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From playing in bands in the 80s and early 90s to studio work and mentoring, Niel de Jong is no stranger to the New Zealand music business. But his current role as manager of the teenage thrash metal band Alien Weaponry is taking his career to a whole new level.
The Waipu three-piece – made up of his sons, lead singer and guitarist Lewis (15) and drummer Henry (17), and bassist Ethan Trembath (15) – are about to embark on a major European festival tour following the release of their debut album Tū on the renowed Austrian metal label Napalm Records.
de Jong’s work in helping take Alien Weaponry global was honoured earlier this year when he won the international achievement prize at the NZ Music Managers Awards, but he knows that the hard work is just beginning.
“They are looking forward to Europe, though it is kind of two edged sword,” de Jong admits. “It’s a little bit scary as well.”
It’s been an incredible journey for a band and their manager, who got his first taste of the music business when he fronted the band Ebony Sye – he also co-managed the group with bassist Roseanne Greenhalgh – in the mid 80s. de Jong went on to form Voodoo Love, which also enjoyed a healthy following in the early 90s and who he credits with introducing him to thrash metal. After that, he concentrated on the production/studio side of the business working for companies such as Stebbings and Airforce Recording Studios, but these days he is very much focused on putting the skills he has learnt over the years to use for Alien Weaponry.
“I learned a lot touring and I understood to a degree how the business works,” he says. “But I did say to the boys quite early on: ‘If you want to do this, I can help you, but you have to want to do it. I can’t do it for you.’”
He needn’t have worried in that regard. Alien Weaponry first came to wider attention two years ago when they won the 2016 Smokefree Rockquest schools competition and since then their success has come very much on their own terms.
Although they have a number of international deals in place – as well as Napalm, they are signed to the German-based management company Das Maschine and the UK-based booking agent K2 Agency – de Jong says Alien Weaponry were always determined to retain their independence. Their music is equally uncompromising, with many of their songs sung entirely Te reo Maori and featuring fiery political messages.
It’s not the usual recipe for commercial success, but their sound clearly struck the right chord with metal followers, both here and abroad. As well as taking the #1 spot in NZ-only in chart – and in a week which also high profile new releases from Tami Neilson and Katchafire– the band has also been delighted with the way Tū is performing internationally.
“We had always hoped it would do well in the UK and Europe but one of the big surprises has been the US,” says de Jong. “It’s been doing very well in Europe and the UK but it has been going gangbusters in the US – we are actually in four US charts at the moment.
“We knew the US would be a hard market to break into and the single [‘Kai Tangata’] we released to promote the album flew in the face of reason– it’s seven minutes long and it’s not in English! Those things should have meant that it wouldn’t be a high flyer in the US, but it went into the Devil’s Dozen [SiriusXM Liquid Metal’s influential countdown] at #9, and the following week it was at #6, then #1, which is evidently almost unheard of a non-American band.”
Despite their unexpected success Stateside, the focus at the moment remains on Europe – “if you rush to the USA the first time there is interest in you, you can end up disappointing promoters by playing to half empty,” reasons de Jong.
We felt that it was important that the band maintained artistic control over how they present themselves
Alien Weaponry’s first international foray kicks off next week with three dates in Australia, before they head to Europe for a three month jaunt which includes dates at leading metal festivals such as MetalDays in Slovenia, the Wacken On Air festival in Germany and End Of Summer Fest 2018 in Spain.
The decision to focus on the European market followed on from the release of the single ‘Rū Ana Te Whenua (The Earth Trembles)’, which became something a viral hit. From out of the blue, the band received an email from one of the promoters of the Slovenian metal fest MetalDaze asking if they would like to play.
Knowing that the costs would be prohibitive to just got to Europe for one date, de Jong began to put some feelers to see if they could line up other gigs around the same time. “I went to a Music Managers Forum meeting – Lewis came with me – and we got talking to a German guy who was there,” he recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got a friend in Berlin who would be very interested in you’. This guy was Oliver [Kraemer] and he put us in touch with Nico [Meckelnburg, co-founder of Das Maschine] and he came back almost immediately saying ‘yes we are certainly interested’.”
The signing of a three year deal with Das Maschine then led them to Napalm Records. “Napalm wasn’t our first offer,” says de Jong. “We actually had two major labels approach us as well; one from New Zealand, the other was Australian. But we decided that we would prefer to go with an indie label who specialized in metal, because we felt that in the long-term they would better serve the interests of the band.
“The other thing was that because we had already started down the path of crowd funding the album, we didn’t really need the backing of a major. We felt confident that with NZ On Air funding and crowd funding we could be in a position to have quite a lot of autonomous control.”
For de Jong and the band, Napalm has proven to be the perfect partner: the label has provided the band with valuable financial and promotional support, but has given them pretty much a free hand when it comes to creative decisions.
“We felt that it was important that the band maintained artistic control over how they present themselves. Looking in from the outside, it’s very easy to get enthusiastic about what we would call ‘touristy’ images of te reo Maori. We were very conscious as a band not to go for gimmicks. Even with Napalm, when we first started talking about album covers, they came back with some suggestions like ‘it would be nice to have a bit more NZ scenery in it’. And the boys were like ‘No’! But overall Napalm have been great to deal with and they seem very happy to take our advice on what we think works.”
And Alien Weaponry certainly know their own mind. According to de Jong, the boys have trusted their instincts right from the outset when they started taking part in Rockquest. “When you get to the semifinals, you get to play two songs but you are not allowed to play for more than seven minutes. No thrash metal band in the world are going to do two three and half minute songs, so they would do two of their songs, play for 8-9 minutes and be penalized. But their view was let’s not go in with an apologetic approach, let’s go in full tilt.”
Despite their network of international partners, Alien Weaponry remains very much a family affair. de Jong is the manager but wife Yetta looks after a lot of the touring side of the business and is also the band’s publicist.
“Yetta and I have both grown up within a strong family culture. My parents were were doers and Yetta’s parents were, too. The boys complain about our work ethic – I think slave-driving is what they call it!” he laughs.