New Zealand-bred pop is on the uptick, albeit a few decades after the movement’s original era. And, in the wake of the recent rediscovery of acts like the Clean, the Bats, Tall Dwarfs, and the Chills, two of Kiwi-land’s best-loved bands are ready to return.
Known for wistful, understated guitar pop, the Bats will release The Guilty Office in June. A few years older and a bit more experimental, the Clean will unleash Mister Pop this September (it’s their first release of new material since 2001’s Getaway). In anticipation of this sudden surge in Antipodean creativity, we rang up the Bats singer/songwriter and the Clean bassist Robert Scott to talk Flying Nun, fallen stars, and what it’s like to juggle two seminal underground acts.
“It’s really strange, isn’t it?” Scott said of the double whammy. “It’s actually sort of difficult, because we’ve been trying to arrange tours for both bands.”
Scott’s logistical nightmare is music lovers’ unequivocal gain: both stand-out pop albums, The Guilty Office and Mister Pop each subtly update the lo-fi psychedelic sound that defined the country’s late-‘80s era. That signature sound, a blend of jangly pop, psychedelia, punk, and lo-fi pop, began to emerge in Dunedin beginning in the early ‘80s with bands like The Enemy (featuring Tall Dwarf Chris Knox), the Same (who later morphed into the Chills), and an early incarnation of the Clean.
Scott arrived on the scene in 1979 for art school, and, he says, “The first person I met there was David [Kilgour ]. He had just broken up the original line-up of the Clean, and I started playing with him.” Scott was only 20 years old.
In 1982, the Clean went on another hiatus, and Scott formed the Bats with Paul Kean, Malcolm Grant, and Kaye Woodward. They are all still members of the band. He began working with Roger Shepherd of the Flying Nun label around the same time. It was, “very much a cottage industry, with boxes of records stacked everywhere and people delivering packages by bicycle to the post office.”
The Bats, the Clean and Flying Nun all became pivotal elements in the New Zealand renaissance of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “It was an amazing time to be playing music,” said Scott. “We knew, even at the time, that it was special.”
The Bats flirted briefly with mainstream popularity in the ‘90s, signing to Mammoth in 1991 and touring with Belly and Radiohead in 1993. Asked about the difference between recording with low-key Flying Nun and Mammoth, Scott says, “It wasn’t so different. We did have more money for recording. And every once in a while there were things that would make us say, ‘Well, this is new.’ Like when we had to wear make-up for promotional photography.”
Major labels’ thirst for New Zealanders dried up in the mid-‘90s, but both the Clean and the Bats have continued to make music, albeit at widely spaced intervals. The Guilty Office picks up right where things left off, featuring the same feathery rain of guitar strums shading from major to minor chords, insistent drum and bass, and evocative lyrical lines that have defined the Bats’ earlier albums.
“Like water in your hands/like sugar in your mouth,” sings Scott, in “Like Water In Your Hands.” But if he’s meditating on the transience of life, he is doing so in a remarkably consistent voice. Listen to the music, and it feels like no time at all has passed since Silverbeet or even Daddy’s Highway. Pay attention to the lyrics, though, and you realize that Scott has been thinking hard about the way that years flitter by. “I suppose that the passage of time is something that people think about as they get older,” he said. “I’m not particularly upset about it. I don’t worry about it. But I do observe it, and I like to see how other artists treat it in their work.”
You can hear echoes of these gentle questions in other songs as well: in “Two Lines,” a character is running out of time; in “The Orchard” a speaker talks wistfully of returning to a peaceful place. The Bats’ music has always seemed poised between optimism and melancholy, its bright pop rhythms shot though with sadness. Asked why he thought listeners had so much trouble deciding whether his songs were happy or sad, Scott laughed. “Well, they’re not slow songs, as sad songs often are. They’re more mid-tempo. And the musical part isn’t particularly sad…the guitar and the bass and drums sound like pop,” he said. “But we do use quite a lot of minor chords, which people tend to hear as sad. And the lyrics, maybe.”
Still for a band routinely tagged as subtle, gentle and low-key, the Bats can rock pretty hard, especially live. “People are sometimes surprised when they come to our shows,” said Scott. “They’ll be holding their ears because it’s so loud.”
Scott wrote the new songs mostly within the last year or so, though some, like “Countersign” are older. “Satellites” was inspired on a camping trip to a remote part of New Zealand, where Scott and his family were searching the sky for falling stars, and ended up spotting a satellite. He wrote “The Guilty Office,” which became the title track, in the studio, after fiddling with a chord progression until he made it work. “I’d been playing parts of that chord progression for some time,” he said. “It was difficult to play – a real stretch – so when I finally got it all together, I told the band, you’d better play along now because I may never play it again.” The song, a highlight of the album, is so hard to play that Scott hasn’t yet attempted it live.
Asked about the difference between writing for his two bands, he says that the Clean jams a bit more, and that both he and Kilgour make a conscious effort not to sound overtly like the Bats. “I suppose I’ve had one or two songs on Clean albums that might have worked for the Bats,” says Scott, “but we try to keep the two bands separate.”
It’s unusual to be in one band for more than 20 years – but two? How does Scott manage that? “We’ve taken long breaks with both bands – breaks to have kids, breaks to do other things,” he said. “I think being apart once in a while keeps us together.”