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Interview: Chris Matthews of Headless Chickens – The Others Way 2018

Interview: Chris Matthews of Headless Chickens – The Others Way 2018

Chris Cudby / Photo by Stuart Page (1988) / Thursday 30th August, 2018 4:54PM

Headless Chickens are a seminal New Zealand independent band, rising from the ashes of co-founder Chris Matthews’ work with early eighties Auckland post-punk four-piece Children’s Hour to crystalise their own adventurous sonic vision. Headless Chickens’ 1988 debut album Stunt Clown on Flying Nun Records is now universally acclaimed as a pivotal work of the late eighties, receiving the Classic Record award at this year’s Taite Music Prize ceremony. The band’s subsequent work with singer Fiona McDonald on their 1991 album Body Blow saw them develop into an off-kilter pop group, with McDonald-sung singles ‘George’, ‘Cruise Control and ‘Donde Esta La Pollo’ becoming bona fide local chart toppers.

Headless Chickens have gotten back together (including Fiona McDonald) for one unmissable performance at Auckland’s multi-venue The Others Way festival this Friday, playing at the Studio at 10.15pm sharp. Chris Cudby caught up with bandleader Chris Matthews about the upcoming show, his band’s sometimes controversial history with awards ceremonies, and how the Headless Chickens drew creative inspiration from hip hop in the eighties…

You’re playing with Fiona McDonald at The Others Way - does this mean you’ll be playing a selection of 90s material as well as earlier stuff?

It’s going to be focused on Stunt Clown, because of the Taite Prize and it's the 30th anniversary of the release of Stunt Clown, it came out in 1988. It seemed like a good thing to do because we haven’t really played a lot of that stuff for so long. Flying Nun are busy reissuing a lot of older classic stuff on vinyl primarily because it seems to have made a bit of a resurgence. Body Blow has just gotten ready to be re-released, I don't think it’s going to be in the shops by the time we play Others Way, but it will be shortly afterwards. So we thought “well hell, it’s the 25th anniversary of Body Blow, let’s play some of that material as well.”

Fiona was going to play all of the Stunt Clown stuff regardless of the fact that she wasn’t in the band at the time, because Anthony (Nevison)’s playing bass instead of Grant (Fell) even though Anthony wasn’t in the band during Stunt Clown either. He only joined a couple of years when he did ‘Gaskrankinstation’ which was originally just recorded as a single. He’s going to be playing bass for Grant. Everybody that’s in the band that was still alive, so there’s still six original members of the band who are going to play, so I guess there will be a bit of a mix of material. I don’t think we’ll be doing anything from Greedy, that one came along much later and it’s kinda been forgotten about. Maybe one day we’ll do a special Greedy anniversary.


I saw you guys play a song at the Taite Music Prize ceremony a couple of months ago. Congratulations on receiving the Classic Record award for Stunt Clown - what was the process of getting the band together like for that show?

Thank you... me, Michael (Lawry) and Rupert (E. Taylor) sang because originally, they didn’t want us to actually play. You know the house band that did versions of the other bands' songs? Originally it was going to be them. I said to them, if anybody’s gonna play one of our songs, it should be us. They went “oh okay, well you can do that.” But they didn’t really have time to do a full rehearsal for it and it was all kind of like piecemeal. Originally, we were just going to stand on stage and sing into one microphone, we organised it a little bit more but it was kind of ad hoc the whole thing really.

Then of course we got into trouble with certain people with Grant's ashes. Which again was completely unplanned, it wasn’t like we wanted to go shock anybody, it was just Grant’s wife, she’d been travelling around the country with Grant’s ashes, taking it to various places that he loved and she bought a little vial along to the venue that night, not to do anything with. She just wanted part of him to be there, because he would have like to have been there. I said “well should I take it up on stage and shall I scatter a bit there?” because she’d been scattering ashes all around the country. She said “yeah, yeah.” I did and there was a very small storm in a tea cup.


There was definitely a public conversation around that. I was going to ask, there’s a bit of a history of controversies with the Headless Chickens and award ceremonies. I’m thinking about the Rheineck Beer Rock award in 1987. There was a conservative response from some areas to your band receiving that award. I wonder how those commentators would react to you guys getting the Classic Record award now?

At the time? I collect clippings and memorabilia... there was a three or four page article in Metro magazine at the time which just completely slagged us off. Beyond "didn't like us," we were kitten strangling anarcho-punks, whose songs all had two chords and hairdressers would go out of business with us, because we never went to the hairdressers because we obviously all cut our own hair.

Weird, the reaction now is everyone’s like “yeah great classic record, awesome.”

Yeah that’s the whole thing, context. Given thirty years of context, people think “oh that was a good record that was released back then and they did well following that record.” But I think there’s not much knowledge amongst... I don't want to sound like an old fart but... it was very difficult in the 80s to get music played on the radio, on television. It’s like trying to get yourself overseas to go and play gigs. Every second band is off to SXSW and they’re off to one thing and the touring and the travelling and stuff. It was incredibly difficult to do that unless you had a network of contacts and you were prepared to put in the footwork and do it all yourself, because there was nobody that was actually doing any of that for you. It was complete cottage industry stuff if you weren’t with a mainstream record label.


I was trying to imagine what the Headless Chickens’ practice room or recording setup was like back then, I was visualising all sorts of cool, massive electronic boxes and things like that. I’m interested in how you came up with your spoken word style of singing? Were there any specific inspirations for your approach to vocals?

I think primarily because I was a drummer first, so I noticed rhythm and meter in the way that other people sang and I was quite inspired by delivery in particular. The singer from The Psychedelic Furs, Richard Butler, there's a way that you can deliver words and a way you can accent words. Mark E. Smith from The Fall is another good example, obviously he was a big influence on us and a lot of other people at the time but, obviously he’s a complete non-singer. It's not just writing words, it’s trying to say them in a way that they actually sound good. It’s very hard to explain but it’s all about stressing and delivery. For me because I was a drummer, I was very aware of rhythm and language and how it worked.

When I first heard ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash, that was the first hip hop song I’d ever heard and I was absolutely blown away, "that’s amazing." The merest inflection or pause or stressing of notes and accents on notes can make a huge difference to the way that a sentence sounds, and I think that rap music was an influence on the way that I started singing, I think. I wouldn’t ever say that I was a rapper obviously because I’m not, but we definitely started bringing elements of that into music when we got our first drum machine and especially when we got a sampler. ‘Expecting To Fly’ was kind of written as a hip hop beat and we just added stuff to it. The rhythm of life, of things, y’know machinery and all sort of things.


The thing that inspired rap music was all sorts of things but particularly the music that came out of Germany in the late 60s to late 70s, y'know what’s called Krautrock, which is a little bit of a pejorative terms, invented by the English apparently. The Germans were obviously very inspired by industrial sounds because a lot of them came from areas where there were a lot of big industrial factories and stuff, Kraftwerk are a good example, very much into machinery. Early hip hop was sampling from things like Kraftwerk and a lot of those German bands because of the machine elements really suit dance beats because they’re very rigid and syncopated as well.

You go into a metal stamping factory and you can hear the same sound, that “boomchh boomchh boomchh,” they sound like drums. It’s the same, the bands that came out of industrial areas of Britain, they were inspired by that same sort of sounds and same ambience. I remember one of the guys from Cabaret Voltaire saying he could hear a big industrial factory going on all night from his bedroom in Sheffield where he lived and that was one of the things that really inspired early Cabaret Voltaire. So it’s your environment, it’s what's around you that helps to create.

I used to live next to the motorway next to the Karangahape Road over bridge and there was a bump on the motorway. Every two or three seconds a massive truck would go over this bump, all night, every single day. I don’t know if I got too much inspiration from that, but I definitely got something from it.

Well if you grew up out in the countryside and you were surrounded by birds tweeting and various noises of animals and nature, you would probably grow up to write pastoral folk songs. Everything inspires people to do what they do, nothing comes out of a vacuum. There’s always something from your environment that is an influence on you and makes you want to do things.


After The Others Way show, are the Headless Chickens planning any other shows after that? Or is corralling all the members a bit too tricky?

Hahahaha! Pretty much! Well Michael and Anthony live out in Muriwai, I live on the shore and Rupert lives in Pt Chev and doesn't really have a mobile phone and doesn’t really use the internet and Bevan (Sweeney) lives out at Awhitu Peninsula. He has a mobile phone, or one or several. I can never tell which one he’s using at any given moment, doesn't use the internet, doesn't seem to accept phone calls half the time. Just getting everybody to get together and do anything at any given time is quite difficult. I’m trying to organise all this while working full time and other things that I’ve got going on at the moment. So I’ll probably just lie down and have a complete mental collapse after we play and we might think about playing in another ten years time.

You can celebrate the 40th anniversary.

I did say to them we should do a special gig after Body Blow comes out, but I think this one is going to be the gig for Body Blow and Stunt Clown. So don’t expect any more, that’s all I’m saying.


The Others Way festival is taking place this Friday 31st August in Auckland’s Karangahape Road district and is now sold out – you can check out the full artist timetable and venue info here.

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