So why music?
My mum played piano in church and dad played saxophone in a dance band in the sixties in Scotland, so they were often playing and singing Scottish folk songs right from when I was young. It was very much just... music was all around, the piano was in the house so we all learned that and my sister had a guitar, so we played along on that to the Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan records, working out how the songs were constructed, playing the root notes, learning the chords, and that just sort of grounded me in the sort of folky stuff mum and dad were doing. Then there was the radio, Slade and Abba, a lot of disco stuff, which I really liked. So that was my musical upbringing, then I went to a gig that happened to be the Enemy and the Clean in the Beneficiaries Hall, and that was an introduction to punk, and the fact that anyone could get up and make a noise and not have to be proficient. After that I met David at art school and just… joined the Clean.
When you think about music, if it was a colour of a texture or a shape, what would it be?
That sounds like something I watched about synesthesia…
You don't have synesthetic experiences around music?
No, no… if you possibly thought about a song, you could say that was spiky, or that was mellow or whatever, but I couldn't put a label on it and say it was one thing.
You do visual art as well… how much crossover is there?
Quite a bit in some ways… I know when I'm painting, I hear music in a different way… when you're in painting mode, you're not consciously listening to it so your brain's very open and you analyze it in another way. Other people have said they can see similarities, listening to what I do and then seeing what I paint.
So if you hadn't been exposed to music at a young age would you have gone off toward art, or do you think music was that specific thing for you?
I think theoretically yes, I would have found it in some way, only because its such a strong thing within me that I can't imagine not doing it… so yes, I would have found it.
What do you prefer… writing or performing?
Probably writing. When you're writing a song, it's a completely blank canvas and whatever direction you're taking it in, you're heading off a wee journey and at any stage you're able to change it…
It's still in your hands.
Yeah. Often the first idea will determine it, a very basic riff, a couple of notes, and if they're strong enough to hold my interest, then you start thinking about vocals. Usually it's a series of chords and a melody.
Do you wake up with those three great notes in your head?
Sometimes… usually it's picking up the guitar and doodling. If there's something good there, you put the guitar down, go and wash the dishes, and if it's still good the pen and paper comes out... I don't always know what every chord is called so I just... (write out the tab). Then I'll write out the melody, make a recording and come back to it in a few days.
Ever written something that was just... the total acme of that expression, then gotten on stage and thought… tumbleweeds... shit, this isn't working?
Pretty much by the time you've gotten it onto stage, especially with it being vetted by the band and them saying yeah, that's um, not your best work… if it doesn't get past them, it doesn't end up on stage. But having said that, solo wise, you can choose a song, think it's good and think you've played it really well and just… you get this… smattering of applause…
So do you actually enjoy performance?
Yeah… but there's a lot of angst to it, a lot of trepidation… nervousness, fear of gear failure… doing justice to the song. Sometimes you'll get into the middle of something and think hey, I'm just doing G and C (chords) here really and I'm not a very good guitarist but they seem to be okay with it… (lol). But what I do is very song-based, so it's more about the song than about the virtuosity. With the Bats, we're very danceable, so you're delivering a song but it's a physical process for the people in the crowd… there's quite a few things going on at the one time.
There's a big gap between the two. If you go and see a band, you're taking in what they're giving out and you're processing and liking it, but when you're doing it, there's a big difference, and I guess everyone interprets it a different way… it's quite fluid really; at any one stage if you froze that process, everyone would be thinking something different. You can be concentrating heavily on the song if it's difficult or new, hoping the audience is enjoying the performance even if you're staring at the floor and er, standing stock still. But that's just what you get with this song. As opposed to a band that's all showy and like has their foot on the monitor… screaming lead solo….
Lol. Can you remember a particularly spectacular performance? When you thought this is what performing is all about?
When the crowd's good, they carry you a lot…a big crowd, right up the front… that makes a huge difference, because of the energy you're getting back off them… it makes the performing…
Like you're doing it in your sleep. You're concentrating on their energy and the playing is almost secondary… you're enjoying it but you're almost outside your own body and part of the crowd, in a way… if you know the song well, *cough*.
Are NZ crowds different to those overseas?
Was that impolitic? *Wink*
No no… everywhere is different. NZ crowds are pretty good but they can be a bit sort of… jaded. Because it's like, blah, we can see you anytime. When they're really into it it's fun, but it can also be lots of people just sitting in the back of a room and you're wondering why am I doing this? Overseas they're all like ooh, we've been waiting five years to hear you, so for them it's a bit more special. That's more fun, a bit extra. At home you can be ohh, playing this pub again, same people, except they look older... I wonder if I look like that?
What about the fan experience? Do you have F A N S? Self-described, a little bit scary?
Yeah, there's a bit of that… mostly they're pretty good. I don't get weird mail or anything…
Ever? You've never had something weird through the post?
No… that's not true, lol. A few strange letters about how much your music meant to them. There was this one guy and his wife left him, got sick or something and he was like this album was the only thing that got him through a year of extreme trauma…
That's awesome and scary at the same time.
Yeah, when you realize how much emphasis and weight they've put on what you've done… then you get the more frivolous fan that will make you whats supposed to be a map of NZ out of bits of material or…
As long as it's not pubic hair.
There was one who made a pencil case out of zips joined together, and for the keyring there was a wooden cutout of the north and south island of NZ.
And now with Facebook, you get all the 'your work means so much to me' messages and you're like ohhhh, thank you… trying not to burst their bubble.
How much responsibility do you feel toward that?
Errrm… not much. But positive feedback does empower you to make an effort. If you're getting a bit negative, you remind yourself that some people have liked it a lot and that can gee you up.
If no one ever heard another one of your songs, would you still write?
Yeah, I would. There's a sense of competition with other artists as well… that's something that drives you. Someone else would put something out and it'll get a good review and you'll think…
Hey, that was complete shit!
Yeah! Why did they get a prize for that or blah blah, and that spurs you on and you think right, I'm going to show them something equally as good if not better, so there's that element too. That's definitely a factor.
So whats the most rock and roll thing you've ever done?
We threw someone in a swimming pool once.
They'd come to pay us… it was at Palmerston North university and we decided to throw him in the pool.
After you got paid or before?
After. But it was sad because he had this special watch that his dad had given him and it got ruined. That was a bit naughty. Most of the funny ones are accidental, like destroying a shower cubical or something. Just from opening the door or something. Not on purpose.
I know. And then there's coming up to a border in Europe and you might have something in the van thats not supposed to be there… throwing it out the window…
Now that's rock and roll.
Theres been a few of those incidents. Being in Germany with this heavy metal band and you go out backstage there's a huge pile of like, steak tartare, raw mince, and we all go ewww and the metal band is scooping it up with their hands and actually shoving it down their throats. That's where I had 600 deutchmarks stolen out of my coat backstage. Ever since then, I carry everything on stage with me. I've learnt my lesson.
How do you deal with the publishing and management and stay sane?
I try not to deal with it. Flying Nun are great, and the publisher I've got does a lot of stuff for me, doing all the online paperwork.
What's your position on the internet copyright issue drama?
I feel like if you produce something and someone consumes it, they should pay for that. Everyone thinks iTunes is great, but you end up getting like, half a cent a song. So it's pretty naff. Everyone shares files, you get ripped off, but it's nothing you can control so I don't worry about it.
So the internet's a positive or negative for working artists?
Positive. On the whole, the positives outweigh the negatives. A lot of younger people are able to find our music just through people talking about it online, whereas all that dissemination was a lot slower before. Everyone's constantly introduced to new music, some of them will buy... you can hear more, sell more.
How was South by Southwest?
We went in 06… it was great. Austin was like… every second doorway was a bar with a horrible band playing in it. We had a deal in the states so it was just good for the American label for us to play there and get people to come and see us.
What's the atmosphere like? It always looks so tense to me whenever I see coverage.
It's pretty crazy like with one block with 20 bands playing at once. It's pretty full on. Its not too tense, being all indie stuff… you've got your wrist band and your program and your bag of goodies… walk two blocks get to this bar, go in, get your one free beer, look at the band, go to another… we played three shows, then got interviewed by Radio NZ under a bridge full of actual bats.
Austin's famous for its bats. We got interviewed, someone clapped their hands and all the bats took off. And BBQ is very big in Texas so theres a lot of…
A lot, so if you're a vegetarian, it's not much fun playing on the back of a truck with all these BBQs around you. But it has a certain atmosphere. You have to be okay with crowds. Sometimes you've got to wade through hundreds of people and say excuse me a thousand times just to get to the stage, you get there and you realize there's no beer. And you have to go back through the crowd to find beer and thats when the prima donna comes out and you're like…
No beer no show.
Last question. What's your worst touring experience?
In Germany, we went up and put the bags in the room, went to soundcheck, came back and everything was gone, bags, plane tickets… no one warned us there were junkies living in the corridors.
Everyone complains about Germany.
Usually Germany's good… that was the only bad thing, apart from getting stopped in the carpark by the cops, people we were with having certain substances on them and us having to wait to do the next gig till they were processed etc. Landing in New York the night before 9/11… if we'd landed a day later we couldn't have done the gigs but… it was very weird being there with all that carnage, the buildings going down… you had to walk around wearing a mask, not knowing what you were breathing in; you had to have your passport with you at all time for the police checks. We had to walk miles with our guitars to go practice… that would probably go in the bad basket. Then there was Chernobyl…
That happened just before we went to mainland Europe and we were like how bad's the cloud going to be? We just won't eat any leafy green vegetables… Then there was one time in America when we were going along at 100 ks on the highway and bang, a wheel came flying off, Hamish was driving and somehow kept the van straight in the shower of sparks and we pulled over okay. I think I've got some sort of lucky thing sitting on my shoulder because we've never come to any real grief. It's sort of like a big crazy adventure really.
I feel we need some sort of bitchy anecdote at this point.
Our last tour of Europe with the Bats; we thought the promoter was okay, until at each successive venue they were all 'oh, we've already forwarded your money to your promoter…' and we were actually thinking that we were supposed to be getting it, and this went on and on… I can't remember his name. We did chase him but never saw the money… several thousand euros, which made getting through France and Spain a bit of a frugal thing. We've been trying to dirty his name ever since.
I was lying about that being the last question. Who's the most famous person you've met? Lots of people say David Bowie for some reason.
Different people have different ideas of famous… Alex Chilton, who was very famous to me, being in Big Star… we played with him in Germany and that was really cool. He was really down to earth and nice. Then there was (Margarita) Pracatan… she used to be on the Clive James show…
YES! Oh my god.
She was on after us at a friend's wedding once. We met her. David Byrne… famous people turn up in the crowd and you hear someone say ooh such and such is here but you never meet them. It is fun meeting people who are in the same sphere, but that many levels above you, getting their approval… that's cool.
Do you think of yourself as a rock star?
Come on. You must have had that moment by yourself in the shower when you thought, damn, I'm a rock star.
Nah. Never. A rock star is like… Steve Tyler. Someone dumb like that. It's got bad connotations. I see myself as a semisuccessful songwriter musician. Rock star just doesn't sound right.
Never? Not when you were younger, trying to pull? You plug the pedal in….
Hit that certain chord and the crowd goes woo and like… er yeah, for a split millisecond you are a rock star. I suppose.
You totally are right then.
But it's very fleeting because you're brought back down to earth by the fact that you've stood on your lead and your guitar's cut out and you look like…
Rock star... plonker….
It's a very fine line between the two.
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?
Something in the arts, hopefully. Not digging roads. I was a picture framer for a while. I did tech drawing at school thinking I was going to be an architect but no one knows what they're doing at school. I had no idea.
So what would you tell a young person staring at a guitar and thinking about music as a vocation?
Don't expect too much and take every small achievement as something really good. If you've got the energy and passion to get even five percent down the path, that's great, because theres nothing worse than someone sitting at home thinking if only I'd tried something. If you've got love for something, have a go.
I agree. Thanks Robert.