Serving the songs

The Charcoal Burners (from left) Shane Gilchrist and Andrew Spittle. Photo: Supplied
The Charcoal Burners (from left) Shane Gilchrist and Andrew Spittle. Photo: Supplied
Charcoal Burners are like folk music for people who find the oppressive comfortableness of folk music a bit boring, writes Fraser Thomson. 

Sure, all the indicators are there on their self-titled debut album. The nine-track release has plenty of acoustic guitar, mandolin, fiddle, close vocal harmonies, and a fireplace warmth that could only come from the historic chambers of a certain Port Chalmers venue turned recording studio.

But it's definitely not your standard acoustic folk. In a recent review, Graham Reid described them as "a very downbeat Finn Brothers'' and I couldn't agree more. They're like the Finn Brothers with less "everyone I love is here'' and more "look down the elevator shaft, make out the corpse of the dead bellboy''. There's an uncomfortable darkness lurking beneath the folksy facade.

Behind the curtain are Andrew Spittle and Shane Gilchrist. Both have spent the past 20 years or more kicking around in the odd band, never really hanging their hat on anything. Their musical partnership began about a year ago, over a chat and a beer.

"Shane was really cool and was like, 'I'll play bass', and he came round to my house,'' Andrew explains. "I had my wall of Marshalls and started blasting out these songs. He quietly sat through that, then he was like, 'Why don't we just take it back to the basics and just do the acoustic guitars'.''

"Andrew would play some of these songs on piano and then he'd go to his [Gibson] Explorer, through distortion and delay and stuff, and it was this wall of sound, and these beautiful songs would become this other thing. And that's fine, I'm into that thing too,'' Shane says. "But for me it was kind of, to get to know the songs and to get to know Andrew better I suggested stripping it all back.

"Because I think quite often men hide behind noise in some ways? I dunno, if you can strip away that stuff you actually have better, deeper conversations ...''

Even so, this isn't some unplugged "acoustic interpretations of rock songs'' type deal either. After the cosy first track, Woody Creek, lulls you into a false sense of security, the second creeps up from behind with a drum machine. There's Mellotron strings, funk bass. They even talk about samplers and Ableton featuring in their upcoming live shows.

It seems like they're not playing to any rule book, which must be exhilarating, but without rules how do you know what'll work?

"I guess we were just about what's going to serve the song,'' explains Andrew.

"There's a certain feel which is what we're looking for, and that feel can come through multiple genres.''

A large part of that "feel'' also comes from the production process. You can really hear the care taken by Tom Bell out at Chicks Hotel during tracking, and by Chris Chetland at Kog Recordings in Auckland who mastered it. It's warm and spacious, yet intimate.

Charcoal Burners also called in a few favours from the likes of up and coming singer Molly Devine, fiddler Flora Knight, of The Eastern (and more), master of twang John Egenes and jazz drummer Steve Cournane.

The gig

Charcoal Burners play at the Inch Bar on Friday March 2. 

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