The Verlaines frontman on the groundbreaking Dunedin Double EP and the early days of Flying Nun Records.
Graeme Downes, the songwriter and primary force behind The Verlaines, sat down with Jeff Harford, the drummer for the Bored Games to discuss the early days of Flying Nun Records and the early '80s music scene centered around Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand. Flying Nun’s early records included the first records by Downes’s band, in addition to now-classic records by the Clean, Tall Dwarfs, The Chills, and many others. This conversation centered around the Dunedin Double EP, a seminal compilation featuring three or four songs each by The Verlaines, The Sneaky Feelings, The Chills, and The Stones. The double twelve-inch, originally released in 1982, has just been reissued by Captured Tracks Records. The Bored Games 1981 EP Who Killed Colonel Mustard—another long out-of-print early and important Flying Nun release—was reissued simultaneously.
I write this in my current office, in a house that has a sight line to almost everywhere within a square mile where I have lived for the vast majority of 52 years and where I’ve written a bunch of songs. The town is still 120 K population as it was thirty years ago (with a slightly altered demographic). That anyone would care a damn about what we did thirty-plus years ago is somewhat perplexing. That said, I am orchestrating “Down in Splendour” for a gig next year with the local orchestra and it responds pretty well to the new musical environment I am giving it. Something happened here (is happening here) and I vacillate between thinking I know more than anyone what it is/was and knowing the least. 6:58. Time for a shower and off to work.
Jeff Harford Let’s start with setting the scene, eh? As far as the timing of the Dunedin Double is concerned, what was the status of The Verlaines at the time?
Graeme Downes Well, we’d stripped down to a three-piece. We’d been a five-piece and only done couple of gigs in about a year and a half. So we did that mid-year in ’81 and started gigging at the Empire. The Empire had opened up as a venue around August. We played support to The Clean there. That’s the first gig at that pub. We played quite a lot through the rest of that year and included trips to Christchurch to do support slots and to headline a spot up there, so we were just growing an audience, really. Things were just starting to take off a bit better and we were just getting better, from being pretty average when we started gigging. (laughter) But you get better real quick once you get 10 or 12 gigs under your belt in 6 months. Bass player left about the same time as Jane returned from an early trip to the UK and so Jane slotted into the band about 3 weeks before we made the record. Greg had only been drumming with us for a short time as well. He just became the drummer; he’d never played drums before. (laughter)
So that was it. We were kind of getting known. I remember we did a gig at the Star and Garter in Christchurch the night before we did the recording, and a pretty decent sort of a crowd came up to see us.
JH To your knowledge, when did Roger Shephard [the founder of Flying Nun Records] see the band?
GD It would’ve been probably the first time we went up to Christchurch. We were supporting The Clean and he would come along then. And we went back to the band house that the Gladstone Hotel had back then. We had a few beers afterward, and yeah. Hmm. Good stories.
JH (laughter) Yeah. So what was The Verlaines's relationship with the other bands that appeared on the Dunedin Double? There was this kind of perception that everyone was in each other’s pockets the whole time. But how much did you know about the other bands?
GD Oh, we all knew each other and everybody played at The Empire at that time so we all knew each other pretty well. You know, I used to hang out with David Pine [of The Sneaky Feelings] a fair amount, sort of exchanging songwriting ideas and playing new bits that we’d created and that sort of thing. I think Jeff Batts was in the same flat as me at the time from the Stones. (laughter) And we, well that must’ve been a later time, but we were living next door to Martin Bull [drummer for The Chills] for a period as well. So everybody was at each other’s gigs to watch each other play, and learn things off each other. You know, you’re talking about a small city at the bottom of the world with a two-year lag time for anything from the northern hemisphere to actually physically get here, in terms of the vinyl. And we were young, not able to see bands in pubs initially, as the drinking age was twenty. So you get to see a lot of these people and meet them at Coronation Hall or whatever public hall where gigs happened that wasn’t a pub. So everyone knew each other pretty well.
JH What was your first experience of Flying Nun’s existence, in terms of recording and things like that? You were aware of this entity, which had started to form and take interest in things that were going on around the town and in Christchurch and ostensibly elsewhere. What was your thinking about that label at the time? Were you excited about it?
GD Oh, I was just tremendously excited about it. I’m trying to remember, but I think Tally Ho! might have come out maybe October ’81. I bought about eight copies of that, mainly because the pressing was so bad that when you played “Platypus,” the b side, a couple of times, the needle would just skip across it—
JH That’s right!
GD —So I really wanted to get inside how it was written and so I bought a lot of copies of that record trying to learn a few things off of it. Then it was mooted that we do this Dunedin Double thing. If someone had said in early ’81, “This time next year you’ll be making a record,” I would have replied, “Yeah right, that’s not going to happen.”
JH So there was genuine excitement at the prospect? Across all the bands involved, you expect?
GD Yeah, pretty much. It was just something we never expected would be able to happen to us in a town like Dunedin, in a country like New Zealand, with a mind set that pretty much that kind of culture happened elsewhere, in the UK and the US. It didn’t happen here.
JH See, that’s an interesting thing in itself, isn’t it? Because some might find it difficult to understand that bands would come into being without necessarily having recording being quite close on the horizon in terms of things they wanted to achieve.
GD Yeah. I mean we were young, we were bored. There wasn’t a whole lot of cultural alternatives. It was still a pretty strong rugby, racing, and beer sort of mentality and we played music, essentially, as our leisure activity in order to entertain ourselves and to entertain each other. That’s what it was about. It certainly wasn’t a career. You know, we just did it because we had to. (laughter)
JH So let’s get back to the Double. You said the idea was mooted by Roger? He contacted you?
GD I presume so, I can’t really remember.
JH And were you always aware that the concept was this four-sided beast?
GD Yeah, pretty much. We were aware that The Chills got more time to do theirs than we did—
JH Oh, yeah?
GD —Which was a bit of a bone of contention at the time, I seem to remember. We didn’t have any backline gear so we did a lot of gigs with Sneaky Feelings because they did, so we went up to Christchurch. Rex Visible’s flat on Barbados Street was where it was done and Sneaky Feelings recorded from nine to mid-day or thereabouts, and then stopped for lunch, and then we recorded from about one until three. It was all done in couple of hours, basically, all on a four track tape machine, just bass and drums on two tracks and vocal and rhythm guitar on the other two. When there was also singing, we did an overdub. But, you know, we were pretty green in terms of knowing what the process was. (laughter) I mean afterward, David Pine said to me, “Are you going to come up to Auckland for the mixing?” And I said, “What’s mixing?” (laughter)
I had no idea. I thought it sounded great on playback after we finished recording it and I thought that was the end of the whole process.
JH So what? Did The Chills get an extra thirty minutes or something? (laughter)
GD Oh, I think they did theirs over a couple of days, from memory.
JH Oh, okay.
GD But, there were problems with it. The Sneaky Feelings tracks had a bass missing on one track. And “You Cheat Yourself” didn’t really turn out the way I had hoped. So from that, I learned what mixing was fairly quickly—it can do a lot of damage to what your intentions are, so you'd better be there. We were just on this quick learning curve, but ultimately it was pretty satisfying that it was there, it was out. “Look, people are writing reviews in Rip It Up about it,” you know? Just the general air of excitement.
JH Can you remember the day the thing arrived on your desk?
GD No, too long ago now. I can’t recall where I was.
JH So you weren’t actively involved in mixing the thing down at all. It was basically, record it and walk away?
GD Yeah, pretty much.
JH Leave it in the hands of other people. The other people being?
GD I don’t know. I’m not sure. Doug Hood, I think, in Auckland, and Chris Knox, probably. I think David Pine went up to oversee the mixing of the Sneaky Feelings/Verlaines side of things. So yeah, I mean, that was it. I didn’t know what I was doing, basically. (laughter)
JH Something I always remember from that time was putting the artwork together.
GD Oh, yeah!
JH Quite a different thing than it is today, of course. What input did The Verlaines have in that?
GD We all sort of did a bit, really. It was funny, conceptualizing it. It was just a kaleidoscope of different things: bits of lyrics, photos of protean scores of the music, little photographs of the band on the North Ground [a rugby pitch in North Dunedin]. Various other bits and bobs. Every side had kind of its own way of going about things. But collage was the main thing.
JH Yeah, physically a collage. The Bored Games EP, Who Killed Colonel Mustard, which is also being re-released in limited numbers on Record Store Day—I distinctly remember working on that cover and it was coming down to the wire in terms of the deadlines. We were all on the floor of somebody’s flat cutting, pasting, drawing. You’ll notice on the cover that Jonathan Moore’s face has a big white blob obscuring most of it. And that’s literally because the PVA glue just stuck to the top of the envelope when it got chucked in the post that night. Never a question asked about it and to this day that’s the way the cover looks. (laughter)
GD Yeah! I remember that the Verlaines Death and the Maiden single had an insert with lyrics and the credits on it and we just kind of like photocopied a whole bunch, cut them out and glued them together, physically put the records inside them and then sent them back to Flying Nun to sell them. So yeah, it was all pretty “cottage industry.”
JH What do you recall about the response to the release of the EP? Maybe you can address that from a local level, among the people you knew and associated with, and also any response that you got from around the rest of the country.
GD I do remember that it got a review in Rip It Up, and it was reasonably favorable. But the positive response to it you could see with the audiences that we were starting to get in Christchurch. Later that year we went up to Auckland and did our first Auckland shows and recorded Death and the Maiden up there while we were at it and it was pretty obvious that people from towns other than ones that we’d physically been to—like Auckland—were coming along were interested in what we were doing. It was pretty encouraging to keep going. Once you get recording in your blood, that first time when you’ve just finished the guitar overdub on You Cheat Yourself of Everything that Moves and you go through to the other side of the room and push play and the whole thing comes back at you, you go, “Shit, I want to keep doing more of this.”
JH The Graeme Downes of today, though, would struggle with being asked to repeat that process in a few hours.
GD Yeah, well...
JH What qualities did it bring to the music, do you think?
GD There’s a spontaneity to it. That actually tells you a lot, that there isn’t any production on it, it more or less just gets presented back that way. I think it’s a good thing that the music can stand that anyway. Because a lot of those early Verlaines songs, it’s all about the narrative, the journey from beginning to end, that the song is. And a lack of so-called production and tinkering about, perfecting things for hours and hours and hours on end wouldn’t make any difference to it. I actually try to retain that as much as I can when it comes to making a record. You catch the narrative and then make it sound good. But don’t over-gild it. Just get it to the point where the song speaks and then that’s a job done, really.
JH I love the Verlaines songs on that EP. The Verlaines were already producing great songs. Would you care to express an opinion about the quality of the other music on the Double?
GD Oh, The Stones side is great. I really look forward to listening to that again. The Sneaky Feelings ones were a bit patchy—
JH —as they would admit...
GD—technologically, as they would admit. And the Chills side is pretty good, too. I think Martin went on to write much stronger songs than those ones, of course, but I think he captured a sound—The Chills is there. The sonic ethos of The Chills is there from the get-go on the Chills side. It’s got quite a lot of strengths, but I feel like The Stones side is the most coherent and sounds the best. I’m really glad they’re going to re-release some Stones stuff soon with some additional live recordings of some of the songs that they never got into the studio to record because it is really the missing link in appraising that period, because they were pretty much as popular as anybody else, for the time they were going. Jeff Batts had a pretty unique singing voice—actually a really good singing voice. He could hold a tune better than many of us. I mean, hell, I haven’t listened to the thing for a long, long time.
JH I’m looking forward to hearing it again, too! (laughter) Now that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the concept or the idea of this “Dunedin Sound” thing, and reviewed the history around it quite a lot, where does this record stand in the story?
GD I think it’s the launch pad, really. It’s got some great stuff on it, and some stuff that maybe could’ve been done a bit better, but we were young and we didn’t know particularly what we were doing. It was the first time I probably ever actually recorded anything and heard it played back. I think someone did a tape recording of one song at a practice, which was pretty ratty, but that was the first time I’d been in a studio and recorded something to some kind of standard. What it did was galvanize everybody—well it galvanized me to keep going and then after the Death and the Maiden (1983) single went so spectacularly well, and then the 10 O’clock in the Afternoon EP (1983)...then it was on to the album, Hallelujah All The Way Home (1985), which was the real high point because we produced an album. We played the whole album with [bassist] Jane Dodd and [drummer] Robbie Yeats in Auckland and Dunedin in the last few months. It was just tremendous to just be reminded of how powerful those songs are as a single entity.
JH I know you’ve been asked about this before but, if you took Flying Nun and Roger Shepard out of that equation, what happens?
GD Parallel universe. We probably would’ve gotten normal jobs and got married and had kids.
JH Dunedin wasn’t a city that was rich with experience in terms of production of that kind of thing. There weren’t people who had much in the way of gear that could do the job, and if there were, we didn’t know about them.
GD For all the troubles and faults, trials and tribulations with Flying Nun over the years, if Roger hadn’t—if the butterfly hadn’t flapped its wings, then all of this wouldn’t have happened and the consequences are pretty enormous for this town. I mean, you look at where I work at the university, and we have a contemporary rock course. That would never have happened. It happened and it was right that it happened. It occurred in Dunedin because of the legacy that was built up through the ’80s and ’90s because of the music that came out of here. It’s an amazingly strong position to be in, but it’s all on the back of the work that everybody did, really.
JH The whole Bored Games thing was pretty much over by the time the Dunedin Double experience happened, but it’s an interesting kind of reflection on Roger’s attitude that a band that had for all intents and purposes split up, dissolved, in 1981 was given an opportunity to put something tangible—
GD Well, the thing about Bored Games was that it was such a strong band. And Shayne Carter was probably the best rock diva we had around at that time, just in terms of the volume and charisma of his vocal ability. I remember Roger saying at the time, “This music is really quite superb and somebody better record it before it disappears. And well, I don’t know, I’ll do it.” I mean he kind of stumbled into doing it. Part of it was curating the work for posterity. At the time it was logical to try and get you guys back together to capture some stuff.
JH And in today’s context, completely illogical from anybody else’s—
GD Well, from the perspective of the market, if the band’s not going to go out and tour the record, then they’re not going to do it. But that wasn’t what it was about.
JH Bored Games had been apart for nearly a year and of course a couple of members had gone off into The Chills, and it was kind of a similar experience to what you described. We had the luxury of having two evenings with a producer—Lee somebody—at Studio 4X, a radio station studio in Stuart, here in Dunedin. Shayne has famously put on record something which might be apocryphal. I’m quoting Shayne Carter here: “It was produced by this guy who’d been a transvestite a week out from an op to have a chop. He reneged, turned to God, and got married. He was pretty Christian by the time he got to us, but liked the tunes.” I distinctly remember putting everything together very quickly, recording really short sessions over a couple of nights. That drum sound you hear is a consequence of tea towels being put over the top of my pretty shitty drum kit. It’s got this kind of iconic power poppy kind of thing about it, which is not particularly representative of the live sound, but perhaps not in the way some aspects of the Dunedin Double were. But it’s an interesting interpretation from someone who knew pretty much nothing about the band.
GD Well, that was the extent of the science back then. It was pretty much, capture the noise and that’s it.
JH Yeah, and there it was. I’m delighted to see it out there again, not least because, again, at that time no one really had a great sense of preservation of things that might be of historical interest: your EPs, your albums, your Dunedin Double, your Bored Games EP. They’d get played at parties, get beer spilled all over them, get their covers kicked around. That’s certainly the condition of my sole copy of the Bored Games EP, and I’m looking forward to having a nice crisp new one if someone will save me a copy.
GD It’s a funny old thing. If we all hadn’t started, then we wouldn’t have carried on. If we hadn’t carried on, then no one would bother about where we started. It’s kind of self-fulfilling. We’re just putting the finishing touches on a double album. We’ve had three other albums out in the last four or five years, and The Chills are getting back in the studio soon. The Clean still do stuff. That’s why it starts to become really interesting, because if people get interested in the music, there’s a whole linear thing that they can explore, and trace the developments of different people and how it’s changed and moved on to different things. Or how much it’s stayed the same, in fact.
JH I think we’ve had a good conversation. Anything else you want to say about the Dunedin Double, Graeme?
GD Nah, I can’t really remember much else.
JH Yeah, I can’t remember, either.
GD I sat down with a guitar today and tried to play “Crisis After Crisis” and got most of it, but there were a few bits where I was going, “Oh, what the hell was that chord?” (laughter) Haven’t done that in a while.
Dr. Graeme Downes completed his PhD on the music of Mahler and nineteenth century symphonic antecedents in 1993. He regularly contributes pre-concert lectures for the NZSO and Southern Sinfonia on the music of Mahler and Shostakovich. His musicological background in terms of academia informs both his research into songwriting techniques and his work as a composer. He has a thirty-year career as a songwriter and performer in the rock band the Verlaines and as a solo performer. He is also a freelance musicologist in the area of copyright disputes.
Jeff Harford started musical life in the late '70s with his high school band Bored Games, alongside Shayne Carter (Double Happys, Straitjacket Fits, Dimmer), Wayne Elsey (The Stones, Double Happys), Fraser Batts (The Chills) and Johnathan Moore. Bored Games's posthumous EP Who Killed Colonel Mustard was released in 1982, a year after the band called it quits. He then went on to play drums in The Rip, with Alastair Galbraith and Robbie Muir (Plagal Grind), releasing the EP A Timeless Peace/Piece, before a short stint with Dunedin supergroup The Weeds. Subsequent bands include My Deviant Daughter and Valve (with ex-Verlaines Paul Winders and his sister Kiri Winders), and more recently Jeff occupied the drummer throne for the original line-up of Simon McLaren's (Love's Ugly Children, Subliminals) Psychic Maps. Jeff is currently the morning show host and community liaison with Otago Access Radio 105.4 FM, and is a music writer and reviewer.