The Pin Group: Article on Ambivalence

Roy Montgomery
Roy Montgomery

There’s a short film from 1981 by prominent Christchurch multi-dimensional artist Ronnie van Hout that’s been well-circulated on Youtube recently.

The film opens with an evocative poem by (Pin Group contributor and early member) Desmond Brice, backed by guitarist Jon Segovia. The footage eventually cuts away to the equally evocative bass playing of the Pin Group’s Ross Humphries, running through the opening rumble of the brilliant ‘Ambivalence’, which is of particular note as it was the very first single distributed by Flying Nun Records.

In a general sense I think it was the accumulation of hard-to-get DYI punk, post-punk and obscure 60s vinyl coming from the UK and the US shared amongst a handful of folk committed enough to fork out large amounts of cash to pay for imports that led to a realisation that if no-one else was going to back the equivalent energy and garage aesthetic here then we had better put up or shut up.
– Roy Montgomery

Ross Humphries
Ross Humphries

A young Roy Montgomery bites his lips as he builds the intensity in his guitar playing, carefully looking over his shoulder at Humphries as drummer Peter Stapleton brings the song to full velocity. The sound is muffled, but Montgomeries husky baritone still powers through the murk – “I don’t know how to react to you, or even if I should” goes the opening line.

I think the lyrical content from Peter Stapleton and Desmond Brice was very filmic and atmospheric albeit rather bleak and fraught in a psychological sense. Desmond made no secret of his lyrics as recriminations or self-recriminations and used to refer to himself as Jim Despondent at the time – a not-too-subtle Doors reference.
– Roy Montgomery

The film gives a glimpse of a defining era in Christchurch music; free from the hype that would be thrust upon the Dunedin scene within the next few years.

Montgomery had been a keen purveyor of British and American Rock’n’Roll since his teenage years, avoiding the “oompah, thigh-slapping ‘schmaltz’ music” of Germany (he lived in Cologne with his British Mother and German father till the age of 5) and formed his first, in-name-only band – the Psychedeliks.

The only one with an actual instrument was me. I had a Diplomat six-string electric bought from Sedley Wells as a package with an amplifier that dated back to the late 1940s and which took about a week to warm up. I couldn’t play guitar at all at the time but I did come up with the band name and the spelling of it and I decorated the drum kit made out of crates with “crazy” lettering. We were as influenced by the Monkees as we were by anything really countercultural.
– Roy Montgomery

Peter Stapleton
Peter Stapleton

However at this stage in his live Montgomery was more music fan than musician, a regular at local non-pub gigs at venues like the Caledonian Hall and English Park where he can remember “an Epitaph Rider bailing me up in a toilet to scrutinise the Maltese Cross I had hung around my neck”. The Pin Group didn’t start taking shape until around 1980, pre-cursor groups ‘Compulsory Fun’ and ‘Murder Strikes Pink’ uniting Montgomery with Ross Humphries.

I was still learning to play guitar so three-chords/three minutes/buzzsaw music was the norm. The Saints were a big influence for me at that time. But we had a few atmospheric, brooding, plodders that anticipated the Pin Group modus operandi a year or two later.
– Roy Montgomery

The early Pin Group recordings were not particularly well received – mostly due to the crude murky quality of the recordings and pressing, a teething issue of the fledgling label. To add to that their live shows ended up a little odd, to say the least.

Typical audience reception to the Pin Group was bemusement as far as I could tell. I remember Bill Direen doing headstands on the dancefloor of the Gladstone to one of our songs but I think he was making some sort of Dada anti-art statement. On another night two women in bondage gear whipped one another for another number while a vibrator buzzed happily on a nearby beer-soaked table. Dancing and other expressive audience participation was not common for us so we had to be grateful for what we got.
– Roy Montgomery

However over the past 30 years the group’s reputation has grown substantially, partly due to the later success of the groups members (Peter Stapleton and Ross Humphries with the Terminals, and Roy Montgomery in a solo capacity), but also the powerful nature of the songs themselves. When Roger Sheppard was reunited with the Flying Nun label in 2010, creating a definitive Pin Group release was high on the labels list of priorities. Packaged with artwork by van Hout and mastered by Montgomery and engineer Arnie van Bussel, the release (named ‘Ambivalence’ after the terrific debut single) lays bare the gloomy, dark and dynamic sound of the Pin Group.

Over the course of the double-albums 20 songs (compiling all previous releases plus a live recording rescued from Montgomeries Earthquake damaged home) the listener is treated to gloomy, powerful songs that not only evoke a certain vision of Christchurch but indeed New Zealand at it’s darkest.

 

Complete Interview here.

[Published in an edited form by the Christchurch Press, Sep 21st 2012]

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 1980’s, 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 1990’s, 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.