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Bruce Russell (The Dead C)

Bruce Russell (The Dead C)

Interviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam
Thursday 17th November, 2011 9:40AM

Pioneering artist Bruce Russell has achieved a considerable amount from his early days working with Flying Nun – in particular, being a key member of the seminal Dead C and founder of the Xpressway label (responsible for showcasing artists such as Alastair Galbraith, the Jefferies brothers, the Dead C, and the Terminals for example to the world). The Dead C are about to play with H.D.U. as part of the Flying Nun thirty year celebrations, and even more excitingly, Russell is about to release a compilation of early ‘80s psychedelic music Time to Go: the Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981-1986 via Flying Nun.

I thought I'd start off with a basic question, given you've been doing it for a fair while, why music?

That's a very big question (laughs) how long have you got? I think the short answer is that when I was much younger, the whole punk rock thing came along and particularly popular music, I guess I should qualify that – my interest has always been at fringe, extreme end of popular music – was very active in the kind of post-punk era 1978 through to '81, '82. That was a hugely fertile period for people just to push the envelope if you like within the popular music area. To me, to all of us, Wordsworth had some line about the French Revolution, "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven". I think it was one of those eras when it was genuinely exciting, it seemed to be the place where cultural expressions were being hammered into new forms, and it all seemed like the thing to do. I guess I never grew out of that. For me, that was the key reason.

You've also approached music in a much wider than simply aural – has music had this wider resonance for you?

I think so. What I've ended up doing is get involved in graphic design, which I have no training in but I'm really quite interested in. It's an excuse for me to write, now I do a lot of curatorial work in this area, and I've always seen running an independent record label as very much a curatorial model, you're choosing. What you choose and what you put with what, is part of the process. It's not a scattershot process of 'this is great', 'that's great', what does it say putting it all together. Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum, two labels I've been responsible for, it's been all about trying to express an aesthetic totality, through what I jokingly called an 'intervention in the marketplace'. Selling and distribution was a big part of it. How can we fuck things up by making stuff available that will be interesting?

How did you end up involved with Flying Nun?

Well I was a fan. I was obviously when they started releasing records, I heard them because I knew people buying them. In November in '81, I saw the Clean, for the second time. I saw the Clean earlier in '81, and the transformation in what they were doing between the two periods was really quite extreme. They really nailed the whole kind of poppier, rocking end of things by the end of '81, whereas the beginning of '81, it was like being in a hangar when they were testing a jet engine. You could hear the beat somewhere, but there was this huge noise, which bore down on you. It was quite intimidating. By the end of the year, they had reined it in a little bit, and they were just the best thing I had heard to this day, virtually. It was one of those top 10 moments in live music for me going to see the Clean in the Empire Tavern in '81. After that, I was just hooked. I knew a lot of people in Christchurch, and I lived here in 1983, and got to know Roger [Shepherd] a little bit, and started writing for Garage, and it all naturally went from there.

You set up Xpressway in opposition to Flying Nun (though there were obviously some links) – did you have many expectations for it?

Absolutely, I had huge expectations because by that point I had spent six months working in the Flying Nun office in '87 in the previous year, and I knew exactly what the opportunities were internationally. My focus was never really on New Zealand because I was aware by that point that the people I was interested in, had a very limited market in New Zealand, and were never going to have careers based on the limited amount of interest that their music would attract here. But I knew it was precisely those artists to really make impact overseas. Initially we were thinking Europe, because that was where things were happening, but it turned around rapidly during the Xpressway period which was '87, '88 through to '93, in America. By 1990, America had become the focus. That was because of changes that had taken place in America as well, and suddenly we could penetrate that huge unified market, whereas Europe was still a group of small markets, where language and currency and the whole nine yards made it a real fragmented thing. In America, you had this big population that was unified, there were independent distribution and media starting up all over, and it was a huge opportunity for what I thought were A Grade artists to project their work to a willing and much larger market. That was the plan. It completely worked. I was really, really pleased. I guess it was so successful I was probably surprised. I didn't really think we could do everything we achieved. After a couple of years, it was basically a crap shoot, we could do whatever we wanted, because we had the stuff they wanted to hear.

What was it like having a band like Yo La Tengo covering you, or being invited to play All Tommorrow's Parties by Sonic Youth?

All that kind of thing is pretty validating and hugely gratifying. Yo La Tengo's cover of ‘Bad Politics’, I didn't think it was that good. It was a payday, make no mistake about it, they sold a reasonable number of records through Matador, and the mechanical royalties were really well-worth having, and they're nice people and I do like their music. I just thought probably they weren't equal to that song, but you know, good on them for trying. It's a brave band that will cover us, but it turns out that song was also covered by the Roger Sisters, and Peter Jefferies made a bit of a calling card out of it. It's ridiculous for me, because it's the only actual real song I've ever actually written. It was my thing. I was doing it before The Dead C, so I brought it into the band, 'I've got this one'. Obviously they turned it into something really different. Honestly, actually, sharing the stage with the Stooges was the pinnacle as far as all of that stuff goes, following the Stooges onto the stage. I never in my wildest dreams thought that something like that could happen.

Are you much of a legacy person, do you look back at your career?

Funnily enough, I was doing an email interview last night where precisely that question came up, and the answer is the Dead C is all about legacy. We've been more about documenting what we do in recording, as much as we are about playing gigs, because we don't play huge numbers of gigs, but relatively we make huge numbers of records. Totally, the thing for us is the impact we've been able to exert by example - obviously that's a big reason to keep ticking along. If we weren't able to have that effect, we would probably think 'that's enough'. That lure that there are still people out there who really want to hear what we do, and particularly other artists who pick up on stuff from us and make their own thing out of it. It's that cliché about the Velvet Underground’s first album – hardly anybody bought it, but everybody who did went out and formed a band. That's been our thing, that's what we've achieved to a degree, and obviously I'm incredibly chuffed about that.

I understand you're compiling a Flying Nun compilation?

Yeah, I've done one that's coming out in November called "Time to Go: the Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981-1986". It's just the South Island, Christchurch and Dunedin, up to 1986, and all of the tracks are chosen to reflect what I firmly believe, the distinguishing thing, the unifying theme was its relationship to '60s psychedelia. I pitched it to Roger about 7 years ago back in the Warners period when he was doing the box-set, and I had this idea, and I had this epiphany one day, when I was listening to 'Russian Rug' by the Bilders, and it just came to me that this would be an awesome compilation. I think compilations, there's this real art to them. They've got to have a unifying theme, they've got to have an argument or something that makes a wodge of tracks band together. The ones that work have that thing, the ones that don't, are just a wodge of tracks banded together. Roger at the time said he did vaguely try and pitch it to Warners. It was a no-hoper, they were not interested in doing that kind of thing. However, when he acquired the label back, one of the first things he said to me was 'we've got to do that compilation'. Obviously the thirtieth anniversary was the impetus it took to really kick it off.

It's obviously limited geographically, is there something you can point to the music to say it has got that geographical specificity – when you hear the music, could it have come, for example, from Auckland?

No, I don't think so. There were some things, I could have included in this that were from Auckland, but the reason those things happened in Auckland, like Goblin Mix, those kids were listening to Flying Nun records anyway. They were responding to stuff that had already been done in the South Island, so it just made more sense. Plus, you can only put so much in a compilation, there was so much to choose from just in Christchurch and Dunedin. Those of us who were around at the time, subsequently the whole Dunedin thing has tended to dominate the journalistic account, to the point where internationally you get this impression that Flying Nun was this Dunedin label. Flying Nun was always a Christchurch label, prior to it moving elsewhere. And, it was the relationship between the two scenes in Christchurch and Dunedin, that was really important. And the Christchurch scene had a huge influence on what was happening in Dunedin, the things that happened in the late '70s in Christchurch kind of has been this obscure history and not well known, and I'm trying to draw attention. In fact, there was as much, if not more, happening in Christchurch at that time. A lot of that music isn't broadly heard, and one of things I'm trying to do with Roger is trying to fix that. We've got a Pin Group compilation ready to go next year, and we're talking about possibly doing something with the Bilders, the Victor Dimisich Band, there's great stuff that has never been released really by them, and I've been working on this for years.

New Zealand indie music has been simplified to Flying Nun, it's the dominant paradigm I guess – does it irritate you that when you set up Xpressway to get this stuff out there, that that's almost been overshadowed.

Not really, for the simple reason, that most of the people I was working with in Xpressway had been on Flying Nun. The problem was the point when Xpressway became necessary, Flying Nun history had entered this corporate trajectory, where for reasons that were unavoidable, they had to go the major label, manufacturing and distribution route, and that inevitably meant that they had to focus on things that the industry thought they could sell. Roger knew perfectly well what he could sell, but he also had to persuade Warners it was initially, and Festival Mushroom whatever, that what he had could sell. And frankly, This Kind of Punishment and Alastair Galbraith were hard sells to those kind of squares, in a way that I knew we didn't have to worry about those people because I knew there were enough people who were hip to what we were doing overseas, that it was a done deal. Candy from a baby.

Arguably, Alastair Galbraith, TKP, the Dead C, and the Terminals for example, are perhaps now more what people overseas think of with New Zealand music?

I think so, you can add in there the Tall Dwarfs, the Clean, and the Chills, but this is really funny, I sometimes I lecture to kids in New Zealand music history in the Jazz School course at polytech, and I'll ask them 'who do you think, if you look at New Zealand music from the early 1980s, who's the artist you think internationally has had the biggest impact, and they'd say the obvious things, Dave Dobbyn, Split Enz, that kind of thing. In fact the answer is The Clean stupid! And even that factor is not acknowledged well in New Zealand, in my opinion – I don't think the Clean get enough credit for the huge influence they've had particularly in American independent music. They are really a huge influence on so many people, they are so hugely esteemed across the board in the States. I think in part it's because the winners make the history, and the winners in the New Zealand music history have tended not to be Flying Nun or the Clean, and so obviously the influence of things that are popular here is overstated in terms of its effect abroad. With the exception of Neil Finn, I'm not going to try and lie about that, but like Dave Dobbyn, nobody fucking knows, and nobody cares.

Dead C never really made an impact here did it?

Not really no. I think it's fair to say, quite hated. Certainly not well understood. Frankly, we wouldn't play nice, we never made out that we were trying to suck up to the media or certainly not the industry, or god forbid, or radio, and we wouldn't tidy up and grow up. There was this real thing, 'ok so those South Islands bands, when they were young and foolish, they might think they could record in a closet and that's ok, but then they'll grow up and get proper industry values'. We actively refused to grow up and get proper industry values, and that was seen as rude and we "paid the price". Not that it matters.

Do you think you suffered from the classic Kiwi anti-intellectualism?

Probably, maybe, it could be the case. We've never really cared. We've never been audience focused. We've done precisely what we've wanted to do, because that was precisely the focus for us. There has never been much hope that we would attract a mass audience, so we've never been distracted by the possibility that that would happen. People would slate me personally - I won't speak for the others - of being arrogant. That's just because I say what I think. I'm an intellectual, sue me.

When you started with the Dead C, did you imagine you'd still be playing together now?

Oh god no. I should stress the Dead C started as the most casual thing imaginable. It was Michael [Morley]'s idea, and he asked me if I wanted to play. I looked at him and asked 'have you lost your fucking mind?' He knew I couldn't play, in a strict technical sense. I'm a very limited player. 'You know what I want to do, you know what I can do, do you really want that?' He was quite adamant that that was what he wanted. He was flatting with Robbie [Yeats], and I knew Robbie, we were kind of acquaintances, and we certainly never played together, and he was in the Verlaines, and the Verlaines were the antithesis of what we were thinking of. But we gave it go, and it worked so well, that within 18 months he was out of the Verlaines, and 22 years later, still playing with us. It turned into one of those magic combinations of talent and other stuff.

What have you guys got planned coming up – obviously, playing with HDU I understand?

We've been asked if we'll back up the HDU in Dunedin, and we're doing that, and we've started recording a further album. That could take a while to complete. There's no hurry, we're not subject to any pressure.

Do you find this looking back stirs the creative juices?

That's a moot point. I don't know. Personally, what stirs my creative juices is playing. When I get together with those guys and actually play, that's what gets me going. Makes me want to kick on. If you spend too much time looking backwards, it's easy to go 'that kind of stuff is not possible now'. I find that it can be quite depressing. It's a different era. That's why there'll never be another Beatles, another Dylan, we know that's not a repeatable experience. That whole early era of Flying Nun: completely unrepeatable experience, magic time, yadda yadda, not going to happen again. If you focus on that too much, it's easy to be a bit depressed. It was a terrible time in New Zealand's history in my opinion, the liner notes of the compilation do dwell on the socio-economic kind of background, the Springbok tour and fucking Rob Muldoon. It was a grim time for New Zealand, we were bankrupt and going to hell frankly, not much has changed – so looking back doesn't stir my creative juices to be honest.

Can you see the Xpressway stuff being re-released?

Always possible, I should stress a lot of the stuff that originally came out on Xpressway was reissued in other countries in the '90s, there was a lot of stuff, the TKP stuff, the Jefferies stuff, it all came out in the States. It could be done again for sure. Every decade and a half you have to renew things because they go out of print. But, the thing with Xpressway, because it wasn't a regular label in the sense we didn't claim contractual ownership of the material. If anyone comes to me and says 'I want to reissue something', of course. I'm only too keen to put them in touch with the artist, and that'd be great. Flying Nun may reissue some stuff that has an Xpressway angle at some point, just because it makes perfect sense.

Are you looking forward to the month of November?

I am, I'm always keen to see the Clean. I'll definitely be going to that. I think I'll be in Dunedin when Shayne Carter and Ghost Club play, I wouldn't miss that.


"Time to Go: the Southern Psychedelic Moment 1981-1986" release date tbc.

Dead C play with HDU tomorrow night (18th Nov) at Sammys in Dunedin - see below for details.