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Interviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam
Monday 5th September, 2011 9:50AM

Tristan Dingemans' reputation in New Zealand alternative music is built around his brilliant '90s and '00s band H.D.U.. The band gathered critical acclaim overseas (being one of John Peel's "10 best bands in the world you've never heard of") and released some cracking good albums. Dingeman's latest project, Mountaineater already has a ferocious live reputation, and with a nationwide tour and recording coming up, promises to highlight more music goodness from Dunedin.

All set for the tour?

Definitely getting there, we had a bit of an issue unfortunately. Our drummer Chris, he's head chef of a restaurant down here, and it was very hard for him to get time off. We were struck with a bit of a crisis about a month ago, which we have solved by calling a friend of ours to fill in the gaps. We're still working through the rehearsals and bringing him up to speed on the set-list, it's going to be all good. He's great – Operation Rolling Thunder?

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

Why music? (laughs) Because, I'd like to say my blood is made of notes, which would be a pretty good start. I really like art history, I really like the idea – rather than writing a song, recording a version of it, and trying to play the most exact version of that recording, you're essentially re-painting that song every-time you play it - there's an impermanence to it. It’s there and then it's gone. It's linear and then it's not. It's very much a fourth, fifth dimensional sort of space.

To me, the idea of spirit is fundamental to music and I'm not talking in a Christian context or anything like that, but something I keep coming back to when I talk to people: when a gig really works, and the feedback with the players and with the audience really connects, there's a really ritualistic quality to it, the end being ultimately a really joyous experience, no matter how dark the music might be. One of the things I love about going to gigs is my face ends up in a huge smile, when a band is really nailing, feeling the energy coming off the crowd is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

I've been moved by music my entire life. My folks didn't really listen to music at all, they didn't have an amazing record collection. I came to music really late. When I was very little, hearing [David Bowie's] 'Sound and Vision', I've loved that song my entire life, I had no idea who it was, or what it was, but I heard it on the radio and it really got in there. I did start becoming an utter devotee of music.

The first band I really got into was Pink Floyd, my karate instructor sat me down in front of his stereo and played 'On the Run' from Dark Side of the Moon and that was my first proper experience of a stereo and I'd never heard anything like it. I kept finding my way through things, this was pre-internet, in the Hawkes Bay, all that was available, we were passing around third, fourth-generation tapes of Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus – Bauhaus especially had a huge impact on me, their live set, Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape was really key.

It just kept rolling on. A friend of mine got a job in a record store and we got access to record catalogues to music they don't normally get in – My Bloody Valentine, Spaceman 3, stuff that we'd been reading about but never got to hear. All of a sudden we could get it. It was really life-changing stuff.

Then two years later, I moved to Dunedin where most of the bands I really love from this country come from. That was a fundamental reason I moved to this town. The apprenticeship of two or three years of going to gigs. In 1994, that was when H.D.U. came out of the ashes of a band that started in the Hawkes Bay. We made a go of it in '93 and it turned to custard for various reasons. Me and Dino [Karlis] and Neil [Phillips] found ourselves in a practice room and tried this different direction and played our first show, [we were] incredibly nervous, and got a fantastic approach. Dale Cotton [who recorded Fire Works amongst others] and Natasha Griffiths [HDU's manager] were there, and after we finished playing, there were the first people to come up and say that was really cool, we really liked it and it rolled from there.

We had this mental list of people I'd like to play music with: Bailterspace, the 3D's – we didn't play with the Straitjacket Fits but I was an enormous, enormous fan of that band – we got to play shows with these people and to get positive feedback from these people. There's very, very little money to be made out of music in this country, especially with what I do. Ideally, you'd want to be able to perpetuate what you're doing, feed the money from one show into the next, into the next tour. You try to get yourself up to a level where you're not trying to dig into your pockets to pay for it. I'm still at that, I've been very much out of the scene for quite a long time and getting back into the swing of things, just this year.

I've just had a great time going to gigs, as well as playing them, diving back into the music scene in this town, it's a really close-knit community, and a really diverse amount of music is being created. It comes back to this idea of joy, no matter how dark and angst-ridden the music I started making was, and still is in many way, the fundamental end-point is trying to get to a higher or happier place, this transcendent state.

Has it been gratifying knowing you guys have had through your career such a great live reputation?

Absolutely. It's been amazing this year, meeting people and being reminded of that. I had come out of a pretty crap space for quite a number of years, a lot of self-doubt and so forth, and without trying to sound too egotistical, but having musicians who I have a vast amount of respect for – you really have no idea what sort of reputation you have – that has been really powerful encouragement to go 'yes, there's a reason to keep going'. I'm sending emails to people, trying to introduce myself to people with a bit of context, and them going 'no need for introductions, we know who you are'. I'm a very insular, introverted person – I project my ego massively on stage – but it's not me. It just means the work we did especially with H.D.U. did mean a great deal to people.

I'll go and bands and the influence is audible to me – in the same way Bailterspace and Straitjacket Fits and Alister Parker and Shayne Carter were to me. There's no way I'd ever deny that. Their connection, the idea of using Bailterspace, almost like a musical reference point occurred to me many years ago. It wasn't trying to rip them off wholesale, but trying to create a fusion between especially in a power-trio scenario, guitar, bass and drums, the instruments almost meld into this machine kind of thing. That's what takes you into this other dimension, the higher realm quite literally, and it's that pursuit, when I've listened to something, and it's connected and it's literally lifting me up, it's not just people playing a song with a narrative form, it's an object or a thing in its own right coming into being. That's what I'm trying to achieve, there's elements of sculpture in it, and two-dimensional painting, it's like a sonic installation, and part of the beauty in it is if you can capture that moment and weave the notes, the cymbals, the bass, the drums, the voice into that space – to me, it's the ultimate end. I can't really think of anything I'd rather listen to, or create for somebody else, when you really nail that sonic space.

Is it a challenge when you play live, when you and your band-mates are creating a sculpture, trying to think how an audience might like it?

A start point is you make music to please ourselves – it's a start point for sure, I'm not wanting to write a song that caters to a particular market form. That's just not me. I am first and foremost trying to write music that moves me. I know that the music that moves me moves other people. If you get people on your wavelength, but continue to follow your heart and your sense of what you're doing, I think they will enjoy it. You'll get some people go 'I like the other stuff better' and obviously that will happen.

If you think about Radiohead, you'll have people say 'Creep is their best song'. I couldn't disagree more with that statement. To me a band like Radiohead encapsulates what I'm trying to describe to you, they're following entirely their own path, they're drawing us along on that path in a fantastic way. There's almost a bloody-minded reaction against the idea of a marketplace. OK Computer is a fantastic album, but I think like Kid A more, not entirely because it's such a departure, but because they're following entirely their own space. Whether they lost their own market share, that's not the fucking point, they're continuing to make amazing music. That's sort of approach I'm trying to find. I remember early on in H.D.U. we'd be playing this song we'd been working on for quite a number of months, it was in 3/4, it was quite quiet, and we weren't sure how people were going to react to it – and the reaction was amazing. People absolutely loved it. Knowing you're on the right track, why not follow it through? That's what I'm trying to do more and more, I'm trying to write better songs to me, play better than I know I can play, and that ends up ticking all of the right boxes.

How does Mountaineater fit in with all of your other projects?

H.D.U. was for a start, we wrote a great deal of music in the studio. A lot of the trigger ideas were arguably mine, but that said it was entirely a three-way process. I would look to a particular smile or nod from Dino to know I was on the right track. We had this idea and we would jam it, and if he reacted in this particular way, we were on the right track. It was an incredibly important aspect. There was not a way H.D.U. could be anything but Dino, Neil and myself. Mountaineater is not really the same. I really love working with Anaru [Ngata] and Chris [Livingstone] without knowing exactly why there's a very specific reason why I asked them to join me, they are with the exception of one tune, one chorus or riff that Anaru wrote, they're all my songs, and I've worked quite a lot harder to craft a complete song rather than have just a riff or a change. There's a definite idea of a beginning, middle and end – I work out the arrangement with them, and bounce ideas off them, especially with Anaru, but ultimately it does fall to me to make a decision on what's going to happen. It is quite different in that regard. That said, it's still what I'm doing, and there's going to be, because of the way I'm playing, and how I feel about music, I'm very much a heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person, there are very obvious links from Mountaineater to H.D.U, but then there's the stuff that I do solo, the Kahu project, it's stripped back but at the same time, it's almost more complicated, the layering and looping and so forth, it's quite multi-layerered. 'Mountaineater' itself was a Kahu song. It's all what I do, it's definitely not H.D.U. Mach II, they're fundamentally different bands. It started off with songs I had written, but there's another sonic thread, different set-up, it's a refinement for me how I play, and maybe for me how much work goes into the songs.

Do you worry how much of a shadow H.D.U. casts over Mountaineater?

I think that's possibly inevitable. I don't know what has been said, but nobody has come to me yet and said 'you've dropped the ball and that this is nowhere near as good as H.D.U.', they're totally different scenarios. A very deep friend of mine said there's more space in H.D.U. compared to Mountaineater, it's always been a problem of mine is trying to make space in a song, I've taken that on board as constructive criticism if you will. As far as I'm concerned, Mountaineater is not a step backwards, which is the main thing.

Do you have any recording ambitions with Mountaineater?

We've been pretty fucking slack to be honest, we've got a couple of songs done really early on in the piece with Dale, but I've been pretty shit health-wise until the end of last year, but feel very ready to do some recording. We've just had hold-ups because of Dale's workloads especially, which is a reason why we're not plugging an EP on this tour. We'll be doing some recording very soon, and there's more than enough material for an EP and an album.

Will it be a challenge – it would have been the same with H.D.U. , trying to capture what you do live in the studio?

Yeah, to a certain extent I suppose. They're fundamentally different things. Especially working with someone like Dale Cotton, who's the polar opposite to Steve Albini. We never actually worked with Steve, we recorded at his studio, he orchestrated this way that Dale, the first time we recorded in a proper purpose built studio with twenty four tracks where every track worked. No disrespect to Fish Street [Studio] but, [laughs] when we did the first H.D.U. album, not all of the tracks were running. There are in-house techs there to come in and fix amplifiers, it was an amazing, amazing experience. We had this thing 'we're going to record with Steve Albini, blah, blah, blah', he came to us and went 'I've actually got this other band to record, so you should let Dale go through', so we started and this band mysteriously failed to show up. Without really actually talking to him, I think he was like 'fuck you've got this amazing engineer who would learn a great deal from working in a scenario like this, let him go for it'. I'm really glad we got that opportunity. I'd really love to record with Steve Albini, but his thing is capturing a live scenario. Dale records well, and then sculpts an incredible space in the mix, he's a huge Brian Eno fan, and listening to the stuff since we last worked together since 2000, that Beastwars album, it's just voice, guitar, bass and drums, it's astonishing, it's got this amazing spatial quality to it, it's recorded beautifully, he's got this amazing ability to extract the best things as he sees it out of the songs, just project it in this cinematic kind of way. He's got an astonishing touch. That's why I'd love to keep working with him, and why I'm prepared to wait until he's ready and has got the time. It hadn't been until this year that I was mentally ready to do the job on these records that I really wanted to. I know I can do better work, and I'm seriously itching to do it now. We've got a really decent amount of material to launch into it.

Is it necessary in a legacy sense – a lot of people are discovering H.D.U. through your albums, does that drive you as well, having a document?

Yes it's a hobby to a certain extent, we've all got 9-5 jobs, but I've got two kids and a step-daughter. They need to be fed, and I'm not in a position – I've got a huge amount of admiration for how hard a band like Shihad work, or Die! Die! Die!, especially in this context. I've known those guys since they were seventeen. H.D.U. was never prepared to do that, the others weren't interested in being permanently itinerant. I would have loved to have done that, to be honest, but at the moment, I'm not in a space to live on the road for 200 days a year. I want to create a scenario, like Alastair Galbraith, or the Bats, or the David Kilgour – they travel annually to the Northern Hemisphere, they play their shows, and they come back and do their jobs. I aspire to get to that point again. If we can take it further, then fuck yeah I will. My family is too important for me to leave them on their own for large periods of time. If we could go on the road for a huge length of time, they'll come with us. I like to go to Europe, I'd like to go see the Louvre, and I want to take my kids, because they really love their art. That's how I'd like to do it. I'd like to make music until I fucking fall over dead. I'm going to take the John Lee Hooker route, I'm not going to stop making music because 'I'm nearly forty, stop acting like a kid'; that's not how it works for me, there's no reason to stop. If I'm still continuing to reach higher, especially if you've established a reputation that people admire and respect, then why the fuck not. Releasing a number of records is important from a legal point (laughs) but it's a necessary part of the cycle, the arc. I love doing a good live show. But people who like Mountaineater hang out for another release, and to a certain extent, they'll get impatient and 'go fuck it'. I like working in the studio, it's been a while since I've done it for a length of time, but I enjoy that creative aspect of making music, it's very different from a live gig. You've got time to draw things out that wouldn't be so obvious in a live setting, especially when you're dealing with the chaos that comes with a gig. You get to sit back and contemplate things, which is how Dale works. When he listens to something, he hears things in a particularly beautiful way. It's a fundamental part of a life of a band making a good record.

Excited about the upcoming tour?

Absolutely, we've got a friend, Deano Shirriffs, I've got to know him this year and he's been really fantastic support for me. In the last few months, he was offering to help out in any way he could, and he had done a great deal of work with Sammy's, the venue down here, when it was run by Sam Carroll. He's been smashing it out, knocking on 4000 friends on Facebook kind of styles, for New Zealand, that's pretty fucking amazing. This has been in two months. He's been working incredibly hard on promotion for this tour, so I'm feeling very excited about the way. It's a really vital part of getting a band going, and I'm fucking shit at that. Dino organised the tours mostly for HDU. Musicians often project their egos on stage, but when it comes to doing it on the marketplace, they fall down. Going back to that part about not wanting to seem arrogant, I struggle to push myself in that way, to talk about myself as a brand or in the third person, it's horrid. Having someone who can help bully you into checking your email every day, I seriously need that help. I'm really stoked Deano is doing the job he is, because he is doing it incredibly well. It's his first time trying it on, fuck. We have this powerful connection over and above business, from a spiritual point of view, we agree on a great many things, we connect with each about things like Māoritanga, we're both very white, but we both responded in our own ways to that culture. My Dad's as English as they come, but we grew up really close to a marae and we'd visit it a great deal and that experience goes incredibly deeply for me. The lessons I get from it are incredibly important. The name Mountaineater comes from a Māori myth from where I grew up. Deano's heritage is Norwegian-Scottish, but we have a connection with that world.

Brannavan Gnanalingam

See below for tour dates and tickets.



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