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).


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