“Before those ads you heard Thomas Parkes. He’s from New Zealand, and he’s got a song called seyonara ‘.” –Pip , rdu 2005
Band names are tricky. ‘Thomas : Parkes’ had some useful ambiguity. It sounded like the name of a company or a law firm. It confused people. They never saw the colon.
Marcus and I ran with our new musical ideas, stumbling into a new way of doing things as far away from the three piece band format as we could get . Rhythm guitar was avoided. Our new songs were based on synth parts.
Marcus bought a Korg electribe. I borrowed it for a weekend, then bought my own on trademe from a guy in Japan called Cchingo.
Our newer songs exposed the deficiencies in our older work. We dropped things and moved on to the next idea.
We asked Steve Reay to contribute some guitars to a few songs and over four or five months we got an album together. We sent the songs up to Tex for mastering and wrote a list of potential record labels. The first name on our list was South Recordings, a new local label run by Stephen McCarthy. We sent him a copy. Stephen replied in a few days. He wanted to put a track on a compilation with an album to follow in the new year. We were blown away.
Stephen came around one night to talk through arrangements. Profit was to be split equally between band and label once manufacturing was paid for. We celebrated with asparagus from the garden, beer, bread, dips, crackers, cheese and hummus.
Stephen took photos, organised press and radio singles and followed things up. He designed a great cover for the album, suggested the title and got the CD’s printed.
We agreed we needed to play live to promote the recordings. We spent some time considering our options. We couldn’t play all the parts ourselves . Getting in extra members to help held little appeal – and we didn’t want to drop any of the parts. We decided to use backing tracks and burnt rhythms and instrumental parts to CDR . We added vocals, bass, guitar, synth and percussion live over the top.
I bought a Korg Microkorg synth and carrybag for $900 cash and began practicing with the backing tracks everyday. I’d learnt in Swim Everything there’s no room for error when you play with machines.
Marcus booked us an Easter Saturday gig at The Wunderbar in Lyttelton. Over the next couple of months we practiced in the shed a couple of times a week, finishing with a final loud practice at Marcus and Linda’s house on the Hillsborough Valley Hill.
Sam and I went boogie boarding on the afternoon of the gig. The cold kept my nervous energy temporarily in check. We decorated the stage with Christmas lights and it looked festive. The PA was a challenge for our setup. I rigged some connections with my bag of plugs and leads and eventually we had a single mono channel for our backing tracks. John kept an eye on the PA when we played, but there was little he could do for us on stage. With zero foldback we played along with each other as best as we could, hoping we were in time with the beats we couldn’t hear. Our vocal harmonies were a leap of hope. Fortunately there were quite a few friends in the audience.
Stephen got us our next gig at Creation, a youth oriented venue. Creation was in the old Metro Theatre, and housed practice rooms, artist studios and a gallery space. We set up ‘in the round’ on the floor in the middle of the room. It was a nice way to connect with those who had come to watch. We played before Pine and Minisnap to a very small audience. Somehow we missed a soundcheck, but Rob pulled the sound together quickly.
Stephen continued to help us as much as he could. He sent the Phoenix Foundation our album. We got the support slot for three of the gigs on their South Island tour promoting their second album ‘Pegasus’. Marcus and I had a couple of months to prepare. We had a great opportunity ahead of us and neither of us wanted to blow it. We needed to get as much work done as we could before Marcus and Linda moved to Wellington.
Stephen arranged for us to make a video for ‘One in a Million’ with Richard Bell for $500. Richard directed and enlisted the help of his polytech TV students in editing, lighting, production management etc. We shot at Creation, using the venue’s big black performance space, some shiny stuff and lots of running on the spot. I was given an enormous double falafel for dinner. Running on the spot became increasingly difficult.
Looking good on camera requires a greater level of performance than is natural for me. It’s a skill to mime well, with a believable attitude. It was expected that I would act a little for dramatic effect. It was a challenge.
Our CD’s arrived the night before our trip south. We packed our gear into Marcus’ Subarau and headed to Ilam. Paul Kean, in his role as student activities co-ordinator kindly set up an outside lunchtime gig on the day we left town. It was a great warm-up and we drove south happy.
We made ourselves at home in an enormous Twizel motel room. After beer and chocolate we set out to see what nightlife Twizel had to offer. Eventually we found an open café. We bought two whiskeys. They charged us $24.
We left Twizel early the next morning, heading south on the icy road to Queenstown. The Lindis Pass was wintry and spectacular . Marcus pointed out good boulders and other climbing spots. The final leg into Queenstown along the river gorge was brilliantly cold. We arrived mid-day. It was super cold.
The contrast between Queenstown’s man-made structures and the natural environment was intense. The blue lake was a sparkling jewel surrounded by tall snowy peaks, looking down on a strip of garish shops.
Queenstown was busy, booked up and getting colder. We headed up the hill to the campground, found our room, loaded our gear, then got out as quickly as possible. The campground was hosting an Australian universities snowboarding crew. They were loudly drunk.
After a walk we went back to our room for a lie down. We were exhausted and it was only day two. We headed to Subculture, an underground venue, to sound check. The Phoenix Foundation were friendly and welcoming. Things were behind schedule, so we headed off for chips and beer. Things weren’t ready on our return to the venue, so we found a Subway and queued behind a team of Australian schoolboy rugby players.
We had a quick sound check, cramming ourselves onto the tiny stage amongst the Phoenix Foundation’s gear. Luke Buda’s Fender valve amp was warm and bright with the Starcaster. I immediately wanted one.
We had a few beers in the venue’s back room before going on stage. It went fine. The Phoenix Foundation had a great rapport with each other and the small but enthusiastic audience. Some of the audience had a hobby horse that kept making appearances around the place – on stage, above the crowd, over by the bar and dancing on the dance floor. After a late night we headed back to our tiny, freezing room at the campground and slept for a few hours.
We were in and out of the mouldy showers at seven, and on the road by eight. The Australian snowboarders were still hard at it. We got to Wanaka late morning and headed for our accommodation. The campground had lost our booking and could only offer us a tiny single room with two bunk beds down a long, winding corridor reminiscent of The Shining.
Wanaka was packed with midwinter skiers. Eventually we found an expensive ‘lodge’. Fortunately Marcus knew the difference between double and twin rooms. After a shower and some sleep we headed off to find ‘Shooters Bar’. The equipment truck had broken down and things were behind schedule. Marcus and I helped load in the stage and gear, then went back to the lodge for a sleep, then back out for sound check and too much Indian food.
We played much better than in Queenstown. Luke made sure we had beer and we nailed it. The Phoenix Foundation were fantastic all over again. Brett gave them an amazing live sound. Marcus had a few friends at the gig and stayed on for a while. I headed back to the lodge for my third shower of the day, then slept.
We were on the road by eight the next morning and in Christchurch by midday. We drove to the airport to locate a friend’s car, then dropped it across town in Mount Pleasant . We headed back into town to drop our gear off at ‘The Jet Set Lounge’, the latest incarnation of The Subway / New Zealander / Tavern Rachel, and then finally back out east out to New Brighton for food. It seemed like a lifetime since we’d left home. We’d had such a great time. We ate baked beans. Marcus fell asleep in the bath .
The Christchurch gig sold out. Tom came over from Omoto to see us, and after much begging, was eventually let in. We experienced a weird delay on our backing tracks and made a few mistakes, but otherwise had a fantastic gig. We had a new confidence, the place was packed and people seemed really into what we were doing. We sold a few CDs and got lots of compliments from strangers and friends. We hung out drinking and talking for hours. Stephen agreed to play drums.
We got home at 3am, exhausted and elated. The tour had gone really well. Our practice had paid off. The Phoenix Foundation had been great – band, manager Matt and mixer Brett had all been generous and kind. We’d driven our amps all the way around the south Island and hadn’t used them since we left Christchurch.
Marcus was around at eight the next morning to collect gear and drive north to the Picton ferry and his new life in Wellington. Amanda and I went to Mainstreet for lunch. We sat upstairs sipping Emmerson’s Bookbinder, eating pumpkin and kumara balls with peanut sauce. We looked through the steamy windows to a wintry grey sunday on Colombo Street.
Marcus flew down a month later to play at Jonathan’s fortieth birthday party near Duvauchelle. Jonathan divided his house into themed zones. The front room was for talking, with seating and low music. The kitchen was for food, and the lounge was for music. We played at one end of the room, while friends, sound and candles filled the rest of the space. People drifted in and out during our songs. Two Peninsula friends danced through our whole set. Marcus fell asleep on the way home and missed the shooting star near Motukarara.
Stephen decided he didn’t have enough time to play drums with us. It was understandable. He had a lot on his plate.
Amanda and I had seen Helen play a mesmerising ‘Mela’ set at Creation. After our trip south, we talked about the possibility of doing some music together. Helen came over and recorded some vocals for the latest song I was working on. I’d jokingly called it ‘Rumba’ and the name stuck. Helen sung some words and some woo’s. They took the song to a great new place.
Stephen continued working on our behalf, setting up an article with Kiran Dass in ‘Staple’and trying to get gigs and reviews. He arranged for us to play in Christchurch and Dunedin with Bachelorette. I’d first met Annabelle when she was in Maus and later when Range played with Hawaii Five-O at Quadrophenia. She was really talented.
I bussed into town with my synth and had a few nervous conversations with friends. Marcus Winstanley, who had played in Barnards Star with Nick and Helen, gave us a great mix. We played ‘look up’ with Helen’s vocals in the backing track It sounded great. Marcus and I were tight, energetic and focused. I had a blast.
Two days later we headed south, through driving rain in Helen’s van . We stopped at the cliffs at St Andrews for a long walk and lots of photos.
We found Dunedin, and Arc, the venue. We sound checked then drove off to Hamish’s house, where we were staying. Hamish had played drums in Wadd and had been overseas for most of the time since. We caught up over a couple of beers and then headed back to the venue.
Our gig was a bit flat flat. Sometimes performers need more energy than an audience is able to give. The polite patter of a few hands clapping in an empty sounding room can sap a room’s energy further. I caught up with Pete and Brett and Annabelle said some funny stuff. The venue’s booker hadn’t told Annabelle our gig was on the same night as the Fine Arts Ball. David Kilgour and seven or eight other bands were playing. The booker‘s band was playing.
The next morning we went out for an early breakfast, then drove north. We stopped at Moeraki for the views, and Palmerston to take photos in front of the Tiger Tea tiger. I bought Amanda two old beer bottles in Oamaru. Marcus fell asleep and almost missed an ice cream and petrol stop in Timaru. After the long straight road north beside pines and fields, New Brighton was a blaze of bright blues, yellow and gold in the late afternoon sun.
After the Dunedin trip, Helen joined Thomas : Parkes, singing and playing synth and cello. We wrote new songs, and began working towards two gigs in the new year. We had a fun gig at the dux with our label mates The Bads. It was a warm night and there was a good vibe.
We played outside over lunchtime at Orientation. Our ninety minutes of music was a non-event for most of the students walking past. We drank Schweppes tonic and juice and enjoyed not being at work.
We kept recording and talking with Stephen about ‘the next album’. After a while, our talks became about ‘the next e.p.’, and finally…nothing. It emerged that there had been a silent [and invisible] partner in South Recordings . He wanted his money out and the label was ending. We were disappointed, but Stephen’s hands were tied. We had a lot to thank Stephen for. His help and belief in what we were doing had been incredibly important to Marcus and I after the ups and downs of twenty years playing in bands.
‘Big Machine’ was a big creative leap for Marcus and I, but it got few reviews and minimal Auckland airplay. ‘Seyonarra’, ‘Far away’, ‘fighting’ and ‘relax’ had good airplay on RDU, but only ‘One in a million’ was played in Auckland. We hadn’t done enough to get noticed or sell more than the standard 130 copies small time bands could hope for.
Marcus and I had played a profitable, semi-drunken gig at Happy just prior to Helen joining. A few months after Orientation, Helen and I flew north for a quiet gig with The Hi-aces at the new Bodega in Wellington. Damian did sound at both gigs in difficult circumstances . On stage we could hear little of use. As usual, we were running on rehearsal, intuition and luck.
Our set dictated the equipment I used. For most of the songs in the initial set Marcus played Musicman bass with a Prunes and Custard. I played my Starcaster, Jim Dunlop wah wah and Hotcake through my Vox Pathfinder. I bought a Fender K60 Keyboard amp at Cash Converters just prior to our Creation gig with Pine and Minisnap for $400. We used it for the Microkorg on a couple of songs. After the Orientation gig we dropped the guitar songs and I moved to the Microkorg fulltime. It was great not having to shift two amps, a heavy guitar and pedals
A couple of weeks after Bodega, Mathew Ayton arranged our final gig as Thomas : Parkes at a university bar. Hat came down from RDU and played some CD’s around our sets. The bar was quiet and empty until just before our second set when a drunken wave of bodies from the Engineering Society barbeque begun to wash in through the doors and towards the bar. They offered drunken comments as they walked past us as we played, eventually leaving to play chicken with cars in Ilam Road.
In June 2006 I upgraded my recording set-up to a Macbook with Logic Express for $3300. It was a big deal. Logic Express allowed me to record over forty tracks with up to five effects on each channel.
We decided to extend our planned South Recordings ep into an album . I transferred a few songs from the G3 to the laptop and we continued work. We wrote a few more songs, then sent them up to Tex for mastering. He did a great job.
Thomas : Parkes no longer fit us as a band name, and ‘Thomas : Parkes : Greenfield’ sounded too prog. We settled on our new name in reverence to the beautiful blue l.e.d. power lights on our thin amps. We called our new album ‘We are the L.E.D.s’ .
[photo: Helen Greenfield]