mr sterile Assembly
By J. C. Lockwood
Trident Studios is housed in a nondescript building in Te Aro, an inner-city section of Wellington, New Zealand. Most people pass it without ever knowing that the Martin Square building was once home to the Secret Intelligence Service, the SIS -- MI6 in the popular jargon -- an organization perhaps not quite so well known as its international brothers-in-acronym, but newly repositioned and reinvigorated in the so-called Age of Terror, keeping an eye on its citizens, and, according to a recent government report, occasionally members of Parliament.
Kieran Monaghan, founder of mr sterile Assembly, one of the most interesting, if hopelessly below-the-pop-culture-radar bands in New Zealand, didn't know anything about the Taranaki Street building's checkered, puzzle-palace past until he turned up at Trident to record Transit, the band's fourth proper album, and got the tour from owner Mike Gibson. The irony was not lost on him, or the opportunity it presented.
This is a band "on the outskirts of the extreme underground," says Nick Fulton, founder of Einstein Music Journal, a blog on the frontline of New Zealand's emerging music scene, but also a band whose music is "deep and trustful," that has "a sense of humor, fantasy and punk energy very close to my own feelings," says Miroslav Wanek, frontman for the legendary Czech rock band Uz Jsme Doma, which lined up MSA for a support slot in its 2009 Australian tour. It's a band in constant flux, in form and style, mixing punk, politics and theater in a strange, compelling stew -- and always serving up performance in full costume. But, despite its near-invisibility at home, the Assembly has covered more territory than most NZ bands, getting "off-shore," as they say under Down Under, in the terrible geographic isolation that is New Zealand, for tours of Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Eastern Europe.
Since last year's transitional Bug My Ride, which recreated the Assembly as a stripped-down, unusually structured three-piece (drums and two basses), the band has pursued a darker, starker sound that Monaghan says provides an "unnerving and unexpected foundation" for politically charged lyrics and vivid, stick-in-the-eye storytelling. Topics have included Buru, a notorious prison island in Indonesia and the subject of a series of books written by the politically-inconvenient Javanese author Pramoedya Ananta Toer while imprisoned without charges, or the story of three Niuean men sentenced to hang for murdering a brutal government official in the 1950s, to set an example while, at the same time, white convicted murderers were being pardoned, a familiar story about racism and the abuse of power, this time within the context of colonization, in "Hector Larson." Occasionally, Assembly went off on lighter romps, like the strange story of C.F. Goldie, the country's most famous art forger.
That album's general concerns about privacy and out-of-control government are significantly ramped up on Transit, which probes an increasingly muscular government security apparatus. One song looks at the case of three men who breached the wall of a supposedly secure spy base and damaged the satellite dish structure at what is believed to be one of the country's major surveillance sites ("the beauty of this story," says Monaghan, "is that the case went to court and they were found not guilty, as their intention was a statement against the war in Afghanistan, to save lives and by damaging this communications network slowdown, the war machine in action. And the jury agreed"). Another song looks at the always-ugly human component still needed, even in a hi-tech security state -- that is, the snitch, infiltrating dangerous antiwar and animal rights groups and reporting to his bosses.
To be doing this kind of work in the former belly of the beast, well, he says, that's just a delicious irony.
"The spooks are gone," says Monaghan, "but it remains their old stomping ground. It seemed so perfect to be recording here."
Looking in from the outside
The shorthand is outsider punk, but the term doesn't mean much when you're talking about a constantly evolving band. Besides, the Assembly is more than just music. It's storytelling and theater, history and politics, often wrapped up in the enduring legacy of colonialism and late capitalism. In its press, the band rattles off wildly diverse, seemingly fanciful influences, from cutie-pie Japanese pop-punksters Ni Hao to bleak British anarcho-punks Rudimentary Peni, from industrial legends Einsturzende Neubauten to The Residents.
But, more on target, says Uz Jsme Doma's Wanek, may be Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, the thoroughly unclassifiable American experimental rock band put together by ex-Idiot Flesh founder Dan Rathbun -- a band that effortlessly jumps styles and performs elaborate stage shows. "mr sterile is definitely the New Zealand brother of that Californian band," he says.
Or, not to put too fine a point on it, their essence may be best captured by Einstein's Fulton, who describes the Assembly as "a band of weirdoes that has never been a part of any scene or movement. So many bands claim to be DIY, bragging about it like it is a cool thing," he says, "but mr sterile Assembly is far and beyond the most DIY band around -- DIY to the point where the majority of young Wellington music fans have never heard of them."
It's funny, Fulton's use of the word "weirdo" to describe the band, because that's exactly how Sabot's Christopher Rankin described the band. "They are just part of the global network of weirdoes," says Rankin, who, with Hilary Binder, founded the San Francisco-born, Prague-based duo Sabot more than two decades ago, making them the grandparents of the drum-and-bass thing. According to Rankin, they put "all their energy and love into their work -- regardless of how much it costs or how many other responsibilities they have."
Monaghan doesn't dispute any of this. "It feels like we remain a fairly unknown entity here," he says. "We sit outside any box and genre, and that creates problems for understanding -- though not for us. There has never been any interest taken in us from the media here. We're maybe too old, too loud, not pretty enough, always changing, mouthy and unrelenting."
The band -- whose name is "as much a play on words and gender identity as anything else," Monaghan says -- has been kicking around, in one form or another, since 2001. The only constants have been Monaghan and Chrissie Butler, who plays bass and sings in the current lineup, though her role is far-more important than that. The longevity of the band comes as a surprise to everyone, including its founder. "I guess I never really imagined Sterile would turn into what it has become," Monaghan says.
Their roots are definitely punk, but like everything about MSA, it's just not that easy. The wheels were set in motion in the early 1990's, when Monaghan, a self-taught drummer, hooked up with Moral Fibre, a punk band founded by Grant Sutherland that was making waves in Invercargill, the southernmost city of NZ's South Island. When that band ran its course, Sutherland and Monaghan packed for Wellington, the capital. The move proved to be crucial, putting them in the orbit of The Space, a Wellington club founded by saxophonist Jeff Henderson. But The Space, now called Happy, was more than just a club. It was a community of musicians playing free jazz, noise and laptop music, with a free agenda and a constant exploration of sound, and Monaghan plugged into that immediately.
The move also brought Monaghan into the scene surrounding Red Mole, an influential, experimental theater company formed in 1974 by Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell. Through the end of the '90s, he performed in and wrote music for a dozen Red Mole/Roadworks shows. He and Sutherland also released the cassette-only First Aid Kit under the name Loosehead, whose lineup brought guitarist-trombonist Aaron Lloydd into the fold, and performed under that name in Red Mole's "Oooboo Dooboo Show" in 1996. They also performed on 33 perfumes of pleasure, a 1997 album built around Brunton reciting his own books and poems, the same kind of idea as, say, William S. Burrough's Dead City Radio.
Brunton died in Amsterdam, while on tour, in 2002. Rodwell, his wife and longtime collaborator, carried on. Butler became involved with the Red Mole/Roadworks group in late 2001 and became a key figure in the group after Brunton's death. Monaghan and Butler did a couple more shows with Rodwell before she committed suicide in 2006. Brunton remains a titanic figure for the Assembly and its small circle of like-minded bands. "Song of the Immigrant" by D S Lunchbox, a side project of Butler's Ditzy Squall, is based on texts that incorporated a Brunton text from the "Unbearable Journeys," a Red Mole show. History Wringing, Monaghan's first solo album, was, he says, a vehicle to work through grief after Brunton's departure from the stage. His texts also turn up in Naked Greed, a bleak assessment of the mess we've gotten ourselves into just before it all ends, still not released.
Loosehead put out two albums while its members were involved with Red Mole -- the Dork EP, whose cover, Monaghan says, shows a Welly anarcho-punk/activist running for parliament with, shades of Monty Python, the McGillicuddy Serious Party, holding a sign that says "dork" and points to other MP contender, and "Pet Shop Gourmet, which found the band experimenting with form and stretching musically. Whether or not the band was "bounding for the 22 metre line at a good pace, offering to smash your face 'cos you look funny, collapsing into skirmishes and scrums at regular intervals," as Real Groove, a New Zealand music magazine, wrote when the album was released a decade ago, is anybody's guess.
Monaghan had been writing a lot of stuff that didn't fit with Loosehead's singular vibe. He started putting out some solo stuff -- "Suppository" in 1998 and "Hanging out the Washing" in 1999. And when Loosehead officially gave up the ghost in 2001, Monaghan wanted to carry on and had more than enough stuff to make it work as Mr. Sterile. He released Pregnant Boy, an out-there musical concoction that lies somewhere between Kurt Weill and Eugene Hutz. The album was credited to Mr. Sterile. No Assembly yet. He started Assembling musicians --a trombone player, a drummer and then, in a crucial move, brought in Butler on melodica, clarinet and vocals. Butler, now playing bass, is one of the few constants of the band. Fact is, without Butler, there wouldn't be an Assembly, says Monaghan. Although she didn't play the MSA first gig, when the band was still called Mr. Sterile Ensemble, "it was her belief and enthusiasm in the idea that got it out of the bedroom and in front of an audience in the first place," he says. That partnership has continued and underpins the work and life in general. They were married in 2002. They have always practiced in their home, making time for the project around three kids and day jobs to make it happen.
It was always a work in progress. "As the group began to grow, I would welcome anyone who was interested in being part of the performance," Monaghan says. "Ability was not necessarily essential, but enthusiasm was." The group grew to a maximum of seven people, a difficult number of people to organize and get in the same place, so the rule became, "If you could turn up and play, then, cool, and if you couldn't, then, cool, the show would still go on. It was always exciting and the shifting dynamic always made for an interesting time."
Another constant was the costumes -- pasty white faces, half-masks, crazy wigs, coneheads. This was initially as a reaction to what Monaghan saw as the growing indifference of audiences and a lack of engagement from many performers to connect with the audience. "Towards the end of the '90's it seemed bands were focused on 'breaking into' the industry. This required an alteration on the presentation of ego, flashy technique, and the pressure of shiny equipment. But the actual music, and the presentation, was very boring. So my thinking was to approach the stage in a more confrontational style in costume -- not as a gimmick but as a more considered presentation, to get a more 'love or hate me' thing going, any emotion other than indifference. And also, as I felt that whatever we looked like, that if you saw us it didn't represent what we sounded like enabled us to play a wider palette of sounds. I've always held that if you manage to engage someone's curiosity or sense of intrigue, then you're halfway there. Using the 'theatrical' tag somehow allows people to have a different exception of what is "allowed" in the act of participation. Because we looked like a 'theater' thing, it seemed people could be less conservative, more open, to a wider range of musical styles. So we could swing from a circus-y thing into a blastbeat-punk riff. And folks who wouldn't be seen dead in a punk show could accept it. The process of costume also demands a commitment to the performance. It is something that you can't do well unless completely committed. And it doesn't matter if it's to the smallest audience or the biggest."
By 2004, when the band released its first proper album, Hulagu -- which not-too-subtly linked our "Georgie" to Hulagu Khan, Ghengis Khan's grandson ("past treasures of the civilized, trashed and plundered before our eyes, in two days went 10,000 years of history. But for George, it's one more medal to mark his infamy") -- the band had grown into a decidedly nonstandard seven-piece, with cello, clarinet, kazoo and two players doubling on trombone in addition to guitar, drum and bass. "We are certainly not structured on your classic band model," says Monaghan.
The Assembly hooked up with Sabot, playing support and putting up the band during Sabot's impromptu 2003 tour of New Zealand, tacked on after the dates in Australia. Monaghan and Butler and Rankin and Binder then hung out and, after hours of conversation that dragged on deep into the night, "we realized that we had met two people much like ourselves," says Rankin. "They seemed super-excited because, living in NZ, they seemed to be getting kind of marooned and separated from the rest of the world."
Wanek, who connected with MSA last year, when Uz Jsme Doma stomped through the region during its Australian tour, came to the same conclusion. They spoke about Wanek's experiences "from the ancient time under the communist dictatorship and living in a big prison without the ability to travel anywhere and without stronger connection with the rest of the world," he says. "We discovered that our closeness (with MSA) is partly due to these similar experiences in youth, even though each (is) from a different point of view. In some ways, his situation is even worse: The (communist) system could be -- and was -- destroyed. Physical borders could be broken, but New Zealand will stay far away forever."
"I think there are some similarities to what it might have been like, maybe on a social level, living in that tightly controlled and regulated system," says Monaghan. "Growing up in the early '70's down the bottom of the South Island for me was extremely isolating. We were the end of the world; the government at the time had enforced very tight trade restrictions. There was very little choice on anything, from appliances to food to music. For much of my early years, music was discovered by the trading of bootleg tapes, a shitty-quality taping of a shitty-quality tape. The isolation was a very formative experience. And over the recent years the connection with the Czechs has continued to develop and strengthen; it's a fascinating synchronistic development."
The principals of Sabot and MSA stayed in touch, and during their 2005 New Zealand tour, Sabot included more time in the country. Monagham and Butler "were very helpful in arranging gigs and introducing us to their friends and associates in the so-called underground scene," Rankin said. When Sabot offered to reciprocate, "we jumped," says Monaghan. "It was our first time off shore." The 2006 tour took them through the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.
The breakthrough came in 2006 with 15 Minute Crib, released in advance of the Assembly's eventful Malaysia/Southeast Asia tour -- initially booked during Ramadan, only to be rebooked for what turned out to be an even less opportune time, when the region was slammed by an earthquake, an erupting volcano and a drilling disaster. Musically, the sound hardened, the performance became freer, more angular, abrasive. The lyrical content, while remaining tough, also stepped back a bit to allow for story-telling and locally relevant politics. The title track, for example, commemorates the 1913 Blackball strike in which New Zealand coal miners demanded that "crib time" -- that is to say, lunch -- be increased from 15 to 30 minutes. The strike was the catalyst for the formation of a national miners union.
"The lyrics are central to the band," Monaghan says. "I spend a lot of time developing the text, and it often involves some quite in-depth research. Above all, I think the voice is the most powerful of instruments; it defines The Residents, the Dead Kennedys, Einsturzende Neubauten, and in recent times, it is something I am exploring with more confidence. I am trying to write characters, differing perspectives, and yes, tension, into the text. Colonization is a subject very relevant to many nations in this region, and I am trying to add my voice to the dialogue."
Three years later, Bug My Ride would turn everything on its head, musically. Lyrically, there's more storytelling, less blasting-from-the-soap-box approach, but still with an eye on the original intention to merge politics, music and theater. The band re-emerged as a harder, driven three-piece- Monaghan, Butler and Sarsha Douglas. The two-bass thing has been driven a lot by "the Chrissie aesthetic," he says. "I love the intensity and drive of the two instruments. It also provides a whole lot of space for vocals and cymbal play."
Transit, the new album, was supposed to be released in September to coincide with the band's second tour of Central and Eastern Europe. This time the band became a bass-drum-sax trio with Butler, Monaghan and Henderson. They were slated for an opening slot with Uz Jsme Doma. "This trip seemed perfect," says Monaghan. "Travel with a fantastic group, with the support of their agency, in a country I adore, touring with a bunch of good new songs. This seemed like the tour of my childhood dreams." They had to pull the plug on the tour in July for the usual financial and logistical reasons (says Monaghan, it was "one of the hardest decisions I've had to make"). They also pushed back the release date for Transit until December
This time out, the Assembly is casting a wider musical net in what has been its most collaborative effort to date. In addition to Sterile stalwarts Monaghan and Butler, Aaron Lloydd, one of the band's original members, is back on second bass, taking over for Douglas, bassist and vocalist during the Bug sessions, who left the band earlier this year. Henderson returns on saxophone. Dean Hapeta, lead singer for political hip-hop group Upper Hutt Posse, will be singing/rapping in Te Reo Maori, the indigenous language of New Zealand. "This is something I have wanted to do with him for at least 10 years, but never had the right project," says Monaghan. It will be, he believes, the first punk/rock album with this bilingual component in New Zealand. Also signed onto the project is anarchist-feminist-activist poet Maria McMillian. The album will also include gamelan on a couple of tracks, making a connection to Indonesia friends made on the last tour. The CD will include a CD-sized art book with work either selected or commissioned to represent each song on the album.
The climactic shift of sounds of musicians and bands, even those as dramatic as the transformation of the Assembly, is nothing new, says Sabot's Rankin: "It's just a normal development based on instrumentation; however, in the MSA case, the main writers are still in the band and the emotions are the same; same political and social message. I deeply respect their work, efforts and dedication. People like them are what my life is made of, and we will always be the closest of friends even if it takes us years to meet again."
Also see mr. sterile Assembly's website
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