Lil Chief // illustration by Steven Rhodes.
Lil Chief Records was founded by Jonathan Bree and Scott Mannion, initially just in order to release their own bands - The Brunettes and The Tokey Tones. Lawrence Mikkelsen came on board to help out and then I was brought in, mostly because I lived upstairs. The local indie scene in those days was still heavily influenced by the early decades of Flying Nun, though the label had merged with Mushroom Records in 2000 and was releasing only a handful of albums per year.
There seemed to be an opening for ‘the next Flying Nun’ and every new indie label had to answer questions about how they might or might not fill that gap. It was inspiring to think that a local label had already made such an impact on the world of ‘alternative’ rock and it set a template to follow (or ignore).
Flying Nun’s quiet patch meant there were plenty of wonderful guitar bands who were finding it hard to get released. While Lil Chief originally focused our inner circle - e.g., Jonathan’s cousin’s band, The Nudie Suits - we slowly reached out to others. Some had started their career in the 90s, such as quirky song-crafter Edmund Cake (from Flying Nun band, Bressa Creeting Cake), emotive indie-pop act Voom, and the ultra-classic sounding guitar band Shaft. None of them fit into the current zeitgeist of garage rock (set off by The Datsuns) and Flying Nun had even gone in this direction signing The D4.
Voom lineup between albums: Kelly Steven, Danny Monetto, Buzz Moller, Nick Buckton // Photo by Gareth Shute
Lil’ Chief Records brushed even more closely with the history of Flying Nun when the label signed Alec Bathgate, the sometimes under-appreciated collaborator of Chris Knox throughout his bands from The Enemy to Toy Love to Tall Dwarfs. Though the decision to release his album almost directly after Shaft’s Open Sesame resulted in most media focusing on the one that came first (little labels being only allocated so much potential space). We had also looked at working with David Kilgour but he went with another new local label, Arch Hill Recordings, which seems funny now that co-founder Ben Howe is the Director of Flying Nun Records.
Two of Lil Chief’s acts - The Brunettes and The Ruby Suns - eventually found an overseas following by signing to Sub Pop Records. The owner Jonathan Poneman saw the opportunity to create the type of hype that had once surrounded his town of Seattle in the era of Nirvana, though he also cited Flying Nun and the ‘Dunedin Sound’ as another possible inspiration. Yet it turned out that this sort of ripple effect is hard to manufacture. There was a cover story in the Sunday News in the UK that tried to tie together The Brunettes, Liam Finn, and Lawrence Arabia as a new face of music from Aotearoa but it didn’t stick.
Instead there were one-off breakthroughs that never quite managed to break the label. The Brunettes’ song ‘Her Hairagami Set’ was featured on the homepage of YouTube (back when it had one) and raced to a then-impressive 200k views, but Sub Pop Records decided not to promote the video further since the scene of a puppet-teen messing up a bully’s hair with a hair-dryer was seen as too reminiscent of the recent Red Lake school shootings (!). The Ruby Suns had a song on a high profile Microsoft campaign (‘Oh Mojave’) and then another (‘In Real Life’) featured on one of the highest-selling games of all time, Grand Theft Auto V. These songs would each become million-streamers in the digital era, but their success didn’t do much for Lil Chief, especially after CD sales fell through the floor.
The Brunettes 'orchestrette' at Big Day Out / photo by Gareth Shute
Instead it was the new act Princess Chelsea who found a new path to success. She recorded her song ‘Cigarette Duet’ with Jonathan Bree as her singing partner, then he made a music video that showed all his aesthetic talents from years of working on artwork for The Brunettes. The video crept slowly towards ten million views, which put it amongst the top ten most popular local music videos on YouTube at that time (pre-Lorde obviously!). Yet the numbers never seemed to stop going up.
It reached fifty-million by 2020, but then had a TikTok moment, partly through being used in a video by Brittany Furlan, which showed her boyfriend Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe) irritating her with his smoking. The video raced past 80 million on YouTube and 65 million on Spotify. Big enough numbers that real fans began to chase down Princess Chelsea’s music and some of them even tattooed images from the videos on their arms/legs. Jonathan Bree also had a viral moment with the facemask-wearing band shown in his video for ‘You’re So Cool,’ creating his own fanbase across the world.
Still from 'Cigarette Duet' music video by Princess Chelsea and Jonathan Bree
Suddenly Lil Chief Records was busier than ever, with international tours to book and worldwide vinyl distribution to arrange. Co-owner Scott Mannion even released a new album, Loving Echoes, fifteen years since his previous work as The Tokey Tones. The label also had the energy brought by Chelsea herself and the ever-helpful Rebecca Stitt.
The burgeoning success of Princess Chelsea and Jonathan Bree wasn’t always so great for the label’s legacy acts like Voom or new signings like Sheep,Dog&Wolf, who probably didn’t get the attention they deserved. Funnily enough this is where Flying Nun came back into the picture. In 2009, the label had been bought back by Roger Shepherd and a consortium of supporters, so was again becoming a supporter of groundbreaking NZ music.
When Princess Chelsea needed distribution of her record The Great Cybernetic Depression in the US, Flying Nun stepped in to help out. What’s more, Lil Chief had never managed to release Voom’s Hello Are You There? on vinyl, but Flying Nun were keen to make it happen so rights for the album were handed over and it was re-released on vinyl in 2021.
Surprisingly it had turned out that Flying Nun had become the ‘next Flying Nun.’ This left Lil’ Chief Records to become simply … Lil’ Chief Records. Long live both labels! And while our 20 years might not be the 40 years that Flying Nun has been going, we’re still doing a few things to celebrate.
Princess Chelsea and Jonathan Bree have released a new duet, ‘Destiny,’ Chelsea's new album Everything Is Going To Be Alright came out recently, and she is touring the country in December - Wellington, Dunedin, Christchurch and a special show at the Powerstation in Auckland on December 10 (tickets here), so do come along and celebrate Lil Chief’s birthday with us!