EJ 32 Alastair Galbraith Cry CD
EJ 22 Alastair Galbraith Mirrorwork LP/CD
EJ 08 Alastair Galbraith Morse and Gaudylight CD
Someone else's bio:
One of the most admired yet paradoxically ignored NZ musicians is Alastair Galbraith. Starting out in Dunedin in the early 1980s Galbraith's first group The Rip recorded two EPs for Flying Nun, A Timeless Piece and Stormed Port. The first pretty much reflected the sounds defining South Island music at that time and Galbraith's singing and song writing, even at that young stage, had a big impact on those listening. Stormed Port was even more impressive. A change in line-up saw original members Galbraith and Robbie Muir joined by Peter Jefferies (This Kind of Punishment) and Galbraith began to really make explicit his song writing/performing skills. Unfortunately these EPs are long gone, only ever released in the typical miniscule Flying Nun quantities because really, who was listening back then?
Well, a few people luckily including Bruce Russell, a longtime champion of and co-performer with Galbraith in Russell's free noise unit A Handful of Dust. In fact I'm sure I remember a quote of Bruce's from a long time back where he said the reason for the formation of the Xpressway label was primarily to document the music of Galbraith...I may be wrong here but Xpressway did in fact release a lot of Galbraith related material. First up was the "solo" Hurry On Down cassette made of live recordings and a bunch of studio material differing based on which of the two versions of the cassette you happen to hear. A lot of this material has been reprised on later releases and while I must admit to not being one of the lucky few who heard this particular cassette (don't ask why, it's a long story) all reports say the music herein is as beautiful and powerful as anything Galbraith was to later release. Next up came the Timebomb/Bravely Bravely single with Graeme Jefferies (Peter's brother, co-This Kind of Punishment member) quite simply one of the best singles from Xpressway's formidable catalogue, twin guitar melodies encapsulating as well as anything the grace and sense of yearning at the center of Galbraith's music. While the single is gone you can hear it on the Making Losers Happy CD, a compilation of Xpressway singles from Drag City or Galbraith's Seely Girn release (Feel Good All Over), a compilation covering material from Stormed Port and the Xpressway years. Including of course the Plagal Grind material, Xpressway's "supergroup" made up of Galbraith, Muir, Peter Jefferies and David Mitchell of Goblin Mix and 3Ds fame - the 3Ds were probably the last band to release anything decent on Flying Nun, and Mitchell was one guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/artist for this rather manic bunch. They made their first appearance on Xpressway, eventually getting signed to F. Nun, released two very good EPs, Swarthy Songs for Swabs and Fish Songs, both from 1990 and played live shows of barely restrained freaked-rock action where the music always seemed poised to tear your lips off.
New Zealand's other preeminent drone soundsmith Alastair Galbraith has returned from the shed with 13 more four-track creations in his latest album Cry. His palette of sound is unlike any other artist, his main instruments being violin, bagpipes, softly spoken lyrics, organ, and backwards-played guitar. Through much tape manipulation, Galbraith is able to further expand these tones to create a rich, dark aura.
To say Galbraith plays these instruments is to simplify things to the point where it loses meaning, as Galbraith does not strive to get standard, pretty sound out of them. Instead, he bends and stretches his instruments, particularly his violin, finding as much use for a screeched or strained tone as a pure one. "Wish" finds him making much (ab)use of his violin, starting off jittery and about to burst (both the strings and in emotion) before calming down and smoothing out. In "Meatwork," he turns to his guitar, stretching each note as far it will go as a tape loop of manipulated guitar repeats for rhythm, creating one of the best tracks on the album.
While using tape manipulation to play his guitar backwards has become somewhat of a trademark for Galbraith, for instance on "From the Empire," creating a sound that lulls you to sleep with each note before bursting loudly at the note's ending, matching the whispered lyrics. However, he does the exact opposite on "Lull and Make it Snow," this time the spoken words recorded backwards and the guitar straight.
Galbraith is able to create very personal, emotional music by using this intimate recording technique. As such, his music is more like feelings oozing from his soul than thoughts flowing from his mind, separating him from a lot of other artists in this area. Naturally then, the album's title, Cry, says a lot about the type of music here; it is much like a dark cloud hovering over you. Galbraith does fit in one bright, semi-pop song though, "One Method" using a bouncing organ and steady drum machine beat, "holding out for a happy ending." The perfect drone music for a rainy day. (jim steed, fakejazz.com)
The fourth solo album from New Zealander Alastair Galbraith is a stunner. Rarely has music this experimental been so ACCESSIBLE. But that's genius at work, folks, right here. "Cry" mixes pastoral folk drones with muted electric guitar outbursts, ominous organ rumblings, and Alastair's sung poetry. It's super pretty and quiet and haunting and we highly recommend it. Even if you've never heard this veteran of the Kiwi music scene's records before, this is a fine, fine place to start. (Aquarius Records)
Somewhere in New Zealand, Alastair Galbraith is trying to fix his four-track. Although I'm probably way off, I can only assume that he is isolated. His albums are like secrets. His past is irrelevant. His approach to music is that of a crooked music box designer. His designs seem harmless enough on first glance. Once open, a small stick figure looks up at you and examines you as it rotates in its place. Strange tones slowly vibrate the box near the edge of the table demanding that you cautiously push it back towards the middle. I have no idea what is a guitar played backwards, a bagpipe, a keyboard?and then the box closes. Open it again and hear what should be New Zealand's national anthem cut short in all its softly spoken word glory. Galbraith punishes instruments until they cooperate. He kneads them like soaked cloth and slowly pulls them apart to hear the stretching of limits. His iconoclastic folk is a good place to start. Then you can discover his more fully realized instrumental themes on his contributions to Wire Music and A Handful of Dust. (Chad Bidwell, Ink 19)
While Alastair Galbraith's particular solo style had long been established by the time Mirrorwork appeared, it was still an approach all his own, often providing wonderful, mysterious results. Certainly the lead track, "For Free," a collaboration with Shayne Carter on "backwards lead guitar," finds his brew of edgy lyrics, delivery, and atypical, hard to grasp melodies as potent as ever, and a good sign for Mirrorwork as a whole. Again, many songs barely touch the two-minute mark, with 24 total tracks in under three quarters of an hour. His home recording style is a collage of electric guitar, violin, and other instruments and overall aesthetic again, nothing too surprising to anyone who's heard it before. There's psychotic buzzing on "Rivulets," with keyboards sounding like insane, annoyed bees, and the high-pitched squeals, just a hair away from being annoying, while on "Frostfish" there are two instances of Galbraith seeing how far he can go. Where the joy of Mirrorwork comes in is how he works that combination to his own ends, coming up with some new, intriguing results. The combination of soft and clattering has been done before, for instance, but "Ludd," with prominent acoustic guitar in one speaker and various feedback growls and random noises in the other, is one of Galbraith's best balances between the two extremes. Other standouts include the reversed guitar snippets and loops of "Song to the Third," softly fading away into the distance, and the burbling organ/muttering vocal blend of "Vinyl Curtain," one of his dreamiest yet disturbed numbers. The album's other collaboration, "This Hard," with regular Galbraith partner David Mitchell, finds them both taking the acoustic route, resulting in a quietly enjoyable gem. This occasional tendency to play things completely straight results in such listenable worthies as "Blue Room," played on what sounds like 12-string acoustic, and the semi-blues lope and growl of "Stealthy." (Ned Raggett, All Music)
Alastair Galbraith's full solo debut builds on the cryptic promise of Gaudylight. It's not too different in overall feel, with short running lengths for songs and free-form verse/chorus structures defining the album as much as the blend of intimate vocal overdubs, rough guitar noise, and furry keyboards. For all that, there's as much gentle sing-song as there is experimental exploration, often at the same time while not sounding like Flying Saucer Attack's similar blend of folk and electronic ambience, there's a similar inspired combination at work. Certainly "Marcasite Lace," the one track on the album done with the full Plagal Grind lineup, almost starts like something FSA would have released in the early '90s, though Galbraith's wonderfully alien, cracking brogue/drawl is miles away from Dave Pearce's suffused sigh. Other longtime friends and fellow musicians contribute at various points Peter Jefferies adds piano to "Portrait," while Bruce Russell's organ on "Huxley" makes things even more unsettlingly off than before. For the most part, though, this is Galbraith and his own painstaking work, his sudden endings and unexpected lyrics up-ending the "sensitive soul with guitar and tape recorder" stereotype of lo-fi music. When he chooses to do so, suddenly thrilling, immediate passages are not beyond him consider the chorus of "More Than Magnetic," a lovely climax to the song as a whole. Otherwise his work is more obscure but no less rewarding, possessed of its own atypical appeal while showing much variety. Collectively, Morse feels like a slightly random assortment of songs instead of an album as a standalone set, which is actually probably part of its appeal a bit like stumbling across a strange archive from somewhere without a sense of what created it. CD versions included both the Gaudylight EP and an extra track, the fair enough "Cranes." Ned Raggett, All Music
A five-song EP, Gaudylight was Galbraith's formal solo debut, appearing a year before the full length Morse (and later appearing on CD with that album). With help from David Mitchell on guitar on two tracks, one also with David Saunders on bass, and Brian Jones on another, Galbraith made his own unsettlingly strange mark on shadowy New Zealand underground rock from the start. Recording in the same murky, four-track style as sometime collaborator Peter Jefferies, Galbraith has a warmer voice but an equally strange sensibility. Open-ended fragments like the rumbling feedback and random lyrics of "John of the Painted Eye" and "Mrs. Blucher," and its sudden epic guitar chime, rub up against slightly more straightforward songs like "As in a Blender." Galbraith's violin at once down-home and pretty creepy adds to the just unnerving enough atmosphere more than once. The title track itself is the most appealing yet strange of the bunch, his acoustic guitar and overdubbed vocals sounding like a centuries-old invocation of something mysterious. (Ned Raggett, All Music)
A long-assed but thorough interview from Australia:
An Alastair Galbraith record exists in that place between sleep and full awakening where bright flashes of sound and image tumble over each other in a race to form the most unlikely and quixotic conjunctions. Orchestrated on analog four track with the lost art of an Alchemist, musical and lyrical sketches enter the world, exist for only long enough to say and do what needs to be said and done, and vanish back into the hypnagogic world from whence they came. The reality they leave behind is slightly less consensual than it was prior to their passage. This is a truly liberating psychedelic music because of its refusal to adhere to conventional rock notions of structure, duration and the use of instruments. Guitars may be strummed into a violent storm, or sound like obscure and fragile eastern instruments on fated modal journeys. Violins mourn and scrape in forward and reverse. Vocals whisper and rail and multiply alarmingly, magnetic cries into the void. Lyrics map out dark childhood recollections, almost medieval characters, and many things way to strange to get a grip on. The journey from the juvenilia of The Rip to the mastery of 'Morse' and 'Talisman', is one of the most intriguing undertaken by any musician from the New Zealand underground, and is truly Xpressway's greatest gift to the world. Talking to Alastair is very much like listening to these records, a sense of wonder envelops the conversation and time contracts as the mundane concerns of the world are left behind for a while. A planned 20 minute phone call becomes a hour, and what you have to discuss seems barely touched. I pulled some salient conversations out a massive transcript for this portrait, and started by asking Alastair about early memories of wanting to be a musician:
AG. When I was either five or six I apparently expressed an interest to my parents that I wanted to play the violin. They didn't take me seriously because of my age, but apparently I was very insistent, like (mimics an obstreperous child) '...no, I want to play the violin!'. Eventually they enrolled me in violin lessons with a private teacher and I totally took to it. I think it was much like the kind of thing I do now, because it was a solo occupation. Playing the violin was something I could do by myself, and it was an escrape from whatever kinds of pressures a six year old feels, bearing in mind that I was not a particularly happy or well-adjusted child. I find it strange to say this as an adult now, but I know its true; the violin was form of relaxation therapy and meditation, and I used to completely get into what I was playing. Even the very simple, banal exercises they give to young children so that they can find their pitch, understand rhythm, and so on, utterly entranced me and I could do them for hours and forget where I was. So that was the first musical thing that I remember.
And when did you take up guitar?
Quite a lot later. When I was ten I took one guitar class for one hour at school and learned to play 'What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor' of all things. Later that day I stuck a thorn into the teacher who taught me that on the guitar. I got into terrible trouble over that (laughs). It was completely out-of-the-blue with that random sense of angst children feel. I just went up and stabbed him with a thorn while he was talking to the class. It was out-of-character, since I was very well behaved most of the time. I played the violin until I was fourteen, going through the Royal School of Music grade system, and I got stuck on grade seven, couldn't get past it for some reason. I gave it up then, because my music teacher was starting to say to my parents 'I think he's on drugs' (which at that time was absolutely untrue), and 'he's terribly, terribly vague and wilful, I can't get through to him and can't teach him any more'. So that was the end of that. I even stopped playing the violin, and didn't touch an instrument until a year or so later. When I was fifteen, I talked to my best friend Robert Muir, and we decided we wanted to start a rock band, just like that and apropos of nothing really. I bought a very cheap guitar and a tiny practice amp, and he bought a cheap bass and no amp and we used to plug them both into my amp, and I'd write little bits of songs.
Thus The Rip was born?
Thus the awful Rip was born, yes.
What were you listening to at the time?
Prior to The Rip it was mainly the classical music I was playing on the violin. I also did an embarrassing stint, from age ten to about age twelve, as a choirboy (laughs), and listened to a lot of church choral music, and some of that really appealed to me, particularly the very early composers like Palastrina and Byrd, very simple with no accompaniment, as well as modern stuff like Benjamin Britten. The desire to start a rock band was mainly due to seeing The Clean live. I seem to recall they played every Sunday for six weeks during one school holidays in this tiny wooden suburban hall in an out-of-the-way, semi-upmarket suburb in Dunedin. These 'dances' as they were called, happened in the afternoons from three to six or so, and were run by the local police rugby club! The Clean didn't inspire me the first few times, but there was something about their stage presence, or I suppose at that stage I thought of it as lack of stage presence, that did get through to me. They seemed to be completely normal people, paradoxically both relaxed and intensely into what they were doing. I thought 'that's how I feel - when I want to play music I feel how they look'. I didn't know you could do that. I thought you needed fancy clothes and a special heroic kind of stance to perform. Instead they had these amazing, stirring songs. Sometimes when hearing them live there were moments without end. It transported me.
Many strands of what is now a recognisably New Zealand sound seems to have originated with The Clean, and especially David Kilgour's guitar sound...
The sound of it! It was amazingly trebly. I never got over how wonderfully sharp it was, and how it seemed that two-thirds of the sound was just his guitar. You could hear the drums and you could hear the bass, but most of the sound was this beautifully simple tubey guitar sound, in clanging rolling, perfectly formed waves.
And besides The Clean?
We were lucky, we had this 'groovy' teacher at the straight all-boys school I went to, and he used to be part of a Juke Box Jury on the radio. He had a kind of alternative bent. One of the school clubs I joined was a record club, and used to have give-aways of the promotional records he received. We would win, or he would recommend to us, interesting mainly British alternative music, and he introduced me to the Sex Pistols. I guess I would have been about fourteen, and definitely the energy of the Sex Pistols really captivated me, as did the Buzzcocks (this was 1980).
The Rip self-released a cassette in 1983, called 'The Holy Room' I believe?
It was horrible! I really, sincerely, genuinely do not have a copy and haven't had a copy since about 1988. I don't know who would, hopefully no-one. We had the covers printed with a wooden block. That was just stuff we recorded in our practice room of the time. In those days it was very difficult to get a gig in Dunedin. There was really only one pub, The Empire, that alternative bands ever played at, and to get in there we got to know this man who styled himself 'The Earl of Dunedin', and who used to walk around in a silk dressing gown and pontificate about everything, slavishly copying Malcolm Maclaren. He was a hideous man, and it helped to have attractive females in your band to get a gig. We didn't have any. Eventually we got a support slot for our first gig, I think it was for Sneaky Feelings. Robbie and I turned up, but our drummer at the time, Nicholas, was not allowed to come. We were fifteen and he was fourteen, and his mother decided that fourteen was just too young to be in a pub. He phoned us about ten minutes before we had to start to tell us. We appealed to the bands that were playing with us, and someone said that they would drum for us. So this guy proceeded to massacre the two songs we had to play (we decided the rest of them were awful). He hadn't heard the songs and played a really loud, wild drum piece to them. Before this, he had been eating some kind of hash and honey mixture and he was totally out-of-it. We were deeply embarrassed and I swore never to play live again.
Fortunately, Wayne Elsey from The Stones and later The Doublehappys was there and asked me to come and sit on the steps with him, and just...blew me away. He told me that I had something, something that he couldn't really describe, not a great musical talent or instrumental proficiency, more of a spirit that he could see when I played, and that I had to keep doing it. He offered to help me any way he could, and he actually did that over the next few months. He got Robbie a better bass, let us use their practice space, got us gigs supporting The Stones and just encouraged us the whole time, saving us from a very, very short career.
Who played what on the ' A Timeless Peace' EP (Flying Nun, 1984), and how did that come about?
I sang, played the guitar and violin, Robbie Muir played bass, and Geoff Harford played drums. We were taken to a very upmarket studio in Christchurch for that. Flying Nun didn't initially want to release anything by us. Hamish Kilgour was working for Roger Shepard at that time, and he somehow persuaded Roger that it was worth releasing what we were doing. We then entered this Battle of the Bands and ended up winning it. We said to Flying Nun that we would pay for he actual recording of an EP with the money from that, if they would pay for production costs. I think that is what finally persuaded Roger to release it.
Listening to that EP I can hear echoes of what Postcard Records of Scotland were doing with Josef K, Orange Juice, and the first Go-Betweens single. 'The Holy Room' reminds me Josef K, and 'De Rezske and Dylan' seems to have elements of early Go-Betweens. Was that sort of thing on the turntable around the time?
Wow, no, I hadn't heard those at the or writing those songs. I didn't hear the Go-Betweens until about a year later when I left home and moved into my first flat, and Bruce Russell first played them to me, us being flat-mates at that time.
It was three years until the next and final release by The Rip, 'Stormed Port'. What was happening during those years?
The Rip was still the perennial support band. We were afraid to take what seemed to be the massive step of headlining our own gig. Instead we were the cheapest support act in town, so were assured of getting a lot of actual gigs. We were playing two nights every second or third weekend, and we slowly just got tired of it. We were both at university and we were more free to tour than our drummer, who had a full time job. And Robbie and I felt that the songs we were writing weren't really band stuff, not so fast and angry any more. Without knowing it I was starting to worry about how they would be orchestrated to sound like songs a band could play. I didn't know how the drums should go, and in the end the best thing seemed to be for there to be no drums, and not to have to worry about that problem, or worry about it being in any way danceable or energetic.
Peter Jefferies and Graeme Jefferies (This Kind of Punishment) came into town about three months before 'Stormed Port' was recorded, and I had just bought one of only three copies of TKOP's 'Beard of Bees' that made it to Dunedin and was so inspired by it! I went along to their gig, cheered wildly and talked to them afterwards, and we immediately hit it off as people. Peter said that he had heard of The Rip and had heard one or two things he really liked. He also said he was moving to Dunedin in a few months and was keen produce and engineer the next Rip thing. He had a strong philosophy, which he wanted me to adopt, that recording in a professional studio and paying a lot of money was a very bad idea. Graeme had a four-track, and he suggested that we could record on that. By the time he got back to Dunedin we were playing our last gig. Peter talked to me and was keen for me to do it solo, and just call it a Rip record. They had a flat above the 'New Joy Ice Cream Shop', and we worked late at night when they weren't using it for recording 'In the Same Room'. It was freezing, only a one-bar heater for warmth. We would have a few smokes and cups of sugary white tea, masses of coffee and eat gingernut biscuits, they didn't have any healthy food in the place. We would get so inspired. Peter could talk to me in those days like we were revolutionaries, and what we were doing was really important, at least to us, and if no other line was being crossed we were crossing lines within our own lives. He would press all the buttons, and I still didn't have much idea of what he was doing, but I could hear that the results were so much more like what I thought I had done than the studio sound of the first EP.
'Stormed Port' sounded recognisably of a style that you developed from then on, and Peter Jefferies had a lot to do with figuring out that aesthetic?
That is the first one that hasn't continued to embarrass me. Most people I knew at the time didn't know anything about either home or studio recording. Hardly anyone had the gear for home recording, or how to set it up and use it; and as for recording in a studio, you couldn't do it yourself, you had to get some engineer who of course wouldn't bother to explain what he was doing, so both sides were a mystery. The technical aesthetic of 'Stormed Port' is his and Graeme's, and they explained a fair bit of the mystery of home recording to me.
Was the solo Syd Barrett an influence on 'Stormed Port'?
I had heard Syd Barrett, again through Bruce Russell's record collection, and I loved what I heard, I loved his lyrical abandon more than the music or the way it was recorded. But that wasn't something that I felt at all able to do at the point of 'Stormed Port'. I felt much more confined, and everything was much more formulated; I couldn't be that free, so it has been surprising to hear Barrett's name mentioned again and again in reviews and so forth.
What was the inspiration for 'Entropic Carol'?
There is a remnant of the punk era that I almost forget. Both Robbie and I as each other's best friends through childhood and adolescence shared a feeling that we loved punk because it had a feeling of despair that we understood really well. We'd be walking to school and we'd go 'what the fuck is the point' and stop off in the bushes and smoke cigarettes for half the day sitting on these huge leaves with this really untimely feeling that we were very, very old and jaded at age fourteen (laughs), and that life was a hopeless affair. 'Entropic Carol' is about one of those mornings.
And there is a touch of the occult in the backwards-played 'Wrecked Wee Hymn'?
That started with a mistake. After Peter had begun to record the thing, there was some kind of hiatus. I know that 'In the Same Room' was a very difficult record. It was their last and it was just the two brothers working on it and living together. 'Stormed Port' ground to a halt for a couple of months, and at exactly that point I sat a friends warehouse for them and they had a portastudio they let me use. One day I put on my own home cassette of what we had done so far and I put it in backwards and at the wrong speed. Basically that was 'Wrecked Wee Hymn', although to it I added a couple of forwards violin tracks and slowed it as much as it would go. Although it happened by accident, it was a piece of luck. There is an occult thing about it, I was surprised and scared hearing my voice backwards, singing in a language I didn't know, with a mirrored mood.
'Starless Road' seems to have a specific and personal intent, and it strikes me that it holds a great deal of meaning for you, because it reappeared on the 'Hurry on Down' cassette and the Plagal Grind EP. Who was it written to?
It was written for Wayne Elsey. When he died in an accident he was only nineteen or twenty, and I was younger. I realised what he had done for me, in that I wouldn't have carried on making music without that initial boost from him. It is honestly true that the very last thing he said to me before he had to go off on the tour on which he died was 'you have to want to live...look I've just given up smoking...you have to want to'. When somebody, for whatever reason, says this really positive thing to you and then dies, your last contact with them is like a gift from them to you. The middle verse of 'Starless Road' which goes 'You said that you'd seen stars/on a stretch of starless road', came from when The Rip and The Doublehappys were on tour together. He, the driver and I were the only people awake in a van in the middle of the night. We were drinking whisky and he looked at all the reflective dots down the center of the road, and, being drunk, said 'look at all the stars in the road!'. I very pragmatically said to him 'those are not stars, they're those reflective dots'. That song still works for me as a connection to my self and my past when I am playing it live.
The next thing that came out was the 'Hurry On Down' cassette on Xpressway. How did the two versions of that come about?
One side of it was recorded live at a gig to benefit the Regent Theatre, a large theatre in Dunedin that the owners never stopped doing up. They would get musicians to play for nothing for 24 hours over a Friday and Saturday. It was a chance to play to a horribly mainstream audience of people browsing through second hand books that had also been donated to the theatre. I really stupidly agreed to do a 3am performance and went to sleep and woke up at 2:30am and went down there with Bruce. He recorded the whole thing, but I was under the influence of something very strange, I can't remember what, and when I listen to it I can tell that I wasn't fully awake. The other side was a result of Bruce coming to the warehouse where I was living at that time and asking me if I'd written any songs. I said I'd written about eight or nine and he said 'play them all to me'. I played them one after the other for him and he recorded them on a walkman. I honestly thought he was recording them for personal listening, but he released it! It was good of him, but within a few months of it being out I said to him that I never really knew at the time it was recorded that he was going to release it, and that I would quite like a go at giving him something slightly better, and so there was a first and second edition. Just prior to this, a friend who was an elderly woman I used to do gardening for (and I had known since I was twelve) had asked me out of the blue what I would most like materialistically, and I thought for a while and said 'a four-track recording machine'. Later, she came back into the room with a cheque that was almost enough to buy a second hand one. So I was learning how to record myself at that point and was able to give Bruce slightly better versions of some of the songs.
Looking back with today's perspective, Plagal Grind almost seems like a supergroup of the New Zealand underground. Was the band set up as a long-term thing, or just to record the Xpressway EP?
The EP came quite late (end of 1988), when we finally realised, after about a year-and-a-half of being a band, that we had never released anything. Plagal Grind itself came about in an odd way. I'd decided that couldn't live in New Zealand any more, and I wanted to live in Australia. In November 1986 I went off to live in Melbourne by myself. On the way to Melbourne, I took a train to Dunedin Christchurch and stayed with Graeme Jefferies for a while, and suggested I put down a song on his four-track as we had done with 'Stormed Port' a year earlier, and that he would finish it off later. So I put down 'Timebomb' and 'Bravely, Bravely', and during the period I was in Australia, he sent me two or three cassettes of different mixes of what he added to them, basically large guitar washes of sound.
When I came back to New Zealand in February 1987, after quite a surreal time in Melbourne, he said 'let's start a band, and we'll call it the Cake Kitchen, and you play the violin and I'll play the guitar...it'll be a duo'. I was really keen to play with him, but part of the plan was for me to to live in Christchurch and live in his warehouse. I didn't really want any more strangeness. I wanted to be back in my home town of Dunedin so I said no. I went back to Dunedin and within a few days Peter Jefferies said roughly the same thing, 'let's start a band, I'm dying to play drums again and you play guitar'. Graeme came down and we decided to form a band with the three of us, and came up with the name Plagal Grind. After only two days of just talking about what we were going to do, it was clear that Peter and Graeme weren't getting on, and, like a divorcing couple, they asked me to choose which of them I wanted to go with! As Bruce Russell said to me at the time 'this is the worst can of worms you ever opened, Alastair' (laughs). But it was a nasty scene, and in the end I chose Peter because he was going to be in Dunedin, Graeme left and it took a while to patch things up.
Peter suggested this guitarist that he had done an experimental album ("At Swim Two Birds") with, namely Jono Lonie, and we formed the first Plagal Grind. Jono Lonie played in a super-psychedelic guitar style with heaps of space effects, like sounds of seagulls crying on the beach and so on, but it was a little bit much for the songs. In the end we probably fairly unkindly just dumped him and got Robbie Muir to play the bass, sort of the Rip with Peter on drums and songs maybe a little better. David Mitchell came up to us after a gig (at that point the 3Ds hadn't quite started) and said 'I like those songs, I hear weird sea shanties in them and I want to play the bits that I hear in my head that go with them and make them like old, wild, fucked sea shanties', and he did. That was the line up that lasted for about a year and a bit and recorded the Plagal Grind EP. Bruce applied for a grant to the New Zealand Arts Council to release it because he had no money to release vinyl. It was such a nightmare finding a company that could do it, and the company we found just fucked around for ages.
The Plagal Grind EP has the first in a great series of David Mitchell covers.
Yeah, but Bruce objected to it when he first saw it saying 'there are eleven penises on this cover!' (laughs).
How were those solo songs worked up into band form?
I'd write the structure was for what I would play, and all the lyrics. Peter would get me to play it over a number of times until he had worked out what he was going to do on the drums. The others would play along by ear until they found what they wanted to do. It was not a case of me directing them. That method applied for at least the first year of that second line-up, but towards the end of Plagal Grind I definitely had firmer opinions about what I wanted and would, for instance, say to Peter things like 'can you try and drum this one like it's backwards and cantering and slipping sometimes' and I felt really uncomfortable doing that, telling them what to do. I was shy at getting across what I wanted and ended up saving complex tracks to do by myself at a later date. That is probably what has put me off being in a band ever since.
The Plagal Grind EP has a wonderfully jagged and immediate sound. How was a typical track recorded, for example 'Receivership'?
It started out as a live version of the song recorded onto four-track in a 60 foot long wooden room downstairs in the warehouse I was living in, one track for drums, one for bass and one for each guitar. Then we would take the four track stuff to the new Fish Street Studios and dump the tracks onto eight track and add a couple of tracks of vocals and extra guitar tracks from myself and David. When the eight tracks were done we mixed them on this very dodgy desk, but it was very exciting.
'Midnight Blue Vision' has a very Indian raga feel about it. How did that evolve?
Again that was a backwards accident. I never labelled working reel-to-reel tapes, and often because there are were labels I would put them on backwards, and think I'm listening to something that I've done and find it's actually, as you say, almost Indian sounding. With 'Midnight Blue Vision' it was not a matter of looking for that effect, more of stumbling on and thinking that I could turn it into a song. Since then, I have stopped having 'accidents', and have looked for them.
What do you think is the legacy of Xpressway?
It was a very down time before Xpressway was forced into being by the generosity of Bruce's response to the dumping of all the perceived non-commercial side of the Flying Nun stable, which happened over a short period of time. People would approach Flying Nun with a proposal for their next project and be told 'no, we don't want to do that', and yet not be told that they had been dropped. It happened to Peter and Graeme Jefferies at the same time that it happened to me and The Terminals. Bruce got this idea that as long as we didn't mind recording really basically and only releasing cassettes with Xeroxed covers he could take up the slack, and we would at last have a chance to get something back for what we had done, and would actually see (admittedly small) amounts of money. He would provide, as voluntary work, his own statements for the various acts on the label. It was always just for those people who had no other outlet for music he really liked...friends. It worked pretty well. He said that we were a collective yet he did by far the lion's share of the work, closely followed by Peter who took up a lot of the mastering side. My only real input apart from folding some covers was to turn another attempt to live overseas into a kind of roving representative tour for the label. Rather than taking a lot of clean clothes when I went to travel around Europe with no money, I took a back-pack of Xpressway cassettes and went to every store in every city I visited and asked them to at least listen to the stuff. I stumbled upon Avalanche Records in Edinburgh. The guy who owned the store listened to what I had, and liked it so much he set up a couple of thing straight away which culminated in our first overseas release, the 'Xpressway Pile-Up' compilation, and also a deal for Snapper, and later a posthumous release for the Doublehappys' 'How Much Time Left Please'.
In terms of legacy, when the Europeans and Americans first heard the early Flying Nun stuff, part of what grabbed their attention was the sound, how immediately it was recorded, and the degree to which the people who were playing it seemed to feel passionately about it. By the time Xpressway needed to come into being, a lot of that had faded from the output of the Flying Nun catalogue and Bruce seemed to have found it again. You can hear in those Xpressway releases that there is nothing trying to be what it's not, or seeking favour in any particular court.
Were are up to 1991 and the 'Gaudy Light' EP. That was licensed by Xpressway to Siltbreeze. How did that come about?
I'm still not absolutely clear on it, except that Bruce had sent Tom and Mac at Siltbreeze the 'Hurry On Down' cassette, and they must have asked him whether I would be interested in doing a 7". At that point I had begun to write shorter songs, and rather than it being a single it ended up as a five track EP.
The EP seemed very much about characters of almost mythical stature, 'John of the Palsied Eye', the protagonist of 'Gaudy Light', 'Mrs Blucher', ' Warden Tye'. What were you trying to achieve with this EP?
'John of the Palsied Eye' was partly about the proprietor of the Empire Hotel in Dunedin, where as I mentioned, a lot of the bands in Dunedin played. He was a lurid, red-faced old drunkard who used to talk to people in this horrible, sleazy, conspiratorial way. At the end of the song he fell down the stairs and died. 'Mrs Blucher' was about a German woman, Helga, who entered into a marriage of convenience with Bruce Blόcher (from Trash) so that she could stay in the country. After they got married she became my girlfriend (laughs), and it became a kind of standing joke, that I was having an affair with Bruce's wife. 'Warden Tye' is an odd song, not so much about a character, more about thinking sometimes that everyone and everything is so fake, and then turning around and questioning myself: 'aren't I, wouldn't I do the same thing?'. So it is about the constant desire to reach out of that state where you would compromise yourself.
The EP was followed up in 1992 by the 'Morse' LP, also on Siltbreeze. This strikes me, like 'Gaudy Light' does, as a very confident record. The songs seem to have contracted, become shorter, some really jagged, compressed and spat out like 'Hawks', and some beautiful acoustic pieces like 'Portrait'. Why the move to a lot of short songs, and was a lot of anger being worked out in 'Morse'?
I think for me there has been a lot of anger worked out through music full-stop, right from the beginning. And yet I thought at the time that I had left all that behind in my punk days and that all the anger had gone and become a lot more reflective. I can see now that it is very much an on-going process and I don't know whether I will ever actually get to that calm remote point, although it is very much the direction I am headed in.
The songs got shorter because traditional song structure suddenly stopped appealing to me. The verse-chorus-verse format seems to misrepresent the way the songs arrive in my imagination. They rarely arrive structured like that for me, they come in short bursts as one rapid insight or metaphor strikes me. From 'Gaudy Light' on I wanted just to leave the things in the order and 'parcel', for want of a better word, that they came to me in and not really chop and change them to fit a particular idea of structure, or try and make any sense of them or explain them any way. I'm still not sure what the song 'Gaudy Light' is actually about.
Which reminds me to ask about 'Screaming E', a personal favourite from 'Morse', although I've never been sure of what it is about...
That's one I can explain. It's basically a song about horror. It goes:
'I'll scream an E
Until I raise the hackles on you
Give you that skin wall drum feeling
Hammering yammering cry
Half the time the train of thought derails
Wait until your unseemly anger pales
It will pale
And leave you stranded
Grandma said to me
This will boil your blood
And then the pipes began to stray
They were skirling skirling skirling.
When I was five, my maternal grandmother took me to the Dunedin Botanical Gardens on a day when she knew there was going to be a massed bagpipe band playing. She got me to stand right at the front of the path before they played. They came marching past and stopped almost directly in front of us, maybe thirty or forty bagpipers and the drums and everything, and as they warmed up and blew all the air into those horrible big leather bags, she said to me 'this will boil your blood', which was just a terrifying thing for her to say to me at that age, because I really believed that sound that happened just a few seconds later was going to actually, physically cause my blood to boil in my veins. She obviously meant that if you had Scottish blood in you, this will cause you to feel strong emotion, but that wasn't obvious to a five year old!
Do you see drones as important in your songs?
Yeah, I do, because perhaps in a kind of abstract way there is a drone aspect to life itself, there is something that always remains constant. Musically it gives that same sort of feel, like there is something constant throughout.
You toured the US with Peter Jefferies in 1993, during, I believe, a period of great personal upheaval. What are your recollections of that tour?
I remember it as much for the time just before the tour. I found that I had to leave the warehouse place I had been living in for five years, and had to get rid of all the auction stuff I had been collecting and wheeling home on a skateboard and piling into the almost 15 000 square feet I had available. The old bits of furniture and knick-knacks wouldn't have fitted into an ordinary house. I came back from a day dumping all that to get the depressing message that my birth mother was dying of cancer. I had been adopted and had only know her since I was twenty. I was worried the whole time I was in the States that she would die while I was there, as well as worrying because my girlfriend had nowhere to live. It made it so much more stressful that it otherwise would have been. I had never played more than two or three days in a row and found the stress of playing everyday and travelling so much very difficult. I didn't like the way you have to become like a factory worker and repeat what you do. You can change the set, but you still have to appear in front of an audience playing guitar and singing day-after-day and it began to feel like a job. That worried me terribly at points, I felt I was showing only one facet of what I do, because what I mainly do is sit at home in the middle of the country, solitary and relatively calm, and record. Although I felt overawed by the whole thing, and occasionally wondered what I was doing and if I was doing it well enough, there were absolute high points to the tour. The people side of it was fantastic. I felt really sad to leave the people that I met after only a few hours of knowing each of them. There were many towns I wanted to stop in and actually a couple of places I thought 'I could live here, these people are great' and made really firm, fast, deep friendships that are still going, and it was great to see some of those people again on the tour I just got back from. The support from the audiences there was unlike anything I had felt in my whole life. It was kind of like a dream that there were enough people to fill the pubs and liked the music and had been following it for a while. Very hard to believe from your remote outpost at the far corner of the world that those people are actually out there.
Even so, I've got this problem where when I'm away from my own home or country for any length of time I begin to feel utterly as though I had died. It is a very intense kind of homesickness that is really valuable to ride through, come back home afterwards and feel differently about life because of that.
Did your relationship with Peter Jefferies survive that tour?
That tour it did. By the time we had done the European tour the following year we had been through a lot together. It was tense because Peter was totally happy to be there, just overjoyed. His enthusiasm was great and bolstered me a lot of the time, but I don't think that he understood that I had other things on my mind. To me, my musical career is not as important as my life itself, and that was something I have found very difficult about touring, I am always 'Alastair Galbraith -The Musician' and it is hard to feel like you are still a painter, or a person who likes walking around picking up driftwood or whatever else you may be. When you are working, people are constantly showing you their record collections or in some way talking about music. That sort of thing suits Peter very well, being pretty much how he has structured his life at the level of the dedication he has to music and his musical career, but I found it pretty off-putting.
1993 brought the first Handful of Dust LP, 'Concord'. How did that involvement happen, and what attracted you to the free noise ethic?
Bruce Russell has always had this laid back way of approaching things, as he did with the 'Hurry On Down' cassette, and he didn't really make a big thing of it. He asked me if I wanted to make a record with stringed instruments where we don't touch the strings, and use one type of amplifier and have one channel each and we'll see what happens. Later he told me that Twisted Village were going to release it, and we were happy enough with the music that we were pleased it was going to come out.
How important is the performance side of Handful of Dust to you?
Yeah, it's really important because it is a chance to totally throw away all idea of structure, and I love improvising with no idea what is going to happen at all. There is only one kind of thread that I believe that Bruce and I follow, and that is a certain empathy for each other's mood, but that doesn't mean exclusively musical mood or emotional mood, more a synthesis of the two. We are aware of what each other is doing and feels, but we never look at each other when we perform. The only thing I will know before we play is that Bruce will say 'I've got some titles for what we are about to do', and he will say 'A Single Eye All Light' or 'The Kaballah of the Horse Pegasus' or some other great and ridiculous stringing together of esoteric findings of his. The title somehow forms images of what kind of mood we are going to follow for the piece, but it also evolves as it goes along. Generally I just find that I am staring at one spot on the floor the whole time, and I think it is visually terribly boring for the audiences.
How do audiences react to A Handful of Dust performances?
In the very beginning, they hated it (laughs), and they stood as far back in the pub as they could. We had people like Peter Jefferies come up to us and say 'that was horrible, not only was it musically awful but it hurt my ears'. I guess it was fairly loud. Later, when the CDs came out, people who hadn't enjoyed the performance at all would say 'what a great record!', and Bruce would take great delight in saying 'well you were there and you hated it'. I think a lot of that has to do with A Handful of Dust being so boring to watch and it seems like we are just playing around with the instruments and have no idea what we are doing at all. But I think that if you close your eyes it instantly gains a whole new dimension.
Which is different to how I imagined the live performances, listening to them on CD. I always though it would be interesting to see how those sounds were being made.
Just recently in the States I had a jam with Seymour Glass from Bananafish. I just used my violin for this long piece of music, and he said at the end he was flabbergasted because he always assumed I made those noises with all these really interesting gadgets and effects, and was surprised that I did it all on a violin with no effects and not even plugged in. The expectation is that Bruce and I are running around twiddling knobs on things and using all sorts of bizarre tools on our instruments, but really we are playing them relatively conventionally, with a very limited repertoire of 'toys'. It expanded a little more recently, though. At the last gig we did, drummer Peter Stapleton surfed some short-wave radio for a while, and I used this broken tape echo thing, that has some awful fault in its electronics that meant you played a violin note and it turned into fifty out-of-tune violins. But a lot of what we have done is just electric guitar and violin through amps.
In 1994, you contributed to the Mountain Goats' 'Orange Raja, Blood Royal' EP. What led to you working with them?
On the 1993 tour of the States, Peter and I played a gig at Pomona just outside of Los Angeles at a venue called The Haven, and our support act for the evening was The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle at that point, as he does now, played acoustic guitar and sang, and that time he had the 'Bright Mountain Choir' backing him up, two women that sat on either side of him in chairs and swayed from side-to-side and sang a bit of back-up harmony. His intensity was awe-inspiring, and he lived the songs as he sang them. His lyrics were so beautiful, and the fact that he was really feeling what he was communicating struck me very powerfully and by the time he had finished I'd written him a kind of fan letter at the table I was sitting at, saying that I had never seen anything like this, and that he was a great songwriter and a brilliant performer and that it was hard to go on after him. Later that evening he and I and Dennis Callacci and Alan Callacci sat around at Dennis's house and passed around an acoustic guitar and played each other lots of songs. John wrote to me after I got back to New Zealand and asked if I would be interested in putting violin onto some songs. I ended up thinking I wanted to put more than just violin on, so I ended up using old, fake, third-world-shop tabla and a little bit of mouth organ which I had never played before, and a few violin tracks and sang, or repeated, some of his lines, although he'd asked me not to (laughs). But he ended up liking that.
1994 brought the European tour, as well as the 'Cluster' and 'Intro Version' singles. What else was was happening around that time?
After the draining European tour with Peter, I was feeling reclusive and living in the country at a place called (Taieri Mouth) about 30 kilometres south of Dunedin, and just wanted a very quiet life. I was more into paddling a canoe up the river than making music.
What a life!
Yeah, it was beautiful. It is where a fairly large river enters the Pacific Ocean and there is a small Island right in the isthmus of sand outside the bar of the river, and it is a totally idyllic place. The house I lived in was nestled on a small hill in the bush, and it was hard to even go into town, or even want to do anything in town, let alone to want to work! It took a very long time to get this feeling that perhaps I had retired, and I wasn't even thirty, and perhaps that wasn't really right. It was the enjoying of a very simple life that didn't involve having much ambition, not even creative ambition. Also that was the year when my mother was actually dying, and that made me quieter as well.
1995 saw the release of the 'Talisman' album on your own Next Best Way label. 'Talisman' seemed a pretty dark album to me, a theme of death running through it, but also densely poetic, with some awe-inspiring lyrics on songs like 'Carlos' and Black Flame'. What was 'Carlos' about?
The part about 'Henry's June' refers to Henry Miller's partner and how she was on his back to write a lot, and she seemed to have this really fated kind of life, that not only attracted but inspired a lot of people to create after they met her. The force of her character and the sense of destiny that she seemed to embody is shared by a couple of people that I have met that seemed to have that same quality, and 'Carlos' is about that. There are some people who seem to be on a different path to most others as though they are listening to another voice.
It has a certain spectral quality that crops up occasionally in your work.
Thank you. There were a couple of times when I have been recording things like that, and the actual song 'Talisman' that the word 'spectral' has become not really an afterthought but something that is going on at the time. With the recording of that song 'Talisman' there was a point during recording the vocals when I was convinced that there was someone standing just behind my shoulder, even though I knew that there couldn't be because the door was closed. I was half tempted to turn around and look, but on the other hand I knew that the only reason I had the feeling that there was someone there was that this was the version, and I told myself 'don't turn around, finish it'.
Some of the free noise ethic seems to have rubbed off in places too, with tracks like 'Mrs Meggary'.
'Mrs Meggary' was the primary school teacher of a friend of mine, who was very, very cruel to my friend when she was a young girl. She refused to let her go to the toilet until she wet her pants in class, and so I thought I'd get Mrs Meggary back for her. I wrote a piece of music imagining Mrs Meggary lying in the bath as a nasty, shrivelled old woman listening to horrible approaching footsteps down the hall, and eventually getting stabbed to death in the bath.
That puts the track in context now. Cruel but fair!
Yeah, it's pretty grim.
How does one get up in the morning and decide to record something as absolutely fried as 'Policemen on Ether'?
Once I was 'absolutely fried' on cactus and at the pub there was The Sombretones that Graeme Jefferies was in for a while. I thought that the band was singing over and over 'policemen on ether' , and I'm sitting there thinking, 'what a great song', but of course that wasn't what they were singing at all. For years I wanted to write a song that did say that!
You just toured North America with the Mountain Goats. How did that go?
That was great fun, the most fun tour I have done. John is a really easy person to get on with. He's also a very kind man, and it helped that he was missing his girlfriend and we were able to bond over that because again I was missing my country and all the things familiar to me. We had a good time, and we would joke about every town we entered, and make fun of everything that happened to us.
One of the reasons the tour happened was the reissue of 'Morse' and 'Gaudy Light' on the Trance Syndicate/Emperor Jones label, and at the Austin, Texas gig I got to meet the Butthole Surfers drummer King Coffey, who runs the Trance operation, and I asked if I could borrow the Butthole Surfer's megaphone and got to do 'Yuhahi' through this powerful metal horn, it was great fun. It meant I was free and I could get right down to the edge of the stage and point it at the eveyone's heads. I've got into using backing tapes for the backwards stuff live, because I used to get so annoyed at feeling limited by being a solo guitarist/singer. I took a lot of the original four-track stuff and put it onto cassette without the vocals. I would then play a little battery-powered walkman into my amp, so I could sing and play another instrument.
Tell me about your label 'Next Best Way' and what your hopes for it are.
Just to continue the way it is, I don't really want it to grow. It is at a nice cottage industry level. It is not enough for me to live off, and I guess it financially amounts to a small part time job of a couple of afternoons a week. For some reason I love the simple work of putting a thousand CDs into covers, doing the photocopying, folding a thousand inserts, posting away boxes of them, and hassling to get your money back several months later. I can really get into that because there is something about personally touching and therefore, in a kind of weird way, blessing each one that you do that is really satisfying.
What is next up for the label?
Next up was going to be a Pip Proud single, an Australian who I've been a big fan of for many years. I was so delighted when David Nichols of the Cannanes found out where he was living, and persuaded Pip to phone me one day. Pip then sent me three recent songs he had written and recorded, and I grew to love these three songs so much that I knew it was not worth me doing a Geraldine pressing [individually lathe-cut polycarbonate discs from King Records, Geraldine] which wouldn't sound that hot and I could only afford to do a very small number since 'Runner' had not brought back any money at all at that point. While I was on tour I had taken a tape of the three songs and advised Pip that I was going to try and farm it out to a bigger and better label. Now it looks like Siltbreeze are going to do it as early as January 1997 in a decent-sized pressing on quality vinyl. So there goes NBW #3 into more capable hands! Although I may do the 50 to 70 copies I can afford through Geraldine for NZ distribution only. Which means the third Next Best Way release will be my next solo album called 'Way Back Out', realistically March 1997, not because of limitations of writing ,recording and mixing, but because I need to wait for money to come back from earlier releases.
What are you listening to over there these days?
The Cannanes and Crabstick from Australia. Charalambides and Neutral Milk Hotel from the US. I got to stay with the Charalambides in Houston, and Tom and Christine Carter were the first people in the US I had said 'you are honorary Dunedin people' to. They seem so relaxed to me, very un-American! They didn't have this big career thing and they were really just nice people. I have a compilation tape of Charalambides that contains things I think are so beautiful...put it on out the windows at night and sit on the beach and listen to it...fantastic.