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 Clarkson’s 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 catalog – 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-catalog (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 among 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 head-sauce. 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 DAT’s 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 GS!YBE. 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’. Tt’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.