Terror Of The Deep. Photo Credit: Alexander Hallag
From the viscous psych-rock of Airport Underneath the Dome to the lavish, prog-rock inspired Space Epic, Terror Of The Deep have charted the depths of our oceans and the outer reaches of our solar system. Still, one place that remains unexplored is the consciousness of many New Zealand music fans. Since forming in 2008, Terror Of The Deep have attracted a following overseas, notably in the United States and Australia, but have remained relatively unknown in their homeland. Consisting of Taipua Adams on bass/backup vocals, William Daymond on drums, Tom Watson on keys and Oliver Dixon on guitar and lead vocal, Terror Of The Deep sat down with us after their What Was That Thing? performance for a chat about process, overseas popularity and being compared to 80s Flying Nun bands.
Given the ever-changing musical landscape of Terror Of The Deep, it seems odd their music has not yet struck a chord with Kiwis. “It's just the way the cookie crumbles I guess” says William. “But I mean, it's weird, like we probably couldn't sell out San Fran here, but we could sell out a San Fran-sized venue in Melbourne. If we had the right line up.” They attribute part of their overseas popularity to the perennial charms of word-of-mouth marketing. “We've kind of been embraced by a couple of friends over there” says Taipua. “So it's more of a scene thing. We talk about them and they talk about us kind of deal. So that's how that works. It's really word of mouth, and friends saying to friends to buy this tape. Put out this record. Put out a zine or something.” William mostly agrees. “I always think word of mouth is better than any PR firm or advertising” he says. “It shows that you're good, for people to be talking about you.” Still, having toured with bands like The Phoenix Foundation, who featured Tom on their Friend Ship album, one would think word of mouth would work its wonders here in New Zealand.
The often-made observation that Terror Of The Deep’s early music bears resemblance to the sounds of 80s Flying Nun bands serves as one, albeit rather unlikely explanation. “Any New Zealand band that has a guitar, kind of gets compared to Flying Nun” says William. Beyond the fact their music is song-based, they don’t agree with the comparison. “I love that stuff. But um, there's a difference between taking influence and completely ripping off” says William. Also, when you consider the many musical avenues explored by the band since 2008, one gets an impression the comparison is tiring. Their discography takes you on a roller-coaster ride, including everything from indie and garage to psychedelic and progressive rock. Their subject matter ranges from bashful love songs to glorious exaltations of the gas giant planets circling our sun. Additionally, Terror Of The Deep manage to navigate this storm of thematic and musical material using only simple, well-constructed songs as their vessel.
Ollie, founding member and main songwriter, is especially good at capturing his private moments of lucidity. The lyrics make you feel like you’re standing in his shoes, just as happy and free or lost and confused as he is. At once pensive and euphoric, his songwriting deals with themes of duality: ‘I’m everywhere all at once / And then I’m nowhere’, he sings on Change Is Never Far Away. The song Two Wizards opens with the line ‘Two wizards, one black, one white / Yeah they’re battling over dark and light’. Many more of the lyrics throughout Terror Of The Deep’s discography, both literally and metaphorically, hint at this idea of duality: up and down, in and out, coming and going. Ollie’s lyricism also reveals a fascination with both the depths of the ocean as well as the vastness of space. Space Epic, a concept album inspired by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft sent by NASA to observe Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, must be his way of paying homage to the interest.
Terror Of The Deep. Photo Credit: Alexander Hallag
As well as their exploration of the cosmos, the band are also exploratory when it comes to musical process. While Ollie may officially be main songwriter, William also writes and performs songs, and Taipua says he has done the same. The band are democratic when it comes to who plays what, and between several takes in the Flying Nun shop for their What Was That Thing? performance, they shuffled around, swapping instruments. “That folly there, while we're playing around, is pretty much how we come up with songs. Where someone would muck around with a keyboard and sample something. And that would just kind of turn into something” says Taipua. “Space Epic actually came about from me and Ollie mucking around with three notes. And then he went home and came back, and he was like: I've got an album. [...] It’s a bit like we shake the tree and see what comes out. And then it kind of feels a little bit more honest. And it's a little bit of a journey trying to find it.” For Terror Of The Deep, going after a particular sound is secondary to having fun and running with what feels right. Still, endless improvisation can lead the group down some musical rabbit holes. “It’s cool when it doesn’t turn bluesy, eh?” says Taipua. His words hang in the air for a moment. “Let’s keep that to the practise room” suggests William.
While Terror Of The Deep’s diverse discography and amorphous approach to writing might make a comparison to 80s Flying Nun bands seem short-sighted, William is about as entrenched in Flying Nun nostalgia as any human being on planet earth. Following an internship which involved digitizing and cataloguing the Alexander Turnbull Library’s archive of Flying Nun material, William landed a permanent position, where he continues to map and maintain the collection. When asked if he had unearthed any gems, his eyes lit up. “Oh yeah. Absolutely. The band that had the best stuff in terms of the cassettes was probably Bressa Creeting Cake. There was some gold in there. Really cool stuff that is unreleased. Oh, it was awesome. There was also like, an unreleased Gordons thing, about four or five songs from the early 80s. That was awesome. It just was called ‘Some Gordons in November.’ That's all it said on the cassette.” William even assembled a thus-far unreleased compilation album he provisionally titled Sunken Treasure, consisting of his favourite material unearthed during the archival odyssey. Perhaps William’s professional work, and personal obsession, contributes more to the sound of Terror Of The Deep than the band would care to admit.
Whether or not Flying Nun can be heard in Terror Of The Deep’s music, the band’s practical considerations certainly draw upon the same DIY ethos so central to many of the label’s beloved artists. During setup for their What Was That Thing? performance, Ben Howe whipped out a kick drum mic, only to be told there was no kick drum. “I had got one just for it” said Ben, surprised. From their insistence to release music on tape, to Tom’s use of the Casio SK-1 keyboard, also known as the world’s cheapest sampler, Terror Of The Deep’s preference for all things lo-fi and gritty is obvious. “We're always weary about being too professional or too slick, we like it when things are a bit shabby” explains William. Some of the band’s musical exploration is also driven by practical necessity, rather than by choice. Taipua explains, “Ollie will go from playing electric guitar to acoustic guitar, because maybe that guitar didn't work anymore. So yeah, it comes out of necessity I think. [...] We also like to leave holes. So it is kind of like you get to think about it a bit more. It's more of us trying to aid the song instead of trying to fill the holes and steamroll everything. So we try to leave lots of space” he says. “That's what happened with the drums as well eh?” he asks William.
Working with what they’ve got when it comes to making music, Terror Of The Deep also try to keep the rest of their operation as in-house as possible. The same friends who introduced them to the Melbourne scene, artists Jess Johnson & Simon Ward, are responsible for some of the band’s cover art. “With the other album covers we've also just got our friend Ben, and Ollie does stuff, William does stuff, we all just kind of, keep it pretty in-house” says Taipua. In fact, Tom simply started out producing for the Terror Of The Deep, only later joining as keyboardist. Where might Terror Of The Deep be if not for Tom’s little Casio keyboard? Used for capturing odd soundbites, which he will sonically mutate for comedic effect, the world's cheapest sampler really adds to the charm of watching the band muck around. As for their fans over in Melbourne, many of them are considered personal friends. “It just ends up being quite a close relationship, where it’s just: how are you going? How's lockdown, eh? Just kind of touching base. They're pretty much just mates, really” says Taipua. “That's our kaupapa I reckon.”
Solomon Powell writes for a new music blog, The Noise Report, which focuses on local Wellington musicians, gigs and other music related subjects. Check out more of his writing at noisereport.co.nz