Flying High

3rd August 2010 by Vicki Anderson c/o the press
REM's Mike Mills once called The Chills the second-greatest band in the world (REM being the first of course). Stephen Malkmus admits that he pinched a melody from the Verlaines' Death and the Maiden for a Pavement song. Synth stars MGMT cover The Clean's Anything Could Happen in concert. Mark Arm of Seattle's Mudhoney the man credited with coining the term grunge" loves Tall Dwarfs. It's all part of the strange success story that is Flying Nun and the Dunedin Sound: a tiny record label and a group of bands from a cold damp university town at the bottom of the world who in spite of themselves made music that still reverberates today. When Dunedin bands The Clean The Chills the Verlaines Sneaky Feelings and The Bats recorded for Flying Nun in the early 1980s it was beyond improbable that they would one day be heard in the United States much less influence some of that country's most successful artists. As Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd explains it was rare then for Kiwi acts to find a market outside their own neighbourhoods much less their home country. "Even the music scenes in different towns were insular. To make a toll call or fly overseas was extravagant." Yet the Dunedin scene stood out. The Clean says Shepherd were "astonishing" and it was becoming clear that a sort of musical alchemy was happening down there. "We all kind of knew they were special." Flying Nun was born in 1981 when Shepherd then a Christchurch record store employee decided that local musicians were producing some great music and it was time someone recorded it. He decided to set up a record company though he didn't really know what he was doing. The label's second release The Clean's Tally Ho! went to No 19 on the New Zealand singles chart. The Boodle Boodle Boodle EP followed later that year making it to No 5 and keeping The Clean in the charts for six months. Flying Nun had a future. That this future would be at first defined and then remembered as the Dunedin Sound was assured with the release of the Dunedin Double EP featuring The Chills Sneaky Feelings The Stones and the Verlaines. On the surface the four bands differed but there was a sound that united them. Jonathan Poneman co-founder of Sub Pop the label that launched Nirvana and now represents groups like The Shins and Band of Horses was assistant music director atCommunity,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations,Community,Music Organisations, Fundingradio station KCMU in Seattle during the 80s. He remembers this sound well. The early Flying Nun bands he explains were making their own version of the "pop-informed indie rock" that American college radio wanted to hear. It caught on. Dunedin became a "regional scene" on a par with places like Athens Georgia which spawned REM and the Pacific Northwest birthplace of the Seattle sound. "Records were intercontinental semaphores a way of conjuring up a place or a region. I had a conception of what Dunedin must be like - beautiful remote and crawling with great bands." One thing that defined the Dunedin groups was the way they were recorded. Chris Knox of Tall Dwarfs owned a portable TEAC four-track tape recorder and offered his services as producer on many of the early Nun releases many of them recorded in friends' flats. Like the shoddy production on seminal Sonic Youth albums (their second release Bad Moon Rising was recorded for $800) the lo-fi approach somehow made the music better not worse. Listening to it now it is striking how much the Dunedin bands anticipated the power of mixing dissonance and harmony - a feature of the "loud-quiet-loud" aesthetic embraced by the Pixies and made famous by Nirvana. The Dunedin Sound was first showcased overseas on the 1985 compilation album Tuatara which Poneman recalls getting "heavy rotation" at KCMU. It featured among others The Clean the Verlaines The Chills Tall Dwarfs Sneaky Feelings and The Bats. It made it to America on import and began to wend its way around the country via college radio fanzines and word of mouth. Nils Bernstein director of publicity at Matador Records owned Seattle store Rebellious Records in the 80s and remembers the impact of Tuatara. "People were really floored by songs like Death and the Maiden and Pink Frost. It was an album that New Wave girls brainy pop geeks and noise rock fans all loved. "You know how they say about the first Velvet Underground album - it sold terribly but everyone who bought a copy started a band. It's kind of like that with the Tuatara comp." Certainly Dunedin bands were churning out music that sounded very little like anything on the mainstream charts at the time. The Chills' iconic Pink Frost was released in June 1984. A melodic haunting tale of implied manslaughter its repeated plea of "What can I do if she dies?" is the exact opposite of the song that was New Zealand's No 1 single that month: Kenny Loggins' Footloose. It was a difference Flying Nun was proud of. When Tuatara was released four years after the company was founded Flying Nun still didn't have a logo. Yet despite the lack of branding the Nun bands reached people. Along with Pavement the list of musicians who cite the influence of Flying Nun is long: from Sonic Youth to Cat Power from Dinosaur Jr to Yo La Tengo to Panda Bear. As for the original recordings Shepherd recently reacquired Flying Nun from Warner Music and is back at the helm after more than 10 years away. High on the agenda is the label's back catalogue much of which is currently unavailable. Flying Nun reissued the Verlaines' Juvenilia earlier this year and Shepherd promises more - including possibly a compilation or two to mark the label's 30th anniversary in 2011. Meanwhile the accolades keep coming. This year American music magazine Spin ranked the 125 most influential albums since the magazine was launched in 1985. The list is bookended by Moby's Play the best-selling electronic album of all time and U2's Achtung Baby. At 109 is The Chills' Submarine Bells. Shepherd is not surprised. He detects echoes of the early Dunedin bands everywhere both in the music of those who acknowledge the Flying Nun influence and those who are oblivious to it. "I hear it every day." Dunedin is small but the music that came out of Dunedin in the 80s was big and it's still audible today. by Vicki Anderson c/o the press "