By Emma Darragh
Matt Sephton is the man behind the music; a sound engineer weaving strands of digital technology and sonic creativity to offer an audio production operation in a remote haven in rural Coromandel.
He grew up not far from where he now lives; on a peaceful property near Driving Creek surrounded by trees, gardens, and parents next door. It took four years to build his house; “we were never going to get a mortgage” he laughs. It is home and studio workspace for him and partner Caitlin, who is a ceramic artist. The gardens are vast and rambling, and the whole place ‘feels Coromandel’, with evidence of art, music and creativity everywhere you look.
Our conversation begins on the deck outside, watching the spring rain steadily water the garden. We sit on stools at the solid wooden bar under the kitchen window. Matt never stopped appreciating the beauty of Coromandel - even as a teenager, the bus trip from Thames High offered something special to come home to every day. The vibrant scene in today’s Coromandel Town was a pleasing discovery for the adult Matt. He appreciates there are more opportunities in the community now than what he can recall from his youth.
“This isn’t the Coromandel I experienced as a kid. I appreciated the natural environment growing up - that’s what I noticed. When I moved back here in summer 2004, there was music, travellers, WOOF’ers...there was a vibrant buzz to the area.”
He’s spent the last decade living back in Coromandel developing his business, Coro Sonic Lab, which offers a broad range of audio services. In recent years he’s done sound engineering and stage management at Splore and Sundaise festivals, as well as mixing and album production for bands and musicians. In 2012 he was on tour with The Mamaku Project as their live mix engineer. He works with Sunsonics owner, Al Sorley, bringing solar powered sound systems to live events. They set up a stage at Splore entirely from solar power for two nights.
“It was blowing people’s minds - a big epic sound system running off solar.”
Matt says he never played a musical instrument growing up and didn’t come from a musical family. He studied sound engineering in Christchurch in his early 20’s - him and a mate were both living in Wanaka; an unfortunate coincidence saw both of them suffer broken backs in snowboarding accidents. It forced them to think seriously about what to do with their lives. DJ’ing had been a casual hobby which they enjoyed, so decided to take things one step further and learn how to make the music they’d been playing. Two years at MAINZ (Music and Audio Institue of New Zealand) exposed Matt to avenues of music production he didn’t know existed beforehand. “It shaped the direction I would take. It showed what was possible.”
He knew he didn’t want to work for somebody else, so with that in mind formed Coro Sonic Lab; where his work now spans New Zealand. He specialises in on-location recordings, making recording accessible for all musicians by taking his portable equipment to muso’s homes and other locations. He recently set up a pop-up studio in Rotorua, offering one hour recording sessions. Over three days he’d recorded 25 songs by 17 different musicians; challenging the traditional studio model of recording music which can be prohibitively expensive for burgeoning recording artists. “People loved it,” says Matt. He does too, as it’s a good way to meet people and record in a different space. “Music making should be accessible,” he says.
Matt enjoys working with ‘found sounds’ in nature; for example, exploring the sonic possibilities of the sound of a drip of rain falling onto a puddle. He enjoys creating soundscapes; stretching, twisting and sometimes totally removing sounds from their original context. His curiosity with sound was the inspiration behind Random Addition, a project he developed and recently delivered to the Coromandel community. He invited the public to contribute sound to make one piece of music over a week-long period. It was an exercise in fast editing for Matt, who threaded seven days worth of diverse sounds into a 25 minute piece of music. “There are some magic bits,” says Matt. “The project gave people permission to be creative.”
Over 50 people came to record sound during the week, including children from Manaia Kura and Kohanga, Coromandel Area School and Te Rerenga School. A french jazz guitarist happened to be visiting Coromandel Town for the day, popped in and made an inspired contribution. “I love going to the city to be exposed to new and spontaneous ideas,” Matt explains. “This project was about offering that locally.”
Seeking inspiration from beyond The Coromandel is important to Matt. Earlier this year, along with six other sound engineers and music recorders, Matt undertook an expedition recording sounds through Myanmar. The purpose was to learn about recording different and interesting instruments in an entirely new culture. Greg Simmonds, a respected Australian sound engineer led the trip; encouraging discovery of new sound, new instruments and new ways of recording in interesting situations. Memorable moments included recording a traditional Burmese harpist on the top of an ancient temple ruin. Recording ‘found sounds’ such as the 5am Call To Prayer echoing across Mandalay was also a highlight.
Back home, Matt is reflecting on the success of this year’s Sonic Lab Coro Summer Fest - a music festival Matt started on his property in 2015. He built a stage on the lawn and 150 people attended the Coromandel-flavoured festival. Locals, musos and friends from out of the area attended and the neighbours were onboard too. “It’s become increasingly known as a good opportunity for creative professionals to experiment and express their ideas in an intimate and relaxed festival environment,” explains Matt. Summer 2017 saw twice as many people and more bands attend. “It was all about bringing interesting bands to the Coromandel. I’m really passionate about bringing something new to the area. It’s part of the life here - to share what we’re doing and create a strong home base.”
Coromandel Town’s creative identity is a defining element of the town and Matt contributes in many ways to strengthen its legacy. He’s been co-ordinator of the Coromandel Arts Tour, he regularly facilitates sound recording projects with local school children, and has played a key role in the town’s Illume Winter Festival of Light.
The creative development of the community is here,” Matt says. “We enjoy space and freedom and have seen an alternative to life in the city. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something.”