The Bats [February 2006]

Over the last 20 years The Bats have garnished a label of dependability – and with good reason. Though now taking a little bit of time between releases (one might jump to the conclusion that ‘At The National Grid’ is more like a reunion album than simply their first in 11 years), The Bats continue to write, record and perform scores of catchy, poppy tunes – jangly, homely and folky tunes filled with images of Bob Scotts’ Central Otago past and propelled by one hell of a dynamic rhythm section.

One of the longest surviving Flying Nun groups still with their original line-up (the other would be the Tall Dwarfs), The Bats have continued to be a live fixture over the past decade, particularly in Christchurch; where the majority of the group now resides.

The story goes that when The Clean initially broke up in late 1982, Bob was flatting and jamming with Paul – who had been quite active with the great Toy Love, and various groups round Christchurch such as seminal pre-punk outfit The Detroit Hemroids and Jay Clarksons’ Playthings. Eventually Malcolm Grant (who had sat behind the kit for a later incarnation of Bill Direen’s The Vacuum and local popsters The World) was brought into the fold, with Kaye completing the line-up by 1983.

I met Bob at the clash concert in the Christchurch town hall in the early 80s, he had moved from Dunedin and was looking for a flat, and my flatmate was leaving so he introduced me to Bob. Then we both ended up moving in to longfellow street with Paul and Malcolm among others, they had drums and amps set up in the living room and that’s when we started playing as a band. I didn’t have many expectations of The Bats, i’m pretty sure I didn’t think ahead much at all in fact but i’ve always loved playing Bob’s songs and playing live in all kinds of places.
– Kaye Woodward

During the hey-days of Flying Nun The Bats could do no wrong, with catchy singles such as ‘Made Up In Blue’ and ‘Block Of Wood’ and the critically-lauded debut LP ‘Daddy’s Highway’ all being perennial underground favorites. However the group never really garnished any popularity – The Chills were a bit of a one-off in terms of stardom for New Zealand bands, and so groups such as The Bats settled for creating fine tunes – and often. In the decade to 1995 the group amassed a terrific body of work – some 5 albums and a handful of eps and singles. Of course the other side of the dice was their live show, an exhilarating experience full of catchy sing-a-long numbers, and some cracking instrumentation – Paul’s a bit of a hero of mine in terms of bass-playing (he’d perfected the chugga-chugga sound by 1985), and they’ve always exuded a homely friendliness that few bands seem to match.

In recent years the garden city trio of Kaye Woodward, Paul Keen and Malcolm Grant has built The Bats side-project Minisnap up from the ground, performing a whole new collection of catchy, wistful pop tunes – with Kaye leading the way as vocalist. Meanwhile Dunedinite Bob Scott took a few years to reunite with his buddies in the clean whilst formulating new tunes for the stellar new LP – and of course everyone in the group has the odd day job, too.

We had been talking about doing a new Bats album for 2 or 3 years before actually doing it. Everything takes ages now of course because of everyone’s jobs and children. Bob came up from Dunedin for the main session at the national grid (which is John Kelcher’s 8 track studio in Cashel Street) over Easter 2003, the view was across to all the mannequins in Ballantyne’s lingerie department but the people/mall action down below was quite entertaining.
– Kaye Woodward

Although the studio experience with John Kelcher was a friendly and natural one, with an opportunity to jam and flesh out ideas, Bob described a handful of the new tunes as ‘complex’ to write, which combined with an unfortunate incident only compelled the delay in the albums development:

After that session Paul got busy over the winter digitizing, loading and eq’ing the tracks at home; but in August our computer (and a whole lot of other stuff) got stolen. We had to go back and re-digitize the 8 track, but were too busy and couldn’t really get into it until after summer. We did a final over dub/mixing session at home with Bob in Oct 2004. More mixing, the artwork and mastering was done and labels pinned down over the next 6 months, then we did preparation building up to a New Zealand and U.S. Release in October 2005.
– Kaye Woodward

Eventually the album was released in late 2005, with critical acclaim spreading across from the States, along with reports of brilliant college radio support – after a matter of weeks CMJ (a chain of radio stations across the USA) had reported ‘At The National Grid’ as one of the top ‘adds’ across the country – rising up the charts in nearly all of cmj’s 200 stations. The group plan to bolster this support by playing the famed South By South-West festival in Austin Texas, then a quick tour around the main centers.

The plan is to go for 2 weeks and try and play to as many people as possible and give the album a boost. We are doing some in-stores too and they are great for getting through to people. The album seems to be going really well so doing these shows should help a lot. It will be interesting to see the mix of old and new fans. Emails have proved to be a great way of keeping in touch with and making contact with new fans.
– Bob Scott

With an impending european and UK release through Little Teddy and Egg Records, the group are looking forward to a successful 2006, though they’ve got a relaxed approach to touring these days after their previous overseas experiences:

We could have perpetuated our career overseas by touring a lot more and our labels would have liked that but I hated the tour bus style touring we did in Europe and the US In 93. Up till then we had always driven in vans or flown and stayed in hotels or with friends. We did some dates with Radiohead on that 93 tour, they were a big successful band but even they were traveling round in tour buses so I thought that if success meant spending months every year in a tour bus I didn’t really fancy it.
– Kaye Woodward

Campbell Kneale [December 2002]

First off, describe your music in 10 words or less

Antarcticish.

Please substitute my use of the genre label ‘noise’, i’m not particularly fond of it myself..

Neither. ‘noise’ is term usually used by kylie fans to make generalizations about music that threatens them. or nu metallers to describe soundtrack-making, punk-prog bands with beards and turntables. neither of the above have any right to use the word.

You have a huge catalogue – not just under the ‘Birchville Cat Motel’ moniker but a number of other side-projects. if somebody was interested in delving into your releases — where should they start, and why?

That’s a very big question. Tsk.
In spite of the two-car-garage sized back-catalogue (i forget how many… maybe 50-60?) every Birchville Cat Motel release is different and has its own unique voice due to the fact that Birchville Cat Motel is more about a methodology, or means of making music, rather than creating a ‘sound’ easily identifiable as Birchville Cat Motel. the early recordings were very loud and caustic, as time has progressed, the aesthetic matured and personalized, and i began to find that i was increasingly drawn to the complexities of quieter textures. i have my personal favorites which i’m sure will prompt heated debate amongst my peers. on a desert island with only my own records for company i would choose…

‘we count these prayers’ cd (corpus hermeticum, nz) 2001
probably the best guitar-based record i ever made. the balance between dissonance, consonance, and slow motion, junk-crush is pretty compelling. a subtly illuminating record.

‘crestfallen’ 7″ (killer records, norway) 2001
an oceanic kinda drifting thing made up from largely acoustic instruments and tweaked kitchen gadgets. my favorite ‘sunset’ record.

‘summers seething pulse’ cd (elsie and jack, uk) 2003
actually it’s not due out until the end of december but it’s a real doozy. a very creamy platter of headsauce. amplified picture framing wire and electric wallpaper are only some of the first-class doo-dads i invented for this release. rock’n’rolls very own birdman contest.

new zealand actually has quite a collection of ‘textural’ musicians. with the success of alistair galbraith, the dead c, roy montgomery, wreck small speakers etc, how do you think people in know perceive new zealand on an international scale?

well, with all due respect to all those luminaries listed and not to deny the impact they have had on the perception of nz music overseas… they represent the ‘old farts scene’. although i am very familiar with their material, i personally don’t feel any real affiliation with these artists with regards to my own work.

these folk were making cutting edge records 15 years ago. the international record-buying public know a shitload more about nz underground music than your average nz music journalist. the dead c are still invisible to the nz music media in spite of having influenced an entire generation of musicians from sebadoh to sonic youth, let alone little old me. other than the odd bunch of records i sell at a live show, all of my records go overseas to a large audience of enthusiasts who know all about your neighbor who dubs cassettes of his band off in editions of 20.

who do you see as your contemporaries?

if by ‘contemporaries’ you mean ‘lunatic noise buddies’, then my contemporaries are many. i mean, if you think of ‘music’ as a small subset of ‘sound’ you get a better idea of the scale of sonic ground ripe for exploration. in october i performed at the lines of flight festival in dunedin which covered a healthy swag of artists who are prominent within the new zealand and international community. bruce russell, sandoz lab technicians, peter wright, nova scotia, cm ensemble, k-group, omit, esosteel… all of whom have many top-notch releases are very visible within their respective non-genres internationally.

overseas there are communities that run parallel to the new zealand thing too… europe, uk, usa, japan… and it is becoming easier, not to mention increasingly beneficial, for many of us to network with the various organizations involved for distribution of our records and touring. the upcoming european tour is all about creating contacts and forming a live circuit to get more of our music over there. we get paid well, sell lots of records, and perform to large enthusiastic audiences. whereas, i have pretty much ‘retired’ from playing live in any regular sense here in nz. i don’t feel compelled to play for 4 people any more.

do you consider your music to be more influential or recognized overseas than in new zealand?

on my most recent tour of japan i visited record shops in tokyo and a number of other cities that had a whole celebrate psi phenomenon section! i met bands who shyly stated in their very best english that they had been profoundly influenced by my records! it was a truly humbling experience. i discovered first hand that new zealand underground music is treated with near-reverence everywhere except new zealand. my upcoming tour of europe i will be stopping by finland, sweden, denmark, belgium, germany, and the uk. i have significant fan-bases in all of these countries. most of my records go to the usa.

to contrast, in nz i have only just started to have shows where more than a small handful of people come along. not that long ago i was billed in a local gig guide as a visiting us guitarist!

a lot of musicians credit krautrock, japanoise and the likes of the berlin avant garde scene as important influences. do you feel any particular ‘scene’ has influenced your recordings?

nope. the last record i paid money for was motley crues ‘shout at the devil’.

i like some japanoise-related stuff like merzbow, msbr, and guilty connector and i performed with some of them in japan which was quite a thrill.black-psych like fushitsusha. i played with some of the japanese onkyo dudes here in nz recently… toshimaru nakamura, sachiko m, tetuzi akiyama, and otomo yoshihide… they were incredible! i loved them… but i don’t know if they have influenced me. our respective music forms are very personal. time will tell. i don’t think my music can really be internationalized the same way that new zealand ‘rock’ is.

Birchville Cat Motel is not really influenced by music. i’m more fond of second-hand shops, train stations, old atlases, antarctica, siberia, alaska, poppy z brite books, dodgy heavy metal…

so do you consider your music visually descriptive? or is there some other kind of connection your going for here?

there is some other kind of connection going on. but its a lot less tangible than simply transcribing visual experiences into music. i guess godspeed you black emperor are a prime example of a band that is operates very successfully on this level… undeniable filmic and you almost feel miffed that you can’t see the pictures that should accompany this music. for me, the experiences i like to work with are those brief fleeting ones, like childhood aromas unleashed from an old cupboard, that infuriating elusiveness of not quite being able to place a certain sensation. utterly evoCative but impossible to fully apprehend. at these moments you become not just a person in a particular moment, but you connect with something much larger. a personal history, full of things that nobody else could understand, and that you couldn’t really describe in words.

i’ve always sought to find inspiration in my location. currently that location is suburban lower hutt. suburbia has a nasty reputation for being a congregation point for soullessness but i have come to disagree. i have seen brief glimpses of a very deeply ingrained spirituality here, not connected with any obvious religious affiliation, but connected with the big patterns of human existence. work, sleep, travel, children, hospitality, home decorating… what would probably pass as ‘boring’ or ‘insignificant’ to your average e-popping, superficially urbanite, ravebunny, again links people with a much larger pattern of life that has continued unchanged, other than on the surface, for countless generations. i find the mundane beautiful and very grand.

when you played with the touring japanese, did you play alongside nakamura’s no-input desk? his performance here in christchurch with greg malcolm was quite spectacular.

yes. i had been aware of nakamura’s no-input thing for quite a while and i was pretty excited about the possibility of being able to perform with him. his purity of sound and the purity of intent demonstrated in his work has always struck a chord with me (not a power-chord you understand). i did some recording with akiyama as well… he’s a fascinating guitarist. very little of what he does sounds like an acoustic guitar.

i understand you like to keep your recordings pretty minimal – what kind of toys do you use to forge and alter your recordings?

i have no personal aversion to overdubs. in fact, most of my music is constructed using layers of overdubbed improvisations. i used to have an old fostex reel-to-reel 8 track. it was cool but it was becoming expensive tracking down tape and dats to master onto. i switched to computer after i got back from japan.

using the computer to record with certainly has opened up new possibilities, but to be honest, i’m not sure i want all those possibilities. sure, its great to be able to record tape-less, mix automatically, master straight to disc, and spit out a cdr at the end of the process, but the ability to ‘alter’ sounds i find hugely distracting. i use the computer as a recorder… that’s all. a bit of eq, a hint of spatial clarifiCation, but most of those effect knobs make everything sound like wimpy shit. fine if you want to make electronical but as hard as it may be for some to fathom, i’m not interested in the slightest in electronica.

do you think the likes of pro-tools and other digital manipulation applications have helped or hindered the course of experimental music?

um… helped. the digitization of experimental music has seen it become the new punk rock… its strengthened the diy ethic of self production, self promotion, self dissemination. (the old punk rock works for the factory nowadays)

do you have any opinions on any of the more commercially leaning bands such as the ‘drone based’ spacemen 3, godspeed your black emperor! etc or so-called ‘slow-core’ bands like bedhead and low?

spacemen3 suck. fucking boring english twats. history should confiscate their reputation.

i’m pretty fond of gsybe. they’re like everything that radiohead could have been if they weren’t fucking boring english twats. very cinematic. movie-ish. enigmatic and black.

bedhead, never heard of them. are they english? low. zzzzzzz… twats. what about the melvins?!? aren’t they slow-core?

promotion time: plug a new release on your label (celebrate psi phenomenon) that you’re not directly involved with.

‘shutupalreadydamn! a tribute 2 prince’ double cd

everybody who ever heard this says it’s the best compilation they own! 20-something new zealand and international envelope-pushers getting very loose and covering the little-sexy-purple-muthafucker. it is absolutely stunning what people have done with some extremely non-representative source material. hits! hits! hits! everything from Birchvilles faux-arena rock, to cm ensembles drifting church organ liturgies, to sunships sex-murder-mass destruction, to matt silcocks… um… ‘rap’ to… oh oh, it’s just so damn good all over. the best thing about the compilation is that it is very funny, but never crosses that fine line and becomes a ‘joke’. it’s unusually respectful.

any national tour plans for once you get back from europe?

nope.

would anybody come?

hahaha. no actually, that’s entirely true. i am hoping to lure some international like-minds to new zealand with the promise of marmite, well-paying shows, and mature, respectful new zealand audiences. if they are silly enough to fall for my slick stories, there could be a tour with japanese head-crusher msbr, norwegian vintage-horror-flick improvisers del, and maybe even uk bedroom, laptop-astrologer simon wickham smith. we will see.

Christchurch in the 80s [By David Swift]

The Christchurch scene of 1980-82 is pretty legendary, and rightly so. This was most fertile period of rock’n’roll in the city since the beat-boom days of Chants RnB circa 1966.
There were some very good Christchurch punk bands (notably the Vauxhalls) in 1978/79 and a picky audience of 200 or so original-school three-chords hipsters, but it was only as the punk phenomenon flowered into postpunk that the number and quality of bands blossomed.

Think of it as the difference between The Enemy and Toy Love. It was cooler to say you had seen The Enemy in a small crowd, but Toy Love were a better band packing out 800-capacity bars.
Christchurch was second to Auckland in 1980 for the passion of its punk/new wave crowds. Toy Love, the Swingers, the Features would travel down and regularly pull 500-800 people at the DB Gladstone or the Hillsborough Tavern. Occasionally the Aranui Tavern on Brighton road [edit: Pages Road, on the way to Brighton – eventually became a family restaurant and is as of this writing a backpackers pub] would also host these kind of bands.

The primo local groups in 1980-1982 were the Pin Group (because leader Roy Montgomery – now a lo-fi legend in the USA – was an essential cog in the city’s cool – he was manager of the EMI shop on Colombo St that was totally given over to NME-approved sounds….the company wasn’t that keen, but it was just about the most profitable EMI shop in NZ as a result), The Gordons, The Newtones, The Androidss, Scorched Earth Policy, Victor Dimisich Band, The Playthings, Kaza Portico / The Builders (Bill Direen’s bands), The Volkswagens, 25c, Yeah, Mainly Spaniards were a bit popular too. I may have missed a few out….(at the same time there were kids in punk covers bands, pub rock bands, etc). But the above names were the central musical identities in a community fired by the Velvets/Stooges/Jonathan Richman/1960s USA Garage Punk/Pere Ubu/Wire – yet compelled to make their own music.

Roger began Flying Nun in early 1981 (i was the first journalist to write about the label, in the Press) because it seemed to him that if no one recorded these groups they would be lost to history.

At the same time, bands from Dunedin began forays to Christchurch where they knew that their original music would go down well with a knowing crowd that held no truck with punk covers bands. The Clean’s first big gigs were at the Gladstone and their reputation sprang from there by word of mouth. Roger was so blown away by them he instantly marked them down for a 45 – Tally Ho.
The Verlaines, The Stones, The Chills and Sneaky Feelings also ploughed that furrow. At the time no one in Christchurch was in thrall to any ‘Dunedin scene’; in fact there wasn’t one as such. As far as we knew, there was just a few really good bands down there who had been blown away by The Enemy /Toy Love and wanted to make their own contribution. And to have it recognised in Christchurch as there wasn’t enough support for their originality down there.

Some ChCh bands quickly carved out a reputation in Auckland too. The Gordons are probably the best example. I saw their first ever gig at the Hillsborough Tavern in early 1980 (supporting Toy Love, or was it the Swingers, can’t recall exactly) and they had only been together a week and only had five songs but played them twice to rapturous acclaim from 600 people.
The Gordons did it different – offering a discordant wall-of-noise with some melodies years before Sonic Youth. Years later, in fact, SY professed huge admiration for the three, two of whom i went to school with at Ashburton College. I remember the Gordons doing three sell-out nights at the Gladstone in 1983 and just being excited at the sheer size of the Marshall stacks they had shoehorned onto and around the stage in that tiny pub. It was incredible the passions that a local band playing original music inspired – one of the great legacies of punk.

At the other end of the scale, Bill Direen was a huge talent, playing the rawest nuggets flavours in his bands The Vacuum / Kaza Portico / The Bilders yet he never made any commercial headway. The Bilders’ Schwimmin In Der See EP (Flying Nun 1982) remains one of the label’s very best discs and the retrospective ‘Max Quitz Vol 1’ (1994 Flying Nun CD) is pretty essential to understand all that was good about garden city garage rock in the early 1980s.

In january 1986 i made my first trip back home after 18 months in the UK and was delighted to see that Sneaky Feelings were to play the Gladstone on a saturday night while i was home. But unlike four years earlier, the pub wasn’t full and i only knew three people in there. Sneakies were still great, but that was the end of the era for me.

Into The Void [March 2005]

When a band’s been around a scene a long time, they start to develop a certain aura about them. Into The Void were always something of a notable band, with a vested interest in the local music and art scenes, they rose to national attention in the late 1980s, released an unrepresentative debut album, then returned to the Christchurch underground.

An Into The Void show is an experience. Over the course of their lengthy existence, the void have crafted sturdy, rhythm driven songs that can explode with tremendous shards of guitar and machine-gun drumming, based on an atmospheric mix of heavy, repetitive bass-guitar and scratchy, scattered gramophone projections and often fronted by a frantic, free-roaming showman of a vocalist.

Approaching twenty years on the live scene and 10 years since their last line-up change, i spoke with newest member, bassist Dave Imlay and gramophone operator / sound manipulator Paul Sutherland, shortly after the release of their 2nd album from their practice space in central Christchurch.

Paul: Jason [Greig] and Mark [Whyte] went to art school together, and they bought a guitar together and they used to come up here. I don’t know what they did

Dave: They must have taken turns [laughs].

Paul: They called themselves the Deaf Mutants. I think at that stage Hamish Kilgour’s drum-kit was up here, as Bailter Space practiced at this space, back when they were called Nelsh Bailter Space (1986-7 maybe). And then at one stage i ended up doing something with them, playing electric recorder or something. At that stage Jason was playing guitar; somehow Ronnie [Van Hout] turned up.

(Dave interjects) Art school…

Paul: Ronnie was just part of the scene, and so he just turned up, but it was pretty obvious he couldn’t play an instrument, so he became a singer and we were a band.

Paul: I was conned into buying an amp and a bass guitar ’cause the others didn’t think an electric recorder would go down in public.

Paul: They bought me a ‘how to play bass guitar’ book by Geezer Butler [laughs]. I was so serious about it – trying to play a riff; it came with this flexi-disc of Geezer Butler playing bass, which made it into a Flying Nun exhibition.

As with vocalist Van Hout’s rise to prominence on local and international art scenes in the early 1990s, the band themselves started getting attention. The recently Auckland-based Flying Nun committed to the band, though it would take around 2 years for their debut to finally be released (after initially appearing on the ‘Freak the Sheep’ compilation).

Paul Sutherland quit the bass to play the gramophone full-time. James Greig joined as bass-player but he gave the bassists’ slot to Dave Imlay, so he could work on the guitar. Ronnie Van Hout and James Greig both headed overseas but still continue to work with the band when back in the country.

Thankfully, the band has kept going throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century. With an expanding and retracting line-up, the Void have always had an eclectic and variable sound but one thing has always been constant; volume.

Paul: James Greig’s experience as being our bass player was he managed to make a speaker burst into flames. That was pretty impressive. He tried blowing on the speaker to fan the flames, but that made it worse. Actually we blew up a PA at Warner’s once as well.

Paul: The volume thing is an interesting thing, (in the early days) we had a gig at the Subway were nobody stayed in the room, everyone had to leave the room because it was so loud. That was because our sound-person had just taken some drugs and didn’t know what he was doing.

Dave: I was there at the time; i think i went off to the poolroom.

In the late 1990s the Provincial Lounge on Cashel Street was an active and eclectic place to be. Thanks to Chris ‘The Hippy’ Wilson’s huge PA stacks, this tiny, decrepit venue was able to generate a fair racket, especially when a band so inclined to explode as the Void took the stage.

I have very fond memories of the Provincial, but standing in front of Into The Void, consumed by a wall of guitar, bass, and tom drums is probably what first comes to mind. Already pushed to the limits of volume, with my ears starting to feel every tonal change directly, their drummer unleashed his trump card – an apocalyptic assault of double-kick, heavily amplified through these giant wooden speaker stacks. My ears were ringing for almost 4 days.

Paul: When we started practicing we had like 10-15 watt amps. We definitely were not loud then. Mark was playing Hamish’s drum-kit, which is basically a folk-rock kit. But then a few other things changed, Jason bought a real guitar and amp, i got a proper bass amp.

Dave: Mark bought that drum-kit, which is the loudest drum-kit in the world

Paul: Ex The Androidss

Dave: I think we’re quieter now than we were a couple years ago.

Paul: I think it’s an internal tension thing, too. But i think we’re more intense, the last 2 times we’ve played the sound’s been better, i don’t think we’ve been as physically loud, it’s just more intense. Like Mark’s drums – it’s just a physical element.

There were times like when the Void played on the roof of Dave Imlay’s High Street store, confusing many passers-by. Or the time their full line-up packed the Dux de Lux, with Ronnie spouting his own off-hand take at the Fall’s ‘L.A.’ to the jeers of the crowd. And of course there was the phenomenal Media Club gig that saw an entire room of normally restrained scensters take to the dance-floor, grooving down to a tight and engrossing Into The Void ripping out ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and familiar Black Sabbath-like riffs, a truly visceral release.

Dave: I think it was because i could never follow what the others were doing. When Jason starts playing something, he changes it all the time, so i decided to come up with a bass-line that just repeated over and over. Repetitive riffing, though not all the songs are like that. I play it like a guitar, play chords and use an overdrive and that. Though i guess as time’s gone on i’ve become more like a bass player, more by accident. I’ll play something and (Jason and Mark) will say ‘that sounds like Geezer Butler!’ [laughs]

How does the band get it together with the overseas members when they’re away so often?

Paul: There’s two parts to that. When James visits, it’s pretty intense. He comes and lies on the floor and plays really loud and doesn’t listen [laughs].

Dave: I think we’ve gotten used to playing (with a smaller line-up), but when James comes along it takes a few practices for him to get back into it.

Paul: Where as Ronnie; it’s interesting you read – in the art world of Ronnie referred to as ‘collaborating’ with Into The Void, i don’t know what that means. Ronnie snaps in pretty well.

Dave: We had 3 or 4 practices with Ronnie last year though we didn’t play live, and we seemed to get something out of each one that was pretty good. Still, maybe it’s easier to add vocals to music that’s already figured out than to add new guitar parts.

Some time ago a date was scheduled for a recording session. The then Melbourne-based Ronnie was going to be in town for a few days (James still lived in Christchurch at the time). The album was put together from a 4 day session at John Kelcher’s National Grid studio – which had been recommended by friends, with opening track ‘John Hore’ coming from a much earlier session at Arnie Van Bussel’s Nightshift studio, after initially being discarded.

Dave: It was before i joined. ‘John Hore’ – with Ronnie playing bass.

Paul: I was sick or something, but i went to the mix down and that was really weird.

Dave: Arnie thought it was a kind of 70s prog-rock thing or something, he was trying to make it sound like yes or something.

Later Rob Buick (of the Black Panthers) turned up for a session at Nightshift, found and recovered the tape, giving the band a mix down for a song the band thought they had lost. The National Grid sessions were significantly more productive, as the band were well aware of their time limitations and were aiming for a completed album inside of 4 days of recording.

Dave: The one with John – it was done in a tiny little studio. And there were all sorts of things that weren’t supposed to happen, Ronnie doing vocal backups with himself (due to tape spillage) – it sounds great, but it was just an accident, so there were all sorts of incidents that happened with the equipment at the time. Ronnie was there dancing around for the first 3 days when we laid down the music, he would write things down at the session and work on lyrics overnight. It all came together on the last day when he added his vocals.

In time-honored void tradition, there was a long period before the album finally saw the light of day. Searching for a label proved fruitless, so the band has released it themselves on their A.Void music label.

I can say without any reserve that it’s the best thing they’ve committed to tape. Though no longer connected to a more commercially-orientated Flying Nun, you should be able to find ‘2’ in most record stores in New Zealand – i thoroughly recommend it.

Leper Ballet [April 2005]

The Leper Ballet burnt so brightly and so quickly that it’s astonishing they didn’t garner wider acclaim. Like Iggy and his Stooges during the epochal hey-day, the group were a writhing, for-the-moment ball of energy, engulfing rooms with pulsating sound and an engaging, contagious enthusiasm – i have never seen audience take to new bands like they did they Leper Ballet, they just drove the kids insane.

Basically the initial idea came about one night when Janus and myself were at the wunderbar watching this punk-metal band called Fisting Mary. I pretty much thought they where a whole lot of messy shit, and hardly anyone was watching them, but still the good folk at the Wunderbar where dishing them out free beer after free beer. I was still at school at the time and didn’t have all that much money to buy beer, so i said to Janus that we should start a band just for the purpose of getting it for free.
For a year the only thing that came of that was the band name, we thought it was great and celebrated by buying beer (still not quite understanding the concept of ‘getting out what you put in’, or whatever it is).

So it went until the christmas of 2003 when this dude (his name was Delaney Davidson, from a band called the Dead Brothers who are signed to a Swiss label called Voodoo Rhythm; all of which are fucking amazing, look them up on the net) came back to his home town of Christchurch and set up a couple of gigs. Being it the holy celebration of Christmas Jani and i where drunk enough to tell this guy we were in a band and would gladly play at his show in two weeks… And so it went. In those two weeks we managed to write five songs and do a couple of covers and find some pretty nifty looking suits at the salvation army op-shop.
– Herbert Palmer

Though their debut didn’t quite go as expected (as they don’t give out free beer at the Media Club), the seeds were sewn. Over the next couple of years the boys gathered steam, eventually fleeting to Berlin – ‘a city where the beer is only 30 cents for a 500ml bottle and all the homeless alcaholics look like pirates’.

After a couple of fumbling steps the group fell into a tight 4-man permanent line-up. Janus Currie produced warped and slanted rants, sprinkled with obscure references and loaded language, adding to the dark feeling of their songs – a touch of Mark E Smith via Elizabethan-era gutter poetry. Meanwhile Herbert Palmer rushed through a literate, complicated and frenetic set of nasty guitar riffs – sprinkled with his rock-a-billy, old-timey country and gothic-pop influences. Herb’s grasp of guitar styles and approach is hugely impressive, not to mention his song-writing and additional musicianship. Strung together by a fantastic, upbeat rhythm section in the form of Kris Taylor and Rush Jopson, the group was the most unlikely of dance sensations!

My initial impressions of the group seemed to revolve around the visual look of the group – in particular their striking ‘dirty suits’ dress style and Herbs’ resemblance to a young Nick Cave, which was thoroughly appropriate considering the sound his guitar made on their more gothic numbers. Tracks like ‘The Cabaret’ and ‘I’m Ian’ spewed forth the kind of cataclysmic noise and rhythmic orgasms that prime era Birthday Party channeled (though without the heroin addiction and leather pants).

You never knew what you were going to get with the Leper Ballet – their songs swung wildly from gothic poem’s over a slow and dirgy beat, through sea-shanty carnival romps (thanks to Herb’s secret weapon – the piano accordion) to full-on, full-tilt assaults, usually hastening a messy ending to the set. The group wasn’t afraid of covers, choosing to completely destroy ‘these boots are made for walking’ (complete with an introduction ‘This ones’ for Nancy!’, and bringing things to a close with what almost became there theme – a free-for-all take on the stooges ‘I wanna be your dog’. Usually an indicator that Janus was opening up the stage to crowd participation.

Janus was certainly a polarizing front-man – possessing a down-on-his-luck showman look and comical approach to fronting the band, he never really saw himself as a musician in the group, but rather an entertainer in the Tom Waits mold. It almost seemed as if Janus was a host for the groups’ events – and as Leper Ballet performances often divulged into hands-on and frenetic finales, it’s pretty succinct.

Over the course of just over a year the group played a huge amount of shows, often rushed in approach and result – and no wonder! Herb was double-timing as the Shocking Pinks 5th generation guitarist, often leaving for out-of-town sojourns (which included a memorable show up in Auckland; known for the interaction of a certain 8 Foot Sativa member), whilst Rush took a couple overseas holidays – leading to my own hasty initialization into the group as backup bassist. Eventually Herb, Kris and I formed our own retro-rock-a-billy covers group we dubbed Herb and the Spices – supporting the real group proper as the band wound down.

Though hastily produced, they did manage to get some recordings together – a single session in a home studio produced some (admittedly slightly underwhelming) results, but later live recordings and a bit of remixing allowed the group to produce a pretty strong (if messy) parting album. A limited edition cd-r with striking artwork in the Ralph Steadman tradition captures some of the feeling of Leper Ballet shows – with all the grandstanding and pomp, not to mention the carnage.

In May 2005 the boys played a series of shows that both defined them as a live force, but also signaled an end to a chaotic 18 months. Raising some funds through their final hurrah, Janus and Herbert left our shores for England and then Germany – taking in the music of their idols in London before settling in Berlin. It’s unclear what plans the boys have for the future, though their partners in crime back in Christchurch have been keeping themselves busy.

Rush Jopson has spent some time trying to get his own project up and running, along with a reunion of his old band Spankdirt, meanwhile Kris Taylor has made a tremendous impact on eclectic locals the House Of Dolls; filling out their sound with some punchy, rumbling drums and turning them into one of our cities finest almost over-night.

I still anticipate a triumphant return for the Leper Ballet – though i can imagine Janus and Herbert fit in perfectly in the bizarre Berlin underground. When they eventually return they’ll come back to a strong all-ages environment that’s developed in their absence – a scene they helped spark.

Maryrose and Brian Crook [April 2004]

It’s been a year since Christchurch last saw the renderers play live, what have the group been up to meantime?

The band (well, Maryrose and I) has been baby-sitting. After that show we spent 6 months in Invercargill, Maryrose painting and travelling and interacting with students, which will culminate in an exhibition at the Southland Art Gallery under the Southland Art Trust. During that time Brian was doing mixes on Maryrose’s solo album that was recorded just before we left town. We only did 2 days of recording so there were some takes that needed repair, but were too good to leave off. The album is close to finished with just the final vocals to go on. It will probably be billed as Maryrose Crook and the Renderers, since that’s exactly what it is. Currently Maryrose is painting for a follow-up show to her last years Brooke-Gifford exhibition, also she is trying to get a new work finished for the prospect show up in Wellington in May, so art has been the main devourer of time.

(Brian’s side-project) Bible Black released an excellent self-titled release on Arc Life in 2002 – can we expect a follow-up?

He (Brian) is currently finishing another solo album, this one is a more computer based thing called Anti-Clockwise, referring to the lack of danceable rhythms over the whole thing. Its shaping up as the best of the solo recordings so far, and manages to get quite rocky in parts, though not many.

The Renderers last album was 1998’s ocean-themed Dream of the Sea – a sprawling and dark album (which I would consider your finest moment) that came out on American independent label Siltbreeze…

We have been back in touch with Tim Adams who ran the Ajax label the mid 90s albums were released on. He semi shut down Ajax in 1997, which was why we went with Siltbreeze, but he has a new label enigmatically called 3 Beads of Sweat, so we’re looking forward to working with him again. It also means we can get copies of the older titles again.

With the recent and saddening death of the Arc Life label front-man Michael Brassell, how do you see the Dunedin label’s future?Aside from being a noted musician maryrose, you mentioned you’ve been busy with artwork. Is there a parallel between your music and painted works? where do you draw inspiration?

As far as painting and music go, i think that the main link is that i tend to write lyrics with visual imagery in them anyway and this made it easier for me when i took up painting because there was already a lot of imagery for me to draw on. I think that’s why my painting style developed relatively quickly – i was already thinking in those terms anyway. As far as inspiration goes, after completing a group of songs or paintings i try not to think about creating anything at all for a while (sometimes too long in Brian’s opinion!) and just wait to see what will set me off. I hang around the library and read a lot, watch films etc and last year after the William Hodges in Invercargill we travelled round the south for nearly a month taking photos and looking around. Ultimately i find that after a while things will start to jump out at me, either things i’ve read or images in photos we’ve taken etc, but mixed up in there with images that have set me off are always things relating directly to my life – feelings, emotions etc – in the Renderers we have tended to specialise in turning difficult times into songs but i guess lately that i have also tried to paint my way out of holes. I do try not to think too hard about what to paint or even what i am painting when i’m doing it because when i don’t have my brain too fully engaged i do much more interesting things and the final painting or song or whatever will often mean a lot more to me once it’s finished if i haven’t planned it to the nth degree. I listen to music obsessively when i’m painting – i did two whole shows on the soundtrack to Deadman and still find it hard to replace that one – i’ve almost left it long enough to play again now! Eraserhead was close and God Speed You Black Emporer almost worked as well but it wasn’t the same.

The Renderers played Christchurch on friday April 23rd at Creation along with the Terminals and an acoustic performance from Hamish Kilgour (the Clean / Magick Heads etc).

Mike Hex [January 2004]

What does Arclife do for the Dunedin community, and specifically, what’s your role in the trust?

I’m not a member of the trust; there was a trust set up in the early days of the Arc Cafe, but now they are two different entities. This change happened last year so Arclife Records is now being run by myself, Thom Bell and Stephen Kilroy.

What’s Arclife up to at the moment? Major changes a-foot?

Apart from having a new company to run the label we received a $10,000 recording grant last year from Creative NZ to record three bands: Heka, Hiss Explosion and Kahu.

Have you been working with any up-and-coming artists or bands we should keep an eye out for?

We have a compilation [from] last year we hope to release soon. Heka are about to finally release their debut cd. Bob Scott (The Clean / The Bats) has a lost Dunedin folk songs cd coming out in march. I’m a big fan of the Undercurrents and hope to do something with them soon. There’s enough to keep us very busy for the next year, that’s for sure.

And Hiss Explosion? Any new recordings in the midst?

Thom Bell has bought this kick arse desk from Vancouver/Canada and we hope to marry that up to the 2″ 24 track tape machine we have down here and get busy in february.

How do the Hiss Explosion recordings differ from your solo outings? How does Peter fit in to the creative process?

Well, solo stuff is done by me at home on my old four-track dirt-tracker so it’s raw and ready and Hiss Explosion has been experimenting with bigger tape machines, so obviously the quality of recording comes down to tape width. I’ll always record and track in analogue tape. Can’t stand that pro-tools sound – too crisp and clean for me. Solo i’ll experiment more with sounds and objects etc.

The Hiss Explosion play Creation on Febuary 6th 2004 as part of the Waitangi Day Special along with International Telepaths (also from Dunedin), Into The Void, Substandard and Idols Of Eve

Michael J. Brassell: A Memorial [Mar 2004]

Michael John Brassell was a revered and cherished man. As a central figure in both the Christchurch and Dunedin underground rock scenes, Mike (known to many by his stage pseudonym, Mike Hex aka Mike/whitey hiss) developed a distinct creative style unhinged from his commercial surroundings. Mike championed the d-i-y spirit, performing, recording, producing and releasing an abundance of beloved recordings with little regard for mainstream success, but full of such beauty, it would be hard pressed for any true music fan to find merit. Highly prolific, Mike bounced around a handful of bands in the 90s and 00s – making his name with a noisy Christchurch-based troupe of madmen called Squirm.

Formed with brett lupton and a drummer known as ‘hat’ in 1992, Squirm thrashed around Christchurch for some 18 months, releasing the ‘feeding the ground’ full-length in tiny numbers before disbanding – only to regroup late in 1993 with darryl kirk on drums. This line-up would produce Squirms defining releases ‘whip me honey’ and the ‘mister mistake maker’ ep on rob mayes’ vaunted local indie fail-safe recordings, but the Squirm boys wanted to push on for bigger things. Though the ep, recording under former jean-paul sartre experience and later stereobus front man dave yetton, had interest from the in-a-state-of-progress flying nun label – they ultimately failed to find their mark. The late 90s brought about a change in line-up, with peter mitchell (formerly of new zealands’ great underground sun-stained country legends the renderers) now on drums, with former pumpkinhead bassist vaughan watson solidifying the line-up for their last couple of years.

With aspirations to cross over to an american audience, Squirm took the unusual step of going it on their own, Mike forming his own recording label (noseflute recordings) and rechristening his Christchurch flat recording space as ‘Hex central’ – now a well-known spot for local muso’s. Though the d-i-y approach never saw them reach their goal of hitting it big overseas (and Squirm actually dissolved with the release of Mike’s first solo release), it did cultivate interest in the Hex philosophy to recording. Mike’s low-fidelity, hiss+ recording style (all future Hex recordings would be free from the threat of any kind of crystal-clear and septic digital clarity) seemed custom made for his quirky and explorative approach to guitar playing and vocalising. Suddenly other bands were joining in on the act – Mike playing particular attention to the centre will hold, a melodic local outfit of friends determined to produced the ultimate 1 minute pop song. In d flat.

Mikes’ music (he had soon released his solo debut ‘Johnny Horse’ in small quantities, spreading a short distribution to independent pockets of europe and the states, along with a keen – though small local following) was now sounding almost fully formed. After the release of the albums follow-up ‘the hiss explosion’, he took the step of moving to Dunedin. Taking a co-ordinating position with the fledging arc life recordings label – which had succeeded flying nun as the centre of all things low-fidelity in Dunedin, he joined locals stephen kilroy and thom bell. With Mike in line, arc-life thrived. New recordings from locals cloudboy and their charming chanteuse demarnia lloyd, along with renderers descendents (brian crooks side-project) bible black and the involvement of one of Mikes’ heroes – david kilgour of seminal outfit the clean, had arc-life well on their way to bigger things.

In 2002 Mike released what could be his finest release, the awe-inspiringly beautiful ’66’ with the hiss explosion – the texturally focused guitar-and-drums duo he had formed with former Squirm member peter mitchell for his last outing. ’66’ is pretty much a faithful recreation of how Mike and his hiss explosion sounded live – a rush of guitar, thumping drumming and melodic vocals. Based around Mikes’ obsession with a looping guitar foot-pedal (not exactly the height of hi-technology) the primitive sampler made for excellent compliment, and allowed Mike to create walls of transient, flowing sound, flush with soaring highs and lows that Mike caressed with his careful vocal approach – truly mesmerizing.

I had the fortune of organising Mike’s final Christchurch show on waitangi day 2004, and in an effort to promote the show, we scammed an interview used in local gig guide the package which i contribute towards, with Mike explaining where he was currently at. He talked about new releases on their way from hdu front man kahu and perennial Dunedin feature bob scott putting out a cd of ‘lost folk music’, along with possible recordings from the centre will hold’s outgrowths’ the (still Christchurch based) undercurrents. The big news though was that arc was rebuilding their home-brew studio – with the help of thom bell (who was now playing an integral part in the hiss explosions’ sound, being the in-house sound guy) they had purchase a new studio desk from canada and had set about putting things together.

The Hiss Explosions’ last Christchurch performance was a wonderful occasion. Christchurch has been witness to something of a re-birthing in the local scene in the last year, with more venues becoming regular performance options and the waitangi day show brought out the kind of crowd you reminisce about, with former scene regulars and underground musicians alike coming out of the woodwork to witness Hex’s triumphant return, along with some starting performances from substandard, idols of eve, Into the Void and fellow Dunedin troupers the international telepaths.
sadly Michael john Brassell passed just a few short weeks later, a sad victim of pneumonia; he died quickly and without warning in late february at the age of 38.

With little time to think, fleur de lis – a close friend and the front-woman of one of Christchurch’s most under-appreciated rock outfits the dialtones, and myself set about stringing together a memorial gig for Mike, and with out too much trouble people were soon going out of their way to pay tribute to our fallen friend. On friday the 12th of march, some 9 bands lined up to pay respect to Mike in their own way – the way Mikey Hex would have wanted it – with music. Memories and reminds of Mikes past were gathered in a tribute center near the stage, a beautiful image of Mike playing at the waitangi show, along with posters from Mike’s many bands through the 90s (including one that was particularly significant to me – a late 90s show were my own band made just our sophomoric appearance under Mikes lead), and his memorial signing book that was just about overflowing with loving tributes by the end of the night.

With 9 bands and some 300 punters, there was no messing around to be had. Dave Khan showed what a long way he’s gone in the last 18 months – forming an ethereal wall of sound from his keyboards and vocal harmonizing effects as drawing room – the solo moniker that seen him through a decade and a myriad of different styles. Playing out like ambient music at high-volume, khans’ approach made the perfect melodic introduction to the night, a relaxing low-key performance.

Substandard took the occasion to make some changes – for the first time they had become a four-piece, joined by guitarist danny bare’s flatmate matt on 2nd guitar and the groups first ever vocal performance. Covering sonic youth’s epitome of sound ‘diamond sea’ – a seething 20 minute song comprised of 2 distinct approaches – melodic vocal parts joined with full-frontal guitar attacks (known as the ‘sea of confusion’). Substandard made good on the hardest of covers, andrew adding his own touches while trying hard to mimic steve shelley’s minimalist drumming, gareth floating in and out with strong bass cues, while danny and matt reconstructed the piece with precision.

The Dialtones (with the ever-present sound supremo marcus winstanley making his 1st of 3 stage performances for the night) were absolutely bombastic. Marcus’s dominant drumming drove the band to new heights, fleur leading the band through one of their most rousing performances and absolutely the surprise of the night. Fleur’s usually sedate vocals seemed to raise with authority above driving compliment, and it sounds like they’re truly in-line to make a welcome return to the Christchurch scene with a new high-power approach to their slightly folky rock.

with the night now pressing on (20 minute sets are one thing, but set-up times had already seen the night stretch out an hour or so) mini-snap had arrived and were inclined to take the stage next. With marcus returning to the stage to compliment the rob scott-less bats sister band as the supplementary guitarist, mini-snap sounded a little muffled and lacked definition, but still displayed a charismatic approach to their jangly guitar pop.

Arriving from wellington to take the stage as Dragstrip), former Ape Management band mate of Mike’s David Clark displayed humor and a gritty approach to guitar rock. With darryl kirk soon filling in on some impromptu drumming (without knowing any of dragstrip’s stop-start song structures), he brought a smile to an already jubilant crowd. Using the kind of down-and-dirty insights that a beat poet might conjure up, dragstrip were brash and to the point – and thoroughly entertaining.

The entertainment continued in the form of a short and explosive set from Into the Void – another in the line of bands that appeared with the hiss explosion on waitangi day. The guys were right on forming, pounding away on the gig drum-kit with authority, while guitar and bass interlocked to create dense and highly rhythmic grooves. Things got a little silly late in the set when the drum kit, started inching its way off the stage, the voids drummer continuing to soldier on as his kit fell apart around him, with cymbals flying forward and his double-kick basically giving up the ghost simultaneously.

After a bit of a delay, the other surprise packet of the night – a new look shocking pinks took the stage for their debut performance. The pinks have cultivated a bit of a unusual standing in the Christchurch scene, diving fans and muso’s with their infectious danceable songs, but leader nick hearte’s somewhat unusual approach to retaining band members. Needless to say the new line-up looked a little nervous (especially playing to such a large crowd), with new guitarist kit not really making their new direction – closer to a shoe-gazer sound, all that obvious with some restrained playing. Cutting things short at a mere 2 songs; they ended in a flurry of sound as nick drowned the crowd in bass feedback.

Things took on a more mellow direction as the night passed 2:30 am – the much-vaunted undercurrents showing off the highly soothing melodic pop that had made them such a firm favorite with Mike. Bassist and vocalist Nick (formerly of seminal shoe-gazers barnard star, along with the guitarist – yes him again – Marcus Winstanley) really drove the band on a number of their songs, his playing adding volume (not to mention groove) to their wistful and contemplative pop melodies. One of my highlights for the night, the undercurrents unfortunately played to a fleeting crowd, weary from a late night.

Finally Eskimo – the new power-trio of Rob Mayes (bass), Michael Daly (drums) and local legend Dave Mulcahy (guitar) concluded things to a diminished, but enthusiastic crowd. Mulcahy and mayes joked, and ran through a couple of their newly formed songs – that sounded like a slightly harder variation on mulcahy’s former band superette. In good spirits (not to mention having consumed many) mulcahy grew distracted and frustrated in their third song, and quickly pulled the plug – effectively ending a long and wonderful night a little abruptly. Despite such a rough approach to a set, they did sound quite distinctive. After hearing an earlier performance to an un-interested varsity crowd a couple weeks back, eskimo sound like they are indeed making strides towards the kind of pop gem i know both mayes and mulcahy are capable of.

And thus a long night was completed. Special thanks must go to sound guru’s marcus and loki, who made everything flow so beautifully, and of course the many bands that gave their time for such a worthy cause. Michael John Brassell will be remembered as a friendly and encouraging man that meant a lot to so many people – he will always be our Mike Hex.