Interview: Pacific Heights - Devin Abrams
From A Great Height
Say the name Devin Abrams, and you may not quite be able to place it amongst the vast backdrop of New Zealand music. But there are a few hundred million reasons that you will have heard his work. Out of Ōtautahi, came Shapeshifter, and out of that came Sambora. Moving away from performing, he's made a name for himself producing tracks some of New Zealand's most well known artists, incuding Drax Project and Stan Walker. After splitting his time between Aotearoa and LA, Covid forced his hand, and gave Devin the space to finish off 'The Waters Between', the latest album from his ever-evolving solo project Pacific Heights.
Both hailing from Christchurch, and having a young family of about the same age, I'd like to be able to say that we've both also had succesful music career. However, I remain just a fan, while Devin is the real deal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
"My project (Pacific Heights) was on the back burner given it was mostly a passion project for me. I've put a lot of time aside for it last year to finish the record and get the big single right. That's probably why it took so long because I was prioritising stuff that was keeping the lights on."
However, Covid meant a refocus, and a created opportunity. "I couldn't really go anywhere and a lot of people were getting sick of Zoom, so I thought here's a perfect window of six months where I can just focus on getting my album all done."
For someone who has been on both sides of the mic, I wondered if he got different types of joy from writing for himself, rather than others? Devin says, "I think they kind of go hand in hand for me. That's why I love having both production/writing work with other people, and my solo stuff."
"If I only had Pacific Heights, and I was only an artist, then so much of my emotional and mental stability would be tied up in how that went. Whereas when I've got so many other projects releasing music, I feel a bit more balanced about the results of Pacific Heights - like I can just enjoy the process, just enjoy making music for myself again."
"Obviously I don't have full autonomy on with the other side, I can't make all the final creative decisions myself. But with my stuff, if the song doesn't feel right, I just take it off the album."
Before the album came an EP, 'Grains', which hinted at the next direction that Pacific Heights would take. Devin says, "I don't know if any of those sharp turns have been intentional. I think they've been quite organic."
The latest twist is hardly a surprise given he was producing the likes of Drax Project. "This album probably has a little bit more of an influence of the work I was doing for other people. Pulling in from pop and some of the ballady stuff I was working on with amazing artists. I soaked up some of that into my own stuff. That's the beauty of having my own project, just being able to go where I want it."
While the vehicle may have been clear, the subject matter didn't come until after this. "It was probably around releasing the EP, and looking at the body of the album that was to follow," says Devin.
It was a dream that inspired the last Pacific Heights album, but this time, it's all real.
There are literal and metaphorical components to 'The Waters Between'. "I was spending so much time in LA before Covid. I felt very far away from my wife and our first kid. So literally there was that distance."
"But metaphorically, it's about emotional distance and how we deal with that internally, how we communicate our feelings and physical proximity. I just wanted the album to be songs that were about that in different capacities - like a fleeting friendship that you have lost touch with, or a wife that you couldn't be with, or child, or friend. Just distance, emotional distance, whether it was long or short."
He says that it was actually "an easy blueprint" due to the complementary nature of songs and emotions. "I was like, 'Yup, all these songs are about this, so let's push everything to be finished that way'. Certain songs had to come off the record because they didn't feel like they were part of that conversation." And then new material that had to be written.
I asked Devin if Covid brought some of those feelings to the fore?
"I think it's hilarious that I was writing an album about emotional distance before Covid happened," he says.
I thought it was quite a poignant album at this time. I was like, 'Wow. OK. I couldn't have scripted that better.' The downside of that was that people had fatigue around those kind of concepts by the time my album finally came out! But I'm stoked that I did it that way, and I think there's always a time and a place for dealing with those kind of conversations."
The first time I listened to the whole 'The Waters Between' album was the day after I'd seen the new Top Gun: Maverick movie. The final track ' Back To You' features long time Pacific Heights collaborator (and friend of Radio BurgerFuel) Louis Baker. The shimmering sound I was hearing, took me right back to the cinema, and wouldn't have been out of place in the original, despite being almost 40 years removed and an ocean away.
There are many more moments on the LP which also take you somewhere else. The "beautiful juxtaposition" of Lepani, "this massive Fijian boy who plays rugby, and he's just got this most beautifully vulnerable fragile voice."
Or perhaps LANCE on 'Floating'. Devin says, "When I first heard his voice, I couldn't tell if it was female or male. I was like, 'this is great, this is exactly the kind of voice I want to work with.'"
"I love messing with people's presumptions of what someone's voice might sound like. There's a lot of that on my album, you know. Like Jack Page. Big, tall guy that's six-foot-three, six-foot-four. Not stocky, just big." Listen back to 'Distant Shades' now you know this and you'll see what he means!
Given the amount of collaborations on the album, it seems like it would be a difficult beast to tour. Devin agrees, "I probably won't be touring it with the band again, because it's just too much work, too big of a commitment. And I get a lot of anxiety around performance, so I don't really miss that. I love being in the studio."
All is not lost though. There may be some special one-off DJ sets coming up over summer. "I've thought about remixing the album myself, more dance versions of the songs," he says.
"I've already started some, like a drum n bass mix of the Louis song which I think is pretty cool. So potentially remixing for a 45-50 minute set of more dancefloor versions of the album."
Those that manage to catch this at a festival over summer will see Devin coming full circle, from his roots in the dungeon-like drum n bass clubs of Christchurch in the '90s, to a modern version in the summer sun.
Pacific Heights latest album ‘The Water Between’ is out now. Stream it now, and keep an eye out on his website www.pacificheights.co.nz for any summer dates.