Growth, an alter-ego and Jedi mind tricks: the story behind Will McClean and The Zooks

Solomon Powell

Will McClean and The Zooks. Portrait by Margherita Cornali.

Will McClean recalls the first time he ever performed live. He was commissioned by his old primary school to perform for students and parents as part of a Matariki celebration. The payment was a Pak’nSave voucher. “I just walked out and was like, yeah yeah … I like the spliff innit, and the kids were like whaaat”, says Will, jokingly. Sam Hunter, the band’s keyboard player, interjects “really? I thought you censored yourself?”. Will replies “nah well, I tried to, but I’m sure I said a few things”. The performance, whilst not seminal, marked the start of Will’s career as a live performer. In a bizarre turn of events, he would end up onstage with popular Wellington based group known as H4LF CĀST later the same day. He had attended one of their live shows, hosted at St Peters Village Hall in Paekākāriki. Pulled up onstage and handed the mic by frontman Nikau Te Huki, who Will describes as “a prophet”, he started rapping. This time, instead of an assembly of distracted kids, he performed to a packed crowd. This event, although it may seem the perfect setup for a fairy-tale ‘rags to riches’ story, is only a small part of how Will McClean, or more specifically, Will McClean and The Zooks, came to be.

Will McClean grew up surrounded by music, citing the vast CD collection nurtured by his mum. The constant stream of music brought the likes of Bob Marley and Lauren Hill to his ears, alongside many New Zealand tunes. Some of the first music he remembers hearing includes TrinityRoots and Fat Freddy’s Drop. “We’ve also got home videos of me dancing to The Scallywags, dressed up as a pirate, but I don’t know if that counts” says Will, referring to the pirate themed children’s band who toured NZ in the 1990s. Will’s dad, Michael McClean, was also musical, singing and playing guitar in a kiwi band called The Vacuum. ‘From the Cottage’, an EP released by the group in 1985, credits him with song writing and lead vocals for the outro track ‘Only Yesterday’. This track was featured on a NZ music compilation album titled ‘Package to Sell’, released by Jayrem Records the same year.  Will remembers his dad began teaching him guitar when he was four, which served as the starting point for a life making, as well as enjoying music.

“Not in a dark way, but that’s all life is. Everything grows, and then it doesn’t. I’m trying to have a positive . . . a beautiful reflection of that growth”.

Will

By the time Will reached his teens, he was becoming more and more interested in hip hop. Using Lauren Hill as a starting point, he began discovering artists like Logic and J Cole. However, when he first heard Home Brew’s self-titled album, everything changed. “I listened to that album, and after I was like, I’m gonna do that. That was the moment of, okay, I’ll try it”. The music hit close to home, and hearing Tom Scott talk about issues relevant to New Zealanders was impactful. The decision to start writing his own music wasn’t taken lightly, so Will sat down and started studying. “I sat there and I was like okay, I’m gonna practise. It was like, I gotta keep writing, gotta write as much as I can, cause I’m not gonna improve if I don’t” says Will. As seriously as he took the process of learning a new craft, he admits it didn’t come naturally. “Terrible at the start” he says, emphasizing the word. “Every so often I might write like one good bar”. Still, the immediate learning curve served to motivate him. Also, drawing on his recent experience of a breakup, Will began to use the newfound craft as an outlet.

Home Brew’s self-titled album. Illustration by Margherita Cornali.

In June of 2019, Will McClean collected some of his recordings and put out his first EP: ‘Prelude’. He received some attention, so he started doing gigs. In the process of performing the material for the first time, he found himself growing as an artist. He began reflecting on the music and grew dissatisfied.  “I was rapping monotone, and it was terribly mixed” he says about the EP. Will decided to take ‘Prelude’ down, but not before an old friend, Ashton Cane, took notice.  Ashton and Will had been friends during primary school but had fallen out of touch when they went to different colleges. Upon seeing his old friend was releasing music, Ashton reached out to Will. “I had bought a little DJ deck, and I was like, man, I really got to find a way to practice”, says Ashton. The pair quickly rekindled and started making music, upgrading from monkey bars and tag to spinning decks and free styling. “Will had just started rapping, so it was quite beautiful, because we were both like, brand new at this thing” said Ashton.

Less than a year later, Will had amassed enough material to put out another EP, but this time he wouldn’t be taking it down.  In January of 2020 he released the four track ‘The Calm Before the Now’. The EP paints a picture of a young man starting to find his path in the world, reflecting on himself and his experiences of life thus far.  Heartbreak, friendship, self-exploration, and the loss of loved ones are among topics explored. The music is shrouded in a youthful unease, one that usually marks the period of growth involved with becoming an adult. There are several lines that hint at the angst of still feeling like a kid, whilst also facing the difficulties of growing up. This theme, of growth, is important to ‘The Calm Before the Now’ and has remained central to the rest of Will McClean’s work. “When I first started writing I was just writing words, and I’ve realized as I get older, I’m seeing myself grow, I’m seeing my peers grow, I’m seeing my family grow, I’m seeing everyone grow. Y’know, everything’s growing”, says Will. His interest in the concept of growth is also informed by his knowledge about the opposite; what happens when something ceases to grow. Another common theme throughout Will’s work is one of loss, and he often speaks about his father, who passed away when he was a boy. “Not in a dark way, but that’s all life is. Everything grows, and then it doesn’t. I’m trying to have a positive . . . a beautiful reflection of that growth”.

“We all got voices. Whether the voice for playing guitar, keys or bass. So it’s like, may as well try to, not to be cliché, but fucking change the world”

Will

While Ashton and Will were having fun performing the material, they soon began to realize the limitations of a DJ/rapper setup, so they decided to assemble a band. “I think there was a need to play music”, says Ashton. The group they settled on consisted of Harper Wilson on drums, Jason Rapana on bass, George Maclaurin on Keys, Ashton Cane on guitar and Will McClean on vocals. The name? Will McClean and The Zooks. The players had all studied music at Te Auaha and had experience jamming together. Sam Hunter, another Te Auaha student, who has since replaced George on keys, says “it was like the glory days kind of Te Auaha, where it was less about the study and more about having jams and hanging out, and that’s a pretty cool basis to be built on”. This foundation would serve the group well, both in adapting Will’s existing material to instruments, as well as honing the live act. “Every gig we do a jam, at least one. We try do two or maybe even three if we’re being a bit rambunctious” says Will.  Each member of the band has a solo, and Will freestyles with words called out by the audience. “It goes good most of the time” he says. As well as adding a new dimension to live performance, the band made Will’s music palatable to an indie crowd as well as a hip hop one. Still, Will says he remains very connected to the hip hop scene. “It’s interesting though, cause so far pretty much the best reception we’ve had has been indie crowds” he says. The group performed their first live set in February 2020, opening for The Gallery at Valhalla.

Five months later, Will released the single ‘Grow’. This release draws on themes that were also central to ‘The Calm Before the Now’: self-reflection, friendship, and personal growth. However, where ‘The Calm Before the Now’ was hesitant and tinged with melancholy, ‘Grow’ is celebratory and optimistic. The single was shortly followed by the release of Will’s debut album: ‘Can’t Sleep, I’m Dreaming’. Spanning eight tracks, the album has a driving and energetic quality. While it felt earlier releases were resisting change, this album embraces it determinedly. The tender ‘Words, Pt. II’ is a highlight of the release. This track showcases the emotional honesty, introspective themes and references to growth and transience that were becoming hallmarks of Will’s music.  The opening line is ‘We’re born, we live, we die / So try to keep that frame of mind / And don’t let your ego climb too high’. Alongside a visceral emotional honesty, a critical, socially conscious perspective was beginning to take shape. The track ‘Mother Nature (Interlude)’ launches off the starting blocks with: ‘Nature is a mother guess we all just motherfuckers’.

Related to the theme of introspection, Will is also in dialogue with past versions of himself. He throws in references to ‘Young Jedi’, the alter ego signaled on the opening track to ‘The Calm before the Now’. When asked about the title, Will explained it was a nickname given to him by a Wellington-based rapper known as Innocent Max, the older brother to one of his childhood friends.  “He put out heaps of raps, so that was a big inspiration when I saw someone I knew doing it.  One time I walked into his house and he’s like “oh there’s the young Jedi”, and I was like boom, that’s me. Also, listening to a lot of Logic when I first started getting into rap, his old mixtapes were called Young Sinatra. That was his alter ego, so I was tryna be like him a little bit”. When pushed about the meaning of this alter ego, Will remained secretive. “I’d say he’s on pause. I’ve just been waiting for the time, probably on our debut album there will be Young Jedi 2. The sequel. There might be a whole Young Jedi album one day. But for now, he’s on holiday in the Bahamas”.

As for Will McClean and The Zooks, it appears the band are quickly becoming a unified creative force. Will explains that from here on out, all music he releases will be recorded with the band. The EP ‘Live at The Surgery (with The Zooks)’ released in November 2021, is a taste of what is to come. This release was the first to feature the band playing live, as well as showcase such fiery political themes. The track ‘Thinking of You (Live)’ addresses the issue of climate change, serving as a sort of call to arms. The socially conscious lyricism lurking in the background of Will’s last album is now in the spotlight. One might take this newfound political bent as an indication of what Will McClean and The Zooks future discography has in store. “We all got voices. Whether the voice for playing guitar, keys or bass. So it’s like, may as well try to, not to be cliché, but fucking change the world” says Will. “From here on out its really honing in on what we want to show and what we want to say”.

When asked again about the meaning of his first EP’s title, ‘The Calm Before the Now’, Will explains it was “just a steppingstone on the way to where I want to be, and now is exactly where I’ve been working to get to. Cause back then it was chill, and now it’s like okay, we’re doing festivals”. When you consider Will McClean put the EP out almost two years ago, it becomes clear why the ‘Young Jedi’ moniker might be fitting. Still, jedi mind tricks aside, Will McClean and The Zooks future growth is something worth keeping an eye on.

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