Invercargill band the Sparrow Thieves got on the scoreboard early with a nationally charting EP. Chris Chilton reports on the state of play.
They might be flying under the radar, but the Sparrow Thieves are flying strongly nonetheless.
Not yet a year old, with no tours, only a handful of gigs and an EP to show for their first 11 months, the fledgling Invercargill band has already tasted national success and generated the kind of chatter reserved for Next Big Things.
No-one was more surprised than the band members - vocalist/ rhythm guitarist and lyricist Nick McGrath, bassist Sam McGrath, lead guitarist/keyboards player Anton Dickens and drummer Elliott Mitchell - when their self- titled EP, recorded in Invercargill in April and May, debuted at No 17 on the national album charts a month later.
"It was a hell of a shock all right," says Nick McGrath.
"Anton was racking his brain wondering how to get the music out into the public sphere. He decided to check what bands were on the New Zealand charts these days, the logic being that he could then check out their websites and Facebook pages to get some tips.
"So yeah, he saw us on there and just about choked on his coffee.
"I was travelling round America at the time and got an email from him that said, 'You might want to take a seat before you read this . . . the Thieves have charted'."
It was just another karmic curveball for a band formed on a whim under highly unusual circumstances.
McGrath, a former fringe Southland rugby player and try-scoring outside back for city club Marist, had been playing premiership footy for the Scottish club Melrose when injury struck once too often.
After recovering from a recurring hamstring tear which had blighted his first season, he was back on track when midway through his second season he ruptured a tendon in his middle finger and had to get it reattached. His Scottish rugby gig was over.
Venturing to the south of France to drown his sorrows, he was inspired by the buskers and artists he saw and drunkenly phoned his cousin, "Fiz" (Sam McGrath), back in Invercargill to ask whether he would be keen to have a crack at some original music.
"Yeah. Yeah, I would," Fiz replied.
As Fiz began toying with some early riffs, McGrath (nickname Wax) put pen to pad and started writing lyrics. Upon his arrival home, Anton Dickens (Ant) and Elliott Mitchell (Snitch) were drafted in to complete the original lineup.
Mitchell, himself a promising rugby lock for the Blues club and a handy basketballer (subtext: big unit), had been making a name for himself round the local rugby clubs as the drummer for goodtime covers band Dogmatic.
The two McGraths and Dickens, along with another rugby player, Lucas Murch, had all been members of Dogmatic a few years earlier before Nick took off to play in Scotland.
Reunited late last year as Sparrow Thieves, the four mates spent three months' worth of nights in a room in Dickens' house, known as "The Nest", writing the songs that would make up their debut EP.
In mid-April, the Thieves decamped and moved into Invercargill's Little Fire Studio, to record their six tracks with Hayden Budd at the mixing desk.
"We didn't know what kind of sound would come out of the Thieves and, to an extent, we still don't," McGrath says.
"The commercial scene at home seemed to be dominated by reggae and drum 'n' bass bands, but we figured we had as good a chance as any to try to crack it. If nothing else, we'd have an EP to show for our efforts for the rest of our lives.
"Even if our first songs were a bit rough around the edges, it was important to us that they felt genuine rather than overproduced. We learnt a lot from the EP process about what seems to work better for us, and I think we can only improve from here."
Nevertheless, McGrath is baffled by the EP's success. The CD is almost sold out, with only a few copies available at Trevor Daley Music Works and Rock'n Rolla Records, prompting the Sparrow Thieves to contemplate another print run, but tracks are available to download online.
"There are a lot of bands more experienced than us around here, so we learn a lot from them every time we share a stage," he says. "The early support has been great, and really helped our confidence."
Untrained but enthusiastic and strikingly creative musos, the Sparrow Thieves have their eyes on the big prize of making rock their fulltime job.
By day Nick McGrath is a cameraman/video editor, Sam McGrath is a plumber, Dickens is a bridging manager and Mitchell is a lawyer, although since recording the EP he, too, has left Southland to ply his trade in Edinburgh as a semi-professional rugby player. His replacement behind the kit is Jordan Cossill.
McGrath shrugs his shoulders when asked about the seemingly unlikely blend of rugby and rock 'n' roll coursing through the Sparrow Thieves' veins.
"The two don't cross over that often, I guess, though there are a few rugby players out there with surprising interests outside of the sport. In my case, my uni studies were in film/English, and I've always been intrigued by the arts . . .
"Rugby was never a be-all and end-all for us. Everyone involved along the way in Dogmatic/the Thieves always loved music, and our tastes were all pretty varied.
"I guess the music is a vessel for us to put our creativity to use, while also having a great time. It can be a surreal buzz sometimes when you're caught up in the moment, playing something you created together - even if it's just the four of us jamming at Anton's.
"On a more rational level, the goal is to somehow do that fulltime and make a living, to get to a point where we can justify walking away from our 9-5 jobs. Then, ideally, we could devote our time properly to it, and get the best out of the Sparrow Thieves."
While the band's initial goal was just to create the EP, they've finished six new songs which are "gelling pretty nicely", McGrath says. "We've got an eye on getting back into the studio early next year to record a full album."
They're also looking at undertaking a small, belated EP release tour during weekends around the lower South Island.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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