Three decades under the influence
by Laura Williamson
REM’s Mike Mills once called The Chills the second greatest band in the world (REM being the first, of course). Stephen Malkmus admits he pinched a melody from the Verlaines’ Death and the Maiden for a Pavement song. Synth stars MGMT cover The Clean’s Anything Could Happen in concert. Mark Arm of Seattle’s Mudhoney, the man credited with coining the term “grunge”, loves the Tall Dwarfs.
It’s all part of the strange success story that is Flying Nun and the Dunedin Sound: a tiny record label and a group of bands from a small, damp university town at the bottom of the world who, in spite of themselves, made music that reverberates today.
When Dunedin bands The Clean, The Chills, the Verlaines, along with Sneaky Feelings and The Bats, recorded for Flying Nun in the early eighties, it was beyond improbable that they would one day be heard in America, much less influence some of that country’s most successful artists.
As Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd explains, it was rare then for kiwi acts to find a market outside of their own neighbourhoods, much less their home country. “Even the music scenes in different towns were insular. To make a toll call or fly overseas was extravagant.”
Yet the Dunedin scene stood out. The Clean, says Shepherd, were “astonishing”, and it was becoming clear that a sort of musical alchemy was happening with the bands from their hometown. “We all kind of knew they were special.”
Flying Nun was born in 1981 when Shepherd, then a Christchurch record-store employee, decided that local musicians were producing some pretty great music and it was time someone recorded it. He decided to set up a record company. He didn’t really know what he was doing.
“When I started the label it was part of post-punk. People were just picking up instruments and playing music, experimenting, mucking about. It was similar with starting a record label. There was the idea that you could do it yourself.”
And he did. The label’s second release, The Clean’s Tally Ho! was recorded for $50. It went to number 19 on the New Zealand Singles Chart. The Boodle Boodle Boodle EP followed later that year, making it to number five and keeping The Clean on the charts for six months. Flying Nun had a future.
That this future would be at first defined, and then remembered, by the Dunedin Sound was assured with the release of a double EP nicknamed the ‘Dunedin Double’. It featured a quartet of bands: The Chills, Sneaky Feelings, The Stones and the Verlaines. On the surface, the four differed. The literate, classically-tinged novelty of the Verlaines was a far cry from the beer-soaked din of The Stones.
Yet, despite these differences, there was a sound that united the bands. It goes something like this: rough but melodic, sixties jingle-jangle with a punk rock outlook. Structurally innovative. Not shy with the keyboards. Smart, sometimes melancholy, sometimes comic, often pretty, and, owing to low-tech recording gear, all of it wrapped in a nebulous fuzz, the sonic equivalent of the damp mist that envelops Dunedin in winter.
Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop, the label that launched Nirvana and now represents groups like The Shins and Band of Horses, was assistant music director at community station KCMU in Seattle during the eighties. He remembers this sound well.
The early Flying Nun bands, he explains, were making their own version of the “pop-informed indie rock” that American college radio wanted to hear. It caught on. Dunedin became a “regional scene”, on par with places like Athens, which spawned REM, and the Pacific Northwest, birthplace of the Seattle Sound.
“Records were intercontinental semaphores, a way of conjuring up a place or a region. I had a conception of what Dunedin must be like: beautiful, remote and crawling with great bands.”
One thing which defined the Dunedin groups was the way they were recorded. Chris Knox of Tall Dwarfs owned a portable TEAC four-track recorder, and offered his services as ‘producer’ on many of the early Nun releases, including the Dunedin Double. It was a low-tech affair, much of it done in friends’ flats.
Like the shoddy production on seminal Sonic Youth albums (their second release, Bad Moon Rising was recorded for $800), the lo-fi approach somehow made the music better, not worse.
Listening to it now, it is striking how much the Dunedin bands anticipated the power of mixing dissonance and harmony, a feature of the “loud-quiet-loud” aesthetic embraced by the Pixies and made stratospherically famous by Nirvana.
The Dunedin Sound was first showcased overseas on Flying Nun’s 1985 Tuatara compilation, which Poneman recalls getting “heavy rotation” at KCMU. The album featured, among others, The Clean, the Verlaines, The Chills, Tall Dwarfs, Sneaky Feelings and The Bats. It made it to America on import and began to wend its way around the country via college radio, fanzines and word of mouth.
Nils Bernstein, Director of Publicity at Matador Records, owned Seattle store Rebellious Records in the eighties, and remembers the impact of Tuatara.
“People were really floored by songs like Death and the Maiden and Pink Frost. It was an album that new-wave girls, brainy pop geeks and noise rock fans all loved. You know how they say about the first Velvet Underground album: it sold terribly, but everyone who bought a copy started a band. It’s kind of like that with the Tuatara comp.”
Certainly, Dunedin bands were churning out music that sounded very little like anything on the mainstream charts at the time. The Chill’s iconic Pink Frost was released in June, 1984. A melodic, haunting tale of manslaughter implied, its repeated plea of “what can I do if she dies?” is the exact opposite of the song that was New Zealand’s number one single that month: Kenny Loggins’ Footloose.
It was a difference Flying Nun was proud of. The Tuatara liner notes flaunt the label’s DIY ethic, describing “records transported from one town to the next in a band’s rattling Bedford, carried processionally through city streets by a series of untrained hands to be deposited on records shop counters with apologies for losing the invoice.” In fact, when Tuatara was released, four years into the lifespan of the company, Flying Nun still didn’t have a logo.
Yet, despite the Bedford, despite the lack of branding, the Nun bands reached people. Along with Pavement, the list of musicians who cite the influence of Flying Nun is long: from Sonic Youth to Cat Power, from Dinosaur Jr to Yo La Tengo to Panda Bear. The Chills, a song by Swedish indie outfit Peter, Bjorn and John, pays “homage” to the band, according to bass player Bjorn Yttling. Even UK alt darlings Pete and the Pirates, who, with an average age of 25, were only just born when Tuatara came out, describe themselves as “greatly influenced” by the Dunedin Sound.
As for the original recordings, Shepherd recently re-acquired Flying Nun from Warner Music, and is back at the helm after more than ten years away. High on the agenda is back catalogue, much of which is currently unavailable. Flying Nun reissued the Verlaines’ Juvenilia earlier this year, and Shepherd promises more, including, possibly, a compilation or two to mark the label’s 30th anniversary in 2011.
Meanwhile, the accolades keep coming. American music magazine SPIN recently ranked the 125 most influential albums since SPIN was launched in 1985. The list is bookended by Moby’s Play, the best-selling electronic album of all time, and Achtung Baby by a little group called U2. At 109 is The Chills’ Submarine Bells.
Roger Shepherd is not surprised. He detects echoes of the early Dunedin bands everywhere, both in the music of those who acknowledge the Flying Nun influence and those who are oblivious to it. “I hear it every day.”
Dunedin is small, but the music that came out of Dunedin in the eighties was big, and it’s still audible today. Just turn on the radio.
This feature ran in the GO section of The Press, 23 July 2010.