Interview: SAATSUMA’s César Rodrigues

Melbourne’s César Rodrigues is slowly, but surely, building a musical empire. Rodrigues founded Blank Tape Music (BTM) in 2010, a music label, artist management branch, audio and video production studio based in Northcote.

Rodrigues himself has crafted many skills out of a long career in the music industry, but he could have led a far different life. “I didn’t even do music at high school until Year 11, then I took it seriously.” Even after that, Rodrigues still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in the future. After high school, Rodrigues didn’t initially study music, rather he began an Arts degree, before dropping out to work in a restaurant. It was at this point that Rodrigues really started to realise his passion for music. “I was offered an apprenticeship at the restaurant as a chef and [at the same time], I was offered a position at the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) to study music.”

At the VCA, Rodrigues developed his musical CV, honing abilities as an instrumentalist, composer, producer and video director. Not to mention managing artists, which came a little later when he began BTM.

The way BTM came about is a unique story. Rodrigues remembered that “a couple of friends and I built a studio in Northcote, just in a share-house in the front room. We started calling it Blank Tape.” At the beginning, Rodrigues didn’t particularly have intentions of starting his own label, but because the group in the share-house “didn’t know how to engage the music industry,” they just decided to keep doing it themselves. “We were really self-driven. We wrote the music, we had the studio, we recorded the music, [so] why don’t we just release it ourselves?”

From then on, BTM has grown to become known for unearthing local artists and giving them a place to release their music. The 2016 Grammy nominated band Hiatus Kaiyote, a jazz-soul quartet from Melbourne, recorded their first single ‘Lace Skull’ at the BTM studio. When asked if there would be any changes to BTM in the coming future, Rodrigues was hesitant to give details, other than saying “there’s going to be a major change,” possibly over the next year.

Although Rodrigues may be known best for being the owner of BTM within the music industry, he is close to becoming better known to the public as the creator and member of the up-and-coming electronic group SAATSUMA. SAATSUMA were formed in early 2015 when Rodrigues and long-time friend Joel Ma were looking to collaborate as producers with a singer. That’s when Rodrigues called upon family-friend and house-mate Memphis Kelly, a vocalist out of Melbourne and daughter of Australian rock legend, Paul Kelly.

It seemed as though Kelly was destined to join SAATSUMA, as Rodrigues said: “[Kelly] had just moved into my house… I saw her band play and saw her sing. We just jumped in the studio with no real intentions except for having some fun and writing some music.”

Rodrigues defines the genre that SAATSUMA creates as “Electronic, Soul, little bit of House and Techno.” The soul component is not as intense as the other elements, but Rodrigues suggested that the future direction of the group could have more of a soul influence. The influences of SAATSUMA’s music are the heavily electronic-sounding artists such as Flying Lotus and Little Dragon, as well as the jazz-soul producer and singer Thundercat. “I’m into Thundercat and Flying Lotus. Flying Lotus is a big influence on [SAATSUMA] as producers [and] obviously Little Dragon,” Rodrigues said. SAATSUMA quickly found their feet as a trio, as “a bunch of songs came out of [the early studio sessions].” The tracks stemming from their first few sessions included their singles ‘Storm’ and ‘Floating’.

“I shared some demos around and Ella [Thompson] from Dorsal Fins got us a gig.”

SAATSUMA’s first gig was supporting Dorsal Fins at their local music hotspot, the Northcote Social Club. The venue pressured the group into finding a name so they could finish their promotional posters for the event.

The name choice, SAATSUMA, originated from the small Japanese mandarin-like citrus fruit, Satsuma. SAATSUMA met Rodrigues’ and Kelly’s requirements, as the pair “wanted original spelling for Google purposes… and [Kelly] loves citrus. The word sounds nice, too,” Rodrigues explained.

Following their debut performance with Dorsal Fins which coincided with the release of their debut single ‘Storm’, SAATSUMA enjoyed a busy 2016. They went on to support acts such as Yeo, Vera Blue, Milwaukee Banks and Olympia.

Of the groups that SAATSUMA supported throughout 2016, Rodrigues hinted that one may feature on their debut record. “Nothing’s been put down, but there have been many conversations in band-rooms and over beers about collaborating.”

The triple j unearthed profile of SAATSUMA mentions that the group will release their debut album in 2017, which was confirmed to be the focus for the group by Rodrigues.

“We were initially going to shoot for an EP, which we could have done this year. But, we replaced that idea with having an album next year… There’s so much music coming out, [so] let’s just make an album” Rodrigues stated excitedly.

When asked if the album would have any specific concept, Rodrigues said “the process will be six or seven songs that are pretty much done and then some other parts that we will eventually pick and choose to create something more consolidated and cohesive.”

Don’t be surprised if Rodrigues puts his video directing passion to use on the forthcoming SAATSUMA record, either.  This year saw the likes of Frank Ocean and Beyoncé experience huge success off the back of their visual albums. As a director and video producer, Rodrigues said: “There’s a chance of [a visual album] for sure. We did have the idea that everything we put out would have a video.”

The future for SAATSUMA looks bright, and if their debut album lives up to the hype created by their previous releases, the group may become something very special.

Tennyson Tinning

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