Who is Rai Thistlethwayte and why he is a badass (Ozone Squeeze and Knower)
Rai Thistlethwayte is one of those rare talents among a breed of forward thinking young musicians who are constantly evolving and are in pursuit of What’s Next. But, what is remarkable about Australian born multi-instrumentalist is his wide encompassing umbrella of musical abilities. It is so rare to hear someone who treats the legacy of soul, pop, jazz, electronic and rock idioms with an uncanny passion, honesty and respect. On the top of it , Rai is a real player. A relatively unknown among American and European audiences, Rai came to popular prominence in his native Australia with rock outfit, Thirsty Merc .
Recently, Rai has been touring Europe and US with Knower, a hip jazz-funk-electronic-fusion outfit from Los Angeles led by duo Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi. Early in 2017, Rai started to collaborate on a trio concept , Ozone Squeeze, a funk-bluesy-jazzy ensemble with catchy tunes and instrumental improvisation featuring Atlanta based drummer Darren Stanley, who have been a fixture in the Atlanta music scene with the late Col.Bruce Hampton and New York jazz-bluesman Oz Noy on guitar. With a debut self-titled album under their belt, Ozone Squeeze is just about to go out in US playing some select dates in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Austin, Washington DC and Philadelphia. The band is hip, soulful, jazzy with a right dose of funk to make you groove. Recently we caught up with Rai from his home in Sydney.
Abstract Logix: You come across as this totally hip musician that can play keyboards, bass and sing and entertain all at once. Seems like you got more than just one brain?
Rai Thistlethwayte: Firstly, thanks so much for the kind words! I was lucky enough to be born into a musical family, Mom taught piano and my Dad taught languages at schools and played lots of gigs on the weekends on bass. It all started from there, i think!
AL: Can you talk about this transcontinental gathering of three musicians who did not previously know each other? What’s the story behind “Ozone Squeeze”?
RT: It’s a really interesting project. I was in NYC working and Oz reached out to me. I jumped at the chance to work with him because he’s such a tremendous instrumentalist and I’d been a fan for a while. Darren came on board a little later on and then we went into the studio, did a few short tours and that was great because Darren has worked in Atlanta, Europe, all sorts of places, and had this great understanding and background in Jam band scenes… Jazz, funk, session playing, fusions of many styles. It really is an interesting mix of players and sounds!
AL: How are Darren and Oz and their chemistry?
RT: The chemistry is great – it’s like we all add something unique to the mix. I think we all have some fire, and some laid back elements to our personalities, but in different areas in our outlooks. This also comes through in the playing. You’ll have a bed of groove going on, and then Oz will throw something REALLY left field in there, melodically, every now and then, and I’ll look up from the keyboard rig and think, “wow! these guys are next level”.
I try and choose musically, using taste, experience, and just a bit of being in the moment – whether I’ll jump on such an idea, or whether to stay in the engine room of the groove and keep things cranking on an underlying level.
AL: You have been sitting in on keyboards with KNOWER… what a band! Can you fill us in on that music?
RT: Yes! They are a pretty amazing duo. They do shows with video/electronic sort of backing, and it is nothing short of amazing music production – a mix of Jazz, Dance, Funk, Electronic Dance Music, Dubstep, Orchestral and Choral music, and some fast tempo female pop, even up-tempo new jack swing thrown in there. Largely they’ve been recently playing as a live band. I’ve known Louis (drummer / writer / producer) and Gen (vocals/writer) for about 4 years now. Lovely humans. Working also with Sam Wilkes and Jacob Mann, Thom Gill and Sam Gendel has been really fun. The live shows are super exciting, and Louis has a sense of humor that you have to experience to believe (laughter).
AL: Can you tell us how your approach might differ between a band like Thirsty Merc, KNOWER and Ozone Squeeze?
RT: Well, that’s a great question. I feel like in a band like Thirsty Merc, it’s more of a singer songwriter project, with a lot of my own personal storytelling – and goes back to me coming through the ranks in Australia, finding my place in life, coming of age, relationships, that sort of theme. Plus – I play a lot of guitar in that band too! I work with some of my best friends on that band and it’s a really deep connection – like we’re family. That’s been together for 15 years, so you can imagine it’s got that history. We’ve been through SO much together.
With Knower, I’m playing much more in the ‘synthesizer’ world, lots of rhythmic stabs, a few keyboard solos with lead sounds. I’m using a laptop based setup, so that garners a very different sound in terms of tone color. In terms of Ozone Squeeze, I’m the vocalist, but also handling the bass role on a Moog, and playing more of a Rhodes and Wurlitzer sound – so the influence there is probably more of a ‘retro’ sort of thing – it’s got a lot more analogue nature to it, and ties in with the nature of Oz’s Fender Strat sound through a really nice valve (tube) amp. The drums are full range sounding, and it’s ALL about pocket. If it’s not grooving, it’s not happening. I don’t over think an ‘approach’ to playing, I just try and do what seems musically sound for the task at hand!
AL: We just heard that you played solo at Rochester Jazz Fest. What’s your solo set like?
RT: What a great festival! I had a blast, playing with a young and very talented drummer by the name of Russell Holzman, from The Bronx, in NY. We played 2-piece; I used an acoustic piano and played some really heartfelt songs, some off-beat stuff, and also we just ‘saw what came out.’ Truth be told, we didn’t rehearse. That’s the thing though. It made the performances especially real. I hadn’t seen Russell for 5 years or so! I just wanted to just bring the audience with us on that journey. After all, it was a Jazz fest, where improvisation is the central theme. It went down really well!
AL: With Ozone Squeeze, you play bass parts on a Moog synth with your left hand, keyboard with your right, and sing simultaneously. How taxing is this, and does it require additional practice or preparation on your part?
RT: I think practice does make perfect, but I don’t really practice much on that as a style. I have played quite a bit in that config over the years here and there, but sometimes I have to learn. I think I learn the most on the shows!
AL: You performed with regarded pianist Mark Isaacs at the Brisbane Jazz Festival a few years back. Mark said, “It’s a well-kept secret that Rai is an outstanding jazz pianist… I consider Rai the most exciting young jazz pianist to emerge in this country in recent years.” That’s some praise! Do you see yourself exploring more acoustic jazz and releasing any music in this vein?
RT: I would LOVE to. I actually have so much stuff I haven’t released. There’s a bit of a backlog of some acoustic piano stuff that I’ve got. I have to get around to releasing all of this stuff!!
AL: You’ve done a lot of session work for other artists. Could you share a particularly memorable session and tell us why it stands out?
RT: One such memorable session was at Sunset Sound in L.A. with a great guitarist, Eli Wulfmeier. We did his E.P. and it was great fun. He’s a great session player himself. Amazing studio, such history there, such great players, crew, and everything went really organically. I also remember Daxx Nielsen on drums for that session, he has a really great vibe too; he sounded killer as always! I’ve done quite a few fun sessions over the years in Australia, mainly on acoustic piano.
AL: Do you play any other instruments?
RT: I play a bit of bass, and a bit of drums… guitar, keys, vocals, that’s pretty much it. But I’ve messed around on many instruments. It’s always a fun thing to do. I’ve got a violin, but you don’t wanna hear me on that. It’s pretty painful!!!