New Zealand in the 21st Century, and it ain’t Jangly
"Great tragedy of the South Seas. Three million people trapped alive."
Pitch-fuckin'-fork's critical assessment of a band with a name as desperate as PERFECT PUSSY is this: "Combining headlong distortion with radically honest lyrics, Perfect Pussy are one of the year's boldest new rock bands." And bold they do seem, as their outspoken lead lady sure knows how to out-speak: "I'm talking about really intense stuff . . . What am I going to call it? 'Song About How My Best Friend Blew My Boyfriend the Day After We Broke Up'?" So here we are, O great cultural arbiter, existing within a worldwide political system that is tearing the fucking world apart, and all these idiots have to scream about is some fucking ex-boyfriend shit? That's your idea of "radical honesty"? Of Pitchfork Posse's blatant bullshit, the writeup rabidly raves: "Not that anyone could actually make out those words by simply listening to the song." But for some reason, it means it in the best possible way.
Why do I give a shit about Pitchfork? Of course, I don't really -- but in a place like New Zealand you can't help but notice what's going on in other places when somewhere else is all there is. Our nickname after a flightless bird, the kiwi, could not be more apt. Still, anyone familiar with the Flying Nun story will know that it's not all bad, etc. -baffling distance happens to make for some lively tunes. What does bum one out, however, is that in the age of instant communication (*snore*) and social media (*snooze*), a modern New Zealand band can't get one fucking review without being compared to their elders.
So, long story finally cut short, lemme do you a favour and list off the bands that are adapting to a hostile climate. The right-wing governments of the pacific may be syphoning all life out of our waters, but at least there's plenty of good punk to fill the abyss. Here are the bands that resist, react, respond, and thank fucking christ, have more important things to sing about than some some shitty velvet underground pizza bullshit. They might not yet have the influence of NZ punk champs the Mint Chicks (botherwithearly stuff the most and I wrote a particularly hyperbolic account of their legacy if you need a quick primer), but they'll get you on your way. If my little ol' outlook is well-considered, here's hoping they don't get sucked into the grey goo that is internet culture.
AUCKLAND: "All my friends are cunts. All my friends are cunts. All my friends are cunts." Hit repeat and you've got an empty room. To those strong, resilient, or numb enough to stand in the few-numbered crowds of early Girls Pissing On Girls Pissing shows, it was a feeling of hypnotic nausea to see such emotional self-immolation by one shirtless dweeb. I met Casey Latimer when he was playing with NZ's political punks of folklore, Sharpie Crows, and I can safely say that with the sight of his shaved head + muttonchops combo, my comfortably white & middle-class self was was fucking shaken by his presence. The only thing that could possibly make this neo-pagan druid-type personality more intriguing is that he actually turned out to be a totally chill, approachable guy. The 'stage' as a metaphor usually has some implication of performance or disjunction from reality, but from the middle of my very transfixed brow I would theorise that GPOGP proves its function as a space for ritual. I'm not being metaphoric; get Jimmy Page on the phone because this is some Alistair Crowley shit.
It's like witnessing an exorcism. Yeah, it would be easy to wilfully interpret this as an overreached attempt at shock, but GPOGP's depth as a band and as an art project is chasmic. It's a void created out of spite; then filled up with desperation, contempt, horror and other shallow words that could not paint a strong enough picture of the kind of trauma this band craftfully embodies in live performance. Where irony prevails, GPOGP disinfects. How much more could be expected of a band mostly discoverable through fucked-up Google search terms? You just wait.
Listen:Eeling Watch:’The Dowser' live in Dunedin
AUCKLAND: It took big-name studio production in NZ to realise Thom Burton's first schizo-punk fantasy, Haunted: a kind of Jamaican dancehall & Wire amalgam, washed over by surf in a cavern of disembodied howls. If only its release wasn't so doofusey -- completely unmastered and hand-distributed by CD-R -- more people might know about the first Wilberforces album. Haunted's influence, instead, has been quiet but not unfelt. It would be hard for any art-kid, or alt-kid, or any-kid to overlook such eccentricities as these yelpy ping-pong vocals and a very unashamedly thuck Noo Zulland acksent. Perhaps what kept the W's together despite such botchments -- and a peculiar curse where three different drummers with the same name moved to the same city at different times (a drummer story second only to the The DHDFDs: read on for How It's Done) -- was their resonance within Auckland. They eventually pared the frills away to a membership of fewer members, but long-fans like myself are relieved to find no compromise in ferocity or neuroticism. Wilberforces' varied past, along with their contorted sound, reflects well the disparity of a city as tangled and conflicted as Auckland: a port to the larger world.
Listen:Vipassana, Haunted (if you can find it) Watch:Tidal Waves
WELLINGTON: Combing alternate universes for their elements: throat singing, turntables and prodigious drumming (all of which somehow adds up to a lot better than you'd think), The All Seeing Hand might as well just make a career from being a walking press release. Their quick ascent in popularity is owed to their founders' local longevity: Ben Knight (drummer of Teen Hygiene) and Alphabethead (Alphabethead of Alphabethead) intermingled with the Wellington art scene in that mingly way that artists love to do. Consequently, they've had performance artists, video artists and all kinds of artists contributing to the resulting art-goo, a sticky sonic creation that clings to all kinds of surfaces. Do not ever watch this band on acid if you like your mind unscraped.
Listen:Mechatronics Watch:Live at Camp A Low Hum '13
AUCKLAND: Bashing your head against a wall is a more literal thing for some bands than others. For others, it's not a wall, it's a steel gallon drum. Whichever way you beat it, DHDFDs have pretty much all kinds of self-destruction covered in a Buttholean, accidentally-alternative kind of way (the best kind). Their early days nearly a decade ago were well-spent, ringleading what was a thriving scene for under-18s in Auckland (some of which is documented here and at Papaiti). The frantic, messy nature (blood) of DHDFDs shows had a far-reaching appeal -- to Japan, as it happens, where they toured as 16-year olds after they made friends with King Brothers (who had stayed at the singer's parents' house on tour). It took some serious fundraising (well, serious for a buncha teens: selling sausages by the shops, a peculiar fixture of NZ's small-town-ish-ness), the kind of dedication that remains to this day despite their 11 drummer turnaround (no joke). Trust me -- I say this even after they botched a UK tour I had planned and booked for them.
Listen:French Fries Watch:’Babysitters Club'
AUCKLAND: The Gordons & The Skeptics & Sharpie Crows: As far from the clean/green PR front of NZ as it gets. The rumble of bass characterises a distant thunder within this picturesque tourism brochure of a place, and the guitar, shrill and lunatic, the collective shriek of a people laced with cabin fever. Rose-tinted foreigners, study up on maybe the infamous AFFCO video, or our numerous small-town massacres for proof/truth that nowhere is perfect, not even paradise. With all the themes of modern decay abound in art, this much could be taken for granted. But being at the planet's furthest, most isolated corner makes such bottom-feeding, scum-sucking algae-eaters that much more vile to comprehend. Even our biggest city, Auckland, is not without its disturbing tales: one tuft-haired junkie, a samurai sword, an uzi, and two severed hands, culminating in a fatal shooting at the petrol station I would fill up at as a teenager. You should most certainly listen to Civil Union harp on, in all their country-teasing glory, about the tub o' shit that NZ secretly is; and you can do it in real life too: I'm booking a tour for C.U. in the U.S. this year, July-N-August 2014, so get in touch if you can offer any O.K. D.I.Y. shows.
Listen:Civil Union EP Watch:’Gerry Brownlee' live in Dunedin
CHRISTCHURCH: Arson City Pt. I -- After an earthquake that pretty much fucked the entire city, Christchurch is rebuilding its sonic self. For context, picture a post-apocalyptic hive of crime and decadence, utter urban degeneration; and a place that was such a thing long before any silly geo-bowels moved themselves around. This is Christchurch, city of casual racism, arson, and modified cars. The whole crime thing might explain why a band like Log Horn Breed might feel a particular allegiance to Chicago -- dunno about you guys, but with all the Steve Albinists in my neck of the woods it's always refreshing when one doesn't prefer Shellac to That Other, Better One. Cookiecutters or none, originality travels in a dumptruck for LHB. Their Perpetual Lead Shrieker, Alex, ages some 20-30 years beyond the rest of the band -- a somber bunch of post-teens who enjoy the colour black a whole bunch -- and as you've guessed, this sure makes for a spectacle. Rumour goes that the dude dropped his job, divorced his wife and gave up his entire life for punk in Log Horn Breed. The monolithic rhythm of the sound confirms an ideological solidarity: The Fall (a charting band in NZ at one point, which should really make sense by this point in my writeup). But-- my opinion has always been that influence-listing is the bad-work of a lazy writer, so I'll leave the laziness to you if I've really sold it that poorly this far in. I'll end this with a question, reader, like some terrible clickbait thinkpiece... What could be more infinitely appealing than Fall-bini-fide r-r-repetition to pummellingly backdrop a raving 50 year old dude? Answer: Infinity has no end.
CHRISTCHURCH: Arson City Pt. II -- Bits n' Pieces was a convenient title in 2011, considering that's exactly what Christchurch as a city was to become that very February. Now, all abbreviated and stuff -- moniker, members, and music -- BnP are as scattered as the city itself. Take a listen to Welcome To Mediocrity for outright silliness at its NZ best, where sample usage stands out not as a show of cultural cool but a compliment to our brevity of attention span in this generation of immediacy. Prepare for bafflement as Surly Singer Steve, with all the charisma of a disgruntled army sergeant, barks out his doctrine of punk nihilism: "I give my soul to Satan, Jesus or Allah / I sacrifice six packs a day and stumble round the yard." BnP is now gone for good, I hear, making full circle of a classic Steve-ism: "Nothing, then four deaths."
Listen:Welcome To Mediocrity Watch:’Cleanliness' live in Auckland
CHRISTCHURCH: Arson City Pt. III - While most bands on Christchurch's Melted Ice Cream may be jagged and rough, the label's workaholic-in-chief Joe Sampson cleanly traces a line out of the disarray: his other bands T54, Salad Boys and '83 Girls are much tidier in approach than what his weekly schedule must be like. The best example of Sampsonian levelheadedness is a band as rhythmic as the name might suggest: the Dance Asthmatics, who from their Krafty Kraut Kore are the embodiment of dancing on uneven ground. To characterise the rancid environment from which they sprung, S.S. Steve is back for more cartoony gruffness, belching out a more introverted vocal sludge this time. Their surrealist ventures are more displacing than any acid-laced Clean jam, if you ask me, but what hits me most is still what was their first entry into NZ punk: a track called 'Turbo Boston Crab'. In its sludgy, cavernous way, the music paints a description of NZ's city of sin as if it was a kind of dystopian mecca. 'Hollow Sound'? Actually, yeah, DAs, you're right - that is what this sounds like. While daily life in metropolitan New Zealand is plainly dull, set to music like this it's a fuckin' nightmare realised.
Listen:GODDAMFUCK Watch:'Hospital' live in Auckland
DUNEDIN: Tim Player, anxiously jumping around in his drum seat and SCREAMING their twixt-song courtesies; Lucy Hunter, wretching all over the stage with her hair in a tangle over her twisted body and her instrument, which she plays much less like an actual bass than a grand piano. The two founding members of Opposite Sex, joined by a third avant-guitarist, complete a picture of that classic 'much better live than on record' thing. And just here, I'll quickly note that their record (an actual 12", luddites) sets a high, high bar on its own -- one of the few mild overseas successes from this country in recent years that is deserving of every clap of the hand. BB6's Marc Riley, Q, Uncut, Popmatters.com... all those hideous assholes and more raved about this fantasy-pop gem, this hunk o' vinyl, so if you're the type to care for fickle words-on-record, there you go. But sincerely, in spite of what it seems (...Lilting waltzes? ...Sea shanties?), this music is the product of one of the best bands you can see in this country. Why? Tim Player's split schedule as drummer, Meltzerian zine-slave and performance artist personifies it, and exactly what is the best thing about Dunedin: a city where a music and art are the same.
Listen:Opposite Sex Watch:’La Rat' live on a boat
AUCKLAND: A bearded guy I know (...our bass-player) once described New Zealand as "a country of awkward relatives." It is indeed a small place, so he's not wrong in that you could probably be related to someone you know. But what he means more is that the small-town small-world nature of NZ results in embarrassment on the scale of world headlines. Our Prime Minister, to pick just one slight example, can be a calculating, tyrannical neoliberaleader at the same time he is a national humiliation. Seeking the escapist route, we toured the US in 2012 -- you might've come to one of our shows where we got hurt a whole lot and fell on a few people. Nearly everything we write ends up being about neoliberalism, which as you've probably figured by this here writing, is closer to home than anything for 2014's young in New Zealand. We started this band for the same reason I'm writing this whole thing: to take NZ punk to its illogical extremes, which I can proudly say has so far been a failed venture because we didn't consider that 'punk' has been so stifled by the cultural climate of New Zealand that it barely exists as a self-description anymore. Well, with an audience of at least ourselves, we can try.
Listen:Screaming In Tongues Watch:’Why Won't Anybody Have Sex With Me?' live in Auckland
AUCKLAND: I'll gloss over the possible oxymoron of 'stoner post-hardcore', the broken-stuff-per-show rule, the time the drummer jumped from the stage into a lagoon (or hung from a basketball hoop -- yeah, I know), or when the guitarist broke a tooth, or when noise control turned up every time, or the mushroom trip recording experiment. Now that you've been adequately glossed: Reuben Winter, player of guitars, is at age 19 the most prolific musician in New Zealand. Objectively speaking. Eight successful & popular musical projects since he was 13, at my eight-fingered count. So it's no wonder that US underground culture, with all their All Ages scenes and what have you (DC & LA & Seattle have you the most, in R's case), had such an effect on shaping the musical consciousness of someone who spent the majority of his band-life not being able to get into bars. His ever-presence in the Auckland scene is second only to his knowledge of music, with debts to Lil B and Hatanarash equal in measure: knowledge that would come as a surprise to any person who hadn't seen the dynamic, varied nature of Caroles on stage. Postscript: In 2012 I went to an XBXRX show in LA, a band known for similar noise-freakiness and about as much youthful energy; a brief conversation I had with that guy Vice Cooler was quick to reveal a fact I found jarring: the most immediate memory he had of his last NZ visit was a teenage kid called Reuben.
Listen:Caroles Watch:’Over Head'
DUNEDIN: Mainly Spaniards, one of them Darned Flying Nun Bands, put it quite well: "We'll go out and get drunk together and get depressed together / That's what your friends are for." They're right. When it isn't outright beautiful, the South Island is a cold & gloomy place to be. It's no wonder that Dunedin is so bipolar: its people, its music, and in this case, a band with a name like Scattered Brains Of The Lovely Union. Along with their now-departed BJM-loving buddies, The Communist Rainbow Relationship, they evidence a certain communal theme that is potent among this sect of the Dunedin crowd -- an all-inclusive all-understanding that while everyone might be fucking crazy, safety-in-numbers logic prevails when it comes to making eccentric music. And such is where the creative nucleus of these dozen-or-so friends stems: having their longstanding friendships confirmed by years of musical collaboration as far back as Logan Park High School (this crowd started especially young, born ~'89-92), where their creating-of-age was sparked by Chance & The Contortions (more than Chili & The Peps, like most dumb kids like myself). Indeed, you can thank Dunedin's progressive socio-local politics and hippie parents for the weird streaks in this young bunch: Excellent Fucking No Wave was being made from as young as 13. Anyway, I'll spare you the varied (but by no means un-intriguing) history of a cool bunch of friends and continue my case for the new Southern Psychedelic Movement. Through three things: a revolving cast of creative friends, the two bands that encompass their collective mucus, and their entrepreneurial startups (Proxy Music and Charisma Collective); all you need is drugs to fulfil any teenage dream of youthful, hedonistic glory: and then you have Scattered Brains Of The Lovely Union. In their gentler moments, you have sweet lullabies like 'Nights'; at their craziest peak, they are the kind of drunken singalong I witnessed at a festival in early 2012, with only eachother and their instruments to keep from falling off the stage. Yep, they were that fucking drunk it could have been a total disaster, or worse, a bore. But instead, it was neither.
Listen:Trip And Listen To Scattered Brains Of The Lovely Union Watch:Live at Radio One
AUCKLAND: Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, Auckland. An exasperated sigh escapes my lips and dribbles upon my 'h' key, sticking itself with a kind of frantic desperation. 'You're Not Invited', in three self-evident words, explains (hoarsely and repeatedly, until passed out from exhaustion) what I slyly hinted at towards the end of the above Wilberforces writeup. There are few positives, or linings of silver, to Auckland's mess of motorways and failed public transportation besides a useful metaphor for the city's social realm. That is, at least as far as the music scene goes, horribly, horribly, neurotic and depressed and sexually repressed, and plenty more bad states for a collective people to be in. We all know that with underground scenes, alternative as they may be, there exists the same exclusionary bullshit as anywhere. Auckland is no exception to this well-defecated-in pool, but there is a special kind of floater in these social hot springs. Auckland audiences could be mistaken for stuck-up if their social anxiety wasn't so painfully obvious: perpetually semi-circling the stage like some kind of half-assed sharks. 'You're Not Invited' is, in a weird way, some kind of invitation (to fuck off). If coolness is by definition not wanting to be cool, these guys win, but thankfully it's not: Guitarist Kristal tells me that she just wants to be fuckin' rich -- which is far from the Minutemen school of punk, but D. Boon & Mike Watt weren't single mothers, nor were they totally badass ones like Kristal -- so let me tell you, that is cool. Thanks to the stretchy anus of definition that is the word 'punk', I'm getting away with it because in a world with bands like Las Tetas, shit oughta be told like it is. Or like it should be. 2014 let's-get-rich US tour impending - give 'em a show if they come to your area.
Watch:'You’re Not Invited' live at Camp A Low Hum
The truth is that music from NZ never stopped being good. Flying Nun just stopped releasing the worthwhile shit. Flying Nun also has a nasty habit of ripping off young bands - a detail (wait-- nope, a fact cemented throughout its 35-year history and into middle-age) its buddy-buddy Pitchfork doesn't mind sparing in its foamy praise. Scene-rumours whisper of band lawyers twisting and turning their very best to get out of sticky FN contracts, bands having to fundraise to release their own goddamn music by their own goddamn legwork, and with what little worship is heaped upon this tiny country in modern times, all of it goes to the grandaddy indie-tution that is Flying Nun.
Without the useful bridge that labels like Flying Nun once were, NZ's scene is once again backed into a corner where we must inbreed and re-evolve while the environment grows progressively worse. It would be our hope that the world, at least, looks on while we bare our collective asses. Metaphor attempts aside, the only hope of overseas recognition/interaction/recollection for many bands from these parts is a sea of online blogs, all of them shitty. After all, there are no pressing plants in New Zealand; the only bands worth any shits in this country can't afford the exorbitant pressing & shipping cost in the first place (hint: that's why this is the probably the first time you've heard of this stuff). he one alternative to blog-awfulness for bands with any sense of ambition is a full-scale overseas tour, the enormity of which cannot be organised on a whim; months of planning and fundraising is required for any band to experience a DIY trail as extensive as America's. How insulting it is, then, that the only slightly possible reward is a nod to the successes of the Flying Nun scene and their antiquated Dunedin chums, right at a time when creativity and invention in New Zealand has been so profoundly musical like never before. Just ask labels like Melted Ice Cream.
When there are plenty of powerful DIY acts subverting and subversing without an end-goal business strategy to distract them, with no objective other than self-fulfilment and a peripheral hint of political alienation, you can be kinda glad that careerist avenues aren't even an option. When music from New Zealand is at its best, hopelessness is a strength.
The above bullshit will be part of some kind of zine I assemble when I head back States-wards in June/July/August. Let me know if you want a copy at michaelm2391-at-gmail.com. Better yet, offer to distro some NZ shit or invite a band over for a tour.
I have an archive of live vids of these sorta bands and their milieu called Live Exorcisms.
Ed.: Thanks to Michael for his enlightening and passionate reportage of his local scene - if you'd like to do the same for your town/country/region, please contact the editor at termibore-at-aol.comTo read other TB features, go here.