Guitar Fragments via New Zealand
by Michael Freerix
On the surface, you could say that Dean Roberts is a composer and guitar player but there's a bit more to it than that. His songs are sparse- they seem like being constructed out of fragments. He started out in New Zealand, but has lived all over the world. His first band was the three-piece ‚Thela, that released two records on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace Records, which brought a lot of attention, but the band soon fell apart. After living in New York for five years in the '90's, he moved to Italy and Germany, before going back to New Zealand, where he teaches time-based art.
Roberts grew up on an island near Auckland in New Zealand. His family needed to travel by boat if they wanted to get to the big city of Auckland. He grew up quite isolated, but his dad was member of a single-club, so every month one single would come by mail and new music, most from british indie-charts, would roar inside the walls of the Roberts family when he was still a kid. Soon Dean purchased a guitar and started a song-based band. Till this day he feels influenced by the songs that Ray Davies wrote in the sixties. He has seen him several times perform live, some of these showes where magnificent, some horrible. But even today there is something special about the music of Ray Davies, he admits.
The still-amused Roberts remembers his first guitar-lesson. His teacher was the multi-instrumentalist Danny Minetto, who can be heard playing cello on Flying Nun’s Band Straightjacket Fits' "She Speeds." He drove with Roberts, then finfteen years old, up a mountain, lighted up a joint and put a tape of a Velvet Underground record in his stereo. Both would listen to the tape after that drive home. The second lesson was similar. The guitar-teacher had a guitar with only two strings and he showed him how to make good sounds and simple melodies with these two strings. To this day, Roberts thinks that his style of composing is inspired by these lessons on a two-string-guitar.
Together with two school friends, he started the band Thela, who released their first record on Thurston Moore’s label in 1995, followed by a tour of New Zealand supporting Sonic Youth. "That felt pretty weird," he remembers, „we where basically a living-room band that hardly played in front of people. Suddenly we played in front of big crowds, strumming our punky noise-rock. The audience hated us. Things where thrown at us.“ But later, they toured on their own in the USA.
After a second album, the band fell apart, but Roberts stayed in New York, releasing his next records as White Winged Moth. Still playing electric guitar, his music became slower, sparse, but still incorporated anger. "I just like to bang on the guitar, just to get some sounds out of it. You don’t have to 'play' it, just banging on it produces so much... energy," he says about his attitude towards his main instrument.
After five years in New York, his Visa expired and he moved to Italy, where his solo records All Cracked Medias (1998) and The Black Moths play the Grand Cinema (1999), which were produced in Germany and New York and released on the labels Mille Plateaux and Ritornell. These albums proved to be quite succesful. "I got many offers to play in Italy. So I toured there a lot, with only my guitar and one of the very first laptop computers." After establishing lots of contacts in the music scene there, he stayed for four years, before moving to Berlin. He got a residency at a now-defunct art-space called Podewil. The first time he came into the studio, there was a drummer there, rehearsing. The drummer could not see him. Roberts, together with Werner Dafeldecker, whom he had recorded and performed with extensively, listened to this guy and after some time, he knew he wanted to record with him. His name was Martin Brandlmayer, from Vienna, who had just started his residency at Podewil as well. So, together with a Dafeldecker, he formed the trio Austistc Daughters. This trio produced two albums: Jealousy and Dimond in 2005, and Uneasy Flower in 2007, both released on Kranky in the USA and on Stubgold in Europe. Important contributions to ‚The autistic daughtes’ came from Valerio Tricolo, Chris Abrahams and Martin Siewert.
Although he often records with other people, Roberts does not write songs- "it somehow feels stupid to write songs,“ he says. "So many songs have been written and recorded, I don’t like to add to that pile of songs. I rather work on melodies or patterns, that I record, and then work on these for quite some time, to find something new, something I did not know about before." So finishing an album can be quite time-consuming. Some of his records took years to complete. Therefore, Roberts is totally depending on Valerio Tricoli, computer specialist and composer from Italy he knows for a very long time. Tricoli has the patience and understanding to help Roberts in constructing the recordings into tunes.
After Roberts returned to New Zealand to become a university teacher for 'time-based-art,' he got himself involved in the music scene around the Audio Foundation. The Audio Foundaiton was founded in 2004 to support, promote and preserve 'Sound Art' or 'Outsider Music.' Initially a virtual infrastructuer, in 2011, the foundation found a space for live peformances. Here, Roberts played with many indivudals of New Zealand’s underground scene like Brent S. Hayward, Sam Hamilton and Chris O’Connor. He composed music for several independant films, created sound-art at the University of Auckland and became assistant to New Zealand feature film director and artist Vincent Ward.
His latest recording is a collaboration with basque performance-artist Mattin (who works mostly with noise and improvisation) entitled 5 and released last year. Based around the idea of the number 'five,' musicians had to improvise music pieces, each five minutes long, that Mattin used to record vocals on top of.
Currently, Roberts is a lecturer at dbs music school in Berlin. If his past is any indication though, we expect there will be much more to his career.
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