As a landlord, you know the hard slog and expertise it takes to sort out leases, maintenance and compliance. Not to mention finding good tenants!
We know it’s hard work because our Sales & Marketing Director, Rupert Fenton, grew up in a family that owned commercial properties. What he absorbed around the kitchen table turned out to be oddly relevant to his subsequent career at Phantom.
Rupert, a bit about your background…
“I grew up in the UK where my family had a small portfolio of commercial properties. I remember listening to my parents and grandparents talking about rates, rent rises, deferred maintenance and all the other stuff you need to stay on top of. So I never had the naive idea that owning a commercial property was easy money.
“In the end I didn’t join the family business, opting instead for the media business. I’ve spent 25 years now in the outdoor advertising industry in the UK and New Zealand. I’ve worked for start-ups and the world’s biggest outdoor media company. And now I’m part of a great team here at Phantom.”
On the surface of it, being a landlord and running a poster network seem like quite different businesses. But you say they’re similar. What do you mean?
“It’s the fundamental business model. If you get the right tenant/advertiser in the right location, you will get the best result.
“As a landlord you don’t want just any old tenant – you need a business that will really thrive in the space, as well as treating it with respect and paying the rent on time. As their business grows, you as the property owner will be rewarded with a greater return. In the same way, our advertisers benefit from being in high-quality spaces.
“By attracting the right advertisers into our frames, we’re rewarded when their campaigns succeed. They know they’ve done well so they’ll happily come back for more.”
Surely it’s straightforward – high foot traffic equals high value?
“Of course, a premium site on a busy street will command top dollar simply because of the number of eyeballs it attracts each week. But that’s just the beginning.
“Just as smart retailers look to add value to their stores, we add value to our poster sites. So you’ll see retailers taking on the online threat by innovating with their commercial space, like Barkers with in-store barber shops in its menswear outlets. We have the same can-do, innovative attitude.”
Can you give any examples?
“At Phantom we’ve been creating more four-in-a-row sites, because we’ve noticed that big brands like State Insurance or Mercury like to book sequential street posters that tell a story. We’ve also invested in extra-large sites, that act as eye-level billboards to give our clients extra impact. And we have the skills in-house to build shelves for product sampling, or to customise and colour-coordinate our frames with their brands.
“There’s a big pay-off, because now street posters can now serve a strategic purpose in big brand campaigns – and attract more customers.”
What about the role of posters in recovering from Covid?
“We understand how their businesses were hit by the lockdowns. Losing tenants and customers was a brutal blow, and it affected our business as well as theirs.
“That’s why we’re super-focused on maximising returns from our poster network and helping support the property owners where our frames live. You could say we’ve got skin in the game.”
With songs to call on stretching back to her days with Look Blue Go Purple as well as two solo albums, Francisca Griffin is about to tour in the North Island for the first time in decades. The most recent of her solos records is the lovely and affecting the spaces between. She’ll be playing Auckland and some out-of-the-way-places with her band, The Bus Shelter Boys. She spoke to Richard Langston.
Your album the spaces between is a record of such a particular tone and mood, I’m wondering how you approach those songs live?
Ah, that’s a good question. That was a solo record with a lot of help from amazing people, Mick Elborado for example, he plays keyboards on ‘Rising Tide’ and now he’s in the band playing bass. I’ve got Gabriel on drums and the songs have morphed a little bit as I think songs should. The same basic bones are there with the ones I play with the band.
We went into practice and I just told Gabriel and Mick that they should play, well we just started, and they played what they wanted. There’s only one song where I directed Gabriel and sometimes I tweak a little bit of what Mick’s done – can you hold off on this bit, and that bit’s really great. I really like what they’ve brought to it and I enjoy listening to other people’s interpretations within the tunes.
We’ve got three new songs and we’re going to bring them on tour. We also play some of my older music like ‘Eyes Are the Door’ which is on the Look Blue Go Purple compilation, the first song I ever wrote.
What I particularly enjoy about Spaces is how it evokes where you live (Port Chalmers) and people who are obviously close to you…
Yep, it’s songs written over 15 years…maybe a bit more actually. I started writing ‘Stardust’
in 1995 but it didn’t morph into what it is on the record now until 2012, it just happened one day when I was practising , ah, those words fit this.
Were you surprised when you were writing Spaces how powerfully some of thosepeoplecame back to you, for instance the song about Martyn Bull (who she married and who died aged just 22 in 1983…and who famously drummed on Chills song ‘Pink Frost’)…
That song, ‘Martyn’, I wrote when I was playing with Sandra Bell and Dianne Civil and Emma Milburn…we were this very short-lived band called Formentations and I wrote it just after we had stopped playing. That song just arrived like so many of my songs do. I do have to work at some of them of course, you do end up working on all of them to some extent, but that song was just there.
I have this new view of death, it’s not a popular one, which is cool…it doesn’t bother me. Not long after Martyn died I was as you would imagine bereft. One night I lay down on his side of the bed and I was fucking miserable…and as I was drifitng off to sleep…and this is no word of a lie…this happened… I felt a weight on the bed come down beside me and then give a really amazing hug. When I woke up it wasn’t there. I think it was Martyn. He was coming to give me a hug to say that he was alright, he was doing okay.
What year did you write that song?
Ok that’s sometime after …
Oh yeah, totally. The time between I spent in LBGP and being a mum and being in a relationship where I was not at all confident to go and play and my partner was not in the least bit supportive of that, and so I lost confidence pretty much completely. A pretty difficult few years but I got a few songs out of it (laughs).
One of the other songs that’s very affecting is ‘Ghost Boy’…I heard it and got the impression you’d lost someone else…
That was written in 2000, I started writing it on bass and then moved it over to the guitar – it was the patterns as opposed to the notes because of course my bass is left-handed – conventional left-handed and my guitar is left-handed but my strings are all around the other way cos as people know who’ve read any interviews with me I learned to play at peoples’ houses at parties in the ‘80s and they all had right-handed guitars.
My son Oscar was visiting here from London, his Dad brought him over when he was 12. The visit had some really really really good aspects to it of course, I was seeing my son for the first time in two years and he was seeing us for the first time in two years and getting to know his little brothers a little better. At some stage we had a gigantic fight, and he couldn’t vocalise why he was so angry and I wrote him a really long letter…actually I never sent it…I gave it to him when he was older…just to put it out there I think we’ve resolved those things and have mended those hurts.
That song, every time I played it for a long time, and still sometimes now, I start crying, and lots of people cry when they hear it. Ro Rushton Green who’s just joined our band from the band Sewage, Ro plays violin and we started practising it last week so we’re going to do it on tour.
Ther version you have recorded on the album…Alastair Galbraith’s playing…the way he makes his guitar burble…moan…mourn…and lament…it’s incredible…
He does an astounding job. When we started practicing last week Ro cried while she was playing. It’s not just a song about Oscar… it’s a song about loss. The last two verses are about realising that you are still connected although you are not in the same room.
When we play ‘Ghost Boy’ it will be just me and Ro. I’ve played a few times solo when I’ve asked Alastair to come and play as well which has been really amazing. There’s 3 songs on that record that Alistair’s on that I’ve roped him into playing live a few times which is awesome.
‘Martyn’ was recorded with Gabriel (her son) and me playing guitar and Ro playing baritone sax, on tour Ro will play an alto sax cos a baritone is a monster to cart around and Mick’s bass is pretty much the only thing new on that song when we play live.
Which reminds of the fact you’ve got a knack..a gift…an ability to gather a community of musicians around you when you want to make music…
It’s just so heartening. Let’s talk a little about Songs from the Sky (her first solo album released in 1998). That came about because I played at The Empire one night a solo thing with Alastair Galbraith and Peter Jefferies and for some reason I ended up playing last when it didn’t even occur to me…I’m a bit naive sometimes…(laughs)…following Peter and Alastair was a big ask and to hold people’s attention.
When I was finished playing someone said to me , that took guts to play after them and I just went, what? David Kilgour came up to and he said, they’re great songs… When are you going to record them? I just looked at him and thought, here’s this guy that I absolutely admire, I’ve loved his guitaring forever, so when he said this, I thought…ah huh (laughs).
I got funding after Roy Colbert, bless him, and David wrote letters of recommendation. I asked David if he would help on it and he was amazing, he and Stephen Kilroy, they put up with me being a mother of small children and my band Heath Te Au and Tenzin Mullin they were pretty amazing too.
I got the CD out recently and looked at what we all did and OMG David plays a lot on that record, and I had a convo with him recently and said once again how appreciative I was of his help through that entire process and he said, oh, it was fun, I really enjoyed it. I said do you remember playing all those basslines and he said, no. He plays a few on that record and some guitar on ‘What Dreams’. We play that one live, that’s a lot of fun.
In our set we also play ‘Lunar Fall’ the Cyclops song and we play ‘Call Me’ from Some from the Sky and ‘Antarctic’ from the Shrew’d compilation in 1993released in Women’s Suffrage year.
You’ve said in the past that you play by feel, I wonder what about your boys, do they have a similar approach to you?
Alexander’s not in the band but he is on the record. He did music at school. He doesn’t read music but he knows about chords and he knows about transposing and keys which I don’t have a clue about…none whatsoever…Ro and Mick know keys so Ro goes what key’s that in and I say I dunno ask Mick (laughs).
Gabriel also took music at school but he plays by feel and honestly he’s just the most incredible drummer. He’s in a couple of other bands which I dub screamo bands. They play super fast.
There’s quite a gap between your solo albums – something like 17 years – when might you make another?
Next year. We’ve got three songs so far and when I play really intensely I start to write. I can’t just sit down and write – I can do little riffs and stuff – that intense outpouring really happens when I’m playing a lot, either practising or touring. The three new songs are fully band songs and one of them is called ‘Broken Heart’, another song that has made people cry.
But y’know that thing of listening to some music and having your own moment of being so touched I know that is a really important thing for people to have that connection and feel that way.
What local bands are you listening to…and getting excited about?
Na Noise. They are bloody amazing. OMG…Night Lunch. Anything Milly Lovelock touches is amazing, another young woman called Julie Dunn… she’s got a couple of projects called Bathysphere and Fleshbug . I love Tiny Pieces of Eight and Wet Specimen and Negative Nancies.
Gabe said you’ve gotta come and see this band Dick Move. They really like you and they’re fans of yours, and when I met them they were so fanned-out they couldn’t actually talk to me. They’re ok now! Lucy the singer was wearing the Look Blue Go Purple t-shirt on stage last night when I saw them, really cool.
There’s a lot of activity on the experimental side of things – there’s a crashie noise trio of Peter Porteous, Mick Elborado and Robbie Yeats. They’re calling themselves Ghost Bells.
That’s a juggernaut of sometimes not working but sometimes working and working well.
And I have it on good authority from Bruce Blucher that the Alpaca Brothers have just recorded some new songs with Bob Scott.
Are you looking forward to getting on the road…playing Auckland and then some out of the way places….in Palmerston North…Featherston…and Paekakariki…
Absolutely. I haven’t toured – we did three gigs in the South Island in January 2019 for the spaces between- but I haven’t been in the North Island playing with a bandand doing that driving around stuff since 1987, the last Look Blue Go Purple tour. We played some unusual places then, we really didn’t want to do the university circuit again, we played lots of different places including Greymouth in this tiny bar I think it was called the Tramway. That was hilarious, the entire town turned out to see us, then took us somewhere for a party. Great. I’m so looking forward to the wonderful places we’re going to play – it’ll be a blast.
The smaller places anyone can come, they’re all ages venues which we love. And St Peter’s in Paekakariki looks like a pleasure to be in. Featherston is a tiny gallery, Miracle Room. That’ll be me and Ro playing quietly.
The Chills new album Scatterbrain is the band’s third in six years, an unusually productive period for a band who’ve often been famously interrupted by line-up changes. Martin Phillipps spoke to Richard Langston about the new approach to record this album and why he’s excited about the band’s future.
When I saw you had a new album out, I thought: wow, that was fast…
Well yeah, it should be what bands do or what songwriters do at least, get an album out every couple of years. We’re sort of on schedule, two and half years or something since the last one. It’s good, it’s just unusual for The Chills, there were always a couple of line-up changes in between that delayed things plus in the old days extensive touring got in the way of studio time as well. Three really good albums now, I’m pretty chuffed actually.
Of your three comeback albums Snow Bound (2018) strikes me as the rockiest…this one feels more reflective…how do you see them?
It does take me a while to step back and see what we’ve done, that can take years sometimes especially with lyrics, I don’t realise how revealing of myself I can be until some years later, it’s like ‘oh my god’ I put that out there. But there’s been a process to these albums. When Fire Records got involved and we did Silver Bullets (2015) I really didn’t want some name producer coming in and taking credit for the revival of The Chills.
We worked with a really great producer-engineer, Brendan Davies, and I was prepared to take responsibility for the success or failure of the album and it was a great way of getting the band some of whom have really not been in an intense studio session like that before. It was a great way of getting the band working together, and then with Snow Bound it was time to step up and actually work with a producer again. I had my own reasons for being nervous about working with producers, it hadn’t always worked for me. Greg Havers was just great.
He brought the best out of the band and I think he put us through the hoops but at the same time he had enough respect for me to work with me on the overall record. But this time with Scatterbrain it was time for me to step back and let the band’s skills come to the fore. It worked. I was still writing the album as we were recording it so I was able to take off home and keep working on songs and trust what the band was coming up with Tom Healy who was an excellent producer.
I’m really pleased, people are saying it’s probably the most produced record they’ve heard, and I think that’s right. It’s where it needs to be, and people also said the best album since Submarine Bells; people always say that but It’s a nice thing to hear because it’s a recognition of the quality I guess.
I hear more spaces in this record and more orchestration…
Yeah totally, I’ve been learning…because I’m one of those song writers I sit there with my guitar basically and try and do the entire band, rhythm and the chords and all the melodic breaks by myself. It’s been a learned skill for me to then go into the studio and strip away what’s not necessary or assign it to another instrument. There’s been way more of that done on this record than in the past. There’s actually very little of me on it playing guitar.
That’s a big feature of the album…were you worried you would lose that signature Chills sound…the interplay of guitar and keyboards?
Yes, I was concerned and that’s why it’s taken a while I guess to understand what we can do with those melodies, actually chuck around ideas, it’s no longer necessary for me to play relentless guitar which i did for years and years. That’s been great, that little line of guitar can be done by Erica on violin or that one can be done by Oli on keyboards. He added an awful lot to this record. Songs like ‘Scatterbrain’ he basically built that whole sound structure up with Tom Healey and it’s a great bit of work.
The songs were written but the actual approach to how they were going to be realised was different, I was able to step back and acknowledge the expertise of others. Erica was a child prodigy violinist and she plays great guitar now and keyboards. Callum the new guy, I didn’t realise he played horns till he started coming up with these great horn parts and arrangements. Oli is head of the contemporary music school at Massey and has all sorts of experience. That’s an enormous range of talent to be able to draw upon and having me relaxed enough to accept that this is the new Chills and it’s a way into the future.
You talk about the horn arrangements, ‘You’re Immortal’ has a Morricone-like sweep about it…
(Laughs) It’s so ironic because my briefing to the band was this should sound like Ennio Morricone and while we were recording it a week later he dropped dead so I will not say that again about any living artist! But that was the brief, there were actually three other songs completed that were left off and one of those, ’The Dragon with the Sapphire Eyes’, has even more amazing horns on it, and that’ll come out in some form.
It certainly sounds the most varied album and there’s a lot of reflection going on on your part…
The three songs that I left off were the first ones when I started writing the album and they just became not the right theme. ‘The Dragon with the Sapphire Eyes’ is about consumerism, and here’s me an old guy trying to tell people off and it was just boring and it’s been done much better by the younger generation. It was pointed out to me by a couple of people independently that the stuff that really registers is when I draw upon my own experience especially as an ageing adult confronting mortality, the death of my mother, that’s what connects with people.
‘Caught in My Eye’ is the rawest most stripped-back song about loss..but it’s strange Martin the one I found most affecting was ‘Destiny’…a bitter-sweet lament on mortality…
Yeah, it’s been quite remarkable seeing how that is connecting with people. One of the few good things about the streaming of music is you get a good record of where songs are being played around the world and ‘Destiny’ has taken off in Latvia and I’ve had to do an interview with Croatia as well. It really wasn’t one of the crucial songs, it was almost traditional Chills, the kind of stuff we were trying to move away from. The lyrics are very real and somehow it’s connecting.
I always find with Chills’ records person by person they will find a song that’s key for them. I’ve had two people say already that the best song on the album is obviously ‘The Wall Beyond Abandon’ the closing track and that’s certainly not our view, most of the band feel that ‘Hourglass’ is the most important song on the record.
Just harking back to ‘Destiny’ for a minute it must be the only time the word autarchic has been used in a song…
(Laughs). Yes, it’s sort of a nod and wink to the documentary, me as the dictator. I was looking in the thesaurus for another word for dictator and discovered autarchic which I’d never heard of before. If you’ve seen the cover artwork it’s quietly hidden in the top right corner. The line ‘autarchic on the mend’ means I’ve realised it’s not the be all and end all to be in total control.
With the artwork we were very lucky because the guy who designed it, David Costa, designed Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for Elton John, Night at the Opera for Queen, and he did the recent Beatles ‘Let It Be… Naked’ and all sorts of stuff. The reason that came about is he was in a ‘60s acid folk band called Trees, not a million miles away from Pentangle or Steeleye Span, and because they had the reissue of their albums through Fire Records he offered to do a cover for one of the bands and we got it. We were really fortunate, it’s a really powerful image.
What is it about that image that appeals to you?
I guess Scatterbrain is referring to my state of mind, and the mind of people of my age group that I see daily on Facebook and things. The uncertainty so a powerful image of being stared at by a kind of ominous diving bell but with the bird nest on top indicating a bit of confusion. I was really impressed and he did that from listening initially to old Chills stuff to get an idea of what kind of music I made. When he actually got to hear the album just before the cover was finalised, we all agreed that he’d nailed it.
You’ve had a lot of marine imagery in your past work…’Submarine Bells ‘being the obvious one…that was the association I made…
It was deliberate to link it back to those kind of nautical themes because as you mention there’s actually quite a few of them when you start looking at artwork for singles as well and in the cover art for Submarine Bells. There is actually a diving bell helmet in there somewhere, so it’s just appropriate bringing the saga into the now.
It’s interesting Martin that all you people in Dunedin who started out writing songs 40-odd year ago…David Kilgour…Shayne Carter..you’re all dealing with mortality…Shayne’s song about his father…David’s album about his mother and Peter Gutteridge…
I think the best thing about the people you mention is the sheer fact that we’re still going. That’s the most crucial thing. I’ve connected with Shayne probably more than ever before through the Tally Ho concerts initially but we’re just sort of been comparing notes as life goes by more than we ever did in the past. In some ways The Chills/Straitjacket story, I had no idea how many similarities we had in common until I read Shayne’s book. There are few other people that we can share that with when we talk about the highs and the lows. It’s been really good.
I say the albums got those reflective songs but it’s also got rockier stuff…I think ‘Little Alien’ is just a great pop song…
Most of these songs started out with a lot more lyrics and I’ve become aware that I can just be too wordy. I stripped things back with ‘Little Alien’ and ‘Monolith’. There were all sorts of explanations of what I was trying to say but it just became unnecessary. ‘Little Alien’ is basically about refugees and people who are not in their comfort zone and feeling scared,.There were other verses that helped explain that to the listener and they just became unnecessary. I’m trying to make things a bit more open, it’s just better for people to have room to move with their own minds as well and not being preached at
You’ve always been quite purposeful in what you’ve wanted to say in a song…ethical and moral concerns…I’m trying to think how far back they go…maybe ‘Submarine Bells’…
It’s funny you should say Submarine Bells because I was having a conversation the other day about this where did the message songs start. It’s all the way back to The Same with ‘Frantic Drift” which is dealing with religion, all the way through there’s songs about women’s issues, ‘The Male Monster from the Id’, ‘Sanctuary’ about domestic abuse, ‘Tomboy’ about gender identification and stuff. They’ve always been there and it’s an on-going battle to question yourself about your motives but also whether the quality of what you’re trying to say is worth putting out there.
I’ve wondered if that’s the influence of your father…(who was a Methodist Minister)?
My father’s input, he’s very much of a classical bent and has never been able to understand rock music. It’s just not his thing.
I was meaning more that he’s a minister, and you probably heard him speak on moral issues and maybe you sat in church and listened to him …
There’s an assumption that Dad would be speaking about higher and moral things but most of the stuff I’ve seen him talk about is about social issues and people, certainly not about what they should be doing in the eyes of God or anything like this. The short answer is yes, my father’s influence will be there to some extent. He’s always admired my words and suggested I should’ve been a writer which is kind of a back-handed compliment, he doesn’t get the music but ‘you should write books’. But at the same time both parents were proud of what we’d achieved, pretty staggering for them to go to a packed Town Hall for Submarine Bells and years later going to a packed Regent Theatre to see the documentary premiere. It’s quite overwhelming for them sometimes.
On the matter of you being a writer, you wrote that great piece for AudioCulture on your posters, and I thought, Martin you should write a book..your wry take on things…your honesty…
Over the years I have had quite a lot of stuff published in various little publications and things, short stories, poems, tales of my hepatitis C adventures, all sorts of stuff. But frankly now that Shayne’s put out his book and he’s lifted the bar so high I might just not do that! Maybe I could focus on a very different way of telling the story.
You’ve definitely got your own take on things…
Yeah, and I’ve become more confident with it over the last ten years. I think I’m old enough to be eccentric now which is quite a nice free-ing situation to be in, I really don’t care anymore about what people think. It’s been very liberating.
I want to ask you about the re-releases of your albums…I imagine you feel comfortable about Submarine Bells but I wonder how you feel about Soft Bomb…given it caused you and the band so much grief…how you were kicked off Slash at that time…
It was a very fraught album but that’s not unusual in the music business to have something like that happen. I always believed in it because there’s at least seven or eight really good songs on there and I think we put too much on it, the strange choice was made at the time to basically fill the capacity of a CD. That was a mistake and some of the songs went a wee bit awry. It’s very hard to get back to a song you love when it’s been mis-recorded.
One of things that made that record fail was just the times, the era of Nirvana and all sorts of extraordinary stuff happening in hip hop and stuff, so we’d had our run by then the band was more or less fourteen years into its career, and that’s pretty good. I knew that people would eventually discover the good stuff on it and the same with Sunburnt from 1996. People are starting to discover that too, once people got sick of playing Submarine Bells over and over again they started to look further afield.
One of the songs that’s stuck in my head after listening to the vinyl reissue of ‘Soft Bomb’ is ..the one with the line.. .’never trust a man in camouflage gear’…
‘Strange Case’ yeah, which is obviously about the Aramoana incident, pretty harrowing and very different from the demos I did for it. It’s got that bouncy threatening kind of feel to it, it’s at odds with the message. I don’t know if I’d be brave enough these days to take the point of view of the killer, that was the kind of thing because I’d been listening to Randy Newman songs like ‘In Germany Before the War’ that I thought was acceptable, and I think it would not be acceptable now for me to presume to try and and explain some of rationale…certainly not to excuse him. I did have somebody who had a friend killed at Aramoana say that song really helped them and I only needed to hear that once to feel it was justified. Still pretty heavy.
‘Double Summer’ is a terrific pop song…
That’s one that failed, sadly. It was so much bigger in my head. Often it’s those big pop songs that don’t quite work. ‘Molten Gold’ we never quite got that, ‘Party in My Heart’ on the back of ‘House with a Hundred Rooms’, that was giant and majestic and it just didn’t work. Sometimes you get the great riff but you cannot get the great lyrics to sit alongside it.
‘Double Summer’ is one of the ones most requested to play live but some of these things I used to sing at the top of my vocal range and that meant singing for three minutes on a really high note. It’s bad enough having ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’, we have an obligation to play that but we just can’t do all the old ones that are that strenuous.
You seem in a very creative period and I remember in the documentary you said…’there’s a lot to be accomplished and there’s an uncertain amount of time’…
It comes and goes. The unfortunate part of the creative package is I get periods of not just the blues but the deep blacks as well and I just can’t see my way to doing the next song let alone the next album. But then it happens, just in the last week the pad which sits beside me while I’m watching tv has started filling up with little ideas, quotes, and song titles. It’s an exciting feeling that once again the process is underway. I came out of recording ‘Scatterbrain’ which was quite draining and I was thinking that is going to be the last album. But here we go again.
The songs on Scatterbrain all feel like new songs, they don’t feel like songs that you’ve finally got around to recording…
That’s true. Most Chills albums have had riffs that date back sometimes to the very early ‘80s. I can’t think of any on Scatterbrain. We recorded the album at what used to be Chicks Hotel but is now called Port Chalmers Recording Services run by Tom Bell. We were four days from finishing when covid hit, Tom Healy the producer just made it back to Auckland otherwise he would’ve been trapped here. But it gave us extra months to send sound files around and really fine tune it, that ultimately really paid off. We pulled it in so there’s a uniformity to it which wasn’t there in the early mixes, it sounded like a jumble of different songs. Now it has a flow and a feel to it.
I notice that you did record an old song, ‘Lost in Space’ that goes back to your early days on that cassette Fire Records issued in 2016, Single-Burger…
Yeah, there’s a live version on Secret Box (Three CD package of rarities). Essentially because we didn’t get to record our first album for seven years there are at least two albums of Chills stuff that never got recorded. We’ve been talking seriously about making use of this downtime while we can’t tour overseas, and just nail those old songs one at a time and basically record what we’ve been the ’82 Chills album and the ’84 one.
I’m hoping that happens, there’s a lot of really good material. There are other things like ‘I Saw Your Silhouette’ and ‘Frozen Fountain’ and ‘Juicy Creaming Soda’, ’Steinlager’ crappy title but I have a different set of lyrics for it and it’s called ‘Stay Longer’. I reckon getting members of the old bands and the new bands together in a good relaxed environment, listen to the tape a few times, learn the songs and bash them out with as much of the old equipment we can find, not dwell on it too much, that would be a dream to finally record those.
The Chills – Scatterbrain Album Release Tour
April 16 – Oamaru Club, Oamaru April 17 – Larnach Castle, Dunedin Arts Festival SOLD OUT April 18 – Festival of Colour, Wanaka April 30 – Cassels Blue Smoke, Christchurch May 1 – Wakatu Hotel, Nelson May 6 – St. Peter’s Hall, Paekākāriki.
May 7 – Meow, Wellington May 8 – The Cabana, Napier May 9 – The Dome, Gisborne May 13 – Totara St, Mount Maunganui May 14 – Powerstation, Auckland May 15 – Town Hall, Raglan
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Wellington Samaritans answer a call from someone in need every 22 minutes.
Their mission is straightforward: to reduce suicide. That’s why they offer empathetic, caring and confidential emotional support to anyone who calls in distress. Non-judgemental, non-religious support is available day and night to callers of all backgrounds.
Samaritans receive no direct government funding so they rely on donations and grants to make sure no call for help goes unanswered. For their annual Street Appeal last September, they asked Phantom Billstickers to help spread the word about their suicide prevention campaign.
It was a call we were glad to answer.
Street posters supporting a street appeal
Wellington Samaritans created a powerful campaign and took it to the streets. With QR codes to help stimulate response, they raised awareness as well as funds.
People took notice. With Phantom’s help, Wellington Samaritans raised their second-highest amount in their 15-year history of doing street appeals. And so their work continues.
Alec Bathgate, the quiet guy who made all that guitar noise with The Enemy, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs, has released his third solo album, Phantom Dots. He talked to Richard Langston about belatedly taking guitar lessons, playing a session at Sun Studios, posting his archive of photos on Instagram, and why he started making music again.
Alec, I have a memory of you saying when Chris Knox had his stroke in 2009 that you might not make any more music…
I did feel like that, Chris having a stroke was a massive shock, and it did knock me back for a long time. It’s only now ten years later that I can look back and see how affecting that was. I felt like I didn’t want to play music if I couldn’t play with Chris. But he kept playing music (laughs) despite his disability, and if I’d said to him I wasn’t going to play any more I think that would’ve pissed him off.
We also had the earthquakes in Canterbury a year after, and Georgina and I lost our house, we had to go through a rebuild. It was a difficult few years and I didn’t feel like playing music much. But then I felt quite sad and it frightened me to think that it was gone. Three or four years ago I really felt like I wanted to make music again.
Phantom Dots is all instrumentals…was that the plan when you set out to make it?
I had this thing of playing the guitar again and I had guitar lessons.
Yeah (laughs), people are often surprised. I thought it would be an interesting thing to do because I always felt like I was faking it a bit, I hadn’t learnt properly and I just thought it would be interesting, and I found a really great guitar teacher, Ben Eldridge who’d been in the Reduction Agents with James Milne (Lawrence Arabia). I was shocked to discover some fundamental things that you need to know as a musician (laughs). I immersed myself in guitar playing, got a bit obsessed, getting up at 6 am to play for an hour before I went to work. I’m still on this roll and I’m really glad it’s come back. This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life now, play. I’m also in a band called The Sundae Painters which just came out of the blue. I’m really enjoying that.
How did that band come about?
Hamish Kilgour is living in CHCH at the moment, and Paul Kean (Toy Love, The Bats) mentioned he’d been doing some recording with Hamish and I said I’d be happy to help out. Kaye Woodward (The Bats, Minisnap) is also in the band and we’ve put two songs on Bandcamp – Paul’s also made a couple of videos that are on YouTube – and suddenly we’re playing a gig. Not sure where it will go but I like how we sound, it’s a good sound, it’s quite a heavy psychedelic type of thing.
I want to make another solo album of songs which will take a long time. I think with Phantom Dots I wanted the challenge of making it all instrumentals. I’d been listening to a lot of instrumental music, I wanted every track to be different, quite short, jumping through all these different things. I wanted it to be engaging and not something that people would just play once.
I listen to a lot of instrumental music when I’m working (he has his own design company) such as Fripp and Eno ‘No Pussyfooting’ which I found in a bargain bin way back in Dunedin when I was 16. I like Ravi Shankar, someone I also discovered early on. The first album I bought was the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’ box set and there’s a whole side of Ravi Shankar and I think that was an influence on my guitar playing especially with the drone thing.
Your Instagram posts – all those personal and band photos you’ve put out there …it’s like a potted history of your life …
I’ve kept stuff from when I first started playing music in The Enemy and in Toy Love. I kept all our posters, any articles, a list of all our gigs. I don’t know why, I think I’m just an obsessive list-maker and collector. I’ve got boxes of this stuff in my attic.
I‘d been recording Phantom Dots and decided to put that up on Bandcamp and realised that no-one would have a clue that it even existed. I thought maybe I’ll put some stuff up on Instagram and that might draw a bit of attention. It’s a bit weird because there’s stuff going right back to childhood so it’s like seeing my life flash before my eyes (laughs).
There’s some great photos that you’ve taken… one of Hamish Kilgour with a guitar in Christchurch in 1983 and a memorable shot of The Chills…
Yeah, I like that one with the leather jacket. I got into photography in the early ‘80s at the same time as Flying Nun was emerging so I photographed a lot of the bands.
There’s a few photos of you growing up in Tapanui in rural Otago in the 1960s…one imagines that could’ve been a fairly ideal childhood…
My parents had a farm. I had three older sisters and we caught the school bus so we had a typical farming childhood. One of the things growing up on a farm you get put to work (laughs). A lot of childhood was working in the woolshed, bailing hay, harvesting wheat. In winter you’d be pulling sheep from snowdrifts. It was a good childhood but I didn’t have any desire to be a farmer and there was a lot of pressure cos I was the only son. But I wasn’t cut out for that.
As I got older and once I started getting interested in music we would go to town – Gore was quite close – I would do the rounds of record shops, even before I could afford to buy anything. I used to listen to the radio, on Thursday nights Peter Sinclair would to do a Top 20 countdown. The Monkees on TV was a really big thing when I was about 7 or 8, that created an impression of being in a band, have a Monkee mobile, and all living together, that looked like great fun. Later I started reading about music and discovered the NME and Melody Maker.
When did your Beatles thing start?
That was much later. The first thing that really connected was heavy metal (laughs) hearing Black Sabbath or Hendrix. My sister bought a couple of Hendrix albums and I listened to those a lot. Heavy metal was big down south in Gore, there’d be bogans driving around in V8s with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath blasting. I loved those big distorted riffs.
Glam rock was the first thing I connected with in a big way, I was just at the right age 14 or 15, things like Slade, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, T-Rex, David Bowie. That was around the time I started to play as well.
There’s a picture of you in 1974 with a bass, was that your first instrument?
Yes. I played with a friend Jeff Rae who went on to be a country musician. We were school friends and he’d been playing guitar since he was really young and he was much better than me. I took up the bass and it was my instrument for quite a long time but I realised I wanted to play guitar. I wasn’t very skilled at it but fortunately for me that coincided with punk rock which was very forgiving (laughs). It was all about attitude and sound rather than technique.
The Enemy had plenty of both. Chris has called the band’s version of ‘Pull Down the Shades’ a lost classic….to me it’s the best NZ punk song…simple, direct, powerful.
It was written really early on, in the front room of Chris’s flat, the Fileul St house where we practiced. We might have even done it the first time we played. We went from meeting each other to practising and playing live in a very short time span. ‘Pull Down the Shades’ is three chords and you play them as fast as you can (laughs). It got faster and faster and shorter, I think it originally had 7 or 8 verses.
The way you meet Chris has almost become mythical, the meeting in the record shop In Dunedin when you were looking for the Damned single…
It was the ‘Neat Neat Neat’ single and it was in Jeff Ruston’s record shop in Princess St. Mike Dooley (who’d become The Enemy’s dummer) and I were in the same class at Polytech, and most lunchtimes we’d go to Roy Colbert’s record shop and then to Jeff’s. Chris was behind the counter minding the shop – he’d probably worked the morning as a postie, I’m pretty sure he still had his postie gear on.
Mike and I knew that the Damned single was about to be released, that was the first punk release in NZ. Chris, Mike and I just hit off, he was being typical Chris, very engaging. He was curious about these two young guys – Mike and I had been playing a bit together – and Chris had a band with some friends. Obviously he had a desire to be fronting a band and he’d been writing songs for quite a long time. When we first started playing together he had a book full of stuff he’d written. He played me songs he’d written on the piano.
You’re such different characters, Chris out-there, assertive and confrontational and you’ve always appeared the quiet shy one…
Definitely shy. I might not have played in a band if I hadn’t met Chris, he gave me the confidence to do it and he deflected attention because he was such a great front person. In that sense, polar opposites. Chris always shocked me by being so extroverted, that’s alien to my character.
Here you are this shy farm boy and suddenly you’re in the maelstrom of punk …which could be violent…in photos from the time you look fresh-faced…you weren’t trying to be something you were not…
I didn’t relate to the aggression of punk rock, to me it was just the sound of distorted fast guitars, that was really exciting. To me as an 18 year old it was just so wow and primal. I got around my shyness and fear of being on stage because I was just loving playing in a band, it had been my dream all through my teenage years.
I remember Toy Love at The Cook in Dunedin…just so fierce…what was it like for you?
I loved it. 1979 was a fantastic year. We ascended pretty quickly. When The Enemy went to Auckland we weren’t that well received, the punks were suspicious, they didn’t like these out-of-towners from down south. Chris had a mohawk and we had this aggressive name so no-one wanted to book us. We were kinda stranded in Auckland. When Toy Love started playing a couple of months later suddenly people were coming along and were a lot more accepting and it just kept growing and as we went out into the provinces we got bigger and bigger crowds. It was just thrilling playing.
We had The Enemy songs and Toy Love were writing really good songs. Usually I’d come up with some chords or a riff and Chris had such a great sense of melody he’d sing something over the top and we’d have a new song. Some things would be written out of the band practising but after a while it was just Chris and I. I’d play him something and he’d do all the hard work of coming up with the tune and writing lyrics.
You had similiar taste in music?
When I first met him I was into The Velvet Underground. I had a compilation in high school and I loved that and tried to play like them. Also Ravi Shankar as I mentioned. Chris was a big Beatles fan which I was kinda suspicious of. Chris was a bit older than me and he’d lived through all that.
I see on your Instagram feed you’ve been reading a book on Plastic Ono band and George Harrison …so something changed…
I think in that couple of months between The Enemy and Toy Love Chris had brought some Beatles’ albums to Auckland. Revolver is the big one for me. I love that album and the guitar sounds and they’re playing as a band so you get all those tracks like ‘She Said She Said’ and ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’, ‘Doctor Robert’. It sounds like they’re playing together as a band and the guitars sound amazing. There was also a Beatles’ songbook lying around and I tried to learn songs from it and that fed into Toy Love.
The song ‘Rebel’ came from ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’, a Smokey Robinson song The Beatles covered. The chords in that song are lifted directly from that. Compared to Enemy stuff that’s quite a complex song, there’s a lot of chord changes in it. We were chuffed to have written it and that night Toy Love was playing The Windsor and because the band hadn’t learned it Chris and I got up and did it before our set got underway proper.
I realised reading Shayne Carter’s book how important guitars can be to guitarists, I remember you owned a white Ibanez that you later sold to David Kilgour. Was that your first guitar?
My sister Pam had an acoustic that was in the house, then I got the bass. The funny thing is I sold that to Peter Gutteridge so early on in The Clean Peter was playing my bass and David was playing my guitar (laughs). I bought the Ibanez when I shifted to Dunedin on hire purchase from Beggs. I finished the sixth form and I was just desperate to get away from the farm and to get to a city. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I drew a lot – that was my thing– and going to Art School was kind of a logical step. It also seemed like a breeding ground for bands. I thought it was a good place to meet people who were into the same sort of stuff.
People often ask why did so many good bands come out of Dunedin at that time, and I think one of the main reasons was as simple as Chris Knox moving from Invercargill to live in Dunedin…
Chris was a real impetus and encouraged people to do stuff. I remember being slightly terrified because we started playing together in August ‘77 and we didn’t have many songs and the next thing we knew we had our first gig in November. We didn’t have a bass player and Chris was going yeah we can do it. If it had been down to me I would never have left the practice room. Mick Dawson joined us a week before the gig and he didn’t play bass, he was a guitar player, but Chris said you can do it. He enjoyed it so much he stayed on. Eventually we had a pretty strong set.
And then like-minded people were inspired by each other…David Kilgour says he picked up from you the technique of playing with the top string open to create the drone…
That’s what I got from trying to figure out how to play Velvet Underground songs. I don’t know if that’s what they did. You just hit one string and then you can play notes on the string below it. That’s my, if you can call it, my trick. I still play that way, that’s what I based my style around.
David says he decided to add to it by leaving two strings open and playing a melody underneath…
I love David’s guitar playing and I think he’s incredible. The Clean have always been one of my favourite bands and I feel very lucky to have seen them play many times and in different incarnations over the years. He made good use of the technique and I stole it anyway (laughs). The Clean did their first gig supporting The Enemy and we played with them a lot.
Back when we started The Enemy our self-belief was such that we believed that people would want to know about us 20 or 30 years. It was a feeling that we wanted to leave an impression, and it comes from being fans of records, you’re so passionate about it, you care about every second of the record and you want to try and do something yourself that people feel that way about. In that sense we were ambitious. Even though with Tall Dwarfs we thought not many people are going to hear these records but we still believed in them.
You probably won’t hear people making music that sounds like the Tall Dwarfs because the technology has changed, and that very spare method of recording because of the limitations of the tape machine, I don’t think people will have that sort of restraint. If you’re using computer software you can put a thousand things on there. In that sense what we did is arcane.
I think of something like Elvis recording at Sun Studios, there’s just the three of them. They don’t have a drummer and it’s just going straight to tape. That’s the way they had to record and it becomes this unique little moment in time.
I notice on your Instagram feed there’s a photo of the gravestone of Elvis’s guitar player, Scotty Moore…
For my 60th birthday last year Georgina and I did a road trip through Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. We found Scotty’s resting place on July the 5th …65 years to the day since they recorded ‘That’s Alright Mama’ during their very first session at Sun Studios. That night I did a session at Sun.
Yeah, cos it still operates as a studio. During the day they had tourists going through and at night you can record there. I did two songs ‘Jane’ and ‘John’. It was amazing to record there, I did a six hour session, and it was just Georgina and I and the engineer. He was great, he just let us wander around, and gave me a whole lot of free stuff including an original Jerry Lee Lewis Sun single, a cover of ‘Cold Cold Heart’.
It happened by coincidence. Before that trip I had read Scotty Moore’s biography and when I saw the date they recorded ‘That’s Alright Mama’ I thought, I’ll book a session for the same day. I love Scotty Moore’s guitar playing and it was a real treat to go there.
We also went to the RCA studio in Nashville where Elvis did a heap of stuff and David Bowie mixed ‘Gene Genie’ there, and I found the studio where Blonde on Blonde was recorded and found Ardent Studio in Memphis where Big Star recorded, and went down to Muscle Shoals to a couple of studios where a lot of early Soul was done. I’m a fan, I like all that stuff.
When you started recording the first Tall Dwarfs EP on the TEAC four-track Chris Knox said he had a grin from ear to ear…the realisation that you could record your own music…
Yeah, it was a revelation, our only experience with Toy Love had been recording in studios at the mercy of other people because we didn’t understand the equipment. The four track just sounded really good. It was spontaneous. ‘Nothing’s Going to Happen’ had been something we’d come up with when Toy Love were in Australia, we’d done it at sound checks but it hadn’t really evolved into anything, and the two other songs Chris wrote.
In later years most of the Tall Dwarfs stuff was just making something up on the spot, recording it, layering stuff up. It would evolve, it was a really good way to make music. Because we didn’t have a drummer we could make our own rhythm loops. On Canned Music was the first time we started using them, and I just loved the repetition and how it never wavers. We had to find creative ways to make the loops. On ‘Turning Brown and Torn in Two’ the rhythm is just Chris making a sound into a mic then slowing the tape right down. I remember you could get a nice thud if you hit a sofa or something. We’d be recording in a bedroom or a lounge or whatever and just use what was at hand. We’d rejected that idea of commercial success so it didn’t matter what we sounded like, we weren’t trying to cater to a mass audience, it was very niche. It was just Chris and I hanging out and doing what we liked doing. Luckily for us Flying Nun were very supportive and let us do what we wanted. We just handed it over and they put it out. At that time there was no recognition of FN outside of NZ so there was no expectation, we thought a few hundred people might hear it.
That first EP was such an influential one, and set many musicians who would make records for Flying Nun on the path of making their own music…
I guess it showed a different way of doing things, a more accessible way of doing things. It was a very different time. If you go back to 1980 you couldn’t make a record unless you got signed by a label who financed it. Independent labels were just starting.
I remember listening to your first solo album Gold Lame (1994) and thinking how it gave fans of your work an insight into your contribution to the Tall Dwarfs…in that you could hear your musical style and voice in isolation…
I got a four track cassette deck, it was pretty basic, and I had a casio keyboard, a 12-string acoustic and an electric guitar and recorded in a corner in the garage. It was very much like early Tall Dwarfs. I really enjoyed making it and it forced me to write songs which I’ve always found hard. People don’t know the second album IndifferentVelvet Void so well which is a shame because I’m really proud of it, the songwriting is better, and I used ProTools so I could layer it up more. I’ve just been through the process of remastering it, and I still like it. Those two albums and Phantom Dots have been remastered for vinyl and I’m hoping they’ll be released. I’ve had interest from 3 labels in the States. I would love to have them on vinyl. Now that I’ve done my solo stuff I want to get Tall Dwarfs stuff re-issued. For a long time I was feeling like it was a bit of burden, y’know musical history. It’s only a notion at the moment so I’m not sure how that’s going to pan out.