All in by Madelaine Empson
L.A.B has a massive month ahead of them. On the 23rd of February, the award-winning roots-reggae band will drop their sixth studio album L.A.B VI, and on the 16th of March, they’ll take the Park Stage at Kiwi music’s biggest party, Homegrown. I was lucky enough to catch up with guitarist and lead singer Joel Shadbolt about his music journey so far – from picking up an instrument almost as soon as he could hold one, to recording the demos of an album that would go triple platinum in the middle of a mattress fort, right up till now.
How and when did you find music?
My dad started me on a ukulele when I was three and I started singing not long after. But I probably didn’t take singing that seriously until I was in my teens. Mainly played guitar as a kid with the old man. Played right through primary school and high school and all that. Joined bands, pub bands, was playing in bars when I was 11 or 12 [laughs]. That was my apprenticeship, I suppose. Then I left school at 15 and went to Polytech for two years to study music, production, and performance. I went to jazz school in Auckland when I was 18, so I did about five years of back-to-back study. It was a lot of fun studying jazz, but obviously I’m not a jazz musician. I learned a lot from it. The people who play with us now in L.A.B like Louisa Williamson; she’s a sax player, and we quite often geek out about jazz stuff when we’re on the road.
It sounds like you decided pretty early on that music was going to be it for you. What led you to make that decision?
I was really lucky to have supportive parents in the whole journey through music and through school. At 15, I was sitting in the principal’s office with my mum, who’s a school teacher (at the same school), and she’s like, ‘I think Joel needs to pursue a career in music, because he seems to be enjoying it and spending more time in the music room than the English and maths department’ [laughs]. I would say that the help from Mum and Dad was definitely the encouragement. It was never like, ‘Oh no, don’t do music, get a real job.’ It was more like, ‘Do music, make that the job.’ A lot of people that you talk to have had that parent or someone in the background saying, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work out, what are you gonna do?’ There was never that plan B for me, it was always just all in.
How did you come to join L.A.B?
I was in this band in Auckland called Batucada Sound Machine for about a year. I don’t think the band exists anymore, but they were quite big. Brad [Kora] saw me singing with them on the Good Morning show in Auckland. The next day, he sent me a message saying, ‘Hey man, I really like your voice, would you be keen for a jam?’ It was 2014 or 2015, and the timing was quite impeccable. At the time I’d injured my hand and I wasn’t playing the guitar, but I perceived myself as a guitarist and a singer, not just a singer. So I’m standing there singing with this band with my hand in a sling and it’s my TV debut. He’s like, ‘Man what a voice,’ and I’m like, ‘Bro, you know, I’m a guitarist as well’ [laughs].
That first jam was with Brad and his brother Stu [Kora], who were both in L.A.B. One jam with them and they go, ‘You keen to join the band?’ and that was it. That was the opportunity I had been waiting for.
Was it during that first jam when you realised you had something special?
The more Brad and I started hanging out and writing music together, in a way, he took me under his wing. He’s coming out of the band Kora, where he’s got a massive wealth of experience in the industry, and his songwriting skills are incredible, and I’m the new kid on the block. It was such a great relationship from the word go. Now we’re peers, but at the time, I looked up to and always have looked up to Kora. I think the moment for us was when we recorded Controller in his bedroom, at his home studio in Whakatāne. Full on home studio. To help with the sound in the room, we put this marae-style mattress up against the wall, used a sieve with a stocking wrapped around it as the spit thing over the mic. No money. He was renting, I was living with my mum. The grind of it all back then was super special now that it’s all coming to fruition. That first album in L.A.B history will always sit in a real special place for me.
What can you tell me about the new album coming out on the 23rd of February and how do you think it compares to your previous work?
We did five albums basically back to back and then it was like, ‘Okay, let’s just take our time with the next one.’ We spent two years on it and it’s definitely paid off. The last album was a bit slower; this one feels like the first couple of albums in the sense that it’s got a lot of energy in it. I would say it sounds like L.A.B, it’s just another chapter of L.A.B. We’ve delved into that roots-reggae sound, which I think we sit quite comfortably in, but we’re experimenting with different things. There’s a few cameos on this album – a ballad called I Believe. I won’t say who features, but it’s really beautiful.
In terms of the songwriting, is there a thematic thread woven through the album?
We’re still writing songs about childhood stuff, about nostalgia. Ocean Demon’s literally about getting out in the water and surfing as a kid. For sure there’s the deep and meaningful stuff, the stuff that’s a bit more emotional, but I think with our songwriting we try not to be too ‘me me me’. We try and make it a story about something close to us, but at the same time, make the message broad or relatable to the person who’s listening to it, not necessarily just us.
With a mix of new songs and old bangers on the setlist, what do you most love about performing at Homegrown? The vibes, the atmosphere?
Yeah, it’s amazing man. Our first Homegrown was 2016 or 2017, and we were on the Roots Stage at like, two o’clock in the afternoon. To be one of the headliners this year... Way back in the day when we were talking about where we want to get to with the band, it was like, ‘We’ve gotta get on the Homegrown line-up!’ That was the goal, so to see this kind of growth is really, really awesome.
New Zealand music is thriving. There is so much good stuff going on in all parts of the industry: in the roots music scene where we are – and it runs pretty deep for us and for the Shapeshifters and Koras and Katchafires – but equally on the other side. I love listening to bands like Shihad, Dobbyn. There’s just so much good Kiwi music, and we’re so blessed to live in a country where people support and are so proud of homegrown music. It’s super special.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen at Homegrown before?
The funniest thing I’ve seen... Well, me and Logan [Bell] from Katchafire went for a walk one year to watch Dave Dobbyn, and we both nearly got arrested because we had beers in our hands. But the cop figured out who we were and went, ‘Oh, can I have a photo?’ so it was all good.