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Graeme Jefferies - The Cakekitchen

Graeme Jefferies - The Cakekitchen

Friday 3rd June, 2011 9:05AM

For too long, New Zealand musical writing has focused on a pair of rural North Island brothers. However, if you travelled down State Highway 3 a bit more and ended up in Stratford, you'd find the hometown of arguably a considerably more influential and brilliant bunch of musical pioneers – Graeme and Peter Jefferies. Their '80s bands, Nocturnal Projections and This Kind of Punishment, along with their solo work has had a potent legacy, and was instrumental in selling New Zealand music outside of these shores. Labelled by Pitchfork as part of the "holy trinity" of New Zealand music (along with the Dead C and Chris Knox), their music has been covered by the likes of Cat Power, and Graeme Jefferies has played with the likes of John Darnielle and the Notwist. Graeme Jefferies brilliant solo act, Cakekitchen, has been going since the late '80s and he's garnered stellar reviews for his albums like World of Sand, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, How Can You Be So Blind? And Put Your Foot Inside the Door (and he's been released via Merge, Homestead, and Hausmusik). His latest, Kangaroos in My Top Paddock, is another eclectic and impressive release.

I thought I'd start off with a basic question, why music?

An absolute fascination with it. I saw a glam rock concert at the age of, how old was I then… I saw [British glam band] Sweet play at the Bowl of Brooklands. My brother and I were always into buying 7'' singles and there seemed something magical about it that was impossible to ignore. I started playing guitar when I was thirteen so I played for a very long time. It was always what I wanted to do, it wasn't a question of why, it was a sub-conscious thing, you had to do it. It was a calling…that's probably a bit dramatic – but I think musicians are really instinctive. They usually do things that people can't think about for that reason. I guess it was always, always magical to me. As a kid it was really important, and I think it's the same with today's generation. It's really important for young people – they'll die for it in a way, it's that sort of intensity that I didn't think there was any other choice.

When you were busking in the London Underground, down to your last twenty pounds, did you think it was worth it?

No, I remember getting caught by the police for illegal…no, never. I see myself as being extremely lucky. I've gone out and made fifteen albums, moving to England in 1990, living in France, living in Holland, living in Germany, working for record companies, working as a professional songwriter, having hits in German movies and soundtracks, having title songs, I've been really lucky. I think anybody could end up on the bones of their arse. Even a businessman goes back to the day when he got fired and only had ten dollars in his back pocket. The days in the underground were great, they taught me an education, my personality evolved, having to cope with all the junkies, drunks, or the children begging around the corner – suddenly you get no money at all. I believe in someone's lucky star, and my lucky star was working overtime while I was doing that sort of thing in the London Underground. Cakekitchen was doing so well amongst that, we were doing really well on CMJ and around colleges, and I was in the train station busking and I was earning more than you would get working in a bar in London. At that stage you'd get two pounds sixty four working in a bar. At that stage, it's all good. It was pretty hard time. I lived in countries that I didn't speak the language at all until I got to the country. That was pretty hard, there were times I was just outside a park or cemetery squatting.

How do you approach music now? Was there a specific way you approach Kangaroo in My Top Paddock?

I like recording on 16 track, and I like the limitation of not having unlimited tracks. Everything these days is add more and more. Working with a smaller number of tracks, means you have to have ideas that are sold within three or four tracks, so you know what you're doing. I could also move my recording studio all around the world and in any country I wanted to work in. I wanted to make an album that comes really well together – there were thirty songs that could have been on it. I chose the ones that worked with each so that each song was different from the one before. I looked for things that you wouldn't expect, like the wolf howling, in 'My Beautiful Fire Tamer' or the dog barking, or 'Curry in a Hurry', the main instrument is a cutting knife or a packing knife. Out of the material I had it was the best material I could put together for the forty-four minutes of material. The original deal was to do it for an album, which meant that it couldn't be more than twenty-two and a half minutes on each side. That way it had quite a good limitation so that I had to look really hard at what I had. The original album had fifteen songs on it, but it worked much better when I cut things off. It wasn't that I took stuff off that weren't good songs, it was more for that collection. Growing up, the old thing, picking something, Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie – it didn't need to be any longer, each song goes from one to the other, it was quite a perfect sort of thing. The idea to make an album was like that, to make an album like Mott by Mott the Hoople or After the Goldrush or On the Beach by Neil Young. They're all forty-five, forty-four minute kind of things. Those sort of things were the great albums, they track well from each track. That's what I'm trying to do with each album, given the limitations of what I do.

Do you find it invigorating?

I love it, I see it as this great privilege having been able to produce records for thirty years. It's a long time to be writing original material. It's been a great opportunity to meet people from all around the world, I've lived all around the world. I must have played over 500 shows overseas, in different cities. It surprises me how far it went with no manager, independent tours organised by an agent who would take thirty percent of the gross profits of a tour – they'll make money, you'll break even unless your van has something go wrong with it and you'll lose 800 euro. It always has been a really good challenge. My tours have always been successful, they've always made money, and nothing has gone too badly wrong with them that it has been an absolute disaster. I remember one tour in Austria, and we were partying after the show when the Belgian cellist closed the door of the car on the American merchandising guy's fingers. We had to go to an Austrian hospital, drunk out of our minds, trying to explain. It was 'my god, I hope his hand isn't totally broken' but it ended up all right in the end.

The thing I noticed about Kangaroo in my Top Paddock is all these little flourishes, the strings pop in and out, texturally it's really interesting despite the limitations…

I think what you don't put in is more interesting than what you do put in. In a way, if you think like that it makes it easier to work that way. Also the string parts, I'm not particularly a good string player, and it takes me a long time to play what was quite simple.

I hear it was recorded in a variety of locations, was it difficult practically carrying all the instruments around?

Not really, I got quite good at it. The studio itself is portable and small in comparison. The monitors are not that big. The biggest hassle was the paperwork going from country to country, and all the serial numbers. They were always searching for drugs with each country we went to – musicians have a really bad reputation for that. The actual thing, logistically, it's not too difficult. It costs about as much to send four cubic metres of stuff to New Zealand as airfares for one person. If wrap something up and freight, it probably arrives by the time you've got a house and you're ready for it, if you're lucky.

You said there were thirty songs – do you think the rest will see a public release in some way?

They probably will some day. There was some songs which didn't go on because I couldn't record the ideal version or if there were three songs that were similar, I would take one, and leave two which were not as good or might even be better but didn't quite settle. I always have this kitty of songs – like 'A Secret Fear of Heights' on Stories for Late at Night (2007) was written at the same time as 'The Resurrection of Lieutenant Ghmpinski' or 'Beautiful Hidden Lagoon' which were both on [2003's] How Can You Be So Blind?, so it took four years before 'A Secret Fear of Heights' came out. The original version was thirteen minutes long, and I managed to get it down to seven and a half. When you look at the seven and a half minute version I think 'that's about the right length, long and loping'. The thirteen minute version had parts that were doubled. I managed in the four years to reduce it. In How Can You Be So Blind? I wanted to have two big production songs in the studio with full arrangements, so I chose those two songs better. But it didn't mean 'A Secret Fear of Heights' was a worse song, the time for it to come out wasn't then. I think my music is out of fashion anyway, it doesn't make that much difference, it's not like if it takes that long to come out people will think it's old material.

You've had so many people come and go with Cakekitchen – outside of yourself do you think there are any constants with the project?

Yeah, someone like Markus Acher [the Notwist, Lali Puna], the drummer – he played it in it twice, in 1996 and didn't play again until 2002 when he played drums in How Can You Be So Blind? People keep popping up, I'm playing some shows in Germany in June and I'm playing with the guy I played with before I left. People like Keith McLean who played bass in the London line-up, I've pretty much worked with constantly. It's more the fact that other people have things in their lives, they want to get married have kids or like that, there's not a helluva lot of reward financially or asset wise doing this sort of thing. You find yourself living a life of not many assets. But you find people who really love ideas, it's a really good deal. When I'm working on stuff, I forget to eat, I don't know what time it is, I'll be up until three or four o'clock in the morning without realising, it's the best possible thing, and I've really had no regrets about choosing that as a career. I feel really really lucky having made it this far without being destroyed by it - like Michael Jackson. He was way better off when he was just a kid singing, with all the fame and the money he got absolutely nothing out of it: he died. He might have been better off playing in the London Underground playing for fifty pence and pound coins.

I imagined it must have been useful having this revolving cast of musicians come and help you out?

Most of the people have just offered. I've hardly ever asked anybody, it's been more or less people coming along and being interested, which I find really great. It means I find a similar kind of musician or like-minded people are interested in playing, or asking 'can I help you with this'. By being open you find people coming into your life – like Jean-Yves Douet who played on a couple of albums. I met him by chance, because a friend of mine was quite a good contact. He didn't know anything about the Flying Nun thing or the New Zealand thing at all. He came there in a completely open way, everything was equal, this great thing, none of this NME thing or auditions – just like-minded people. They've all made a difference, how they've played, their style.

You talked about the new album, each song being different – you've always been like that – Put Your Foot Inside the Door is extremely eclectic…

That one took a really long time. Some of those songs like 'Monkey World' went from four-track to an eight-track to a sixteen-track.

You haven't really stuck to one kind of musical style in your career…

I guess I expect the same from Beethoven to Bob Marley, I guess a certain genre has a certain amount of things, but I tried to make it as open as possible. It's nice of you to say that it hasn't stuck to any style, because that's what I'd like to do, but given the limitations of things, I still haven't done it. It has kinda crafted itself into a style – there's usually guitar, more acoustic guitars, voice – while I try to change the voice a lot, I can only change it to a certain extent. Something like 'Strung Out' sounded a little bit differently to any other vocal to make it sound like a different person. But something like 'Voyage to the Sun' or 'Monkey World', the vocal lines were set in stone. The lyrics are carefully spaced with gaps between the music in a way that's harmonious, quite often it'd be with the melody, a set of words that'd work with that melody. In that way, we tried as much as we could to be different between each song, but there were some things that would still be the same. No matter how much you change song by song, obviously you still put your stamp on it. You'll still your own ear for melody as to what you want or what it sounds like in the most sexy form to your ear. Even if you work on something deliberately dissonant like [TKP's] 'Don't Take Those', with really flat chords and weird timing, it'll be similar without really planning to. No matter how much I try and make it different, I don't have enough to cover it even more different.

You're playing live in New Zealand after a really long period, do you have any expectations?

Again they offered me – do you want to play a show? I was going on to play a show in Germany and it was 'do you want a send-off?' And I was, 'well that'd be nice!' Because I haven't played in Wellington for over four years. Didn't have any intention to. But someone offered to me, I thought 'oh yeah that's really nice, I'll go ahead and do it'. I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be good for me as I'll have my instruments with me, I won't have to borrow a cello off somebody. When I played last time, I had to borrow every last thing. Only with a violin, a pick up, and a digital amp.

I see you have some live clips from Russia, odd seeing these documents?

Not really, I deliberately took them. They're generated from me. I filmed the shows in Moscow and the shows in St Petersburg, and about 10 hours of wandering around Moscow and St Petersburg. I deliberately put cameras on the side of the stage and recorded the show. As a form of study, you never know what you look like when you're playing something, especially when you're playing three things at once, or doing various timings at once, you don't know what's on your face because you're concentrating on all the rhythms and singing at the same time. Or if you do, it puts your singing on automatic pilot. Sometimes, I think I look pretty weird.

I know Live at CBGBs is a pretty rare document, and I imagine live documents from your career are hard to find...

Yes outside of the house they are. Inside of the house, most of the shows are recorded via portable digital recording, or most line-ups will have pretty good recordings. The CBGBs one was really interesting because it took twelve years to get a copy of it. It was a great show, it was really great getting the previous band chucked on. It seemed to work really, really well. Strangely enough, I had to edit it, it was recorded by a guy called David Patterson and he said to his mates during the recording "a couple of Aussie beers" really loudly and "two beers" a little later. I had to take pieces of the song and patch pieces on top of it. Took me three days to get rid of his talking on it.

You've collaborated with the Mountain Goats and the Notwist, been released by Merge and had Cat Power cover you - these are pretty big indie names in hindsight. Is it gratifying knowing you've had this influence?

I was really really knocked out. They [Cat Power] played [TKP's] 'The Sleepwalker', that was great. The way they played that really knocked me over, played it in a different key. Somebody who comes from the district of Taranaki, from little old Stratford, it's hard to believe, when you're driving down the Autobahn or in America, thinking 'God this is a long way from Taranaki'. It really constantly amazes me that it's gone so far, on so little. Unless you're someone like Bob Dylan, who gets all his income because he's got all the rights to his songs – usually you have to sign up with someone who will make more money than you. In some ways I've been really lucky, because I've retained the rights to my material. It amazes me that it's gone that far, because to be honest, I'm not that good at business, I'm more introverted than extroverted. I found dealing with record companies wasn't very easy. The music industry is a very ugly industry to be in sometimes, especially in the bottom of it, it's especially the hardest. I'm amazed how far it has got, I'm in a very privileged position, I'm really pleased I have no regrets.

There's obviously a trend for influential but commercially ignored bands doing reunions – do you think there's ever a chance of Nocturnal Projections or TKP forming again, or playing a show or two...

Nocturnal Projections, I played with Brett [Jones] when I was in Australia, he swapped from bass to drums for a show there. With Peter, I think it would be in an informal way, performing one's songs or the other; I don't think we've done anything together for ten years, but we still meet occasionally in a musical type of way. I guess if somebody offered something – Brett's in Saudi Arabia at the moment – but maybe he'd come back if something was put together. I'd never say never, but I can't really see it happening unless someone really wanted to instigate it.

You must have seen considerable shifts in technology and consumption – do you almost wish you were starting off now?

I'm quite glad that I did it when I did it, using the technology of the Beatles – four tracks and eight tracks and sixteen tracks. That served you very well. In some ways, starting now, you'd layer one track upon another, 500 tracks and then you fix up which ones should be louder and which ones should be quieter. The whole '60s, '70s technology recording primitively, but really working on the performance, understanding how to record yourself rather than trusting somebody else, I'm glad I learnt all of that.

I know now how to make records sound more or less like I want to make them, or 80% of what I think they could be, maybe they could be a bit better because of the inability of my fingers to mix everything quite right. I wouldn't want to be starting now, because I really love making records and the covers, I remember staring at old covers for ages when it was one o'clock in the morning, that kind of thing. I think it's sad that there's this whole generation of people growing up without the actual product. There's a lot of music that can fit on an i-Pod, but it's like reading a book is far better than reading something on a computer. The whole aesthetic of singles – I have 300 singles and 500 albums and maybe a couple of dozen CDs – there's something really, really amazing about the music itself and the medium – buying records was a big deal when I was growing up, my mother worked but we never had a lot of money. When you bought an album, it was usually a big day, we'd save up for an album and stare in the record shop wondering which one to pick up. That whole thing of it, was something that I really, really liked. With the digital age, it's sad that it's going, but I'm still glad there's a lot of music going on. I'm quite happy to be born in the right time.

I'm glad that I started when I started. There was also the pioneering aspect, when I started living in Europe in 1990, promoting my own shows over there and stuff like that – people hadn't really done that before, New Zealand was still very much unknown at that point. Now it's much more known and a lot of bands head overseas when they start. It used to be not possible for bands to go overseas and survive – usually bands would go overseas and come back and split up, disillusioned, without cracking it. To have done it since then, and to have done it the hard way, more or less through the back door – for American tours, I had the other guy's guitar in my hand, no record company doing my promotion, and thinking you might get some money. These days you can't do that, people just look on the net and it'd be advertised that you're playing all over America. When I lived in France, it was totally unbelievable, when I arrived I didn't know anything, I didn't speak French; it's much more difficult to do that nowadays as everything is much more controlled.

Brannavan Gnanalingam


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