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Interview
The Verlaines

The Verlaines

date
Monday 9th August, 2010 1:55PM

Indie music pioneer Graeme Downes was part of the first wave of Flying Nun goodness – where bands such as the Clean, the Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and Downes’ band The Verlaines ended up causing a lasting influence on global music. It’s a sign of the Verlaines’ influence that Stephen Malkmus covered the Verlaines’ song ‘Death and the Maiden’, but the band were more than just who they influenced. The Verlaines were (and still are) rare in New Zealand music: an unashamedly intelligent and literate band, with an intricate blending of classical music sensibilities and unashamed pop. And for all this talk of their ‘80s work, the band are still releasing intelligent and engaging work (after a long hiatus), with the release of this year’s Corporate Moronic and 2007’s Pot Boiler, and they’re off to showcase the album in Wellington at the VBC Christmas Party on 9 December.

How do you approach live shows given you've got obviously some recent releases, and the stuff which captured your fans in the 80s?

I wrote a blog on this [laughs]. Obviously you've got to play the new material, you've got to play some of it, and try to promote it. There's some stuff off Corporate Moronic and some stuff off Pot Boiler because we didn't get out and play after the release of that record. This is a kind of a belated playing-out of that record as well. We're playing some old stuff, a couple of hits from '80s as people would expect, something from the early '80s you wouldn't call a hit, but is important anyway, because it was one of the bigger songs we did back in the day - bigger five minute plus type job, they're an important part of that early Flying Nun thing. We chose a couple of things from the mid-90s for the hell of it, just because we felt like we wanted to play them. It's a gig that will span three decades.

Given your career as a music lecturer [Downes is currently a lecturer at Otago University and takes a rock music course], in which you would have been studying the ‘craft’ of music, did that force you re-evaluate your work in the '80s?

Yeah, I must admit. I went through a period where I didn't write very much or do very much, when I came back to Otago to start the rock degree because building the whole thing up was very time consuming. Now that's it up and running, I've found a bit more time to write again. When you're teaching song-writing everyday and students come up with a song and you go 'I hate it' and try and tell them what might be wrong with it, you mine through stuff that you've done and go 'ok, I wasn't happy with that song, or I'm not happy with it now, here might be the reason'. It does cause me re-evaluation all the time. While we've been rehearsing some of the older stuff, and stacking it up against the new stuff, I don't really feel like it feels like it's out of place. The best of it is pretty good.

How has being lecturer changed the way you view music as a craft?

It's given me a critical framework. There aren't any rules to writing music, but there is certain 'stand out in the rain, you get wet' type of things you can do. If you do x, then one or two or three things are likely to happen in terms of an audience response. I feel a sharpening up. When you're young, you don't have that framework, you kind of faff about and experiment for experimentation sake. Sometimes it bears incredibly wonderful fruit, but other times it just bears an oddity for want of a better word. I still feel like I've still got the same drive I used to have, but it's better directed. It's got a rudder. That's the difference the teaching has made, the answering to your own artistic decisions. Back in the day, you made your decisions but you weren't sure why, and you lived with it.

Do audiences appreciate this intellectualising of this music? With the last two albums in particular you would have been considering structure, tone etc., whereas pop music audiences may not have those expectations?

I don't know. I lecture quite regularly on Sgt Pepper, which is a high-water mark when popular music aspired to be something much, much bigger than a collection of songs on a record. I really crave that type of experience in popular music. I think I can aspire to that, and I try and aspire to that when I do an album. I don't think there's anything remotely pretentious about that. It takes a lot of thought, insight and skill to create something even approaching that, but it's worth aspiring to. In terms of what audiences make of these things, for sure, it's the age of the download and perpetual compilation album on your i-Tunes, but it's automatic selection. You can't really replace the listening experience of 40 minutes, listening to one artist with one style across a whole album, this insight they're trying to put across to you and touch you in a place which a compilation album frankly just can't. I think it still exists. I have great faith that human beings have always been roughly the same, and they need that immersion over a long period of time. I suspect the market is still there, and it's worth pursuing that kind of experience for people who want it.

You guys have never been afraid of mixing high/low cultures - it's as if the high/low difference was never that relevant...

No they're not. Nor were they for Beethoven. With Corporate Life, I'm really proud of it. No two songs are alike. Some of them have six chords, some of them have fifty. That's because the song which has fifty chords, needed fifty chords for what it was trying to say, and song which had six chords, only needed six. That's to me what I want to do, when I'm writing text. I write all the text first, and I go 'what does this mean', 'what do I want', 'what is this musical vehicle to make this work?' Sometimes it's four chords, or five chords, sometimes it's thirty or forty. You do what you need to do, and forget about style and boxes, or go 'you can't do that, make all the songs sound the same and make it easy for the listener.' Bugger that.

Your lyrics have always had an emotional directness, and match the song. How do you view lyrics now?

You're quite right in that emotional territory was mainly what it covered. I guess I'm becoming a little bit more of a satirist with Corporate Moronic, that's just a product of being old, and seeing the same bullshit roll around again and again, and seeing the second or third cycle and thinking it's not getting better. You can't when you're twenty because it's all new. To me, it's not just lyrics or the music, it's the marriage between the two. That's where a great song happens, is when you're trying to say something and you can something musically something analogous to the sentiment you've got already. Corporate Moronic did that.

How did feel coming back with Pot Boiler and Corporate Moronic and writing music in album form after such a hiatus?

Tremendously exhilarating. Really just partly because I just feel competent, in a way I never really did. That's just with experience, and having done it for all those years, and to mix that up with the critical machinery I've discussed, I feel like I can make a good creative decision really quickly and easily, and can sit down and write a song very quickly. Some of the bigger songs I wrote when I was young, they had been on the drawing board for six or eight months, messing around with trial and error trying to find the right way to go about it, or trying to find the lyrics to fit the music that I'd written, it's a big black hole in time. These days, now I feel like if I've got a lyric, and it's expressed what I want to express, I can sit down and within three days have a whole song finished. That's tremendously exciting, because you feel like you're fecund, for want of a better word, and competent and you can get the job done really quickly and come up with something that's pretty cool.

Was it strange releasing new material after having released a retrospective?

Not really. That was a good thing to do. But it made me think. When we went through the selection process, when I say 'we', there was this cohort of fans and people that Hamish McDouall got around himself who were selecting what should be on it. To be honest, it was depressingly easy. It selected themselves, and most people what they thought would go on it, if you compared four or five different people, were about 90% the same. That tells you a lot about what you've done in terms of successes and the other ones, the other 90% are curios you played live and people like them and they bought the records, because it was a memento of the show, but actually as a song - it wasn't that good. So, it's been good to get back on the horse and writing again because it was kinda in my mind 'well I maybe I miscalculated there, and there, and there'. Just inspiring me to do a better job, and have more hits than misses in what I was trying to do.

In effect, it was a drawing of a line and restarting?

It was a drawing of the line and re-starting. Very much so, which is a good thing to have done. Painful in its own way, and humbling in its own way but well worth doing.

It must still be gratifying, thinking about how much influence you've had with even this early work - all the American indie bands?

That's fine, that's what they would have grown up with. They didn't have the opportunity to grow up with Corporate Moronic (laughs). And people are what they are. I think Corporate Moronic is up there with the best I've ever done. And that's fine, and may not in its own way sell as many records. It's harder to sell as many records when you're in your late '40s, to when you're twenty and out there gigging every night of the week across America, which really I can't do anymore, partly because I've got a job. There are limits on what you can do to promote yourself. It's silly to draw anything essentially from the popularity of the stuff in the early '80s vis-à-vis what I'm doing now, and saying that the stuff I was doing when I was younger was better. It's not. Nor is it to say that stuff I was doing when I was 20 [was worse] - some of the old hits, and non-hits, from the early 80s, I've been having a ball playing them and thinking 'this is still a very vital piece of music'. I'm really looking forward to playing and seeing what a bunch of young people think of it. I wrote some good stuff. I'm writing some good stuff now, but it's different, and I wrote some average stuff throughout the years. But I won't be writing the good stuff now, if I didn't write the average stuff as well.

Seems like all you Flying Nun pioneers are still all releasing music…

A large number of us are, yeah. And I think that's because we love it, we're probably addicted to it - I still love words and music when they come together and when they come together in a compelling way, there's nothing to beat it. I still when I finish a song which I think works, it's a feeling of elation which I can repeat over and over ad nauseum without getting bored. It's probably the same for Shayne Carter, and Dave Kilgour etc. etc. We're kinda addicts, and will probably keep doing it until we can't. That's great, it's really exciting. It's interesting to have artists around who have been doing it for thirty years.

And also, putting out great stuff...

Yeah.

You'd think it'd be pretty easy to coast...

There's no coasting. No such thing as coasting [laughs]. If you're coasting you're finished. The best thing about Corporate Moronic, that it certainly does not coast. It pushes harder than it ever has, to try and find new voices and do new things. The next [album] is all finished, and hopefully bring that one over the summer.

How have your approached that one?

That same as Corporate Moronic. Write the lyrics first, and go through and find hopefully what that text wants, to make it work. It's the opposite of how I worked as a young fella, but it's more efficient. I'm hoping I can turn the next one around very quickly, which I'm hoping to do.

One final question, where did the Mahler interest come from? You obviously must like him to devote a whole PhD to him...

Yeah. Absolutely. I started listening to classical music when I was twelve, and really dug it. I spent my whole high school years, borrowing a couple of records from the library a week and getting to know them, so that by the time I finished, I knew most of it, most of the repertoire at least. But Mahler, really struck a big chord. I don't know, putting it in context. An email conversation I had with a colleague of mine, who had been reading about Shakespeare and said 'what Shakespeare did was he brought tragedy and comedy into the same arena, because it had been ghettoised in separate ones by Greek literature.' He's quite right, that's why Shakespeare is the big huge guy that he is. But Mahler did similar to music, and it attracted me immensely, and try and get a handle on how he did do what he did was a passion well worth pursuing for those years I did my PhD. He's still a great composer. There's not a great deal [in my music] but you can hear it in terms of the song order, what follows what, how it goes from high to low in a very short order, that's part of that big listening experience of being pulled in different directions over forty minutes, in completely opposite directions vastly opposed to one another. It's an incredible roller-coaster ride. I'm coming to Wellington to see his Eighth [Symphony], at the [International] Festival. A brilliant composer. I have a long way to go.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

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