At its peak, Flying Nun was New Zealand’s Rough Trade, Mute, Factory and 4AD all rolled into one; and yet the label remains tragically underrated. With contributions from key players, Martin Aston tells the untold story of New Zealand’s most important indie.
Words: Martin Aston
In the decade before the Internet brought everything closer, New Zealand seemed exotic, and its contents mostly unknown, with only Split Enz and the fledgling Crowded House evidence of a music scene. I knew nothing of Flying Nun when I was introduced to it, but the Camden shop Honest Jon’s did, with a wall of 7” singles from the Flying Nun label, a colourful, hand-tinted quilt with myriad band names – The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs.
Flying Nun, based in Christchurch on the south island, turned out to be NZ’s Rough Trade, Mute, Factory, 4AD, Creation and Postcard labels all rolled into one, without any label competition. Its range embraced exquisite psych-pop, cantankerous quasi-goth, warped folk, experimental synth warfare – and such consistent quality, and this from a population of less than four million.
In its own quite, stealthy fashion, Flying Nun’s influence – especially in the US – has spread outward, and not just on bands like Pavement, but on indie labels such as Sub-Pop. And like the south island’s famous Jurassic reptile, the Tuatara, Flying Nun lives on today, having survived the growing pains that afflict every independent label trying to retain its autonomy in a changing marketplace, and even losing its founder, Roger Shepherd, not once but twice….
Shayne Carter (Bored Games, The Doublehappys, The Straitjacket Fits): “There’s this great theory that the Springbok [rugby] tour of 1981 totally divided New Zealand for the first time, between the liberals and conservatives. Then, in 1985, when [Greenpeace ship] Rainbow Warrior was sunk here, it was the first time the country asserted itself internationally. Before, we’d had zero cultural confidence, but out of that turmoil, a sense of identity started to emerge.”
Roger Shepherd (Flying Nun founder): “There was not much to do in New Zealand in the 1970s so we were among the highest consumers of records and books in the world and were in the process of becoming the most stoned as well. New Zealand music did not have much of a profile. Yes, Split Enz had made a huge impact… but we were outward looking and anything local had a large amount of doubt and indifference to overcome before it would be accepted.”
Ben Howe (current Flying Nun head): “In the 1980s, New Zealand was a lot more isolated and the information that existed about those sorts of mysterious things was quite hard to come by. I’m from Auckland in the North Island and initially the label seemed foreign to me. Most was happening down in the far South and I was too young to go any shows that made it to Auckland. It all seemed very adult, important, mysterious and dark. But it was obviously a very vibrant scene down there.”
Robert Scott (The Clean, The Bats): “It was the right place, at the right time. I lived in Dunedin, a university town, so it was easy to live on the dole and spend all day plinking around on guitar. At the same time, we were very removed from the world: the NME would arrive three months late; the same happened with punk. So influences were very watered down. But we could get John Peel, and we had a great TV show, Radio With Pictures, that showed overseas clips. But there’s a history of self-sufficiency in New Zealand. There was no danger of, ‘Let’s sound like Spandau Ballet because we’ll get an extra gig down the road.’ Rather than being influenced by overseas, we got more inspired by each other.”
Shepherd: “Punk coincided with my first experiences of live music. Seeing The Enemy play in Dunedin certainly changed everything. The Enemy were a remarkable band with great songs and an electrifying performance. And there was a nice connection to my future with The Clean playing a shambolic support set that same night.”
Dunedin was the south island’s second city, further south than Christchurch with a wetter climate; rock’n’roll loves its rain. Local trio The Clean – brothers David (guitar) and Hamish (drums) Kilgour plus bassist Robert Scott (they all sang), were once described as, “what the Velvets would sound like if they had ever been deported to an island of six million sheep.” Their debut single ‘Tally Ho’, a slice of scruffy bubblegum euphoria, followed Flying Nun’s first 45 (‘Ambivalence’ by Christchurch’s darker Pin Group), but its multiple hooks got it into the NZ top 20 and quickly put Flying Nun on the map.
Hamish Kilgour: “Our importance, if you want to call it that, is more down to the attitude we instilled in people, rather than sales or style or anything else.”
Shayne Carter: “Flying Nun was the sound of people not being careful, because it really didn’t matter.”
David Kilgour: “We went to record in an Auckland studio, we gave them a cassette to listen to, but when we returned, the guy said, ‘There’s no commercial potential, you need to start again’. It was like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it without these assholes’. We really felt we were up against it – in some ways, we still feel that way.”
Incredibly, the two following Clean EPs, 1981’s Boodle Boodle Boodle (which included their signature classic wig-out ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’) and Great Sounds Great, Good Sounds Good, So-so Sounds So-so, Bad Sounds Bad, Rotten Sounds Rotten!! both reached the top five – but then this was a country where Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ had topped the charts.
Roger Shepherd: “Punk gave the impetus for many to start their own bands and this saw the development of a whole scene. There was an eruption of good adventurous music that symbiotically developed a supportive and loyal audience and grew into what I worked with onwards with Flying Nun.
The Clean’s success provided Flying Nun with the financial means to expand, despite limited budgets and recording equipment. Enemy frontman Chris Knox and the band’s manager Doug Hood co-owned a four-track tape deck, helping record two 45rpm 12″ discs spanning 50 minutes of music across four Dunedin bands – The Chills, The Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings and The Stones. Each had their own angle – Chills-haunting, Verlaines-complex, Sneaking Feelings-wistful and Stones-aggressive – but altogether the so-called ‘Dunedin Sound’ was steeped in garage-pop traditions, yet invested with an otherworldly aura, as if overseas influences had indeed been assimilated upside down.
Matthew Banister (Sneaky Feelings): “Many of the musicians involved [in the Dunedin Sound] denied its existence, but to outside observers, early FN releases had a distinctive sound, which was only partly attributable to rough recording techniques. This ‘sound’ was typically marked by the use of droning or jangling guitars, indistinct vocals and often copious quantities of reverberation. Punk amateurism was a big influence, especially on the Clean, but the Dunedin bands tended to lack punk aggression, and favour, at least in theory, a more “pure pop” approach.”
Of the Dunedin Double-ites, Sneaky Feelings first to release an album, the first Flying Nun release recorded in a 16-track studio. Send You was a gorgeously tuneful collection, a taut Beatles/Byrds-influenced sound smoother and sweeter than their label peers.
Martin Durrant (Sneaky Feelings): “We sound American, basically. If you want to say what’s different about us from other Dunedin groups. We like American rock n roll, that’s what we listen to most. But we listen to all kinds of music. I’m a fan of that point where country music meets soul, people like Percy Sledge.”
Tall Dwarfs The Long And The Short Of It
(Flying Nun, 1985)
Chris Knox is rightly viewed as the godfather of NZ indie. Post-Enemy, he formed the more new wave-indebted Toy Love before he and bandmate Alec Bathgate formed Tall Dwarfs, whose lo-fi charms was gilded with a DIY-psychedelic abandon. Billed as an EP due to its unusual set-up – Side A’s two tracks at 45pm, Side B’s ten tracks at 33rpm, though it lasted 38 minutes – The Long And Short was the duo’s fifth release, and covers the gamut of Tall Dwarf quirks without a weak spot.
Various Artists Tuatara – A Flying Nun Compilation
(Flying Nun, 1986)
Flying Nun’s first compilation is the best place for novices to start, including all the obvious contenders but also the mighty guitar machinations of The Gordons (NZ’s equivalent to Sonic Youth), the gothic tremors of Children’s Hour, Marie & The Atom’s spellbound drones, Fetus Productions’ warped electronica and Look Blue Go Purple’s wistful beauty. The Chills were represented by their third 45, ‘Pink Frost’, arguably the definitive Flying Nun artefact, a particularly throbbing, spooked ballad in the dark tradition of “Love Will Tear Us Apart. The only crime in my book was the absence of The Victor Dimisich Band’s ‘Thirteen Floor’, my premier FN ‘buried’ treasure.
The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience
(Flying Nun, 1987)
The JPSE (as they became known following the Sartre estate’s objections) promised to spearhead the next wave, but it never worked out. Their self-titled EP sublimely smouldered in downbeat (the ‘Quiet Side’) and feverish (‘The Loud Side’) fashion, but the follow-up debut album was comparatively underwhelming.
The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience The Size Of Food
On the other hand, their second (and finest) album, the sizzling The Size Of Food, was held up by Flying Nun’s re-organisation via a co-ownership deal, which equally delayed their first overseas trip until 1991. A new box set I Like Rain: The Story Of Jean Paul Sartre Experience (on UK indie Fire) comprising all three albums and rarities, should bring them posthumous recognition.
The trio never once toured the UK, but then university professor Graeme Downes has always put academia first. His marriage of classical influences and sinewy rock remains a highlight of FN’s first decade, with second album Bird Dog and Juvenilia’s compilation of early singles and EPs the first place to head.
Jonathan Poneman (Sub-Pop MD): “Bruce [Pavitt, Sub-Pop co-founder] and I were huge fans of the Flying Nun model, a regional scene pulling itself up by its bootstraps with compelling personalities, a sense of place and musical continuity. The ‘Dunedin Sound’ wasn’t as catchy a tag like grunge but there was most definitely a sound, something dark and breezy at the same time, and it continues to resonate. The Chills’ ‘I Love My Leather Jacket’, The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho’, The Verlaines’ ‘Death And The Maiden’, it’s all great. It’s the biggest mystery to me why Flying Nun has yet to really be discovered.”
If geographical isolation was New Zealand’s salvation, it also limited its bands’ economic opportunities, as bands didn’t have the finances to tour in the Northern Hemisphere and spread the word. A hit single at home might go top five but it meant relatively little in terms of sales and profits, so career ambitions had to look abroad, as The Chills did by moving to London in 1987. Flying Nun opened UK and German offices, while licensing deals with US label Homestead opened more doors, with The Clean and The Bats setting sail for the West. But it was never easy.
Robert Scott: “We experienced what’s called ‘the cultural cringe’ toward the new country settlers. NME even made references to kangaroos rather than sheep – they couldn’t even get the country right!”
Martin Phillipps (The Chills): “There’s something about the Antipodes that irritates Britain. From our perspective, it was like, ‘We are those of you brave enough to jump on rickety little boats and head off into the darkened seas, to set up brave new colonies, because we didn’t want to be part of this class system. But we are still part of you.’ The British perspective felt like, ‘They have the nerve to say they’re part of our ongoing history when they ran out on us at a crucial time’. And they’ve given New Zealanders minimum publicity ever since.”
The Straitjacket Fits Life In One Chord EP
(Flying Nun, 1987)
Despite Phillipps’ claim, The Chills had fantastic press everywhere they played, likewise The Straitjacket Fits – a volcanic rock band for a change, with a forcefully charismatic lead singer in Shayne Carter, as opposed to the low-key modesty of most Flying Nun frontmen, with supporting songwriter/ guitarist Andrew Brough added a prettier, lustrous sheen. ‘She Speeds’ and ‘Dialling A Prayer’ from debut EP Life In One Chord were included on, but totally outshone, their sketchy debut album Hail, but their second album Melt considerably upped the ante.
Andrew Mueller (Melody Maker): “Look, I realise that someone gets touted as the new messiahs of guitar-bandism every week at least – House Of Love, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr. And great they all are, too. But Straitjacket Fits (deep breath) have got it all over the lot of them. Compulsive, compelling, and totally exhilarating.”
Shayne Carter: “It was encouraging, but it basically affirmed what we believe anyway. The music that’s coming from this neck of the woods is equal if not better for a number of factors to what’s going on overseas.”
Having burned through numerous line-ups, delaying the recording of their under-produced debut album Brave Words until they reached London in 1987, The Chills didn’t truly make a great album until Warners offshoot Slash (signing them outside of NZ) injected the necessary budget and Pixies/Throwing Muses producer Gary Smith brought their luminous songs truly alive. Martin Phillipps’ quixotic touch bridged folk and pop, Bowie and Syd Barrett, feverish shivers and childlike whimsy. “The Brian Wilson of the Antipodes” wasn’t so far-fetched given Submarine Bells’ depth, which kicked off with of those inexplicably shoulda-been singles, ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ – a no.99 hit single in the UK!
Matthew Banister: “At this time, a number of bands emerged who were, along with the Chills, the mainstay of [Flying Nun] into the Nineties, while others disintegrated – Sneaky Feelings and Look Blue Go Purple broke up in 1989.”
By this point, Roger Shepherd had moved label operations to the north island and NZ’s biggest city, Auckland, to be in the thick of things, with better international connections.
Matthew Bannister: “Some would argue the Auckland move also influenced the sound of the label, moving away from its ‘South Island’ roots to a darker, harder, more contemporary sound. Such a split can be clearly heard on the second [label] sampler In Love With These Times [1988}, which is very much divided up into a light side of the Nun – Look Blue Go Purple, Chills, Bats, Sneaky Feelings, Able Tasmans – and a dark side – Snapper, Skeptics, Headless Chickens, Bailter Space.”
In 1990, the established Australian independent label Mushroom bought a 50% stake in Flying Nun, enabling support for the growing infrastructure.
Ben Howe: “It was clear Flying Nun needed investment. Bands were on the verge of breaking internationally, and as Chris Knox had told me, they were becoming more ambitious and wanted bigger recording budgets and do more than just tour up and down New Zealand.“
By 1991, no less than six Dunedin bands had US deals – The Chills, The Verlaines and The Straitjacket Fits all with majors. The Clean, who’d split in 1983 before releasing an album, reformed and released Vehicle (on Rough Trade in the UK). On R.E.M’s world tour of 1990, The Bat’s (best) album Daddy’s Highway (1988) was the interval soundtrack. Something was building. But, “the tyranny of distance,” as Shayne Carter put it, hindered progress.
Shayne Carter: “It didn’t matter how good Straitjacket Fits were; it was two years before we could afford to return.”
Mushroom eventually took over Flying Nun. At the same time, the ‘Noizyland’ tour of 1993, where The Bats, Straitjacket Fits and The Jean Paul Sartre Experience joined forces, was another watershed.
Shayne Carter: “Grunge was happening, so all interest in New Zealand disappeared. All three bands split right after the tour, which was crushingly depressing. To make matters worse, Flying Nun had to start thinking bigger if they were to keep their bands, which began to destroy what it was originally about.”
Ben Howe: “I was a member of Superette, with Dave Mulcahy who’d left The JPS Experience. We were part of a new group of Flying Nun bands that included Garageland, Loves Ugly Children and King Loser – popular at home but not much profile outside.”
Perhaps it was just a natural cycle, as the new signings didn’t have the same sense of otherness about them, except The 3Ds, who’d formed in 1988 but didn’t make an album (Hellzapoppin’) until 1992, though 1993’s The Venus Trail was their finest hour, including the singles ‘Hey Seuss’ and ‘Beautiful Things’. In 1992, they’d toured NZ with Nirvana, which made sense as The 3Ds shared Kurt Cobain’s love for the Pixies, though twin singers/guitarists David Saunders and David Mitchell were equally influenced by another tour partner, Pavement.
In 1997, Shepherd decided to move to London, where he ran a wine importing business, before returning to NZ a decade later. His trusted deputies were still capable of finding good bands, but it still felt like the end of an era.
Stylus magazine: “The days when FN lead and the rest of NZ followed are long gone. Maybe a little time out of the limelight is just what they need, though—time to find a new batch of bands, time to dream it all up again, time for another label to pick up the gauntlet.”
Various Artists Under The Influence: 21 Years Of Flying Nun Records
(Flying Nun, 2002)
The most endearing release of the post-Shepherd era was a landmark birthday celebration, where FN bands covered each other (bulked out by new tracks from young and old). Newer tykes such as Betchadupa, Garageland, The D4 and The Hasselhoff Experiment paid respective tribute to The Chills, Bored Games and Tall Dwarfs, while star guest Stephen Malkmus of Pavement covered The Verlaines’ ‘Death And The Maiden’.
Dimmer You’ve Got To Hear The Music
(Flying Nun, 2003)
The D4, alongside non-Flying Nun band The Datsuns, were part of the post-Strokes rock resurgence, but neither became firm fan favourites. Shayne Carter’s new sound and vision was more compelling, a sleeker, electronic-tinged one-man operation under the name Dimmer. Again, like many FN bands, Dimmer’s second album (of three), You’ve Got To Hear The Music, was their (or his) peak.
Mint Chicks Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!
(Flying Nun, 2006)
Mushroom was bought by Warners, meaning Flying Nun now had major-label owners, making the label little more than a satellite. Mint Chicks (fronted by brothers Kody and Ruben Kielson, now better known as respective frontmen of Opossum and Unknown Mortal Orchestra) made a churning, punk-pop rattle with all the gleeful juvenilia that their third album title suggested. Check out too The Phoenix Foundation’s Happy Endings (2007), which echoed that archetypal ‘dark’n’breezy’ psych-pop of Flying Nun’s past. But despite it all, the country’s most popular band by far was, “formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo a capella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo”, aka TV stars Flight Of The Conchords. The cavalry stepped in with a returning Roger Shepherd, in partnership with Neil Finn (Crowded House), to buy back the label in time for the new decade, while The Bats and The Clean played the UK for the first time in 18 years.
Ben Howe: “I think Warner Music New Zealand realised that Flying Nun might be better served if it was back in independent hands, because they realised the label is of huge cultural and historical importance to New Zealanders – here you see it in museums and libraries.”
Grayson Gilmour No Constellation
(Flying Nun, 2010)
Shepherd’s first signing made a direct connection to Dunedin’s wondrous sound, albeit given a contemporary electronic interface. No Constellation resembled a one-man Animal Collective, which might make Grayson NZ’s equivalent to Panda Bear. But few, it seems, got to hear him outside of NZ
Ben Howe: “Bands here have the benefit of developing their craft without the music industry jumping on them, but what’s difficult is that, musically, it’s mostly one-way traffic – we hear about bands in London or New York straight away, whereas you can have something really great in New Zealand that doesn’t travel any further. To some degree, the internet has changed that, but it’s still more a factor than you’d think.”
In 2013, US indie label Captured Tracks announced a licensing deal to reissue some Flying Nun classics, from the usual suspects (Clean, Bats, Dunedin Double, Sneaky Feelings, Verlaines) but also The Stones, Toy Love and the as-yet unmentioned Bird Nest Roys, Snapper and The Skeptics – all superb and quite unlike each other. There was even room for Shayne Carter and Peter ‘This Kind Of Punishment’ Jeffries’ 7” single, “Randolph’s Going Home” (1986), a frayed anthem and another brilliant ‘buried’ FN treasure.
Mike Sniper (Captured Tracks): “As a young record collector, I always saw [Flying Nun] as a recommendation of quality and a constant source of inspiration. I’d comb the shelves of every record store imaginable to secure anything and everything I could find. When I first heard the news that they’d bought back the rights, this partnership was something that was lingering in the back of my mind. I’m more than pleased that we can have any sort of involvement in revitalising this amazing back catalogue.”
Roger Shepherd chose to retire yet again from the music industry, handing the reins to Ben Howe, who’d been running the Arch Hill label since 1998. Flying Nun’s 40th anniversary in 2011 was celebrated with the 40-track Tally Ho! Flying Nun’s Greatest Bits (hear it at http://flyingnun.bandcamp.com/album/tally-ho-flying-nuns-greatest-bits), but there are new kids in town too, like Surf Friends, T54 and Ghost Wave, with Tiny Ruins and Princess Chelsea getting UK releases too.
Princess Chelsea Great Cybernetic Depression
(Flying Nun, 2015)
Chelsea’s desolate electronic ballads are especially vivid, marrying Joe Meek, The Shangri-La’s, Beach House and Julee Cruise. Like the best Flying Nun, it sounds otherworldly, all those influences turned upside down. It’s 2015, but some things remain the same. What’s more, a revitalised Chills are releasing their first album – Silver Bullets – in 19 years, following the band’s first overseas tour since 1996.
Ben Howe: “It has been a huge job rebuilding the label, because for the last five years at Warners, it was mostly in mothballs. But with what we are trying to do now, Flying Nun is its own distinct label and the overall direction is ours. I think we are just getting started!”