’Woke Up Late’ wasn’t even their first placing on a Billboard chart; that came through their collaboration with US rapper Famous Dex. Drax Project went on to grow a huge fanbase at home and abroad, buoyed by hits including ‘Catching Feelings’.
Their band name “Drax” refers to the fact that the group started as a two-piece, playing drums and saxophone. Shaan Singh (saxophone) and Matt Beachen (drums) wanted to earn some extra money while studying at jazz school in Wellington, so they took up busking.
They caught the attention of passers-by with lively instrumental versions of well-known hits such as ‘Thrift Shop’ by Macklemore, ‘Cry Me A River’ by Justin Timberlake, ‘California Gurls’ by Katy Perry, or ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes. Their repertoire went far beyond just pop songs, ranging from Stevie Wonder to Dr Dre.
Singh showed early charisma as a frontman by playing one-handed saxophone and using his free hand to encourage audience members to groove along with them, while Beachen expanded the rhythms with expertly played fills. Their regular spot was on Wellington’s Cuba Street, where they often drew a decent crowd, especially on weekends when events were taking place. They were soon offered gigs by bar owners and asked to play at private events.
Drax Project had been going for around a year when they were offered a support slot with David Dallas.
They toyed with bringing other musicians on board but didn’t find a third member until another jazz school student, bassist Sam Thomson, moved into their flat.
Their performances took them from school balls to birthday celebrations, even playing a toga party. This helped them gather an audience for their own shows at local bars.
In addition to playing the saxophone Singh began singing for the group. He’d been part of a barbershop ensemble at Kāpiti High School as a teenager and still had a strong vocal ability.
Drax Project had been going for around a year when they were offered a support slot with David Dallas. They decided to bring in a fourth member, guitarist Ben O’Leary, who was also studying music, at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua. One of his classmates, Hamish Anderson, needed a project to work on in the studio there, so he offered Drax Project the chance to record for free. It led to them releasing a self-titled EP in 2014, with mixing and mastering help from Benny Tones.
The four songs on Drax Project’s first EP still showed their background in jazz, with unusual rhythmic choices and unexpected chord changes. It was modern music with a pop lean, which smoothly moved between catchy synth lines and funky saxophone, both performed by Singh. Lead single ‘Real’ gave a hint of their hook-writing abilities and there was a hint of hip hop in the mix, especially on the track ‘Watching’, which featured London-based New Zealand rapper Name UL.
Equally as important as the EP was a cover they released to YouTube of Kimbra’s song, ‘Goldmine’. An acoustic version recorded in O’Leary’s bedroom in August 2014 with Thomson playing stand-up bass and Beachen on bongos and snare, the video gained tens of thousands of views. Along with the EP and their live following, it was enough to get the interest of Universal, who promptly signed them. It also got them slots at two of New Zealand’s biggest festivals, Rhythm and Vines and Rhythm and Alps.
Now that Drax Project had major label backing, the pressure was on for them to come up with a new set of tracks with potential for radio play and/or playlist success on streaming services. The band enlisted Devin Abrams (Shapeshifter, Pacific Heights) to produce their next EP. His background in drum n bass meant he was open to the drumbeats remaining busy when it suited the song, but he also ensured that melodies were brought to the fore.
Together they crafted five songs for the EP T/W/OO (2016). Lead single ‘Cold’ starts like a soul ballad before bursting into a synth-driven, big head-nod chorus. Their reward was a No.18 slot on the NZ Singles Chart and top slot on the Spotify viral chart, with streams/views for ‘Cold’ eventually surpassing two million.
Their single ‘Cold’ starts like a soul ballad before bursting into a synth-driven, big head-nod chorus.
They continued playing local festivals such as Homegrown, Gardens Magic, and Bay Dreams, and supporting overseas acts including Gorillaz Sound System and SBTRKT. The EP release was followed by their first national tour, which saw them packing out mid-sized venues such as San Fran in Wellington and Neck of the Woods in Auckland.
In October, they played their first international support for US singer Brian McKnight at the Aotea Centre, Auckland. It turned out to be a surprisingly important show that would help them connect with touring company Eccles Entertainment.
In late 2016, they put out another slow-paced groover, ‘Falling Out of Sight’, which not only had big stabbing synth chords in the chorus but followed them up with a hooky saxophone part. It reached two million streams on Spotify alone. Their next single ‘So Lost’ had less impact, but kept fans satisfied until their next release the following year.
Given how important cover versions had been to their early career, it was no surprise to find Drax Project releasing an entire EP of live cover versions in 2017. It managed to dip into the Top 40, but more importantly was a great calling card for their energetic live shows.
Another cover version they performed live but didn’t include on the EP was ‘Magnets’ by Lorde and Disclosure. In November, she offered them the support slot for her sold-out Auckland shows, and they were told it was due to her hearing the song. She also left a bottle of champagne in their dressing room, along with a note: “I like your cover and thanks for opening for us tonight.”
Drax Project’s most useful hook up of 2017 came earlier in the year than their Lorde support slot. In March, they opened for Six60 in Sydney and Melbourne and then at their Auckland Town Hall show in April. The connection between the two bands went beyond just performing together: they got together for a writing session, hoping they might come up with a collaborative single.
At soundcheck before one of the shows, Singh was playing with a guitar line he’d come up with for a new song, ‘Woke Up Late’. It was one they decided probably wouldn’t make the next album, but the Six60 guys said it sounded like a hit.
In August 2017, the group went into the studio to begin work on their debut album.
The song almost hadn’t been written at all. Singh had been at O’Leary’s house to jam some new ideas when it started to get late, and he decided to head home. He didn’t get far before realising he’d left his wallet behind. O’Leary wasn’t exactly pleased to see him return since it was past midnight, but Singh had a sudden urge to work on a new idea. They quickly put down the basics of ‘Woke Up Late’ and added a beat, before finally packing it in for the night.
In August 2017, the group went into the studio to begin work on their debut album and found the pieces for ‘Woke Up Late’ quickly falling into place. They released the single in November. One of the earliest signs of its power was when Shawn Mendes visited Aotearoa and told ZM that he loved it. The following month it crept onto the lower reaches of the Top 40. The first version of the song stayed on the singles chart for five months. It moved even more quickly online, racking up a million streams by the end of year.
‘Woke Up Late’ was accompanied by a music video shot by Lee Gingold of Dusk, which took the one-night stand storyline of the song and portrayed it as blossoming into love the next day. In December, the band also released a new VR experience to go with the single (in partnership with GoPro) to keep interest in the song alive.
While ‘Woke Up Late’ continued finding new fans across the world, Drax Project moved on to new projects. They were now regulars at festivals across the country, which included closing the Aotearoa NZ Festival of the Arts in Wellington, appearing at Auckland City Limits, and joining the line-up of Live in The Park at Hagley Park, Christchurch.
Their biggest show came early the following year when their association with Eccles Entertainment saw them booked to open for Ed Sheeran for three nights at Mt Smart Stadium. Sheeran invited them out for dinner afterwards and spoke to them for half an hour, offering encouragement for their future career.
Their next breakthrough came seemingly out of left field, when they announced in March 2018 that they were appearing on a single by US rapper Famous Dex. The track ‘Light’ eventually racked up over 10 million streams and appeared on his album, Dex Meets Dexter, which reached No.12 on the US album charts in April. At home, they proved their growing popularity by selling out two shows at the Powerstation.
Drax Project took another big step overseas when they were picked up as a support act for a European tour by Cuban-born American singer Camila Cabello. They had performed a cover of her huge hit ‘Havana’ for ZM in late 2017 and it had somehow reached her team who thought they would be a great fit to tour with her. The eight-date tour took them from Glasgow to Madrid and even brought about a chance encounter with American TV celebrity, Judge Judy.
In June 2017 their new EP Noon came out, quickly racing to No.10 on the local charts. It included ‘Woke Up Late’ and new single ‘Toto’, which Singh wrote to capture the feeling of hope he had on the day he finally quit his job at an insurance company to focus on music. The title references the band Toto and their omnipresent hit ‘Africa’. In the chorus Singh says, “I want to bless the rains and dance away like Toto wherever I go.”
By this stage, Drax Project had signed record deals with 300 Entertainment in the US and Simon Cowell’s UK-based Syco label. They hardly had time to catch their breath after the Cabello tour before heading to tour the US, where they played at the iHeart Music festival in Vegas. The trip also included sessions with professional songwriters in LA. They rounded out the year with four nominations at that year’s music awards, winning Breakthrough Artist and Single of the Year, and undertaking a summer tour of New Zealand.
Even a year after its first release, the original version of ‘Woke Up Late’ was still gaining new fans. To give it a new lease of life they recorded a new version with US singer/actor Hailee Steinfeld. What’s more, it was accompanied by a video starring YouTube sensation Liza Koshy, who had millions of subscribers. It was an ambitious move and it paid off big time.
The song simultaneously cracked the Top 30 of Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, which measures radio play in the US, and Spotify’s United States Viral 50 chart. The song surpassed 130 million streams on Spotify alone and gathered 23 million views on YouTube. The song was so big it threatened to overwhelm the rest of their career, but Drax Project were more than a one-hit wonder.
Drax Project weren’t just blowing up on the world stage. 2019 was the year they cemented their place at home as one of the country’s top acts. They achieved this partly by working in combination with the biggest band in the land at that time, Six60.
On 23 February 2019, Drax Project were the main support act for Six60’s sold-out concert at Western Springs, which drew in over 50,000 fans. While local acts had played the venue in the 1960s as part of day-long showcases, this was the first time a local act had headlined the venue in the modern era.
Drax Project then capitalised on the ongoing interest in ‘Woke Up Late’ by releasing an acoustic version of the Noon EP, which included a laidback version of the song retaining Steinfeld’s vocals. They also released a Sam Feldt remix of the song which gained 17 million streams. Drax Project were now a big enough drawcard at home that they were able to headline their own show at the Auckland Town Hall, while overseas they joined Christina Aguilera for a dozen dates across the UK and Europe.
Now that they had the eyes of the world upon them, they needed a couple of monumental singles to follow up the breakthrough success of ‘Woke Up Late’ and lay the groundwork for their debut release. Fortunately, they had a song waiting that drew together all the essential elements of their sound.
Drax Project played the ace card they had been holding for years.
‘All This Time’ had been sitting around in embryonic form for a while, but they had trouble knowing how to approach recording it until they worked with producers in LA. The song raced to No.21 on the charts with over 10 million Spotify streams.
It was finally time to release their album and Drax Project played the ace card they had been holding for years. They released the single ‘Catching Feelings’, written with Six60 at the very first writing session they’d done with the band when they first toured with them two years earlier. The track still included group vocals that were recorded for that first demo. The combination of Six60’s dominance at home and the Drax Project’s worldwide fanbase ensured the song would get strong traction, though no one could have expected the monster hit it would become.
‘Catching Feelings’ was released just prior to their self-titled album in September and reached the No.3 slot within a few weeks, with the album pushing even higher at No.2. Both remained on the charts for well over a year. The online reaction was even more outrageous with over 130 million streams across the various platforms, meaning it came very close to matching the heights of ‘Woke Up Late’. Drax Project had hit serious paydirt twice in a row.
At home, they had surpassed themself with ‘Woke Up Late’ reaching 4x platinum and ‘Catching Feelings’ 5x platinum. Meanwhile in Australia, they achieved the highest certification of any release by a New Zealand band, with ‘Woke Up Late’ reaching an incredible 5x platinum. ‘Catching Feelings’ also gained platinum status. This helped make Drax Project the biggest streaming New Zealand band internationally for three years running (2019-2021). The album reached 2x platinum status in Aotearoa and spawned another online hit with ‘Smart Love’ surpassing 15 million streams.
Around the same time as their own album release, Drax Project took part in the Waiata Anthems project, with a te reo version of ‘Woke Up Late’ called ‘I Moeroa’ which clocked up another million streams. They spent the summer of 2019-20 touring Aotearoa.
Their next big single ‘Firefly’ included vocals by rising local RnB singer AACACIA and US hip hop heavyweight Fetty Wap. Drax Project wrote it in LA along with two professional songwriters, Rogét Chahayed and Imad Royal. Unsurprisingly, it also collected 10 million streams in next to no time.
Over this time, they’d kept their connection with Six60 and played with them at the Hutt Recreation Ground in Lower Hutt and Mystery Creek Events Centre in Hamilton, in between doing their own dates throughout the country. This series of “Six60 Saturdays” shows got even bigger over the following summer and Drax Project was the main support for two shows on this tour: Sky Stadium in Wellington (13 February 2021) and Eden Park in Auckland (24 April 2021).
It was the first time that a local band had played Eden Park (Donny and Marie Osmond performed there in 1975). Drax Project played just before Six60 and joined them onstage for a rousing rendition of ‘Catching Feelings’. It was a remarkable event to be a part of, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic which had scuttled many of Drax Project’s other plans that year, especially when it came to playing overseas.
However, it did mean their releases over this period slowed to a trickle, since it was less worthwhile putting out new work when they couldn’t tour. On Christmas Day 2020, they released ‘Tukituki te Manawa’ which they’d written in te reo Māori with the same team that translated ‘Woke Up Late’ for the Waiata Anthems compilation. The song was based on an unreleased earlier song called ‘Take My Breath Away’.
In 2021, their social media accounts were hacked and bizarrely used to post horror movie content.
In 2021, their only fresh song was ‘Over It’, which showed they hadn’t lost their knack for tracks that pick up millions of streams with ease. The following year started out in a more haphazard fashion after their social media accounts were hacked and bizarrely used to post horror movie content until their record label was able to gain back control. Many of the concerts they had planned that summer also had to be cancelled because of ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, with a ban on gigs over a 100-person capacity.
There was positive news too. ‘Woke Up Late’ was officially certified gold in the US in January. That month they released a new single, ‘Crazy’ and its 80s-inspired music video showed them doing what they do best, laying down a groovy pop melody and having fun doing it. By March, they were back in action recording a single, ‘Mad At You’, and working towards a new EP, Diamond.
Drax Project have come a long way from their beginnings performing cover versions on street corners. You can find dozens of clips on YouTube of young acts covering their music or doing guitar tutorials or choreography along to it. After less than a decade in existence, Drax Project have become one of the most successful New Zealand acts of their generation.
Shaan Singh - vocals, saxophone, keys
Matt Beachen - drums
Sam Thomson - bass
Ben O'Leary - guitar