At the dawn of the 1990s, Flying Nun seemed to be poised on the cusp of a worldwide breakthrough. The UK’s music press - NME and Sounds in particular - ran fawning reviews about these odd little bands from the far outskirts of New Zealand that made the most amazing music. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Billboard magazine claimed in 1989: ‘There doesn’t seem to be anything on Flying Nun Records that is less than excellent.’
It was exciting that a little New Zealand outfit could find a niche internationally by the sheer quality of its music and this idea became one of the many narratives about the label. It was certainly an inspiring notion - to bands, music lovers and the local labels that came after - even if it somewhat brushed over the truth of the matter. The Billboard quote makes the acts on the label sound like an exclusive club, but the depth of Flying Nun’s roster already went far beyond top line acts like The Clean and The Chills.
In fact, there were a raft of groups who managed only a single release on the label before moving on to other things (Stiff Herbert, Phantom Forth, The Jumblies). Also amongst the label’s discography, you can find a 1986 joke album by The Eric Glandy Memorial Big Band and the horn-driven grooves of the Netherworld Dancing Toys, who released three charting EPs on Flying Nun. Two of the last albums you’d name as representing the “Dunedin Sound.”
Netherworld Dancing Toys
In fact, Flying Nun managed over 130 releases within the first five years and it is this bountiful abundance of output that makes it so difficult to generalise about the label’s impact. The arguments about what the label could and should be were present right from the start.
At first, the label took the practical approach of recording bands with a reel-to-reel four-track and this led to some of the label’s seminal releases like the Dunedin Double and The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle. Doug Hood did his best to produce quality recordings, while Chris Knox argued that their raw sound was actually a virtue, making a lo-fi-equals-purity argument that would resonate for decades.
It did feel like there was something essentially ‘kiwi’ about applying the number-8 wire mentality applied to music. Yet even most of the early bands on the label ended up in traditional music studios after all (including Knox himself). But budgets were initially kept to a minimum.
The humbleness of the label's bands also seemed matched by the clothes they wore - thick jackets and jeans - which were probably more reflective of the South Island weather and the lack of finances, than any purposeful fashion statement. Much of the music had a similar unpretentious, out-of-time feel and showed there was another way forward from punk - instead of getting more aggressive like the boot boys in Auckland or the hardcore scene in the United States, the Flying Nun bands seemed to show that not caring could just as effectively be delivered in a laidback drawl.
Nothing’s going to happen or anything could happen (but ‘I haven’t got the motivation to get myself a gun’). Even the noisier bands seemed less intent on destruction and violence than they were on projecting despair and cynicism - there was no call to do anything, just a wail of static into the gaping void.
These elements led to another narrative where the early Flying Nun groups are seen as pre-empting the “alternative” scene of the 90s. Some direct connections can be drawn too - 90s indie heroes Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Superchunk admitted taking inspiration from Flying Nun acts.
Yet the idea of Flying Nun as an indie label that relied on plucky cost-cutting musicians would become more difficult to make as time went by. In particular, once Mushroom Records took a 50% stake of Flying Nun in 1990 it meant there was now budget for artists to record in serious studios with overseas producers. For example, the Straitjacket Fits and The Chills would both record in California and both worked with British producer Gavin MacKillop at various times (who’d produced platinum-selling “alternative rock” act Toad The Wet Sprocket).
By this stage, Flying Nun had relocated to Auckland (in 1987) and were putting out around 50 releases per year, which was a rate they’d keep up for over a decade. Other local labels would struggle to come anywhere close to this level of output - even popular 90s mainstay Wildside Records managed less than half that amount of releases per year and even New Zealand’s most successful indie label in the 00s, LOOP, also fell well short.
The flood of singles, EPs, and albums meant that keeping track of the finances was a nightmare, which often led to bands being given advances for new records in lieu of royalties for their previous releases. The sheer task of keeping money coming in the door meant that arranging each new release and funding its production was a sisyphean task, which is why the deal with Mushroom was seen as essential. The way that the story of Flying Nun is told relies on how this deal is portrayed - a necessary evil or a deal with the devil that would lead to eventual ruin.
The other pressure on Flying Nun was that there was an expectation, after so much good press, that one of the label’s acts were bound to break overseas in a big way. Deals with overseas labels were coming thick and fast - for example, The Bats were distributed by Rough Trade (UK/Europe) and Matador (US); The Chills had a deal with Slash (Warner) and London Records; Straitjacket Fits signed with major label Arista in the United States.
Roger Shepherd even relocated to the UK to push this effort forward. But in David Eggleton’s book Ready To Fly this is portrayed as a doomed endeavour:
'He began well, but undercapitalisation soon loomed large and with precise bookkeeping the bottom line and fashion trends already turning away from the Flying Nun sound, it was bound to end badly.'
In this telling, there wasn’t enough money to seriously push the Flying Nun bands overseas and - in any case - they were soon overshadowed in the music press by the arrival of grunge and britpop. There’s certainly some truth to that, though many of the bands also began to see that trying to break a market would require a lot of gruelling work without any surety of a reward at the end of it.
Jean Paul Sartre Experience (JPSE)
Consider as an example the Noisyland tour in 1993, which took The Bats, Straitjacket Fits, and JPSE across the breadth of the United States. Rolling Stone reviewed one show and said it ‘more than lived up to the hype.’ Yet when Shepherd visited the bands on tour he found it was a miserable affair:
‘I thought I was going to lose my mind and I was only on it for about a week. On the tour bus, we were all sleeping in coffin-like arrangements. Then you’d stop somewhere and everyone would rush out the door in completely different directions and amazingly enough find their way back at the required time … It’s hard though because that’s so much the reality of being in a band over there, that’s just what you do. It comes back to what the ambitions of the band are. If you want to punt it high then there’s a certain amount of risk. The workload is enormous too. There’s money thrown at you and you’re expected to dance for it.’
In the end, a second US tour put paid to both JPSE and Straitjacket Fits, as David Yetton once explained:
‘I still remember quite vividly Shayne Carter and I were sitting in the airport waiting for our respective flights … Both of us just sat there going “that was awful, just horrible.” It was a really depressing conversation and fairly soon after that, both bands broke up. We did start trying to record another JPSE record, but it just wasn’t coming that easily. It felt like the only reason we were recording was so that we could get back on the tour bus again. It was killing the spirit of the band and that was why we knocked it on the head.’
The Bats managed to tour more widely and gained a substantial worldwide following but were similarly unwilling to push themselves beyond what they saw as a sensible limit. After the Noisyland tour, they toured the US supporting Radiohead and the headliners were so impressed that they asked them to continue on for the next leg just as Creep was making waves worldwide. Yet the Bats turned them down and headed home to get some well deserved rest.
In a certain light, this might seem like a missed opportunity. The type of opportunity that often seemed to slip through the fingers of Flying Nun and its bands. Yet perhaps it's better to admire all these decisions. Who wants to keep touring when you’re over it?
If you’re a fan of the Flying Nun bands then it’s tempting to try to explain away their inability to become the next Nirvana; or perhaps you just blame Nirvana for stealing the indie limelight. In this way, the JPSE and Straitjacket Fits stories become about how they dropped one of their key songwriters just before recording what should’ve been their breakthrough album.
And perhaps Headless Chickens would’ve capitalised on their following in Australia if they’d managed to keep Fiona McDonald and Michael Lawry in the group for another album? Or The 3Ds could’ve made good on rave reviews in NME and Melody Maker if they’d managed to continue touring a little longer. What’s more, there was a whole film about how The Chills fell short of their potential in the 90s.
However you could equally just say that these bands made great music as long as they could, but that they eventually found that staying true to themselves meant refusing to chase the fame-at-all-costs. There’s no need to create a tragedy by imagining what could’ve been.
The same logic can be applied to Flying Nun itself. The eventual buyout by Mushroom in 1997 might make the label’s efforts to break their acts overseas seem like a heroic failure. Yet if the goal was just to keep releasing a broad swathe of local music as long as possible, then Mushroom’s involvement allowed Flying Nun to continue with its high output and gain further reach for its acts. This resulted in dozens of bands becoming indie favourites across the world and created a path for later New Zealand acts to follow.
The symbolism of Flying Nun remained long after it just became a sub-label of Mushroom/FMR. In the new millennium, there were a run of local acts who put out albums on Flying Nun as a way to signal their connection to the lineage of great bands on the label; this included The D4, Betchadupa, The Mint Chicks, Shocking Pinks, and The Phoenix Foundation.
Now that Flying Nun is independent again (a fascinating story in itself), the flame is being kept alive by a new run of acts, including Reb Fountain, Wax Chattels, Mermaidens, Hamerkop, and Purple Pilgrims. Each of these widely varying acts chose to become part of Flying Nun because they each saw a place for themselves in its story and the elements that drew them in were undoubtedly different in each case.
This lack of a single narrative about Flying Nun is appealing for music lovers too - whether they see it as an underground label that should’ve stayed that way (a la Xpressway) or whether they see Flying Nun’s attempt to achieve overseas commercial success in the 90s as a glorious, but doomed effort. What’s more, the label has released so much quality music that everyone can have their cult hero sadly overlooked by the rest of the music world.
Fortunately the music that Flying Nun produced is more accessible than ever and the discography is growing month-by-month. Now that the label is turning 40, there’ll be many attempts to retell the story of the label from different points of view, though it's unlikely these will cohere into a single narrative. The fun of such a wild and messy story is that each fan has their own unique picture of the label based around their own favourite acts. It’s a great time to reflect on all these stories, but also worthwhile to realise that none of them are the definitive truth.