As 2020 enters its final phase, Phantom has curated a selection of original works by Becky Woodall, Eamonn Tee, Simon Sweetman, Ruby Porter, Steve Thomas and David Eggleton. Diverse in their form and inspiration, these poems continue the Phantom tradition of giving street denizens some nourishing food for thought.
Poet and editor David Eggleton has no doubt poetry belongs on posters – in fact, he thinks it’s the perfect antidote for 2020’s woes:
“Why does poetry belong on posters? Because it’s about keeping calm and carrying on, with a song in your heart and a smile on your face, while sliding on someone’s dropped banana skin towards that promised land of milk and honey where Covid-19 has no dominion.”
With their stark black and white typography, Phantom’s latest poem posters are sure to stand out. Keep an eye out for them on a street near you.
There’s no money in it, so why does Phantom Billstickers print poems?
Putting up posters every week is a business model. But the pioneers of professional street poster campaigns, Phantom Billstickers have been providing free space in their poster frames for New Zealand poets for over 15 years. What gives?
Phantom’s CEO, Robin McDonnell, says the company feels a responsibility to think bigger than next week’s marketing budget.
“We started out with posters to promote acts like Dave Dobbyn and the NZ Ballet. We wanted to create an audience for their creativity, so we took to the streets and let people know. It’s the same with poetry,” McDonnell said.
There’s also the desire to show the world what New Zealanders are capable of.
Today Palmerston North, tomorrow Paris.
As well as posting poems in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and other locations around Aotearoa, Phantom Billstickers have been taking Kiwi creativity to a worldwide audience.
A network of sympathisers and enthusiasts around the world have taken to the streets to share the works of our poets. The words of Janet Frame, James K. Baxter and many others have appeared in St. Petersburg, Paris, London, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Honolulu, Rarotonga and Melbourne over the last few years.
As a result, Phantom’s poem posters regularly attract likes and feedback from people in locations far from these islands. Nothing is being sold – but something is being gained.
It’s all ‘flora for the concrete jungle’ as the Phantom mantra has it.
The formidable and internationally-appreciated noise trio, Dead C, is releasing its 34th album, Unknowns. Bruce Russell spoke to Richard Langston about his on-going excitment making spontaneous noise with fellow band members Micheal Morley and Robbie Yeats – and digging for old 45s.
A new album Bruce – how did that come about?
It’s quite a story. Last October on Labour weekend I went down to Dunedin, Robbie has the use of a cottage at Aramoana, right out on the spit, and he said come down, we’ll fire up the bbq for two or three days and do a bunch of recording. We did and that was great, the place has a walk in chiller for the beer so it was very nicely set up. We recorded a lot of stuff, a couple of albums worth, but most of it was on a digital multi-track recorder and when Michael transfered the files there was one of those problems that happens. We lost everything.
But in the room we also had a couple of those hand-held zoom stereo recorders and we still had those. They had really weird bounces of sound because of where they were in the room and there were large amounts of stuff we couldn’t use. The record’s a collage of the bits we managed to salvage from the zoom recordings. Michael’s added vocals to most of the tracks and we’ve created our first ever 12” EP, 15 minutes a side. We’ve never done one and it’s the classic ‘80s NZ format. I’m pretty excited about that and the material sounds a bit different because of the way it was put together, there’s a bit more post-production.
Ironically, there’s two records coming out as we had some money from previous royalties to fund a European tour that was not possible and we’re using that to do a 7” 33, the other classic 80s format, and it’s got five things we’re calling songs. Michael’s edited them togther into two side-long chunks one of which is called two songs and the other’s called three songs. None of it kinda makes sense until you hear it (laughs).
Three songs…the first time I’ve heard that title since the Tall Dwarfs…
Yes, that’s the other reference. Nicely spotted. We’re doing about 300 to sell as merchandise for if and when we do any other shows, and we’ll make it available on Bandcamp. I’m quite excited about having something that’s easier to transport than a 12” record. One thing that’s killing touring for us is taking these fricken huge boxes of LPs, ah do we have to take them?, yes we do! (laughs).
Do you have any idea of what you were going to do when you started recording at Aramoana?
No, we never do.
One of your many collaborators, Alastair Galbraith, describes the moment you switch on the machine and start recording as being in the moment and like jumping off into the sea…
That’s probably fair. I resolutely refuse to prepare anything or rehearse. When I collaborate with new people – I did that record with Delaney Davidson for instance – he realised that’s the experience that I would give him, that I would just turn up on the day and then we see what happens. I find it a really productive way to work and it saves so much time.
I think that’s a great record, and gives even the casual listener a good introduction to what you do…you’ve got the reference of a traditional songwriter like Charlie Feathers who provided the starting point and you just make a mess of him in a good way…
Fucking everything up is pretty much my strong suit! Actually the most listenable record I’ve ever made is probably the Visceral Realists record I did with Luke Wood. It’s the most musical sounding and it was done the same way as the Delaney Davidson one on a Teac four-track. It’s got some keyboard stuff on it and a more subdued vibe and for whatever reason it came across as really nice.
All the rhythm tracks are constructed from the run-off grooves of old ‘60s 45s. I chose records from my collection that had interesting rhythms when the needle gets to the end …chick ah dah bok …chick ah dah bok…chick ah dah bok…I’d have a DJ set up where I’d have two run off grooves playing similtaneously and slightly manipulate them till they got into a good groove and recorded those and made three minute segments and then we overdubbed over the top of those.
We were trying to produce something in short order. When I start playing and I think I’ve got half an hour it can take ten or fifteen minutes to really turn into something but if you’ve only got three minutes you’re really on your game. It does produce a different result even though the method is the same.
Are they almost songs Bruce?
Which brings to mind something you’ve said in a previous interview which I think is another clue to what you’ve been doing these past 30 years …you said, ‘too many people think of sound as a way to present songs, I think sound is fundamental and songs are not…’
That’s what I think, yes. You’ve got to remember that when we started back in the mid-80s that was the heyday of the songs and you had bands like The Verlaines – and one third of our band was The Verlaines (drummer Robbie Yeats) – and The Verlaines were all about the song. We were pushing against something that was the prevalent approach. We decided early on we were going to do everything the opposite way. We just wanted to see what would happen and that was playing to our strengths. Why would we just be incompetent at something everyone else was doing when we could be spectacular at doing something nobody else was doing.
I remember when Graeme Hill introduced you for your first television appearance. He had this gleeful look of someone who can hardly believe he’s got you on the tele…
It’s the look of a 12 year old letting off fire crackers in church.
I remember thinking at the time something like, ‘Bruce is just winding everybody up, he loves to provoke people’, but I watch it now and I think it’s really good…intense, wild, good…
Thank you. The thing about that, and it took a lot of people a long time to believe this, we are actually really good at doing what we do because we’ve been doing it for 30 years, just the three of us. Whether you like what we do or not, after a period of time we are actually going to develop an ability to do the thing. I’m really proud of the fact that we are exceedingly professional. We’re a band who can get on a plane and fly for 30 hours, drive for six hours, and go on stage with no sound check and deliver a killer show.
When you’re playing with Robbie and Micheal, what is going on in your mind?
“The first year of playing with the Dead C I was convinced we were going to get bottled, someone would stand up and say, ‘You people! This is Bullshit! ‘You (pointing at me) you can’t play that thing what the fuck are you doing?!“
The difficult part of what I do is learning not to over-think it. I’ve always been not able to play the guitar, I was born not being able to play the guitar! What was difficult was retaining the clarity, the simplicity of vision of I’m going to play the guitar but I’m not going to worry about playing it. I’m just going to use it, I’m going to see what happens when I do things with it. As soon as I start to worry about how I was playing I became very self-conscious and that made it very difficult.
The first year of playing with the Dead C I was convinced we were going to get bottled, someone would stand up and say, ‘You people! This is Bullshit! ‘You (pointing at me) you can’t play that thing what the fuck are you doing?!’ And what surprised me was that never happened, but I was always ready for it to happen.
It took a lot of psychic training to get myself to the point where I didn’t think about that, and then I had to train myself when not to listen to the others because if you listen to them too much when you’re playing then you lose track. Now I only listen to myself, I just point at the nearest foldback and say I just want my guitar through that so loudly that it will feed back when I’m standing over here. I’ll hear the drums but I don’t need to hear Michael cos it works when we don’t listen to each other. My best current description of my guitar playing is a mix of Tai Chi and carpentry.
That’s a great description, and you’ve made a hell of a lot of noise over the years…
Yes, we’ve been running for 34 years and we’ve been doing an album a year on average. To be honest when I tell people how many records I’ve made I don’t know if they believe me (laughs). Personally I’ve made 75 albums, not just albums that I appear on but where I’m playing on the whole thing. If you include where I’ve made appearances on other peoples’ records it’s probably 80 or 90. That’s the virtue of not preparing.
But you’re committed Bruce and I think it takes committment to listen to your records, by that I mean they aren’t to be taken or listened to casually…
(Laughs) yeah, I get that. On all levels it takes committment (laughs). Listening to any records I’ve made, particularly the Dead C ones, it does take committment but the joy of the Dead C is it’s the unstable combination of three different things. If the stuff I do on my own has a weakness it’s that there’s too much of me and some days you don’t want to listen to just me, but with a Dead C record there are moments where Robbie does something, oh that almost sounded like music! And Michael will moan narcoleptically, oh that could be singing-ish! (laughs).
On the subject of committment,I have a memory of someone calling you an enabler – someone who gets things done and who helps others get things done – and I remember back in the mid-80s in Dunedin you not only wrote for my fanzine Garage, and enlightened me about bands I wasn’t so aware of, you also came around and stapled it together, a small thing, but I’ve always remembered that…
Ah yes, the stapling party! I do remember doing that.
Was it a party, I just remember the two of us grovelling on the floor with this large stapler…
That’s what I call a stapling party (laughs). There was a lot of stapling!
There was, it was Garage 5 i think and we were doing something like 1200 copies by then…
I like doing things with my hands, I’m an inveterate DIYer. I’m doing a rainwater irrigation system at the moment for relaxation. But running a record label was about making things, Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum, I spent incredible numbers of hours folding covers, putting things together. Honestly, Corpus Hermeticum I folded something like 20,000 CD covers.
You’ve always had intent Bruce, you have very particular tastes and there’s band you’ve always advocated for, and I was astonished to see that intent once when I went record hunting with you…you were digging in old dusty singles bins where most people fear to go…
That’s an interesting point. Last week I went to Penny Lane records cos I was feeling stressed, and looking at shitty old 45s relaxes me. Almost immediately I found Surfin Bird by The Trashmen, and I thought this is why I do this, this is so exciting. For the last couple of years I’ve become quite obsessive about finding these old 45s. What attracted me to it was it was an affordable way to buy old records cos second hand LPs are now all 20 to 30 bucks.
You can pick up 45s for next to nothing.
It casts a light on one of my other obsessions which is recorded sound. Going right back to hearing Tally Ho by The Clean, that’s a funny sounding record and I’m not sure I like that but why I didn’t like Tally Ho when I first heard it was because it didn’t sound like records on the radio. And that’s because it was ‘poorly recorded’.
But I’ve really developed an interest in understanding how recorded sound mediates our relationship with music cos rock music is really about records. There’s a really interesting book by a guy called Theodore Gracyk – Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock – where he argues that rock music is about records, it’s not about songs, it’s not about performances, it’s about recordings and that’s a position I’m in sympathy with.
A big part of the Dead C’s career has been fucking with fidelity, and our records have a particular sound and it’s very carefully chosen, it’s what we like but it’s not what people are expecting. What I realised about 45s is, and this is the joy of them, we’ve all heard Surfin Bird on numerous compilations but the rock archeologist in me wants to know, what did Surfin Bird sound like when it was made in 1963?
Surfin Bird was pressed in NZ but the plates, the metal parts that were used to press the records, they were shipped from America to here and they were cut at the time from the master. The record I got for nothing the other day is literally no-steps removed from that process, it’s a record that was pressed in NZ in 1963 from a plate made from the master tape in Amercia, so suddenly there’s nothing between you and what it should sound like other than a bit of surface noise, and I’m good with that.
An illustration of the value of this is I’ve got two copies of Friday on My Mind by The Easybeats, one was the 1965 NZ pressing and one’s a 1973 reissue. They sound completely different because in the ‘70s they recut the thing and they put a bit of reverb on it and tried to make it sound like a 1970s record should sound, and it’s fucked up. That example alone confirms to me why I’m interested in hearing the originals.
What I’m also really really listening to is the quality of the sound, and so you hear something like Let’s Dance by Chris Montez or Tallahassee Lassie by Freddie Canon and you hear the bass drum and that was the first time a big drum sound had been used in a pop record and then two years later you hear Have I the Right by the Honeycombs as recorded by Joe Meek, and again the rhythm is people stamping on a wooden stair case, and when you know that and listen to the record you can really hear it and I just find that really exciting cos I’m interested in sound.
This is why you have earned a doctorate in sound… drilling right down into it…
“My advice to someone seeking to understand the recorded works of the Dead C is they should track down the original 45 of Let’s Dance from 1961 and play it at brain-melting volume, and then they’ll understand much better.”
Absolutely. There are remarkably few people apart from studio technicians and backroom boffins who are interested in these things, and there are remarkabley few artists who really seem preoccupied or knowledgable about these things and I want to caste a light on that.
In a weird way the career of the Dead C is the practical experience for me that came out of that process that’s led me to a philosophical position on sound and that philosophical position is producing new knowledge, and as an academic new knowledge is what we’re all about. I’m trying despertately to find the time to write the book that will come out of the doctorate to share the ideas cos I want other people to build on them. It’s hard to find the time even though I don’t spend any time rehearsing (laughs).
My advice to someone seeking to understand the recorded works of the Dead C is they should track down the original 45 of Let’s Dance from 1961 and play it at brain-melting volume, and then they’ll understand much better.
On the subject of sound, when Lou Reed died you wrote a piece for Wire magazine in which you said, the guitar solo in ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ gave you persmission to do what you do…can you expand on that?
Yeah, again this is sort of about sonic archeology. The career that the Velvet Underground had when they existed was almost insignificant but their subsequent career since about 1974 when their legacy began to be rethought, it’s been a really interesting process of uncovering what they really did because we only knew what they did in the studio as there were so few workable bootlegs, but gradually more and more live recordings have become available.
I used to read a lot of American fanzines and I recall one based in Ohio called Black to Comm in the late 80s reprinted an interview with Lou Reed where he talked about guitar playing. It was only a couple of paragraphs but it stuck with me because Lou was trying to do stuff with the guitar that he thought was important and that involved taking guitar playing away from widdly-diddly tricky changes and finger picking expertise. He was trying to do with the guitar what Cecil Taylor had done playing the piano with his elbows, and all the free-jazz guys like Albert Ayler had done to break down technique, Ornette Coleman, y’know the harmolodic theory where he basically takes music and just chucks it out and says I’m going to play the saxophone and let’s see what happens, and Lou Reed had tried to do that with the guitar but on record there’s almost none of it.
But the break in ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ is a really good example, I don’t know if it’s got any notes, it’s just a blurt. It doesn’t go for very long but it makes no i sense at all but it’s incredibly exciting. It takes the song into an entirely different dimension.
Then that guy finds the acetate of the Banana album sessions in a flea market in New York and it’s the first sessions and the album as it was originally conceived by Warhol and the Velvet Underground before record labels were involved.
It’s got a version of European Son which has an extra 1 minute 40 seconds at the beginning and this was actually edited out. You can tell when you listen to the released version and the acetate version, you can hear where they did a razor cut on the master and they just chopped it out. It’s another bit of this guitar playing, just this mad screaming blurt, it’s incredibly exciting but it’s been cut out of history. Lou felt by the time he got to the end of the Velvet Underground he didn’t want to play guitar any more. ln the early 70s, particularly around the time of Sally Can’t Dance, he wasn’t playing guitar live, he would just sing because he said no-one wants to hear me play guitar cos I tried doing that and they shat on me so I’m not going to do it anymore, fuck you.
The Lou Reed that fascinates me is the one the wanted to do with the guitar what Cecil Taylor did with the piano. It did inspire me, that and hearing Rudolph Grey playing on a 45 that was sent for review to Alley Oop (Dunedin-based faznine). Rudolph Grey on this record which is called Implosion 73 is playing with Rashid Ali the drummer who played with Coltrane on Interstellar Space, and when I heard that I thought Rashid Ali is playing drums with a maniac who is just making this noise with a guitar. This was in about 1991 when I was already finding my way towards this and when I heard that that was the other part of it. I’m going to do that. It was not something that anyone in Dunedin really wanted to hear.
I just want to change tack slightly and talk about the aesthetics of packaging. The Dead C records and the other records, cassettes, and CDs you’ve been associated with they’re always artfully done and are nice things to hold and look at … such as the Le Jazz Non compilation…the quality of the cardboard and printing…it’s a thing…even though it’s on a format many regard as disposable…the CD…
Interestingly I’m waiting Richard, for the CD to come back, I reckon it’s got to be another year or two before CDs suddenly develop the cache that cassettes got five years ago. I never thought the casette would come back, I was naive, now I know better. I have hundreds of CDs from the 90s cos CDs was my business and it is a great format. I was on a crusade – and it’s nice of you to notice – it was an effort to make the CD a more aesthetically pleasing format, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. It’s a bit small let’s face it, but leaving that aside there is plenty you can do with the CD.
On another tangent, I always think you come up with great titles for the Dead C records, my favourite is Vain, Erudite and Stupid for the CD of the band’s selected works…
Yeah (laughs) that’s a goody. Those words in the Max Harris song lyrics are actually from a poem by Ern Malley who was really a couple of traditional poets who hated modern poetry and did a prank on Max Harris (then co-editor of the Australian literary journal Angry Penguins) by writing all this shit and calling it the poems of Ern Malley. When we were going through the process of compiling the 20th anniversary selected works of the Dead C there was no other title that it could be given.
When we listen to humans making sounds we generally look to them to tell us a story, to produce melody, or evoke feeling. Is what you do purely intellectual?
No, absolutely not.
It has an emotional quotient then?
Yes, to me it’s very visceral. I’ve certainly heard many sound compositions that read well on paper, oh conceptually I see what they did there, that’s a really good idea but fuck it’s boring to listen to. There’s a lots of people working in this area in an intellectual sense but they seem not to have any understanding of the drama and emotion involved. My point is that sound outside of music can also stimulate emotions and I’m interested in assembling sounds that are interesting and make you feel something.
When I’m playing the guitar and it’s going well – it doesn’t always go well – I get excited, I’m pretty juiced up about it. The first time the Dead C ever played together it was so exciting we were all absolutely ecstatically excited by what we were doing. I can distinctly remember literally dropping my guitar and running around inside Chippendale House running in circles kinda squawking, it was just that great. Excitment is just another emotion.
Chris Heazlewood is what’s known in music circles as ‘a lifer’ – someone who’s committed himself to making music on the fringes despite the obstacles and difficulties. Chris is a unique talent, renowned for his solo work, as Cash Guitar, and with the mighty and turbulent, King Loser. A documentary, ‘King Loser – You Cannot KIll What Does Not Live’, is going to be released sometime on the band’s final tour in 2016, a typically hell-raising and hair-raising series of events.
Two of Chris’s great accomplices and fellow-travellers in music were Celia Mancini and Peter Gutteridge. Chris spoke to Richard Langston about his departed friends and his 30 years in music.
What do you think people will make of the doco?
I’ve only seen snippets but I think it will be uncomfortable (viewing). We’ve given Andrew (Moore the documentary maker) free licence and it’s kind of risky. He could edit it any old way he wants.
But he loves the band.
He said to me if I caught 30 percent of the craziness it’d still be a great doco.
Yeah there was some extreme behaviour and obviously the four of us are all anti-authoritarian, don’t give a stuff for people in uniforms or especially people telling you what to do and what you can’t do. They become targets, people to roll out of the way.
I’ve only seen snippets but there’s a fair bit of arguing within the band.
There’s Celia and you calling each other c..ts.
Yeah, that’s right. I’ve known her for 30 years (I still talk about her in the present tense); with big personalities you’ve got to go big too. If you’re a quiet person in that stuff you’d get lost. There are no quiet people in the King Loser whānau (laughs). We’re all difficult characters.
How did you meet Celia and why were you attracted to her??
That chap Glen (Campbell) from S.P.U.D he rang me out for some reason. I said yes to doing some music with them in 1992. I didn’t think much of it, didn’t think he’d really get anything happening, but yeah I’ll play some guitar for yah. Then he rang me up at 1:00 a.m. in the morning and he got me round to meet these two people and it was Pat Faigan (aka Duane Zarakov) and Celia and she was just back from America and he had just shifted from Christchurch to Auckland.
They were best friends really tight, obviously he had a big crush on her cos she was a powerful driven woman. And when I met them we talked about music a lot and they were into exactly the same music as I was, Velvet Underground, Suicide, The Stooges, The Saints, Dick Dale, The Ventures, Sergio Mendes. It was like bang bang bang, oh wow! Instant best friends (laughs). And of course she’s a good looking woman and she certainly put that out there. She’s got her rack out, the big guns are out (laughs).
How old were you at this time?
I was 26, very naïve, I’d only been in Auckland a year and a half. I was working two jobs Foundation For the Blind administrator in the daytime and night time I had a data entry job with ACC. I’d finish work in Parnell for the blind, hop in my car drive straight to Panmure, get some fish’n’chips, and go to the ACC at 10 pm every day of the week.
I don’t associate you with nine to five jobs. I just didn’t think you had them.
I did then. I don’t now. I have a 16-track recording studio in the front room and I spend all my money on living and if I want other recreational pursuits you factor them in and make allowances so that you can afford them.
You’re living close to the bone, not much to come and go on…
I like that. I mean when I was in Auckland in 2018 on tour with the girls (Tony Hall and Connie Benson) as Cash Guitar we were going to a couple of areas behind K Road and there was a little alleyway, basically we used to sleep on the street and under these bridges and in these parks and hang out with these dudes sitting on the cardboard because these people were actually all right, these are the salt of the earth as opposed to the people on Lambton Quay who walk straight past those homeless people.
That’s a hard life Chris… that life…
No, it isn’t. That’s where the soul of life is, Hamish Kilgour, he’s in that place and Peter Gutteridge was every day. You just wake up and you’re there with humanity, you’re not going to waste it with a white collar job, you’re going to go out and bleed for the people, play some music, drag them along. C’mon!! c’mon!!
I think it takes courage to live that sort of life.
It can be touch and go yeah, but I’ve been doing it for long enough. The worst thing that will happen to you is that you’ll be humiliated. Money can be a bit tight (laughs).
When I first met back in the mid-1980 you’d come to work at the Otago Daily Times as a reporter…
I would’ve been 20.
And you seemed the sweetest guy…
But I’d already been working at the freezing works at Burnside for six years, brought up in that brutal masculine culture, very aggressive. You’ve got to stand up for yourself, all that testosterone. I had learned those things which didn’t sit well in the editorial room.
But you didn’t strike me as aggressive. Were you?
No, no. I worked with that chap, that tall beanpole who was also a cadet. I can’t remember his name. He was shy and soft, and I always thought you’ve grown up inside a flower or something, you’ve been cotton-wooled. I always felt quite hard beside him but yeah I was still pretty naïve. But even when I met you I’d been arrested a couple of times.
Drunk and disorderly behaviour, resisting arrest, obscene language, stealing alcohol.
Why did you want to become a reporter?
I’ve always wanted to write. I was brought up in books. I used to proofread my parents’ letters, do my Dad’s tax returns. My brain just wouldn’t stop. I was hungry for knowledge; that’s why I wanted to become a reporter. I had that glossy idea. I didn’t envisage sitting in the district court or ringing the fire department and the ambulance people every couple of hours. I lasted two years. I resigned because I started to take too many days off. I got sick of it. That whole row of editorial offices were all ex-OHBS (Otago Boys High School) and that’s where I’d come from as well and I thought I’d probably got the job because I’d been to OBHS and I didn’t like that thought.
Were you obsessed with music then?
Yeah I’d snuck into The Cook to see Toy Love, I’d climbed the wall and got in the fire exit. I’d seen Bored Games at the Concert Chambers. I used to go to Pandora’s Box down on the wharf to see The Clean. I went to Coronation Hall.
What impression did they make…
It was just sort of this big noise. It was more the feeling of it. I can’t actually remember the specifics of it, just wow!!! I think my brain was still forming, y’know. I remember more about The Stones, and thinking I love this sort of thing, they were more kind of snide whereas The Clean were all racket. The Stones had that sort of more beat vibe and the sneer was more obvious…we don’t really want to be here but we’re going to do it anyway. I was fascinated by that, the attitude.
What were you listening to at that time do you remember?
It would’ve been Joy Division..
Hang on, sorry, when did you start playing?
I started playing when I was 18, I bought a guitar off Wayne Elsey, his double cutaway Gibson ES355 Epiphone. I was living with Tony Dooley, Mike Dooley’s (drummer in The Enemy & Toy Love) brother and of course Toy Love was pretty huge and I was going to Roy’s (Colbert, owner of Records Records) every day after school on the way down from school to catch the bus home. I’d flick through the bins. Joy Division, Magazine, The Saints. But the first music I was into was stuff on 4ZB – Neil Diamond, The Animals, 96 Tears (by ? and The Mysterians). The Kinks. All that stuff.
Did you talk to Roy?
No, he was always quite daunting. I was quite shy and I was always very nervous cos I’d go in there and maybe see some people who’d been in the bands. Some friends of mine had a band.They had shared rooms with Sneaky Feelings above Whitcoulls by The Exchange. You’d walk up these smelly old stairs into this room where there was all these musical instruments. I’d sit in the corner drinking Speights and watch them practice. I was about 15 or 16.
At school I’d hang out with Alistair Galbraith. He was in my class and I’d go and watch The Rip practice. I was just fascinated, still couldn’t play the guitar though. And then I got one and I shifted out of home, I was like 17 or 18 and I got a flat. My first flat was at 475 Great King Street – Toad Works. Shayne Carter would walk past and yell out ‘Doublehappys clone!” cos he heard me playing the guitar. I always remember that. He couldn’t see me – he didn’t know who it was – he just heard that guitar (the one Chris had bought from Wayne Elsey). I always remember that (laughs).
Was the cassette Ratfink A Booboo the first thing you did?
Yeah yeah. That was 1988, I got a warehouse in lower High Street, this massive triangular room, and I lived there by myself. I got this Tascam PortaStudio and I started multitracking which was a great revelation, sound on sound, which blew my mind. And of course there was all of that music around, the second wave of bands, Love in a Gas Oven, Look Blue Go Purple, Snapper, The Puddle. Straitjacket Fits were starting to play at Chippendale House, Dead C were cranking up.
I sold enough copies of the cassette to shift to Auckland – ninety copies at ten dollars each or something. Sean O’Reilly (who played on the cassette) had written me a letter saying …’Come to Auckland, you owe me ten dollars you bastard’. I played in a band (Olla) with Lesley Paris (Look Blue Go Purple), we’d been a band called Buster in Dunedin with Norma O’Malley (LBGP), Sean and I and Lesley. That was good fun, I enjoyed hanging with those guys.
In Auckland there were lots of jobs. Work was easy. I got a job, got a car, got a flat with Sean O’Reilly. We drank a lot of piss and it was only then I realized that the South Island drinking culture was quite out of control because I didn’t see anyone else drinking a bottle of vodka in the hallway at the parties. But that’s what Sean and I would do. People were sort of stand-offish with us, they sort of had this reverence for musicians from Dunedin even then, ‘oh, he’s from Dunedin, he’s got the black polo neck on’. We thought it was hilarious.
Then you were in King Loser with Celia. What it was about her that inspired you?
She was completely irrepressible and didn’t recognize barriers which I was just gobsmacked by because I was a shy person and grew up never wanting to piss people off. But here was this person giving me permission to be free. It was really liberating and when I got into a practice room with her and Duane (Zarakov) they gave me lots of confidence because they would say, “oh my god …that’s incredible…you’re so great…”.
Y’know Sean and Leslie were with my friends but they didn’t really do that stuff, overt compliments. I understand that, we’re from Dunedin, you don’t want to get too carried away (laughs). Meeting Celia enabled me to unlock part of myself which had been hidden.
Would we loosely label that as your wilder and darker side?
Yeah yeah, definitely.
What is it about surf music that you love?
That’s the peak of it; there’s rock music that has all those forms, but then there’s surf music which is a whole lot more elemental. They’re using the form but then there’s this bluster over the top, y’know dick-a-dick-a-dick-a-dick-a-dick and it has this sort of subliminal quality. It’s got a lull to it but it’s also intense.
Hamish Kilgour thought at one point The Clean were going to be a surf band…
That’s the aspect of The Clean that I really love. ‘Fish, ‘At the Bottom’ “Point That Thing…’. Those parts; they’re powerful, not so much songs, thesonic aspect.
Can you explain your love of dissonance and noise?
Well…melody…it’s all very well to have this pleasing sort of pattern but then the discordance pulls you in another direction. It’s like shifting something underneath it, it’s more interesting, that’s why we don’t photograph things in the middle, we put them to the side. The principle of thirds, everything looks slightly better not symmetrical but with some asymmetry. I think that’s especially true with sounds, if you put other textures in there against something clean and deep and put some static in there and make it staccato, you’re building tension.
You’re not like Dead C where you’re out on the edge from the outset…
That’s truly kind of brave stuff but also you got to remember they do practice (laughs). Let’s just put that out there!! They practice improvising but they’ll have a loose form, there’s a form there.
Do you listen to noise?
Yeah, I do, I also listen to a lot of lounge and fuzz music, Ty Seagal, Fuzz, Acid Eater. George (Henderson, of The Puddle & New Existentialists)) played me a great record, an early Philips electronic sampler called Electronica 2000 and it had all these East European composers using synthesizers and musique concrete techniques, found sounds dropped in over synth, and it was very esoteric and out there, there might have been a melody thread running through it but it’s just very interesting. Then he played the piano sort of quite random and I sat down behind him and started playing synth on my phone and it went together so well. It sounded like And Band that sort of plinky plonky, some scrawl, scrap of a melody, some noise. I think once you’ve listened to a lot of melodic music you need more meat in the sandwich, that’s the guts of it.
I heard an interview with Iggy Pop recently in which he said …’I needed to make white delinquent suburban music…’
Yeah because you’re flying a freak flag, that’s your stake of freedom isn’t it. As I said to a friend, ‘the world is run by fat white men in tiny little rooms who are despicable and have awful relationships with most of the world around them, women, other men, and the way they treat people is horrid’. The friend I was talking to is an artist and she was asking about stuff we do. I feel no compunction about being completely outside that; straight lines and boxes. You don’t want to end up there. As Sean O’Reilly once said, just continuing to play music is a political statement in itself, it’s like the two-finger salute.
Speaking of living outside of boxes and straight lines, how did you get to know Peter Gutteridge?
I’d actually first met him in The Exchange (In Dunedin). He’d been to The Savoy and seen Buster. I knew who he was and he stopped me and he said, “I saw you play the other night you were quite good, better than you think’, and that sort of scared me, the scary beaked nose – looking like Catweazle – ’better than you think’ (laughs).
But he was a really sweet guy, and I loved the way he spoke. I loved the sound of his voice. His father was a BBC announcer and had this beautiful mellifluous voice. And Pete was great to hang out with, he had a great sense of humour. He was the cheekiest bugger and he has this thing he does where you’re doing something and he’ll stop and go, ‘Really? Is that right?’ (laughs). I’d call him the sergeant.
And you eventually started playing music with him…
When Celia and I got drafted to play and help out in Snapper she did fine, but I had great difficulty because it was all really simple, but it relied on the texture and I could never get it right. Practice was always at annihilation volume in this tiny room and you just couldn’t hear. But Peter could and he’d be saying ‘stop’, and it’d be like waving a jet airliner down (laughs). He’d come over to my amp and go ‘hang on, what’s happening here?’ He’d look over my guitar set-up – it just took me years to get that right.
There’s stuff that you filmed of you two jamming together in his latter years…
Yeah, I arrived back in Dunedin after I got scraped off the pavement in Auckland and shuttled back. I actually went to my parents for a year and detoxed. I ended up at Pete’s in 2009 or 2010. I remember walking in, and he said, ‘at last a person of quality!’ (Laughs). I thought that was hilarious.
I lived there for a while with him and we played a lot of music and we took a lot of acid and we would cook and he would ask me to stop bringing books into the house and I’m like, “No, nah, I can’t stop”. There were piles of books everywhere and he only had a small house. Pete was just really great to hang out with and he knew a lot of stuff that I didn’t, and he taught me a lot of stuff. Often, I thought it was quite crazy, like he drew these security symbols, these little doodles like circles in crayon with a straight line through them and put them at the front door. I’d say what are you doing Pete, and he’d say, ‘these are security symbols, very ancient’. Really? Like Really? And as it turned out, he’s correct. As I learned later from someone who was doing reiki you go through each grade of reiki, you’re given these sacred symbols. He was really big on that. A lot of times near the end I just feel like it’s kind of his bodyguard because he would go through cycles of mental unwellness and he did end up in Wakari Hospital a couple of times because he did think he was Jesus. I looked out for him; I was used to helping people after being with Celia who also was unwell at times. They also looked after me at times – I’m no stranger to the psych ward.
It was probably inevitable your last tour with Celia and King Loser, given your personalities, was going to be volatile?
On the last shows she was really unwell; she’d been knocked off her scooter and she was carrying a head injury. She had pins in her foot, and she had double plasters, she had broken both arms. She was in a lot of pain which I don’t think we fully appreciated because she was such a trooper… ‘righto let’s do it!’. But at the same time, she’s a chemist shop because she’s in a lot of pain. These are strong medications she’s on, they’re opiates. She’s drinking a bottle of vodka or rum starting at 9:00 in the morning.
My relationship with her was quite fraught because she was quite shouty so I would shout back whereas really what I should’ve done was just gone over and given her a hug and I did that a couple of times and it worked magically.
After she died, the compilation, ‘the Celia Mancini tapes’ (2019) came out and showed the fearless approach she had to making music…songs she wrote and performed with King Loser, Snapper, Into the Void, and Stepford 5…
That’s a beautiful album and I Iove that cover, the smoke rising off her cigarette as if it’s going to lift off the cover. It’s a Ronnie Van Hout photo. Beautiful. When I saw it, I cried.
It sums up Celia so well – bar the drug talking, the shouting, here’s this elegant, extremely chic woman at the height of her powers looking in control.
Her ethos runs right through that record even though each song is by a different group of people, and i guess if you weren’t a strong writer or musical presence that might not be the case. She was keen on metal, surf, lounge, krautrock – her tastes were wide-ranging and that‘s why she could turn on a dime musically. She had all these skills – a foot in all the camps. She was a hell-raiser but also a perfectionist and she was often proved right, often to my annoyance. She had great instincts.
Is there any other King Loser music still in the vaults??
Yeah, there’s the live-to-air recording on Radio One in Dunedin in 1993. We’re keen to get that released on vinyl cos that has some of our best performances, including some great work by the drum-soldier James Kirk. We had a great crowd there in the room with us – Robbie Yeats, Bob Scott, and Paul Cahill and Bruce Blucher (of Trash) – cheering us on. There’s also some instrumentals we’ve never released, they’re more pastoral, sort of like Miles Davis – A Tribute to Jack Johnston. There’s also a set of songs called ‘Bitch on Heat’ recorded by Celia and I in Christchurch in 1994 with a variety of drummers. I’m really proud of that. There’s 12 songs and that’s coming out soon on Independent Woman Records. I’m excited about that.
What are you doing at the moment Chris?
I play the drums most days and I had a jam with Alistair Galbraith the other day. I don’t play the guitar as much as I used to but it’s there’s when I need or want it. I play a lot with Connie – she plays guitar and organ – we’re working on a new form of Cash Guitar.
It‘s just a bit sad there’s not more places to play in Dunedin. There used to be so many venues and they’ve dried up, and real estate here’s gone through the roof. Dunedin’s still a great place to be – it can be brutal this climate – but that’s good for the spirit. There’s still a great community of musicians here and the people who play do it because they love it. It’s no place for careerists!
You’ll find the name Tex Houston among the credits on many of the notable records associated with Dunedin and Flying Nun.
The sound engineer’s worked with bands as diverse as The Chills, The 3D’s, Netherworld Dancing Toys, Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer, King Loser, Able Tasmans, The Renderers, The Verlaines, Look Blue Go Purple, The Subliminals, The Clean, David Kilgour & the Heavy Eights and many more.
After decades of working with sound, he’s used his finely-honed ears to make and design a pair of speakers, Tex Tones. He spoke to Richard Langston about his working life in sound.
When did you become interested in sound? Did it come from your interest in music or from a general curiosity and awareness of sound?
I’ve tinkered with electronics from a very young age. I was hooked after making my first crystal set at primary school. I always loved music and I sang in a covers band at high school. We bought a PA system and I got to know it inside out, and then I started mixing bands and working on more and more complex systems.
I ask because I’ve worked with people in radio and television who’ve trained to be sound engineers and as sound recordists … I worked with them on Country Calendar and I know how obsessive and attentive they can be… to do justice to what they’re hearing…
Yeah, being able to capture the moment is what it’s all about. That can sometimes require a lot of attention to detail, and can be time consuming, but it is usually an enjoyable process. Messing around with different mics and mic placement in order to achieve the best result is great, although sometimes you don’t get that luxury. Often you need to be ready to record at a moment’s notice – you have to be on your toes.
On that note, there’s a moment in the recording of the 9th (the album with Sam Hunt and David & the Heavy 8’s recorded at Chicks Hotel in Port Chalmers) at the start of the song ‘When Morning Comes’ Sam says… “come around this side” and later on ..”don’t worry keeping going” or something like that…do you remember that?
Yeah, I remember – there are wide poles at Chicks and Sam couldn’t see someone so he asked them to come around the other side. Classic live in the studio stuff!
Did you think about saying…”ok, hang on guys…’?
Hell no! Keep it rolling. I think with someone like Sam you don’t wanna miss a single phrase, or word even!
Did you have any formal training or did your skills develop through your work with bands?
The courses available now didn’t exist back then. When I started mixing the Netherworld Dancing Toys they became successful quite quickly so I was thrown in the deep end and had to come up to speed quickly. Working with them also exposed me more to the recording process. After that, touring around the USA and Europe and more recording over the past few decades has given me a lot of experience. It all came to me very naturally.
What instruments do you play? And, if so, what sort of insights has that given you into the people you work with?
I can noodle away at the guitar, but that is a relatively recent thing. Playing a little has made me have even more respect for the guitar gods that I have recorded. I think being a vocalist, even at school level, taught me the importance of good onstage sound and monitoring. I also have a good ear for pitch so being able to point out tuning issues is quite critical.
Were you encouraged/inspired by any other sound obsessives – like the Martin Hannetts of this world?
I would say that I’ve been inspired by many, but I didn’t want to stamp my own signature sound. I just wanted to realize the band and their songs and make them sound as best we could while retaining their own sound.
Are there any particular records that you loved the sound of that were something of a guide?
I couldn’t single out any one album but I’ve noticed lately, while listening to a wide range of music on my new speakers, how much the stuff I listened to as a teenager got stuck in my music brain. Fleetwood Mac and Bowie are good examples, but they weren’t really a guide. I still tried to make each band sound like themselves wherever we were recording.
How do you see your role with the bands? I guess you’re trying to record them as accurately as you can to get the sound and feel the band is after…is that the usual starting point?
Friend, fan, engineer, driver, tour manager, supporter, fun-timer ummm the list goes on…
When they’re delivering the goods on stage or in the studio, I want to get that across to the audience or listener and do it justice.
What makes a session memorable? Are their moments where you can see what makes someone a particular creative soul and talent?
It might just be a moment when a song comes together and everyone clicks or it may be something completely extraneous. They’re all different and memorable in their own ways.
It’s important to be on guard because that moment can strike anytime.
What are some of the sessions you remember – whether it was good or frustrating…
They are too many to mention but some great and clearly memorable ones were out of the studio environment. With The Clean we recorded ‘Modern Rock’ in a community hall at Hoopers Inlet on the Otago Peninsula. We went floundering in our downtime!
With the Able Tasmans we recorded at Carrington in the former psychiatric ward and one of us had to stay over every night to look after the gear. The 3D’s recorded ‘Venus Trail’ in a former Masonic lodge and mixed it in my living room in Port Chalmers. More recently there was David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights collaborating with Sam Hunt. All great experiences and all great outcomes!
The role of an engineer and a producer are quite different – but when you have a small budget and are recording friends who are bands…the lines could be easily blurred..
I’ve always been kind of anti-producer. Nearly all of the records I‘ve made say “recorded and mixed by” or “engineered and mixed’. We would always record live in the studio with everyone playing at the same time – not piecemeal fashion.
This can be a bit of a logistical nightmare at times, especially at the kind of volume that some people prefer to play at, but I believe the musical results are better for it. I put a lot of time into set-up and then prefer to collaborate with the band on the mixing. Back in the day we could have 5 people in the control room with specific fader pushes or knob turns in different parts of a song – I think that can provide some magical outcomes. Very human!
I would always work with set fees so we were never watching the clock. I like to think the recordings I’ve done are timeless and generally I think they have stood up to the test of time. I’m proud of that.
Do you have any idea of how many bands you’ve recorded over the years?
Haven’t got a clue, but I just looked up Discogs and there are more than a 100 credits there. There’ll be plenty more not counted though….
You do the sound for bands at gigs …what skills does that require? What challenges does that present?
There are a lot of technical skills I’ve honed over the years, but you’re still mixing music through a pair of speakers – albeit large ones. Setting up the PA how I like it is very important – I much prefer mixing the headline act for that reason. I’m a pretty calm person and nothing much rattles me – I’m told that can be reassuring for the band and gives them more confidence.
Not all sound engineers go on to design and make a pair of speakers, I wonder what led you to that?
I don’t like to be too idle; in my down time when not on the road or recording, I started making equipment for the studio: preamps and compressors etc. I tried some active speakers several years ago with some success, and then I had the stacked plywood idea and wanted to try that out. I was determined to get that studio sound in domestic speakers for everyone to enjoy. It’s also in my genes – my dad was an engineer and my grandfather a ham radio/electronics guy.
The speakers look beautiful…how important was that?
A lot of the reason for making them was to design speakers that looked different from the standard box shape, so yes it was important, and it took me several attempts to get them looking how I wanted them to look. I wanted people to get pleasure from how they look as well as how they sound. The Art Speakers grew out of this and it was really great to work with the artists on them.
When it came to sound what was it you wanted in your speakers?
When I was first introduced to studio monitors I was absolutely blown away by how good they sounded compared to conventional speakers. More detail and more impact was the goal and I think I’ve achieved that. Everyone who has heard them has tended to go ‘wow!’ and that makes me really happy.
How cool was it to have David Kilgour, Robert Scott, Nicola McLaren, and Chris Knox collaborate on your speakers?
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.