Hometown: Auckland, New Zealand
Members: Kody Nielson (keyboards, drums, vocals), Bic Runga (keyboards, guitar, drums, vocals), Michael Logie (bass)
Album: Electric Hawaii
For Fans of: Animal Collective, MGMT, The Flaming Lips
Electric Hawaii, Opossom’s kaleidoscopic debut album, thrives on capital-G Groove. Sure, there are hooks, too—like the mind-numbing rainbow harmonies on “Fly” or the soulful, Motown-styled belting on “Girl.” But where most modern psych-pop acts use these tools to delve blissfully inward, Opossom are outwardly kinetic and physical. In other words, instead of getting stoned while you listen, you might just want to dance.
It may come as a surprise to learn that these lush, infectious tunes are the work of one man: New Zealander Kody Nielson, who recorded Electric Hawaii in unhurried solitude, goofing off with a few instruments and a tape machine in his piecemeal home studio. “I set up a lounge with my drum kit,” Nielson says. “I have an old mixer that I got on Craigslist; it sounds kind of distorted. My organ sounds pretty good—a bit harsh, but I used it a lot.”
Nielson fits the standard cliché of coming from a “musical family,” but not at all in the traditional sense. His parents are both versatile musicians of entirely different breeds (His father, who guests on Electric Hawaii, is a skilled jazz trumpet player, and his mother a singer and hula dancer). Nielson’s brother Ruban currently fronts the blog-adored indie-rock outfit Unknown Mortal Orchestra (in which Kody occasionally contributes drums), but the brothers started soaking in the eclectic home-turf influences from an early age. Music careers—and collaborations—were almost inevitable.
“We always had a lot of music around,” Kody says. “My dad would always play music—he was kind of a jazz player, and he had a good record collection that we would just look through on our own. But we would mostly get into things through the records with cool covers, like Frank Zappa and stuff like that. We were just listening to stuff like that pretty early on. But he got us kids instruments, like a mini keyboard and a mini guitar. I got pretty into that keyboard, but I didn’t seriously think about it pretty much until I started playing drums when I was about 13.”
“I wanted a drum kit, but my dad wouldn’t get me one,” Nielson laughs. “He got me a pair of drum sticks and was teaching me some paradiddles, and he told me that if I good enough with my technique, he would buy me a drum kit!”
He eventually got that drum kit (“I was fascinated with how drummers coordinate all the drums—it looked really fun, and I just thought it looked quite tricky”), but by the time he reached high school, Nielson’s musical pursuits grew more complex.
“I was studying music,” Nielson says, “and we had to do projects like writing a symphony and stuff like that. I didn’t go to college or anything, but just doing music in high school, we had to do writing projects. I seriously started writing around then. It was kind of classical, but I wouldn’t write quite classical-sounding stuff. I guess it was a little more jazz or instrumental music. And I wrote a lot of stuff on keyboards. When I started playing music, I started learning keyboards as well because I needed a harmonic instrument.”
“I wanted to just do drums,” he shrugs, “but in order to learn music, you have to learn a proper melodic instrument.”
In his first real band, the noisy art-punk quartet The Mint Chicks (featuring Ruban on vocals), Nielson earned a reputation as a rebellious live performer, often destroying his band’s instruments and—in one infamous incident—attacking a stage with a chainsaw. Listening to the warm, hypnotic melodies on Electric Hawaii, it’s difficult to imagine Nielson capable of such destruction. But in retrospect, perhaps some of that aggression came from creative frustration: Nielson, a drummer at heart with classical-jazz roots, wrote all of the band’s material on keyboards (then transferring the ideas to his brother’s guitar), while arranging more simplified drum parts to suit the live drummer’s strengths.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, but the first element that sticks out on Electric Hawaii is the percussion: The tasteful, muscular beats (at their flashiest on “Fly”) draw from Nielson’s jazz background, even if the compressed, one-mic sound bears a sonic debt to all things Motown. But Electric Hawaii is more than just sweet drum fills. It’s also the sound of an eclectic, gifted songwriter coming into his own.
“I like collaborating with people,” Nielson reflects, “but when I was doing this, I was just more experimenting. I could try out more things and not have to ask anybody else about it. In that way, it was really quite fun because I just kind of worked away, not really thinking about things too much. It was good not to have to really put it through someone else’s approval or anything like that.”