Great still sounds great

The Verlaines line-up that recorded <i>Hallelujah - All the Way Home</i> in 1985, Robbie Yeats ...
The Verlaines line-up that recorded <i>Hallelujah - All the Way Home</i> in 1985, Robbie Yeats (left), Graeme Downes and Jane Dodd.
Ben Howe
Ben Howe
Xpressway Records artists in early 1989, from left Bruce Russell, Peter Jefferies, Peter...
Xpressway Records artists in early 1989, from left Bruce Russell, Peter Jefferies, Peter Gutteridge and Alastair Galbraith.

Due to interest from overseas music fans a raft of Dunedin albums from the 1980s and '90s have been reissued on vinyl this year. Gavin Bertram reports.

Twenty years ago it seemed as though Dunedin music was taking over the world.

During 1993 Dunedin artists Peter Jefferies and Alastair Galbraith toured the United States together, and the Noisyland tour featuring Dunedin's Straitjacket Fits and The Bats traversed North America and Europe.

Meanwhile the Verlaines recorded and toured in the US, and the 3Ds were also creating an international stir.

Interest in Dunedin music was emphasised in 1994 when David Kilgour appeared on the cover of US music industry bible Billboard under the headline ''Popping Up from Down Under''.

Two decades on there is still much interest in the Dunedin music of that era, and this year has seen a lot of it rereleased. Many of the reissues, from New Zealand's Flying Nun label and various northern hemisphere imprints, are available in lavish vinyl editions for the collectors' market.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the Verlaines' best known single, Death and the Maiden.

That and other early material appears on the 1987 Juvenilia compilation, which along with their 1985 debut album Hallelujah - All the Way Home,was reissued yesterday by Flying Nun.

Formed in 1981, the Verlaines were part of the Dunedin Sound wave of bands that also included the Chills, the Clean, and Sneaky Feelings.

All were released on Flying Nun, the label launched in Christchurch in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, which gained international prominence in the world of independent music.

Shepherd departed Flying Nun in the late 1990s, only to buy it back from Warner Music in December 2009. Under Warner, much of the label's back catalogue was no longer available.

As well as releasing contemporary New Zealand bands, Shepherd stated that Flying Nun would undertake an extensive reissue programme.

Last year Ben Howe from Auckland's Arch Hill Records took the reigns from Shepherd. Since then the reissue programme has gained momentum, especially through a fruitful partnership with New York label Captured Tracks.

That has resulted in the Verlaines reissues, as well as The Clean's fantastic 1990 album Vehicle, and other Flying Nun albums becoming available again.

''[Captured Tracks] really understand the market and what US fans are interested in,'' Howe says of the partnership.

''I think since we've started working with them people in the US have become aware that there is something good going on now with Flying Nun and the bands.''

Verlaines' songwriter Dr Graeme Downes is now head of the music department at the University of Otago. Surrounded by vast amounts of popular and classical music in his office, Downes muses over the endurance of his early material.

''It just doesn't date particularly,'' he says.

''When we did five shows here and in Australia [in 2012] we were playing to varying age groups, and playing songs written in 1981 through to 2011. They all rub shoulders together well and the old ones hold up.''

Downes hasn't had much involvement with the Hallelujah - All the Way Home and Juvenilia reissues, which were remastered by Stephen Stedman at the music department's Albany St Studio.

But over the past few weeks Downes has been rehearsing with the Verlaines members who recorded Hallelujah - All the Way Home, bassist Jane Dodd and drummer Robbie Yeats.

They'll be playing the album in its entirety at a special Auckland show next weekend.

''We've had two practices with Robbie now and it's starting to gel,'' Downes relates.

''It feels and sounds like it could have been written yesterday. It's still a unique bunch of songs that hang together really well as an album, and as a sort of listening experience. I'm as proud of it now as I was then.''

Hallelujah - All the Way Home was an impressive debut album. Downes was studying the work of composer Mahler at university, and that bled into the complex arrangement of the songs, which featured French horns, cello and clarinet.

The big ideas weren't limited to the music. The 1985 LP was packaged in an elaborate gate-fold sleeve with meticulous typography by artist Charlie Stone.

''It was kind of a big artistic statement to make that record,'' Downes remembers.

''We said to Flying Nun at the time: `This is what we want; we don't care if we don't make any royalties off it, we just want it to be a wonderful thing'. And if it was going to be reissued, then reissue it in that way.''

The songwriter is looking forward to seeing what sort of interest there will be internationally in the Captured Tracks/Flying Nun reissues.

He's more than aware that a far bigger market exists for the music of the Verlaines and their peers overseas than at home in New Zealand.

''It was music that was on the cultural fringes when we wrote it, and it still is,'' Downes says.

''These reissues are probably going to make more of a stir in New York than they will here, and that's fine.''

Xpressway Records existed only from 1988 until 1993, and yet the Port Chalmers label captured the ears of many music fans around the world. Due to founder Bruce Russell's clever networking, Xpressway's 23 releases, mostly on cassette, made an impact that still resonates.

A number of Xpressway releases have been reissued by North American labels recently, including Peter Gutteridge's 1989 album Pure on 540, and Peter Jefferies' 1990 classic The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World by De Stijl.

''I'm having a single malt in triumph,'' Russell says.

''It's hard not to feel vindicated. At the time we were just another fringe group of `cult nutters' outside the mainstream of New Zealand music. Yet we knew that our perspective, our aesthetic, was shared by an appreciable subculture worldwide. So it is no surprise that we have grown in stature while others have withered away; yet this is still gratifying to a great extent.''

Russell's own band The Dead C has had material reissued on vinyl by their New York label Badabing, and they appeared on the cover of British experimental music publication The Wire in July this year.

The now Lyttelton-based musician has been involved with Flying Nun since Shepherd resurrected the label four years ago. He has driven several projects, including the release of the 3D's early material, and the Time to Go compilation, and is currently working on an anthology of Dunedin band The Stones.

Russell understands the challenges that Flying Nun has faced in trying to rerelease large chunks of its back catalogue. He's happy with the progress made, and is enthusiastic about the quality of the vinyl now emerging.

Ben Howe says making the reissues happen is the most exciting part of his job at Flying Nun, and also the most time-consuming and challenging.

Vinyl records are in high demand again, with 4.6 million LPs sold in the US in 2012 compared to just one million in 2007.

''One of the most challenging aspects is actually getting the vinyl pressed up,'' Howe explains.

''Everyone wants to do vinyl and all the pressing plants are totally overloaded with work, so it is a real battle to get them to deliver it in time.''

Guitarist David Kilgour from The Clean says that although it took a lot of effort to get the band's Vehicle album reissued on vinyl, it was worth it.

''It was fun,'' he says.

''There were little miracles like finding old 8mm footage of The Clean in New York and London, and Bob [Scott] finding negatives of the Vehicle sessions which he didn't know he had, finding old contracts, and trying to track down master tapes.''

A lot of the Flying Nun back catalogue is being made available digitally, and Howe hopes in time much of it will emerge on vinyl. The label has started with the early 1980s releases, and is working forward, although the master tapes and artwork aren't always easy to find. But with recent reissues from the 3Ds, The Clean, Snapper, and the Bats, Howe is happy with Flying Nun's progress.

''I think it is starting to kick into gear really well now,'' he says.

''There is a good collector market for these releases, and definitely a certain crowd of avid music fans in the US and Europe are really into it. But I think there are still a lot more people that can be made aware of them.''

During the late 1980s and early 1990s Craig Robertson wrote about Dunedin bands for RipItUp magazine, and later wrote his history thesis on the Dunedin Sound.

Now an associate professor of media and screen studies at Boston's Northeastern University, Robertson is not surprised there is still so much international interest in the Dunedin music of that era.

''In the late '80s we were listening to music that was 20-30 years old because it was really good,'' Robertson says.

''So it's no surprise that people are still doing that. If it's good music people will go back to it. And the vinyl release just adds to it.''

Downes remembers the first Flying Nun compilation Tuatara being released to glowing reviews overseas in 1985. While the unique qualities of the music were heralded then, he's delighted listeners are still interested.

''Really memorable landmark moments actually appear quite rarely,'' he says.

''And time destroys rubbish really quickly. To keep a piece of art alive you've got to store it and care for it and not be tempted to throw it in the garbage. So it is a real privilege to have stuff from that long ago resurface.''

In 2014, further Verlaines reissues are planned, while Merge Records will release The Clean's Anthology on vinyl.


Under the influence
Dunedin music not only remains popular with listeners, it is also influential on musicians around the world.

''There is a whole generation of new bands both in New Zealand and overseas that are quite heavily influenced by the sounds of these bands,'' Flying Nun general manager Ben Howe says. Over the years, prominent international alternative acts including Pavement, Sonic Youth, Deerhunter and Guided by Voices have cited the influence of Flying Nun and Xpressway.

And after Flying Nun partnered with Captured Tracks in January this year, the MTVHive.com website featured an article entitled ''Five Fantastic Flying Nun-Inspired Bands''.

Those five - Crystal Stilts, Times New Viking, Twerps, Brilliant Colors and The UV Race - hail from the US or Australia, and all reference Dunedin bands of the 1980s.

New-generation Flying Nun bands Surf Friends and Ghost Wave are also enthralled by the label's Dunedin connections.

''The fact is that a lot of younger bands name-check Flying Nun bands. It's still something that excites people,'' the Verlaines' Graeme Downes says.


Recent Dunedin vinyl reissues:
• The Clean, Vehicle (1990) Flying Nun, and Oddities (1983) Five Four O
Snapper, Snapper EP (1988) Flying Nun
• David Kilgour, Here Come the Cars (1991) De Stijl
• Alastair Galbraith, Cry (2000) Mie Peter
• Jefferies, The Last Great Challenge in a Dull World (1990) De Stijl
• The Bats, By Night (1983) Flying Nun, and Daddy's Highway (1985) Flying Nun
• Verlaines, Hallelujah - All the Way Home (1985) and Juvenilia (1987) Flying Nun
• The Great Unwashed, Clean Out of Our Minds (1983) Exiled
• 3Ds, Hellzapoppin (1992) Flying Nun
• Gate, The Dew Line (1994) Mie
• Toy Love, Toy Love (1980) Flying Nun


 

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