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Feature: Peter Jefferies

Feature: Peter Jefferies

Monday 7th July, 2014 1:42PM

It was the sheer persistence of American artist Amanda Palmer that resulted in New Zealand's underground post-punk legend Peter Jefferies being crowbarred out of semi-retirement two years ago. A teenage Palmer was drawn to the way Jefferies pounded at the piano and became enamoured with his sound, collecting every scrap of his music as the years went by and she became an increasingly successful globetrotting musician. During numerous trips to New Zealand she searched high and low for her reclusive teen idol. In a heartfelt blog post, The Dresden Dolls musician writes about how each time she visited she would quiz everyone she came across about Peter Jefferies in her attempt to find him:

“I sort of expected Peter Jefferies to be a New Zealand indie rock hero, known to every radio personality and promoter. I mean, if I knew him in America and I wasn’t all that plugged in, clearly he’d be huge over here. Untrue. Almost nobody had heard of him.”

Palmer covered Jefferies' song 'On An Unknown Beach' before meeting him in 2012...

Peter Jefferies started his musical career as the vocalist for Nocturnal Projections, a post-punk band he formed in Stratford in 1981 with his brother Graeme on guitar, Brett Jones on bass and Gordon Rutherford on drums. The group, which drew comparisons to British acts like Joy Division, got a few records under its belt before it disbanded in 1983. The two siblings then went on to form experimental act This Kind of Punishment, who between 1984 and 1987 put out three albums while shifting between New Plymouth and Dunedin. Their last release, In The Same Room, signalled the beginning of a solo career for Jefferies who had had grown to be a talented multi-instrumentalist, able to turn his hand to piano, drums and guitar.

'Nerve Ends In  Power Lines' was released as a single by Nocturnal Projections in 1982...

His first proper solo album The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World was released in 1990 and enjoyed several represses through Ajax Records during the early part of the decade. Then, last year, the album was reissued by American label De Stijl, complete with songs that had been excluded from the original run. Jefferies says a few labels had been “sniffing around” to reprint the album over the years, but when De Stijl’s Mike Wolf (a former Flying Nun man) said he wanted to reissue on vinyl Jefferies’ interest was piqued.

“I wasn’t interested and the idea of someone making a bunch more CDs when you can basically go online and steal the thing anyway, it’s sort of like “what’s the point”. But when De Stijl said they’d do 1000 vinyl, that got my attention. So I thought about it for about a week, and then thought ‘oh yea why not’.”

De Stijl's re-release included extra track 'The Fate of the Human Carbine'...

The reissue was a massive success. Influential music website Pitchfork gave it a glowing review, describing the record as: “a claustrophobic, private-sounding collection that ranges from homegrown, tinny post-punk to melancholic piano ballads to fucked up tape manipulations to the sound of a man singing calmly.” From that point the hype swept around the globe. “I just couldn’t believe how far it got, Russia, India South Africa, countries whose writing I can’t even read, it just went everywhere,” Jefferies says. “I was just staggered. I didn’t even expect people to notice that it had been reissued, I was hoping somebody would notice, but I didn’t expect that. Way off the scale. It’s been received better this time round than it was when it first came out, and it got pretty well received when it first came out.”

The positive reception for The Last Great Challenge has propelled Jefferies to re-release his second solo album Electricity through California-based label Superior Viaduct. “They actually emailed Vinyl Countdown, our record shop here in New Plymouth to see if they knew where I was, and of course Vinyl Countdown did know where I was, so they passed the message on, asking if I wanted to do Electricity, so I was like ‘yeah okay, I’m good for that,’ he explains. The re-release will also see the label flying Jefferies over to the States for a solo tour.

According to legend, title track 'Electricity' was inspired by a power cut...

This new project triggered Jefferies to organise a “test drive” in Auckland, playing his first headline show in over a decade. His last big performance was in 2002, following the release of his solo album, the aptly titled Closed Circuit. “I meant [the title] to be a signal that it was the last one. I knew it was going to be the last one when I made it, and then I just absolutely stopped completely. And I really thought I had. I think if I can point to any one person that dragged me back from it, it would be Amanda.”

When Palmer tracked Jefferies down in 2012 and divulged her teenage fandom for the post-punk figure, the pair bonded and ended up playing an impromptu show at the local record store in New Plymouth. “I didn’t even see it coming," Jefferies explains. "At that point I was pretty much entirely out of the music business and wasn’t contacting anybody. So for her to even get hold of me took quite a few years of persistence, and then when I found out she saw me as a sort of influence it was very humbling.”

The two continued a friendship that saw him agreeing to play a short opening set for her show in Auckland the following year. “It was a bit nerve-wracking. I hadn’t played for awhile, and you kind of wonder if you still can, but she’d made it so easy for me because the Kings Arms was packed to overflowing. It was jammed to the rafters. Plus she gave me the most beautiful introduction before I came on,” he recalls. “So there I am playing to a bunch of Amanda Palmer fans in a packed club, with this lovely introduction making me feel ever so special, so once I was there doing it, it was fun. It was really great.”

Jefferies, who now works as a music school music teacher, explains his departure from the music scene as a kind of revelation. “I just reached the point where I really couldn’t see writing yet another song that was as inspiring or as important as working with young musicians and helping them to write their first songs,” he says. “Also, a musician’s life is a pretty selfish kind of life. You don’t think that at the time, but you pretty much end up being the centre of attention wherever you go and whatever you do … I just kind of got to the point where I’d had enough of it.”

Despite his extensive body of work (including music released while living in Canada and playing with 2 Foot Flame), Jefferies has an admittedly low-profile in his homeland, whereas the States have always embraced his work enthusiastically. “America’s my best market,” he says.”New Zealand’s done its best to ignore me, it really has. And it’s kind of funny in a way because it feels like it’s the last country to pay any attention. I notice other artists get lauded for doing a lot less than what I have.”

Though widespread acclaim in New Zealand is a long time coming, there is definitely a strong core of post-punk fans that will be ecstatic to see the talented musician take the stage this month for a special showcase show. The evening will feature solo sets from Jefferies, as well as a sets with long-time collaborator Shayne Carter and his “absolutely favourite New Zealand band right now” Little Moon (a New Plymouth duo comprised of Brendan Mills and Salvi Stone), which Jefferies plays with under the name Substatic. "The show is kinda everything I could possibly do,” Jefferies says. “I realised I had a chance to do a really complete show, so at that point it stopped being the test drive for the American tour and it turned into a real special show here.”

Jefferies says he first saw Little Moon and "almost felt like I was levitating off the floor"...

Peter Jefferies
is playing with Shayne Carter and Little Moon on Saturday 12th July at The Kings Arms. Head over here for more details and to buy tickets.

For an in-depth history of Peter Jefferies' musical projects please visit Audio Culture.

Photo taken on Evans Street in 1988 via

Written by Danielle Street

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