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Children's Hour (Chris Matthews)

Children's Hour (Chris Matthews)

Monday 24th January, 2011 8:14PM

Children's Hour, with their brief existence (circa 1982 to circa 1984) and lack of recorded material, could almost have been relegated as mere footnote alongside the multitude of great indie New Zealand bands from the 1980s. However, the band's legacy and impact – which included critical acclaim, iconic singles and videos, and re-forming as the Headless Chickens – meant the band have always been hugely regarded as post-punk pioneers in this country. They briefly re-formed for a few live shows in 2005, and they have decided to play once more in the upcoming Laneways Festival.

Where did the name originally come from – was it the BBC radio show, the [1961] movie, the [Lillian Hellman] play, or the Longfellow poem?

It's a combination of the film with Audrey Hepburn and mostly it came from a series of religious kids books written in the 1950s called '[Uncle] Arthur's Children's Hour'. For some reason, they were a bit of collectors' item amongst people we knew at the time in the early '80s. They were rather ridiculous and really over-the-top in their proselytising about the vengeful Christian god and what he could do to your children if you misbehaved. It seemed like an appropriate combination of things and kind of sounded quite good. Had a nice ring to it.

Why the re-forming for Laneways?

Basically because they asked us to. Last year they had the 3D's get back together and play, maybe there's going to be a habit of Flying Nun bands re-forming for Laneways. We re-formed about five years ago for the first time, and we played three gigs and it went really well. We weren't really planning on carrying it on any longer than that at the time. I'm always open to doing it again.

So much has happened in your career since Children's Hour, is it weird going back?

In a way it's just revisiting the past, so it's not like it's a new venture. It's the best offer I've had to go and play in Auckland for a while. I think there's probably a lot of kids who'll go along to see a lot of the other bands who are playing, who wouldn't know who we were and never heard of us. Maybe, this will do a bit for old Flying Nun. I'm sure we will be the oldest guys there.

Is it a big regret in your career that Children's Hour never released a studio album?

Not at the time. We were in the beginnings of actually making an album. The track 'Creeping Flesh' came out in a bFM compilation in the mid-'80s. That was the first track we actually recorded for what was going to be the album. But then everything fell apart in amongst lots of drinking and the general malaise of the times. I don't know – personally we only went for two years from the end of '82 to the end of '84, but it kinda seemed like it had run its course at the time. I really wanted to carry on and do something different. I was already playing in another band – This Kind of Punishment – who were taking a different approach to making music. I saw that as more interesting than hammering noisy, dark music at the time. We had painted ourselves into a corner I think with the way we were making music. I think it was great for what it was for the time but it felt like we had to keep getting more extreme and I wanted to get a bit quieter and listen to things a bit more at the time.

Is This Kind of Punishment due for a reunion?

[Laughs] I would seriously doubt it. If you can get the Jefferies brothers in the same room after they haven't seen each other for god knows how long. I haven't seen Peter since the late '80s. I haven't seen Graeme either for probably that long. He's been living in Europe since Cakekitchen kinda finished in Auckland and he went overseas. I don't think those guys are that much interested in looking at their past and revisiting it. Neither of them use the internet, I just think 'nah, I don't think they'd want to'.

For the fact that Children's Hour was only around for a couple of years, do you think Children's Hour gained a reputation which exceeded its…

Worth? [Laughs]

Not necessarily worth, but what you felt it did at the time…

Yeah I think there were quite a few Flying Nun bands at the time who were really short-lived and only released a few, or a couple of things in their time. There were bands like the Pin Group, or the Victor Dimisich Band, there were a couple of bands from Christchurch who were doing similar things to what we were doing, although they were probably more in the dark Velvet Underground-y style of music, whereas we were more Joy Division inspired I guess. The Pin Group were definitely doing a bit of Joy Division. I think a lot of bands who only released vinyl, and didn't have a CD release – it's become really collectable on Trademe particularly. A lot of old Flying Nun albums go for hundreds of dollars now. I think we were a really good band and we had a really good live reputation. I guess if you finish early, and don't overdo it, then people will remember it for what it is years later.

How shocking were the Children's Hour at the time, with videos like 'Caroline Dreams' etc. – I must admit I was only born in the '80s – did you cause much of a stir?

I don't know. It wasn't shock tactics really – we were trying to be as good as the Gordons. That was our yardstick at the time. I don't know if we were. Our intention was to be as loud and as aggressive and as dark as possible. Don't know. You'd have to ask other people if they were shocked. I guess maybe lyrically, there was something that upsetting to some people.

I guess there's the famous line in 'Stuck Pig' "if she's young enough to bleed, the pig will feed"…

Yeah that was something I heard a friend of mine say, in jest, about young women. If you're old enough to bleed then it's kinda 'all right'. Lyrically, I was totally into social observation, so I guess it struck as me as amusing at the time that somebody would say something like that. Perhaps I had a different sense of humour to other people. Someone who worked at Flying Nun was quite upset about that lyric – it wasn't Roger Shepherd, but somebody else who worked there. We put a lyric sheet in the single, this guy who worked there was campaigning for us to not to put the lyric sheet. I don't know, you can't really listen to other people's opinions too much if you are doing something creative.

Did you get much media support?

On the b-Net stations. They weren't called that at the time. On student radio we were. Someone posted a top 100 songs for bFM in 1984 and I think there were about four Children's Hour songs on there. 'Caroline Dreams' was up there with the Fall and the Birthday Party and stuff like that. It was quite nice that student radio in Auckland thought that we were worthy of some kind of something.

Was the video for 'Caroline Dreams' how you imagined it visually to appear?

No, not really. It was just Chris Knox wanting to make a video. His approach to making a video was just coming down to our house where we lived and point a camera after we got pretty fucked up on alcohol and other substances and see what happened really. It was what it was. I think perhaps, it was definitely inspired by the Birthday Party's 'Nick the Stripper' video, it was kinda cinéma-vérité. They went around and got as many fucking crazy street people as they could find and put them into a circus tent and pointed a camera at them along with the band and see what would happen. Not that we had anybody else in our video but that was basically the idea. I guess that was how we lived at the time. Basically it's a little piece of history of what we were doing – getting fucked up and making music in our practice room.

Were Children's Hour moving towards the loops, and samplers, and keyboards of the Headless Chickens?

Children's Hour was just all played live, we weren’t doing loops or anything like that. We never used keyboards in the Children's Hour. That wasn't until we met Michael Lawry who was in the Headless Chickens. There were a couple of tracks in the first Headless Chickens' EP that were old Children's Hour tracks which we slowed down and ran backwards and used them for songs. But no, we didn't have any aspirations – samplers didn't exist in 1983, so we couldn't have used them even if we wanted to. We were trying to make interesting sounds with guitar and bass and drums.

Are you guys aware of how you sit in a legacy sense in terms of New Zealand musical history?

I was at the time. I didn't really want to revisit it for a long time afterwards as I was doing This Kind of Punishment, and then we started Headless Chickens. That was what I wanted to do for 15 years. It wasn't until Rob [Mayes] wanted to release the live Children's Hour on Failsafe [Records] five years ago that we actually thought about playing again. I didn't really want to play then either, as Johnny [Pierce] our original bass player was dead [Pierce died in 1986 soon after the Headless Chickens were formed], and he was a huge part of the sound of the band. If you listen to any of the Children's Hour songs, the bass was very much a prominent part of all of the songs. I didn't think we could do it without him. But Rob's a very good bass player. We found that with me and Grant [Fell] and Bevan [Sweeney], the original members – it just sounds like that when we play. I tried playing Children's Hour songs with other people and they were really great players but it just doesn't sound the same. Rob's doing a really great job playing Johnny's bass lines. It kinda helps that he's pretty much got the same gear that Johnny used to use, but he's got a similar approach to playing, doing lots of two notes chords.

Is it still weird playing Children's Hour without Johnny Pierce?

Every time we've done anything since he died, we've dedicated it to him – even Headless Chickens. Just because the spirit of both of those bands started with him. He was my best friend, and he was a driving force of both of those bands. If I hadn't met him then, neither of those bands would have existed.

I know you had issues with getting Flying Nun to release some of your stuff, but were helped out by Failsafe. Failsafe has been around for decades, but hasn't had the kudos it's probably deserved?

Rob's just resolutely indie and underground and he likes it that way. He hasn't been picked up on in the same way that Flying Nun and some of the other labels did. He initially existed for years as a cassette only label only. I don't think Failsafe exists any more. I think he wound it up because he was fed up with not really getting anywhere, getting his releases out to the public. You may be aware of his campaign against New Zealand On Air at the moment. That's his cause célèbre. He's trying to take Brendan Smyth to task for the inconsistencies in what he deems the NZ On Air ethos. I've never had any problems with NZ On Air, but they seemed to be in the media a lot recently for certainly things they shouldn't be doing.

Like Annabel Fay?

Technically she's entitled to a grant like anybody else, but for Brendan Smyth to actually attend her "listening party", being flown to a private island and being wined and dined is probably not in the organisation's best interest.

Is it gratifying being asked to re-form and play in an indie music festival?

Oh yeah, for sure. All of those other bands that are playing are fairly young, newish bands, who haven't been around for very long. It's kinda cool that we fit in there somehow. I think there was a huge movement in recent years for bands to go back to post-punk stuff and listening to that and being inspired all over again. They obviously listened to stuff that we were listening to at the time, or bands that were our peers at the time. That's kinda cool in some ways, but in other ways, if you're old enough like me to remember it the first time around, it just sounds like recycling. But some of it's great, some of it's not.

Do you have any plans to do something with Children's Hour, or is it just Robot Monkey Orchestra for you?

It's not really an ongoing concern. Me and the other guys moved on from it, twenty-five years ago. We all ended up in the Headless Chickens for starters. There has to be an onward progression from what you've done before with any band, otherwise you're just recycling. None of us play in the way we used to play in Children's Hour, and none of us write songs like we wrote in the Children's Hour. We don't even really live the lifestyle that we lived in Children's Hour, which was an integral part to how the music sounds. We were young and fucked up and taking drugs and all of that. You tend to sound a certain way. It's an entire lifestyle. You can't revisit that. You'd have to go back in a time machine and go back to the mid-'80s to really experience it for what it was. It's just trying to replicate it for the present moment. Last time we played, I really had to put myself back into a certain frame of mind to be able to play some of the songs, which is not to say that I don't get depressed or angst ridden anymore, I just don't live my life that way anymore.

Hope the practice goes well…

That was the one thing. It was remarkably easy last time we played. We walked into the practice room and basically played through the songs once and that was 'practice'. There were a couple of moments, we had to work out a couple of structures, but there's so much random noise in Children's Hour, it doesn't matter so much about bum notes, because the bum notes were part of the sound anyway. It was all good.

Brannavan Gnanalingam