BIRCHVILLE CAT MOTEL
Interview by Matt Silcock (March 2000)Even people who have heard "drone" and "freenoise" music upside down are still missing something if they haven't heard New Zealand's Birchville Cat Motel. There's something both timeless and very new about the masses of controlled and overdubbed noise laid down by this unit; it's loud and glorious and it somehow seems to actually have a physical glow when it's coming out of stereo speakers, like the atmosphere of 1972 vintage space rock, the sludge-of-the-earth amptones of Black Sabbath, and the endless buzzing hum of The Theater of Eternal Music all rolled into one. Based in Wellington, the scenic and cosmopolitan capital city of New Zealand, Birchville Cat Motel is for most intents and purposes one Campbell Kneale, a friendly and approachable family man with a demeanor as lovely as his noise. There's a lot going on in the BCM universe right now; I conducted an interview with him via e-mail that touched on these things, as well as his working methods, what makes him a punk rocker, and of course, how great Slayer is.
PSF: Describe your 'coming of age' as a New Zealand musician. Any notable inspirations or events along the way?
BCM: Coming of age? Haha, you make it sound like this interview is being conducted 'poolside' from my Tokelauan beach residence. My coming of age could be described as 'unglamourous'. This is NZ buddy, a little middle class, Presbytarian island in the middle of a shark infested ocean. Very few people know (or care) about Birchville Cat Motel. I end up with the same 20 people at most of my gigs and only a few months ago the local arts magazine billed me as a visiting U.S guitarist! Oh yes- my rise to meteoric uberstardom has been filled with many such highlights. However, the 'aging process' of Birchville has been tremendously liberating and satisfying in that I have full control over all my music. I record what I want, when I want, for who I want. I've connected up with some wonderful people, bands and labels who are very enthusiastic about what I do and made some great friends in some pretty far flung places. I guess this makes me feel like I am 'successful'- not in the traditional sense of having my photo taken regularly at parties with complete strangers who just "looooove my muuuusic..." but in the sense that I have the artistic liberty to be who I am. I am above the system. Punk rock, baby. To speak of events that have shaped what I do is to speak in non-musical terms. I am less inspired by music than other stuff. I have always been fascinated with how location affects what ends up on the 8-track. The Insample CD was recorded in Dunedin- it was snowing, grey, and miserable for pretty much the whole time I spent recording it. I was working as a video editor at the time at a local TV studio and lived in a perpetual blackout- something of an Icelandic experience. The Drunken Fish CD by contrast, was recorded in a pastel pink, spare bedroom in suburban Wellington (and I had just started work as a florist!)- the resulting music was about as radically different as my surroundings but no less a refining of my own vision. The upcoming Ecstatic Peace LP will no doubt reveal more secrets about where I have lived, as it was recorded in a small house that overlooked some of the oldest parts of Wellington- wonderful ,ramshackle, hillbilly houses and masses of ancient green trees. The only musical event that I could call significant for me was being asked to play with Bruce Russell, Roy Montgomery, Kim Pieters, Peter Stapleton etc... early last year. This was really the first time I actually BELIEVED that anybody had heard my music and taken any notice of it. I can tell you, I had terrible trouble deciding what to wear that night!
PSF: Was this sharing a bill or some sort of one-shot 'supergroup'? If the latter, are there recordings?
BCM: Sort of. Darren Mock (Mr Drunken Fish) was making a visit to our fair shores and was planning a gig with Roy Montogomery in Christchurch. He was real keen to meet up with me and so I got on the bill for the night- Birchville Cat Motel, Roy Montgomery & Darren Mock, Pieters/Russell/Stapleton. After all of our respective performances their was a quick rendition of "War Pigs" with me and Darren, Roy, and some guy playing the bass (whose name slips my mind). The recordings are in my shed.
In terms of musical inspiration, Birchville is something of a high speed collision between high-brow and low-brow musics. I dig Slayer and Phill Niblock, AC/DC and Radelescu. Not surprisingly, Birchville is probably some sort of Yves St Laurant wearing, latte drinking, bogan band. Black Flag plays Music For Airports.
PSF: Actually, just earlier tonight a friend I were talking about how amazing Slayer was, and how we don't mosh or otherwise bounce off walls when we listen to albums like Reign in Blood and South of Heaven; we sit back motionless in a comfy chair and let the music wash over us, an immersion experience much like Phil Niblock.
BCM: I couldn't agree more. An entire Slayer album could quite rightly be confused with a drone experience- a classic example of musical-info-overload to the point where WHAT they are playing becomes slightly irrelevant and the FEROCITY at which they play whatever they ARE playing becomes more important. And besides, the concept of 'air-guitar' becomes hopelessly redundant in the face of that kind of bpm- very good for air-drums though... um, so I hear.
In my house Reign in Blood performs the vital function of providing me with a great deal of impetus to perform mundane domestic chores- Slayer has this wonderful hidden talent of being able to halve the perceived amount of dishes that are mounting up around the sink. I also find that Napalm Death's Peel Sessions makes my cakes rise a little better and they are generally moister. For real jumping about music, Birchville uses and endorses The Cult's Electric, The Lime Spiders' The Caves Comes Alive, and Teengenerate's Smash Hits.
PSF: How did you make the transition into drone/freenoise/outside music?
BCM: The 'transition' into noise was only a public transition. I always played noise, feedback etc at home I just never thought anybody else would want to hear it until quite recently. I played my 'real music' stuff publicly- moving over the period of about 10 years playing in a few full throttle guitar-pop combos (largely inspired by Sabbath, My Bloody Valentine, Husker Du etc) until I finally ended up ditching all the fiddly bits and playing what was left... noisy-feedback sludge (which was becoming a large part of the music I was doing anyway). This latest transition happened to co-incide with seeing some interesting NZ bands that were new to me at the time like Handful of Dust, Gate, Thela, Dead C, Surface of the Earth etc... I was quite dumbfounded to discover that these folks were doing publicly what I had been doing privately for years. It took a long time for my private and public activities to catch up with each other. I feel like I am now playing at my most honest and transparent (ironically, the very qualities I was striving for in my... er... 'singer-songwriter' era).
I guess if you had to put my records in a shop you would have to file it under noise, or freenoise, or drone... but I don't think the music really sits too well with any of these- it's too musical for 'noise' (that is to say, its not like Cock ESP or nothin'), too conceptualized and overdubbed for 'freenoise,' and too grating for 'drone' (not to mention the fact that it is not inspired by Spacemen 3 in the slightest, haha). Mind you, I've never been into a shop where they have an 'Antarctic' section. Have you?
PSF: No, but if there was one I would probably browse it. Is Birchville Cat Motel always a solo project?
BCM: Well, no. The 'studio' (ahem) recordings are always solo but when I play live, a rare occurrence that has only happened reasonably recently, I usually form a 'band' for the evening. I guess this is the closest I get to real FREENOISE as defined in Bruce Russell's little rule book, hahahaha. I did do a few gigs 'solo/multi-instrumental' style but I got sick of lugging an entire bands gear around all by myself. I have a 'pool' of people who I trust musically and I pick and choose from them according to what approach or vision I have for the performance and also to ensure that each performance is completely different from the last. Its still a bit of a solo project still though because I try to give the others a bit of an idea of what I'm aiming at- it's not just a free jam or anything.
PSF: What's the story behind the name or is that a secret part of the 'mystique'?
BCM: No no, I'm happy to dispel the myth. Well, Birchville is a little semi-rural suburb way the hell out the sticks in Wellington. One of those crazy little Edward Scissorhands suburbs where all the houses look like they were inspired by a 'fashion don't' page from a 1970's magazine. To get to Birchville all you have to do is drive about three quarters of an hour north of the city on the main road and you'll come to an AA sign that says BIRCHVILLE and underneath it there's another sign that says CAT MOTEL. I drove past it one day and it kinda stuck. I went out there and took photos of the sign and they appeared on the cover of the White Alpha Matte lathe cut 7" (and most recently in Popwatch too!).
The naming of my project was fairly typical of the way I name things. Most of the titling of pieces are derived from found text- a few words strung together innocently in a novel or on a billboard taken out of context- or word association. I've realized that over time recurring symbols have attached themselves to the music through the titles- animals, heaven, angels, metal, desolate locations, flora, the four elements, numbers. Maybe you can tell me what all this means.
PSF: You've touched on this--luv the bit about the influence of different locations--but can you describe your working methods? Is there any consistency? Do you find that you have to record a lot of material and then edit down for release? Or do just wait to record until you're 'feeling it,' so to speak?
BCM: Working methods. Hmmm. Well I have a little shed and I sneak out there secretly after the family has gone to bed and raise all hell. I usually just plonk around until I find a sound or a tone that rings my bell and then I set the 8-track a-spinning. Lay down a track of unfixed duration and then go back and build on that with an unfixed number of complimentary tracks. I have been through a number of phases regarding these 'complimetary tracks'- intially each track would contain a completely different sound or tone (perhaps to sound like a live band? Hindsight conjecture), then I went through my phase where I would do three or four tracks of the same tone and then an additional three or four of similar tones (ala Siberian Earth Curve) which resulted in something of a hallucigenic blur, and then I tried two tracks of the same tone plus one or two 'textural' elements (which seemed to put a little more blood into the drones). Lately I seem to have made a return to the different tones idea for no real reason other than fancy.
Consistency is a hard thing for me to maintain. I am married to a wonderful woman and I have two gorgeous kids which means the only consistency I can claim is that my recording time often gets zeroed. I record whenever I can. I am a big fan of ritual as a part of the creative process- all Birchville recordings are steeped in pipe tobacco (even though I don't smoke), incense (even though I'm not a hippy fruitcake) and coffee. 'Aroma' is right up there with 'location' for me.
I very very rarely edit down material- what you hear on the records, with the exception of a few fade-ups and fade-downs, is what happened on the night. Not that I have any objection to editing stuff, I just don't do it. Even with the live recordings such as the Betley WCD LP and the 'Blankagelspace' CDR, I prefer to release a good performance in its entirety rather than an excerpt. I think many of the performances demand the timespan of the whole thing to gain some of their power.
PSF: Do neighbors ever walk by and wonder what that strange humming sound coming from that shed is?
BCM: Well no actually. See I very seldom play out loud- I line everything straight into the desk and I usually monitor it through headphones. Quite recently I scored a lovely set of speakers that I hooked up to the desk and I now use those quite a bit but certainly not at 'neighbour volume'. I'm actually a pretty shy when I'm recording. I really feel very agitated if I think there's anyone listening to what I'm doing- I just can't play if I know people are around.
PSF: That's surprising--when I listen to Birchville I get the sense that it's being played very LOUD... and I always assumed you must have some really great amplifiers... but you bypass amps completely?
BCM: Oh nonononono... Dont get me wrong, I ain't no wuss. They are recorded at exceeding loud volume but they just aren't running through the speakers. I've got some real monster-amps, real big muthas and I use them to help generate the sound and volume necessary but I line out the back instead of close mic-ing it off the speaker. I doubt I could stand to be in the same room as an amp playing as loud as I have it running if the speakers were plugged in. The Insample CD was recorded at an utter gorgonizing volume while my wife and son slept peacefully in the next room.
PSF: I ain't no gearhead, and this ain't Guitar Player magazine, but may I ask what brand of real big muthas you play through?
BCM: Sure you ain't no gearhead! Fender Super Twin (affectionately known as the Fen-Darth) 6X 6L6s, 395watts max output power- big enough to heat a modest house, and a whopping old NZ made GUNN.
Actually, most of the Ecstatic Peace LP was recorded on a ROSS 10w practice amp.
PSF: How did the Siberian Earth Curve album on Drunken Fish come about? I.E. How were you 'discovered' by America?
BCM: Discovered by America! That's really good, Matt. Guffaw. Well, a remarkable coincidence involving many disparate cosmic forces. At the time Simon Baker from Insample was about to release the debut 's/t' CD, I had been conversing for a wee while with my OTHER two fans- 'Joe Bloggs' and 'Ralph Haxton' (who ran the Gyttja label), who introduced me to their groop, rhBand who were already releasing stuff through Drunken Fish. I had been thinking about who I should write to about releasing my next album and I made this huge list starting with the impossible, out of reach, and never-going-to-happen-in-a-million-years labels ranging all the way down to Celebrate Psi Phenomenon! Drunken Fish was TOP of the list. My favourite label. Darren Mock at Drunken Fish took some copies of the Insample CD from Simon when it came out and one day I got all brave, emailed him out of the blue, and asked if he would be keen to hear a demo of the second Birchville album. To my utter amazement he a) replied, and b) said that he'd be dead keen to hear the demo. About a year later, out popped a CD called Siberian Earth Curve on my dream label! I was so happy I nearly cried.
A similar story can be told about the Ecstatic Peace LP and the Betley LP. I just bowled up and asked one day. I have always sensed the presence of 'God' around my releases. Sounds kooky, I know, but even though I'm not sure exactly what I think about God, I am convinced that the 'big picture' has reordered itself to accommodate me as I have taken outrageous risks towards achieving my dreams. I have owned the fact that I am a creative person, and that I should abandon all the muso-baggage and anything else that detracts from the creativity in the music itself. As I have done this, I have sensed that I am doing what I was created to do, and begun to become the person God would want me to be. So, call me a fruitcake- up ya bum, I don't care. I'm very happy making music in my shed and don't think I would ever swap it for the glamourous, 'tour all over the globe supporting Shellac' approach to music.
PSF: Here's three more-or-less related things for you to discuss: 1. your very own label, Celebrate Psi Phenomenon, 2. your musical projects besides Birchville Cat Motel, of which there seem to be many, and 3. the releases, BCM/CpsiP and otherwise, which you feel are most exemplary.
BCM: Celebrate Psi Phenomenon was set up to release primarily my own stuff, Birchville or otherwise. At the time I was still finding it hard to believe that Insample was going to release BCM on CD and I thought that the likelihood of anybody wanting to formally release any of the other things I was doing was bordering on pure fantasy. I was hanging around folks like Clayton Noone (from Armpit), Stefan Neville (from Pumice), and Glen Frenzy and they all had their own little cassette labels. I was very much inspired by them and decided to put together a catalogue of my recordings too. Cassettes on a dub-to-order basis and lathe cuts in editions of 20 became the order of the day. I found it hard to get rid of 20, they'd sit around in my room for months. However, by the time Siberian Earth Curve came out I was spending a considerable amount of my life dubbing stuff for people and about 6 months ago it became intolerable. As of January 2000, I ditched all the previous cassettes and began again with CDR- very limited editions of 50, and 8" lathe cut picture discs also in editions of 50. This was purely in order to cut down on the amount of work that I was having to put in to not disappoint people. It works much better now too. Less grindwork, more time to record, easier to get rid of the stuff. I think its turned into a good little label.
Yeah, I have a number of ideas that don't fit into Birchville Cat Motel's worldview. I have always had a live counterpart band that accompanied Birchville which acted as a kind balance seeing as Birchville never played live until quite recently. Initially this started with Small Blue Torch (featuring Richard Francis who went on to become the totally marvellous Eso Steel). We would get together on Sunday afternoons, demolish equipment, record live-in-the-living room and release the odd thing. When I shifted from Dunedin to Wellington I formed Lugosi which is a much more controlled drone thing- very sedate and beautiful and not at all like the driving guitar fisticuffs of SBT. Hataitai Bowling Club formed in tandem to Lugosi with Glen Frenzy from Willis and a rather mysterious guy called Darren who played in a reclusive hard-techno-noise-collage project called AC Death. HBC was more along the lines of pistake-electronica-noise-bufoonery which resulted in some really staggering recordings. Unlike Lugosi, we actually played live in front of a few people at odd occassions. Other than that I have felt the need to invent different studio bands to cater for different ideas- I have Atarisuperpredator which is my pisstake-but-very-fucking-serious-grindcore band, 010010 which is a now deceased pistake-dub-electro-acoustic outfit, Fonzie Osbourne- a Black Sabbath inspired, second rate, 'Las Vegas' band, there are many. All these projects are to provide an avenue to do other music apart from Birchville- to stop me from becoming a singluarly focussed, boring guy really.
Well, there weren't many releases on C/Psi/P that I wasn't very attached to for one reason or another. Personal faves would have to be the split and collaboration lathe cuts with Neil Campbell, rhBand, and John Olson. They are all very different and it was an honour to work with some of the musicians that I admired most.
I'm really happy with the current CDR releases too. Because I'm conciously doing less of them, I'm restricting myself with what I will and won't release- only the BEST is coming out. I have new stuff coming out by my 'new-big-thing-around-here' bands Yermo and MCMS (USA), Pimmon (Australia), as well as collabs and splits on lathe cut picture disc with Ashtray Navigations, MSBR, and Thurston Moore- again, all artists that I greatly admire.
PSF: When can we expect the Ecstatic Peace and Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers releases? Any other notable future plans?
BCM: You can expect Lion of Eight Thousand Generations LP out on Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers YESTERDAY- Its out and has been completely sold out to distributors- possible repressing on the way. And I just got the test pressings from Thurston this week for Cranes Are Sleeping (and its beautiful) so that shouldn't be far off either. A little further down the track, I have an 'acoustic' LP coming out on Minneapolis label, Freedom From... (which is REALLY going to be something!), a 3 way split CD out on Tokyo based 20City, and a possible split LP on a brand new Belgian label. On C/Psi/P next up is a split 8" picture disc with Ashtray Navigations, same with MSBR, and same again with Thurston Moore. Its gonna rock like a midget-moose. Celebrate Psi Phenomenon website: http://unearth.octopig.org.nz/cpsip
Celebrate Psi Phenomenon DiscographyBirchville Cat Motel 'Blankangelspace' CDR Birchville Cat Motel 'Swarming Tamagotchi Plague' CDR Birchville Cat Motel 'Glamourpuss' C60 Birchville Cat Motel 'Cyclops SuperTrike' C60 Birchville Cat Motel 'Wet Crimson Eternity' C60 Birchville Cat Motel 'Holy Mother of God' C10 Birchville Cat Motel/ Small Blue Torch C60 Birchville Cat Motel/ Small Blue Torch 'China Slope/ L.P' C90 Birchville Cat Motel/010010 C60 Birchville Cat Motel/ Cowcatcher C60 Birchville Cat Motel/ Eso Steel C60 Birchville Cat Motel/ Lugosi C90 Birchville Cat Motel 'Tinfoilteeth' square 8" Birchville Cat Motel 'White Alpha Matte' 7" Birchville Cat Motel 'Invisible' 7" Birchville Cat Motel/ Eso Steel 7" Birchville Cat Motel/ rhBand 8" Campbell Kneale/ Neil Campbell 7" Campbell Kneale/ John Olson 'A House of Sticks For Owls' collab 7" picture disc Campbell Kneale/ John Olson 'A House of Sticks For Owls' collab 7" Small Blue Torch 'L.P' 12" Small Blue Torch 'Full Fathom Five' C60 Small Blue Torch 'Stockpile' C60 Small Blue Torch/ Hataitai Bowling Club C60 Hataitai Bowling Club 'Gonk' C60 Lugosi 'Golden Five Aluminium Lake' CDR Lugosi 'Tibet' C60 Lugosi 'Frostline' C60 Lugosi 'Monarch' C60 Lugosi 'Transuranic' 7" Cowcatcher 'Sniffer/ Shuttlecock' 7" Cowcatcher 'Tape' C20 Cowcatcher / Airport C60 Airport 's/t' 10" OHM 'Re:Moon' C120 Dr Gretchen Musical Weightlifting Program 'Hambu Nights' 1 sided C90 Witcyst 'Naru.ci (no.doze.)99-5' C60 Armpit 'Birth I Squat' C60 AtariSuperPredator 'Goat Throat/Cock Rock' C10 MCMS 'Festum Asinorum' C60 SUPERNAUT: The Black Sabbath Tribute. NZ noise/scum rock compilation C90
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