It wasn’t quite on the scale of Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama or Marco Polo’s discoveries of undocumented continents, but in 1985 when I first heard a pile of 7” Flying Nun singles, I really felt I had ventured into the unknown, ensconced on the other side of the world. Who was this enigmatic tribe of kaleidoscopic sound? What was their story? And how could I get more?
1985; the past, indeed is a foreign country, in light of the internet’s instantaneity. Just ask Flying Nun alumni from that era, who still had to wait for months for their NME to arrive. The paucity of exchange was mutual. For years, I’d rabidly consumed the music press like it was sacred text; likewise, our Moses on the radio, John Peel. In 1983, I’d begun freelancing for NME rival Melody Maker, during the post-post-punk boom in guitar bands and neo-psychedelia, especially from the United States (if I can only have one of R.E.M or The Jesus & Mary Chain? The Rain Parade or Primal Scream? No contest either time). In the wake of The Go-Betweens and The Triffids - both bands were living in London, thus commanding more attention and (deserved) dotage - news of Australian counterparts filtered through.
When I interviewed the founders of the Sydney-based independent label Hot, one of them said, “If you like us, you’ll like Flying Nun.” I went looking. Honest Jon’s record store in Camden Town were clearly ahead of the curve, judging by the section of one wall devoted to Flying Nun singles: The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs… most housed in hand-painted, maybe even hand-assembled sleeves. I had to buy them all - and the Dunedin Double 12”. By the time Flying Nun sent me its first compilation Tuatara, I was hooked, lined and sinkered.
Look Blue Go Purple
There was no brave-new-world adventure, but simply inventive and magical twists on a variety of sound. I heard exquisite, tenacious, lo-fi-fuzzy guitar-pop and yearning folk-rock; murky and thunderous post-punk theatre; cantankerous quasi-goth; experimental synth warfare; more besides too. All this from a world where The Chills’ uniquely sombre Pink Frost not only existed but reached the New Zealand Top Five single chart. I heard one compelling, charming and haunting permutation after another: The Victor Dimisich Band’s Thirteenth Floor, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience’s Own Two Feet, Look Blue Go Purple’s Cactus Cat, The Gordons’ visceral impact, The Verlaines’ giddy ambition, the CleanTallDwarfsChildrens’HourDoublehappysBirdNestRoysSneakyFeelings… sorry if I have left anyone out, there are just too many of you. All this from a country with the population size of Birmingham.
I could also hear something less obviously categorisable; a psycho-geographical element, perhaps. Like the spread-out US, smaller, self-contained regional pockets seem to create unique art, much like flora and fauna develop unique traits in isolation (it’s generalising and exceptions prove the rule, but by comparison the UK is too compact, too knowing, too prevalent to the tyranny of trends). To me, there was a sense of spaciousness and remoteness to those records. Less otherworldly than othersideoftheworldly. Like the sunlight in southern hemisphere has a piercing luminescence and clarity that’s very different to sunlight in the north, casting a more startling and contrasting beauty on the natural surroundings.
In 2009, when I wrote about Flying Nun for The Guardian newspaper, I asked Andy Adler of America’s Flying Nun devotees Crystal Stilts for his view. “New Zealand bands let ‘60s and punk records seep into them, but because they weren’t connected directly to what was going on, they built their own thing out of it,” he thought. “There’s something really productive about being detached from the usual media and industry crap that surrounds a record.”
Interviewed for the same feature, Robert Scott of The Bats and The Clean told me, “There’s a history of self-sufficiency down this way. There was no danger of ‘Let’s sound like Spandau Ballet because we’ll get an extra gig down the road.’ Rather than being influenced by what was going on overseas, we were more inspired by each other.”
True, a Top Five single in New Zealand meant little, sales-wise, and career ambition meant going abroad. Which is what happened next. In 1985, it wasn’t only Honest Jon’s who were on the case; high-flying UK indie Creation Records were about to release a compilation of early Chills singles, Kaleidoscope World, and the band was playing some UK shows to coincide.
I interviewed chief Chill Martin Phillipps for Melody Maker – the only feature the band received during that trip. I was subsequently invited to hear the first playback of I Love My Leather Jacket newly recorded in London. When Flying Nun opened a UK offshoot the following year, I offered to help, writing press releases and suggesting other writers who might share my enthusiasm, or even my evangelism.
In early 1987, Phillipps brought a new Chills back, this time to live in London. Their shows in the capital were dominated by ex-pat crowds, who you sensed would embrace any NZ band rather than just the best, but in smaller cities, and abroad, such as Amsterdam, I saw audiences react as I first had – enthralled by this othersideoftheworldly sound. Attending New York’s New Music Seminar that summer, I saw both Chills headline shows (the Bitter End in Manhattan, Maxwell’s in New Jersey) that are indelibly stamped in my mind, with audience both awestruck and wildly enthusiastic. Berlin in the autumn was equally memorable, especially on the East side, where some members of a shockingly large crowd wore hand-made Chills T-shirts: how had they discovered the band, you wondered?
When The Chills returned home to tour and recharge, I soon followed, on my own world tour, including two months in New Zealand and two in Australia. If I’d seen The Chills play in New York and Sydney, now I saw them in Hamilton and New Plymouth. I saw a newly formed Straitjacket Fits in Auckland, and The Verlaines in Queenstown. Back in London, The Clean, The Bats and The Straitjacket Fits all came through. But it was tough; hundreds of bands played every week, and British bands had had the luxury of building support over time, whilst US bands with much higher profiles were always touring. NZ bands either had to move here or face potentially crippling expenses. “It didn’t matter how good Straitjacket Fits were,” says Carter. “It was two years before we could afford to return.”
No other Flying Nun band would ever follow in The Chills’ footsteps; several prominent names, such as The Verlaines or scene-godfather Chris Knox, would ever play in the UK. Perhaps The Chills’ sobering experience put them off. Perhaps ‘career ambition’ is over-rated.
After three years, The Chills, a bit weary and penniless, left the UK, landing a US deal; likewise Straitjacket Fits and The Bats. But after the Straitjacket Fits, Bats and JPS Experience’s shared ‘Noizyland’ tour of 1993, all three bands split up afterwards, and with no Flying Nun version of grunge or Nine Inch Nails to plug the gap, the label receded from global view. Flying Nun itself went through challenging, questioning times; “stretched to the limit financially,” founder Roger Shepherd recently wrote, by established bands’ ambitions whilst funding new development. Funded by Australian independent (but mentally, mainstream) label Mushroom, Flying Nun survived and Roger even moved to London to oversee the expansion. There were numerous fine records – by The 3Ds, King Loser, Bailter Space, The Subliminals, Bike, Dimmer and David Kilgour amongst them but the momentum was lost; without the funding, or self-belief, bands stayed home. I also think something else was receding too: that potential psycho-geographical element was increasingly lost. If my psycho-geographical theory holds water, the internet was shrinking the world and isolation was no longer the same creative force or commercial angle.
In the wake of The Strokes, there was a moment when The D4 threatened to succeed overseas, but only with a concurrent UK deal; even then though, NZ’s most popular band by far was “digi-bongo a-capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo" Flight Of The Conchords. By the time The Bats returned in 2009 (triggering that Guardian feature), it had been 15 years since a Flying Nun band had played in the UK.
When I interviewed Martin Phillipps for the Guardian feature, he felt there was a level of prejudice to overcome. He summed up the UK perspective on New Zealand as, “They have the nerve to say they’re part of our ongoing history when they ran out on us at a crucial time. And they’ve given New Zealanders minimum publicity ever since.”
It’s true that the US accepted NZ bands more readily than the UK, whether or not because of the NZ/UK shared history and colonialism - though it’s interesting to re-read Phillipps’ words in light of the current adoration for NZ artists. From Lorde and Benee to Aldous Harding and Nadia Reid to The Beths and The Naked And Famous, even if (Harding apart) they aren’t Flying Nun artists. After Roger Shepherd headed a consortium to buy back the label in 2010, a slowly escalating slew of reissues has reminded us of what was. But Flying Nun has equally been documenting the now; a new wave of predominantly vibrant, off-kilter pop, buzzing with melody and nuance; across Princess Chelsea, Tiny Ruins, Ghost Wave, Shayne Carter’s Offsider album, Mermaidens, Purple Pilgrims, The Mint Chicks, Reb Fountain, and Wax Chattels. Aldous Harding, especially, is all about the aforementioned psycho-geographic gene; equal parts haunting and daunting.
40 years since Flying Nun was born, and 36 years since my introduction to the label, it has survived and with flying honours. It remains my joint-favourite record label, and still has, I reckon, the highest percentage of great records in any catalogue. I have been back to New Zealand five more times (and am enthusiastic about the country to the point that friends call me a ‘Kiwannabe’). In other words, I remain hooked, lined and sinkered. Thanks to Hot Records, Honest Jon’s, Flying Nun and The Chills for leading me toward the light, and letting me in to your kaleidoscope world.