by Alex Ross
First published in Feed, 1995
“There are those who maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community as it overcomes distances and sets thoughts flying through the air. Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union.” So said Father Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov. So also said Glenn Gould, in his essay “The Prospects of Recordings”—citing Dostoevsky in order to rebut optimists who had prophesied that electronic broadcasting would close all gaps in the human world. “With simultaneous transmission,” Gould went on, “we set aside our touristlike fascination with distant and exotic places and give vent to impatience at the chronological tardiness the natives display.” The thought is more darkly pertinent today than it was in 1966. In our home-entertainment watchtowers, the thrill of being virtually there is also the thrill of being actually elsewhere. All gaps grow narrow and deep.
The visionary Gould was, however, no pessimist. Although he questioned the utopian tendencies of electronic culture, he looked favorably on the future of recording, the medium in which he based his mature career as a pianist. What he imagined, as a respite from disorienting onslaughts of simultaneity, was a paradise of intelligent reproduction: a world of shipwrecked creators, throwing bottles into the ocean for imaginative seekers to find. In a faraway place, someone puts music on a tape—a product of solitude, intricate and artificial, like Gould’s own infamously eccentric recordings; elsewhere, a listener assembling his private aural world picks it up and assimilates it. Recordings would restore the best sort of touristic impulse, the simple urge to know the world. They would become, in Gould’s words, “the indispensable replenishment of that deteriorating tolerance occasioned by simultaneous transmission.” The final and total electrification of reality would have its good side.
If you take a look at your local record store, you might think for a moment that this prophecy has come true. Granted, the recording industry is contributing as much to the standardization of musical taste as to its diversification. But it seems now that recordings, as discretely packaged products, are becoming obsolete: digitized music will soon be instantaneously available in encyclopedic quantities through computer relay, at which point all bets are off. The increasing fragmentation of the recording industry has helped to shore up a sense of musical locality and particularity. I’m thinking not only of the numbing diversity of a store like Tower Records, with its peacefully coexisting categories for the Balinese gamelan, Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, and progressive funk, but also of smaller subcultural outlets—stores that specialize in indie labels, stock home-produced fanzines, and host local bands. No one wants to read any more hype about musical “scenes” like Seattle, but the resurgence of a sense of place in rock music has in fact been more an autonomous development than a commercial ploy.
All this may seem a roundabout beginning to an article chronicling recent developments in New Zealand rock music, but it is a necessary prologue, for I write from a curious position. Everything that follows is pulled out of thin air; I’ve never been to New Zealand, or anywhere near it, and until last summer I had never met any of its natives. Instead, all I have is stuff: magazines, a couple of books, some tapes of interviews conducted here and there, and, above all, a big stack of compact discs. The premise I’ve optimistically drawn from Gould is not just that recordings can accurately store the musical impulses of people in distant places but that some of the finest impulses of our overloaded era might necessarily originate in distant places, cross great distances, and reach us as so many musical scraps. It was in this spirit, I think, that Gould imagined a new Mozart emerging from McMurdo Sound.
Of New Zealand rock, you may know nothing at all, or you may have heard a few songs by the few New Zealand bands that have gained an international following, like the Chills, the Bats, the Verlaines. Such surface blips in the international musical marketplace give only a hint of an amazingly rich musical culture, the sum total of a few dozen distinct creative personalities. They maintain individuality not by barring all influences from the outside but by freely devouring whatever comes their way. They haven’t moved toward the center; instead, the center has shifted toward them.
New Zealand has always been conditioned by its solitude. The two huge islands, North and South, are an archetypal lost world, untouched by global evolutionary trends since the underlying mini-plate lost touch with the original supercontinent of Gondwanaland eighty million years ago. When the Māori people arrived in the thirteenth century—the first mammals to walk the land—they found living artifacts of the deep past: enormous insects, weird reptilian ancestors of the dinosaurs, decadent birds incapable of flight. This exotic environment was quickly transformed and trampled underfoot by English and, particularly, Scottish settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But New Zealanders have kept up the habit of doing things differently, as their sporadic and peculiar appearances on the world stage testify: Ernest Rutherford splitting the atom, Edmund Hillary climbing Mount Everest, a Labour government consternating the American military by declaring the country nuclear-free.
The recorded history of New Zealand music begins with a typically odd encounter. In 1642, a Dutch expedition led by Abel Janszoon Tasman reached the South Island, and when the ships drew into a bay Māori in canoes approached and called out in loud voices. According to an eyewitness account, quoted in John Mansfield Thomson’s Oxford History of New Zealand Music, “[the Māori] blew many times on an instrument which gave sound like the moors’ Trumpets. We had one of our sailors (who could play somewhat on the Trumpet) blow back to them in answer...: after this was done several times on both sides, and the dark evening was falling more and more, those in the vessels finally stopped and paddled away....” This strange music was a droning chant with flute accompaniment; the melodies consisted of slight microtonal deviations from a single note. Captain Cook, who surveyed the islands in 1769 and poached them for the British Empire, found the music “harmonious enough but very dolefull to a European Ear.”
When the British settled in substantial numbers, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they brought with them the saturating clutter of Victorian culture. The Oxford History describes curious scenes on the Wellington beaches: “In confused heaps lay casks and bales, beds and pianos, clocks, cruet stands, warming-pans, family portraits and packages, some of them washing about on the sand.” Once these second-generation settlers made their way over the hills, they came upon a bustling neo-Scottish community offering salons, balls, and a full season of entertainment at the gaslit Royal Victoria theater. Opera arrived in 1863, in the form of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, though without orchestra or chorus. By the end of the nineteenth century, a European-trained composer named Alfred Hill was leading performances in Wellington of his own grandiose choral-orchestral inspirations, many of them tastefully derived from Māori elements.
For the most part, then, New Zealand’s musical history mirrored patterns of colonial dependency. Until the late nineteen seventies, you could say the same of New Zealand rock and roll. At this point, the estimable but narrow-minded Oxford volume falls silent, and the tale is taken up in John Dix’s Stranded in Paradise: New Zealand Rock ‘n’ Roll 1955-1988, a painstaking chronicle of each Anglo-American pop/rock wave and its consequent ripple down under. The local Elvis was Johnny Devlin, scoring a local hit with “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”; Ray Columbus and the Invaders strove to be the Kiwi Beatles, breaking into the Australian charts with “She’s a Mod”; the La De Das took after the Rolling Stones, except in plaid pants; the Fourmyula aped early-seventies arena rock. The first band to attract real international attention were the Split Enz, which led to Crowded House; a rousing blues-rock band called Hello Sailor also flirted with fame. When the Sailors visited Los Angeles in 1978, no less a personage than Ray Manzarek grooved to them, and apparently floated the notion that lead singer Graham Brazier could fill the shoes of the late Jim Morrison in a reincarnation of the Doors. Brazier waited in a Hollywood bungalow, doing lots of drugs, but nothing happened.
Back home in New Zealand, the commonwealth’s musical destiny was arriving, in the form of punk rock. By 1978, the Sex Pistols had reached the height of their fame, inspiring overnight imitations in almost every sector of the globe; New Zealand was no exception. At first, the punk scene looked like any other—post-adolescents new to their instruments, yelling out raw covers of three-chord classics. There were the inevitable poseurs and shockmeisters: bands called the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers, punk ringleaders with names like John Atrocity and Mike Lesbian. Most vanished in a year or two. But something else took root at the southern end of the islands. A band called the Enemy, fired by a genius freak named Chris Knox, began playing in the southern city of Dunedin, and from it rose a whole teeming indie-rock subcontinent that presently encompasses dozens of veteran bands and two ideologically opposed record labels.
The major rock bands of New Zealand show few traces of classic punk, and with good reason; the urban spite of the Sex Pistols or the Ramones must have seemed a little overwrought against landscapes dotted by sheep. Instead, musical influences were culled from an eccentric miscellany of records present and past—New Wave, garage rock, and scattered late-sixties eccentrics like Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett, and Brian Wilson in his Smile period. Everyone loved the bittersweet melodies of the Beatles and the chiming guitars of the Byrds. The sensual drones of the Velvet Underground and Brian Eno spread far and wide; the whole genesis of the New Zealand sound can be heard in a song like “Femme Fatale,” immaculately faithful to pop principles and yet immanently corrupt. DIY ethos translated simply as a casual, local, self-interested tone—music made for its own sake. National economic policy helped out by placing unemployed youth on the dole. Some bands even received grants from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, a government group with a very imaginative music panel. You could see New Zealand rock as a belated triumph of socialist aesthetics.
Dunedin, an urban outpost on the vast, sparsely populated South Island, seems an ideal spot for constructive loafing. It is the southernmost city on the planet, closer to Antarctica than to the rest of civilization. Chris Knox grew up in the even more far-flung town of Invercargill, which served a base for the U. S. Army’s “Deep Freeze Project” in the late sixties. (Legend has it that weapons were being tested for use against war protesters back home.) In an interview for Forced Exposure magazine, Knox recalls that the American empire had its main impact by way of easily available LSD. After a self-described year of drugs and masturbation, Knox went to work as a forklift driver in a Dunedin chocolate factory, at which time he met an equally opaque character named Mick Dawson and plunged into the punk scene. The Enemy played its first gig in the Beneficiaries’ Hall in Dunedin, as part of an Anti Disco rally. They immediately stood out from other punk groups because they played their own songs.
Soon, Knox moved on to a New-Wave-ish band called Toy Love and made a bid for commercial success. Toy Love’s sharp-angled tunes and theatrical flair attracted crowds, and the corporate giant WEA signed them up for an album and an Australian tour. But Knox found himself bored by the tour grind, displeased by Toy Love’s broadening audience, and frustrated by the smooth twenty-four-track sound that got pasted onto his first album. “We were outclassed by the studio,” he told Forced Exposure. “We were also outclassed, extraordinarily enough, by the authority figures involved. Like the engineer who refused to record with Alec’s amp.” In a gesture of renunciation, Toy Love disbanded. With Alec Bathgate, the guitarist with the defiantly fucked-up amp, Knox found his true home in the Tall Dwarfs, of which more later. And, with a rudimentary four-track TEAC tape deck, he began recording various post-punk bands that had cropped up in Dunedin, starting with a group called the Clean.
It fell to the men of the Clean—David Kilgour, his brother Hamish, and various associates—to unveil the New Zealand sound in its full shabby glory. They began as rank teenage amateurs, and to a certain extent they stayed that way. Even when David learned to play guitar, he avoided pedantries of exact pitch in his vocals. But the songs had an indelibly catchy lilt, pop glamour surging out of the basement, and David’s hoarsely shouted lyrics spoke to the existentialism of artists on the dole: “Anything could happen and it could be right now / The choice is yours, so make it worthwhile.” “Tally Ho”, their first single, was distributed by the fledgling Flying Nun label, and the Boodle Boodle Boodle EP that followed ensured their immortality. [The best of the early Clean can now be heard on Anthology, from Merge Records.] The charm and strength of these songs—”Billy Two,” “Anything Could Happen,” “Slug Song,” “Art School”—go hand in hand with the roughness of the sound and casualness of the delivery. Even though “Tally Ho” and various later efforts climbed into the New Zealand charts, this was a band with which executives were not wont to tamper.
The Clean were the first in a long line of bands that shuffled through the offices of Flying Nun, the creation of a former Christchurch record-shop employee named Roger Shepherd. By the mid-eighties the label had a catalogue encompassing various styles: the down-and-dirty rock of the Stones, the classically infused pop-rock of the Verlaines, the jagged noise-rock of the Gordons, the elegant indie-pop of the Bats, the atmospheric stylings of the Chills. Bands formed and split up fairly quickly, not so much because people couldn’t stand each other but because they wanted to team up in new ways. Thus, the Kilgour brothers, separately or together, later participated in the Great Unwashed, the Chills, Stephen, a Clean reunion, Bailter Space, and Mad Scene. Lurid rock ‘n’ roll tales are few and far between, unless you count the tragic decapitation of the Doublehappys’ Wayne Elsey, who leaned out of a train compartment at the wrong moment.
The Chills, with their soft-edged, synthesizer-flavored sound and seductively morose disposition, won the widest fame. After a haunting Knox-produced number titled “Pink Frost” made its way into the outer world, the British press folded the band in its dangerous embrace—“the very quintessence of a great band,” said the New Music Express—and they gravitated toward a blander pop-rock style. The Bats, created by onetime Clean bassist Robert Scott and Paul Kean from Toy Love, have been more consistently site-specific, achieving modestly popularity on the American college-rock circuit. Scott is an insanely prolific songwriter who specializes in classically tight but never entirely predictable pop-song structures; he warbles reflective, poetic lyrics in a high, almost Morrissey-like voice, supported by folksily twanging guitars and Scots-Irish gig rhythms. The best Bats album is probably Daddy’s Highway (Flying Nun), although recent albums licensed to the Mammoth label in the U. S. (Fear of God, Silverbeet) show a decade’s accumulation of sharp musicianship.
Harmony grows opulent in the music of the Verlaines, whose lead singer Graeme Downes studied classical music and remains a serious practitioner of musicology. Downes has, in fact, completed a doctoral thesis titled “Gustav Mahler and Progressive Tonality: An Axial System of Tonality Applied to the Music of Mahler and 19th-Century Antecedents.” His first stab at a rock song, “Slow Sad Love Song,” was full of slithery chromaticism, with the second step of the scale lowered down a semitone in Mahlerian fashion. It starts with a slow-dying guitar tone that is strikingly like the opening gesture of “Der Abschied,” the final song of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.
Downes maintained the Austrian vibe in “Death and the Maiden,” the Verlaines’ locally popular first single. The harmonies are laden with the sad cadences of Schubertian Romanticism, yet the melodies sit comfortably on the jangly strings of the Verlaines’ guitars. The song begins with stomping simple chords in square rhythm and then swerves into a middle section in 3/4 time reminiscent of one of Mahler’s Ländler dances. Downes sings in a rough but passionate voice: “Do you like Paul Verlaine? / Is it going to rain today? / Shall we have our photo taken? / We’ll look like Death and the Maiden....” The songwriter admits he gives less thought to the lyrics than to the music; the song’s sadly delirious chorus is the name “Verlaine” repeated eighteen times, with an affecting ornament in the cadence (“Ver-lai-hey-aine”). The closing chords, minor and major intertwined, would have made Schubert smile.
Downes, who looks like Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his shaggy, long-haired roles, shrugs at the dividing line in his musical world. “Most rock music is total rubbish, but so is most classical music, actually,” he told me at a diner in Hoboken. “You don’t find a sort of concentration of energy or mind very often in either classical or rock, whether it’s a Mahler symphony or a Clean song.” Could a Clean song be analyzed with the same rigor as a Mahler symphony, and will it endure as long? Downes has provisionally answered this question with an academic paper entitled “Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Brahms’ Principle of Developing Variation,” which analyzes the grunge anthem from the point of view of late-classical thematic development. “For a song about teenage angst,” he told me, “it has an amazingly original and tightly controlled harmonic structure. Everything is derived from the rising fourths at the start—he sang the song’s obsessive riff—”so that you have fourths again in the upper melody, except that they are inverted, falling down”—he sings again—”and it comes back to the falling second in the middle of the bass riff. It’s fucking spot on, the whole way through.”
As Downes has grown older, he has run into the same dull dilemma that adventurous rock auteurs everywhere have faced. In order to keep the band going past its first burst of youthful enthusiasm, he made concessions to the rock marketplace, signed a deal with the Los Angeles label Slash, and limited his rock-classical experiments. He no longer has the luxury of tinkering with his songs at a Mahlerian pace, and his recent records haven’t contained anything on the level of “Death and the Maiden.” But, for a brief moment, Downes forged as convincing a synthesis of rock and classical traditions as anyone has offered since the heyday of the Beatles.
By the late nineteen-eighties, the New Zealand punk generation was ageing, anti-socialist reaction had curbed the generosity of the dole, and Flying Nun had become a healthy cottage industry with international connections and marketing agreements. The indie golden age appeared to be winding down. Then the South Island saw a sudden resurgence of activity—a renewed commitment to the original impulses of the Dunedin bands. Peter Jefferies, a gaunt, black-haired native of the northern farm town of Stratford, founded a new label that cantankerously disavowed commercial values. In the early eighties he had fronted This Kind of Punishment, his cadaverous, wake-the-dead bass voice joining forces with the magisterial, almost stadium-ready guitar sound of his brother Graeme. When Flying Nun dragged its feet getting their highly idiosyncratic records out, Jefferies moved south to Port Chalmers (near Dunedin) and formed Xpressway Records. New bands appeared out of nowhere, bringing with them a tougher and more tangled sound.
Two summers ago, in the company of his friend and sometime bandmate Alastair Galbraith, Peter Jefferies embarked on a threadbare American tour, playing for small crowds of aficionados at obscure indie clubs. These days, he prefers to perform solo, singing threadbare ballads and accompanying himself on a synthesizer piano. At the Betapunk club in Washington, D. C., a converted warehouse, he told me that he’s appreciative but also skeptical of the very modest and scattered following that Xpressway has found in the U.S. and elsewhere: “I’m probably going to shut the label down, actually, because it’s getting too popular.” His own songs run the danger of extreme self-absorption, but the glowering prophetic tone of “The Last Great Challenge of a Dull World” typifies Jefferies’ esoteric appeal. Galbraith, another loner musician and classical apostate (he studied violin), draws a cavernous roar from his solo guitar, favoring melodies with a proud Gaelic lilt.
The Xpressway sound is generously summarized on the compilations Xpressway Pile=Up and Killing Capitalism With Kindness. In place of Flying Nun’s mournful melodiousness, Xpressway bands move instinctively toward dissonance and home-based experimental tinkering. The Velvet Underground remain a dominant influence, but scattered echoes of sixties and seventies pop and punk give way to a heavy injection of late-seventies and eighties Anglo-American post-punk—most notably, the noise-sculptures of early Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. The sound itself is always raw, casual, echoing the rough but realistic production of Chris Knox’s early Dunedin tapes. Jefferies boasts of his Luddite strain in the record notes: “Most of the songs were recorded at homes or warehouses in what are meant to be ‘sub-standard’ conditions on ‘sub-standard’ equipment. None of this was recorded on more than eight tracks, and most of it was recorded on less.” The “low-fi” aesthetic, as it happens, is now standard practice among American indie bands even those who can afford a $250,000 studio; for Xpressway bands, though, it’s the reality of what’s available.
American underground-rock scenesters have lavished attention on one particular Xpressway-associated band, the Dead C. Bruce Russell, who co-founded Xpressway with Peter Jefferies, started up the Dead C. with Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats, formerly of the Verlaines. The songs go on five, ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes, with no organizing landmarks along the way. But Dead C. achieves something other than industrial-noise squalor; with big, sprawling chords plucked out note by note on clangorous guitars, songs like “Helen Said This” are more melancholy than manic, sometimes unnervingly beautiful. From the murk emerges a string of mournful major chords, one after another, strung out on broken unisons and arpeggios. Of about a dozen records on labels spread out over several continents, the ones to get are the manageably noisy DR 503 (Feel Good All Over); the marginally coherent Eusa Kills (Flying Nun); and the ear-splitting Harsh 70’s Reality (Siltbreeze).
The 3Ds are a promising young Dunedin band that has ties to both Flying Nun pop and Xpressway noise. Hailing from such lusciously tuneful mid-eighties bands as the Bird Nest Roys and the all-female Look Blue Go Purple, the four members of the 3Ds quickly found an aggressive, distinctive sound: propulsive, syncopated rhythms, angular and dissonant melodic lines, thrashing guitar solos, and a tendency to swerve unexpectedly into lyrical sweetness. Then they made a stab at an international renown; the short-lived American label First Warning and its parent behemoth BMG sent them out unawares into the American alternative scene, where they ran into a brick wall of apathy and soon found themselves stranded. “I’ve never seen so many greedy little wankers running around,” lead singer David Mitchell told Butt Rag fanzine after attending the notoriously hype-swamped New Music Seminar. “In New Zealand there’s no reason for a band to think about money, because you just can’t make it.”
The greatest force of musical good in New Zealand has been the wizardly Chris Knox, who helped found the New Zealand punk scene in the late seventies and still holds a place of honor more than fifteen years later. Since stepping away from putative global fame in Toy Love, he has gone his own way, writing and performing music both manifestly bizarre and hopelessly irresistible. The self-lacerating punk who headed the Enemy is now forty-three and father to two kids, but he still speaks with the insular passion of the alienated adolescent. Even more than the 3D’s, he blends the competing impulses toward seductive pop and eloquent junk. But his paradoxical songs seem like nothing more than projections of his own personality. He has stuck to the same strange, brilliant thing no matter how many or how few are listening.
The very first Toy Love songs showed a knack for angular melody that has not failed Knox since. He is not afraid to copy august models in rock-pop history. “Not Given Lightly,” a grandiose love ballad that made it onto New Zealand’s singles charts and has since been covered by the rock-jazz outfit Frente!, owes much to Phil Spector's "(Today I Met) The Boy I'm Gonna Marry." At least a few songs on every album directly echo the Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney in his blissful pop mode. One of his favorite song structures comes from “All You Need Is Love”: a mesmerizing hook is set in motion and then gains volume and heft with each repetition. Knox matches the resources of a studio-based foursome with a collection of brilliant home-studio tricks; in place of drums, he loops together found-object sounds: guttural throbs, labial slurps, wooden thwacks, gunshot bursts, and primitive industrial clattering, all pinned to an unstoppable mechanical rhythm.
Knox is mindful of rock history, but he does nothing by the book. On stage he delivers his songs with practiced perfection, but he undercuts their effect with sly asides, cutting self-mockery, and a sharp distrust of the rock-star pose. His lyrics also tend to take an idiosyncratic feminist stance. “Boys,” on the Tall Dwarfs album Fork Songs, holds up an unflattering mirror image of its audience:
More is less than it used to be
But we watch it back on the bar’s TV
In the hope it will look like reality
Here we come through your fields of flesh
Ploughing deep all that’s fine and fresh
Sowing death is the fondest wish
The dark images unroll over a pleasurable drone (think George Harrison’s “Love You To”), inviting a self-alienating kind of audience participation. “Liberal Backlash Angst,” on Knox’s solo album Croaker, works on the same principle—although the singer was disappointed to discover that hardcore kids in his audience failed to catch the irony and cheered his put-on xenophobia, misogyny, and offensiveness (“Fuck the virus / Take your condoms off and screw”).
In 1984, Knox suspended his solitary basement tinkering and re-recorded his classic song “Nothing’s Going to Happen” with a seventeen-piece ensemble of guitars, strings, and winds, paying homage to grandiose Motown and Phil Spector orchestrations. The joyous gibberish of the lyrics—”Maybe all the children in small rooms will fall silent at a wall or window and forget to breathe for just one minute because of some beauty that has not been altered, damned, or pointed out by the clumsy dark oafs that train them”—falls in line with an obsessive surge of simple rhythm. At the climax, the swirl of words dissolves into mere letters of the alphabet, echoing Glenn Miller, of all people (“A B C D E F G H I’ve got a gal in Kalamazoo”):
do be is was I me
B C D E F G H I think
Nothing’s going to happen
—at which point the chorus of guitars rises to its highest pitch of passion and then begins a long winding down.
Nothing’s going to happen—the unofficial anthem of New Zealand rock, which has thrived precisely because it has no expectation or need of international fame. The contented inwardness of this music has found many echoes in American indie music, an army of lonely boys strumming guitars in musty bedrooms. “Close your eyes and close your mind,” Knox sings, in another of his homemade chants. He and a dozen others have shrugged off rock’s historic mission of mass appeal. This isn’t to say that New Zealand rock has avoided the conceptual trap that has ensnared so many American “alternative” acts—the paradoxical and destructive marketing of the alternative as the new mainstream. But the best of these bands, especially those on the south end of the islands, remain intelligently oblivious. Like the Māori in their canoes, they would rather play us their music once or twice and then pass away into the mist.