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Interview: Bill Direen / Ferocious

Interview: Bill Direen / Ferocious

C.C. / Interview by Sam Longmore / Monday 24th February, 2020 2:38PM

Bill Direen performs this week at Tāmaki Makaurau's Audio Foundation and Pōneke's Pyramid Club with Ferocious, his collaborative trio with Mark Williams (MarineVille) and Johannes Contag (The Golden Awesome), launching their debut album via Rattle Records. The subject of Simon Ogston's 2017 documentary Bill Direen, A Memory of Others, the multi-disciplinary Aotearoa artist's pioneering musical output from the mid-seventies onwards (beginning with pre-punks The Vacuum) preempted the rise of Flying Nun Records, including such crucial collections as 1983's Beatin Hearts and 1984's Split Seconds. At the beginning of 2020, Sam Longmore and Direen exchanged a series of emails, discussing Direen’s life, work and outlook at the beginning of a new decade. Experience Ferocious in action this week – including a free Outsider Sounds event at Auckland Town Hall on Saturday as part of Fringe Town 2020 – and read their conversation below...

Ferocious (Direen, Williams, Contag)

Friday 28th February - Audio Foundation, Auckland w/ Tanktop (all ages)*
Saturday 29th February - Outsider Sounds, Auckland Town Hall (2.00pm, free event, more info here)
Saturday 29th February - Pyramid Club, Wellington w/ The Trembles

Tickets available HERE via UTR*

Sam Longmore: In preparing for this I was reading over the profile on Audio Culture. It left me wondering about the different modes you have worked across (prose, poetry, live and recorded music, theatre), and how these areas of expression relate to each other. Is there a distance, for you, between your work as a novelist and poet and as songwriter and performer?

Bill Direen: First of all, there is pre-writing (Writing) and performance writing (Performance). Pre-writing has to be private and Performance has to be public. Writing (capital W) is usually silent, Performance (capital P) is usually noisy. Writing has to be regulated by this writer's own standards and experiences of life and art. Performance may respond to the audience situation. So in Performance, perhaps more than in Writing, you need to work within the 'signology' of genre. Rock, cabaret, ethno-electro-acoustic-whatever. You are presenting Writing within a known framework that has known conventions. There is room for crossover among public genres, and experimentation, so those distinctions are not exclusive. Even improvisation relies upon a prepared vocabulary of 'signata'. And working within a strict genre (like the structured pop song) may nevertheless allow for huge freedom and creativity. At Audio Foundation and Pyramid Club, the audience is expecting you to be doing what is closest to your current researches into Writing and Performance. These venues allow for both, or all, of the permutations possible.

Do you find certain modes of working lending themselves to particular themes or ideas?

Yes, it depends on which genre I am working in. The last words in the Simon Ogston documentary Bill Direen, A Memory of Others, are "He hears the voice of a mind facing extinction, and yet continuing to exist ... What do we know?" That gives a good idea of my themes. The novels are concerned with our existence and the question of what we can be sure of as we move into the future. They are also asking whether there can be a future. A lot of my fiction is set in a world stripped of the kind of luxuries many take for granted today. Some have called it a post-apocalyptic world. Those novels and novellas are working through hypothetical situations. For example, which side would you choose to be on, if a racist state was wanting to farm a tribe, the first people to mutate / descend from humans, and that first new tribe were to hold the genetic key to the saving of humanity? On the other hand, the genre of the much shorter song is ideal for capturing a feeling, a dilemma, an interaction with the environment. The song 'Trees', for example, has proved to have longevity. It's a simple tune. People respond to its emotion and sense of (mis)direction. Earlier on, I tried to capture unusual psychological states in songs, too, like that of a person on trial for a crime he did not remember committing, or the states of mind of a couple just before an accident. You are right, that each mode of working has its ideal usage.

What is important to you when creating work? Has this changed over time?

I always want a song, or a poem, a story or a play to be useful to other people. It will be useful to people if it stirs their life and feelings. The American label that has released the OST to the Ogston film was looking for "something special" for its 100th release, and the manager Ryan Davis felt that the double album would stir the interest and the feelings of music lovers, particularly his own Americans at this weirdest of weirdest times in their history.

You are known to many for the long-running group, The Builders. Since its inception this group has gone by a number of different names, and taken forms involving many different people. When considering a project such as this, are there certain qualities which you find persisting amid the changes? Through lines?

Many, many years ago, like in the 1980s, giving different spellings to the same band name was an attempt to encapsulate the permutations of a single group. It was trying to give credit to the different lineups. It was saying that these musicians are not interchangeable. Some of the lineups performed work that was specifically written for them, and which other groups never performed. My duo with Barry Stockley, for example, resulted in an album with soft, 12-string and double bass songs. But, sooner or later, the music business had certain requirements. In order to get paid work in the 80s, every group had to fill the sets with better known material, but each group did that material in its own particular way – does that make sense? Different drummers, different bassists, different keyboardists made for a pretty wild array of different interpretations. And that kept it interesting. But some collaborations did music that was intrinsically theirs / ours. I'm thinking of the improvisations that accompanied the anti-play about World War One, that toured nationally in 2018. Lately though, Builders, or Bilderburgers, or bilderine are names kept for reunions.

Nowadays, there is solo work, or Ferocious, the latest collaboration I am involved in. We are doing material that the three of us wrote. So we are not calling ourselves Bilders, or anything connected to any of the groups belonging to any of the other members. We are called Ferocious to establish a more distinct identity.

Collaboration seems a thing which could characterise your otherwise varied work over the years. I even read about a project with a children’s gamelan orchestra. On the other hand, you are also a writer which I’d guess necessitates working largely on one’s own. How do you relate to these seemingly opposite situations for creating?

Yes, the children's gamelan orchestra that features in the Ogston documentary was a collaboration produced with my sister, Marie, in Wellington, who was tutor of the gamelan orchestra concerned. The children brought their special skills, and so it all made sense. I was lucky in living with young children for many years of my life. They taught me a lot. Sometimes we made music together. We did a mini street march once, just around the block. And they helped paint sets for one of the theatre shows. And so I felt a special relationship with those children, and with my sister, as a collaborator. The ideal collaborations for me are the ones where each member brings his or her own special qualities of arrangement or improvisation twinned with their knowledge of structure in composition. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some of the best, sometimes under-rated, musicians in New Zealand over the years. Until recently, I was the one writing the song in my studio, and then bringing the song to the group. But lately I've been trying this new thing, of writing the songs collectively. So I bring the words along, with or without an idea of how I would like the song to be completed. The members of the group also bring along their riffs and feels and demos. And somehow it all gels. That's what happened with the gamelan, and that's what Ferocious is about.

You will be performing soon in support of the impending album by Ferocious on Rattle. So the upcoming concert is not under the Builders moniker, but rather as Ferocious alongside Johannes Contag (Cloudboy, Golden Awesome) and Mark Williams (Marineville, Cookie Brooklyn and Crumbs), with whom the album was recorded. Could you share a little about how this group and the album came to be?

Ferocious began playing together almost by chance, in Wellington many years ago. We played at a short-lived venue called Watusi, and I had just finished a long poem about when I was a teenager, hitch-hiking around New Zealand to discover it, and to discover our people, for myself. And we all started to improvise. On my next visit to Wellington, a city I hold dear, we composed more material together, and the ideas that informed the improvisations were becoming more coherent, in the sense that we could depend upon them, live. Finally, we all felt that we had enough material to record, and Dan Beban at Pyramid gave us a lot of his time to engineer it all in just a few days. It all clicked, and the Rattle release is the perfect conclusion to our love story.

While preparing I found the upcoming album described on your website as being comprised of “spoken word, electric guitar, drums and organ,” and this had me wondering whether there are distinctions for you when it comes to ‘lyrics’ and ‘poetry’, ‘singing’ and ’spoken word’?

Yep. I have always leaned towards a speaking kind of singing, but this one is more truly spoken word, a singing kind of speaking, if you like – with a some melodic vocal haemorrhages. It gives a nod to Sprechgesang, or Sprichstimme, expressionistic vocal techniques of the 1930s, but basically, I allow for a lot of human variation. I might use everyday speech patterns within the grids of Mark's electric guitar and Jo's drums, but I sometimes break normal speech rules, gently screaming, or some other manipulation of the vocal apparatus.

You have lived in many different places, from Blenheim to Berlin, and the lyrics of the recent record feel reflective, at times almost diaristic, as they have at other times. How does your immediate, physical surrounding influence you?

I have always had a room where I have worked on word content and song shapes. In Berlin my room looked over to Alexanderplatz, in Paris I had an office near the Opera of Phantom of the Opera, where I could even lie down and take a nap. It sounds grand, but it was very small, and up five flights of winding stairs. I painted the walls white, and it was a space where my mind could roll. If I am working on something requiring sources, the library is the place for me. Apart from the immediate studio, I draw heavily on places I have visited, places I have lived in the past, and places I imagine in the future. So, yes, place is important. I imagine a scene for each song, and each story is set in a place I could draw for you. Any song might easily transfer over into the cinematic medium. Last night I watched a film by Bela Tarr called The Turin Horse (2011) which ended similarly to a story of mine from 2007, and it made me realise that a lot of my songs and stories might make screenplays. 'In The Beauty House', for example, off the album Human Kindess (1997), would make a perfect SF film. Perhaps Simon Ogston might try his hand at Science Fiction!

You are prolific in your work. As I write this (January, 2020), it has been a dramatic beginning to the decade. What do you make of this moment?

I have recently toured Serbia and the USA, thanks to my friends at Partizanska Press and to Chris Davis, who drove 5,000 kms from Southern USA to North and back again. The people I met do not live in that exalted stratosphere where politicians lie, cheat, slander and condemn innocent people to death without a trial. Most of the people I met were artists or academics, bookshop owners or members of their own collectives. It was a charming experience. Those two countries, USA and Serbia, were at war twenty years ago!! What do I think of this moment? To be honest, I remain relatively pessimistic, unless some such people as I met on my reading and playing tour can get the reins of power. Now that would change things a little. But... there is a but...

The trouble is, of course, that political power runs contrary to the creative pulse. I think every artist is, in a way, wanting to make art that will improve the world. It changes the people who hear it. For our art to change the world, it is not our art that needs to change. It is people's listening habits and ways of looking at art. The media are very good at scaremongering and they are very poor at widening our scope of accessibility to our intimate senses and thought fields. The current world system does not allow for sufficient leisure time to appreciate art, nor to appreciate ourselves. Everyone is under stress, and everyone has to be showing a profit in one way or another. And making a profit often, sadly, means taking advantage in some way of the one underneath you, right down to the people on the street or those working for wages below the level of poverty. Profit-based systems exploit. They exploit, by definition. And even though they make a tiny fraction of art profitable, they only scavenge the marketable in art, they do not appreciate the huge community of artists, like the ones I met, who are communicating, informing each other, and enlarging consciousnesses and stirring feelings. It is quite amazing what artists everywhere achieve. Most of them are living on the minimum, they love liberty too much to have truck with 'filthy lucre'.

What next for you?

I hope to bring out another poetry book this year, and the record label Rattle are including a booklet containing the spoken words from the Ferocious album. I sell most of my books at performances, and I sold out a Selected Writings on tour last year. I'm hoping to work on another collaboration like Ferocious, or a follow-up to the Ferocious collaboration, as this way of working is promising. My tour manager in the USA has invited me back to do another solo poetry-and songs-based tour in 2020 or 2021, from the south up to Chicago. It will all depend on time, and good will.

'Ferocious' releases on Friday 28th February via Rattle Records.


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Ferocious (Direen, Williams, Contag) Album Release
Fri 28th Feb 8:00pm
Audio Foundation, Auckland