The Dunedin Sound

16 Nov

New Zealand’s best known musical exports are the Finn brothers, Neil and Tim (notably Neil’s band, Crowded House), and the Flight Of The Conchords. The various projects of the Finn brothers reflect the country’s rich heritage of melodic but not always conventional music, especially in the music of Split Enz. The rather unfunny Flight Of The Conchords, on the other hand, reflect a poor comedy scene – New Zealand, as much as I love it, has never been able to rival even its near neighbour, Australia, for humorous output, let alone approach the quality of British comedy.

Most musical encounters with New Zealand start with the aforementioned acts, but you are doing yourself a great disservice to let the encounter end there. For, beneath the surface, New Zealand produced a musical scene the likes of which are rarely seen – what is conventionally known as the Dunedin Sound. It began around 1980 in the beautiful and isolated southern city of Dunedin, home to a thriving student culture that had grown up on the music of the Beatles and the Byrds, and was embracing what punk influences gradually dribbled down to it – New Zealand, much more so then than now, has a habit of being a good few years behind the rest of the world when it comes to popular culture.

The sudden explosion of bands in Dunedin synthesised these two styles into what became a kind of proto-indie pop – or in the case of some of the more experimental and noisier outfits, noise rock and shoegaze. But do you think the major record labels were interested? Not one bit. However, Roger Shepherd founded the label Flying Nun to release the music he thought worthy, regardless of its commercial potential. Due to very limited funds, a lot of the music was recorded on primitive technology. Chris Knox, a solo artist and member of significant bands such as Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs, is perhaps best remembered not for his music but for his four-track recorder on which a lot of the Dunedin Sound music was recorded. By necessity, the scene came to have a lo-fi aesthetic, although those bands that could pursued higher standards of production.

The “Dunedin Sound” came to stretch well beyond Dunedin. It refers to those bands signed with Flying Nun Records, and other indie labels associated with the Dunedin scene such as Xpressway. Many artists have eschewed the term “Dunedin Sound”, and in a sense, they are quite right – there is no particular sound. Anybody who thinks Bailter Space, The Bats, and Toy Love sound alike probably needs their head checked. However, I think the term is quite useful to describe the general phenomenon that happened in New Zealand, and almost all the bands share common bonds and attitudes. Not for nothing was it said that they shared houses, band members, musical gear, and girlfriends. The scene has petered out since the mid-1990s after achieving its peak success in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though many of the seminal musicians (and some of the seminal bands) remain active.

Key albums

The Chills: Submarine Bells
Submarine Bells
The seminal album of the Dunedin Sound, and not for nothing. The Chills were the scene’s most important band, but they never really achieved the commercial success they always seemed on the verge of having. There is one simple reason for this, and it is what became known locally as the “curse of The Chills” – the band had a revolving door of members. Martin Phillipps, vocals/guitar, was the only constant member, and even he has trouble keeping track of each specific line-up the band had. Naturally, the band is a vehicle for Martin’s compositions and ideas, and Submarine Bells reflects his ear for melody and subtlety, his slightly unorthodox compositional techniques, and the fact he loves a good jangly guitar or two.

Although not on this album, get your hands on Pink Frost any which way you can. You will find it on Kaleidoscope World. It is the song of the Dunedin Sound, eerie and atmospheric and utterly compelling.

Straitjacket Fits: Hail
Straitjacket Fits were defined by the songwriting duo of Shayne Carter and Andrew Brough. Carter has an almost sneering and often cynical voice, and a tendency towards darker, noisier music; Brough, on the other hand, has more Beatlesque inclinations and a floating, beautiful voice. Unfortunately, the two clashed and the duo split, but while they were together, they made fantastic music that juxtaposed their differences very effectively. Hail ranges from the shimmering, jangling Sparkle That Shines to the outright noise rock of Life In One Chord. Of course, the defining song is the brooding She Speeds. Don’t overlook the next album, Melt, because it contains Brough’s best composition – Down In Splendour.

The Bats: Daddy’s Highway
The Bats - Daddy's Highway
Fancy some Byrds worship with a Kiwi touch? The Bats are the band for you. Robert Scott jangles with the best of them, and The Bats have delightfully simple but rewarding compositions. Scott’s vocals are contrasted with those of co-vocalist Kaye Woodward, and the material ranges from the infectious indie pop of Treason to the darker rock (relatively speaking) of North By North.

Bailter Space: Vortura
Vortura [front]
Let’s go for something completely different. Bailter Space went for noise rock and shoegaze, and most people will tell you their best album is the very shoegazy Robot World. It is probably the most consistent. However, I will eagerly tell you the band’s most rewarding work is Vortura. It brings a heavier dose of noise rock, and I will never understand how the opening track, Projects, didn’t become the anthem of stifled and disaffected urban youth.

Able Tasmans: Hey, Spinner!
Hey Spinner!
Auckland’s finest, Able Tasmans, did some great understated melodies. It’s hard to choose one particular album. A Cuppa Tea And A Lie Down is lo-fi to an extreme, but has their classics What Was That Thing? and Little Hearts – as well as Snow White Chook on the expanded re-issue. Somebody Stole My Planet is quite politically conscious and has my favourite Tasmans song, School Is No Good For You. But for a sheer album experience, I think Hey, Spinner! is hard to beat. There are great melodies, the band challenge themselves to expand their songwriting, and there is even a bit of storytelling to round out the album. Great stuff.

I have only just scraped the surface of the Dunedin Sound with this post. I haven’t even mentioned The Clean! Rest assured, I will be returning to the scene time after time. Many music scenes have a couple of prominent and excellent bands, another couple who are decent enough, and then a bunch of hangers-on who are mediocre at best. The Dunedin Sound, on the other hand, has consistent quality and rewards you no matter how deep you dig. For example, I am firmly convinced one of the scene’s finest releases is the hopelessly obscure 7″ single A Place Like This / Pictorial, the only record by Christchurch band Terraces. But I’ll get to that at a later date …

13 Responses to “The Dunedin Sound”

  1. Bono212 16/11/2009 at 05:36 #

    You’re going to have to eventually hook me up with some of these albums, Ax, Napster’s no good for such things.

    Also, I like FoTC >_<.

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