Lumpy Gravy

In nearly 30 years of spending my time on the most useless endeavour known to mankind - writing about music - I've been lucky enough to meet and interview many of my heroes. My general interview archives are elsewhere. 'Lumpy Gravy' is reserved for the lumpiest, and most exquisite, artists.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Van Der Graaf Generator

King of doom

Rock history is littered with merchants of misery and harbingers of doom: Joy Division’s Ian Curtis took the cake by topping himself, but there’s a long roll call. Nick Drake, Morrissey, ‘Laughing’ Leonard Cohen, on it goes.
The King of doom, however, is singer/songwriter Peter Hammill, whose angst-ridden existential anthems and unique, edgy, semi-operatic vocals have cast a large shadow over fellow artists such as David Bowie, while barely touching the greater public consciousness.
While Hammill has 50-odd solo albums spanning 1968 to the present, it’s the stop-start ten years he spent at the helm Van Der Graaf Generator (1968-1978) that made the most waves. Loosely part of the ‘progressive rock’ underground of the late ‘60s with its tendency towards 20-minute song-suites and fiddly time signatures, VDGG broke the mould. Hammill’s band-mates came up with a unique and dynamic sound to vividly portray their lyricist’s dark preoccupations, featuring the frightening wail of an amplified double sax and wildly modified electric organ. Years later, Hammill and mates would escape ‘dinosaur’ chastisement from the emerging punk firmament. Hey, even Johnny Rotten was a fan.
Now, 25 years after they split, VDGG are back with a stubbornly raucous reunion album, Present, and remastered editions of their oeuvre, all released on EMI’s specially revitalised Charisma imprint.
A fan since the mid-‘70s, there’s one question on my lips: Peter Hammill, are you a miserable bastard?
“I try to keep my spirits up, but on the other hand, writing songs is the serious bit of my life and what I do, so you have a natural tendency, if you’re doing that, to write songs about darker stuff, and just get on and live through the light stuff and enjoy it. I’ve always taken the view that writing and performing is a cathartic activity. So it’s partly through working through this stuff that I’m liberated in a way to be lighter or good humoured, so far as I am (chuckles) in my normal life.”
Right then.
Hammill’s solo work is filled with his literary preoccupations (adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, etc) but despite his lyrical eloquence, VDGG’s biggest audience awaits in Italy, a vindication of the group’s musical strengths.
“In Britain particularly, there can be an element of ‘my God, there’s a bit too much going on with the words here’. People are rebuffed by that. Italy, of all the European countries is the one where people speak English the least. It meant that the first thing they ‘got’ was the music. And of course the sound of the words… obviously a part of writing a decent song is not only to have meaning of the words, but also that they SOUND correct. So effectively the immediate response was emotional rather than intellectual.”
Describing VDGG’s sound as “ugly but natural”, and “force rather than too much filigree or delicacy”, Hammill insists that their reunion has not a whiff of nostalgia. Rather, having suffered a recent heart attack, the reformation was more the realisation “that time is marching on and that if we were ever to do it we had better do it sooner rather than later.”
For one of the least compromised artists to have successfully forged a career out of a heinous industry, however, there’s still no sign of bending for Peter Hammill.
“If they don’t want to look, then that’s fair enough. Everybody’s made up of their own composition; the periodic table of intellectual interests, spiritual interests and what have you. Happily (laughs) that’s what makes us what we are.”

* VDGG’s new CD, Present, is out now. Reissues out now: The Least We Can Do Is Wave, H To He Is The Only One, Pawn Hearts. Out early July: Godbluff, Still Life. All Charisma/EMI.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mike Cooper

Pacific Voyager

While the mainstream music industry crashes, burns, and clunkily consolidates in a vain effort to hold onto its shares in a seemingly dwindling market, there’s a worldwide resurgence of a genuine musical culture once considered marginal. A groundswell of young artists like Jodie Holland and the American ‘free folk’ movement are finding their inspiration in American mountain music, raw blues and English folk styles from the 60s and 70s. Occasionally, one of their obscure progenitors is still alive and kicking. This is your life, Mike Cooper. This 63-year-old Rome-based, British-born guitarist, composer and label-owner spends half the year as a performing nomad, culminating in his annual trek through the Pacific Islands, which involves a habitual New Zealand stop off for a series of low-key gigs. Cooper chanced across NZ in 1994. "I played an acoustic slide guitar for a long time, and discovered one day that the way I play it, the lap style, was a Hawaiian invention. So in 1994 I traveled around the Pacific Islands, staying in each place for a few weeks." One of those destinations was NZ, which he still considers "a Pacific Island with all you white people living on it. Initially there wasn’t a lot here for me, just this strange folk club scene, but over the years it’s been fascinating watching the underground and improvising scenes growing exponentially." One of Cooper’s mind-altering experiences here was discovering the haunting re-imagined Maori music of Hirini Melbourne (RIP) and Richard Nunns, the latter of whom "eventually came to Rome with Moana & The Moahunters on a tour. While he was there I organised a gig, and we did a live CD together." This interest in the Pacific culminated in three critically acclaimed releases on which Cooper came up with a bewitching blend of ambient guitar and electronics, mixed in with environmental sounds recorded throughout the islands. But this exceptionally diverse musician, who considers that "sequels are obituaries", has already moved on. His current performances anywhere and everywhere (in New Zealand at the likes of the Devonport Folk Club, K’Road’s Wine Cellar, the Moving Image Centre and at Wellington’s Happy venue) are beginning to reflect the entirely of his interests, mixing drifting ambient sections with haunting songs. From a starring role in the British blues boom of the mid-60s (his first record release was 1963) to a singer-songwriter career in the 70s and on to free jazz and beyond, Mike Cooper has never seen the point in inhibiting his musical evolution. "The worst possible thing that could happen to you really would be to become popular, because then you’re stuck with it," says Cooper. "The underground is hope." See you next year.

* For more information about Mike Cooper, and his record label, visit

From the April 2005 issue of Metro, an Auckland, New Zealand city magazine. Cooper is one of those genuinely fascinating characters who very few seem to have heard of. I love the fact that on his current tour, he does a beautifully abstract/ambient set that's punctuated by several songs, which arrive like ghost ships out of the fog: one of these is Fred Neil's Dolphins. It turns out that Cooper is a big fan of Neil (and quite a few of his contemporaries) and the guy who did the most well-known cover version of Dolphins, Tim Buckley.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Greg Malcolm

Sweet sounds for parking wardens

The piercing, probing twang of National Radio host Kim Hill gets a full audio lobotomy on the new album by Christchurch-based musician Greg Malcolm. Turning the tables on his tormentor, Malcolm has constructed a strange and intrinsically Kiwi concept cd using copious snippets of the media coverage that erupted over his earlier song, ‘The Ballad Of Peter Plumley-Walker’. Newspaper hacks foolhardy enough to leave messages on Malcolm’s answerphone also get mercilessly garroted between and within the glorious, madcap musical mayhem generated by the brilliant avant-garde guitarist and his collaborators. Musically sharp, clever and occasionally gorgeous, ‘What Is It Keith?’ (a line taken from a question Kim Hill posed to guest ‘culture expert’ Keith Stewart), thinks nothing of transposing Shadows-style guitar grooves with crazy, free jazz-influenced improvised sections. Oh, there’s a cutting Elton John pisstake in there somewhere, too. So, in the spirit of Malcolm’s original ode to the unfortunate Mr Plumley-Walker, we decided to engage in a little S&M (Steel & Malcolm) Q&A:
Q: Greg, what relevance does ‘What Is It Keith?’ have to the average Metro reader? You come from Christchurch, for Pete’s sake!
M: It’s too small a country to divide up. Paul Holmes looks the same in Christchurch as he does in Auckland, unfortunately.
Q: Does humour belong in music?
M: Is it just me, or is music singled out as the only art form that humour doesn’t mix with? Most of the musicians I admire use humour. People have a tendency to write off anything humorous as light and lacking in substance, when often the opposite is true.
Q: Have you thought of staging ‘What Is It Keith?’ as a wee Kiwi opera? (Complete with Huka Falls water slide for the kids)
A: I planned to perform ‘What Is Keith?’ as a multimedia event, but operas cost money and Kiri doesn’t come cheap. I can’t even guarantee a break-even tour for a three-piece band, let alone an opera.
Q: ‘What Is It Keith?’ is inevitably ‘about’ the media. But what’s it really saying?
A: My encounter with the media demonstrated them as ‘make happen’, rather than ‘make aware’ agents. How often is the news non-existent until catalystic journalism makes it happen? The media should be held accountable in the same way that they constantly pull up artists and politicians. It’s under-debated.
Q: The NZ media responded to your Plumley-Walker song with the expected approach: ‘Is it art? Is it offensive? Should our arts organisations be funding such stuff?’ Isn’t this public-pandering inevitable?
A: The media are constantly pulling artists up for immoral or irresponsible behaviour. Is it naive to expect the media to demonstrate that often the artist is merely illuminating aspects of their environment that may have otherwise gone unnoticed? Most of the media-formed opinions on the song were based on misinformation received from other media. Most people who commented on the song had not actually heard it.
Q: Are you a compulsive media voyeur, or does it only get your craw when it comes this close?
A: I haven’t lived in a house with a telly for fifteen years. It is something that I have no interest in, but what choice do we have? I prefer my reality to be what I consider important. We are the fish, and it’s our water that’s being polluted.
Q: Why did you go to Germany, and end up recording your album there?
A: Having lived in-and-around Berlin in the early 90s, I knew it was the best place to live if I was interested in pursuing my avant garde music. My friends started an improvised music venue, which rapidly became the centre of interesting music in Berlin. It was great. I could walk down three flights of stairs and see what I still consider to be some of the most exciting music of our time AND get free drinks. I was the unco-operative member of the co-op: I couldn’t work the door or the bar as I would watch every concert, but I would make up for it by lighting the ovens (essential in 15-below Winters) and clean the toilets. Berlin was also a great place to base ourselves for touring. We performed our traditional New Zealand folk songs throughout Holland, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium, Switzerland, and of course Germany. I was able to live off playing my music, and the extra time enabled more commitment and incentive to develop my art. I came back to NZ because I got sick, and had no medical insurance or legal status in Germany.
Q: Why obscure such beautiful music with all that talking and silly carrying on?
A: Which is more subversive: dumb teen angst, or a state of anarchy seen to be working?
Q: Do you perform in a straight/non-humorous context as well?
A: I have performed my deadly serious Depresso Guitar programme several times. I find nothing funny about lying a guitar on my lap, sitting a mini-fan on it, and bowing it with a cello bow. Yet people still laugh.
Q: Are you influenced by any of these people? Mama Cass, Fats Domino, John Zorn, John Holmes, Doctor Who, Dr Demento, George Strait, George Speight, Frank Zappa, Pia Zadora, Fred Dagg, Daggy & The Dickheads, The Byrds, The Bats.
A: I have always listened to a lot of ethnic music, from Inuits to Romanian folk music. Check out the Tarak de Haidouk. Korean folk and Tangent music from the world of Islam. My other mainstay is improvised and modern classical: Harry Partch, Webern, John Zorn, Hans Bennink, Eugene Chadbourne.
Q: Why did you make ‘What Is It Keith?’ It’s not going to get you laid, you know.
A: I thought I could make a cd that raises some concerns I have, has great music, an overall unifying concept, and is profoundly weird. As for getting laid, that’s why I play bluegrass. It drives the ladies - and for that matter, the gentlemen - crazy.
Q: Is your music essentially free jazz, or free improv? And is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose?
A: I like free music, but it is only a small part of what I do. I would say that ‘unpopular’ is the only category I fit comfortably in. I am thinking about becoming a parking warden so I can integrate my art fully into my daily life.
Q: Do Kim Hill and the other reporters and news readers so liberally sampled on ‘What Is It Keith?’ get royalties for their original material on your album?
A: Like the other musicians, they are entitled to free copies.

* This article originally appeared in Metro magazine.

Notes: This may all be too NZ-referential, but Greg Malcolm is an undersung New Zealand institution, and of interest because he's a genuine iconoclast. Very serious - and seriously excellent - with his guitar work, both in an avant-garde and more 'popular' incarnations, he's one of those daring souls who always manages to bite the hand that could potentially feed him. Bravo! More recently than this piece, he has released an album on Corpus Hermeticum which has received high praise internationally. And all that.

Frank Zappa

The Father Of Invention

Rock musician Frank Zappa is a one-man cottage industry who has produced countless albums in a myriad of styles. He talks of his battles against censorship and his vision of a new school of creativity. By Gary Steel.

NOW 50, American rock’n’roll iconoclast Frank Zappa has forged a totally uncompromising career which has criss-crossed into political debate and satire. His body of work has swung with an alarming dexterity through a complex hula-hoop of styles, from doo-wop to blues to rock to jazz to classical and beyond. He now wants to revive the Bauhaus movement. Where? Maybe Australia, maybe New Zealand.
Zappa’s definition of rock journalism has often been quoted: "People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read."
But fortunately, he is in generous spirits when approached at his Los Angeles company, International Absurdities. Laughing, he says, "I’ve just been in the studio trying to explain to my secretary what Sardinian vocal music sounds like." Of course. He then launches into his vision of an antipodean Bauhaus. He explains that the Bauhaus movement, which produced a whole range of superior art and products prior to being smashed by Nazi Germany, could be revived in Australasia, with him as its principal creative architect! Of course!
"There hasn’t been anything like the Bauhaus since then – in other words, a building that would act as a magnet for artists of all different disciplines to work together and share their ideas, to create a style and create products.
"I started talking to the Australian consul about whether or not it would be feasible to do something like that there. By the time he explained Australian unions to me I said ‘thank you very much’ and was outta there in the blink of an eye.
"I would be delighted to talk to anybody from the New Zealand consulate about this idea. The idea of putting something like this in your part of the world would be attractive to artists from the rest of the world, just because your part of the world seems to be much more carefree and less stressful than the places they’re looking at working now.
"If the facility itself is set up properly it acts as a tourist magnet and acts as a magnet for other land development in the vicinity. It’s a good business proposition for any country."
But what could we expect from developments in the New Zealand music scene with Zappa at the helm? He jokes: "You’ve gotta start dressing like sheep and walking around in a circle. You’ll be surprised what your music scene will turn into!"

ZAPPA was born in Baltimore, Maryland (home of Edgar Allan Poe, Spiro Agnew and John Waters), and lived his early years on Edgewood Arsenal, a US base for poisonous gases and germ warfare. Every member of the family had a gasmask in case of accident. As a boy, his head was irrevocably turned towards strange sounds when he heard the extreme noise terror of Varese’s Ionisation.
In the mid-60s, with his group the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa created an alternative universe for young outcasts disappointed with the dippy hippy vibes of the time. The first release was Freakout, in 1966. It hit out at American teen mores, middle-class values, and veered stylistically from cheesy, greasy pop through to frightening avant-garde collages. It was a huge influence on musicians attempting new expressions through rock, and seemed to say: there are no limits.
This is something Zappa has continued to live up to in a career which has seen in excess of 50 albums (many of them doubles and triples), three feature films, three videos, a swag of side projects, and a merchandising operation. Zappa is probably the only artist in America to have total control of what, in his case, is a burgeoning cottage industry.
But what does it all mean? Zappa’s music is a heck of a thing to comprehend; then there’s all this other stuff. "That’s the point, though. The problem is that very few people even have the nerve to say what you just said. It is a HECK of a thing to comprehend. It’s a miracle if somebody can follow all of it, because that would mean that they would either have had to have done a lot of research to find out what all those lyrics mean, and/or have listened to a wide variety of different ethnic music and classical music and different kinds of blues stuff that I’ve listened to throughout my life in order to understand how I could develop my style from those influences.
"What I do is derived from a wide range of traditions from other cultures and different periods of time. I didn’t think it up out of thin air. To some people it sounds like the weirdest shit they’ve ever heard in their life, but if you know anything about musicology, then it becomes even more entertaining, because you see how some of these traditions got mutated into what I do now. And that’s probably one of the reasons why there’s an appreciation outside of the US, because those listeners have been exposed to a wider range of musical expression. There’s so little variety in the US radio broadcasts, and there’s no music education in schools anymore. So how’s a kid who’s never heard an orchestra or a string quartet, an opera or a folk tune or a sea shanty to have the slightest comprehension of what’s going on?"
Zappa’s electric guitar skills – which he sees primarily as opportunities for instant composition – are widely admired for their expressive qualities. In fact, his guitar playing often seems the only overtly emotional aspect of his music.
"Maybe in your mind you think that emotionality is a value, that it’s the ultimate hallmark of successful composition. I think there are OTHER things you can achieve in a composition that have nothing to do with emotional content. You can always convince people that you’re more emotional by having more vibrato (on guitar). Vibrato is just wiggling your hand back and forth, and if you do it without somebody asking you to, does that mean you’re an emotional musician? No. This might mean that you have palsy."
Which brings us to one constant theme in his music: humour. All areas of the arts are rife with those intent on stamping out humour, and many refuse to accept that it IS possible to be funny and serious at the same time. Zappa, as usual, is fairly much alone in this regard. How many rock humourists have their compositions studied at the Juillard music academy, or have their chamber works performed by Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony Orchestra?
Given Zappa’s obvious importance, it’s bizarre that so much rock literature denies it. "It’s all stupid. I haven’t seen or heard anything that really tells the way rhythm and blues developed into rock’n’roll and what really happened and how all the different people got screwed. And how eventually the whole thing turned into an industry which was designed to support certain types of products. Certain groups were designed just for the use of soft drink manufacturers, beer manufacturers, tennis shoe manufacturers. Everything turned into a corporate expression."

ZAPPA’s co-authored autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book (Picador, $18.95), helps make sense of one of rock’s most complex figures.
Typically, Zappa pulls no punches in his dissertations on music, parenting, schools and the Church, while his detailed chapter on censorship blasts the would-be guardians of American morality. Given his own tendency towards explicit lyrical content, it made sense that Zappa stood up to be counted in 1985 when the Parents Music Resource Centre (collectively dubbed the ‘Washington Wives’) got together to force the censorship issue on rock music. When it reached Senate hearings, Zappa made a statement to Congress on the subject and defended the right to freedom of speech in a heavy round of television interviews. Ironically, Prince, whose lyrics to Darling Nikki had sparked off the whole affair, was absent from the defence.
The ultimate stupidity of labeling records for explicit content was revealed when Zappa’s 1986 Grammy award-winning Jazz From Hell carried a sticker warning against offensive lyrics. It’s an instrumental album.
Zappa has continued to monitor the censorship battle, and contends that it’s getting worse: "Little Red Riding Hood was removed from the public library in California, because a Christian group complained that Grandma drank wine and enjoyed it!"
Besides political battles, Zappa remains an incredibly prolific musician. Latest plans include putting together a 20-piece band for a world music festival in Japan and releasing the final three volumes of his 12-disc archival live set, You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore. How does he fit it all in? "I have an unbelievable wife, a really wonderful family, my kids don’t get into trouble, and we all get along fine. Besides that, nobody around here uses any drugs, nobody’s an alcoholic. It’s not party-time.
"This is a very special form of entertainment," he says, "because there are layers and layers and layers of it and depending on how much leisure time you have to dig into it, you can be pretty thoroughly entertained on all levels.
"The average music listener today, what are they looking for? Dance beats, some words that are pretty fuckin’ easy to understand and maybe three notes that you can hum. And then of course a real good hairdo and some real nice clothes to look at, and maybe a dance step you can pick up.
"I flunk in every one of those categories."

* This piece was originally published in the NZ Listener, April 22, 1991.


Every time I write something on Frank Zappa, the torture never stops, and this was the worst, because I had all these great quotes and a chance to tell the world (or at least the three million denizens of NZ) about Fabulous Frank. The problem is that there’s just SO MUCH TO SAY ABOUT FRANK, and a story like this has a set word limit. On top of that, The Listener has a set readership, which had to be thought about. The end result was a story which I wasn’t particularly happy with, but which does, nevertheless, have some fairly unique Zappa quotes.
Subsequently, author Ben Watson used some of my interview extracts for his monumental FZ tome, The Dialectics Of Poodle Play.
The interview came about because Picador were releasing The Real Frank Zappa Book. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet the man in person, but got to talk on the phone for about an hour-and-a-half. I was as nervous as hell: Zappa is my all-time music hero, and I had read and seen him interviewed enough times to know that he could be a right cunt when faced with stupidity of any kind. Fortunately, he was a generous and forthcoming interviewee, and was keen to discuss subjects outside of the specific agenda.
When I have more time, and less tired fingers, I might bash out some of the interview transcript not included in the above piece, which includes his enthusiastic description of Sardinian vocal music.
In retrospect it’s an interview I feel very odd about, due to the fact that Zappa knew he was dying of cancer, but had not yet announced the fact. During the interview, he alluded to ill-health, but it didn’t seem right to quiz him on the details.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Burnt Friedman

The Burnt Fried Man

Everyone knows that Germans have hi-tech minds, but who ever heard of a German with a sense of humour? Bernie the Bolt, otherwise known as Bernd Friedman, or the Burnt Fried Man, is both a maverick tech-head par excellence, and a man who looks at the absurdities of the world with more than a wee wink and a smile.
Oh, did I mention that he’s a genius?
Operating and innovating for more than a decade now under catchy names like Drome, Some More Crime, Nonplace Urban Field, and even Burnt Friedman, the Cologne-based cyber-composer has finally found since the turn of the century that the world is turning on to his twisted yet infinitely attractive vision of future music.
Navigating an anything-but-typical musical expedition, Friedman’s unusual trajectory curved its way through an adolescent obsession with percussion, and a singular dedication to the amassing of a self-recorded sample-library. What followed was a period of academia (art school), then immersion in the first flurry of collaborative music projects Some More Crime and Drome. Like many whose formative influences came from the late 70s and early 80s (Friedman cites the spooky synth-pop of Gary Numan and the proto-industrial rhythms of German legends Einsturzende Neubaten), his early projects vibrated with a cold, mechanised alienation that was often capped by sampled documentary dialogue.
Cut to 1995. The mini-album ‘Raum Fur Notizen’ is released to ecstatic if uncomprehending reviews, and miniscule sales. Years later, this landmark recording will be referenced by artists like Stefan Betjke (Pole) as the first entry in a new electronic sub-genre called Glitch, as immortalised by the recent compilation ‘Clicks & Cuts’ (Mille Plateaux). The subsequent ‘Golden Star’ still stands as a peerless achievement in contemporary electronica. Nominally a remix album, it’s a masterly exposition of Friedman’s skill and wayward creative flair: flowing, seamless blends of low-key, hypnotic techno disguised the micro-melodies and insect rhythms within, but these were the very elements that kept its intrigued listeners coming back for more.
This was contemporary electronica - incorporating an eclectic take on techno, dub, jazz and other music forms - working at a far more sophisticated level than practically anything else on the market at the time, and working with a technical exactitude that might frighten even Aphex Twin.
But Burnt Friedman is nothing if not a perfect paradox. Wilfully eccentric and deeply philosophical, he’s keen to eschew the usual gadget-boffin-geek approach to technology. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, the technology is practically incidental; simply a means to an end. And the word ‘electronic’ itself can go take a jump.
"Electronic’ has become an indication for a certain music style,
referring to its outlook not to its processing," says Burnd in thoughtful, halting English. "If it was referring to its processing then Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and even orchestral recordings would be considered electronic."
More worrying is "when the recording techniques of studios permits the
engineer and programmer an abundance of quality enhancements which do not necessarily correspond to the ability of the musician, but rather to the
performance of electrical instruments. In the event of such trick
applications, the end product as a sound recording is no longer
distinguishable from the assiduity of the soloist."
Friedman himself has survived four years of failing record companies and constipated release schedules to emerge as the perfect 21st Century future jazz one-man-band, with a clutch of beautiful, perfect, shiny recordings all released over the past year including his dub project ‘Just Landed’, his Latino project ‘Con Ritmo’, his celebrated collaboration with Uwe Schmidt/Atom Heart as Flanger, and the newly released ‘Love Songs’.
I interviewed Friedman on the day ‘Love Songs’ was released, and it had ALREADY sold out of its first pressing; this is an album that, due to record company machinations, was delayed so long that at one point it was called ‘Fucking Long Time’!
Cop an ear to any of these recordings and expect to be stunned with the naturalistic yet somehow impossibly tight performances. They SOUND like real instruments interacting in a more-or-less conventional way, but what we have here is cyber-enhanced. Gone are the synthetic blips and bleeps of ‘Raum Fur Notizen’, replaced with real (or at least beautifully sampled) guitars, organs and horns. What separates Friedman from Kruder & Dorfmeister and other cool groove merchants is the intricate, often rhythmically complex detail; the layers of subtle definition and the sheer ODDNESS that results from music that sounds almost too perfect, too tricky for real musicians.
On the widely popular second Flanger project ‘Midnight Sound’, for instance, the contemporary jazz fusion is so well-rendered that when a song temporarily breaks down into a series of expertly crafted scratches and clicks right in the middle of a song, it comes as a great shock.
Is this where the new technology is leading? When quizzed on this matter, however, Friedman claims innocence:
"I just love the sounds of real instruments, they are somehow richer than
virtual sound sources regarding dynamics, tuning and colourscale.
"In order to gain maximum effect my approach as a painter of music would be photorealistic, like the well known art genre. Painters usually have a photographic model and translate it via a grid on the canvas but I would not want a model. Thus I could choose infinite, alien characters and combinations,
with no degree of abstraction.
"Actually, I do incorporate synthesised, abstract sounds, but they’re not
dominant, and they’re ‘played’ as if they were traditional instruments."
Friedman doesn’t hold that there’s any great difference between musicians working with tradition instruments and those involved with new technology - "players are working with some representation of notes and grids, too" - but does have one compelling reason for taking the newer path:
"I claim that the electronic technology of our days is made for dilettantes, compensating for lack of technique. I’m a dilettante... I didn’t properly ‘learn’ my favorite instrument, drums. I started playing in 1982 without a kit... mercy for my parents! I stroke whatever objects I found, the sound of things interested me more than increasing success playing tools. Today, sampling technology helps me overcome physical boundaries of instrument playing: gravity, inaccuracy. It also helps reproducing it. I think if I had learned ‘traditional’ instruments, maybe I would not have investigated
sound production that much."
In performance, Friedman is neither dj nor player, but some in between space that belongs uniquely to him, and has only a passing relationship to his recorded output. His custom-made methodology utilises five mini-disc players simultaneously, effectively allowing him to set up some kind of rhythmic matrix and layer various components of sound as he wishes. This can make for a compelling night in clubland, far from the predictability of the typical dj scenario, yet sonically thrilling and rhythmically worthy of dance action, if sometimes requiring nimble footwork.
Recently, Friedman has begun an intermittent live relationship with the legendary Jaki Leibezeit (drummer for ‘Kraut Rock’ kings Can), and as his profile soars, 2001 promises a blistering array of appearances, including dates with his sparring partner in Flanger, the prolific Uwe Schmidt (catch him in a variety of guises, including Senor Coconut, LB, Roger Tubesound, Erik Satin and Atom Heart).

The Burnd Friedman equipment arsenal:

"The set up changes all the time. Rack units die away or I trash them. The following has survived":

24 channel Mackie mixing console
Atari Computer
Macintosh G3 Computer
Akai Sampler XL 3200
Yamaha TG 77 rack version
Clavia Nordlead 1 , rack version
Korg Ms 20
Korg Micro Preset
Roland R 8m Percussion module
Roland and Korg tape Echo units
SPL Qure, Valve Equalizer
Homemade Valve preamps
Homemade parametric Equalizers
Homemade spiral reverb
Aphex Compellor
Aphex Exciter Type 3
Crystal Phasematic
Behringer Multigate
Rocktron Hush
Rocktron Intellifex
FMR Audio Compressor RNC 1773
DBX 166 stereo compressor
Sony MP 5 effect processor
Korg A 3 effects processor
Korg DVP 1 Voice processor
Yamaha Model R1000 reverb
Digidesign Digi 001 24bit interface
Waldorf Mini Works 4 Pole
Low Frequency Unit, Maurer Bass Booster
Ibanez classic Phase
Morley wah wah
Morley echo plus
Kef BBC LS3 5a speakers
Denon amplifier PMA 860
Pro Tools 5
14 channel Mackie mixing console
5 Sony Mini disc players

Friedman adds:
"Apparently studio musicians invest into virtual set ups.
I believe the tools I have listed will soon be considered vintage treasures.
The progress takes place fast, the quality of the simulated tools doesn’t
even suck. The species of instrument players seems to be extinct, although the sentimental listeners yearn for songwriters and soloists. So far the
scenario, the future of any music technology was and will ever be creating
tunes." Uh-huh.

* Semi-official Burnt Friedman site:
Official Burnt Friedman site:

* Published in Australian music technology mag, NextMusic

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Robert Fripp

Art Rock And After

By Gary Steel

Unobtrusively, the ‘father of progressive rock’, guitar master and ‘thinking person’s musician’ Robert Fripp visited New Zealand in January. His personal appearances, however, were confined to the 25 participants in his Guitar Craft course.
Fripp – former King Crimson leader and contributor of distinctive electric tones to records by the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, Darryl Hall, Blondie and David Sylvian – held court for a week at Fowey Lodge in a secluded area of Howick. Intensive plectrum-picking resounded on the steel strings of acoustic guitars, as Fripp took demanding workshops in the fundamentals of music with an unusual emphasis on alternate and cross-picking techniques. Fripp defines Guitar Craft as three things: a way of practising the guitar; a way of coming into a relationship with music; and a way of practising the person. "With a certain intensity of application our state can change, and at this point we may find music waiting," he said. But to reach the required state of intensity and concentration without stress (that renowned creativity killer) rearing its ugly head, relaxation is an essential prerequisite. Hence the substantial time allocation to the art of relaxation, meditation and, specifically, the Alexander Technique.
Stranger was the fact that you did not have to be a guitar player to participate. The introductory course was open to "all levels of experience", from those who had never touched a guitar but had the commitment to learn, up the scale to veritable technical wizards.
Organised by Nigel Gavin, a New Zealand-based American guitarist who leads a group of guitar Frippofiles called the Gitbox Rebellion, the New Zealand course included Kiwis, Australians and Americans – several of them advanced players who, having studied Fripp’s methods before, were back for revision studies.
But wait a minute. It’s history time. The year is 1969. Rock and roll, by consensus view, is seen as a social phenomenon and a metaphor for teen rebellion. But what’s happening here? Along with the consciousness-raising associated with the era came an infiltration of the rock scene by academically inspired musicians.
Some virtuosi – like guitarist Jimi Hendrix – brought their innate genius from a solid blues background. Others – like technical wizard Robert Fripp – brought the European tradition to bear on this new musical explosion.
Whatever the many and varied inspirational sources, rock music was beginning to take itself seriously. Suddenly, musicians had the desire to create something of their own, the opportunity to harness the new sounds afforded them by the new technology, and an already existing industry (hence: promoters and marketers) to sell their wares for them. Rock demanded to be taken as seriously as jazz or classical and, for a while, it was. Who remembers the debate raging in the Listener letters pages in 1974 about the suitability of such music for the Concert Programme?
The terms ‘progressive rock’ and ‘art rock’ are associated with the creation of King Crimson, whose debut began the great ‘But Can You Dance To It? You Call That Rock And Roll?’ debate. Led by the studious Fripp, King Crimson were about as un-rock and roll as an electric band could get. Their first album, In The Court Of The Crimson King, set new standards in high fidelity, introduced the world to a conceptual vision of hell on earth in 21st Century Schizoid Man, and a disciplined steamhammer sonic barrage that heavy metal bands are still trying to recapture today. Most critics hated it.
Over two decades later, Robert Fripp remembers well the unresolved conflicts over this new music, and rues the failure to develop its full potential.
"In 1969 I was attacked for saying that you could tap your foot to rock but use your brain as well," he says in his clipped, middle-class accent. "This was viewed as terribly pretentious. And my own view of Crimson in that period was that it drew on European music forms as well as harnessing the power of rock. For me it was, you know, what would happen if Hendrix was playing the Bartok String Quartets? Or The Rite of Spring? Conversely, what would the Bartok quartets be like if they were written for the power of an ensemble like Hendrix’s?"
King Crimson musicians came and went – Fripp was the only one to stay. Their albums mixed up a brave, wonderful and often preposterous stew of heavy rock, modern classical, jazz and folk ideas. However, many critics dismiss King Crimson and other progressive rock groups (Genesis, ELP, Yes, etc) as indulgent and pretentious. Fripp doesn’t altogether disagree.
"It was very hard, very difficult for young men to play music like that," he says. It was a musical generation which went sadly off course, and I don’t think it ever moved from 1969 to 1970."
Why? Fripp talks about young musicians having their aspirations dashed, and being bought by the temptations the business brings with it – sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s all very well making music for the mind and body, but the act of creation is somewhat depleted by the album-tour-album-tour cycle the popular record industry forces on its artists, and the attendant temptations to indulge in sex, alcohol and illicit drugs.
Seeing these factors stripping away the vitality and validity of his eclectic experiments, Fripp disbanded King Crimson in 1974 and disappeared for several years to study at Sherborne House under J G Bennett – a pupil of the philosopher Gurdjieff. When he returned in 1977, progressive rock was an all but forgotten medium, and punk was all the rage. But Fripp was a new man with strengthened resolutions and a clear set of ideals.
"It was a fairly sterile period (for music) until 1976 with the so-called punk/new wave movement, when the spirit returned," said Fripp. "But whereas with the previous generation there was an articulation that we wanted to play our instruments well… because it had gone off course, the next generation reacted against it. And it was quite unseemly t have any competence or performance skill. So the music had a lot of spirit but playing was not very competent."
With his return, Fripp decided a relocation was in order. "I moved to New York in February of 1977. It was a remarkable time to be there, and musicians of that generation were very free, very open." He talks of associations struck with new wave bands like Blondie.
"But then some of the people got to be very successful and the latitude, the mobility and the flexibility and the freedom kind of went out of the scene."
A frantic bout of activity for Fripp included solo ventures and collaborations such as his unforgettably hypnotic ‘Frippertronic’ contribution to David Bowie’s Heroes song and album. The new Fripp even had a convenient description for himself – ‘a small, intelligent, mobile unit’ – which summed up his new, ultra-disciplined methodology. At this point Fripp also mapped out his own 12-year plan. The first was his three-year ‘drive to 1981’, followed by the three-year reactivisation of King Crimson and his ‘incline to 1984’.
With the final dissolution of King Crimson in 1984, however, it seemed to the general public that Fripp had gone into hiding again. What happened to the rest of the plan, and what did it entail? "It was a 12-year plan from 1978," explained Fripp. "In 1978 four three-year periods presented themselves. And I saw that there had to be certain achievements within each three-year period, to move to the next. The characteristic of the first period was to get in place, to establish a position, whatever it might be. And the period 1981 to 1984 was one of consolidation. From the period of 1984 to 1987, the key word is ‘network’. I made contact in reciprocal fashion with others who had similar commitment and interests. And the period of 1987 to 1990 was to ‘go into the world’, and for that network in a sense to be an active power grid in the world. But I didn’t see beyond 1990. Twelve years is quite enough to get on with. And that will make itself apparent at the right time."
About now, reader, you may be wondering just which New Age trip Fripp may be on, but the insularity and self-obsession of New Age doesn’t come into Fripp’s clear-headed, realistic worldview. The last two parts of his plan clearly coincide with a drift away from the rock industry and into the teaching of his personal disciplines which have resulted in Guitar Craft; a guitar school funded by the Seminar Program of the American Society for Continuous Education, of which Fripp is himself a past-president.
Like many New Agers, however, Fripp does feel good about the 1990s. "The characteristic of anything creative is that it’s new; if you knew what would happen, it wouldn’t be creative.
"But you can make some predictions, simply by applying process. My sense is that something so new is going to appear in this stream in 1991 that we can’t pin it down easily. There’s a very benevolent presence behind the changes which are occurring, in my view, but the outcome is not guaranteed because whenever you get a very positive force you generally get a negative force as strong which rises to meet it. So there has to be something in the middle which makes the outcome possible. And, to be a little simplistic, it is the effort made by us all to enable that process to take place."
So he’s out of the rock industry, but there are still little offshoots of his current activities. First there’s the League Of Crafty Guitarists, a band of graduates from the courses. Then there’s Sunday All Over The World, "a cooking little rock group" for which Fripp plays guitar and his wife, actor Toyah Wilcox, sings. But he’s not optimistic for that group’s success:
"The cost of presenting a new band which isn’t in the mainstream of the marketplace is very expensive, particularly when one isn’t supported by the industry. The music industry has become far more governed by the business interests than it was in the 1970s."
And then there are the old King Crimson albums, which are about to be released in crystalline, digitally remastered compact discs. Fripp describes the remastering as a "labour of love, but the difference (in sound) is staggering, so they carry my personal recommendation." Fans are duly warned not to touch the previous batch of King Crimson cds, released without Fripp’s permission – he says the sound quality was "appalling". Order the revitalised versions at your local specialist record store.

SO THEN, these are some of the strands of ideas on which the Guitar Craft course is built; and now the Fripp network has spread as far as New Zealand.
After question time we are seated on cushions in the middle of the conference room. His students file in and sit in a circle around us, and perform several ensemble pieces they have devised and workshopped during the past two days and nights. The effect of 25 acoustic guitars in a circle is ‘surround-sound’ and the level of concentration in the room produces an almost psychic quality in both musicians and audience.
A little rough round the edges, it is hypnotic stuff all the same, and a shining example of the effect Fripp’s teachings have had on the students.
Subsequent to the course, many of the pupils stayed on here to develop and record original material they had workshopped. Gitbox Rebellion played at the Waitangi Day celebrations and were to play at the Sesqui Festival in Wellington this month. And Nigel Gavin has been invited by the master to extend his studies in America.
Although it’s a long way from the rock industry in which Fripp established his career, this networking will provide, in which genre they choose, the most valuable musicians of all: functional creators.

∑ This article appeared in the NZ Listener, March 19, 1990.

Notes: Re-reading this piece after so many years, I’m bored silly by it’s lack of flair. I was attempting to write ‘up to’ the Listener arts pages somewhat stuffy reputation. That’s a great pity, because the memory of meeting Fripp on that Sunday afternoon/evening is vivid and colourful. I was a long-time Fripp admirer and King Crimson freak, and was terribly nervous, just in case he turned out to be an asshole. Or worse, just in case I turned out to be an asshole, and he showed me up. Things worked out okay. I was given a generous formal interview, but it was made clear to me that work with his students would have preference. When I stated my intention to ask him a lot of Crimson questions, he showed some reticence, but gave in to my curiosity. Fripp is one of the strangest speakers I’ve ever encountered. When you see Fripp on film, there’s a fusty, almost bumbling impression. In person, he has an incredible presence, totally composed, totally PRESENT and guru-like.
In some point towards the end of the interview, Fripp tried to get me interested in taking a Guitar Craft course. He said it didn’t matter if I played no instrument whatever. I seriously considered it, and every now and then wonder how it may have revolutionised my life.
In the article, the course came across as very relaxed. In fact, I believe it was a very tough, sleep-deprived regime based on J G Bennett’s courses.
The highlight – apart from that ‘multi-channel, in the middle of the circle’ witnessing of the student’s lessons, was the dinner entertainment.
Food was a Hare Krishna-style vegetarian feast, and while everyone sat around eating, Robert Fripp himself moved from table to table with his acoustic guitar, smiling beatifically, playing the most achingly beautiful accompaniment. It was also the only time I’ve seen Fripp STAND UP to play guitar… he’s always seated on stage for King Crimson.

Dimmer/Shayne Carter

Getting Carter

Shayne Carter. Former rock god. Elusive, reclusive. Finally, new album, new interview. Lowdown: GARY STEEL

SHAYNE Carter still has a sneer in his voice. The same voice that sneered persuasively through the bracing racket of Straitjacket Fits records, the group that should have made Shayne Carter the first bona fide Kiwi rock star on the international stage.
It almost happened, but Carter is sitting here today with his sneer because it all went horribly wrong back in 94, and because, after all this time, NZ’s greatest rock icon is returning to fulfill a contractual obligation: the creative obligation of his resuscitated muse.
Carter’s muse brought him up screaming from Dunedin and the Flying Nun zeitgeist of the 80s, where his post-punk outfit Straitjacket Fits first trashed the local scene, before turning its attentions to bigger markets.
The spectacular rollercoaster ride of ‘She Speeds’ birthed a new rock god. Shayne P. Carter, with his classic idol cheekbones and youthful defiance, was an instant icon in a country woefully lacking in sex appeal.
London called and Straitjacket Fits came running, whipping up feverish music press and rapturish fan flurries; in America, a major label snapped them up and set them to work.
Then the facade began to crumble.
"The industry is a shitty place, and you get to the epicentre and you think ‘What’s this got to do with what propels me to pick up my guitar and write music?’ Bugger all. You end up sitting in people’s offices, talking to them, and you don’t like them, and you don’t like what they’re saying. There’s lots of dodgy characters in the industry and lots of bullshitters...
"You get to the point where you’re in a band and they’re quite high profile in the industry, and all this peripheral stuff becomes important, and it’s not important. The important thing is loving music and being moved by it, because that’s the only way you can create music yourself that moves you, and if it moves you it will move other people."

IT’S a sweat-soaked February day and it’s a blessing to get out of town. Shayne Carter has invited the hack to his temporary digs at Langholm, on Auckland’s West Coast, at the sometime residence of the man who got him to sign that Sony contract two years ago, label manager Malcolm Black. The plan: today, Carter will unveil the long-awaited album by his group, Dimmer, and consent to an interview.
First, we sun ourselves in the backyard, perched on the lip of an ancient Maori pa site, which runs spectacularly past strands of native bush down to a vista of Manukau harbour. We discuss mutual health concerns and some of the burning issues for today’s sensitive thirtysomethings. Like, how to stay angry and use naturopathic medicines. Carter finishes the conversation by extolling the benefits of meditation. With a sneer.
"I’d f***en love some peace and tranquility man. F***en hell. I think as you get older, that’s all you actually want. When you’re younger you experiment and you want to do dangerous things. But after a while it’s too much effort, too painful, and you just want some f***en peace and quiet."
It’s been a painful few months. Having just about put the finishing touches to his record late last year, Carter’s Dad suddenly died, too young in his 50s, and everything changed. At times, the album seemed a tortuous process that was never going to see completion. But this news blew everything out of the water. With his own health issues and relationship complications adding to a volatile mixture, Carter couldn’t have felt less like starting on the whole tedious task of promoting his first album in seven years.
Retiring to the lounge, I’m graced with two plays of the long-awaited album, ‘I Believe You Are A Star’, but I’m told to commit it to memory. No taking this cd home.
Edgily, Carter suggests we postpone the interview and head for town to catch a movie, ‘Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger.’

FOR a physically imposing guy - Shayne looks and acts tough - Carter is the biggest wuss I’ve met. When the writer drove Carter and his girlfriend to an electronic event at Titirangi a couple of years ago, he wanted to leave almost immediately, citing certain imminent death resulting from the bites of a battalion of mosquitos. It was the perfect black comedy, Carter was so out of his element. Like many kids whose teenage years coincided with the post-punk era of the early 80s, Shayne Carter holds on to elements of his punk roots, noticeably an avowed cynicism, and a hatred for the woolly ways of the hippy scum. Titirangi had mosquitos and hippies, in spades, soaking in their patchouli oil, fire-eating and blissing out in the West Coast mud. Carter couldn’t wait to get out of there.
But this is part of what makes him such a great musical presence: in everything he’s ever done - and that means some of the best pop songs ever committed to the recorded medium in this part of the world - Carter manfully wrestles between his overt sensitivity and his other side, a kind of angsty malevolence.
In Straitjacket Fits, roaring malevolence rules, but on the new record, the slightly mellower, 36-year-old Carter has found some kind of balance between angst and beauty and that wonderful, picaresque, inbetween state, melancholy.
"I’m quite an anxious person, so that anxiety comes through in my music. I like music that has tension and is spooky, almost a mood of anxiety, kind of like melancholy, a beautifully bleak feeling. You know how melancholy is kind of delicious, as well as sad?
"But I think it’s a beautiful record. It’s not trying to prove how tough it is. It’s got quite a few girly bits on it, the (falsetto) singing, and I wasn’t scared to do that. I wanted to make a beautiful record, so in lots of ways it’s quite feminine. It’s the music I wanted to make, one that was timeless and didn’t sound like it was super contemporary. It sounds slightly out of its time, it doesn’t totally fit in with what’s going on, and I think that’s a strength, a good thing.
"If it feels real no-one else can touch it because it’s true, you know? And that’s always been my criteria, whether that piece of music feels real to me or not. It’s soul, that’s the only way I can describe it. All my favourite music has got that soul and truth to it."

WHEN Straitjacket Fits came to a grinding halt in 1994, Shayne Carter retreated to Dunedin for a couple of years. Feeling embittered by the industry that promotes art for money, but so often stalls the creative process, Carter retreated to a the city he grew up in, and set about rejecting every musical value he had previously subscribed to.
"The band had been going for seven or eight years, and a band’s like a gang, and eventually you tire of that, running round with the same bunch of boys. And with any kind of creative entity, there’s only so much water in the well. And by the end of it I was feeling quite frustrated, I felt like I carried it, and I couldn’t be bothered doing that anymore.
"I just felt a bit dirty and sullied by the end of the Straitjackets, possibly slightly disillusioned with the whole thing, and I just needed to go back to where I came from, and learn to love music again.
"I’ve had to completely relearn my whole way of making music. I’ve always written songs in a practice room with a band, and I tired of that. I spent two years in Dunedin just jamming, doing a lot of free-form stuff, and didn’t write a concrete song for about two years. I got sick of the rock thing."

BUT the story of the making of ‘I Believe You Are A Star’ is set squarely in Auckland, a city that Carter still finds dislocated, remote and devoid of the nurturing community qualities of Dunedin. Relocating to the Queen city in 1996, Carter set about the long process of recalibrating his musical orientation. Becoming another of those flatting fringe denizens bordering Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, he formed the three-piece Dimmer and released a tentative ep through his old company, Flying In. But never really musically a part of the strumming, drone folk-rock of the Flying Nun stable, and sensing the strong arm of big business bearing down on the label (Flying Nun is now part of Festival-Mushroom group, owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch), Carter felt increasingly alienated by the company that had formerly espoused such a tight-knit, homely approach to music-making. Suspended in a city with all the star-making machinery, but none of the creative mechanisms he was used to, Shayne Carter slowly began his agonising, man-alone voyage back to a place that felt right.
This meant a misjudged solo guitar frenzy in an Auckland club, and a clutch of Dimmer performances that were more freeform psychedelic wig-outs than hints of any intrinsic Carteresque qualities.
It was starting to seem like Dim and Dimmer.
"Auckland is all about money, and to generate money you have to appeal to a wider public spectrum, and to appeal to a wider public spectrum, your product has to be blander. Sometimes I think that in this town the apex of creativity is making a good Toyota ad, and that’s not very inspiring. In Dunedin, your poor friend who’s sitting on the dole but has got these amazing artistic ideas will sit you down and give you a great book to read or... I hate poetry but they’ll read you a great f***ing poem. I don’t find Auckland a creative or inspiring town at all.
I do like the climate!
"Everyone needs some form of recognition or encouragement, and when you’re dealing with the kind of thing that I do, it’s all created in isolation, and you don’t get anything like that back until you finish it.
Still looking for his muse, Carter found his investigation of the new areas of computer-driven electronic music rewarding.
"When I first heard that stuff I thought ‘this is the brave new music’. It’s taking risks, and it’s doing all the things I was finding lacking in rock music at the time: intrigue, mystery, people trying things that I hadn’t heard before. I found that really inspiring, and I had to educate myself with that kind of music. And then I went through all the politics of it as well. I thought it was really great not to have a singer up there going ‘me me me’. I liked the whole socialistic principle of it, that the audience was just as important as the music. Then I went back and investigated all the music from where electronic music stemmed from. Brian Eno’s ambient stuff, Kraftwerk and all that kind of stuff.
"For a long time I thought singing and and playing songs was really square, so I didn’t do it, I just wrote instrumentals. But then I went full circle. I got sick of the vague, unspecific nature of the electronic thing. I’ve had big trips on Marvin Gaye, and that Careless Love book on Elvis (by Peter Guralnick) totally brought me back to songs and singing. I thought ‘f***, you can’t beat a great tune’. That’s a really human thing, to want to hear someone sing, and I realised that’s what I can do. I’m a guitar player who can sing and write songs. So I started doing that again, but I applied everything I’d learnt in the last few years.
As tortuous as the process was, Carter made the creative isolation of Auckland work to his advantage. Inking his deal with Sony, which allows for complete creative control, Carter began to get together the gear he needed for a new working methodology; getting to grips with new computer-based technology, he worked mostly alone, with Gary Sullivan providing drum tracks for his fledgling creations.
"Making this record at times has been a real struggle. To hold onto your belief when you’re operating in a vacuum, getting no feedback or anything to sustain you apart from your own self-belief. It’s a hard road to hoe, and lots of times I’d sit there with no money and the beginnings of this record that’s taken forever to make... it tests your spirit and your belief, and I’m really proud I’ve held onto it and sustained myself to the point that I’ve done it. I had points where I just wanted to give up, but I thought how ridiculous it would seem ten years down the track if I hadn’t made this record. It was something I had to do, and that’s what sustained me through it all."

HAVING creative control means Carter has been allowed to conceptualise the video clips. For the first Sony single, ‘Evolution’, he devised a video based on the Elvis 1968 comeback tv special, featuring himself as a boy, a young man, and a middle-aged man. The middle-aged Carter was his father.
"My Dad described the video shoot as tense and demanding, but he loved it. Dad didn’t have a lot of money or anything, so it was really great to be able to bring him up to Auckland. Being a brown guy in the South Island, there’s not a lot of brown people wandering around down there, so he really loved all the brown people wandering around K’rd... he spend two days just wandering up and down and saying ‘ki ora’ to everyone! The thing was, everyone went ‘ki ora’ back, so it was really cool. Just goes to show what you give out you get back.
"He was really proud, loved the music, even the really wiggy shit. he loved the ‘Crystallator’ single... when I gave it to him he really flipped out, and said ‘I can hear Scottish music, I can hear Maori music, I can hear all these different things!’
Carter’s parents were both musicians, his mother Caucasian, his father Maori. But Carter Jnr grew up in a white man’s world, scarcely aware of his Maori heritage; neither did his dad. He was adopted.
Straitjacket Fits, and Carter’s earlier groups Bored Games and the Double Happys, were both resolutely white-sounding.
"There’s always a big deal made about how Flying Nun music didn’t have any r’n’b inflections, and that’s really true. But at the same time I have always loved black music; stuff like Muddy Waters, Sly Stone, Otis Redding. And Hendrix has always been one of my favourites.
There are a lot of black music inflections on this record. That’s what I love about hip-hop, the irresistibility of that beat, no matter what you start nodding your head, and it’s music that plugs into those primal pulses.
In October, a bombshell. Slaving away and over deadline on the album, Carter got word that his dad had died. It has sent his whole world reeling.
"You don’t get anything heavier than your Dad dying. That’s about as heavy as it gets really. And to a certain extent it has put the album and all this business a bit lower on the totem pole."
At his dad’s tangi, Carter realised that there was a whole world - his heritage - that he knew nothing about.
"He was a Maori guy who was adopted and brought up by Europeans, so my contact with the culture has been really limited. But in the contact I have had, there are all these amazing things you get in Maori culture that you just don’t get in European culture, and it’s a culture that’s not about the self. European culture is all about me-me-me and that’s why there are so many lonely people in capitalistic systems. Whereas in that system it’s about your whanau and even about your relatives who are dead, and where you come from, and all the parts that have made you who and what you are. I was really struck at the tangi by the spirituality of it, and it’s a really important part of me that I have not explored enough. And I really want to explore it, because it’s a part of who I am. Being a musician, that is part of my Maoriness coming through. It’s hard to qualify that, but it’s something I’ve felt. It’s a very spiritual culture and music’s a very spiritual thing. It’s not something I do to make money, or to get my photograph in magazines, it’s deeper than that. I really believe that there’s a connection there. It’s so unique and so powerful."
More news to rock Carter’s world:
"We just found out where our family comes from. Like a lot of adopted people, Dad got rebuffed somewhere along the line and he was trying to find out but he never did. It effected him in that where you come from and your identity is such an important part of it and if you haven’t got that, you’re missing such a big part. But we’ve found out where our family comes from, and we’re actually going to meet those people this year, so it will be amazing."

THERE is an air of tragedy around the demise of Straitjacket Fits. Most bands have one crack at the big time. Carter’s moment came and went and without breaking through to deserved success in those crucial international markets; now in his mid-30s, there is a vague residue of what could have been, but the artist in Carter has determined a future that looks more underground than hitbound.
"You can’t feel regretful about that kind of stuff, because that’s just the way it is. I’m proud of what that band did, but I want to do something different, and it’s taken me this length of time to solidify what I really wanted to do. I could have released four okay records in this period, but I wasn’t going to let it go until I had something that said what I wanted to say and did it the way I wanted to do it. There’s enough pointless and mediocre music out there without me contributing to it."
Whether Carter’s moment in the spotlight has come and gone is a moot point. What matters is that ‘I Believe You Are A Star’ is a great record, possibly one of the most original, daring and outrageously well-defined pieces of musical art to have emanated from this country.
There are no obvious pop songs or radio hits, so Carter will be looking to find his audience through the underground network of music fans around the world who have become more apparent since the advent of the internet: if anyone has any doubts about the level of interest in Shayne Carter seven years after his big group broke up, just try trawling through all the slathering fan websites!
"I wasn’t going to let it go until it was right. I really enjoyed the attention to detail, shaping that whole aesthetic. I wanted to write all the songs in one or two notes. That’s a big challenge. As a songwriter you start off all naive and you play really simple songs because that’s all you know. And then you make it more complicated because you want to keep it interesting for yourself. It’s a huge challenge to write one or two notes without it getting boring. I got into the concept of inverse power, where instead of hitting a certain point and going up, it goes down; where there should be a power chord, there’s nothing. I also got into quiet songs... playing quiet and subtle songs, but it’s still really powerful. It’s a different kind of tension, and a different kind of power.
"Gary (Sullivan) cut out these letters that said ‘GONE’, and that wooden carving sat in the studio the whole time, and we just wanted to get a really woozy vibe to the whole record. ‘GONE’, you know?
"All the lyrics on this record a really strong. I worked really hard to make every line mean something, so that it wasn’t throwaway, or a copout. No matter how obtuse it is to your average listener, all the lyrics on the record really stand up. I think it’s cool that people listen to rock songs and get the lyrics wrong, but it doesn’t matter, because they still believe they know what the song’s about, they have their own interpretation of it. So with lots of my lyrics I do make them quite ambiguous, so you can take them any number of ways.

WE finally get to sit down and talk at my place. Despite his reticence, Carter is an adept interviewee. Certainly, he’s aware of the process, having started his professional life as a cub reporter. Unlike the many artists whose interests barely extend from their own monomaniacal tunnel vision, Carter is ferociously intelligent, keenly curious, and blindingly well-versed in the whole mythology of music stardom, and pop culture in general. A voracious reader of biographies, a fan at heart, this candidate for the elite of rock legend must get a strange chill when he tallies up the almost uniformly tragic lives of his heroes Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and others.
"It’s a wank and a cliche, but out of pain comes great art. It’s the comedy is tragedy thing, too. So many great comedians are actually really sad people, whether it’s someone like Spike Milligan or Richard Pryor. Yeah I quite often laugh, but I’m often laughing at the blackness of it all. It’s the same thing with this live performance of Pryor.... all this funny shit, but at the same time you can see the pain on his face as he’s saying it, because it’s actually truly hurtful stuff.
"I laugh at the absurdity of it all and people running around doing the stupid things that humans do. Sometimes all you can do is laugh...
"I’m a fan though. It goes back to loving it. Great fiction is supposed to reveal things about the human condition, and express and arrive at quintessential human truths. But all those truths are there in people’s lives anyway, which is why I like reading about people who’ve actually lived. And you come to the same conclusions about what it’s all about when you read about people’s lives. The f***ups they made and the triumphs they had. So I suppose I am fascinated by that, and I suppose I am fascinated by icons to a certain extent, too. But it just goes back to being a fan, and people are interesting, especially people who’ve done great things.
In the end, music for Shayne Carter means the same thing as the peak moments of sporting achievement: transcendence.
"I actually really enjoy playing football, I find it very zen, because everything falls away and you’re just concentrating on that ball. I find it a great release.
"As a child I used to sit inside on really hot days and watch sport and get headaches, and Mum would say ‘Shayne go out and play’ and I’d say ‘I can’t Mum there’s sport on tv. Have you got any Disprin?’
"In a lifetime you spend so much time tripping over your own feet, that those zen moments are perfect balance, they’re to be savoured. Whether it’s doing something really great with a soccer ball, or coming up with this beautifully balanced, symmetrical piece of music, those moments are fleeting, but they’re the ones that are worthwhile. The rest is just stumbling around.
"Music is one of the few transcendent things in life. Music has always effected me powerfully, in the same way that a great book or a great movie will. You watch ‘The Straight Story’ (David Lynch) and you get the same feeling from that as listening to a great piece of music. But if somebody watches a great performer on the sports field, they’re getting the same buzz from that as a lot of people get from a great piece of music. They’re seeing human transcendence of the ordinary, seeing human achievement. So if you watch Michael Jordan playing basketball, it’s this form of expression that is very similar to music. I can watch Jordan play and I’ll get the same buzz as listening to Marvin Gaye sing. It’s just human excellence in performance, and it’s inspiring. The possibilities of humans, and about the beautiful things humans can do, whether it’s a piece of music or this great piece of athletic prowess."

* This piece was originally published by Metro magazine.

Essay: DJ Culture

Hang the dj

They make people dance. Rumour has it they get laid a lot. Most of them are bald or fat or both. Enter the world of the dj. But is ‘dj culture’ simply the biggest music fraud since Milli Vanilli? By Gary Steel

THE average punter wouldn’t know it, because the average media don’t acknowledge it, but the last five years of the century warrant remembering for reasons other than poor dead Diana and an American president’s pickle.
The implications of the explosion of electronic dance music and the cult of dj make the phenomenon deserving of a placing on the top 10 of notable social aberrations.
The inexorable rise of dance culture has fundamentally changed our relationship to music, how we listen to it, how we shake our booty to it, and how we make it.
And increasingly, we are making it, either by downloading sonic material on the internet and genetically altering the musical dna through smart software, or by assuming ludicrous dj pseudonyms, and laying our record collections on the patrons of clubs and bars.
As you pass by a multiplicity of mainstreet bars, however, it becomes obvious that one beat predominates, and the beat structure totally obliterates song content. This is the new musical domain, purpose built and empty. No wonder that for every convert to the new dance styles, there’s some bewildered rock guy standing over by the bushes, wondering whatever happened to content and, uh, the art of song.
But there’s no time to rest our designer-drug gaze on this sad creature. Instead, I want to tell you a true story:

THREE years ago I opened a record store. (The fine, upstanding ethics of this magazine preclude my revealing its name, and rightly so).I made it my mission to stock the very latest electronic sounds, and was quickly besieged by tribes of socially inept young males with a peculiar determination to attain that most spiritual of realms: the practicing dj. It soon became apparent that most of these young men knew little about contemporary dance music, and nothing at all about the history of its myriad forms. Most of them simply wanted to be djs. Translation: basking in the glow of stardom, they would get laid and get happy. Simple as pie.
I resolved to try an experiment. Having dished out my extensive knowledge to these vain, freeloading wannabes, ‘DJ Zooska’ was born, and within days I was taking my trusty cd mixer to ply my wares at various bars. Amazingly, word quickly spread and I found myself busily turning down requests to play at various events. When I did accept an engagement, I was always amused at the awestruck looks from certain members of the public, as I performed the amazingly skilled task of moving the ‘fader’ to create a smooth transition between selections.What a genius! Look at him go! I even got propositioned. Unfortunately, the wrong sex applied for the position.
‘DJ Zooska’ is no more, but the memory brings a sly smile to my parched lips.
Subsequently, it has become routine to meet people who proclaim that their boyfriend/cousin/cyber-squeeze is a dj, as though the very act of playing records to a crowd of people conferred on you godlike status. Some days, I could swear that every single person I speak to is one, or aspires to be.

SO what, then, is this dj malarkey all about? For Brit import Stinky Jim (nee Pinkney), the art of dj has been a central gig since his mid-teens (he is now in his early 30s). Jim has the highest all-round profile of any Kiwi dj, with his two peerless shows on Auckland student station BFM, Stinky Grooves and Tranquility Bass, regular engagements in a variety of locales, and membership in beat group Phase 5.
Jim comes straight to the point: "A dj is primarily a record changer. Someone with a deep love for music that comes before making any money from it. You can’t just buy a record bag and 100 records and become a dj."
In Jim’s vernacular, borrowed from the Jamaican music that is his first love, a dj is a ‘selector’ first and foremost. What’s important is playing a range of great tunes, not your skills on the turntable.
That seamless four-on-the-floor beat-din of sound-a-like ‘house’ music leaves an especially bitter taste in Jim’s mouth.
"These people are playing pretty much the same tunes, and if they’re not the same tunes, they sure as hell sound like them. Trying to make them sound as generic as possible, it’s the lowest common denominator approach. The only reason they’re doing that is to get a perfect beat match. The whole intention is to create a seamless flow of similar and slightly changing tunes, mechanical repetitive noises, with no escape from a four-four beat. When a drum and bass record came out that was in 3/4 time, it outraged certain drum and bass djs! You could mix it, it just went out every fourth bar, and then dropped back in again. I thought that was wicked."
The idea of the skill of a dj being measured by his ability to perfectly match beats between tracks is a relatively new one, and has led to an increasingly uniform approach, where special ‘dj mix’ records predominate and any hint of eclecticism or stylistic diversion is dancefloor suicide.
The rise of the dj/dance culture has threatened to go overground in the past year with a profusion of visits by commercial house music djs, packing in thousands of people at huge suburban venues, with all the attendant television advertising and corporate product sponsorship. No wonder that old rockers like former Push Push crooner Mikey Havoc have hung up their microphones for a whack at the crap house game.
"It won’t remain cool for long", predicts Jim of the current rash of dj activity. "Being a dj for a week or a month or a year is pretty easy, but beyond that it’s a struggle, and people are into it for all the wrong reasons anyway. I was dj-ing in pubs before I was allowed to drink, just because I was buying records at a phenomenal rate and I was building up a collection. And I was surrounded by people who were maybe three or four years older, and it was like serving an apprenticeship. It’s not like that now. You’ve got your record bag and your 20 crap house records and you’re down some bar on Queen St playing your hour-and-a-half set. It can’t last. It’s not built on solid foundations. Dj-ing will be around forever, but the craze will disappear like all bubbles do, there’s no doubt about that.
"It’s the cool new rock star thing to do," says Jim. "The interesting thing is you’ve got thousands of people going to events where they don’t give a shit about music. The effect is what counts, and that involves drugs and loud music. But it doesn’t matter who’s playing or what that tune was. They walk into that environment, hear that inane ‘doof doof’ beat, and know they’re going to get legless. It’s pretty close to Orwellian-scary. Just so repetitive, inane, no comment to offer, nothing to actually like or dislike. Just a shell..."

THIS vast emptiness of celebratory exaltation.It’s something we’ve been ritualising since the dawn of time.
Writing of primitive tribal trance rites in the groundbreaking anthropological work The Elementary Forms Of The Religious Life, Emile Durkheim wrote:
‘There really exist two heterogeneous and mutually incomparable worlds. One is that where his daily life drags wearily along; the other (is where he enters) into relations with extraordinary powers that excite him to the point of frenzy. The first is the profane world, the second, that of sacred things... so it is in the midst of these effervescent social environments that the religious idea seems to be born."
Yes, folks, this new dance era is just society going full circle. But in the post-religion state of the 1999, the attempt to break on through that dance music connotes is an empty gesture, a futile death shag shorn of any significance.
What Durkheim was talking about was the search for ecstacy and transcendance which is the hallmark of religious experience through the ages; for today’s dance culture, branded chemical compound Ecstacy has become the new religion, and it’s the same dance, just different beats. At once the most sophisticated form of technologically advanced entertainment, and the most primitive return.
But how can some guy with a bag full of 12" records bring about some kind of quasi-religious experience for a room full of dancing ninnies?
Stinky Jim insists that, while it’s rare, the odd top-notch dj does fullfill all the criteria necessary for this form of mystical primitive group hypnosis. His example is Detroit techno ‘legend’ Derrick May.
At one performance witnessed by Jim, "May took people on a wicked, full-on journey with lows and highs that totally effected you physically, mentally. He was inside the music, and by him being like that, everyone else was as well. Total alchemy. It’s one person communicating through technology to a large bunch of people. When it’s taken to that level it’s like looking at a great musician playing an instrument.
"People like Derrick May, when they play two tunes together, they’re making a third tune out of the two, and that’s where a skill like beat mixing is to be totally admired. He’s working beats together, but he’s also working melodically. You won’t hear him play two tunes which may be beat matched but out of key. I’d much rather djs played something where the beats weren’t matched, but it was musically sympathetic.
"He’s really using the mixer, he’s got his two records, he’s got his bass, treble and a three band equaliser on each channel, and he’s completely using it, pulling all the bass out of the tune, mixing it in, and then at a point where the tune is building, he knows his records inside-out. In the exact moment he will drop the bass in a way that everyone in that room feels is like a release, and he’s completely in charge of the room. He’s anticipating audience response, but also leading the audience . People have to read a room, but you also have to get that room to turn the page."

THE cult of dj has been around for over thirty years. Back in the late 60s, American dj Terry Noel was inventing new ways to drive audiences apoplexic with his totally eclectic mix, ranging from Bob Dylan to Otis Redding.
"I felt up the audience," he recalled in one interview. "There’s a feeling the crowd emanates, like an unconscious grapevine. Within ten minutes, I’d have them going crazy. I drove to a climax, just like in a play."
By the early 70s, New York dj Francis Grasso had become the first to perfect the technique of stitching records together in seamless sequences, inventing the trick of ‘slipcuing’: holding the disc with his thumb while the turntable rotated, insulated by a felt pad, he would locate with his headphone the best spot to make the splice, then release the next side precisely on the beat. Grasso even anticipated later developments by running elements of several tunes concurrently, but this technique didn’t become common until recent years, when sophisticated portable dj mixing stations became common currency.
In 1975, the advent of the 12" disco mix would create a tailor made format for djs, spur the disco phenomenon, and even with the preponderance of digital devices on offer in 1999, the heavy 12" vinyl platter is easily still the favoured dj tool.
The alleged ‘death of disco’ in the late 70s seemed to bury the dj-as-star theory for a while, but a number of factors have catapulted a multitude of dance music types - including retro disco - back into the spotlight.
There’s the dearth of decent rock music in the 90s, with its attendant chronic lack of real entertainment value. But the main clue to this puzzle is the advent of affordable technology.
In disco’s glory days, as now, the anonymous producer geek often made the music that made the punters go hog-wild on the dancefloor. There were no stars or personalities, and the medium remained the message. The same is true today, except that back then, they still needed loads of skilled musicians recording in real studios, and that cost loads of dosh. In the 90s, all previous music can be - and is - sampled, mutilated on computers, and totally reconfigured in any way desirable, all by one nerd and his equipment. This allows an extraordinary freedom never before possible in the history of music. It not only enables a crossover between the dj and the creative recording artist; it also means the access to the means of production is available to anyone with the technology and a hankering to make their own sounds.
The result is a glut of electronic music coming out of lonely guy bedrooms around the world, a musical parallel to the information overload we get so bored hearing about.
Out there on the dj front, resilient, purpose-built turntables are still the weapon of choice, and in this endlessly specialised field, there are those for whom their command of the turntable has reached virtuoso status. Skillful turntable ‘scratching’ and vinyl manipulation is a byproduct of hip-hop culture, and it has turned into its own artform, where ‘turntablisers’ gather to compete at dj championships. Wellington-based DJ Raw was recently voted one of the five best turntable guys in the world.
The pinnacle of turntable art is reached with the ability to ‘create’ an original musical synthesis from those scratchy platters, in the same way that many contemporary composers make music on computers and samplers from pre-existing musical soundbytes.
At the avant-garde end of the spectrum can be found turntable aesthetes like DJ Spooky, Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide, who has now ditched records entirely for an exploration of the noise possibilities inherent in the actual turntable. On the funtricknology side of the turntable fence are acts like the Incredible Scratch Picklz and Filipino dazzler Q-bert.
"When it’s done badly, it’s like an incredibly bad Yngwie Malmsteen guitar solo," says Stinky Jim, "but there are some Jimi Hendrix’s out there, and some are taking the turntable to a different realm, using it as an instrument."

THE upshot of all this hoopla is that the hapless consumer has suddenly found themselves in a musical universe where the methodology behind much contemporary electronic music is simply not understood.
There is no telling whether that cool new record is completely composed from scratch, or totally sampled, or a combination of real performance and sampling. And when you’re in the ‘live’ domain it gets even more difficult. Having made records using computer technology, many artists/djs end up taking the easy option, and simply playing their own cds to a club crowd. Others take their studios into the venue, and meticulously organise combinations of computer and realtime performance. Most of the time, audiences don’t seem to know the difference, or even care...
"It’s the standard now for people to go to their gig and play their cds," says Jim, "and it’s wrong." But as regards not knowing the sources of their sound satisfaction, Jim reckons "the bottom line is that people should enjoy things first and worry about the consequences later of how it was created and what it exactly is."
He uses the example of an artist called Mr Scruff whose enticing beat concoction features a large chunk of material from blind composer Moondog. "He stuck a breakbeat under it, was quite clever with it and made something that’s infectious and catchy for people who’ve never heard of Moondog. That to me is a remix of a Moondog tune."
So... unless you’re a bona fide musicologist with an photographic memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of musical history, then you’ll not know the next time you hear a very cool thing whether it’s original or ‘borrowed’. But why worry?
For his part, as one half of duo Phase 5 with another former Unitone Hifi member Angus McNaughton, Stinky Jim is convinced that he’s making something greater than the sum of his sampled parts on their first release, pointedly a dj-friendly vinyl-only ep.
A glorious melange of influences ranging from loungey schmaltz, bossa nova, dancehall, reggae, and ultra-cool organ, this is material that may have been through the grinder of samplers and computer programs to the nth degree, but it has come out with a creamy blend that would be the envy of any industrial food technologist.
And this eminently danceable four track ep easily espouses Jim’s original contention that dance music at its best is also a listening format. Like soul, funk and reggae, this music encourages serious booty shaking action, but it can also be a head-nodding late night delight.
Just don’t think about the process: "We will take a beat from a record, put it into the computer, chop it into tiny pieces, put it back into the sampler, then back into the computer to sequence those pieces, and then when we’ve done that, put all those pieces in the sequnce which is now a completely different drum beat than what went in, through an old analogue synthesiser to get the filter which is something that everyone knows that you only really get out of those beautiful warm old synths in the same way you get that beautiful sound out of those lovely old records. And so it’s a complete digital/anlogue conflux. And at the end, having put everything into the computer, we’ll transfer it to the tape, and that’s the final stage, because maybe we’ll want to speed it up a fraction, or slow it down a fraction."
Phase 5, unlike most of the would-be dj-types I meet on a daily basis, are in no hurry. For them, it’s about music, not stardom: Jim has turned down all other local interview requests, preferring the music to speak for itself. And getting laid? Well, that’s a bonus.

* This piece was originally published in the NZ Listener.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Flying Nun

Celebrate, snail bait

Gary Steel figures it’s high time the venerable Kiwi institution Flying Nun got its wings clipped, and maybe its last rites read.

"Whaaaat? I thought Flying Nun was dead and buried!" A look of incredulity breaks into bleak confusion. The look on the face of this chap betrays the disappointment of a music nut who had his head blown off by Flying Nun’s biggest act – Straitjacket Fits – but subsequently had to watch the band, and the label, wither and die.
Your humble essayist had just told him about Under The Influence, the big bash to celebrate Flying Nun’s 21st anniversary on March 22.
As a concept it sounded marginally intriguing: a marathon 21-hour recording session, wherein an assembled gang of noisy boys young and old (presided over by none other than Sir John Peel, doyen of BBC alternative music radio) would attempt an album of Flying Nun cover versions and originals ‘in the style of’.
A quick scan of the Kiwi participants, however, provokes nothing but a stifled yawn: PanAm. Garageland. Betchadupa. Haselhoff Experiment. HDU. Chris Knox. Graeme Downes, The Clean. The D4. Is this the future, the past, or even anything remotely inbetween?
On the face of it, coming just a year after Flying Nun’s 20th anniversary (celebrated with a video and memorabilia exhibition at the Auckland New Gallery), it would appear the label are trying to stretch the party vibe as far as it will go.
But do Flying Nun have anything to celebrate at all?
In its heyday, Flying Nun was a significant cultural resource, but the label ceased to have any discernible profile or personality many years ago.
From its origins as the tiny Christchurch independent record label that introduced the country to the joys of lo-fi recording by ‘seminal’ groups like The Clean, The Verlaines,The Chills and many others, in 2002 we’re left with an institution in name only, whose only visible or notable act is Betchadupa, a poppy, commercially-oriented group led by the son of Neil Finn. Surely, the enemy of the Nun.
In the greatest irony, the label that single-handedly killed Kiwi pop in its prime is now counting on a pop group for its next phase… one that would have been mercilessly ridiculed by the hipper-than-thou alternative sect that surrounded the original label aesthetic.
How does a label get away with assuming such an ongoing, huge cultural cache when it’s actually long past any semblance of what gave Flying Nun its strength in the first place? And was Flying Nun ever as much chop as the carte blanche acclaim given it by the NZ music media mafia indicated?
In the opinion of this observer, no.

THE SEAMS of the Flying Nun getup were sewn in the late 70s, when a tribe of South Island malcontents with their own take on the punk revolution (more influenced by the narcotic afflictions and heroin chic of the Velvet Underground than the snotty speed-driven Johnny Rotten) set about recording themselves.
Chris Knox, fresh from an excruciating experience recording the Toy Love album, corporate-style for WEA in Australia, was fighting mad as the highly touted Toy Love disintegrated before his eyes. Armed with a basic portable four-track tape recorder, Knox documented, audio-verite-style, the emerging grind of his southern compatriots. The rough-as-guts results were released by a Christchurch record shop employee, Roger Shepherd.
The myth makers would have us believe that the advent of Flying Nun freed Kiwi music from the tyranny of stereotypical record industry machinations, and ushered in an era in which genuine talent was allowed to flower, removed from the shackles of the traditional profit motive.
Truth and myth in head-on collision. Truth dies at scene. Want the truth? Flying Nun murdered NZ pop, and got our scene caught in its doldrums for well over a decade.
Despite its longterm unavailability and Knox’s hatred for it, there’s a small but vocal crowd who claim that the Toy Love album is leagues ahead and much better than anything subsequently released by Flying Nun. It’s an absolute classic of the pop renaissance that was occurring in New Zealand between 1979 and 1983; a genre which was eradicated with almost genocidal glee by Chris Knox and Roger Shepherd.
Epitomised by labels like Ripper and Propeller, the exponents of the Kiwi pop renaissance produced a punk-edged sound that wasn’t afraid of being tuneful, complex, funny, or commercial. While inevitably influenced by the flowdown from Mother England, such was the geographical distance that Kiwi pop had its own very distinctive and gorgeously naïve qualities. Think The Swingers, Blam Blam Blam, Screaming Meemees, The Newmatics.
Unfortunately, a music media already (eternally) under the influential sway of exponents of cool intellectual rockers like Lou Reed fell hook, line and syringe for any and all emissions from Flying Nun; it was basic enough for wordsmiths to understand and describe, and it had rock’n’roll attitude oozing from its every track mark.
Coverage of Flying Nun activities was so out of proportion to its actual sales graphs that the aesthetic became totally entrenched in NZ: to be hip and serious and have credibility, you HAD to wear op-shop clothes and write songs that weren’t seen as in any way pandering to pop accessibility.
It’s hard to imagine in the current environment, where a culture of dedicated pop achievers has grown up with no link to our past, but even unstoppable commercial achievers like Dave Dobbyn were considered beyond redemption, and a group had to be brazenly awful (The Fanclub, Peking Man) chart-sluts to crave genuine success.
Hail the young generation: today’s NZ pop groups are confident in their ability to attain commercial success while retaining their integrity. But they know not what they’ve lost in the absence of a mainline to a continuum of cool Kiwi pop over the past decade. There’s no bridge to the present era of Kiwi pop, today’s groups have few past heroes from our own culture to emulate, as they simply don’t know the history. This has produced a musical environment dominated by groups who – while adept and professional and good at what they do – simply want to sound EXACTLY like any band anywhere on the globe.

SO… FLYING Nun, eh?
What’s the musical legacy of this almost universally applauded label?
For starters, it’s universally overrated.
Sure, any Kiwi who lived through the Flying Nun era in New Zealand can claim some nostalgic affection for at least a few of the groups and songs. But anyone trawling through the catalogue today for the very first time would wonder what the fuss was about… while they gasped, uncomprehending, at the poor singing and time-keeping and appalling sound quality.
It took a freezing month in an unheated Dunedin flat in the mid-Winter of 1985 to finally understand why the Flying Nun sound was never going anywhere. The denizens of this introverted music community were a kind of folk club, and their songs were largely singing Chinese whispers, carrying coded message about girlfriends defecting from one group to another. It was literally life in one chord; retroactive students and stoners strumming guitars and gelling, from time to time, into rudimentary groupings.
There were exceptions to the Dunedin drone. Along the way, the label accumulated genuinely radical, innovative groups and artists by default: ignored by the label at first, the epochal Gordons were eventually picked up for distribution, and Palmerston North’s unique industrial art rockers The Skeptics finally found a home there.
But the lion’s share of attention went to the terminally morbid, moribund droolings of The Clean (and all their terminally hip offshoots), the painfully anguished baroque drones of The Verlaines, the increasingly pointless and boring eccentricity of Chris Knox and Tall Dwarves, and the charming but ultimately dope-addled childishness of The Chills.
As the label grew and they began negotiating various dead-end deals with US underground labels (often sending albums straight to deletions bins) owner Roger Shepherd got ambitious, and set about setting up shop in London. After all, Straitjacket Fits (whose music betrayed a complexity, bite and power that no other Nun acts could approach) had been released by major label Arista in the States and had a huge amount of media coverage in the UK, and other Nun groups like The Chills were making inroads overseas.
Ultimately, it ended in tears, Shepherd serving beer in a London pub, and the label being bought out by Michael Gudinski’s Australian label, Mushroom.
The Mushroom consolidation led to a plethora of compilations and cd reissues, which at least kept the label lore intact in the mind of the nation.. But it also quickly led to a kind of torpor that always occurs when control is remote and managed by people with little real understanding of cottage industry.
The Nun got a new habit in the 90s, redefining its aesthetic with the Headless Chickens, and later, the wonky pop of Bressacreetingcake.
Meanwhile, more business stuff meant that ultimately, Mushroom was absorbed by one of Australia’s oldest independent record companies, Festival, which was itself bought out by no less than media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
The first post-Murdoch release of any consequence was the solo album by Fiona McDonald, which blew the budget wide open and sold like a sea slug. Afterwards, then-Nun head Paul McKessar sloped off to London with his galpal, McDonald, in tow.
When Festival changed its name last year to FMR and moved into oddly soulless corporate-style new offices, there were scant images to recognise their ownership or pride in Flying Nun; yet the company have seen fit to madly promote the upcoming 21st anniversary event (the actual birthday is May, when the record is planned for release), all-the-while promoting the label as an INDEPENDENT. Try another one.
Anniversaries are great times to reminisce… and reassess. If FMR really want to launch Flying Nun into the new millennium, they need a dedicated Nun staff module with an independent mindset and a unique perspective/aesthetic. They won’t get to the future by noodling around in a murky past that seems much better than it really was. Or by pretending they’re not the same parent company as Kylie Minogue.
Perhaps the real future has passed Flying Nun by: musicians who were influenced by its early sound, and brazenly developed the ‘lo-fi’ concept, include the Dead C who are proudly part of the Sonic Youth-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Los Angeles this month.
With the best Flying Nun acts signed elsewhere (Shayne Carter’s Dimmer with Sony, David Kilgour with Arc) or living in unhappy exile (The Chills’ Martin Phillips), the 21st birthday celebration looks like a sham.
I wonder what the disenfranchised Roger Shepherd would think of the current Flying Nun roster, which seems to be pinning all its hopes on Betchadupa, a group of barely developed teens whose own backgrounds are more steeped in the classic, Beatles-inspired pop forms of Liam Finn’s dad than anything in the Flying Nun canon.
And I can see Chris Knox sneering at Crowded House, even with my eyes shut.

* This article originally appeared in the NZ Listener. It whipped up loads of controversy. 'Legendary' Brit DJ John Peel was in Auckland at the time, and he loved it. (And he loved the record shop I owned at the time, Beautiful Music, coming back for a chat and a snatch & grab six times in the course of a couple of weeks). But at a small concert held on Peel's behalf, Chris Knox performed a song called (if my memory serves) 'The Late Gary Steel'. I was disappointed by the response of many of my colleagues/fellow music critics, many of whom seemed to think Flying Nun sacrosanct and beyond criticism. But I felt vindicated by the many emails and phone calls I had congratulating me on the piece, even some of them emanating from Dunedin.