Described by music afficionado Grant Smithies in his 2007 book ‘Soundtrack. 118 Great New Zealand Albums’ as a "brisk, exciting, highly addictive record and a classic of the Nun canon", the 2000 release of the Subliminals debut (and only) album ‘United State’ was the realisation of the musical vision of an unlikely collaboration who bonded as a formidable unit, albeit for a far too brief period of time.
The Subliminals were a natural product of Flying Nun in the second half of the 1990's. Three of the band members had been in or were currently in other Flying Nun bands while the other grew up in Dunedin under the umbrella of Flying Nun. As with many bands connected with labels like Flying Nun, the band formed within a network of like-minded people who were connected in some manner and were part of an extended community. As someone who knew the Subliminals before they were a band, I witnessed their formation and eventual break-up in my privileged position within Flying Nun records.
Flying Nun in the latter part of the 1990's was a label trying to re-establish its confidence and independence. Roger Shepherd had left the label in 1996 and many of the 'classic' first and second wave of Flying Nun bands and artists had burnt themselves out or were looking at other labels to help them in the next stage of their careers. Business wise, Flying Nun continued the good fight to make ends meet, often relying on investment from Mushroom Australia for recording budgets and in the direst of situations a loan from Festival Records to cover wages one particularly tight Christmas. Fortunately, Flying In Distribution had recently stopped being on stop-credit with many of its distributors and was now successfully 'shifting units' of imported alternative product to a dedicated bunch of enthusiastic music retailers throughout the country.
Licensing of Flying Nun music had grown and the opportunity to provide the soundtrack for the Hallensteins rebrand was new territory for the label and we were proud of our contribution to the initial drop in sales! Robert Paul of Sony Music in the USA had stopped calling and leaving angry answerphone messages about an unpaid account and the bank balance was finally in the black. This all meant that Flying Nun was able to dip our toes into the local music scene again- albeit with a very tiny budget.
That suited a band like the Subliminals.
The seeds of the Subliminals had been sewn in Christchurch in the first half of the 1990's. Steve Reay (Trawler) and Simon Maclaren (Loves Ugly Children) had become acquainted in the vibrant Christchurch indie music scene of the time. I had loosely known Steve until he decided that I was going to be his one new friend that year and we proceeded to bond over a shared love of Harringtons and good tunes.
Steve’s matter-of-fact approach was also essential for the next part of the founding of the Subliminals. With me now working at Flying Nun in Auckland, Steve joined the migration north and quickly became a staple at our Friday night drinks at Flying Nun's Queen Street offices. It was on one of these extended Friday nights at the back-bar upstairs at the Powerstation in 1998 that Steve informed me that because Loves Ugly Children had broken up that Simon McLaren should play music with him and he was going to ask him that night. Steve and I cornered Simon and he never had a chance.
Skip forward a week or two and Steve, Simon and I were jamming in what Nich Cunningham correctly described in his excellent Audioculture article about the band as Simon's "sweaty egg-carton encrusted practise room". Laying the foundations for what would become the Subliminals.
Steve had already met Hasselhoff Experiment drummer Brendan Moran at my 95bfm radio show 'Freak the Sheep' and knew what a force he was on the skins. Brendan was readily recruited. Steve had often admired the bass rig of my flatmate Jared Johanson, who had previously played with Bressa Creeting Cake. Jared’s job meant that he could join the threesome at their Bond Street rehearsal space during the day. This ultimately unplanned combination of personalities is what gave the Subliminals their sound. Each member was a strong musician and an avid absorber of musical influences who were distilling a lifetime of gigs, records, touring, recording and playing into something new and uniquely their own.
A debut gig supporting the Headless Chickens
at Gasoline Alley on Stanley Street was soon followed by a slot in 95bFM's Summer Series
where they were observed by Flying Nun General Manager Paul McKessar.
The following week, Steve and Simon duly informed Paul that he could put out their planned first recordings. With a few spare dollars in the bank, McKessar agreed and the band ventured to a woodshed in Kaukapakapa to create the Crystal Chain EP
with Dale Cotton
. The recording had a surety and purpose that surpassed our expectations of this still relatively new band. They had a vision of their sound that was their own while still paying homage to the Flying Nun lineage laid down by Snapper
, The Clean
and the ethos described by Steve as "making good sounds in shoddy circumstances".
The band then turned their attention to the next task- their debut album. To do this they needed to add their fifth member, the inimitable David 'Tex' Houston (pictured below). Creator of all sounds good and known to all and sundry to be a generally good bastard.
Only someone as committed as Tex would launch the project by purchasing the crappiest van he could find so he could drive from Auckland to Dunedin to pick up his 24 track for the recordings. Despite a broken windscreen on the Desert Road, despite the snow, despite being unable to feel his hands or feet and despite being unable to see, the intrepid venturer successfully returned with the 24 track and escaped with the band to rural Northland.
To record in a bach that ran on solar power, Generators were required, petrol was siphoned, and the recording done.
Flying Nun generously vacated our Queen Street offices so the mixing and overdubs could be completed on an appropriate budget. Flying Nun’s Alan Holt hadn’t wanted to leave the Queen Street offices and had locked himself in his cupboard, so the ever resourceful Subliminals took the opportunity to incorporate Alan's Theremin skills into the mix.
With the recording in the bag, artwork was required. Again, the Subliminals had definite ideas of what they wanted. The only problem was that it was owned by someone else. Always the problem solvers, the ever creative John Pitcairn was entrusted to modify the artist’s work enough to become the bands own while McKessar wrote the nicest letter of his life requesting permission from the artist. Pre-internet, things took time but thankfully a positive response was received.
With the stars now aligned, the album that is now taking its rightful place as a vinyl treasure was released to widespread critical acclaim. The album had blown Mckessar away. The Subliminals were a unit on fire.
As with everything that burns that intensely, it couldn’t last. The drive for a second album unfortunately pushed the band members apart. But not before they had stamped their place in the Flying Nun pantheon. It is right that the band is releasing ‘United State’ again 20 years after its first release and it is right seeing them play together again. They were, and are, a truly good band.
My enduring memory of the success of the Subliminals
was at their last gig. I arrived late after having a late dinner with Stephen Malkmus
who was in New Zealand for the Flying Nun 21st birthday celebration and the recording of the ‘Under the Influence
’ album at York Street Studios. I was standing amidst a rabble of industry types who were all, without exception, in total admiration of Jared Johanson's
bass playing. I enjoyed seeing a band that were so tight that it allowed even the most unassuming band member space to shine.
Written by ‘Hat’ Meier, who was part of Flying Nun from 1997 to 2003. He started as the Accountant because he could add and promised to do the royalties. He later became the General Manager when the label became part of Festival Mushroom Records. Hat now resides in Christchurch where he can still be heard every second Wednesday from 6-7:30pm on RDU98.5FM.