Named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman (who was first European to visit New Zealand in 1642) the band themselves were avid explorers limited only by their imagination. Their songwriting and arrangement crossed lines between baroque and indie-pop integrating field recordings and bringing keyboards to the forefront of their music.
The Auckland-based group went through a number of line-up and mood changes since they first surfaced in 1984 as a trio whammying things up for the kids on the dancefloor with a very '60s fun organ-bass-drums sound and songs with titles like "Nelson the Cat?!!".
"Nelson" was one of six songs which appeared on the Ables' 1985 debut EP for Flying Nun, The Tired Sun. The EP featured the quietly expanding Ables line-up, with the original trio of Graeme Humphreys (keybaords and vocals), Dave Beniston (bass) and Craig Baxter (drums) being augmented by Peter Keen on vocals and future Headless Chicken, Anthony Nevison, who lent a hand on guitar and vocals. Recorded with thanks to 'the marvels of modern steam recording' at Auckland's Progressive Studio over Easter, 1985, The Tired Sun was a lively psych-out, admired for its strong singing and punchy upbeat feel.
The following year, the Able Tasmans released the sparse and eccentric 7" single Buffalos, which was backed with Relapse, a song performed by Peter Keen's first band, Raucous Laughter. The classic organ pop frolic Carolines also appeared on the Radio B compilation, Outnumbered By Sheep in 1986.
The Able Tasmans Debut Album
The Ables released their first full-length album in 1987, A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down -- which featured an expanded line-up of six people. Leslie Jonkers (who was responsible for the front cover art of The Tired Sun and had been writing Ables tunes since the early days without appearing on stage!) was playing organ, and Peter Keen was now full-time on vocals and Graeme Humphreys playing guitar and singing. Dave Beniston still played bass but Stuart Greenway replaced the Australia-bound Craig Baxter on drums. Additional instrumentation was provided by Jane Leggott (flute) and Dave Tennent (some guitar). The Ables confused plenty of people by including 23 associates (from studio and live sound engineers to album cover artists and dancers -- the band was now involved with providing music for the Te Kani Kani dance group) in the group photo on the back of the album...
A Cuppa Tea... remains the Able Tasmans most eclectic recording to date. In Melody Maker, the album was described as "a strange beast indeed... winding, melodic, theatrical, folky, with more than a string of acerbic guitars in its tail... Jaunty tunes, blissful rock-outs, sixties throwbacks with whining violins and catchy cowboy singalongs."
'Hey Spinner' on Record
It was three years and more line-up changes (naturally) until a new Able Tasmans recording appeared on Flying Nun. Released in 1990, Hey Spinner! was a denser album, with tunes that continued the Ables' curious line in lyrical kiwiana -- a trend begun on the previous album, which had built local geography and custom into songs like "And We Swam the Magic Bay" and "Evil Barbeque". Hey Spinner! matched these with "Grey Lynn" and "Michael Fay" -- a Dickensian tale where "It was Christmas day/When Michael Fay gave all his money away".
The band line-up now featured the songwriting core of Humphreys, Jonkers and Keen, with former Verlaine Jane Dodd playing bass and Craig Mason, longtime Ables associate and singer-guitarist in Auckland's Sombretones, on drums. Another new full-time member and longtime associate was Ron Young, adding a curtain of analogue synth nonsense and more vocals to the songs. The Ables' Hey Spinner! sound was rounded out by regular live clarinetist, Donald Nichols, and extra trumpet, cello and violin.
The "baroque folk rock" (Colin Hogg) of Hey Spinner! gave way to something a little wilder and weirder by the time of the 1992 release, Somebody Ate My Planet. The album, recorded with the same settled line-up as Hey Spinner! at Auckland's Lab Studio with engineer Victor Grbic, sees the Able Tasmans fully extending their sound over eleven songs packed with warm noise and cool ideas. It's the best commie astronomer clever lover environmentally friendly rock you'll enjoy in a good while -- proof that the Able Tasmans have grown to a position where they're comfortable and popular musical adventurers on this planet, even if "somebody" is making a mess of their own...