Bill Direen’s decades of music making, lyric writing & poetry, spoken word and performance are showcased in a new retrospective double album, Memory of Others OST.
The album is the soundtrack to the documentary filmed during Bill’s tour of NZ in 2016. He spoke to Richard Langston, about the album and his recent tour to Europe, the USA, and Australia.
THE USA label, Sophomore Lounge, has produced a beautiful package – gatefold sleeve, double vinyl, liner notes by Byron Coley, bespoke labels. How was it that a US label released it?
The owner of Sophomore Lounge, Ryan Davis, runs a festival in Louisville called Cropped Out. It has a wide sweep of artists who work beyond the mainstream, from Peter Brötzmann to Dead C, from Mayo Thompson to Eugene Chadbourne and Opposite Sex. The year I played there were acts like Half Japanese and Michael Hurley, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at our lodgings. 78 years old and still performing. So Ryan was looking for something special for the 100th release of his label, and heard that we (Simon and I) were casting about for a label, for the vinyl release of the OST of the doco Memory of Others. That’s Simon Ogston, director of the film. The tracks were carefully and faithfully mastered by Forbes Williams in Dunedin, and Ryan personally oversaw manufacture. Ryan himself drove down to Atlanta to oversee it (a seven hour drive). A complimentary download of the film made for an attractive package, and it’s been selling well.
Are you pleased with it? It’s a good representation of your work – the rock‘n roll elements, the theatrical element, the spoken word…
Yes, I am pleased with it, in that it does not limit itself to just the music, or just the writing. From the beginning Simon was himself wanting to make a more poetic film than he had made so far. He imagined all kinds of scenes in his head long before filming, and he described some of them to me over the phone. I thought I had died and gone to heaven! So I gave him complete freedom regarding whatever he wanted to do, poetic landscapes, existing videos, archival footage and live content. The double album is essentially full versions of any music that features in the film. So it includes some poems written on the road, live recordings filmed on site, studio versions of videos and some rare defunct releases.
One thing the doco highlighted for me – and something I hadn’t fully appreciated – was that you have this playful element to you, I think especially of the moment performing with the school children in Wellington ….
I learned a lot from children. Any parent will tell you of how one can learn life over again through them. They remind us of our own forgotten childhood experiences whose brilliancy has been dulled by adulthood, and they never cease to surprise us with their unadulterated creativity. I enjoyed working with that children’s Gamelan group, but that was enhanced by working with my oldest sister, their music teacher and a fine musician herself. The children’s gamelan orchestra at Clyde Quay School was her initiative. Those kids were so concentrated on the task. They made it easy for me to work my text into their music. Of course, they were working with teacher Marie’s little brother, so there was a familial aspect to it all, which comes through in the scene in the classroom when they are asking questions.
I suppose it was something of a revelation to me because your work – and performance – have often come across as pretty intense…
That is true, but the two, intensity and play, are related. In the early days my music, my writing, my performances — some of them intense to the point of self-destruction — it was all a matter of life and death for me. Perhaps I was lucky to survive. I am sure though, that such intensity and even insanity was also fairly egocentric, fraught with surmise about the importance of each uncompromising second of one life, my own. I am sure that I neglected to see the road through the eyes of other drivers at that time, but over the years I have come to appreciate that other people, everyone else I play with, have their struggles and desires, their ideals and their scars, their gifts and their traumas, and when we play together it is exactly that, a playful solution to our tears and our hopes, which can seriously bring pleasure and some clarity to us all.
The documentary also shows you reading from Janet Frame’s work in the Oamaru house she grew up in… not too many rock’n’rollers would think to do that, but you’ve always had a strong literary element to your songs and performance…
Very early on, like in the late 70s, I set lyrics by Samuel Beckett, Jules Laforgue and W.B.Yeats to music. A cassette has just turned up some of those sketches. It was in the 70s when I read Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry, which led to her Trilogy and poems. She had a crystal-clear vision and way of writing, and Simon Ogston is also a huge fan of hers. Another influence in the early days was James K. Baxter, whose mixture of lyricism and social criticsm seemed to me appropriate and courageous at the time. His father Archibald Baxter must have been a tremendous role model. Another poem that I wrote on the road with Simon and second cameraman Jeff Smith (Jeff was in the band the Newmatics in the 80s), was dedicated to Douglas Lilburn. I once studied Electronic Music with Douglas Lilburn, it must have been 1976. He had a massive electronic studio with a strangle of patch cables which he pulled out and plugged in to make different sounds, and the sounds showed up on three small round consoles showing Sine and Cosine and other waves. It was amazing. I think his was the first electronic music studio in the Southern Hemisphere. So I saw him, quite by chance one day, walking through the Dell in the Wellington Botanic Gardens, and I realised that he was listening to the patterns, and circulating resonances of the cicadas. That’s what that poem is about, in the film.
Your recent tour around the world started with readings in Eastern Europe…how did that come about?
A publisher in Serbia became interested in my first novel, mainly because the ‘hero’ hails from Kosovo, and was a refugee from the Balkans war. They applied to a NZ translation fund and were successful, and the translator hit me with questions about it. He wanted to preserve the poetic nature of the prose. Afterwards, they arranged a series of public readings with the translator, including Q&As, and Serbian Television interviewed me, first the national television and then a Kosovo channel. It was a fascinating glimpse of a country twenty years on from a devastating and divisive war. As we were driving through the translator’s village on the last evening, he told us quietly, from the back seat, of his experience when the bombs began dropping upon it. He was just a child. And he did not expect to survive. War is terrible, and it is ingrained in that generation. People who carry the memory of the violence, of the horror we are all capable of … they are the most courageous of all, I think. To overcome that, and to push on to thoughtful and happy lives! That publishing company, Partizanska Rights, is amazing.
There’s also a nice little booklet that was produced for the tour – including a very good poem about Janet Frame… that’s a selection from recent work right?
Yep, those poems were written or finished on the road. The poem honours Frame’s clarity, the way she can capture aspects of experiences we have all felt.
How do people respond to your spoken word pieces during your gigs?
In the USA and in Eastern Europe I began each show with readings, with little interventions, like footnotes, explaining any of the more mysterious phrases. That was a new thing for me, and many people said they liked that approach. So I will hang on to that approach for the next tour overseas. In the USA, percussionist Chris Davis sometimes added some cymbals or floor tom to the spoken word. They are interconnected.
Might you do more literary tours?
I don’t think I will ever separate the literary side from the songs. This new format with them both worked well on tour. People responded so well they have invited me back, and I sold all the sampler booklets. I hope to take the words and music on tour in NZ too, maybe in 2020. Basically, that will be me solo, reading a few poems or extracts from novels, followed by keyboard or guitar songs with a gentle percussive presence. I dropped in on Audio Foundation in Auckland and played a spoken word/song set with Steve Cournane last week, and that worked a treat. But I am also deeply involved in a Wellington-based project, in which I do only spoken word and organ, with two other musicians. We are called Ferocious, and an album of our collaboration, of their drums and electric guitar with my spoken word/organ, will be released on streaming and CD by the label Rattle next year. So there’s plenty going on.
This double album is something of a retrospective, are you at a point now where you do look back across what you’ve created?
Absolutely. My task this year, 2019, has been to do justice to the many collaborations that made the music good, while presenting existing work live in a form that will not disappoint. I have also taken the opportunity to include a few poetic or short fiction texts, which help to shape an hour on the stage.
It is a hell of a body of work – if we just look at the music you’ve recorded and released – do you have any idea how many records you’ve released?
No I don’t. I am thankful to Simon Ogston and to Ryan Davis of Sophomore Lounge for highlighting the material found in the film, but people often come up to at shows and ask me if I could possibly do for them some piece or other which means a lot to them. With material ranging from folk to garage to improvisation to funky-punky to Brechtian cabaret, there is something for everyone I suppose. I have performed in theatres, pubs, cafés, squats, prisons, schools … But I do feel that this double album captures that diversity.
Why did you record and release records under so many persona? Roger Shepherd in his book is full of admiration for your work – he calls Beatin Hearts a NZ masterpiece – but he implies that your constant changes of band name probably cost you wider recognition…
He may be right there. Roger knew what was necessary, the minimum for a band to succeed, and he realised early on that I was not likely to fulfil the requirements. The fact is that I was never in a band with the idea of being a success. I don’t believe any of us in the first band had any illusion about that, though I may be wrong about that. For me, at least, every situation back then was make or break. And still is. I had come close to death when I was fifteen, a car accident, and that altered my spiritual and philosophical perception of the world. That, and other experiences, some traumatic, some emotional in a positive way, turned my childhood worldview on its head. I abandoned medical studies and went into the world around me, as I saw it. Every page I turned, every corner I turned, every practice with the band, every week of learning riffs and discerning the subtle craft of songwriting together was vital for me.
I know artists often say…the most important thing is that I do the work – and what happens to it after that is in the lap of the gods. Is that your outlook??
There was an element of that, but the initial distribution or performances did matter. The first edition of Six Impossible Things, only 100 copies, was distributed from hand to hand, personally, and that was part of the ethos. After that, it was great that people recognized some previously limited releases as having greater potential for popularity and even for profit, but that was secondary to the primary “hands-on” impulse. I, and others, were already moving on to other immediate things. The artistic life is not a joyride, but it does exist in time, like a ride. Going back in time, or arresting what you are doing “now”, in order to sell more widely, can be counter-productive. As mentioned, I am now trying to organise the material for literary or musical estate, not that I am thinking of dying tomorrow. And I do have musical and poetic projects on the go, long-term. Perhaps I have learned to get a little ahead with planning, to allow time for a glance back such as this one with A Memory of Others.
Do you have any idea how many songs you’ve written?
I don’t. I suppose it is a few hundred by now.
What about the number of poems?
All I have is notebooks full of poetry. Sometimes I spend weeks or months reading and writing poetry with strict regularity of hours and sleep. I am always searching for clarity with words, and writing poetry keeps the mind in trim. A rejected poem may help generate a line of a song or a translation. Over time it seems there are a few poems, though, every year one or two more, that might pass muster with the poetry bosses.
If someone were to write a book on you, they’re going to have a merry old time trying to keep track of all the records, the volumes of poetry, the novels, the plays….
I hope they have better things to do with their time. I have a person who has accepted to take over the creative bundle of my life, and I will be doing my damnedest to leave the estate in a form that will not cause her undue strife.
I was surprised to hear you say during your recent Wellington performance that you’d written operas…how did that come about?
When the two vinyl pressing plants in Wellington closed down it was a catastrophe for me, as I had founded a record label upon the popularity of the CoNCH3 album (with The Alligator Song). And so I gave preprinted LP covers of intended releases by Free Radicals, Paul Sutherland and Sparky’s Magic Baton to the local Newtown school to use as cardboard satchels in the classrooms. I then returned to my first love, the theatre. Wellington had four professional theatres at the time, so it seemed a logical move. I converted an old wash house into a writing room and wrote operas. This was before the rise of Wellington as a cinema capital. I remember sitting opposite Peter Jackson at the Downstage bar when he was also starting out. He had an office in the same block … a lot of water under the bridge since then.
It must have been a tricky thing just to survive at times Bill, to earn enough to live on…
I was able to turn my hand to painting houses, repairing pre-digital cars, packing up books for Allen and Unwin, supervising particle board manufacture, working puppets for Public Eye, radio DJing, teaching English as a foreign language, tutoring in university English Departments … I even wrote an advertising jingle for a bread company to keep a step ahead of misery.
The documentary highlights the fact you were a performer from an early age…what were the first things you wrote or performed?
The first song I sang in public was Can’t Buy Me Love, to the nuns of the Convent of Mercy in Timaru. Would have been about 5 or 6. The first poem, a proposed epic on the life cycle of a rain drop in iambic pentameters, when I was about 10, mercifully lost for eternity. I’ve always been sorry there is no surviving copy of a teenage composition “You’ll love this wholemeal loaf we call it Superwheat” that aired on 3ZB for some years. Perhaps someone has a copy of it. The drummer of Vacuum Peter Stapleton knew it well, long before we began playing together, having noticed a curious lyric in it, (“Takes us back to where we’re going to”).
Who are some of the writers/songwriters who’ve inspired you, and continue to inspire you?
Bertolt Brecht, Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, of course, is the king of English. I’m always discovering new writers with a musical element, and musicians with a literary element. I love folk music, music and lyrics that have evolved through the peoples of many lands. I love music, period. Right now, I prefer live performance to recordings, such as recent unrecorded shows of Noel Meek and Kieran Monaghan at Pyramid, Ron Gallipoli by Candlelight featuring Hermione Johnson at Audio Foundation, or the Fun Drazers at Brickbat Books in Philadelphia, with Ed Wilcox on drums, Syd Torchio on french horn, David Ford on trumpet and steel drums, and Hugh Wattles on tenor sax. I am veering towards situations where musicians can reach out and touch the audience, physically. I have always preferred situational music, in rooms or cabarets, where you can see the whites of the audience’s eyes.
When you picked up a guitar and started to write songs who were some of your guiding lights? Dylan, I think, has been mentioned by some of your fellow musicians…
My early influences in the mid-sixties, when I first picked up my brother’s Hofner guitar lie in the midst of 60s radio pop. Dylan was not on the radio then. My brother’s guitar was often out of tune, and as a result my first attempts were more rhythmic than melodic, with a sympathetic ear for atonality. I also joyed to Beethoven from the age of ten when I won a Phillips portable turntable. I used to set the auto-start to come on with the alarm in the mornings till I knew symphonies backwards. Then I bought three early albums by Dylan and responded positively to anything with a story. And I was drawn to tales of bitterness, such as The Ballad of Hollis Brown. Folk Club heroes like Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie led to Leonard Cohen whose records another sibling owned. Yet another sibling introduced me to the joys of Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Goldrush. It was a feast of fine American production standards and exceptional minds of the 70s. Then came West Coast soft revolution bands, followed by garage, an introduction to Nuggets psychedelia and East Coast urban/European influenced hard-assed song-making. It all mounted, and it all meant — to me. I have never betrayed my origins, cultural or musical, and hope the sources are alive within me.
How much have you been influenced by the people you’ve played with?
Collaboration relies on infinitesimally tiny moments of understanding and communication among players. Working with other people can be magical. It is too easy to strip away that magic and speak of who influenced who. Everyone is involved, even struggling with, the hard labour of making that unified thing, coherent, maybe political, certainly poetic. Everybody brings something special to the group. It is way too complex for lists and hierarchies and pecking orders.
It’s peculiar how that Christchurch scene of the late 70s/early 80s was so small but how its continued to attract interest around the world from music fans and writers….
That is interesting, I admit. But there were a number of highly developed, widely read personalities in that “scene”. We were, many of us, fed up with various things, from paltry mid-70s radio music to political hypocrisy.
How do you remember that time? And how has time altered the way you see it now?
The impulse that brought many of us to play together was the wish to improve personal craft and to cohere as a group to the point of making a difference. I do not believe it was to succeed in a music industry for which, I think I am right in saying this, we shared an unqualified loathing. We were also products of a generous education system that no longer exists, and we took our own directions from that generosity, following through interests in areas such as mythology, political science, history and what later became media or cultural studies. We were all adept in different ways. Many of the conversations were staggeringly well-informed. I dare to say that even the bad behaviour was philosophically based.
How intense were you about making it as an artist/musician?
Not at all. I wish now that I had taken the economic reins more, as that would have empowered me as an artist and I would not have had to skimp as I have. But I was, myself, very easily upset, and suspicious of the forces that might destroy creativity. I had been very lucky in having had some musical education when I was younger, so I had learned the rudiments of music, and for six years my folks had given me special tuition with a tutor who had lost his sight when he was a young man. He opened my eyes to a lot of beauty, and to some new ways of thinking about life and literature, and that was all well before I met the thoughtful and talented Christchurch people who inspired Roger Shepherd to found Flying Nun. If wealth had fallen from the sky I’d have known how to use it, but it was never important for me to succeed in the entertainment industry.
Some of the records from that time – say the Pin Group 45s and your early 45s – now change hands for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Roy Montgomery (in a recent Facebook post) recalls you coming into the record shop where he worked with records in a suitcase and that you sold … ‘a miserly few ‘…
I don’t remember that. The pressing runs were very small, so they went from person to person. That was what it was about. The same goes for the little magazines I edited in the 70s, like the six issues of a mag called Extension, printed on a Gestetner duplicating machine, and sold for ten cents in the bars in Wellington in 1976 and 1977. If anyone has any of those please get in touch. As for the music, the big difficulty was not so much selling the limited pressings, as having them played on the radio. They were outside the system of mass production and payola. To be fair, some of the recordings would be difficult to have aired even today, because of poor production standards
You’re described by journalists and music writers in such terms such as ‘cult musician Bill Direen’ – did you always see yourself as someone who would work on the fringes?
I think I always felt safest from myself on the fringes. I have always been aware of my capacity to work within a system I loathe. I had that compromising ability, as did my father and grandfather who served in two world wars, obeying and killing. Why do it? Many people on the fringes suspect the mainstream for very, very good reasons. Untold wealth corrupts. People are implicated the moment extraordinary sums begin to fall into their purses. I work with people who share that distrust.
How much do you feel part of the NZ music scene? (it seems you’re often more lauded overseas than here)…
I played at Audio Foundation last week, and Pyramid Club too, and at both venues, on both evenings, I felt part of NZ music. It is not a Hall of Fame, but they are part of a living music scene which they help to keep alive.
You have spent a fair bit of time overseas – living in Paris for example… your sensibilities often seem quite European… especially in literature/theatre…
Yes. Europe was a place to vanish into, a place where I could learn about different cultures, and people who had taken refuge in those cultures. It was also a place where I could rediscover myself. In Berlin, I wrote my first novel, the one that has just been translated into Serbian, and others followed when I moved to Paris. The writing was necessary for me, and I never stopped writing songs. I spent a fair amount of time working on translations of people like Brecht, Brassens, Aristide Bruant, Louis Aragon and François Villon. That was my attempt to integrate, and some French and Germans appreciated that.
In music maybe your influences are more American… Lou Reed, the Velvets, the 60s garage bands, et al …
Yes, my primary contemporary musical influences are American. There’s no question about that. But John Cale brought Europe to the Velvets, and after American music I am fascinated by European composing. I am also interested in Asian influences. I wrote a thesis about the influence of oriental forms on Brecht, Antonin Artaud, W.B. Yeats and the Polish ‘Poor Theatre’ director Jerzy Grotowski. And there’s Indonesian music …
What are you working on now? Are you still as driven to create?
Without a doubt. The latest recording project was with two collaborators in Wellington under the rubrique Ferocious. Our album will be released by Rattle in 2020. Later on, I would like to release selected work from over the years with Steve Cournane, live studio takes and performances at the Audio Foundation. I have been invited to tour overseas again next year, doing the same thing, texts and songs with portable keyboard and electric guitar.
Another thing the doco did well was use the South Island landscape to illustrate your turangawaewae – where you’ve lived and worked – that’s obviously important to you…
For sure. “Home is where we start from” (T.S.Eliot). It is perhaps the place we were loved when we did not know it. I did not begin my wandering until very late, I was nearly 40, so the place of deepest and earliest penetration for me is New Zealand. When I returned to this country in my fifties, the land, the lakes and the light were all there for me. I hope the doco does not appear to be staking a claim over this country, to the detriment of anyone else’s claim or connection. Every New Zealander has his or her special relationship with this land. I carry my own in my heart. Simon Ogston’s documentary really did manage to capture places and times of deepest impression upon me. And that is possibly because all his six films about music groups are also films about his New Zealand, which we share. I was lucky to have been part of the music and creative life of his New Zealand.