Get ready to experience the pulse of New Zealand indie music with James Kohler, who delivers an exciting fusion of indie rock, alternative, and psychedelic sounds. His music speaks to the people and gives deeper meaning to the role of indie music in New Zealand today. He stands as a pivotal figure in the local indie community, capturing the raw, unfiltered essence and DIY commitment that breathes life into the global music stage. With influences spanning from the gritty early punk rock to the iconic Flying Nun records, James embodies the fierce, rebellious, spirit that indie punk prides itself on.



In this exclusive interview, we peel back the layers of James’s creative process—a unique blend of daydreaming and intense, deliberate emotion that has shaped his musical journey over the years. From the emotive riffs of his debut EP Somewhere Else to his lo-fi explorations in the RPM Challenge 2024, James continues to craft a soundscape that challenges the mundane and mainstream. Join us as we delve into the mind of a musician who is not afraid of making bold statements with every chord and lyric, asserting a powerful presence in the indie music scene.


James Kohler is set to ignite his audience with a series of upcoming releases, including the long-awaited new album Will and Way, along with a series of vibrant singles and a promising continuation of his engaging production of music videos.


What would you like to see next in Enharmonic Magazine? Let us know.


 

New Zealand Music Month is celebrated in May! James, as a Kiwi musician, how would you describe the evolution of the New Zealand music scene over the years? And how has it influenced your sound?

I think part of the reason we have New Zealand Music Month is because there were very few original artists who wrote original music in New Zealand until the late '70s—which is quite late. And, it is kind of an attempt to put New Zealand on the map. We seem to keep putting ourselves on the map and sliding off again and again. What I really love to see during New Zealand Music Month is some of my friends and peers in music honouring each other’s work. It's a good reminder that the sort of underground, independent music scene in New Zealand is extraordinarily rich. It's had an enormous influence overseas, especially in America. There’s a slight, you know, marketing, corporate side to the New Zealand Music Month, but there is also a very meaningful side to it.



As for me, I guess I come from a kind of tradition of independent music from New Zealand that can be traced back to about all the early Flying Nun records in the early 1980s, and a little earlier than that, things like Toy Love, early punk rock. That's what I would consider myself indebted to on a local level, and that's the stuff I really love. Also, you know, I really love classic stuff like Split Enz, who are kind of like the Holy Grail of New Zealand music.


Your debut EP, Somewhere Else, is described as "a labour of love and a testament to an ongoing love affair with songwriting." Can you walk us through your songwriting process?

I called it a labour of love because it took me a very long time to produce an EP of that quality in terms of production and such. I spent a lot of time recording at home in my bedroom, with many rough recordings. I have a songwriting history that stems back, wow, almost twenty years now. I still have the songs and files, and I've been consistently doing it for twenty years. So, Somewhere Else, even by the time it came out, was a product of at least ten years of writing songs. I tried to pick some of the better ones. I worked with Jason Smith,who is a really awesome sound designer and theatre person, and Darren Harkness, of course—who is someone I always work with even on recent stuff and he's a kind of multi-instrumentalist.



My songwriting process is an interesting one. I'm a big daydreamer. For a lot of my songs, I can daydream about the entire thing: the composition, the sound, the entire song structure, and then I sort of figure it out. For a lot of Somewhere Else, I literally just figured out what was going on in my head and I wrote the whole song from start to finish. It’s not how a lot of people work, but I do go other ways about it sometimes. I might begin with a title or a lyric, and I find I do that more as time goes on. It's interesting to work backward from the lyrics and have the music serve the lyrics—instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I just chop up fragments––little fragments, mix them together, coalesce them in my mind like a jigsaw puzzle, and I piece them together. There’s a variety of methods.


But mostly, I'm a big daydreamer. I just kind of daydream up the whole thing. It can be a long time trying to make it sound like I first envisioned it, but that is probably the number one method for me.


RPM Challenge 2024: Could you tell us more about the concept behind your latest RPM Challenge 2024? Do you have any upcoming albums or projects?

RPM is an online songwriting challenge where you write, produce, record, and perform an album's-worth (but more like a long EP's-worth) of material. I did the RPM Challenge about six years ago and again this year. But, just as a forewarn, what I did this year, RPM Challenge 2024 (Death of a Mystery), is very lo-fi and done at home, so it is not really something I consider an official release of mine. But, it was fun to live up to the challenge. I enjoyed making it and there were some bright spots within it. Some of those songs, I may re-record.


I've also built a new studio, a really beautiful one, out the back of the house. I'll be bringing all my friends and musical collaborators there. Our first project is to get a really high-quality video of a live performance for the new album, Will and Way. We managed to put this album together despite the fact that it was a bit hard to get the band together. But I really want to work with this band because they’re f***ing great. We did about three shows last year and a couple of them were starting to get really good. But, we'll make sure to do a really good one for the album, get it on video with good quality audio, and that will be coming out in about a month or two... maybe August. It's an eight-song album.


Also, I'm planning to get active online again. I have a trove of material to put out there. I don't care what anyone thinks; I'm just going to start putting it all out there one by one, streaming out pretty much from the upcoming release of my song "Loneliness" onwards.


"So, as music becomes more electronic, there's a strong hunger for gritty and—dare I say?— authentic indie rock"

Given that your music has been featured on diverse platforms in locations such as Mexico, Portugal, Venezuela, South Africa, Brazil, the US, and Australia, what do you think resonates with listeners across these different cultures? How does it feel to see your music transcending language and cultural barriers and connecting with audiences worldwide?

I think it is the independent spirit and ethos, the original spirit of indie rock, that breaks cultural barriers. I think this kind of music is “of the people” rather than “for the people”, and it is about trying to share something for all of us with a kind of rebellious spirit, in a way, because: just f*** what people think, do what you want. I think that is the kind of thing that gets across.



Maybe that's why we got that share on BlankTV in Portland, considering that it’s a pretty far out and weird YouTube Channel, but we're really honoured by that. There is something that can be traced back to the beginning of punk rock and, above all, before punk rock (which led to the early 70s), and I feel like I'm channelling that spirit, as do many other artists. There's definitely a global ecosystem of people like us. So, as music becomes more electronic, there's a strong hunger for gritty and—dare I say?— authentic indie rock in places like Portugal, South America, and probably some parts of the United States like Portland.


Who's Rhea? I was captivated by your song "Rhea," especially given the current socio-political climate in the world, where people are joining unions, striving for better jobs, or rebelling against the status quo.


Peter K. Malthus said, "Rhea's slow decline, as the soulless company she's employed by passes her over for promotion, moves her to less desirable locales and departments, seemingly never valuing her worth in the way she expects them to... If you're having a sad day, if your life feels meaningless or directionless, listen to Rhea. You'll have a better day."

Dave Bruce said this song is “about how Capitalist Realism is poised to blot out the horizon forever. Yet, humans will forever live in hope…"


So two slightly different views there. Who is this Rhea? Can you tell us about this song?

Yeah, yeah, I really like both of those responses. Rhea is a really old song, started a long way back when I began playing with a drummer regularly for the first time. I would just be belting out, screaming that line "Rhea," and it used to be far more aggressive. The new version is quite tame by comparison. So I think both those writers made a good observation, for slightly different reasons. Rhea is sort of like how the “music of the people” profits ahead of people, becoming the modus operandi of society. At the same time, people want to live in hope, right?


So "Rhea" is not really meant to be a hopeless song, but it does comment heavily on how people's lives have changed. People are getting ground down, losing securities, as well as things to look forward to in the future, in quite the same way. As we all know, there's a lot of stuff cropping up all over the place that's stirring a pretty strong reaction to this type of thing. I just wanted to write a commentary that felt like it contributed something to what's going on in the world.


If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell James Kohler from your "Love Isn't Lost" era or from the beginnings of your career?



Oh gosh, I was a very angry youth. So yes, "Love Isn't Lost", I thank you for bringing that up. If I were writing something back to myself, I would say: worry less about what other people think. I like the fact that "Love Isn't Lost" talks about a bigger concept. It's not a love song as such; it's about the feeling of love not being lost. I think that song was done for a good purpose, perhaps a bit unconsciously. It talks about not to be too dependent on others; yet, self-belief doesn't have to be toxic. It can be about nurturing a loving relationship with yourself.


If I could send myself a letter back in time, I would just say, be kinder to yourself, learn how to love yourself, and realize that whatever happens in this world is probably going to happen anyway; it's how we respond to it that counts. And, I'm reaching a fairly contented middle age now, which my younger, angry self would never have believed. You actually are going to find some peace and happiness in this world, and it's going to be all good, probably. That's what I'd say back to myself.


I understand that rugby is like the unofficial religion of New Zealand, whereas in the US it's more of a mystery. If you had to explain the sport through your songs, which song would represent players like Richie McCaw, Beauden Barrett, or Brodie Retallick?

Somewhere way inside our treasure trove we’ve actually got a song for the very great Jonah Lomu... somewhere. I was screaming out commentary from the old commentator Keith Quinn and it was just this really aggressive punk rock song with rugby commentary. I think the vibe needs to be a bit on the aggressive side of celebratory. There's a new song coming out soon called "Endless Urgency Now" that would sound better with some hectic rugby action in the background. Overall, this is a bit of dangerous territory. But, you know, when it comes to the New Zealand indie rock scene, probably nearly all of us secretly watch rugby. We're also, in a way, meant to reject that culture because of the machismo and other aspects. Yet, I do love Hello Sailor and they wrote a whole lot of great rugby songs. Well, maybe not songs exactly like I've described, but along those lines.


Who are some of the underrated artists that you love and that you think deserve a lot more recognition?

That's a tough one. There's this local Auckland band called King Ketchup that I really love. I think they're extremely underrated, very genre-fluid, and jumping all over the place with really crazy, hectic music. They're a fantastic band full of wonderful songwriters. Guided by Voices is my favourite band ever, and although they're somewhat rated, I still think they'll always be underrated because I just think they're the best. Also, a shout out to The Verlaines; they've got their 1993 classic album Way Out Where, which has recently been reissued. Honestly, if you listen to that now, it just sounds so ahead of its time with just fantastic songwriting. I think AI is going to have a hard time catching up to that level.


"If I could send myself a letter back in time, I would just say, be kinder to yourself, learn how to love yourself, and realise that whatever happens in this world is probably going to happen anyway; it's how we respond to it that counts."

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?

Just be aware that there's a lot of stuff coming out, and it's going to come pouring out. "Loneliness" is coming out on the 3rd of July, and then the album Will and Way is coming out in August, and then there's going to be a slew of a whole lot of new releases shortly afterwards.


Who are three more artists you’d like to see in Enharmonic Magazine next?


 

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