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The Subliminals

The Subliminals

Interviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam
Tuesday 22nd November, 2011 1:03PM

In their brief time together, The Subliminals released one bloody good (and criminally underrated) album (2000’s United State), a similarly excellent EP (Crystal Chain EP) and gained a reputation for their incendiary live shows. And then it ended. Ten years later, the band have decided to play together again, supporting the Clean as part of the Flying Nun 30th birthday celebrations. I talk to Simon MacLaren (also ex Loves Ugly Children) about the upcoming performances.

Basis question: why music?

[laughs] Why music? Dunno. I remember being a child and not having much culture in the house, not having any books or paintings on the walls, and just a few ok records in my family record collection that got there by accident. An escape vehicle, or mechanism I thought, and you need to make psychic attachments to anything that will escape you from boredom. I think if that hooks into you that can become your calling, and then you find out later that you can play it.

How did you end up forming the Subliminals?

I was quite fortunate that my other band, Loves Ugly Children, had disintegrated, and I had a connection with Steve Reay, because he was a friend from Christchurch and I always admired his guitaring and we were both in Auckland. I knew Brendan Moran from the Hasselhoff Experiment and rated him highly. With those two guys, we just started jamming and it just happened. Jared [Johanson] was around, and it was fortunate circumstances. We never had to cycle through musicians looking for the right musicians to get it together. We all met for a practice and it was green light go.

The legend was that it was formed to keep you playing the guitar?

I think I would have played guitar anyway, I was probably a bit desperate. But I was a bit lost, all alcohol and country music, getting a bit internal on it. Certainly it was a fork in my side and gave me a jump start.

Did you approach this quite differently to how you had approached Loves Ugly Children?

Definitely, it wasn't like the Subliminals were destined to be on Flying Nun or anything. We were just four guys in a room. And I got quite sick of overdosing on myself in Loves Ugly Children because it was an expressive vehicle for all of the itty-bitty feelings and self-recriminations, and all of the rest of it, kind of a personal exorcise really. I was so tired of trying to be myself or mask myself, indulging in various rock-and-roll characters or types or mindsets. I wanted to do something way more stripped back, not sing about girls, sing about broader, abstract more intellectual things – I had started going to university doing art history. I had been primed with some decent culture that was outside of myself. Also, I didn't feel like I had contributed properly to Flying Nun, being this classic label with classic tropes, types or archetypes, a bedrock of a certain beat or tone.

My game in Loves Ugly Children being second generation on Flying Nun was more to ignore that and ignore all of the other artists on the label as much as I could, and try to find my own way because I thought that perhaps this was my only chance to have any impact in that environment with so many great artists that I had grown up listening to in the '80s. By happenstance, my friends had Flying Nun records and I loved them. I did have a sense of the history of Flying Nun and I realised I hadn't put my stamp on it, and the other guys were perfect for that collaboration. It was 1999ish, and we were also very inspired. When I was in Loves Ugly Children I was looking over my shoulder at my peers and I really knew that HDU were really onto something and Dino [Karlins] the drummer introduced me to Krautrock viat the band Neu!. Shayne Carter was doing the early Dimmer stuff, and it all resonated with me musically.

I started listening to Krautrock and identifying with certain rhythms and beats than perhaps with chords and lyrics, and I had this sense that what I called the rogue beat, or Krautrock beat, or motorik, I felt this continuum through Flying Nun and the Clean, and Snapper definitely, and saw Bailterspace quite a bit, I was aware of the Skeptics, the Bats used the motorik beat even. Roger Shepherd had introduced me to Stereolab, and I knew there was this gentle and primal kind of cult beat that runs through everything that I loved. Brendan Moran, I just rate him so highly as a drummer. It wasn't spoken so much, but we were all on the same page. We knew it was time to dig down and contribute something.

I imagine Krautrock is almost the perfect type of music to hide behind if you're after a bit of anonymity…

Absolutely. Loves Ugly Children – you're the frontman of the band, do you put your photo on the album cover, do you sing songs about your relationships breaking up and all of that? You can get a lot of self-cringe to all of that. Krautrock is the perfect antidote to step back and have some distance to all of that, and enjoy all of the things you're not saying. Not being the protagonist, you're being the collaborator.

Did you face much pressure being part of the second wave of Flying Nun, the reputation was already there, did you feel you had to justify being there?

I felt that internally a lot. After Loves Ugly Children, with me growing as a writer and learning different styles and genres, you write the songs, you don't necessarily feel satisfied. It was a bit of youth versus a little bit of experience. I had some kind of internal idea that we could contribute to the lineage of the label, or I could personally in a meaningful sense, and not feel like I was slightly on the periphery, and not get eaten up and spat out by the music machine. There's nothing wrong with that either, that happens all of the time. You just do what you do. Force of will, force of character, and force of intellect. Attack the problem. If you can find the root cause of what's bugging you, you can address it. And hopefully, I really had a sense I wanted to make music that might just sit in time, and come back to me in the future. And here we are ten years later. Woohoo, thank god for that.

In hindsight, how do you view United State? To me it still sounds remarkably tense as a record, and still sounds great. Are you happy with it how it sounds?

Yeah, really happy. I didn't have it, but I've been listening to it in the last three weeks because of this reunion, and the EP. I always loved the EP because I had no idea where it came from, and it was a surprise that we had made that music, so I was really affectionate towards that. But I'm personally preferring the album now, they're subtly different in vibe now. I had this kind of outside myself feeling of 'shit that's a good band, I'd like to be in that band, but ooh I am in that band. That's great.' I don't feel that way necessarily about all of the music I have made.

The EP and the album were recorded in rural spaces, do you think that helped with the space, and the jamming and riffs?

Yeah that was Steve Reay's doing. He was pretty cool at suggesting we record, and motivating us not to go to a normal recording studio. We actually did that album off the power grid, and I don't know, it's a nice aside that we took that effort to do that. It seemed to pay off.

I heard you guys had to siphon petrol to keep going…

[laughs] yeah that's right, we had to take petrol out of the car for the generator. Sometimes you could hear the generator going [makes anguished noise].

Do you regret not recording more?

Yeah I really regret the band dissolving. I felt like we were on a good wicket in terms of what we were creating. I was really gung-ho, and keen to push push push, and I'm really not sure what happened. It's some kind of mystery. It's probably all my fault, but it just stopped dead in its tracks. That left me with a huge personal void to be honest that I had to deal with, and it really left me with the feeling ‘what am I going to do now, how am I going to find people like that so randomly and make music like that again?’ It seemed like something I couldn't engineer myself, and I couldn't do it independently, and I needed other people. It got me thinking and worried about how collaborative music is, and it never really worked for me being the dictator uber-chief. Collaboration is king for me. I like playing with other people.

Do you think you guys had more in you?

Not at the time, that's the thing. I think we could have had a break and come back to it, but I don't understand it, but the vibe left the room and that was it. We had done our work in a way, we'd only done an EP and an album. It was enough, we probably would have fucked it up actually.

How have you found getting back together and preparing for the show?

I haven't seen the guys yet, and I'm going up in a few days, and I'm really looking forward to it. It's going to be great.

Did it take much convincing to do it again?

It took a bit of juggling, and it almost didn't happen, so yeah. It was a bit like real-life. I haven't really spoken to the other guys, and it's been ten years. We were all going to check in on each other and see how we're doing. It's going to be a good thing.

What's it like going on a bit of a tour with the Clean?

That's going to be an absolute honour. I love the Clean, and heard them early on in my years, and saw them play a few years ago and they were just awesome. I was totally there, digging it.

Do you feel gratified that your second generation gets to play with this first generation band on an equal footing?

That's actually as much as I could hope for to play with the mighty Clean on a co-billing. I'm just stoked about that.

What are you up to now?

I have band called the Psychic Maps in Dunedin. It includes Jeff Harford from Bored Games, Geordie Frame, who's Janet Frame's nephew, and Lucy Hunter who's in a band called Opposite Sex here, and she also plays in the Puddle. We're a mischievous band messing with rock-n-roll and Kraut and dub and psychedelia. It's been about a year. And Chris Heazlewood was in it for the first seven months, playing bass, and that was great. I feel like everything in its own time – it's the Subliminals' month this month, and I'll go back to the Psychic Maps next month.


Catch The Subliminals on tour with The Clean this week and next - dates below or head straight over to our Nunvember section for tickets.

The Subliminals' track  'United State' streaming above features on a new Flying Nun compilation Tally Ho! Flying Nun's Greatest Bits  out now.