New Zealand pop music history, like the nation’s landscape, is full of mountainous scenery that often gets overlooked on a world stage. Bands like The Clean, The Chills and The Straitjacket Fits, who should have reached the Hillary-scaling peaks of fame and fortune, have often wound up touring tiny towns in the back of a van. Not that there is anything wrong with that – as that is where the music comes from in the first place. But for some reason the music doesn’t reach the commercial summit that the genius of the band obviously possesses. As a consequence, millions of people visit the Grand Canyon (or watch CGI snowcaps on “Lord of the Rings”) while a handful of people take in the view of a sunset over the Rimutakas (or listen to the Bats).
The Bats – for those of you who have lived in a closet (or outside of New Zealand) for the past 30 years, are the single greatest band New Zealand has ever produced. Which is a feat – as Aotearoa has produced some mighty fine bands, most of which have been on one mighty fine record label – Flying Nun. The Bats formed in 1982 from two other great bands within the history of New Zealand music, The Clean and Toy Love, and have since recorded an endless stream of great pop music, and have played with the likes of Alex Chilton, REM and Radiohead.
Mysterion Art Factory, being more “sunsets over the Rimutakas” kind of people, were thrilled to get the chance to sit down and have a coffee with The Bats bassist Paul Kean and Lead guitarist Kaye Woodward, following their weekend of Wellington shows last month. The questions, like the wind through the Sunday city streets, flew thick and fast…
Firstly, what was the music that first inspired you in your youth?
Paul: I grew up in the sixties and I happened to go to London in 1966 with my family when I was just a wee boy – and what a year that was! The Move played in the overseas visitors club. I was too young to go but I could hear them rehearsing in there. I had a couple of older sisters who were into The Walker Brothers and obviously the Beatles and the Stones, and of course The Kinks and The Troggs. I bought a transistor radio on the way over, and when I got to London I used to listen to the pirate radio stations – classic! What was that movie, “The Boat that Rocked”? – that was me as a kid, listening to the radio under my pillow, going to sleep with this sixties music – yeah it was amazing. And it was American stuff as well, like the Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas and the Papas. So I think that’s been a big influence on my music – living through that.
Kaye: I listened to commercial radio from the age of about 8 to 18, which was about 1970 to 1980, you know – solid pop radio 24/7. Elton John, Fleetwood Mac – stuff like that. But then as soon as I got to uni, when I was 18, I discovered the student radio and that was a whole different world of music – and so the commercial radio stopped –and that got left behind. Then I started listening to more guitar music like John Cale, the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen – it was a sea change really.
And you’ve remained loyal to that music over the years?
Paul: Well Kaye knows, I recently got a bubble gum compilation – a double haha! The Raspberries are on there too! Kaye didn’t like it, so now I listen to it on headphones – and you know what? It’s the first time I’ve ever listened to that music on headphones – and to hear the depth in the production is amazing. And how often they used strings! Phenomenal!
The Flying Nun scene has often erroneously been labeled as the “Dunedin sound”, even though you guys were Christchurch based. Was there a camaraderie or a rivalry between the two cities?
Kaye: I think the scenes were developing independently but then once we starting playing down there and those bands came up to Christchurch then there was definitely communication and helping each other in setting things up and staying at each other’s houses, so there was definitely a camaraderie between the bands rather than a rivalry.
Paul: I used to do sound engineering in Christchurch – live sound and stuff – and a lot of the Flying Nun bands would just hop in an old bomb and make their way to Christchurch – or vice versa – we’d go down there and you’d never be able to afford to take a sound engineer with you so I’d often mix the Flying Nun bands when they were in Christchurch and then someone else would do us when we were down there.
Was there a moment where you guys clicked as a band? What brought The Bats together as a collective?
Kaye: Living in the same house! I was living with (lead singer) Bob. Paul was in his parent’s house, and when they moved out then (drummer) Malcolm moved in there. Then, while Bob was away with the Clean in Auckland, I got wind that there was a couple of spare rooms (at Paul’s place) that were only $11 a week, and not $15 a week, which was a rip-off! So while Bob was away I wrote him a letter to say, “you’ve moved!” and just packed his stuff up, and moved him and myself into Paul’s house… where we still live. Bob and I had started playing together over at the other place, and then when we moved in with Paul and Malcolm they had a band set up in a little room so we just started playing together.
So it was just a natural progression that grew through friendship?
Kaye: Yeah it wasn’t headhunting or anything.
Paul: After the Toy Love experience I wasn’t terribly interested in getting back into music – as a profession. I still liked it, but we would just think, “let’s play at peoples parties and have some fun”. So we did that, and Bob was such a proficient songwriter and coming up with all these great songs – it did click! It really did, and it grew from having fun and playing at friends’ parties. Just being stuck in New Zealand, you knew you weren’t really going to make a mark on the world, and the idea was that we needed to get over to Europe or to London, where the music press is, and try and make your mark there. So we decided pretty early on – ‘let’s get over to Europe’.
During the early days did you have your own studio set-up at home?
Paul: Not in those days, although we did set up a studio at our place for the very first Flying Nun “Double EP”. That was on Chris Knox’s four-track, with Doug Hood doing mixing. Doug had experience with doing live sound engineering but not much experience doing the recording stuff, so we just had standard equipment – basically just mics plugged in through some sort of desk you’d normally see at a venue, and then into the revox.
So there was a lot of recording live to tape?
Paul: Yeah, pretty much. And in terms of doing overdubs, that was pretty hairy haha. The bouncing down was always a little bit risky! Like – “oops – we’ve lost something” haha.
And how has your recording developed since the early days?
Kaye: Well we went from really simple to really complicated in big studios with 24 tracks and overdub nightmares.
Paul: Yeah, we did skip up a wee bit. We went from 8 track in Scotland – that was a new experience for us – “Wow! We’ve got 8 tracks to play with!” – then to 16 tracks at nightshift, then bam! Not into just 24 … but 48 tracks, with huge desks and really complicated setups.
Kaye: For the albums “Fear of God” and “Silverbeet”.
Paul: Sound checks that would take days instead of hours!
Obviously the process was laborious and got a bit technical?
Paul: Yeah – hated it! Big studios, big money, suddenly you’re out of control really.
When the band made it to the UK did you find the warmth that you were hoping for?
Paul: I think we felt it more when we went to Scotland, we stayed with a friend of a friend and did some recording there and had a great time. And we played in Germany and what worked was playing for friends, and people who we’d met rather than doing the gigs. We did a few gigs in London, which had a more industry feel. We recorded in a fancy studio there, but that was on the midnight to dawn shifts! That’s where we recorded ‘Daddy’s highway’ – well half of it.
You filmed some videos in the UK too. Was that something that the label would pay for?
Paul: No! Friends again. With an old wind-up Bolnex from memory! A 16mm.
Kaye: The whole of the footage slipped – which is why (the video for the single) “Made up in Blue” is like “chk chk chk chk"…and now bands are paying mega-dollars to try and replicate the dodgy camera look…
Paul: Yeah! They need to find the mistake button. “More noise!” – push the noise button!
You got the chance to play with Alex Chilton on that UK visit in 1986. Have you ever had a moment where you’ve been star-struck?
Kaye: If I was star-struck with someone I would avoid them.
Paul: I got to talk to Michael Stipe when we played with them and you just look for the human side. You know that they don’t want someone dribbling. From my experience with Toy Love – we got to a degree of fame I suppose where we had fans wanting our autographs and things like that – where you could see that sense of division in finding people you could really relate to. And the other ones on the other side of the industry who were just the ones greasing up to you – who wanted to schmooze and do all that sort of crap, you know? So when I do meet famous people I just try and find that common ground I suppose.
We’ve heard legends about Radiohead abandoning you on tour in Europe…
Kaye: No. We abandoned them. It’s the other way round!
Paul: We were booked to do the first six dates on that tour. We’d heard that Radiohead didn’t really want us – they wanted some other band, so they were letting us do a few, and it was really Belly’s tour – they were headlining and then Radiohead were in the middle, and we were first, but Radiohead were certainly the act of the night.
Kaye: Radiohead got really big between the tour being organized and when it happened, so by the time it happened they were massive, but they were still supporting Belly.
Paul: So we started hearing rumours through the agents and things – “we don’t think Radiohead want you on the tour”, and we thought “What?” – so we were bitter about that at one stage…
Kaye: We were just offended – haha.
Paul: Yeah. We wrote a song called Empty Head. It related to MTV and them becoming famous with ‘Creep’ haha. But then we got to really like them… as the tour went on they liked us and we became friends and then we got asked to do more dates… so we ended up doing 14 (dates).
Kaye: But we had our two children with us who were 3 and 4. So we abandoned them (Radiohead that is – Ed.)
So you were touring with your children at the time?
Kaye: Yeah – we’ve done quite a bit of that.
Everyone praises Paul and Linda McCartney for doing that – when they had a million dollars at their disposal. How was it as indie musicians?
Kaye: We just made it work. Paul and I personally paid half, and The Bats paid the other half. That was another point of “problem” – that the record company was fine to pay $80,000 or $100,000 to produce this album but they wouldn’t give us any help……to live…Yeah. So we had to save up. We always took someone with us. I didn’t want to leave my daughter with someone in a hotel, or use a babysitting service, so we insisted that somebody had to come with us. It was a bit expensive but at least I had that peace of mind that they were being looked after. That was actually the point at the end of that Radiohead tour – my daughter was turning 5 and I wanted her to start school – and for things to be a bit more normal for her. So that was another reason why we went home. We had various people in Dunedin too, other friends in different places that would babysit for us on tour, around NZ and Australia.
So the camaraderie of the Flying Nun scene has kind of branched off…
Kaye: …into babysitting!
Paul: Yeah, the JPS (The Jean Paul Sartre Experience) guys helped out and the Straitjacket Fits guys helped out when we were touring with them.
Kaye: We would go on stage first. Then I would run back to the bus, then run back to the gig, then run back to the bus… It was a bit of an effort, but it was worth it.
The early Flying Nun scene was very much populated with females. Most music scenes in the history of pop seem a lot more male oriented…
Kaye: I don’t know if I was super aware of it at the time. It was pretty open and inclusive. Maybe we’re not as sexist as other places. Flying Nun was a bit of a reaction to all that male orientated rock, so maybe that’s why there were more women involved. I don’t think I was aware of it at the time… but now that you mention it – yeah.
The Bats have made music that has lasted over time. Are there any Bats songs that stand out more for you? Have you ever sat in the studio and thought – “this is a classic?”
Kaye: Every single song we’ve done I’ve loved.
Paul: Some of the ones that I would think of as classics came together in the studio – they weren’t pre-planned or pre-rehearsed…
Kaye: “Afternoon in bed” – that just sort of came up…
Paul: “North by North” was, to a degree, like that too. We had put down the rhythm track to “North by North” – it was almost just like a jam in the studio. Then it was like “Well Kaye – you should overdub some guitar”, so we just sent Kaye out and she practiced up something. I remember we just recorded her practicing haha – and it worked. It was really immediate. And “Block of Wood” – I remember rehearsing that in a squat in Kensington Oval…
Kaye: It was originally called the “Hackney Pluck” because of the ‘ding ding ding’ – like we were stuck in some dungeon in Hackney. So that developed into “Block of Wood”.
Paul: It’s often the first few times you play a song that there’s a magic thing going on there – “Oh – where’s this thing come from?” Something pops out of it – it might just be the acoustics of the room that help it. Different rooms give you a different ambience – suddenly you’ve got something coming out of an experience, a time, a place.
Kaye: We don’t have a lot of time to practice – so our practice sort of ends up being our life!
And there we heard it – straight from The Bats themselves – life is a practice with no room for silly concepts like idols or perfection. With that they politely said their goodbyes, and walked back out into the freezing Wellington Sunday wind. We watched the two of them hurriedly organize their next move before Paul began to sprint down Victoria Street, his long trench coat flapping in the icy gale. It was obvious that they were in a hurry to catch their flight home – running late because of two loyal fans who had too many questions to ask – but they didn’t seem to mind. In an industry full of CGI mountains and false idols, The Bats are the real deal.
For more info and music by The Bats fly to: http://www.thebats.co.nz/