For centuries, a cup of tea has proven a catalyst for many important encounters. Local R&B outfit Maiwah was forged in the same tradition.
Founding members Sean Bletcher and Sean Bayntun first met at a recording studio where Bletcher was an audio engineer. Soon discovering that he had far more in common with Bayntun than his first name, Bletcher decided to make his charge a London Fog—a mix of Earl Grey tea and vanilla syrup—to chat more about their shared musical tastes.
“It wasn’t coffee,” Bayntun tells the Straight from, fittingly, a coffee shop. “I wasn’t disappointed, though. Now, when I’m feeling fancy, I still get myself a London Fog—and Sean and I are still working together.”
Forming a band named Facts—a group that wouldn’t have been out of place supporting a Power, Corruption & Lies–era New Order—the pair and their bandmates began to make a name for themselves. Taking over jam spaces all over the city, including one they shared with an early-career Mac DeMarco and another that involved scrubbing black mould off the walls for three days, the five-piece worked their way up to playing festivals across the country. A few years later, when Facts officially broke up, Bletcher and Bayntun were already working on a new project. They called it Maiwah.
“It started really simply,” Bletcher, the band’s guitarist, recalls, sitting next to his bandmate. “I had a drum machine, and Sean had two keyboards. We wrote a lot of great R&B tracks, but I don’t have a soulful voice. We figured the only way we could make the songs work is if we found the right singer. I had a job as the sound guy for Gastown’s Guilt & Co. venue, and when I heard Kristie [McCracken], I was blown away. She had that Little Dragon, emotive tinge to her singing. We brought Phil Harbut onboard to drum, and recorded a bunch of demos together. That’s how the record got made.”
In Amongst the Ferns, Maiwah’s 10-track debut, showcases the vast experience of the four-piece’s members. Layering McCracken’s jazz-infused, mature vocals over swelling, atmospheric synths and heavily chorused guitars, the record is full of dynamic contrasts, sweeping from powerhouses like “Familiar Resolve” to the tender, skin-tingling “Red Clover”. Produced entirely by Bletcher, the album emerged over a number of years, a period that let the group experiment and incrementally modify each sound.
That dedication, however, came with some difficulties. Deciding that they wanted to perform each track as it was played on the record, the group had to figure out how to incorporate each part without stripping down the sound—a job that fell to Bletcher.
“It’s usually something that people don’t take on until they have their own tech employees,” he says. “We have to run backing tracks, and click tracks, and the software live, and it has to be rock solid. If one thing goes wrong, the whole thing collapses. And there are no manuals of how to do it. We layer the atmospheric stuff and the background sounds, and play anything that is in the foreground. We’ve always made an extra effort to make sure that nothing seems canned—there’s nothing worse than seeing an artist who uses tracks and is basically doing karaoke. It’s been super solid for the last several shows.”
Although Bletcher and Bayntun liken the act of creating a new group to spending years fixing up a car, and then deciding to buy a new one as soon as it’s done, the pair is clearly on the right track. Invited by the Westward Music Festival to play its inaugural event, Bletcher and Bayntun are beginningto gain a similar clout in the industry as they had with Facts.
“We’re writing better and better music in Maiwah, and playing bigger and bigger shows,” Bletcher says. “We’re really looking forward to what the future holds.”
Maiwah plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (September 16) as part of the Westward Music Festival.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays