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Interview: 'Kiwi Animals: Future / Primitive Aotearoa' Ft. Headless Chickens, Blam Blam Blam

Interview: 'Kiwi Animals: Future / Primitive Aotearoa' Ft. Headless Chickens, Blam Blam Blam

Chris Cudby / Feature image: Headless Chickens / Friday 5th June, 2020 12:18PM

Three and a half years in the making, Kiwi Animals: Future / Primitive Aotearoa is a new compilation unearthing gems from NZ's DIY underground in the '80s and early '90s. Shining a spotlight on the creative cross-pollination resulting from increased accessibility of electronic music technology in the '80s, Kiwi Animals presents eleven little-heard, genre-spanning cuts often with a minimal edge. Featuring such key figures as Headless Chickens, Blam Blam Blam, Roger Knox aka Chris Knox, alongside startlingly fresh-sounding tracks by Bellare and Tom Ludvigson & Graeme Gash, the collection reconfigures once again our ideas of what New Zealand music is and could be.

We had to know more – curator and Strangelove Music founder Ben Stevens generously filled us in on how the  compilation was conceived, the range of local subcultures represented on Kiwi Animals and the hefty amount of research required to bring the project to fruition. Out now via Bandcamp and in record stores next week on vinyl LP, listen to Kiwi Animals: Future / Primitive Aotearoa here and scroll down to read Stevens' informative conversation with Chris Cudby about the collection...

Chris Cudby: Kiwi Animals presents a cross section of Aotearoa sounds which many local listeners may not have encountered before – a view of seemingly long-lost New Zealand DIY music culture that feels startlingly fresh. What was the catalyst for Kiwi Animals? Was it an idea you’ve had in mind for a while?

Ben Stevens: This has been a sort of a long form project - an idea from about 5-6 years ago and 3 1/2 years properly in the making. Ignorance was probably the key driver! I'm really interested in those moments where music becomes a narrative for wider cultural touchpoints, and soundtracks particular zeitgeists. I've been obsessively digging and collecting music for 30 odd years yet I didn't have a detailed understanding of large patches of the local 1980s NZ underground. We have this incredible legacy of the Flying Nun / 'Dunedin Sound', but I knew there were other stories to tell and I wanted to move past those totems and see what other narratives I could stitch together. Ironically in hindsight the album has multiple connections back to Flying Nun!

What was the process involved in assembling the material for the compilation – were you drawing from your own archives + were there any challenges involved in tracking down master recordings? What’s your own personal relationship with the music on Kiwi Animals?

The project was research heavy, trips to Radio New Zealand's archives, plenty of local record store digging, countless hours on Discogs cross-checking NZ keyboardist credits, and invaluable suggestions and feedback from some heavy NZ music collectors; in particular Jon Chapman, Teneti Ririrnui, Matt Talbot and Michael Kucyk. I grew up with the Headless Chickens Cruise Control but I knew that they had been a fiercely experimental band, and I found 'Throwback' on a Pagan Records compilation I remembered from my uncle's vinyl collection as an early teen. I think being a generation younger was quite liberating as I approached it very much from an outsider perspective.

It's definitely not a historical document, there's no specific scene which the compilation falls into and I wasn't personally connected with any of the makers. Instead I come from a DJing background, so the programming and curation were the drivers. Its very much a personal catalog, I'm musical magpie scavenging these little moments and then taking a step back gaining a little understanding from the musical jigsaw of it all. The source material was taken from master tapes and vinyl copies, Mike Gibson did a mighty job restoring the audio some of which was quite lo-fi.

Did you make any exciting discoveries during your research for Kiwi Animals?

Tape releases are always a lot harder to track down these days than vinyl and so I went round looking for interesting local labels on that format. Paul Lukers Industrial Tapes is still criminally under documented, and it was amazing to hear this incredible early version of Flying Nun artist Kim Blackburn's Lizards in Love, which featured Pacifica percussion under her exotic poetry. There was also invisible short run experimental Auckland label called Opus Locus which musician / cameraman Simon Raby told me about, which had lots of great little moments. I totally fell in love with this song 'Soul Brothers' by a mysterious Rupert which is this beautiful pean to unrequited brotherly love. I tried to track him down for months thinking it was Rupert E. Taylor from the Headless Chickens, and then found the real Rupert via the label's original compiler who initially thought I was playing a practical joke!

Above: Blam Blam Blam – image by John Reynolds

I was interested in how Martyn Pepperell described the collection as less of document of a specific 'scene’, and more a collection of recordings united by an idea of creative cross-pollination, which is a resonant idea amongst local artists today (eg. the Ludvigson / Gash track sounds very contemporary). How are a range of local cultural activities / creative spheres brought together on Kiwi Animals?

When you compile this way you and start to stir the tea leaves hopefully at some point you realise AHA...! So yes definitely what I saw emerging was this idea of outlier creative output and collaboration in 80's Aotearoa, which I guess generally tends to occur when you operate on fringes – visual artists appropriating PVC pipes for percussion, etc. So you had Drone and Headless Chickens existing as multimedia and interdisciplinary ensembles, The Kiwi Animal meditating on contemporary gender liberation in a recording space organised by Paul Luker, Kim Blackburn speaking poetry in bohemian early '80s Ponsonby absorbed in an emergent Pacific context, and Graeme Gash (of '70s band Waves) and keyboard whizz Tom Ludvigson providing music for NZ's first proper contemporary dance troupe Limbs, having fun toying around with nascent MIDI technology.

DIY and small run independent music culture has always operated typically as vehicles for discrete artistic expression, unbridled by producer or major labels limitations. It may at times be unrefined (and often may not be that great) but it is generally honest and direct incantations of the cultural times.

How did you decide on the sequencing of the tracks?

There's this definite South Pacific gothic mood that hangs over things, a sort of sombre southerly front creeping up from the Cook Strait. But there's also a bleak self-deprecating black humour that comes from being perched at the edge of the world. As Kiwis we can take ourselves very seriously but also not seriously at all in the same heartbeat – cue Roger Knox singing 'Whole Weird World' over a toy town synth, or Blam Blam Blam gleefully exhorting youth to respect their elders and politicians.

Programming is the make or break for an odd ensemble like this. I love how juxtaposition, mood and tempo can be used to contrast and heighten individual pieces of music whilst you also (insert cliche) need to pull it together so that the programming tells a reasonably cohesive and interesting sonic story – its all borrowed from DJing to be honest!

The Ballare track is amazing! Did they release much material?

Oh man, I found that song on a great compilation Simon Grigg released on Propeller around '81 and thought wow if I could find an albums worth of material like this to compile... Sadly it's a red herring in local NZ music history and along side early Car Crash Test and Body Electric probably the definitive and only piece of (funky) minimal wave to come out of NZ. Jon Cooper went on to be a noted producer and engineer at Last Laugh – a crucial location for Auckland's avant-garde 80's output. Eric Roulston still records electronic music as the Association and had a gorgeous but short lived project in Plans for a Building. There were a few other Ballare songs made, tragically the BASF tapes have long since disintegrated...

Above: Chris Knox aka Roger Knox

Vinyl LP pre-orders for Kiwi Animals: Future/ Primitive Aotearoa are available here via Strangelove.


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