Māori Trio Alien Weaponry share their journey by coupling cultural preservation with a unique brand of Metal - Knotfest
Knotfest.com

Māori Trio Alien Weaponry share their journey by coupling cultural preservation with a unique brand of Metal

Posted by Jenna DePasquale in Culture on September 23, 2021

The emerging New Zealand unit proudly embrace their roots and boldly showcase their lineage on what has become one of the most anticipated material album of the year in Tangaroa.

While intricate tattoos, protruding tongues, and fierce stances have traditionally boded well for rock and roll performers, they’re also characteristics of a culture that is much more ancient. For the Māori people—the pan-indigenous identity of New Zealand—woodcut-style etchings are traditionally worn in the face, with specific designs being indicative of one’s tribal identity. In the ceremonial haka dance (which you may have seen performed by New Zealand’s national soccer team before World Cup matches), warriors move through several carefully controlled positions with mouths agape, asserting their strength, resilience, and perhaps most importantly, their unity as one. It is this pride, love, and brotherhood that Māori thrashers Alien Weaponry refuse to let die.  

Alien Weaponry manages to pack a powerful punch as a three-piece – an accomplishment that elevates to a feat when considering the young ages of the musicians. The voice of 19-year-old Lewis Raharuhi de Jong (who also plays lead guitar) is that of a man well beyond his years, and the drumming techniques of his brother, 21-year-old Henry Te Reiwhati de Jong, exude effortless precision. The trio is rounded out by 21-year-old Tūranga Morgan-Edmonds, whose traditional style Māori tattoos can be spotted on his forearms during his compelling bass performances. 

While its members have just recently made their foray into adulthood, Alien Weaponry as an entity is not new. Formed on the North Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 2010, the de Jong brothers began playing their respective instruments at an extraordinarily young age. With the contributions of former bassist Ethan Trembath, Alien Weaponry began to make a name for themselves not only for the extraordinary skills they possessed as boys, but also for their dedication to preserving Māori culture, which has largely involved singing in their native language, known as Te Reo.  

It is a tale that in many ways feels quintessentially American: before New Zealand was known as Aotearoa to its indigenous population, it was called Nu Tirani or Nu Tirene. While Māori people used to make up the entire population of both the North and South islands, the Te Reo language is only spoken by approximately 3.7 percent of modern New Zealanders. Similar to the plight of indigenous populations in the Americas, European contact was synonymous with ethnic cleansing, rampant disease, and various crimes against humanity. The Māori were among the last indigenous to be ravaged by colonial white supremacy, but that did not mean that the European invaders had an easy time penetrating the Māori’s strength as a people.   

As the Māori have endured, a cultural revival has been inspired. Beginning in the 1960s, special primary schools were established to teach the next generation their native language. But it was Alien Weaponry who recognized that the cadence of Te Reo lends itself to heavy metal’s abrasive beauty, igniting a new chapter of cultural preservation. While the de Jong brothers have received minor pushback from critics who claim that they do not physically appear Māori ‘enough,’ their dedication to honoring their roots asserts that being of mixed ancestry does not make one’s indigenous identity any less valid. Regardless of their exact lineage, young men of Māori descent face unique challenges stemming from the systematic social inequality implemented under British rule, resulting in their overrepresentation in New Zealand’s prison system.  

Nevertheless, Lewis, Henry, and Tūranga have harnessed their passion for music into a positive life trajectory, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The trio caught the eye of Napalm Records, who released their first full-length album , which features their viral single “Kai Tangata,” as well as their more progressive follow-up record Tangaroa, which dropped on September 17. As this innovative juxtaposition between heavy metal and social justice continues to enrapture the world, the de Jong brothers spoke with Knotfest about Alien Weaponry’s rise to success from the land where it’s already tomorrow.   

How has the pandemic been for you guys in New Zealand?

Henry: We’re actually currently at the point where it’s affected us the most. We’re actually in a lockdown at the moment. We’ve got a bunch of stuff that needs doing. Places that just aren’t open. It’s kind of stuff that I can’t really talk about, but it’s making things a little bit difficult for us in terms of getting overseas and getting everything ready for our U.S. tour, which obviously isn’t fantastic for a band. It takes everything we possibly can to make things happen. It’s just creating a whole extra workload. Organizing a tour is already difficult, and then COVID just adds to that. 

Were you guys in lockdown in 2020 as well, or did it hit you guys a little bit later?

Lewis: Oh, yes.

Henry: I think the national lockdown we’re in started in early March 2020, and that was actually right when we had started recording the album. So, we got into the studio, did a day of recording, and then had to go back home, which was super fun. But it gave us some time to look through everything and see what we really wanted to tweak and polish on the album. 

Can you speak on the themes that are pertinent to this album?

Lewis: Obviously, the title is called Tangaroa and the song “Tangaroa” is basically the fact that we’re destroying our oceans with the shit that we produce. I wouldn’t necessarily say the entire album is ocean themed, but it kind of is in a way. The album, it kind of tackles everything from ancient Māori history to personal experiences to more recent Māori history. Honestly, everything and anything in between pretty much. 

Henry: It’s encompassed by that one theme. The ocean is something that affects everything on this planet on a daily basis. I think for us, it’ll be the most current issue that we talk about on the album that’s relatable to everyone who’s going to listen to the album.

In America, the pandemic has hit indigenous people the hardest in a lot of cases, especially on reservations. Has that been the case in New Zealand as well?

Henry: Similar to America, Māori and Pacific Islanders have a much higher risk of not only getting sicker from COVID, but actually dying from COVID because a lot of Māori and Pacific Islanders have underlying health issues that are related to things like asthma. So, it is a problem here as well, but we’re such a small country that it isn’t so obvious. We’ve done a pretty good job of keeping it under wraps through the lockdown. We’re generally not having massive outbreaks of COVID over here.

Did you grow up speaking your Te Reo at home?

Henry: Yeah, I mean Lewis and I both grew up speaking Māori. Māori was actually Lewis’ first language. We went to Māori preschool, Māori school. We’re speaking the language constantly. We actually ended up having to move schools at one point, and we didn’t speak Māori for probably close to about 10 years. It was kind of detrimental to us because obviously at a very young age, you don’t really hold too much information. Me being older, I ended up remembering more of my Māori schooling. Then in high school, I had to take Māori again to actually remind myself of how it all works. I think for a lot of people who grew up speaking Māori in New Zealand, that is the case. They learn Māori and once they leave the school, there’s no reason to  speak Māori. It doesn’t really get used outside of Kura Kaupapa [a Māori school], or if you actually live with other people who speak Māori as well. It is very hard for a lot of people to keep it up.

When you started Alien Weaponry, was that a specific goal to help keep the language alive, or was that something that came as you evolved?

Henry: Not when we started the band, but when we wrote the first song, it was an experiment to see how people would react to it first off, but also to see if it worked with our language. I feel like the most improvement I’ve had out of anything that I’ve done has actually been songwriting in Māori. That’s where I’ve learned the most in the past few years. That’s inspiring for me. I think it’s been quite inspiring to other people who hear the music as well. It’s definitely one of the things that we’ve tried to do with writing in Māori. 

What was your journey with heavy music like?

Lewis: We pretty much came out of the womb listening to Metallica. I was big into music, especially metal. 

Henry: Every classic metal band you could think of dad would play — Metallica, Rage Against the Machine. 

Lewis: And also things like Pink Floyd. He was also big into blues.

Henry: Which is sort of the predecessor of metal. 

When did you guys start playing your instruments? 

Lewis: I started when I was 3. 

Henry: I would have been probably 8 years old, 9 years old when I first started playing drums.

I guess dad was pretty supportive of that.

Henry: Yeah, definitely. That being said, I remember never being allowed to touch his guitars because he has some pretty nice guitars that he didn’t want kids’ sticky little hands on.

What kind of music does he play?

Lewis: Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s he played in a few bands. 

Henry: Some of them were actually kind of big here in New Zealand. I guess he had some experience in touring, so he’s been massively helpful for us, just guiding us. His bands weren’t really metal bands. They were kind of weird alternative rock bands, but they were cool. 

What was school like for you guys?

Henry: School was kind of a weird time, honestly. For me at least, we got the ‘screamo kid’ a lot, like ‘hey, you play screamo, right?’ Like no, not really. I don’t even know what screamo is supposed to be. Like, I play metal if that’s what you’re meaning. There were a lot of kids who didn’t get what we were doing. It wasn’t until we actually won this big competition with what we were doing that they started going oh, maybe these guys aren’t terrible just because they’re playing metal. That’s generally the consensus: if someone’s playing metal, they’re playing crap music. The weird thing about school was that no one really got it unless they actually listened to metal. 

Lewis: And it’s weird for me. Most of high school, people just didn’t treat me very nice. Sometimes it was people I didn’t even know, like why are you treating me like this? ‘Oh, because I don’t like you.’ And why is that? ‘Oh, because no one else likes you.’ If one group of popular people decide not to like you then it kind of infects the rest of the school. But all those people after we started getting more notoriety have been like, ‘oh, hey bro, I really like your band.’ It’s some two-faced bullshit there.  

Was your high school primarily made up of kids of European descent, or were there other indigenous students?

Henry: It was pretty mixed, honestly. I would say mostly kids of European descent there. There was definitely a group of Māori and Pacific students that went there. But for us, it was kind of weird. Coming from a Kura Kaupapa where we were speaking Māori and actually doing all of that, we never really felt like we fit into the European side of things either. It was kind of a strange time for us. A lot of the Māori students would look at us and be like oh, these guys aren’t Māori. Because we were schooled differently, the way we interacted with people didn’t fit us. It was a little bit of a challenge. Later in my school life, I learned about the art of not giving a fuck, which really did help me. Music was a huge help through school. 

Lewis: Yeah. I kind of found my people through metal bands.

What competition did you win?

Henry: It was like a battle of the bands, but exclusively for school-aged bands. It was called Rockquest. They had a competition that would run alongside it that was called Pacifica Beats, which was about uniting culture into music. That was how we started writing in Māori, actually — entering that competition. 

After you graduated, was it alway pretty clear that you would be doing music, or did you dabble into going to college or going into other career paths?

Henry: No, that wasn’t a thought. I was the only one who graduated actually. 

Lewis: I basically dropped out to go touring overseas. 

Henry: The school gave you an ultimatum. 

Lewis: The school was like if you’re going to be gone for six months at a time on a regular basis, you’ve got to make a choice — school or the band. Like hmm, let me think. This is a really hard decision [sarcasm]. I’m going to go with the band. I wasn’t getting much out of school and I was getting everything out of the band, so I went with that.

How did you get linked up with your new bass player Tūranga? 

Henry: He was one of the first people I met at the school we were just talking about. He was probably one of the few friends I had there. I’ve known him for 11 years now. He’s a pretty old friend, and Lewis has known him for a similar amount of time. 

Lewis: Funny enough, the first person I met in high school was his younger brother, and I became really good friends with them as well. 

Henry: We’re all pretty good mates. I used to play in school bands with Tūranga as well in addition to the main band. His name was one of the first names to pop out when Ethan said he was thinking about leaving. I was like okay, I’ll hit him and see what he’s doing. He said yeah, I’ll come up and stay here with you guys if you want me to join the band. When we asked him, he was like sweet, I’m quitting university, even though he would have finished this year. He’s committed himself fully, which is pretty wild. But I think he sees the big picture of what we’re doing as a band.

On Instagram, you shared a video about a site of a Māori village that had been burned down and it had been the source of one of your songs. Can you talk a little bit about sharing that history and what that series is about? 

Henry: That’ll be part of the webisode series we’ll be doing for the album. In each episode we’re talking about a different song. That particular episode is about Bastian Point, which is the homeland of the Ngāti Whātua. The song specifically is about how the Auckland council decided that the village was an eyesore because the queen was visiting and would be driving past it on the way to where she was staying. They were going to evict everyone, burn the village to the ground, and put everyone in government housing, which is what started the entire gentrification of the area. They started subdividing the Ngāti Whātua land and made them pay for government housing. Now, that land is mostly covered by really, really wealthy people’s homes.

Are there any resources you would suggest to people who would like to learn more about indigenous history in New Zealand?  

Lewis: A good series on YouTube is ‘The New Zealand Wars.’ For people who find it hard to sit and read, that’s a really good one. 

What was the process of getting discovered like?

Lewis: We’ve been a band for 10 years. We started when I was 8 years old. I’m trying to think of where the tipping point was. It was probably after winning Rockquest.

Henry: We ended up meeting our German management. They actually got us on to Napalm. Everything just started snowballing when we left school and really started to focus on the album and touring. It’s a little bit of a blur to us.

Lewis: Napalm offered the deal where we have the most creative freedom, and we’ve just been grinding from there. 

Tangaroa is out now via Napalm Records and can be ordered – HERE

Alien Weaponry’s U.S. run starts this October supporting French juggernaut Gojira. Dates and tickets are available – HERE


Knotfest.com