Perfect Sound Forever

Roy Montgomery

Interview by Mark Williams
(March 2003)

In 1981, the inaugural release of New Zealand's Flying Nun Records was The Pin Group 7" "Ambivalence/Columbia." Following the demise of the group in 1984, members Peter Stapleton and Ross Humphries went on to various acts including The Terminals, Scorched Earth Policy and Bailter Space. Meanwhile, guitarist Roy Montgomery virtually disappeared from the local music scene.

In the early '90's, Montgomery reappeared with Stapleton in Dadamah and then began releasing a steady stream of mostly solo material. A series of lyric-led songs appeared in 7" form, (finally collected on the Drunken Fish compilation 324 E. 13th St. #7) but it was the instrumental record Scenes from the South Island and Temple 4 that really staked his name.

Evoking visions of his travels from the South Island to the rainforests of Guatemala, Montgomery's music has been described as being "...packed with atmospheric moments - dense layers of moody, undulating, glittering guitars, wrapped around each other like DNA strands" (InkBlot Magazine). Certainly, a cursory Internet search on Roy Mongomery reveals a special kind of appreciation, that of those who take his music to heart and keep it close.

Montgomery's latest album The Allegory of Hearing is a tribute to Irish immigrant and amateur ornithologist Richard Henry. Around the end of the 19th century, Henry transferred hundreds of endangered New Zealand native Kakapo parrots to the damp, uninhabited Resolution Island. Unfortunately, Henry underestimated the ability of small mustelid and rodent predators to swim, and the birds that he transferred perished.

For Montgomery fans, there's plenty of information out there on his early '80's career and the subsequent themes running through his solo work like those in Allegory. This interview concentrates more on the process of making words/music/art.

PSF: It was about 10 years (after the Pin Group) before you started putting out records, and then at quite a rate. What were you doing in the interim and what inspired you to pick up a guitar again?

The main reason for the break was a combination of travel and going back to university, which drew me into theatre more than music. I did stuff on acoustic guitar when I was traveling, filed it away and made notes, without it being musical notation. Just taped the odd thing, did a sketch, stuck it on a cassette. I thought at some point, I'll go back to it. Some of it I did use in '84-'85 when I started working in the Free Theatre in Christchurch. So it might seem like I had given up after the Pin Group, but I just went into a different avenue.

I floated 'round on the theatre end of things, doing lighting and sound. It wasn't until 1991 that Peter Stapleton collared me. We'd run into each a couple of times before that and I'd always had a good excuse not to do something... theatre.. university work. On this particular occasion, I had no excuse so I said 'alright.'

PSF: What kind of theatre projects were you doing?

The main content of the theatre work was European experimental work. Stuart Mackenzie wrote plays very much influenced by Samuel Beckett- not normal narrative stuff, very atmospheric and I did the music for it. We did about 10 or 11 productions in the space of three or four years. It was way on the fringe.

I guess it was on a par with what Bill Direen was doing. Bill did the same experimental theatre course at university that most of us had done. He was doing Blue Ladder in Wellington, we were doing Free Theatre in Christchurch.

PSF: Was there any collaboration between yourself and Bill?

Talked about but not done. The only time that we were in the studio together was when he helped out on backing vocals and keyboards for the thing that came out on Siltbreeze. But that was in '94, much later.

PSF: So what kind of music were you listening to that led you to writing these extended instrumental pieces?

By that stage, my tastes had become a lot more eclectic than they were 10 years prior. Film soundtracks were always a thread running through it. I was interested in those from the late '70's when I started watching foreign films. There weren't specific things that made me think 'I'd like to make something like that.' It all fed into a soup of soundtrack type music, not lyric-led stuff.

One thing that influenced me in the States when I was doing this recording was American people feeding me things like Arnold Dreyblatt, even things I should've heard back in New Zealand like Peter Jefferies and Jono Lonie 'At Swim 2 Birds.'

PSF: Time and repetition seem very important element in your instrumental music. Was that something derived from American minimalists?

No. I've tried to read subsequently about some of that music. Philip Glass might have been an influence. He was easily accessible and easy to digest. But the theory of minimalism and repetition wasn't in the forefront of my mind.

More... because I was working on my own and recording on 4-track I had to allow a certain amount of time for things to build up, mistakes to take place and still have enough of a pattern to use. It was more a matter of playing long enough to be able to get into it and at some point, everything came together. I had a basic hunch that I'd have to go for 10 minutes or this one or 15 minutes on that one to get things cooking.

PSF: Then it was a process of editing afterwards?

In terms of four tracks, three are the ones you overdub on top of the basic pattern. I tried not to screw up too much in the subsequent tracks. (I) provided more or less continuous sound on each of the 4 tracks rather than 'I'll do a little bit here, and that'll be two minutes worth and that should work for that' and see what comes out of it. Which (happens with) other people more given to doing chance things, like turning this on and off are more likely to do. I was more concerned with getting some sort of continuity throughout.

There was editing on lots of tracks but not as much as you might think. Some of the things you hear across various albums are the start and finish of that particular piece of work. If it's only two minutes long, it doesn't mean it's a hell of a lot longer.

PSF: What are the particular qualities of the Teisco guitar that suit your purposes?

That kind of a guitar is really a supermarket guitar in the States. I'm not kidding, some of them were sold through K-Mart or the earlier equivalent. They were knockdown Japanese copies of surf guitars. There was no acoustic or electronic theory to go with it. 'They're selling guitars with three pickups? Well we'll give 'em four!' (There wasn't) any concern for harmonics or the sorts of interference you get from things cluttered on the bridge.

One thing I'd been struck by very early on in my listening career in seeing live bands was The Vacuum band. (They) had a guitarist called Allan Meek who used a 4 pick-up guitar to good effect. I made a mental note at the time 'if I ever see something like that I'll go for it.' I struck a completely different make but a 4 pick-up guitar in Chicago which had a great neck on it. The chances of finding a good one were just as even as finding a bad type of guitar. But it did work for me very well.

Hound Dog Taylor had one of these. I think it was a Kawai or a Teisco with 4 pickups. It was very much a trademark of some of these elderly electric blues musicians who used the only guitars they could afford. They didn't have Gibsons, Fenders. They had what sold for fifty bucks new and they could pawn and then reclaim without great care. Hearing that kind of guitar being used so well, knowing that it was bottom of the barrel and it still sounded really good, and better in some ways than some rock guitarists' guitar, made me think 'I should really get hold of one of these things.'

PSF: It's quite exciting to grab a flawed instrument and work with it.

Yeah. I know because I've never been taught to play guitar or learned to play properly - and I think Bruce Russell is the most pure on this - whatever people tell you (that) you shouldn't be doing, you do to see what happens. So, accomplished guitarists and manufactures say in order to avoid this kind of feedback, you should do this and that, and if you're untrained you regard this as a bonus if it happens to make this kind of noise.

That's exactly why garage bands like them, they push things into a different dimension. They sounded more menacing than nice. Finding an old guitar and being able to manipulate it to get sounds that most manufacturers are trying to suppress is quite a good thing. And using things like an E bow or getting a feedback effect is often a way finding out just what they're like because they've got different types of pick ups from a standard professional guitar.

PSF: With Scenes from the South Island and Temple 4, did you consciously sit down and try to capture different places? Or were titles were suggested by the music afterwards?

A mixture of both. You can't guarantee you're going to get one full set of things to go with one concept and one with another. I was working on the two at the same time. One was more sketches of home, the other was a revisiting of a recent experience in total, if that makes sense.

In the case of Temple 4, I knew I was going to use the same pattern throughout the album because I wanted to set up a certain sound. It's like a book, it had different chapters with a theme running through it. With Scenes, I was thinking about sound articulating certain places I knew very well. One was very familiar to me, one was not.

PSF: You recorded those records during a stay in New York, which is almost paradoxical coming from New Zealand - you went to this great big city and took on this internal process.

Yeah, it was a very hermetic experience for all sorts of reasons. Not knowing a lot of people, subletting a place where the resident person was away. You don't know your neighbors, it was very anonymous.

I was also thinking that I only had a certain amount of time to make music and to spend it in that city. And everybody else... you know the story 'Oh, New York it's such a great place, but it's so expensive to live here and there's so much to do.' You go there for inspiration and you end up getting a job to pay bills. I thought I must fight that at all costs.

It was a paradoxical experience. I would go out to get a different kind of noise and city experience but not really use that as material. And I'll use the space that I'm living in as a laboratory to recreate other spaces. That's not unusual. People are often able to focus on things at a distance more easily than when it's around them.

PSF: Perspective.

And it had something to do with... what you value most being not easily at hand, and you think more consciously about it.

PSF: Has the reverse process happened since you returned to New Zealand? Has any reflection on the travel experiences come out in a piece of music?

No, but I wouldn't rule it out. Some things have sat dormant for over 10 years. As long as I get a fairly rudimentary recording, the basic figure, I can always go back to it. There's a lot of material in that vein that I haven't gone back to but would refer to those experiences of travel.

PSF: How did you discover Richard Henry and come to do The Allegory of Hearing project?

Old fundamental ornithological knowledge that I had. A bit of research. I did a play in '97 about Richard Henry. It's a place I've never been and it's a space. I was trying to evoke that. I was trying to change the rules. Rather than articulate something I've been exposed to, evoke something when very few people - including me - have any direct experience of it.

The other aspect of The Allegory of Hearing was to sink myself into spaces that I couldn't actually pin down. If you were to say 'where is this place you're referring to?' it was more like making films for myself in my head and then finding music to go with it. So I'd say that piece goes with this imaginary film I had in my head. The non-Resolution Island stuff in that was various films I could make if I had the wherewithal.

PSF: On the early records there's a lot of clean electric guitars and on The Allegory of Hearing, there's chorus, delay, reverb. Have you thought of making a record on acoustic guitar?

From time to time. I've never had a good enough acoustic guitar to do it. It's easy to make a crappy electric guitar sound good but it's not easy to make a crappy acoustic guitar sound good enough unless you're really going to mess around with it.

I'd probably be more interested in the acoustic harmonic stuff. If I had time, I'd probably build things like Arnold Dreyblatt, Phil Dadson from Scratch (did). I can see all the benefits but it's having the time, the resources and maybe collaborating with the right people. It'd be quite good to set up some sort of workshop where you make acoustic instruments based on hitting strings but I don't have the wherewithal to do that.

PSF: With the lyric based songs what comes first - the music or the words?

Usually the music. Sometimes the words. It's harder to get a good first time set of lyrics out of me than an interesting piece of music. I know that myself. But there are also times when it's not enough just to use an E-bow to express your emotions. You've gotta actually state something that people can recognize as common language.

PSF: The songs are quite melancholy, introspective. Making art is a satisfying and necessary process but do you feel it sometimes has the opposite effect of pulling you too far in there?

Oh... I'm sure I do but it doesn't really last for very long. It might affect a phase of music. I'm very workmanlike about the doing of it. Once I start something I try and finish it. It's hard to get too lost. As I've got older I've become more concerned with using the time as effectively as I can. I dip into it more. It can be just as intense, it's not like you aren't wrapped up in it.

I try and avoid it becoming a lifestyle or total mood. Unless it's something you don't have any control over, which a lot of people who make works of art don't have. They can't just decide to do this or that. You'd have to be super-talented to be able to turn it on and off like that. It often becomes too matter-of-fact to really have much impact.

That's another reason for only doing it fitfully. You have to trust your own sense of importance that (if) you don't need to do it, you don't do it.

PSF: What are some of your favorite lyricists?

Depends if you're talking about meaning or the sound of the singing. I like Tim Buckley and even Jim Morrison. A lot of people find that Doors stuff too contrived. But the guy would have scored reasonably well as a poet without having a band behind him. That turn of phrase, the voice and the rhythm and choice of good images, that's poetic. I think you have to respect that that. Some of that Velvets stuff is not deep but it's effective. Its a combination of intellect and popular culture.

PSF: And delivery?

Yeah. And a kind of less-is-more philosophy. You can achieve a lot of by well chosen words and a spare melody. And repetition without it being cheap repetition. I think that's what the Velvets worked on very well. There's a phonetic element.

I used to like David Bowie, I mean this... I stopped listening to him in 1974, but prior to that it was the sound of his voice and the bizarreness of some of the words. Not that I thought it went anywhere. When you're a teenager it's the fact that you can hang on to some of the lyrical hooks and trot out those phrases. They seem to be relevant. Even if you look at the content and you don't understand what it's about, it just sounds now.

PSF: The sonorous quality of your own voice suits your music.

It's lazy. That's basically what it is. And sometimes that's good. Lazy singers, when they're good, they're really good. I'm very rarely on target. But some things they shouldn't be made too plain or too animated because they go with the emotions. If people are diffident, uncertain or feeling ambiguity about things then shouting is not really consistent with what they're feeling.

(My voice) suits some of things that I come up with in terms of lyrics. I'm often weighing things up rather than (saying) 'I'm really pissed with off with life' or 'this person has done me damage' or 'I've been bad' which is the stock standard therapeutic aspect of a lot of songwriting for people. Which is probably why it's popular. It's a way of saying 'Yes, I agree with that, the worlds a shitter.'

PSF: You mentioned a project based around a studio rather than a 4-track. In the Wire, you mentioned 'banishing Phil Spector's ghosts.' What are your plans there?

Nothing completely bizarre. To do a full-on album with all the bells and whistles that one would have at your disposal in a proper studio. Not deciding in advance I want brass or strings or ten pianos but at least having some choice.

Being able to use guests and people with recognized credentials or some obvious ability that needs to be captured in a studio that can't be done by strapping them to a 4 track and getting them to play down a tiny little channel. That's a corrective to becoming too wedded to the lo-fi technology. You've got to be able to look at the more conventional approach and go with it.

I know I'm probably way out of date because studios are no longer studios, people have gone into computers. It's probably my age and conditioning that tells me I should something in a studio without that meaning a computer studio.

PSF: You prefer analogue over digital?

It's just ignorance. All the stuff I've ever bought and what I grew up with was analogue. I've not been in a position to fork out for digital technology. I'm not too much of a Luddite but I just haven't had the time in the last few years (for) the trainspotting type reading of technical data that I might have done when I was 17 or 18.

I don't have a big attitude. (But) there are some things that sound more interesting in their analogue form than a little box promising you this in (the form) digital can deliver. Like those Wildcat tapeloop things. When you hear one of those for real... it's real space echo. You need that configuration to get it. You can't do it in digital form. (But) no, I'm not a puritan.

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