Swim Everything memories 1989-1991
“ I hate that f*cken drum machine.”
– audience member
[image: John Pitcairn]
Brett asked me if I’d like to support Catherine Wheel at The Subway. I said yes, and asked Campbell and Damian to help.
Damian had been interested in electronics since his childhood. As our interest in music grew as teenagers, Damian’s electronic expertise swung towards supporting his and our creative endeavours. Stereo amps, mixers, eq’s, modulators, a guitar amp and a spring reverb all came out of his father Henry’s Holly road workshop. Cabinets, cases and boxes were built of varnished chipboard and brushed metal, labelled and marked with fat black markers.
In addition to his songs, singing and guitar playing, Damian took responsibility for the technical side of the band. He set up the recordings, worked out how his drum machine and sequencer worked and worried about live sound things.
Our new band was a conscious instrumental shift away from the 60’s influenced approach of my previous groups towards something more contemporary. SST, 4AD, Homestead and Blast First records joined our Velvets, Flying Nun, Byrds and Love albums.
We called ourselves F.K.E. and spent a long time programming four songs into Damian’s Drumulator – a big blue grey box that went boom and crash when we told it to. I made a poster for the gig with a frontal image of naked old man. His arms and legs were splayed. It stood out.
Campbell and I were using the gear we’d had since All Fall Down. A red Gretsch Rockjet guitar, Hotcake and Fender twin; A white Fender Jazz bass, Holden Graphic and bin. Damian played an unusual Gibson Les Paul. Customising in Sydney had reduced it to one pickup with a differently contoured body and neck. It was metallic blue and grunty. Damian used a Rat distortion, his home-made amp, reverb and speaker cabinet.
Our four songs at the Subway went well. We were loud and nervously confident. The Drumulator clanged and donked its rigid beats while our loose fuzzy guitar oozed along, leaving space for shakey vocals and steady bass. Campbell played a lot of melodies and lead lines. Damian switched between rhythm and lead parts against a wash of my guitar. People clapped and cheered. We were all glad when it was over.
We packed our gear into ‘the sube’ stationwagon and stopped briefly in Kilmore Street to pick up more gear. We were heading over to Tim’s on Madras Street, to drop our gear for a gig the next night. Someone followed us, watched us go upstairs and stole everything.
We had some excitement over the next few days negotiating with the criminal underworld. We tried to get our gear back, but there was no deal. Damian and Campbell’s insurance companies paid up quickly. State Insurance didn’t. They had an assessor interview me, who recommended I be paid out. I wasn’t. After three months of letters and waiting I was paid.
We bought new gear as soon as we could. Campbell used the Diplomat bass I’d sold him in the seventh form and a 200 watt Holden valve amp he bought from Damian. Damian bought a Guild semi-acoustic and a Roland R5 drum machine. I traded my Yamaha Accoustic 12 string in on a used black Squier Telecaster, for $550 at The Rockshop. I’d bought the 12-string new from a shop in The Arts Centre a few years earlier for $300. It was hard to play and a drag to tune. Its bridge pickup and preamp sounded artificial and zingy like all bridge pickups. It’s the only guitar I’ve never regretted selling. The telecaster looked pretty good but it was pretty gutless.
I bought a Sunn combo amp from Macs Sound in Lichfield Street, downstairs from the shop that sold me the Gretsch. The Sunn had a similar set-up to a Fender twin, with two twelve-inch speakers, reverb, a switchable mid frequency cut and boost, and an overdrive to add additional drive to one of the channels. It sounded pretty good but was ridiculously heavy. It had an extra transformer to step up its Canadian voltage for New Zealand’s 240 volts. About eighteen months later I bought Mark Newnham’s Fender twin and sold the Sunn to John Kelcher. John sold it to Steve Bartlett when it was at his place for repairs. No one wanted to lift it.
We spent a long time reprogramming drums on Damian’s R5 and decided after all that work that we should do some recording. We spent a couple of days in Damian’s parents lounge with his Fostex x15 and parts of his mixer project. Pete Mitchell kept an eye on the levels and operated the x15. Our usual approach was to do a stereo mix of drums, bass and guitar on two tracks, and use a track each for vocals and overdubs. At other times a track was used to record the drum machine’s sync track. This enabled stereo drum machine playback from a single track, leaving three for bass, guitars, vocals and overdubs.
We mixed the tracks and I made a cover – orange and green photocopied on orange card. We called the tape project ‘swim everything’. It seemed to describe what we were trying to do – create a big swollen river of noise. The name came to us on a clean, cold wintry afternoon in Abberley Park, standing in a powder blue swimming pool in a pile of brown leaves. The tape was on sale six days after hitting record. One song, Bolton was about the last man hung in New Zealand.
Kiri Jarden from NZFTTS made a video for it.
Andrew Moore was our Auckland guy. He gave the orange tape to a few people and we had a review in Stamp Magazine. They used a great photo Jonathan had taken of us in the snow near Castle Hill. We had perfect weather, a nut roast and a snow bike. My shirt and pants were from Jungle Jims. They had moved into the space formerly occupied by Hamco speed on Oxford Terrace, in front of the warehouse Brett, David Reid and others had lived in after Rose and Maryrose. I’d bought some Gortex Dr Marten boots when visiting Learne in New Plymouth. They split on the hills and I sent them back.
The drum machine was a blessing and a curse. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste. A harsh fat digital sound can be powerful. It can really hurt your ears. It gave us a rigidity that was both good and bad. It sounded big. It was unrelenting and uncommunicative. It held things down and made them tight. It gave us our sound, freedoms and limits. It suggested an approach. It required cables and DI’s normal bands didn’t. Every four songs we had to re-load it from the sequencer, and then reload the sequencer. It did what we told it to, but none of us were gifted drummers.
We tried to get the drum machine sounding really big. We often put it through an amp and speaker bin onstage, as well as directly into the P.A. It made it a lot easier for us to hear the drums on stage and play in time. We were hopeless if we couldn’t hear it.
We used two bass rigs for Campbell’s bass with one dedicated to distortion. Campbell played a lot of melodies and lead lines, Damian switched between rhythm and lead guitars and I added a bit of a wash.
After Christmas in 1989 I applied for a Theatre Technical Access course at the Christchurch Academy. After a few hiccups I had a place. I learnt some excellent things with a nice group of people. Our tutor, Gavin Woods, was mature, kind, helpful, connected and practical. We couldn’t have asked for more.
We made props and sets and learnt about stage management, lighting and sound. I broke a mirror on my first day of work placement at the Court Theatre and wondered what the next seven years would bring.
We made masks and worked on ‘People People People’, a large show with John Hudson and Patrick Duffy. We glimpsed a less pleasant side of the business. We stage-managed, made a 3m diameter 50c piece with a moveable mouth on the Queen’s side, a giant kotuka worn on stilts and helped with the cane and hessian stiltwalker- moa. The moa were doused with water, but still proved to be flammable when going through an arch of fireworks. Fire extinguishers were on hand and used.
I had a fun few days making rock and plane props for Tony Geddes. I loved it. My extremely short stage-handing career ended abruptly after lowering a curtain inopportunely during a variety show at The Theatre Royal.
Our course was based in a teaching room on the grounds of Maclean’s Mansion in Manchester Street. We were adjacent to classes of actors, dancers and musicians and our projects often meshed. We combined on an aborted school holiday Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles play, written by my course-mate Conrad from Sockburn. He was 17 and a massive fan. He wrote the script, made costumes, masks, directed props and actors, but had neglected to secure permission from the Ninja Turtles, or their people. Our class helped record the musicians on an eight track. Terry Malloy gave us a lesson. Another kind fellow called Al ran the sessions.
Adjacent to us were hairdressing, horticulture, hospitality, sales, home help and chef courses. Our class explored the attic and basement. We had trips home at lunchtime. One afternoon we watched Eraserhead for the lighting. And Joy Division live, for the lighting. The café’s vegetarian option was a sandwich made of swiss rye, cottage cheese, grated carrot, egg sandwhich style egg, salt and pepper. Instant coffee was available. On thursdays we went to Trocadero for a vegetable pie.
Access courses were the Government’s big push to reduce the numbers of the unemployed. In theory their purpose was to get the unemployed into paid work – in reality they shuffled numbers. Rather than being unemployed, you were ‘in training’. My training was useful and fun.
After four years I’d moved out of Kilmore Street and into 32 Avonside Drive with John, Anita, Moira and Sue. Damian took four loads of my stuff in ‘the sube’. I took four in my Mum’s Carolla stationwagon. I had a lot of stuff.
We lived and ate well in Avonside Drive. We bought good bread from Piko and ‘fruit conserve’ in the shopping. John called it ‘pudding toast’. We had a roster wheel and excellent meals. We drank herb tea and ate pulses and legumes. We made mixtapes for afternoon parties. There was group drumming and dancing. Our washing machine was outside. I cut the lawn with a breadknife.
Skinny black jeans and army surplus clothing was popular. Jungle Jims and Wilson’s Army Navy joined the opshop and Hallensteins in my wardrobe. Chinese sneakers from Farmers, roman sandals and Doc Martens were still on my feet.
[photo Jonathan Hall]
Damian lived with Conrad and Kim a few hundred metres down the river in Cambridge Terrace. We practiced in Damian’s room on Monday nights. Damian’s flatmates usually went out. We put everything through a desk and monitored though headphones as we played. – it sounded great. It was easy to record and we often did. The moment counts for a lot.
One evening after some recording I wobbled outside on my bike to be met by twenty or thirty police shaking down the strip club next door. They asked me what I’d been doing and looked in my bag. They let me go when they heard I’d been responsible for the non-musical noise a few minutes earlier.
Swim Everything played regularly, often at the Curious George Club. The name and idea was Andrew Penman’s. He called a meeting at his place in Edgeware Road to get a collective together. Non-profit collectives were popular at the time. Dave Wernham and Ian McAllister did sound. Jonathan and Guy Tredgold made fantastic posters. Ian Dalziel and I began doing occasional club newsletters and posters. Jules, Paula, Dominic, Violet and others from The Mermaid shop contributed fashion, art and theatre. My course mates helped with lighting. Liz Parker, Conrad, James, Daniel Mounsey, Henry Downes, The Atomic Café, Jonathan Maze and others all did things. Committee members set the rules, kept membership details, ran the gigs and learnt lessons.
Swim Everything played at a few Curious George Club gigs at The Zetland. My friends from the Academy course found glue that would bubble and partially dissolve strips of lighting gel when hot. We made slides that Alan, Mathew and John projected as we played. It looked psychedelic and wild. I wore counterfeit black levi 501’s from Thailand and skivvy tops from Hallensteins.
The club held events outside of pubs. The $10 Lindaur – fuelled midwinter ball at The Arts Centre Cloisters was great fun. My poster for the ball featured a wild-eyed boy from the pages of the Press.
I made a blue – black overprint poster for the Christmas party in The Great Hall. The drawing was loosely based on a picture of Angus Maclise with Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtle features. Ian McAllister controlled an enormous PA and Swim Everything rocked. Campbell did a couple of very rock’n’roll things on stage, and someone stole my bike. It was a great night.
The last big event the Curious George Club did together was ‘Heironymous Goes Straight”, a theatrical multimedia piece with music, costumes, props and songs. We performed in the Upper Common Room at Orientation, and again at The Great Hall in the Arts Centre. The Mermaids devised and performed the show. Andrew, Pete, Conrad, Jonathan, Dave Deakins and I played the music. It was a really cool thing to be part of. Pete was great at leading us through. I played bits of keyboard, drums and guitar and tried to follow Pete and my rough notes to guess what came next. The final scene’s dramatic use of chalk dust was both spectacular and expensive. The Theatre blacks we’d hired got pretty dusty.
[artwork : Jules Novenna Sorrell]
We demoed ten new songs one dull grey afternoon at Damian’s place in Cambridge Terrace on a Fostex. Francis Hunt watched the levels. Soon after, Damian’s flat broke up. We arranged to cover the last few days rent of the empty house, borrowed all sorts of gear and asked Ian McAlister to record us on a hired four track reel to reel. I’d known Ian through primary school and cubs. Our mums chose the same pattern to knit our school jerseys one year. Ian had become an excellent soundman and was still a nice, quiet guy. He owned several large bins that he liked to play his bass through.
We set up and played in Damian’s lounge. The desk and four track was across the hall in Damian’s room. Damain used his usual boutique chip board and brushed metal gear. I added one of Damian’s 24 band graphic equalisers to shape my guitar sound a little. Campbell borrowed Greig Bainbridge’s Musicman Cutlass bass and used two heads and cabinets for the recording – one distorted and one grunty. Our recording budget included food money. We spent most of it on four falafels, leaving a little for instant coffee, bread and baked beans. We managed three or four songs a day and over a few days got the stereo mixes down for the album.
We added vocals and a few overdubs at Damian’s new flat in Chester Street with Mark and Carey. It was unreasonably cold for December. We mixed the songs a few days later in a 12 hour sssion at my parent’s house in Hoon Hay. We stopped after tea to watch live TV coverage of Ruth Richardson’s ‘mother of all budgets’. It was sobering stuff. Those under 25 were to have benefits cut by $30 to just over $100 a week.
Damian constructed an elaborate playback and dubbing setup to run off the tapes at Chester Street. After a few long days we had 100 copies ready for review and sale. The tape did well, getting lots of airplay and a four star review in The Press. Damian’s song ‘Made easy’ was included on a flying nun / bnet compilation cd called ‘freak the sheep’.
Shortly after moving in Damian had a farewell party in his Chester Street back yard. He was off to Wellington for a government job. We took the opportunity to do a short set. There were quite a few friends and a nice vibe as we sat around Ian’s PA in the backyard. Just before we were due to play we snuck inside to get changed. We thought it might be funny if we all wore matching album cover t-shirts and backwards baseball caps. It clearly wasn’t. Halfway through our second song an old lady from over the back fence came over and told us off for making a racket. She killed our buzz.
Campbell and I travelled to Wellington mid-year in 1991. I took a week off work, and Campbell had a break from touring schools with Whakarite Theatre. We stayed with Damian in a big house on Mount Vic and played every day for ten days. It was fantastic. Practice for out of town bands often feels like catching up, but this was moving us forwards. We worked on some new songs. Damian arranged for Tessa Thompson’s brother Alistair to interview us for the Dominion Post. His article noted we all had jobs. We had been unemployed when the band was formed.
[Photo: Dominion Post]
We played at The Carpark on friday night with ‘This Will kill that’ and ‘Clay’. It was a late night, I was nervous and ended up getting a little toasted before the gig. Brent Mclachlan did sound. Some guys with long hair in track pants with ‘Shihad’ written down the side hung out with him at the mixing desk. We played loose and well, it was big and rock. The DAT sounded awful.
Damian borrowed a small Marshall amp from Brent who played in Codhaven for me to use. It was excellent for the type of music we played. It had three gain / volume controls to play around with. I loved it.
The next day we drove to Palmerston North to play with Codhaven. Damian’s light blue Escort station wagon was jammed full with us and our gear. We left Mount Vic late and got to Palmerston North late, missing a radio interview and keeping our mixer Dave White waiting. Only about thirty people turned up and it wasn’t a great performance by us. We ended up owing the PA guy at least a hundred bucks – it was charged out at a ridiculous rate of $300 a night. We gave him a copy of our green album and were unable to pay Dave White anything for his trouble. It was very poor form. Afterwards we went to a non-happening party in a freezing house near the gig, and then back to Wellingon. Second gigs can be a bit of a letdown after the euphoria and relief of the first night. We decided to get some quick recordings of the two or three new songs we had worked up while rehearsing before flying home. As usual, things took longer than we thought they would. Campbell and I were the last two people to get on the late night plane. We had to run down the passenger bridge, giggling as our names were called over the airport PA.
Damian travelled down to Christchurch one weekend a few months later to record my song ‘clarity’. Rob Mayes and Terry Molloy had set up a 16 track and control room in what had been the offices for Methven taps in Peterborough Street. It was our only studio recording and it turned out ok. Rob was typically easy to work with. We got a letter of support from Roger Shepherd at Flying Nun and went for a grant from the arts council. I had applied for grants with all my bands on a few different labels and never got one. This time was no different.
We decided to release ‘Clarity’ as ‘a Geraldine single’ a year or so later. Peter King had been producing hand made lathe-cut perspex records in South Canterbury for a while. He specialised in small runs and was doing a lot of local bands. We added the track ‘day one’ from the Green album and I cut up a jam we had done one summer up with Brett up at ‘Hex Central’, Mike Brassell’s place in Barbadoes Street. I used ClarisWorks on my Apple laptop to make a cover. I photocopied the image using red and blue overprinting, bought some plastic bags from Kerran at Echo Records and it was done.
We had talked about augmenting the drum machine with a live drummer for most of the band’s existence. Brett was the obvious choice and he was keen to give it go. Campbell and I had been regularly jamming with him early on Saturday evenings above City Books, where Mike was living with his Maria. We had worked up a few songs of mine and jammed a few others onto a tape I titled ‘the BBC’ [Brett, Blair Campbell]. We added a few of those songs, and my solo track from a Flat City compilation ‘f.c.w. star’ to the set.
The four piece line-up played in the Upper Common Room during Orientation, and preceded it with an afternoon gig the day before at The Performing Arts theatre. The afternoon gig was cold and noisy. Brett pulled us up one song before the sets end. He’d had to stop, as the kick pedal on the drums he’d borrowed off Hat, had come to bits. Brett had just got too buggered from the high bpms and needed a rest. Fair enough.
The setting autumn sun filled the Upper Common Room with golden light as we played. There was an autumnal melancholy beyond the normal end of summer feeling that Orientation brought. It felt a lot like our last gig. It was.
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