Entertainment | Katchafire

Katchafire’s Logan Bell on family and inspirations

To mark the release of Legacy - a new RNZ documentary about the Māori reggae band Katchafire - frontman Logan Bell shares songs that have shaped his life and music.

Back in 1997, Katchafire dusted off their early beginnings as a Bob Marley tribute band and took Kirikiriroa Hamilton by storm with some unique reggae compositions.

Two and a half decades later, with six albums under their belt, Katchafire is now a household name in Aotearoa and around the world.

One of frontman Logan Bell’s proudest achievements is that 16 years on, the band’s lineup is mostly original members.

“Some of the old guard has retired and moved on to different challenges in their life. Me and my brother Leon [Bell] and Tere [Ngarua] are still holding the flame.”

Interview highlights:

On his father Grenville Bell (Katchafire’s founder and former manager and lead guitarist):

Logan’s dad Grenville - a “pretty unique guy” - was in his 50s when he ran into a friend at a bus stop and acquired the keys to an apartment on Hamilton’s main street.

“He came home and said to Mum that he wants to start a reggae band with no prior experience of doing this.

“I’m sure my wife wouldn’t let me do that so I definitely give it up to my parents for being real open and forward thinkers when he showed interest in this music business.

“I just really take my hat off to Dad, the way he sacrificed for his family, for his kids. When me and my brother started getting into music he helped nurture that, as well as my mum.

“We always had like, good records. That’s something I should big my parents up for is raising us with good music.”

On Katchafire’s first gig in Hawaii - the halftime show at the 2006 NFL Pro Bowl at Aloha Stadium:

“That was the first time we found out that we were big in the islands. And there were 50,000 people at the stadium singing our songs back to us. That was a bit of a pinch-yourself moment, for sure. That was just before social media and everything really took off and we got to see the power of the internet.

“Most of the mainstream radio stations had us on heavy repeat and they still do to this day. We get sick of hearing music when we’re in the islands. (laughs) But we love the support and the love that the island people have shown. It’s really been our backdoor into the US market.

On why Hawaiians connect with Katchafire:

“We’re approachable. We’re whānau-orientated, I guess we share a lot of similar qualities to them. We’re colonised by the British, they’re colonised by America and they’re real fierce about their indigenous ways of life, as well.

“They admire the way Māori have revived our language and revived our tikanga, our culture. I guess there’s a lot of similarities there that they kind of see and admire in the music.”

On his experience of the Covid pandemic:

“Just having the kids at home... Some nights we were all up at like 2am in the morning because there’s no school and stuff and mahi to prepare for the next day. And I did really enjoy that time at home slowing down, coming off the road spending more time as a father, as a brother, you know. It was cool, I really enjoyed it.

“The hard part was definitely recording with the unit. We couldn’t really come together, we were all in our sort of separate bubbles so even the recording was quite singular and personal. Some of the new releases we’ve got coming up, a lot of that material is from that time, so it’s going to be quite a difference in terms of what you’re used to hearing from Katchafire.”

On Katchafire’s non-stop style of touring:

“When we go to Europe or America and we’re away for six to eight weeks, we don’t muck around, there’s not a lot of downtime. Four to five gigs a week, and you’ve only got one or two nights to sort of recover and get your voice or your chops back to as close as you can to 100% for the next week.

“It’s a lot. I know, a lot of bands that will do maybe two gigs in eight weeks, three gigs. Nobody really tours like we do. We even do that in Australia … we go for a month, for four weeks, five gigs a week, and we play all the big towns and all the small towns in between, you know, really take our music to the people. Yeah, it’s just been our way, it’s been our formula since the very start. We are getting a bit older and cutting back and being smarter. Recently, I cut it back from six gigs a week to five gigs a week, sometimes four, but still running and gunning for sure.”

Logan Bell played:

George ‘Fiji’ Veikoso: ‘Indigenous life’

“I just really love the content and of what he’s saying and talking about in the lyrics.

“[George ‘Fiji’ Veikoso] is an amazing human to sit down and have a chat to. I just love the way he talks about indigenous peoples throughout the Pacific - you can call them Polynesian or Pasifika - and what life was once like in pre-European, pre-colonial days. I love the way he talks about whakapapa. There was communication, there was trade, there was a cohesive way of life back then. Māori history really interests me, indigenous history really interests me, and sacred knowledge and the [earlier] ways of life.”

Katchafire: ‘Irie’

“For me, the song was like a milestone. All the elements came together for this tune ... I feel like we really nailed this one.

“It’s kind of a personal one for me, obviously, I’m a songwriter. From the stereo miking, the vocals, to the way we laid down the music all at the same time, all cooking in the same pot in the same room... So there’s a lot of spillage … I guess it’s not perfect, but in the mix there’s just something, there’s inflections, just stuff that’s raw that we wanted to leave in. I just really think that all of our skills up to this point culminated in this tune and I’m just really proud of the way it came out.”

Betty Wright: ‘Clean Up Woman’

“This one’s an ode to the musical influences that were in our house growing up. This is like something that my mom would play. She’d play a lot of Motown and black music, gospel. I would have been just a young whippersnapper and this is just something I can remember along with Chaka Khan and the Pointer Sisters. This song just reminds me of Mum but yeah a huge musical palette of genres going on in our house. Mum [is someone I associate with] all the good feels of Motown, soul, R&B and whatnot.”

Santana: ‘Song of the Wind’

“This one reminds me of the kind of music that Dad would play when we were young. A lot of the stuff you’d play was really quite deep, like jazz and progressive rock, over our heads. This one reminds me of Dad. He learned guitar all by ear. Every night in the band he would never play the same lead break. Everything sort of comes to him by feel. It just reminds me of seeing him jam as the sun goes down. It just shows you the two opposite [musical] places that my parents kind of raised us with and it’s a good reference point, I think.”

Natiruts featuring Logan Bell: ‘Mergulhei nos Seus Olhos’

“[Natiruts] are brothers that we’ve just met admiring each other’s music. Through some friends, we reached out to them many moons ago, then we started getting invites and requests to play in Brazil. We started finding out we had a huge audience in Brazil and throughout South America.

“These guys took us on tour with them as their support band throughout Brazil and we’ve done that maybe four or five times now.

“It was just a huge eye-opener and we were so lucky to be able to go around with them under their umbrella. They supported us the first few times we went to Brazil and a few times after that, as well. And we’ve supported them when they’ve come here to New Zealand.

“Not a lot of people will know about this [track] because obviously it was a release on their end. And I just wanted to put it in everybody’s radars [that I featured on] this amazing song with this amazing band, our brothers from Brazil. We can’t wait to get back to Brazil and be able to perform it live for the people there.”

SUB-TRIBE: ‘Orbit’

“It feels like a Katchafire tune, honestly. I’m a little bit angry I didn’t write it but we know the boys, we’ve we’ve brought them under our wing a few times and opened up for their shows. I really like what the boys are doing at the moment and wanted to put that out there on the radar. [This is] some of the music I’m really digging at the moment and I love chucking on when I’m cleaning the house or whatever, mowing the lawns. Yeah, the boys are awesome. I just wanted everybody to hear this tune. Loving it.”

Bob Marley: ‘Positive Vibration’

“It was really tough to just choose one [Bob Marley song] but I think this one just really speaks to me, and how much Uncle Bob’s music means to us as a band. We cut our teeth with his music. We were a Bob Marley tribute band for the early part of Katchafire and we still are, really. I still love just busting out an old tune. At one point, I think we had like 160 or 180-odd Bob Marley tunes that we could play, you know, in our four or five-hour set. So we owe a lot to this man and so does the music world as a whole really, not just reggae. Everything comes back to the Robert Nesta.

“We love singing high harmonies as males. Harmony is definitely a huge part of our music and our niche and reggae music. That’s partly why I like Orbit so much. It just has these really nice sweet harmonies.”

Listen to Katchafire’s Logan Bell’s interview.

Watch Katchafire find their way through volatile creative differences and a changing music landscape in the documentary Legacy