d.i.g. (Directions In Groove) were one of the local musical highlights of the early 1990s in this country. At a time where every man and his dog was getting a grunge band together d.i.g. were doing something challenging and remarkably different.

The band created some infectious and joyous sounds in their mash up of funk, jazz and electronica. After building a strong reputation on a live front, primarily by playing a residency slot at Kinsela’s in Sydney, the band released a self-funded EP, which raised their identity even further.

After two albums, the band took an indefinite break in 1998. Thirteen years later, the now six piece have picked up where they left off and recorded a new album, Clearlight.

Tone Deaf’s Neil Evans spoke to keyboardist/vocalist Scott Saunders.

“Back when d.i.g. first formed we were completely different from the majority of both local and international music that was around in the country at the time. Radio and the charts were dominated by either awful Euro house music or the absolute onslaught of grunge that took over the world after Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released,” begins Saunders. “I guess we started off as what you would best describe as a traditional jazz band. Along the way d.i.g. started to incorporate elements of other musical styles and genres such as soul and the burgeoning electronic scene of the period. What set us apart was that we were a live act that you could dance to. The live element of dance music was very rare at that time in Australia.”

d.i.g. were part of what was labelled ‘acid jazz’ in the early nineties, a term that become somewhat overused at the time, primarily by lazy writers looking for an easy way to describe the groundbreaking sound.

“Labels generally can be a double edged sword,” comments Saunders philosophically. “It was lazy journalism on one hand. On the other, it did enable people to find our music when looking for us in record stores. Look under the catagory of  ‘world music’ and you will find a bit of everything. Labels usually get overused to the point of negating their meaning.”

Before starting his musical adventures with d.i.g., Saunders studied music and philosophy at university. “I think there is a strong sense of connection and link between the two. Many philosophers have talked about music as that special and unique artform that, while very precise and mathematical in formation, can transcend barriers such as language and race. It also continues to prove to be such an incredibly subjective art form, the way that what moves one person on a spiritual level can leave another utterly cold,” said Saunders. “This is an aspect of music I have always found endlessly fascinating.”

d.i.g. called it a day in the latter part of the 1990s. “The constant touring/recording grind was starting to really wear us all out as a band, and was affecting the sense of creative vibe. It was definitely a mutual decision by all of us.”

In the time between d.i.g. disbanding and then coming together to record Clearlight, Saunders worked as a music professor and did a great deal of soundtrack work in Australia. “Working on soundtracks was an incredibly enlightening and enriching experience as a musician. I would be following the direction of the filmmakers who would want me to explore other areas of music that I was unfamiliar with, such as the Ethiopian music scene. This really helped to open me up as an artist,” says Saunders.

In 2008, the original members of d.i.g. started to play again together. “We played a few gigs here and there as d.i.g.; Terrepai Richmond, our drummer, said that while it was great playing together again he felt we were basically a big cover band and that we weren’t moving forward as artists. This is what lead to the decision to record Clearlight. We pieced the album together bit by bit over the course of a few years. Tim, our guitarist, basically became our executive producer and motivating force behind getting the album together.”

What keeps the music of d.i.g. challenging and fresh? “That’s an easy one to answer,” replies Saunders laughingly. “Terrepai. He has always had this incredible ability to push and cajole the band on a musical level to make us go beyond what we are used to. Everyone brings something to the equation with d.i.g, but Terrepai in particular really has a gift for striving for new and unconventional sounds. If there is one thing he hates, it is for music to sound normal or boring.”

What does the future hold for the band? “Firstly, we really want to do some shows and see how Clearlight is accepted by the public. It’s important for d.i.g. to rebuild a name for ourselves on a music front. If we are successful with these goals, we’ll see how it goes from there.”

It is a welcome return to hear d.i.g. back to doing what they do. We shall see where their adventurous and compelling musical adventures shall take them second time around.

– Neil Evans

Clearlight is out now. Read about Neil’s thoughts on the record and get along to see them play Saturday 10 December, 2011 at The Studio/Sydney Opera House.