Nick Bollinger investigates the debut of Waiheke Island-based power trio Oyawa.
A few years ago the Australian writer and musician Robert Forster wrote a series of proclamations he called The Ten Rules Of Rock and Roll. Loosely modelled on the Ten Commandments, it was as provocative as it was profound, and included such edicts as: ‘The second to last song on every album is the weakest’ and ‘great bands don’t have members making solo albums’. Weighing in at number ten was the rule: ‘The three piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression’ – which, if he’s right, puts this band right up there.
They call themselves Oyawa – a word I’m unable to find in any dictionary, but they come from Waiheke Island where I’m told it just means ‘three piece band’. And as far as rock’n’roll expression goes, they have got it in dangerous quantities. Though all three members contribute equally to the triumvirate, the focal point is singer and guitarist Nikki Ngatai. She comes on with power chords blazing and an attitude that doesn’t just smoulder so much as combusts.
Oyawa’s debut is a six-song EP they have titled Won’t Even Try To Scale It – an oblique statement that seems to capture the combination of defiance and resignation that pervades these songs. Ngatai often seems to be singing from the inside of a volatile relationship. In the opening song she offers the metaphors of ‘sipping from a cocktail, climbing up a mountain cliff’, while her band (augmented on this track by additional guitarist Willem Van Der Plas) create the appropriate sense of tension and trepidation.
A trio can work in a lot of different ways. It can be three blazing virtuosos, like Cream, or three neo-primitives, which was good enough for Joey Ramone. Oyawa take a different approach again. They are all skilled musicians - especially drummer Miles Gillett, who plays with a jazzer’s authority - but their focus isn’t on individual displays so much as working as a unit to build an atmosphere. Their songs frequently rest on drones, which build ominously, with the effect of a burning fuse.
Anger, as John Lydon is fond of saying, is an energy, and it’s anger that provides much of the energy on Oyawa’s debut, though there are also moments that seem to be propelled by something you might call love, particularly the gorgeous final track, with Ngatai’s multiple voices floating in dreamy layers over a pulsing, hypnotic drone.
The group has plenty of firepower but can apply restraint just where they need it. And at just under half an hour in length, Oyawa’s debut EP makes few demands and offers no shortage of rewards.
Songs featured: Take You There, Don’t Wait For Me, Heads On Fire, Do We Interfere?, Hit A Wall.
Won’t Even Try To Scale It is available on Bandcamp.