Tagged: Flying Nun Records

10 of the best: Flying Nun Records

ONE of the world’s great independent labels, Flying Nun Records was founded in 1981 by Christchurch-based Roger Shepherd. But the locus of the emerging New Zealand punk and post-punk scene and many of its key players were further south, in Dunedin: all bar one of the following bands, Christchurch’s JPS Experience, hail from the university town in the region of Otago. At its peak, the label was home to dozens of bands and 10 of the best is exactly that (with apologies to Bailter Space, Alastair Galbraith and Peter Gutteridge, all storied figures in the New Zealand pop history). Shepherd walked away from the label in 1999, selling it to Warner; in 2010, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, who owns a quarter-share, helped him buy it back again. Large chunks of the label’s catalogue are being reissued by Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks, with the Clean, the Chills and the Bats – who release their seventh album, The Deep Set, today – remaining active to this day.

The Clean Anything Could Happen

Formed in 1978 in Dunedin, the Clean’s first single Tally Ho!, released a few years later, put the fledgling Flying Nun Records label on the map, reaching the top 20 with its nagging keyboard riff. (Disclaimer: it probably wouldn’t have taken a huge number of sales to reach the New Zealand top 20.) From there the band, formed by brothers David and Hamish Kilgour and future Bats leader Robert Scott, carved a reputation as probably the most influential band on the label with a sound heavily influenced by the Velvet Underground. But their best song, Anything Could Happen, would do Bob Dylan proud with its folk-rock chord changes and dry, deadpan lyrics.

The Verlaines Death And The Maiden

Another key figure in Flying Nun’s early history, Dr Graham Downes – he heads the department of music at the University of Otago – would bring classical influences to the Flying Nun sound on their 1987 album Bird-Dog. You wouldn’t have seen that coming on their first single four years earlier, which had Downes ecstatically chanting the name of the French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, from whom they took their name (not, as is sometimes thought, Television’s Tom Verlaine). Features the immortal lines “You shouldn’t talk to me / Find better company / There’s better things to know / You’ll only end up like Rimbaud.”

The Chills Pink Frost

It was Martin Phillipps that played that nagging riff in Tally Ho!, but he already had the Chills who, over well over a dozen line-up changes, became the greatest singles band New Zealand produced after Split Enz, achieving enduring success with a sound that was alternately pitch dark and lighter than air. Released in 1984, Pink Frost combined both in the same song, shifting abruptly from a spry opening guitar hook to a haunting, bass-driven pulse, as Phillipps tells a deeply unsettling story of loss and survivor’s guilt.

Look Blue Go Purple Cactus Cat

It’s tiresome to point to Look Blue Go Purple’s gender – something that followed the five-piece wherever they went, much to their justified irritation. But the fact remains there weren’t too many women on Flying Nun, and the band’s three EPs are a critical and often unsung part of its legacy. Cactus Cat is from the second of them, released in 1986. This joyously nonsensical paean to Denise Roughan’s moggy rides along on a couple of chords, punctuated by two backwards guitar solos played by former Chill Terry Moore.

The Bats Made Up In Blue

After four years in the Clean, bass player Robert Scott realised he needed a new vehicle for his own prolific songwriting. With the Bats, he has explored endless variations on an instantly identifiable sound. They nailed that sound on this ebullient 1986 single: bright, mid-tempo guitar pop, with the stinging lead work of Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean’s rumbling bass over the top giving a harder edge to Scott’s nasal, wistful vocals.

Jean-Paul Sartre Experience Inside And Out

There were more critical bands in Flying Nun discography than the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, but I can’t ignore the hypnotic opening cut from this often overlooked band’s excellent second album The Size Of Food, from 1990. Incredibly, soon after a lawsuit was served by the estate of Jean-Paul Sartre, forcing them to change their name to the JPS Experience and, while it almost certainly had nothing to do with it, they were never quite the same again.

Straitjacket Fits Down In Splendour

By the turn of the 1990s, the Chills and the Straitjacket Fits looked like the bands most likely to cross over to major success, with American record deals and more polished – dare one say cleaner-sounding – studio recordings. It didn’t hurt that the Straitjacket Fits were the best-looking band on the label, either. Written by Andrew Brough, the breathtaking Down In Splendour, from the band’s second and best album Melt, shows off the band’s exquisite vocal harmonies and twin-guitar interplay without losing any of the tension that would ultimately destroy the group.

Straitjacket Fits APS

The Straitjacket Fits are privileged with two entries on account of them being blessed with two very different songwriters. The prettiness of Down In Splendour was the jewel in a crown of thorns: the Fits’ spikier side was dominated by brooding leader Shayne Carter. This live recording of APS (also from Melt) demonstrates their explosive power on stage; at its conclusion Carter checks: “are everyone’s strings intact?” But in barely the next breath, he cattily introduces Down In Splendour “for all you grandmas out there”; soon after Brough was unceremoniously ejected from the band, announced with a gleeful press release: “No more slow songs!” Unfortunately, it destroyed the band’s delicate balance; their final album Blow was a disappointment.

3Ds Beautiful Things

The 3Ds – Dominic Stones, Denise Roughan and David Saunders – emerged late in the 1980s, quickly added another D, David Mitchell for good measure and, like the Straitjacket Fits, based their considerable attack on a twin-guitar sound. But where the Fits exuded menace, the 3Ds were as bright, playful and often unhinged as their lurid cover artwork. Beautiful Things (from 1993’s The Venus Trail and sung by Roughan, previously of Look Blue Go Purple) caught them at a rare tranquil moment, with a gliding chord progression and beatific lyrics: “Don’t you see, beautiful things can be / Waiting outside your door, for all to see.” A famous story about the band goes that during a support slot on U2’s ZooTV tour, an associate nicked a bottle of wine from U2’s dressing room, leading the promoter to inform the band they would not be paid. Bono intervened, gave them another bottle of wine and told the promoter they would be paid double.

Chris Knox Not Given Lightly

Talisman, spiritual heartbeat and conscience of New Zealand punk, Chris Knox all but started the movement in Dunedin with his bands the Enemy, then Toy Love. He later maintained a prolific career as one-half of the Tall Dwarfs, as a soloist, and as a newspaper columnist and cartoonist. His best-known tune, released in 1989, was a plain-spoken love song to “John and Liesha’s mother”, and featured just a percussion loop and fuzz guitar. Tragically Knox was cut down by a severe stroke in 2009 that has left him unable to say more than a few words; a tribute album to raise funds for his ongoing rehabilitation featured Yo La Tengo, the late Jay Reatard, Bonnie Prince Billy and Bill Callahan, as well as many of the bands mentioned above.

Originally published in The Guardian28 January 2017

The Bats: same as it ever was

Robert Scott has just knocked off work, “down at the local kids’ school” in Port Chalmers just outside of Dunedin, the university town near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island that, from the late 1970s, was the birthplace of punk across the Tasman. Now, he says, he’s home to do some interviews: a reflection of the permanent double life of a musician in his home country.

Scott was, and remains, one-third of the Clean, probably the most influential of all the bands to be released on the famed Flying Nun label. He is also the leader of the Bats, who have just released their seventh album, The Deep Set, in a career spanning over 30 years. Both bands have proven extremely influential, especially in American college rock circles, and still record and tour internationally.

But unless you’re a Finn brother, making a living off music in the Shaky Isles remains a near impossibility (another New Zealand band, the 3Ds, once turned down an offer to tour with Nirvana on the grounds that it would have cost them their day jobs).

The result for Scott is an ordinary, domestic life punctuated by bursts of artistic activity. “It’s a wee bit strange, because when you tell people you’ve got a day job, they can’t quite believe it – they figure I should be relaxing and living off royalties,” Scott says. “But unless you have a really big seller, it doesn’t actually generate enough money to live off … You’d need to be touring a heck of a lot, and I’ve still got an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old to still help look after as well, so I need to be around for them.”

The Bats and the Clean occupy separate niches. In reductive terms, one could say the Clean took the drone-rock of the Velvet Underground’s Foggy Notion as a starting point and turned it into an entire career. The Bats are a gentler proposition: jangling, often pastoral, closer to the folk-pop of Byrds.

But there isn’t a band on earth now that sounds remotely like the Bats, and Scott has cheerfully admitted that much of their music sounds more or less the same. “For a band that’s got, not a formula, but maybe a sound and way of approaching songs, they’ll do variations on the theme and it can still sound good,” he says.

“But then, having said that, I think that a lot of my favourite bands and a lot of their songs sound the same too, whether it’s the Velvets or Can or Kraftwerk … If we tried to do a reggae or a ska record, it would sound terrible.”

The trick, he says, is keeping the songwriting on par within the confines of the very familiar Bats house style. “Even though obviously it is us and sounds like us, I’d hate to think I’d put out a record that sounded like Bats by numbers, or that it was harping back to previous songs.”

There have been long breaks between recordings: it’s been six years since the band’s last album Free All The Monsters, and there was a full decade between 1995’s Couchmaster and 2005’s At The National Grid, during which time various band members started families.

But those breaks, imposed in part by the necessity to earn a living, perhaps help account for the remarkable longevity of both of Scott’s bands. The Clean were formed in 1978; the Bats in 1982: nearly 80 years of making music between them. “They’ll be giving us an award soon, I’m sure.”

Scott says it’s something that he’s taken for granted, at least until it’s pointed out to him. “Everything’s relative. It’s only when other people comment on the longevity that you realise it is quite a point of difference, if you think of other bands that have shone brightly for 10 years or five years and then stopped for whatever reason.”

Minds and bodies permitting, Scott sees no reason why both bands shouldn’t continue indefinitely. “If one enjoys it, if one is coming up with relevant stuff, that’s not demeaning the band’s name by putting out rubbish that doesn’t stand up to the other stuff you’ve done, then I can’t see any reason why to stop.

“I don’t really think about it that deeply, but I respect and admire I guess musicians who can keep producing good stuff, whatever their age, whether it’s 60, 70, 80, whatever.”

First published in Shortlist (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 12 January 2017

Out of the black

Martin Phillipps still has his leather jacket. It was bequeathed to him by his friend and band-mate Martyn Bull, who died of leukaemia in 1983, just as his group the Chills – arguably the pick of the many groups to emerge from the post-punk wellspring of Dunedin, New Zealand in the early 1980s, was taking flight.

A song about the jacket became one of the Chills’ greatest singles. “I love my leather jacket, and I wear it all the time,” Phillipps sang, although these days, he confesses, he can no longer fit into it (it was last seen in public in a glass case as part of a New Zealand art exhibition, simply called Black).

The jacket was “both protector and reminder of mortality”, and now, on the eve of the release of the first full Chills album in 19 years, Silver Bullets, Phillipps is facing up to his. He looks fine, but has just returned from a liver scan: he is in the fourth stage of Hepatitis C. “As yet there’s no sign of cancer or lesions,” he says.

It’s not terribly reassuring. Phillipps knows he may not have a lot of time, but after years of waste, filled with depression and a prolonged period of drug use that was the source of his illness, he’s determined to make the best of it. “I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time dwelling on it. I’d rather just be productive.”

Around the turn of the 1990s, The Chills were the band most likely, and arguably the most deserving. Introducing themselves with the song Kaleidoscope World, from the landmark Dunedin Double EP – the first release by the influential Flying Nun label – their second album, Submarine Bells, had them on the cusp of stardom.

That record opened with Heavenly Pop Hit, which was almost everything its title suggested, other than being an actual bona fide smash. Lighter than air, it was filled with the same whimsy as Kaleidoscope World before it, while the album retained the darker undercurrents of another early single, the deeply unsettling Pink Frost.

The band’s label, Phillipps remembers, envisioned them as the next R.E.M. Then grunge happened, and Britpop, and techno, and acid house. The Chills, beset by near-continuous line-up changes, faded from view. “They’d realised that I had nothing like Michael Stipe’s charisma, and that we were all a bit weird.”

The band’s fourth album, Sunburnt, was released under the name Martin Phillipps and the Chills in 1996, after the rest of the band were disallowed entry into the UK to record it. It was gorgeous. It bombed. This time Phillipps, who’d faithfully climbed back on the horse after each and every setback, didn’t get up.

“There came a point where I just fell off, and something drastically changed,” he says. “That was when the drugs – which had kind of been around a little bit, but more as a stimulus to get going – really got their claws in, and the whole depression thing.” He cites Harry Potter: “It’s like having a Dementor suck the life out of you.”

But Phillipps refuses to buy into the so-called Curse of the Chills. “Actually I think I’ve had a pretty good run, really,” he says. “Here I am, at 52, having made music the main thing of my life as a career since 1978 or ’79 … Any band of any duration is going to have worse stories than we’ve had. Although we’ve had some unusual ones.”

Since Sunburnt, the band has mostly lain fallow, even as Phillipps managed to assemble the longest-serving line-up in its history. Last year’s single Molten Gold, which also featured a new recording of Pink Frost, was the first new music since an EP, Stand By, from 2004.

Songs had kept coming to Phillipps, even as his physical and mental well-being faltered. All the while, the worldwide cult surrounding the Chills, which extended to fellow Dunedin contemporaries The Clean and Chris Knox (who himself suffered a debilitating stroke in 2009) grew.

Having accepted that just as people had inevitably moved on from the band – “People just get sick of you,” he reasons – Phillipps also suspected that, eventually, their music would be rediscovered. It just took a little longer than he thought to become an elder statesman. “I’m a legacy artist now,” he quips.

Silver Bullets, released by London label Fire, is the sound of a band that may as well never have been away. The songs – sometimes driven by intricate guitar lines; at others floating on a bed of keyboards – are there. So are the environmental and political concerns that never stoop to condescension or preaching.

There’s also the obsession with marine life. Behind Phillipps, amid stacks of records and awards, a copy of Submarine Bells stands out, its single image of a jellyfish on the sleeve. The cover of Silver Bullets, though, features barracudas. What once bobbed and drifted has been replaced by something more direct, sinuous, and menacing.

[1992 album] “Soft Bomb was about pacifist impact, about having to do something, but non-violently,” Phillipps explains. “Silver Bullets is not advocating violence, but it is saying that is the way things are heading. Silver bullets represent a violent solution against dark forces.”

Offers are flooding in, but it’s not easy to take advantage of them from the bottom of the world. Phillipps estimates a tour of the US will cost the band $100,000. “All five of us are now paying mortgages, everyone’s got jobs, two of us have families. It’s not like we’re in our teens or 20s and can crash on people’s couches.”

Then again, there might not be much time left. “I feel a lot of pressure,” he says. “Not just for myself, but for the band that’s stuck with me. There’s this growing awareness of just how many more Chills fans there are than I suspected, and how seriously they’ve taken the music, and that they want me around for a long time making more.

“It’s no longer just my decision. To some extent a lot of damage has been done, and I don’t know what the prognosis is. [But] the more I’m feeling happy and making music, that kind of energy has got to be a good healing kind of energy to have, rather than sitting around moping about what might be.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 7 November 2015

Blank Realm: Illegals In Heaven

There’s a moment in every great band’s career where they shrug off their influences and assume their ultimate form. Blank Realm – that brilliantly erratic Brisbane quartet made up of three siblings and a “spiritual brother” – have long been the sum of their parts: a sound drawn from Krautrock, New York’s No Wave, New Zealand’s entire Flying Nun roster, and those closer to home, like the Go-Betweens.

Illegals In Heaven, though, is their definitive statement, the album no one other than Blank Realm could have made. It’s taken them a decade to reach this point, where their rough beginnings have been sculpted into a perfect marriage of pop, art and noise. If there’s a comparison to be made here, it’s with Sonic Youth, circa that band’s masterpiece Daydream Nation.

This is the band’s fifth album (not including the numerous, now impossible to find cassette recordings and CDRs from their formative years), and the first proper studio outing for this determinedly lo-fi band. To be honest, it’s not an obvious leap, sonically speaking: Blank Realm still sound thin and trebly, the mix a dogfight between Luke Walsh’s guitar and Sarah Spencer’s keyboards.

At times, the sound is practically bottomless. Drums and bass become all but irrelevant in the final passages of River Of Longing, Flowers In Mind and obvious single Palace Of Love. It doesn’t matter. These are breathlessly exciting songs, with tightly wound melodies that explode into unforgettable choruses and instrumental passages that see the band playing to the limit of their capacity.

Blank Realm have always been capable of moments of translucent beauty, the dizzying high points of previous albums obscuring the weaker moments. Illegals In Heaven, though, is both varied and consistent. For every bug-eyed monster like No Views – a whooshing slice of comet-rock that opens the album as if it’s been shot from a cannon – there’s a quiet, meditative counterpoint like Dream Date.

There’s a confidence here, too, that is reflective of a band on top of its game. Listening to Daniel Spencer belt out the lyrics to No Views (“I’ve been spitting blood in the dirt, baby, I’m tired but I’m ready to fight”) – is exhilarating, his earlier tremulous yelp replaced by something desperate and crazed. Sarah gets a turn behind the mic, too, singing lead on the shimmering ballad Gold.

There haven’t been many singing drummers in rock & roll. Daniel is akin to Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart, a punk-pop craftsman with a serious romantic streak. On Cruel Night, he comes on a drunk Lee Hazlewood backed by Spiritualized; on Flowers In Mind – the album’s centrepiece – he’s the wide-eyed dreamer: “You can waste a day or waste your whole life / Chasing fragments of dreams out in the night.”

At the opposite extreme is Palace Of Love: “I’ve been feeding the sharks, been diving down in the writhing dark / I’ve been listening to you, scramble my head like a Rubik’s cube.” In another place and time, this thrilling track – played at Ramones pace, but over five minutes – would be a massive hit; as it is, it’s the one that confirms Blank Realm’s arrival at the top of the noise-pop tree.

For most bands, a record like would be a career full stop. For Blank Realm, who have been developing at a dizzying pace since their 2012 breakthrough Go Easy, it’s the beginning of a new chapter in an already impressive story. If there’s a missing star on this album, it’s only reflective of what they could possibly achieve next, having found the sound they’ve spent a decade searching for.

First published in The Guardian, 4 September 2015