Magic Kiwi's- Bruce Russell
Photo by Russell Covini
As one-third of New Zealand noise legends The Dead C and label boss of Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum, Bruce Russell has driven a pretty substantial wedge into New Zealand music. With the upcoming Otago Festival of the Arts about to host a reformation of several classic local bands, The Dead C find themselves billed with The Chills, The Clean and The Verlaines as part of the 'Dunedin Sound'.
Interview by Mark Williams
This is all rather ironic. In the heyday of the early to mid-'80's, the Dunedin Sound bands hardly thrived on the support of local television and radio (who continue to prefer American soundalikes) while The Dead C have held even less allure as a valid proposition.
This has everything to do with the nature of their music, but a recent national magazine devoted 4 pages to the question of the cultural cringe, or; 'why does no-one in New Zealand give The Dead C any credit when all these people overseas say they're so wonderful'?
The Dead C never actually existed in the Dunedin Sound era. However, with history fast turning a rose coloured mist, it seemed a good time to re-assess the 'Dunedin Sound', independant record making in New Zealand, maybe a few notions of cultural identity, and Russell's own attempts to make records untainted by artifice or record industry style capitalism.
A note on the title; Magic Kiwi's was a 1980's New Zealand TV show recounting the gallant adventures of quintessential and cute 'kiwi' icons who in the grand traditions of New Zealand cultural and sporting mythology took on the world and won; Sir Edmund Hillary, Kiri Te Kanawa, etc...
PSF: How did you come to be in Dunedin when Xpressway started?
I moved to Dunedin in 1979 to go to University. When I got there I discovered there was something on, and over the course of the next 2 or 3 three years it became really interesting. By the end of 1981 I'd seen the Clean a couple of times and they became the most amazing band in the world. I kind of had this religious experience and realised I was in the middle of something that was really exciting.
In '86 I was in London and satisfied myself that there was nothing more interesting going on there than there was in Dunedin, and that really clinched it for me. I came back and became involved with Flying Nun records as a volunteer publicist/intern. In September 1987 the second and final pressing plant closure occured. Suddenly there was no manufacturing in New Zealand and (Flying Nun) were precipatated into a manufacturing and distribution deal with Warners. They went to Auckland, I went to Dunedin and started Xpressway.
PSF: So what did the Dunedin Sound tag mean to you?
It certainly described what was happening in Dunedin in 1981, '82. There was a whole generation of bands (that) had an attitude and sound in common, an attitude towards songwriting. The Clean and The Stones bled off into a more improvised slightly messier thing but other bands like The Verlaines and The Chills were about finely crafted pop songs and jangly guitars. That lasted for 3 years then things began to splinter. There was always other things going on but that diversity became more pronounced shortly after.
PSF: So you obviously felt quite an affinity with a lot of the music that was happening there and Flying Nun -
PSF: So what led you to create Xpressway?
If you want to be puritannical about it, the fact that Flying Nun was moving away from its roots. By becoming a label that was manufactured and distributed by a major label they gave up a degree of control over the running of their business.
Simultaneously there was a push from some of the established artists who up to that point had had to record in a backroom lo-fi homemade kind of way, they wanted to record in real studios, which was something I was out of sympathy with.
They all went to Auckland in some sense, physically or spiritually, and I went back to Dunedin and starting putting out cassettes because that was what we could do. You couldn't make records, CD in 1988 wasn't really an option. When we had a bit of money we started manufacturing singles in Australia.
PSF: It seemed like quite a desperate situation for the artists- you once described Xpressway as a lifeboat.
The lifeboat metaphor was really real. The Terminals, for instance, started in the first flush of punk, 77-78, suddenly 10 years later they were marginalised by Flying Nun who were interested in acts who had commercial potential. (The Terminals) had no way of making conventional releases in New Zealand. I'd worked for Flying Nun and spent 6 months answering their 2 year old fan mail from everywhere in the globe.
Because I'd been in London and I'd seen that what was happening there was considerably less interesting, I knew that we could cut it internationally if only we could find a way of letting people know. So the metaphor was Xpressway was the lifeboat, and putting out records was like firing off flares, and sure enough the passing supertanker of international attention saw us and picked us up.
PSF: How did you go about creating those contacts overseas?
One of the jobs I had done for Flying Nun was organising their library of fanzines. I sorted them all out and put them into sequence and read a lot of them. I realized there were networks in every country that we were interested in, America, Britain, Germany, France... The fanzine was the internet of the steam age, passing on this esoteric information, secret information about all these bands and these labels.
I starting writing letters, sending casettes and when I could, I sent records. We struck gold fairly quickly, I knew the material stood up and when people heard it they'd go 'My God!". I knew that we had stuff we were releasing on cassette that in another country would have been available on a conventional format.
You had to be unashamedly self-confidant. I had the confidence that we could do it and I carried other people along with me. We got results quickly enough to convince them that it was worth persisting with. Over the next 5 years until about '93 we made phenomenal progress in terms of penetrating overseas markets, organising licensing deals, setting up a whole network of commercial contacts whereby we could deal with people at our own level overseas.
The model has always been in New Zealand, and possibly in other countries as well, that there's a hierachy. You're a band, then you sign to a small label, then you sign to a bigger label, then you start to tour, then you start to spend lots of money in studios, then you get roadies, then you get a guitar technician. then eventually you become... Supertramp.
But there's another way of looking at it, and that is that there's people that are at the same level you are, with the band and the independant label, everywhere in the world. Those people are the ones often doing the interesting stuff you want to be associated with, and you build bridges directly across to them. You don't go up through the rungs of the hierachy, you just ignore everything that's happening further up that chain and go straight across to people in the same position overseas.
That's the successful strategy if you want to actually spread the music and keep things at a manageable level where you're in control, rather than where you are merely the cog in the wheel of international capitalism, which is what you are when you sign a to a major label.
PSF: There must have been a few key people and labels that have been pretty important for establishing those international connections?
The major ongoing one for us in America was Forced Exposure. Other labels in the States like Siltbreeze, Drag City , Ajax have been quite important. The European connection is much more important now than it was 5 to 10 years ago. Now Europe is a big market for what I'm interested in. That's a very positive development, a downturn in the American market can affect your ability to get the music out, whereas if you're connected to Europe and Japan and Australia ...
PSF: There's a lot of aesthetic differences between the Xpressway artists and the Dunedin Sound bands, do you think there's still a connection between those two camps?
There are plenty of personal connections. The major difference occurs over the issue of songwriting versus spontaneous music. If you're happy with making stuff up and just playing it, that's one attitude, the other attitude is that you have to finely craft 'the song', the song is everything, the band exists to realise the song. Quintessentially that's The Verlaines' approach.
I certainly don't think that either pole of that argument is necessairily all right and the others are all wrong, but in the past in New Zealand it definitely seemed there was a real thought police attitude that the song was the only way to do it. We really had to react against that, and establish that it was valid to improvise, (and) that non musical sounds could be musical as well.
PSF: So there was a bit of a reaction to what was going on locally?
I think so, yeah. The Dead C played a part in all of that. From the get-go we were conscious of the fact we were trying to do something that was a bit different and that might be regarded with suspicion or disbelief by other people in the music scene because we were prepared to work with chance elements, and make music that sounded presposterous, and record in ways that were contrary to the accepted wisdom.
Our first album was 8 track and we've never been near anything that sophistocated since, we became a port-a-studio band almost immediatly and a lot of our recordings have been live or direct to video or cassette or whatever was to hand ... hard drive.
My opposition to multitrack recording is that its technological fakery. Music's primarily instrumental, human beings actually play music in a room together and you record it. I can't see why, in order to make an audible record of that, you would want to have the human beings do their bits seperately and then patch them together to make a representation of what it might have sounded like if they'd all been playing together in a room at the same time. I profoundly find that a weird way to go.
I think thats a process thats driven by technology. The fact that they could do it became a reason to do it. I look back to the early 60's, pre Sgt Pepper, where making a record consisted of setting up high quality recording equipment in an acoustic environment, having people sit down in a room, setting up the mikes, let them play and you record it. And thats a completely different attitude. It's all about microphone placement and room sound. The sound that people make together in a room playing, to me that's what recording ought to be about.
The other multitrack way of 'oh, it'll be alright, we'll fix it up later who cares if that sounds a bit duff, we'll put one of these magic boxes on it and it'll sound like it ought to' ... to me that's profoundly false and an uninteresting way to make music.
I'm very much a luddite. There's a place for technology in recording but I think it's about taking recorded sounds, processing them, and putting them together into another entity that could never exist outside of that recording process. That's perfectly valid and I do that to some extent myself.
Part of what I'm trying to present in the music I'm making and releasing, is there are alternative strategies. I mean alternative in a really profound sense, I don't mean a funny hairstyle.
It's important for people to grasp that just because it isn't recorded for thousands of dollars in York St or Tim Finn's studio at Karekare, which again is a multi track studio, it's just an approach to how you approach the sound, there are alternative ways of approaching that process, and that they have implications for what comes out at the end.
The strategy you adopt and the way you record the music actually has an impact on how the music sounds and the reality of experience for people listen(ing) to it. I'd like them to hear a record of people actually playing. I'm not saying everybody should, but people should certainly have the option to do that if thats what they're interested in.
PSF: Obviously theres actually a bit of intelligence about how you actually use the four track and it is a valid medium.
There's an enormous amount you can do with a 4-track. My personal obsession is live stereo or even mono, god forbid. There's no reason it shouldn't sound good. The first Handful of Dust single was called 'A Little Aesthetic Discourse' because I imagined it as a lesson. There was nothing lo-tech about the recording. It was me in a bona fide studio recording with two Neumann microphones, a couple of grand each, on a Studer 2-track. But it was direct, and a recording was of what was in the room.
The fact that it sounds 'lo-fi,' as people love to call it, is simply because my equipment is lo fi. My amp makes a storm of noise even at rest. People mistake that for a hissy recording. No, it's a very clear recording of a very hissy sound and that's something people have trouble grasping. Theres no reason why the kind of strategy I'm talking about needs to be lo-fi, it's not about trying to record badly, on the contrary, I'm very interested in recording sounds faithfully, it's just the strategy you adopt and the sound that you are recording. In my case it's a sound in a room that you are recording faithfully
PSF: There's a lot of talk about the cultural cringe in New Zealand at the moment and The Dead C are being mentioned as a local band achieving more recognition overseas than at home, do you think there's anybody in New Zealand who should take more responsibility for promoting more non-commercial New Zealand music?
The Arts Council... , Creative New Zealand, 'Artcorp' whatwever you call them. I've come to this theory that there's this thing called 'kiwi' music and it's not the same as New Zealand music.
The kind of music that's being sold to New Zealand as a cultural expression (is what's) acceptable to commercial radio programmers. That baldly is how it works. I'm not saying that's wrong and ought never to be done, but somebody's got to be prepared to put a bit of money towards people who are prepared to do things for artistic reasons.
At the moment that's not a debate that anyone is willing to admit is real. I'd like to think at some point they'll step back and say "there's all these other people that keep doing this nonsense music!" - not just people I'm involved with, theres a whole swathe of people up and down the country involved in stuff that is always going to be a fringe interest that is valid, and is New Zealand music as much as is what 'kiwi' music is.
PSF: It must be disheartening to realize that you have to ship things offshore to get recognition?
No, I'm not worried about it at all. This goes right back to the beginning of Xpressway. My attitude is that we should make the music available to those people that want to hear it, and if those people are a scattering of people all over the world in tiny niches within other national markets ... fine, I don't have a problem with that, it's just what we 've got to do.
I don't want to be making music everybody listens to. People say that's elitist, it's not- it's being realistic. Your market is a small group of people, (that) doesn't mean that they're better people than other people, it means they're people with particular tastes and perspectives on music and the arts.
PSF: Do you think in the '80's there was a chance the local media, radio, television, missed out on the commercial potential of a lot of those Dunedin Sound bands?
Televison did give a little bit of coverage but only through the medium of the video, and occasional bits of reportage.
We refused to co-operate in Xpressway days because what we were doing was black for tax. We were making money and we didn't want to declare it. We didn't want people to know. The New Zealand market wasn't important to us in the sense that we weren't making money here, promotion was insignificant to what we were actually doing, so we consciously avoided it.
I was offered a Listener feature at one point. I said 'no, we don't want to talk to you about that, lovely of you to offer, but wouldn't suit us at all'. That was simply because everybody was on the dole, everyone was getting paid, that was the unique thing, but of course they weren't paying tax and they weren't declaring it, and the last thing we wanted in was publicity in New Zealand because that wasn't our market. All that would happen was these people would lose their livelihood. We didn't want to jeopardize that. We went out of our way to avoid publicity. I don't regret that. The way things were, it caused a lot less trouble and grief.
In the '80's, radio was just unbelievable, a total conspiracy. In the early stages they may have had an argument with regard to recording quality. It would've sounded different on radio to other music and that was what they couldn't tolerate. As the production values (of Flying Nun bands) heightened and bands would spend tens of thousands of dollars and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in studios, that argument no longer held true. Then it became a matter of pure blind prejudice.
That's what the (governement sponsored) 'kiwi music initiative' is designed to overcome, to wean these commercial radio people on to the idea that New Zealand music can be just like overseas music which demonstrably, a lot of it is. But if you're a commercial radio programmer apparently you can't see that because you're a particular sort of person, and you have to be spoonfed very nicely with large amounts of public money to make you accept the fact that this New Zealand music could be just like overseas music.
PSF: How did you come to be on Ground Zero? (Ground Zero is a Friday night Top 20 style music show aimed at today's teen's. It features bands playing live in the studio. Watching Bruce wringing screaming hell out of his guitar while Michael Morley sang/wailed 'Sold my arse to see the sky' was one of the most hysterical things I've ever seen on televison)
That was my idea. I'd watch Ground Zero and there'd always be something that I might be curous enough to want to see in the midst of all this absolute rot. We also knew Graeme Humphries (presenter) from his days in the Able Tasmans. Simultaneously we were pitching to Flying Nun to do this compilation of our early recordings (DR503C) and this seemed like a way we could promote the fact that for the first time in a decade we had a record out in New Zealand.
The great thing about Ground Zero was you went on live, you were simulataneously being broadcast so you could do whatever you wanted to do. It was completely up to us what we did within the time constaints. When we went to air it was down to three and a half minutes.
It was terrific fun, just hysterical. We had to run through our number twice at soundchecks. The televison people looked at us, I was wearing a suit, Michael Morley was wearing a suit, Robbie unfortunately was not wearing a suit, crappy old gear, old geezers, the television people just thought we were mad.
By the end of the first soundcheck they were beginning to look very worried. We'd rung them up and said 'do we have to bring our own drums?' 'yes, you have to bring your own drums', we turned up with our own drums, they said 'no you've got to use these drums', end of the first soundcheck 'you're not going to break anything are you?' They were like 'oh my god these guys are out of their minds - have you heard what they're doing!?'
Then we (had) a second soundcheck, they were even more worried, they were shaking. Half of them were going 'what is this noise?!?' and they other half were going 'they're going break something'!
It was hilarious fun. It was a chance to invert the experience of Ground Zero. We were the most punk rock thing that was ever on that programme, and it was a bit of a rude gesture to 'kiwi' music, here we are, a bunch of old fogeys in suits, we rock, you wouldn't know rock if it bit you.
See some of Bruce's favorite music
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