Saturday, 9 August 2014

Straitjacket Fits. Life in Four Chords.

There is something about New Zealand bands. Maybe it is due to the remote location causing them to work harder to get noticed, or maybe it is something in the water, either way bands like 'The Chills' and 'The Verlaines' were rarely absent from my turntable for long. I was traveling from Sydney to Los Angeles when I got stuck in transit in Auckland due to an airport fire service strike. I was not in a rush, and I was put up in a nice hotel by the airline and given NZ$100 to spend on food, or vinyl. My fellow passengers stressed about when they could get back on a plane, I stressed whether I could get into the city before the record stores closed. I got a cab into the city and headed for Real Groovy, the most knowledgeable and friendly store in Auckland.

With only 15 minutes to spare before closing time, I grabbed a few recent recommended releases, one of which was a new EP  from a band I had never heard of; 'Life in one Chord' by the 'Straitjacket Fits'. Cool name, with an extremely colourful cover. It was not until I got home and started listening to the frantic violin intro to 'She Speeds' before the guitar and hypnotic vocals kicked in that I realised I had found my new favourite band. The other three tracks on the 12" were almost of equal quality, this band was the best thing I had heard in ages and I wanted to know more.

All I know about the Straitjacket Fits is your first release, which I  have in front of me in a rather distinctive sleeve, tell me more!

Shayne: "Aargh the cover. It was done by John, or drummer, its bloody revolting. The colours came out way more garish than intended. Cringe city baby.

He was in 'The Doublehappys with me, a ramshackle rock'n roll outfit making lots of good noise in Dunedin. The death of Wayne (BTA: From a train misadventure on tour) in mid 1985 led to the demise of that band. I always intended to continue, our resolve was probably made stronger, but it obviously took a while to pick up the pieces. We tried a variety of people and finally ended up with David Wood, who'd been playing bass in a band called 'Working with Walt'. this was in Dunedin at the start of 1986. We played a few gigs as three piece but it was too limited. I really wanted to bring in another guitar so we could get that extra melody on top. I also wanted someone who could sing as I've always been aware of how effective harmonies can really lift a song.

Andrew Brough had just called it a day with his band 'The Orange' and rung up offering his services. It turned out to be a pretty ideal combination in that Andrew's more restrained guitar is a perfect fooil to mine, and he can sing really well. Dunedin is such a small place that you are aware of everyone else, so we all sorta knew each other, although if you had said a couple of years earlier that we would all end up in the same band together you would have received a hale, hearty laugh in your face!

Your music is not typical of other Flying Nun label releases, being maybe a bit more polished, and less DIY. 

Shayne: "Like a lot of bands I think our recorded sound is much more polished than we are live. We are rawer and more full on,  intense is an adjective we continually have applied to us, but yeah I think we have a distinctive bent that makes us stand apart from the others. 

As far as being polished goes, I think that is just a general reflection on the label. I am a pretty typical case in that I made my first record for Flying Nun which I was 16. That was on a four track with a budget of $100 for four songs. As time has gone on Flying Nun has expanded, more records have sold, etc. etc. Now we record on 24 track with a larger budget, not massive, but more than $100! 

We may sound different to other Flying Nun bands, but we share a really similar attitude towards making music, and suspicion of the 'industry'. The goals are the same but musically we've just got different ways of expressing them.

I really enjoy the wordplay in your songs, particularly 'She Speeds'. Where do you get the ideas and inspiration for lyrics?

Shayne: "I can't write crap and expect to sing it with any conviction. To be believable you have got to mean it. There is no stream of consciousness stuff. my lyrics always  relate to each other and each song has a theme running through it. It is based on personal experiences, and while I am conscious to avoid the tiresome, moaning, 'oh how the world is cruel' type of lyric, I do find they are an exorcism of sorts. Apart from the rare exceptions when I am content with the experience of happiness, then I have no need to express it. So that is why there is a melancholic edge to a lot of our songs. 

A stranger would have trouble picking up the meaning of any of our songs because they don't have access to the way I think. The words don't ever reach the point of obscurity, but they do tap into my train of thought at the time. Writing lyrics is hard without worrying about the words, their substance and their meaning. You have to work with their flow, their bounce and rhythm. How they sound in a song. 'She Speeds' and 'Dialling a Prayer' are both deserted lover types of songs... brooding, 2 AM, staring at the walls type of stuff."

How are you faring in New Zealand at the moment? Are you getting lots of local support?

Shayne:"We stand to the left of centre here. Which means the support from commercial radio is non existent. TV NZ are totally ignorant, and the general music industry views us as ratbags. Fuck them. The level of ignorance is very frustrating, they don't seem to realise that our music is probably the most indigenous from these shores, purely because it is representing a time and a place. Most other bands outside of our circle offer pappy pop, and we see a continual stream of soulless bands who we are up against. Still, it's the same for 'alternative' bands anywhere, it's just in New Zealand there simply isn't the population base here to support left of centre musicians. 

'Life in one Chord' did sell well and go to #16 in the NZ chart. The student stations played it, but no one else. But that chart figure can be misleading, to get to #1 and then receive a gold record you have to sell 7,000 copies, compared with a million in the US, so the financial payback is not exactly profound.

You could be at a comparable level to us in England or Australia and make a living out of it. We remain the cliched struggling musicians. The most encouraging thing is that amidst all the local ignorance there is a growing international awareness of bands like us. I have begun to realise that if our music is not going to be accepted here without compromise there is a waiting world eager to accept it for what it is.

Distance obviously makes it harder for us to go places, but on the other hand the isolation is perfect for developing our music at our own pace without being distracted by fashion or public whims. The way things are shaping up I am pretty confident we can  launch sporadic raids of varying time spans around the world, with New Zealand still our home.

You mentioned you started out in music very young. You made your first record when you were 16 with Flying Nun. 

Shayne: "Yeah, as a baby lamb! That was with a band called 'Bored Games'. We were a teen punk outfit, snot dribbling down our noses, who existed in the late seventies in Dunedin. We formed as a direct reaction out of hearing the 'Sex Pistols'. We were too young to play in pubs so we had to organise to play at dances, consequently we played only 24 times in two and half years!

"We used to play with bands like 'The Clean' and 'The Same' (BTA: Who later evolved in 'The Chills'). So we were involved with the people who started Flying Nun. We actually reformed to record the single, as there had been no opportunities when we were playing and we all thought we deserved something to show for all our efforts. After that I formed 'The Doublehappys' with Wayne Elsey and, as they say in cliche land, the rest is history.

All I know is music. It's more than a fun thing, it is my life. Being a musician here involves a lot of impracticalities and and sacrifices, particularly financial, but the rewards, although not always tangible, make it worthwhile. The usual boring things; soul satisfaction, and a feeling of doing something worthwhile with your life.

When will the next record be out?

Shayne: "The recording of our debut LP starts this week. We hope to have that out by the end of the year, although with Flying Nuns penchant for missing deadlines don't take this as gospel. 'Life in One Chord' and our LP chronicle the first set we have written. We started from scratch and did not want to play any pre- Straitjacket Fits stuff, so it has taken two years to build up the set as we set a pretty high standard for our songs. 

There will be a real variety on the album, from real slow sort of ethereal stuff to full on guitar thrashing psychosis. We have developed a very distinctive style, we have learnt a lot about each others capabilities, so I feel our best is still to come.

We just want to get to the stage where we can't be ignored, and that time is slowly arriving."

(Original 1988 Interview planned for an article on Australian and New Zealand bands. Unpublished).

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Bolshoi. Performing third on the bill to a band you hate is not that bad

I had seen The Bolshoi perform third on the bill to 'The Addicts' at the 100 Club in Oxford St, London. This was one of their very first gigs, and the punk audience did not take to them at all. I did, I liked their songs and the way their lead singer, Trevor Tanner, put down hecklers with abuse laced with camp humour. One woman was so upset at the put down that she had to be physically restrained by her partner from attacking Trevor.

I arranged to catch up with them, a few weeks later at Kingston Polytechnic, when they were again third on the bill, this time to the 'Mighty Lemon Drops'.

You seem to be not too choosy in who you support, from dodgy punk bands to dodgy Indie bands?

Trevor: “Ummm. Well we are just getting started in London, and to be honest we will support anyone. As long as they get the audiences in, and maybe we can steal a few of them, like we did to you. We got ten pounds for that gig, which does not even cover our van cost, and then had to put up with the (cough noises) after us. Who said it was easy to be a rock and roll star?

Anyway this is fun, sitting in a cold student building being interviewed. This is what I was born to do! Ha, although I am not too good at these things yet, you are only our third ever interview.”

You have released one single (Sob Story) and a mini-lp (Giants) recently, how have they been selling?

Trevor: “Well to be honest the first single was not very good, the B side was alright. Sales were shit. Not surprising really, 'Sob Story' was a demo, so we were not happy with our playing, the mix or production. Our label (Beggars Banquet) insisted we got it out asap to get the name out, and who are we to argue?

'Giants' we are happier with, but it was a rush job as we had no money. We recorded it in May and mixed it in under a week, and it cost less than 2000 pounds, so Beggars will be happy. It was our first time working with a producer picked by the label, which was not a great experience as he seemed more interested in anything but the music. Particularly lines of white powder.

We have a new single coming out very soon, 'Happy Boy', and we spent much more time on it, and it shows.”

By the accent I am guessing you come from near Bristol.

Trevor: “Close, I have spent a lot of time in Bristol and Bath, but I am from the country. I have been in London for three years now, but Jan (Kalicki, drummer) and me are from Trowbridge and Melksham. Both places are dire, and we had to escape.

We formed the band 10 months ago, but I have been in London for 3 years now. We had one band (BTA: Moskow) but we did not get that far and they were not going to leave the West Country, so we did, and then we added the new boy to make us a three piece (points to Nick).

Nick: “I was already a rock star. I was in 'Praxis', a band that was massive in Woolwich. That is how we met. Trevor and Jan supported us in their first gig in Woolwich and I thought this band is better than us, so joined the support band. I am in Kingston now, which is 20 miles from Woolwich, so I guess I made the right decision!

Saying that, we just came back from going overseas for the first time, Beggars Banquet lined up these club gigs in Switzerland and France…”

Trevor: “The Swiss were really weird, it's as if the second world war had never finished there (BTA: Switzerland was actually neutral in the war, and did not play a huge part, although there are rumours of Nazi’s hiding out there afterwards). Paris went really well, They have less inhibitions than the British, if they don’t like you they shout “crap, crap” but if they like you they give you champagne. Thank you very much. We want to go back there.”

Do you get enough from the label to support you as a full time band?

Trevor: (laughing) “No, we are not on a wage or anything yet. Gig money does not pay the bills, and we have seen no royalties yet. We work as motorcycle couriers, which pays the rent, and is not too bad, except when you fall off. You do meet some bastards though “you are ten minutes late, and we are not going to pay you” and the like. So, at the end of the day performing third on the bill to a band you hate is not that bad.”
With a new single coming out, I expect you will be getting out of London and doing a national tour?

Trevor: “We want to do more gigs, but all the national tours require buy-ons (BTA: Where the support band pays the headline band a sum of money, 5000 pounds and up would be a normal amount) which we can’t afford and Beggars won’t do. We are trying to get them to put us on a tour with one of their artists, but we are getting nowhere at the moment. ‘The Cult’ don’t like us for some reason, we are not goth enough for ‘Pete Murphy’, and ‘The Icicle Works’, well I don’t even want to go there….”.

There is the also the 'Go-Betweens'?

Trevor: “Yeah, I am not sure we are great fit there either. We do have a plan though.

We want to do more gigs, and get the art of interviews sussed out and learn what we are doing. It is still all new for us. When you are in a band back home in the West Country it is not the same as London. You are not on trial the whole time, you don’t have to worry about bad reviews, you just go out and play whereas here you have to work so much harder, trying to keep everyone happy from record companies, to music papers, and of course fans.

We have only done a couple of headlines in tiny places so far, and we seem destined to remain a support band for a year or two. I quite enjoy it. You don’t have to be so organised and you can experiment a bit more to see what songs work, or don’t.

At the end of the day, I just want to get on a stage and play, and earn enough to get drunk”


BTA: Here is a taste of unreleased Bolshoi. This track, 'Billys new boots' was a staple of their early gigs, but was discarded as new songs for their second album 'Friends' were written. This is from their very first demo tape sent to record companies to get a deal. Unavailable elsewhere.

The Bolshoi - Billys New Boots (Demo)

Epilogue: ‘Happy Boy’ was a big alternative chart hit for The Bolshoi, and it ended their days of being third on the bill to anyone. They went on to have many successful singles and albums, and made a huge impact on South America, before imploding. Watch out for my second interview with the band, recorded three years later.

(Original Interview excerpts published in Bludgeoned, 1986. This is the full unpublished interview from October 1985)

Photos taken at various gigs at the London Marquee in 1986 when the Bolshoi were headlining.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

On the beach with the Hoodoo Gurus

Seeing the Hoodoo Gurus at the Bristol Locarno was one of my first ever gigs. No checking of ID’s ensured I could sneak into the 18+ venue on a school night and hang off the balcony listening to an aural barrage of guitar, bass and drums. I had no idea how loud a gig could be.