Alec Bathgate / All photos supplied by Alec Bathgate
The tall Tall Dwarf Alec Bathgate was very much the mild-mannered foil to his friend and long-time musical collaborator Chris Knox. It was Alec Bathgate and Mike Dooley’s proto-punk band that Chris Knox was desperate to join in the late 1970s. It was Alec’s musicality and musical sensibilities that set The Enemy on its course and helped reset and hold it together when it morphed into Toy Love. At the end of that affair, Alec and Chris stuck together, despite living in two separate cities, as the Tall Dwarfs and made some extraordinary music in the most unorthodox and ‘revolutionary’ ways. These were DIY masterpieces made with unconventional bits of equipment and all manner of improvised bits and bobs. Throughout their remarkable career, three things have remained outstanding and consistent, the songs, the voice of Chris Knox and the scintillating guitar of Alec Bathgate.
The Tall Dwarfs duo kicked off in 1981 and ran on all four legs through to 2009. Recordings and live dates were intermittent as Chris lived in Auckland and Alec in Christchurch, both had families and mortgages to attend to, and Alec also had a job. Eventually, after an extended period of working around Alec’s limited availability, Chris got serious about this solo career at the end of the 1980s, which in due course seesawed into Alec now being left with time and energy on his hands. With recording equipment that Flying Nun had financed to help record Tall Dwarf material Alec started fiddling about with it on his own and found he rather enjoyed the experience.
Alec Bathgate - Gold Lamé
The start (1989/1990) of the long process that would see time and energy expended would eventuate with the recording of Gold Lamé in 1996. Alec was using the same basic kind of recording idea that the Tall Dwarfs used but utilising 4-track cassette technology as opposed to 4-track reel-to-reel gadgetry. Alec was experienced in using this recording technique, from his Tall Dwarfs work, where tracks were bounced down to eventually achieve a finished master tape. He knew this way of working well and had no aspirations to work with a bigger or more sophisticated set-up. Alec set to work. Because of their busy lives in different cities, the Tall Dwarfs had limited time together and had to work quickly. Alec did not have this restriction, he could take his time, and he did. Gold Lamé was recorded amongst the bikes and lawnmowers in Alec’s uninsulated garage and was done in 18 months. It is a well-made example of lo-fi recording, which is part of its charm.
The Gold Lamé "Studios"
Gold Lamé is an album of songs with a mix of themes and ideas: some of them harking back to strange childhood occurrences (‘Carl’s Arrows’), conflicted interactions with others (‘Pet Hates’), gentle observations of other quietly alien places (‘Slow Parade’), and the recounting of stressful occurrences in others (‘No Taxi to Hoboken’). The performances are instrumentally fascinating, conjuring up a world of gentle surrealism. The vocals are consistent and steady throughout. The listener will easily recognise Alec’s contributing “components” (songs, vocals, guitar, loops and weirdness) to the Tall Dwarfs oeuvre here on this album, where the material is less scrappy and frantic than the Tall Dwarfs material tends to be.
A few more years drifted by, and Alec got to thinking that he would like to make another record but that he needed to upgrade his recording equipment, so he applied for and received a Creative New Zealand grant to do so. Working with Pro Tools, a Casio and a couple of guitars, he then quietly waited for the songs to arrive. Alec is not what you would call a natural songwriter like Chris Knox, who was constantly writing songs. Alec writes towards a specific project, and it can take a while to get the lyrics and melodies together. By the time the album was done, Flying Nun was no longer owned or managed by anyone who cared much about music, and Alec had to take his album to the friendly people at Lil’ Chief Records to release and who did so in 2004.
Alec Bathgate - The Indifferent Velvet Void
The Indifferent Velvet Void is Alec’s masterpiece. It’s crammed full of nods to glam, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and a greater menagerie of rock noodles. The songs are stronger, stranger with the catchiest of hooks created with the most beautiful and memorable melodies. The instrumentation is nothing less than truly phantasmagorically psychedelic, the vocals are confident and assured, and the recording is clear despite the potential overload of ideas. As you would expect with an album that had taken close to a year to write, there is no concept or overarching idea. The songs are entities into themselves concerned with a fascinating array of affairs from the fleeting nature and sudden end of life (‘Friday in the Ground’), the strange shape familial closeness can take (“Should I Wake Up”) to a dread of socialising with others (‘Fear and Loathing').
The I.V.V Red Room Studio
Leap forward to 2019, and after a long musical hiatus, Alec not only found himself playing guitar again but also hopelessly obsessed with it. Already interested in instrumental music, he started working on new songs without vocals and found the process freeing. The stress of writing lyrics and then singing them can be wearisome. These instrumental songs are short things, hugely creative and often weird. Weird in a concise, entertaining and satisfying way, like musical haiku, but without the annoying words. These songs became the Phantom Dots album. It’s a deeply satisfying listening experience with ebbing and flowing sound ideas flowing over innovative rhythms. The songs are rich in textures; the sophisticated material simply feels alive. The icing on the cake is Alec Bathgate’s trademark tasteful, quirky, but assertive guitar playing, short bursts of it, so you are left wanting more.
Alec Bathgate - Phantom Dots
These three Alec Bathgate albums illustrate a distinct progression; from the tentative Gold Lamé to the assured, complex and accessible masterpiece The Indifferent Velvet Void and, finally, the quirky at ease collection of instruments, Phantom Dots. All three albums have been released/rereleased on Alec’s Long Short Short label and distributed via Flying Nun Records.
Alec’s latest project has been playing guitar with The Sunday Painters. A causal combo of Alec, Paul Kean (Toy Love, The Bats, Minisnaps), Kaye Woodward (The Bats, Minisnaps) and Hamish Kilgour The Clean, Great Unwashed, The Mad Scene, Finklestein and Tiny Ruins).