ORIGINAL PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
The 3Ds were a Dunedin group full of Aucklanders. These were trouble-making musical refugees who had washed up on the shores of Dunedin in the mid 1980s having decided that was where the musical action was happening. There was a whole friendly package on offer: an easy compact city to live in, surrounded by a stunning physical environment to explore, rampant music creativity, and friendly sociable people; there was a real scene going on.
The bigger more established bands had headed north to call Auckland home base for their international explorations and many of the exciting second wave bands were breaking down. Dunedin needed a kick along and the 3Ds came along just as Xpressway was being set up to steer the smaller ships around the rocks. Impeccable sailors the 3Ds built their new vessel and set off to sail straight through any obstacle with verve and an abundance of musical extravagance.
Denise Roughan (ex-Look Blue Go Purple) was the only Dunedin native and anchored the band with empathic bass. Dominic Stones (ex-Bird Nest Roys and on concurrent Snapper duty) joined her in the rhythm section on drums. Singer, guitarist, songwriter David Saunders was in the sadly unrecorded Battling Stings with Andy Moore before he moved south. This is the line up that formed as the 3Ds in May 1988. Named because of their number and the first letter of their Christian names. Distinctive and memorable.
A band name potentially torpedoed by the arrival in town by another guitar slinging D. David Mitchell was a displaced Aucklander and he had form. Singer, guitarist and songwriter for the Exploding Budgies and Goblinmix. He also produced poster and cover art for both bands that caught the eye. He drew depraved scenes of every form of carnage, mutilation and buggery, peopled by Popeye, drunken sailors, tortured victims of many varied barbarities and rats, so many rats.
Of course he had to join the 3Ds and no one seemed too bothered about changing the name although the 4Ds does have a certain intangible ring of impossibility to it.
PHOTO CREDIT: GERARD O'BRIEN
The band got stuck into getting to know each other over practicing and songwriting and played their first gig on New Years Eve 1988 and kept on playing throughout 1989. The songs got better and the band jelled, not in terms of tightness necessarily but in creating and building unhinged swirling worlds of sonic mayhem; worlds held together with an abundance of melody. Some demos were recorded and ‘Meluzina Man’ from these sessions did surface on Xpessway’s 1990 Pile Up compilation as well as the 2011 Flying Nun collection We Bury the Living: Early Recordings 1989-1990.
April 1990 and the band were ready to record for a proper release. Fish Street in Dunedin was the obvious studio choice. It was a handy Dunedin venture owned and run by the amiable Steven Kilroy (himself a player in Cyclops, Chug and Stephen). It was an excellent and well needed facility that needed support from local bands to survive and continue to upgrade. But it did create a bit of a stir when Matthew Heine (from SPUD) turned up from Auckland to produce the proposed EP. It was the 3Ds' choice, all of those Aucklanders in the band knew him, his work and rated him.
The EP recording naturally reflects the band's live sound at the time with all of its wild unpredictable charm. These are manifold and mark the band out as a very special kind of one off. The double Davids songwriting, singing and guitar interplay is just the start of it. The band creates guitar storms built on top of large forgiving platforms of rhythm section work. Guitars spiral upwards slightly off key but aesthetically just so before crashing down back on themselves in a show of total amangulation. Much is twisted and bent out of shape but nothing here is ugly or grim. Riffs and melodies, the band is strong on both. Not riffs and melodies in the usual way but still, incredibly strong riffs and sweet melodies any way you care to look at it. The lyrics can be whimsical, damn well strange and often nonsensical but fit perfectly the mood and velocity of the songs. There is a celtic folk strand that runs through much of the material that adds a charming counter to the predominant blues tradition that most rock music is built on, The two David's vocals can be gruff and blurred but these add to the stew of aural weirdness and are counterbalanced by Denise’s vocal contributions which add contrast and light.
The songs on Fish Tales? side one opens with ‘First Church’. A first class racket built on a pounding rhythm interplay with the intertwining twin guitars twisting over the top. Vocals mumble and the song's direction twists and turns. It’s a sonic calling card of the best kind. ‘Dream of Herge '' starts with a persistent thudding roar (I know, but that's how I hear it) before it breaks down to a respite of the almost pasterorial with a vocal from Denise. Those naughty guitars are still there but are held at bay somehow. “Evil Kid’ kicks off in another direction rhythmically with a bit of a lead guitar/strum and David Saunders vocal in there as well before the maddest guitar solo ever flys in with a broken wing. The twin guitars really get going on this one. That's the end on side one and gosh.
Side two opens with ‘Fish Tails’ which is not to be confused with Fish Tales as in the EPs title. A martial drum beat and the guitars are almost orderly. Denise Roughans charming vocals drift in. Serenity before it very briefly combusts in a fiery ball of guitar freakery. Bent notes everywhere before it pulls back to the gentle pace and place of before. ‘Evocation of W.C. Fields’ rattles along. It’s hard to work out what it’s all about but the title suggests something specific. The dark comedy of drinking possibly. 'Mud Sacrifice’ is another kind of song and another change in direction. Everything is slipping on a slope made of slidey guitar. Slipping and sliding and threatening to spin itself apart. Perhaps it’s that weird sounding rhythm holding it all together. ‘The Ball of Purple Cotton’ finishes the EP with a different kind of fish altogether. Here the band creates a quieter instrumental noise to back Denise's spoken word piece about an odd and strange dream. The uneasy calm after the storm. And what a storm of an EP this is.
David Mitchell created virtually all of the bands associated art (record covers and posters, etc) which made their aesthetic cohesive and strong and an easily recognisable one. So of course the cover for Fish Tales features the work of another artist, a painting of a three headed horned figure by Jane Davidson. I suspect the surround of snakes, eyeballs and band name and title in rope lettering is by David Mitchell.
Matthew Heine did a great job capturing the band's extravagance and unorthodox sound on Fish Tales. All the songs brim with individual otherworldly invention and collectively transport us to an uncanny parallel universe. A universe that in some ways might be a grossly distorted and amplified view of late 1980s Dunedin as glimpsed at by sane and sober visitors. Ultimately whether the inspiration is derived from the warped psyches of the individuals involved, or the physical environment they inhabit or a combination of both is relevant. This is a remarkable debut by one of the loudest, most imaginative and original of all of the late 20th century, um, Dunedin bands.