Releasing the Bats
by Jorge Luis Fernández
Few musicians have gone a long path while always remaining fresh like those from the Kiwi (New Zealand) pop scene and Robert Scott is undoubtedly among them. His muse is not as quirky as that of Chris Knox (Tall Dwarfs), nor his choruses are instantly melodic as those of Martin Phillipps (The Chills), but he nevertheless has mastered a unique gift for songs as landscapes; tunes you can not only hum to, but also lean on as if on a bench on a languid, sunny afternoon.
His output is large and varied, too: from the genre-defining Clean EP's to his instrumental solo work, from the Bats jangle pop to the folksy Magick Heads, Scott achieved a solid signature as a singer-songwriter, both colorful and gentle, plenty reminiscent of folk music, which could be traced in any one of his projects. Now that the seminal Flying Nun label -the undisputed cradle of the Dunedin Sound- has been re-launched through vinyl editions of the Bats' debut Daddy's Highway and their last opus Free All Monsters, it seems fitting to revisit Scott's long career, which spans three decades of really good music.
"It has always been an interesting time being on this label, through all sorts of ups and downs," Scott reflected recently about his relationship with Flying Nun, a marriage which goes further back to 1981, when the label was launched right around the same time as the band, with the seminal "Tally Ho" single by The Clean.
"Later on, it changed quite a bit," he continues, "when it was bought out by a big company; it lost that fun feeling of the early 80's. Now that Roger (Shepherd, FN's owner) has it back, it's great to work again with the label."
Making virtue out of necessity, the rudimentary early recordings of The Clean were (along with those of The Feelies in the States) a pivotal watershed for much of the indie rock scene that was to come from the Eighties and onwards. Relying heavily on repetition à la Ramones, submerged on a droney Farfisa organ, the music of the trio comprised of brothers David and Hamish Kilgour (guitar, vocals and drums) and bassist/singer Scott proved hugely influential, as recognized by key members of American indie rock like Stephen Malkmus and Yo La Tengo. "It was a very exciting time indeed, with a lot of bands making great records from all over the country", recalls Scott. "The boring pub rock bands were still playing, but the Flying Nun original music was the main thing happening in the country and it was getting a lot of attention from the media too. Quite a few of the records made the national top 10 in the charts and a lot of videos were played on TV." When asked about why those early Clean recordings still sounds so fresh, Scott ponders that they "basically captured the sound of the band playing live in a good sounding room. We approached it from quite a different angle than other bands did. We were also using basic equipment, so that meant we could only record in a certain way as well, so the bass and drums had to go on one track, things like that. We had to plan the recording very carefully."
After a handful of EP's (most notably Boodle Boodle Boodle and Great Sounds Great, subsequently collected in the 1996 Flying Nun 2-disc Compilation), the band fell apart in the early '80's and Scott switched to guitar and lead vocals for the newly formed Bats, a band which also featured Kaye Woodward on lead guitar, Paul Kean on bass and Malcolm Grant on drums. By Night (1984), the band's first release, sounded like an attempt to replicate the Clean's primitive Farfisa rock in a gentler, pastoral style, though Scott himself see things differently.
"I think the bands were very different and that EP was, in fact, just how The Bats sounded at the time", he insists. "We were pretty rough and ready and my guitar playing was pretty basic, too. I guess the way I write songs is like electric folk music in a certain way. We were not trying hard to sound like that; it's just the way we were then."
Three years later, there finally appeared Daddy's Highway, The Bats' acclaimed debut album. Though the release coincided with the rise of the C-86 guitar bands (Primal Scream, Wedding Present, The Pastels, et al), the jangling sound of The Bats was more steeped in the kind of insular melancholia which suited so well many NZ bands of the period.
"We didn't really think too deeply about how that album was going to sound", Scott recalls about the making of Daddy's Highway. "Some of it was done in Glasgow over a week, so it was very relaxed and easy going. When we got back to New Zealand, we carried on in Christchurch and that was also quite relaxed. It was more about the songs and how we wanted them to sound; what's best for the song, what overdubs to do, does it need violin, what kind of vocal does it need, that kind of thing."
After The Law Of Things, another fine studio album recorded in 1988 in Wellington, New Zealand, The Bats teamed up with America producer Nick Sansano for the follow-up record. Fear Of God (1992) is an album which dealt to a certain degree with midlife anxieties in songs like "It's A Lie," "Bogey Man" and "The Looming Past." "Listening back to them as a group of songs, they do have a bit of a theme running through some of them", Robert concurs. "These feelings have been linked to other NZ writers and artists."
Another American producer, Lou Giordano, was recruited to produce the Bats' fourth studio effort. Recorded in Massachusetts, Silverbeet (1993) was basically not very dissimilar to the previous output, and even though musically it gels more than before, it still begs the question about why Scott opted for the dated, compressed sound which favored American studios at the time.
"As some Flying Nun bands were getting a lot of college airplay it seemed a good idea to go down that path and try an American producer", he explains. "It wasn't forced on us by the record company; we were into the idea from the start. Working with Lou in Stoughton, MA worked out very well. We used his home studio so he was at ease, and we had been playing the songs on tour so we were quite well rehearsed. With Nick, coming over from New York City, that was a bit harder. There were problems with the studio and we had to take the master tapes from Auckland to Wellington, so we lost a bit of time and couldn't mix it here, as a result. That was tough. But Silverbeet has a great sound and I still enjoy listening to it.
Whether or not Scott was losing his spark, by mid-Nineties, he was back in spades. In 1995, The Bats released Couchmaster, an album which effectively steered away from the last album's blander moments. Weird interludes between songs and sheer experiments in the mixing board show the band enjoying the creative process. Also from the same year came Before We Go Under, an album which Scott released under the moniker Magick Heads, with a line-up which included violinist and accordionist Alan Starrett, and vocalist Jane Sinnott, who gave a frail, almost religious feel to songs like "New Floor." Also of note is the album's title song, better known as being a flaming Barbara Manning cover.
"I had known Barbara for a while before that; we used to stay with her in San Francisco when we were on tour. I wrote that song at her flat", Scott recalls, and concurs about the influence of Celtic music in his own songwriting. "About Before We Go Under, Celtic music is very important to the way I write, that is the main music I grew up with, as my Dad sings and plays piano, so this shapes my melodies a lot.
Apart from these recordings, Scott also reunited with the Kilgours to resurface The Clean several times, up from 1989 to this day. The first fruit of this reunion was Vehicle, now with Robert sharing writing and vocal duties with David Kilgour . "Vehicle was a road/live album, really, because it was the bunch of songs we had written in the practice room in Dunedin before we came away on tour in 1989", says Scott. "It was our first proper album as such and was shortly after we had got back together, so it has a lot of energy and drive, it is fresh sounding too. It was recorded in 3 days at the end of the tour so I'm not quite sure how we managed it. We must have been quite tired; there was quite a bit of shared songwriting too, a lot of co/shared vocals, and a fun album to make."
Following Modern Rock (1995), a slightly more focused offering of the new, poppier Clean formula, in 1996 the trio released Unknown Country, probably the best proper Clean album and one of the finest to come out from the Dunedin scene. From the otherworldly voices in the opening track, "Wipe Me, I'm Lucky", everything's wrapped up in a psychedelic haze which qualifies this album as an undisputed buried treasure. Robert takes lead vocals in a couple of fantastic tunes, including the pastoral "Valley Cab" and the more atmospheric "Clutch." Plus, the record is full of unexpected turns, like brief instrumentals or the Velvet-like "Twist Top," which in a perfect world should've been a hit single.
"Unknown Country was a very interesting album to make, quite different from the others", Scott reflects. "We didn't have a lot written so we just went in and started putting down ideas and patterns and playing with sound effects. It took quite a long time looking back, we took a lot of effort over some songs; we got into a strange kind of world music. Many songs like "Balkans" have very weird time signatures, which we don't often do. There are pop songs on it, but they are outnumbered by the stranger tracks. We didn't do hardly any touring to promote the album so it kind of disappeared, which is a shame, but would be very hard to play a lot of those songs live. Tex (Houston, the Clean's engineer) was always up for experimenting in the studio, and this album was the one where we wanted to try out these ideas. Most of it was made up on the spot, trial and error."
The mid to late Nineties were a fruitful and creative period which rounded off with what could ostensibly be considered the summit of Scott's career. Released via Cooking Vinyl as a solo album, The Creeping Unknown (2000) reads like the consummation of all the musician's strengths, from supernatural, breezing melodies ("Fog And Wind", "Harmonic Deluxe"), to Krautrock instrumentals ("Extinguisher"), modern ambient ("Somewhere On The Coast") and jabs of post-punk à la Wire/Dome ("Shelf Control," "International Loss Adjuster").
"I had great fun making The Creeping Unknown", enthuses Scott. "I wanted it to be very different from everything I had done before. Some of the songs, like "Fog and Wind", were done as a band at David Kilgour's house, but most of the album was done in one 8 hour session with Nigel Bunn. He just turned on all the machines and recording gear, and I just wandered around making stuff up on various instruments so it was "off the cuff", as we say -made up on the spot. I didn't have much written before I went in that night, but all the old stuff Nigel had sounded cool so it was easy to make stuff up. I like doing it that way for a change, and I wanted to show people I could do something other than pop songs."
Throughout this conversation about this career, Scott stressed the importance of live recording. He has always stuck by this formula, which produced some of the more refreshing sounds in the pop world, and last year's Free All Monsters, the last Bats last album, shows his songs as being vital as ever.
"We set up in a live way so we can see each other and communicate well", he declares. "We like to go for a good feel, a groove to capture the song at its best. I had written these songs over the year leading up to the recording and I am really pleased with them."
Through the recording of Free All Monsters, The Bats kept an ace in their collective sleeve with the assistance of engineer Dale Cotton, who is keen to experiment in the studio. Cotton did the mastering of Creeping Unknown and was heavily involved in Ends Run Together, Scott's recent second solo album. The results pleased the musician so much that a third collaboration is on the way. And in view of the excellent results this collaboration has borne, the future for Scott looks promising.
"Working with Dale made a big difference", observes the musician. "I felt I could get my ideas across to him easily... I have just started on another solo album with him so that will be done in a few months, if all goes to plan. I feel it has taken me a long time to learn how to write and record really good songs; you learn all the time, I guess. So each time you record, it gets a little better, maybe..."
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