Published on November 9th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview: The Bats
It’s testament to the raw talent of Flying Nun legends The Bats that its early output sounds so fresh and full of life 30 years after it was recorded.
Cue up their 1987 classic Daddy’s Highway and tension crackles out of frayed, punk-tinged melodies; an immediacy and sense of movement is present that keeps the music relevant and awaiting discovery by another generation of listeners.
What’s remarkable, though, is how consistently good The Bats’ music has been in the years following that fertile ’80s period. In fact, the band is sounding better than it ever has since forming out of Toy Love and The Clean in 1982. Apart from a slight misstep with the production of a couple of mid-period albums, all four original members continue to explore their unique sound with some great results: in particular, Couchmaster in 1995, At The National Grid in 2005, and The Guilty Office in 2008.
When I was young we used to sing around the piano at home a lot with dad playing and singing
But it was 2011’s Free All The Monsters that announced a band at the peak of its creative powers: if the sound of The Bats in the ’80s was Speights and ciggie butts in a grimy Dunedin pub, its present-day vibe is red wine and a hot one in front of the campfire.
It’s richer, mellower, more reflective; youthful urgency is replaced with ideas that unfurl in their own time. The songs are direct yet are lush and layered: swirls of synth, violin, piano, and double-tracked guitar surface and submerge under the chugging guitars and gorgeous melodies that make The Bats so easy to love.
“We definitely seem to be playing more slow, ‘soothing’ songs than we used to,” says bassist and founder of the band, Paul Kean. “And more economical use of notes, but we do still spark up with the spiky stuff on occasion. We fit like a glove—playing with the same four people for 33 years is not that common.
“Bob’s [Robert Scott’s] writing has matured. Sometimes the songs that sound simple are actually structured with some depth and complexity that requires careful treatment. I try to play less on bass than I used to. I cringed at some of the old songs where I’m going hell for leather, playing far too many notes.”
I think we were lucky to have been so isolated from the rest of the world
Warm and self-effacing, Kean seems happy to open up about the music that’s been his passion for so long—from his days as a kid in front of the family radio, to buying his first bass and joining bands, including seminal punk group Toy Love with frontman Chris Knox in the late ‘70s.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of great records. They belonged to some record club that sent them a load of crap. They had musicals like South Pacific and West Side Story that were probably the most interesting, and a lot of classical stuff.
“We had a big old radiogram with a 12” Goodmans speaker. My sister Pam introduced me to some good stuff—Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin with the Big Brother Holding Company, and The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I love that—we still have a copy. Radio also played a big part in my music diet—I loved the early Bee Gees, Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, and Beatles of course.
“One of my first records was Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland—especially 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)—I listened to headphones up really loud and got transported, an out-of-this-world experience.”
Kean’s throaty, treble-driven bass tone and ability to provide a satisfyingly funky counterpoint the harmonies of guitarists/vocalists Kaye Woodward and Robert Scott—and to lock in so tightly with drummer Malcolm Grant’s grooves—is central to The Bats’ sound. The way he charms his bass into finding the energy and pace in a song has inspired players all over the world. How did Kean come to the instrument?
The Dunedin Sound was always a weird label. Flying Nun was a Christchurch-based label.
“When I was young we used to sing around the piano at home a lot with dad playing and singing in a beautiful baritone voice. I loved the deep harmonies he did—he also sang in a barbershop quartet and hymns at church. I wanted to emulate those great bass notes—started out on my sister’s Yamaha acoustic doing raga jams, then I made a tea-chest bass with a single string. Eventually bought myself a semi-acoustic bass when I was about 19.
“I remember wanting from that period to have my own distinct style but I didn’t know how to get to it. I kept my influences broad.”
The Bats, of course, were at the heart of an unmistakable sound that arose mainly in Christchurch in the 1980s.
Inspired by punk’s independent spirit and influenced by music imported from Europe and the US (Kean listened to Kraftwerk, Can, Tangerine Dream, Joni Mitchell, Velvet Underground, Iggy and The Stooges, and King Crimson in his 20s), what became known simply as “Flying Nun” or “the Dunedin sound” nonetheless remains unique in the world—perhaps shaped by New Zealand’s geographical isolation.
“The Dunedin Sound was always a weird label. Flying Nun was a Christchurch-based label. The Clean, Pin Group, Mainly Spaniards, Gordons/Bailter Space, The Bats, The Bilders, Renderers, Scorched Earth Policy, The Terminals, They Were Expendable (Jay Clarkson) were all early Flying Nun Christchurch bands. The Dunedin Double EP is probably what contributed to the ‘Dunedin Sound’.
“There were heaps of great bands around, but they were mostly playing covers. Some were writing and recording original music, but it pretty much followed the fashion trends from UK and USA right down to the accents.
“That said, I think we were lucky to have been so isolated from the rest of the world—people imported a lot of great records from all over the place.
“We had some great record stores, too, with staff that could order in some interesting music, not just the standard fare.”
So how did The Bats arise out of what was happening locally at the time? Was the band’s relationship with Flying Nun prompted by any experiences with record labels before The Bats?
“Late in 1978, Toy Love grew out of The Enemy who were from Dunedin—they were referred to as punk, but lots of pop in Toy Love with a gritty edge. We were whisked away by a major label with a promise of taking us to London, but we only got as far as Australia. That whirlwind career with some Top 20 action, three singles, an album, and around 480 gigs in 18 months imploded with no money and exhaustion from far too many gigs. Someone in management and with the labels must’ve made something.
“I think a lot of the recording studios were owned by the labels that gambled with bands and wrote off huge debts when it didn’t work out. Big labels were filthy rich back then. So when [Toy Love] split, I went back to live in Christchurch and vowed to avoid any association with major labels. Played with friends at parties while doing sound mixing, pottery, and screen-printing. That evolved into The Bats. We grew organically in our own time and pace.
Johnny Ogilvie filmed Made Up In Blue in London on an old Bolex 16 mm camera
“Flying Nun started around the same time and had a similar indie DIY ethos. All good for no-compromising music, taking ourselves wherever we wanted. We ended up getting played on student radio in NZ and played the Orientation Festivals to huge crowds of enthusiastic students. We made film clips ourselves along with mates on the cheap with filmstock and processing donated by Radio With Pictures and editing done at the local uni film school.
“Johnny Ogilvie filmed Made Up In Blue in London on an old Bolex 16 mm camera after we recorded that song at Point Studios in the midnight-to-dawn graveyard shift. Big thanks to London-based kiwi Craig Taylor who helped us record and tour.
Like some bands in Australia (such as The Birthday Party, The Moodists, The Go-Betweens) who were disenchanted with the blandness of local mainstream music in the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Bats spent quite a bit of time in the UK touring and absorbing the vital European scene.
“We went on a few three- or four-month tours in the ’80s where we stayed with friends, and it felt like a working holiday. We ended up recording a couple of times on our first trip to Europe in 1986, and did a few UK gigs, then a quick tour of Europe.
Bob’s dad came from Scotland—I guess that’s where the album name came from
“The songs for about half of Daddy’s Highway were recorded in Glasgow at a friend of a friend’s place who had a home studio he let us run free in. We all stayed in one room sleeping on the floor. We had a Caleigh or two and toured Scotland and the Hebride Islands.
“Bob’s dad came from Scotland—I guess that’s where the album name came from.”
The majority of The Bats’ songs are written by Robert Scott (who also played bass with label-mates The Clean) and fleshed out later with the other members, yet some of the band’s best-loved hits developed out of jams together at rehearsal. Which is the most satisfying or most challenging approach for Kean?
“The songs that evolve from a jam seem to resonate the most for me. North By North, Smoking Her Wings, Afternoon In Bed, Guilty Office. But I always love the ready-made songs and the challenge of creating our own parts to keep it sounding fresh and new. It might be a hook from Kaye’s guitar or a cool beat from Mal or a convoluted bassline from me that gives the song something distinctive, but it’s always serves a great song from Bob.”
In the first half of the 1990s, The Bats experienced growing international recognition both in the charts and on the back of a number of tours, and were releasing a steady stream of LPs and EPs to positive reviews. But Flying Nun was expanding fast and the band found themselves pressured by corporate elements connected with the label.
Kean has stated in interviews he felt disappointed with how Fear of God and Silverbeet turned out, suggesting label pressure regarding the recording and production process, including the use of click-tracks. Couchmaster, though—the band’s last record before taking a 10-year hiatus to raise their families—is was one of The Bats’ most successful, he says, being back in control and recording at their old haunt, Nightshift in Christchurch.
“We got sucked back into the major label trap. Flying Nun was growing fast and needed to partner up with a Big Brother. It’s hard to make a living for the musicians and label staff on the small indie scale when you’re living at the other end of the planet to the majority of the earth’s population. There was a need to grow to survive. Some steps were made with working alongside other indie labels like Creation in UK, Communion in USA, Normal in Germany, but it was Australian label Festival and parent company Mushroom that felt like the best fit.
“Then Mushroom looked to taking things up a notch for USA, UK, and Europe. We ended up with American producers, fancy studios, and massive recording budgets for Fear Of God and Silverbeet—then it was back to having no money and we were being pushed to play too much—memories of Toy Love coming back.
“It did give us a bit more of a profile—particularly in USA and France, but we felt the music was being pushed too far into the territory of compromising. They tried to polish up a rough diamond and ended up with a sanitised Bats that lost its gritty charm.”
Did the relentless touring have any impact on the band’s relationships, and do The Bats enjoy it generally?
“We love touring but it’s really hard on Bob and Mal being away from their partners. [Kean’s partner] Kaye and I are lucky being in the same band, so we end up helping out by doing a lot of the planning, bookings, promo and usually lead the organising of recordings, videos, and releases. We had a great USA tour last time we went.
“Disasters happen but we never get too stressed over them. Vans catching fire, strip-searched by French border guards, driving for a couple of days through NZ to play at a big festival that falls apart the day before we arrived. Roy Orbison pulled out when he didn’t receive his deposit.
“We then had to camp in the back-blocks of NZ beside a lake. Went swimming under a full moon with a campfire to cook on. Found out a body was discovered in that lake the next day not far from where we’d been swimming. That would’ve been freaky to discover under a full moon.
Reunited with Flying Nun and with a resurgence of interest in the band on the back of rave reviews for Free All The Monsters from Mojo and Pitchfork—who called it their best work to date—the band has just emerged from the studio and is readying a new album for release in 2016.
“We’re just waiting on mastered versions. It’s the first time I can say we’ve gone for a similar approach to the last album,” says Kean, who is kept busy day to day working in event production and spending time cooking, woodworking, and hanging out with his family at a small cottage in the foothills of the southern alps.
“I think it’s more consistent, and I’m liking the sound of it.”
The Bats’ back catalogue is available from Flying Nun Records (via Captured Tracks in USA and Mistletone in Australia) with a selection of EPs and LPs offered via Bandcamp. Get news, album release, and tour information via The Bats’ official website, Facebook, or Twitter.