Perfect Sound Forever

THE MINT CHICKS


Welcome To Nowhere
by Michael McClelland
(December 2011)

With an 'oom-PAH' kick-snare combo, a lost corner of the world began to break apart along with the most exciting and terrifying band the world would never see. 'Post No Bills' by the Mint Chicks kicked off in 2003 with all the crucial ingredients punk music had been searching for since it first began that is, it sounded like the end of the fucking world. Since then, all nine years of their career covered several different accounts of the same apocalypse. The scope of their aggression represented much more than their one decade together it was the boiling point of a century of frustration in New Zealand. Richard Von Sturmer in the band Blam! Blam! Blam! had a local hit in 1981 with his lyrics in the protest anthem "There Is No Depression In New Zealand," characterizing the economic and political uncertainty of the time. But the Mint Chicks' Nielson brothers said it far better, 25 years later:
"Fuck the Golden Youth / Now you know the truth / Fuck the Golden Youth / Now you have the proof."
The full-speed instrumental nightmare of the Mint Chicks' music carries the same fearsome punch at its loudest, screaming ahead like a Japanoise band about to die; in its quiet moments, bearing the brooding darkness of Black Flag's My War. Either way, it sounds totally and unequivocally possessed. As such a description might suggest, listening to a band as imaginative as the Mint Chicks was always an experience of visuals. The artwork of guitarist Ruban Nielson helps evoke a silly, cartoonish wildness, while a stammering rhythm section spurs on the girlish yelps and shrieks of lead singer Kody Nielson. His babbling lyrics wobble indecisively between carefully picked onomatopoeia and total incoherency. But according to 'Funeral Day,' it's about actions, not words. And this is what the Mint Chicks lived out.
"Don't cut your wrists / You've got beautiful fists"
Every audience was a dare to the Mint Chicks, whose courageous and often downright impolite stage antics quickly bore them a reputation. Their vain quest for expression of individuality was not limited to their explosive style of music it came across in their performances, their attitude and their thoughts and feelings as people. Ruban summarized their mission statement in a punkas.com forum post from their early days:
"We live this band. We work our asses off and we have ideas coming out of our fuckin ears. We are not living extravagantly, nor are we rock stars. This is who we are, and we're only getting better at it. If you don't like it, please feel free to fuck off."
Or, to put it more eloquently:
"I'm writing the phrase 'oooh kayyyy' on a dildo and shoving it up your mother's ass."
There are countless stories of the Mint Chicks' norm-challenging bravado, such as the 2005 Big Day Out festival where Kody tore apart a corporate banner with a chainsaw, or in 2007, where the deafening volume of their set in support of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs resulted in a chunk of ceiling falling and hospitalizing an audience member. Or one particular Australian show that had the band at odds with an unimpressed crowd (again from a punkas.com forum):
"When bottles start getting thrown from the crowd, [Kody] pulls out a ceiling partition and throws it out into the audience. People scatter and the gap widens. Someone yells "you suck" and Kody hits back with "you think we suck, let's see your band," his brother takes off his guitar and motions to the culprit to come and play. No one comes forward. "Fuck you Melbourne," is repeatedly interjected into 'Last Chance' and the words to F**k The Golden Youth are changed to 'fuck the Melbourne youth.'"
Despite the baffling lunacy of their shtick, every step of the way still somehow came off carefully calculated, from the indulgently anti-societal press releases of their early days to their super-produced final album Screens in 2009. There was something alluring about it all when most bands would reach out towards the world, the Mint Chicks would lunge, without ever knowing exactly what they were attacking. New Zealand, on the other hand, had no idea what they were being attacked by. But according to their friends, one in particular being Troy Ferguson, DJ on Auckland University's 95bFM, their curiously mild personalities were what really set them apart:
"I remember the day when we were listening to it, going, 'Wow, these dudes must really like the Gang of Four and Wire and all this stuff!' And of course, later, when we actually met them for the first time - when they came up to do a live-to- air and forgot to bring their guitars - they hadn't heard any of that music, they'd just completely invented all of this stuff!"
Andrew Tidball, another early supporter of the Mint Chicks, was first to declare their victory over the local music scene back in 2003, on the Geekboy website:
"Speaking of shy, the lead singer of the Mint Chicks has a quiet, almost nervy, demeanour about him while he waits in the crowd until they start playing. Then it's a whole other story. The Mint Chicks explode their style of rock n roll onto a hugely appreciative crowd. It's official - the Mint Chicks are my new favorite band. They are, simply, the most exciting and energetic band I have seen in a long time. They are the next big thing, mark my words."
Funnily enough, they were. They dropped their 'hard-to-get' phase in 2006 for an album which stood for an all-embracing tribute to weird pop records. This was called Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!, and after an unusually long 8-month recording process, its success was marked by Gold status in New Zealand and several big-time industry awards in the following year. Indeed, the Mint Chicks were crazy, but as their sudden transformation into national pop icons proved, dumb they were not. Screens was the logical next step from C?Y!D?N! a robo-flavoured take on where pop should have gone if the Mint Chicks were the grand designers of music. Its party-pop drum hooks and bizarrely glitched-out keys and guitars are far removed from the early spasms of tracks like "Blue Team Go" and "Fat Gut Strut," but New Zealand didn't notice the change. The country had grown alongside the band and were all too prepared for this new experimental leap, embracing the release at #10 on debut in national charts. But the rest of the world was not. Screens was sort of half-received by a lot of alternative media, and completely missed by even more. Even though the Mint Chicks had previously toured with the likes of The White Stripes and Whirlwind Heat, played festivals including SXSW in Austin, Texas (with one particularly bloody band brawl to their name) and held a long track record with distinguished NZ label Flying Nun since before they had even released an EP... it still wasn't enough, and the band found the overseas machine a different game altogether. And the music showed it. Moments on the album feel strangely flat, as if all the energy from their younger days had tired out both the band and their music. In 2008, The Mint Chicks had moved to Portland, Oregon, apparently as part of their search for bigger things, while bassist Michael Logie left around the same time. Journalist Dan Trevarthen joked that they had "clocked New Zealand music," to put it in video game terms but now they were facing the boss. Their secret weapon was never hidden in their homeland or their fast-fingered bassist it was that great lunge towards the unknown. This time, however, the unknown was large enough to undo them. Without any idea of what they could threaten, they were left to only threaten their own existence as a band. As internal struggles began to eat away at them and the relationship of the two brothers, their music stopped being a venomous assertion of self-belief and became a contemplation of greater meaning. The word 'it' in "Take It, I Don't Want It" became less a careless placeholder value and more an actual question what did they want, and what didn't they want? Vague ponderings like this one took the band for an introspective turn on Screens.
"Why is it less of a hassle to die in your sleep?"
Both lyrically and figuratively, the band had given up aimless catchphrases for questions and answers. And one answer that was found by Ruban Nielson in 2005 seems to hint at what was to come (in A Low Hum tour zine in 2005, interviewed by Duncan Greive.):
"As I get older I'm more capable of realizing exactly what it is I'm angry about, rather than just being angry. And Kody is as well, he's writing some great lyrics, but he's really kind of emotionally,,, what can I say? You can't get in there, and me and Michael [Logie, bassist], and some of Kody's friends probably understand what Kody's about, but we're both really fucked up dudes, and if we don't write music about that, then there's no point having us, and you shouldn't listen to us."
By 2010, the band were tired of continual tours and fruitless labours and by the sound of their final Bad Buzz EP, autopilot had sunk in and flatness took over the quality that made their previous aggression so worthwhile. Their songs still had hook, but none of the bite America had diluted them and none of the spirit of small-town frustration remained. While their newest music was poignant, it wasn't much due to their reflective lyrical content and 60s-inspired harmonies it was the story behind it. Their final single, "Say Goodbye," was a big, sloppy kiss - to the old Mint Chicks world order, which sank beneath their quest for the perfect pop melting pot and to the last of their nine years together. The demise of the Mint Chicks came down to both a whimper and a bang. Their bang was Kody's final destructive outburst at Auckland's Bacco Room on March 12, 2010, in a blinded fit of rage that cost the band thousands of dollars in equipment damage. The now immortal words "start your own fucking band" ricocheted throughout local music media in the resulting weeks, leaving the music scene figuratively hanging as they awaited the inevitable (nine years overdue, according to both brothers) news of a Mint Chicks break-up. Those five words held great symbolic weight for future generations of musicians around the country who carried the same flag the Mint Chicks waved (and tried to burn, several times). And the whimper: their inability to leave the same impression on the rest of the world. Had they kept at it, they could have potentially changed music forever but they were a ticking time bomb from day one, and their time was up. And at the centre was Kody and Ruban, like two particles bouncing off each other until a chemical reaction occurred. Duality defined much more than their enigma it was the catalyst for everything they ever did. At the same time, it was a fitting end for the band. Drummer Paul Roper described the relationship of the two brothers in the May 2009 issue of Real Groove magazine:
"It's kinda like how in Auckland the humidity builds up over a period of time and then just it rains and it's all gone."
Unpredictable weather patterns could almost be considered a landmark of the metropolitan city, and the Nielson brothers shared a similar kind of climate between them. Except this time, it was the band that was washed away in the end. The cultivation of the Mint Chicks was very much sprung from the soil of their home, as can be felt from every note they pounded out. But to put it more simply, they were an obscure band from an obscure place. A strong influence on the band from early days was Frank Zappa, a hero of both Nielsons (who, in a notably similar fashion, gained cult recognition through hacked-up musical experimentation). But his worldwide reputation was something that the Mint Chicks could never quite achieve. Instead, their ultimate reward was Zappa's unmarked grave. They won a nation, yes, but a nation so detached that its position hardly ripples the water. Much like Hawaii, the homeland of the Nielsons' mother, where the heart is more traditionally worn on the sleeve. New Zealand's cultural values are instead buried beneath 'rugged invidualism' and stoic pride. What the Nielsons brought from Hawaiian culture, then, was a perfect emotional match for a generation who had their feelings repressed by their national identity. Returning to Blam! Blam! Blam!'s 1981 classic, the dry sarcasm of the line "There are no sheep on our fields" could not speak more antithetically of a nation where sheep do, in fact, outnumber the human population. The "So Many Of You, So Few Of Us" footing of the Mint Chicks paid attention to the very same thing in philosophy, but without any need for poetry. They stood up with a nuclear-powered megaphone, calling any individuals, whether sheep or human, to join them. As for the Mint Chicks themselves, they were either the only people on the farm,,, or the only sheep who knew how to swim.
We have no rebellion; we have no opium, opium, no, no...
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