Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Jonahs part 1

There's been a lot of research/archival probing into the various scenes that constitute NZ rock music, and a lot of this stuff is now online. I'm not very trainspotty about this sort of thing. However, I have enjoyed a few of the resuscitated tales about the moment in Wellington - roughly 1980-83 - when music was everything for me and my friends. The mysterex blog is the one to seek out. There's a particularly good story about Kevin Hawkins (Shoes This High guitarist) fucking in the Victoria University graveyard.

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Reading the material, I realise what a partial grasp I had on what was going on - and not just the fucking and the drugs. As fans we were a few years younger than most of the people in the bands, and at that age (16-19) a few years is more or less a generation gap. We were also from Lower Hutt. We went as often as we could to the Last Resort and Billy the Club to see The Gordons, Naked Spots Dance, the Wallsockets, Life in the Fridge Exists et al. It was over very quickly.

The pic below is taken at a Gordons' Wellington gig. I recognise some of those faces. It's a great photo.
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Fast forward a few years . . . The only 'proper' band I've been in was The Jonahs. Now if you google us, I don't think you get anything, which is remarkable. (We're not in any of the music books either.) It's also completely right that we've disappeared. We didn't make an impact, we didn't get signed, we didn't change lives, except maybe our own. We gigged around Wellington for about a year, and then I left for London, and the band carried on for another year and then broke up. Our story was and is the story of any number of bands. Part-timers, fans.

We did, however, have a manager. And we did make a record. The EP 'Bills of Happiness' came out in 1987. It was engineered by Nick Roughan, who has gone on to a full career, producing for David Kilgour, Dimmer, Die Die Die etc. (We played gigs with Nick's band The Skeptics.) And the EP was mixed by Brent McLaughlin, drummer for the Gordons, Bailter Space etc. We got a small recording grant ($500, I think) from the QEII Arts Council. So we did actually have, I don't know, credentials. And Colin Hogg gave the record 4-stars in the Herald and said we had a promising career ahead of us.

Now while I'm rather attached to our anonymity, I also feel strangely pulled towards the light, and the presence on 'Group Hug' of Laurence and Grant seems to make these connections more relevant now. So suffer this mini-history lesson.

I think we formed in 1986, though we were mucking around in a garage in Wainuiomata in 85 or earlier. Our bassist Grant Guillosson lived in Wainui where his dad was a milkman. Our drummer Victor Foon worked on the milk-truck. (There was one live review in a local paper that called Victor 'the best drummer in the world', and for sure he was pretty damn good.) Laurence Tyler was the guitarist and the musician. He was a classically-trained cellist. He came to rock'n'roll not through any punk channels but via a few key albums. 'Exile on Main Street' was one, mainly because of Mick Taylor.

In terms of songwriting, it worked like this. More often than not I'd come to band practice with a riff, and Laurence would convert it into a chord sequence with names and everything, tell Grant what notes to play, and then we'd jam. Later I'd make up the words. I don't think they were very good lyrics. They were extremely literary. 'Short Letter Long Farewell', which is the first song on the EP, is named for the Peter Handke novel. No one knew what the hell I was going on about and no one asked or ventured an opinion. After I left the band, there was an interview in a local paper in which Laurence said he thought my lyrics weren't very direct. I totally agreed with him - indeed it was one of the best things anyone has ever said to me about my work (well, said to me sort of behind my back, in the fucking press). Anyway, there's a breakthrough song on the EP—for me at least—called 'Doctoring' which I still don't mind. It has my best vocal performance, some of the band's loveliest playing, and an urgency of feeling which took us by surprise, I think. We played it live once only, as I remember, and that was at the biggest gig of our careers. In January 87 we supported the Chills at Victoria University. 600 people. And here I must confess I told a small lie earlier.

Googling us won't give you anything but add The Chills and the venue and you'll find us! It's on the softbomb website. Some trainspotter has listed EVERY gig the Chills played—and so the Jonahs are alive as a tiny footnote in the career of another band. Go there to read my comment on our big moment. (By the way, I've decided I won't put in links—they only tempt the reader away from the text and why would any writer want that?)

I'll try to put up an mp3 of The Jonahs once I get the EP digitised. To be honest, the material the band wrote after I left struck me as better than anything they did when I was there, and that went quite some way to convincing me to stop playing music. No crisis, just a solid feeling that I had better things to do and that music wouldn't miss me. I did and it didn't. The new Jonahs recorded an LP's worth called 'Thrash It, It's a Rental', though for some reason it was never released.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Okay (I Think I'm Going to Be) - track 13

One of the first things I wrote when I got back into music in 2009. This one comes last on the record because I imagined it offering a kind of release from some of the more tense stuff. The sun comes out, sort of. 

Delightful organy bits from Felix in here. And Craig's drumming is amazing. When we listened to my rather wimpy demo version and talked about what the drums could do, I told Craig I didn't want this song to sound like the Bats - absolutely no offence intended to the Bats! - but, you know, I wanted it more like the New York Dolls on 'Dance Like a Monkey'. Now if only I had David Johansen's chops and his, er, hips. 

The Arch (track 6)

Eero Saarinen's greatest achievement is the St Louis Arch, completed in 1965, though Saarinen never saw it - he died in 1961.

When we lived in St Louis, we visited the Arch numerous times. The best part was simply touching it.

The Arch Cover Art

My song is a love song for my wife. (Although it begins with me yelling out the architect's name.) It's quite noisy and it might be hard to listen to - especially on small speakers - but the sentiments are as straightforward as I could make them:

'That's where my mind grew sharp
That's where my heart grew up
That's where we met
That's where we meant it
Pushing our hands into the steel
Above our heads.'

On Ashleigh Young's excellent blog she's reproduced a lovely list by Eero Saarinen dedicated to his wife:

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Notes on Songs

These notes first appeared on the bandcamp site to accompany the record release of 'Group Hug'.

IRIS DEMENT (track 4)
Overall you'd have to say there aren't enough songs in rock and roll about babies and their sleep issues, or about clueless parents. 

When our first daughter was young we got into the usual tangle over sleeping: how to get her to accept her cot, how long we could leave her crying etc etc. It was stressful and shameful in all the ordinary despairing ways. People gave us books and, you know, eventually it came right, or maybe she just got sick of our hopelessness and decided to fix it herself. (I'm reminded here of that great story by Donald Barthelme 'The Baby' in which a father tries to punish the child for tearing up books. He ends up locking the baby in solitary confinement and keeping the security entry code from his wife, who's weakening. Check it out.) Anyway, one of our methods - time-honored, we reasoned - was to sing her to sleep, and we hit on playing Iris DeMent's song 'Sweet is the Melody' - because Iris can really sing and we loved that record. We'd hold our baby in our arms and move slowly in time to Iris. 

This method was very soothing but I think I can say it was, long-term, utterly useless. The obvious flaw was that there were often times when Iris DeMent was unavailable. It also had a serious side-effect: we grew to associate the song and the singer with a problem. I don't think I listened to anything by Iris DeMent for a long time - maybe until that genius John Prine duets record she appeared on.) 

My song also picks up another dumb tactic of the time - feeding the baby in bed. We'd end up having these insanely vivid dreams from which we'd wake convinced we'd rolled over in the bed and smothered her. 

So this is my make-up song to Iris DeMent. And maybe even to our daughter, who now loves her bed. 

PS: there's a second 'difficult' baby song on the record: 'Stage Divers' in which a new father asks to be rescued from 'the darkness/ from the bottomless pit'. He imagines the baby becoming a stage diver and being passed overhead at a gig because of course he's missing his old life. Scholars (ho ho) take note: 'Stage Divers' also borrows its title and an idea from a poem of mine which appeared years ago in The 

PPS: after we mixed this, I asked Clare to come around to my place and she added a nice, simple, blink-and-you-missed it backing vocal. Her own baby was born by then. (Hello Franka!) It was a satisfying symmetry, because when we started recording, Clare was heavily pregnant and worried that her breathing was affected by the pressure of the baby. I was so pleased that no babies were injured in the making of this album. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Group Hug - reading notes

These notes first appeared on the bandcamp site.


Don't know how it happened but a mini-theme emerged around mental health/illness. There's a song called 'Bipolar' and a couple of things I wrote about our friend Ian Hancock, who killed himself 25 years ago - a quarter century? That's nuts. 'December' goes back there.

Ian wasn't bipolar but in retrospect I think he was depressed. He was also an extremely chirpy, irrepressible character, with a great and eccentric record collection: Motorhead, the Clash, Madonna, Adam Ant, Husker Du, PiL, the Fall, W.A.S.P., Human League, Iron Maiden. He'd spent a year in the UK when punk was first happening and he had a fondness for bands like Crass and the UK Subs. Ian always looked great, didn't care what people thought of him.

Those hostile to difference - and there were plenty in Lower Hutt - sought out Ian for punishment. With his slight build, his dyed hair, the occasional pair of tartan trousers, English brothel creeper shoes, he was a ready target. He had good stories of being chased and beaten. He was brave and reckless. Next he bought a motorbike and took up motorcross. Surprisingly, he was a good mechanic, and a natural, fearless rider.

We'd been to school together, though he was a year younger. I used to go around to Ian's house a lot and we'd make music. He played bass a la Genesis P Orridge from Throbbing Gristle, and I'd scratch on a guitar and intone words. We also made our own tape loops by sellotaping cassette tape together. Ian owned a Korg Synth which had a small keyboard and patches, and he also had a Dr Rhythm drum machine. At one point we called ourselves The Emperor's New Clothes and we made a stencil, spray-painting our name on the platform at the Woburn railway station.

Of course we never played anywhere live. God I wish I could find those tapes we made.

Together, we interviewed the Birthday Party in 1982 for student radio - I was terrified and hardly managed to speak. It was in the bar of the Cambridge Hotel - dark and smelly at midday. I remember Mark Cubey was there too - very confident, asking about the usefulness of drugs to creativity. (Mark is now Kim Hill's producer on National Radio.) Ian was on good form and chatted happily to Tracy Pew, the bassist, who was our favourite member of the band. There was a female journalist present who asked Nick Cave what he was reading and he said Robert Pinget, the French novelist - I'd actually read Pinget but I couldn't speak. The journalist said she was reading 'Beyond Good and Evil' by Nietzsche. Was this when a wave of nausea passed over me. It felt like I was looking into the bowels of the earth such was the joyless pretension in the room. Except for Tracy Pew who told us a funny story about his first beer after being released from a 10-week jail sentence for drink/driving.
Birthday Party (July 1982): Mick Harvey - Nick Cave - Phillip Calvert - Tracy Pew - Rowland S.Howard (credit:Tom Sheehan)
Cave & Pew

New Zealand 1981-82I shouldn't be silly about it because at that time the Birthday Party were extremely exciting. They were also important in a very Antipodean way since when they'd first gone to the UK to make it they'd attended a big concert with Echo & the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes and others, and Cave, deeply underwhelmed, said in an interview that this was when he knew they could take on anyone. And they did. It was the kind of excitement we always wanted to be part of. These days I can't listen to Mr Cave. Big deal. Move on.

To give you more of a flavour of my self back then - cos it's so compelling - I was a DJ on Radio Active and once played a whole side of the LP 'Milo Goes to College' by the Descendents because I was utterly convinced that it was a work of genius. (It's still utterly alive.) After about 15 mins the unhappy station manager rang me up. (Actually, just Wiki'ed the album - 15 songs in 22 mins! In total. Side One is, like, 10 minutes, 8 songs. Oh dear my record is looking flabby. Must learn to say what I mean.) Anyway, we quickly loved US hardcore. It was very hard to respond to some pained crooner like Ian McCullough after Henry Rollins or Bob Mould or the Kirkwood brothers or D. Boon.

Back to my mini-theme . . . Early on I wrote a song called 'Lake Alice', about the notorious NZ psych hospital. One of my older cousins and her husband were nurses there in the 70s. Then later on, another cousin, Peter Finlay, was committed to Lake Alice. Last year Peter published a memoir about his time in and out of institutions. Fascinating, scary stuff - find it here:
Lake Alice Cover Art
Lake Alice Villa 12 2003

Lake Alice has an ongoing story that can be followed here:

I think of myself as, thankfully, distant from the sphere of mental illness - good luck? good genes? Don't know. Plus let's not get too cocky. However, I often imagine going crazy. I fear the loss of self and I do so with the same low level persistent apprehension that, say, I think of my hometown Wellington being flattened by a big earthquake. (Of course they say that one is comin for sure.)

I don't want to exaggerate this side of things though - on the record there are straight-ish love songs, tunes about happiness and good luck, having kids etc.

I'm dedicating  the record to my friend Ian. I'm annoyed he's not around.

The beautiful cover image is a painting by Megan J. Campbell 'Compassion'. See more of her work here: