The Letter 5 memories.
We met Richard James in late 1985 when he asked all fall down to support The Pterodactyls at The Zetland. He’d seen us at a freezing Sunday afternoon gig at the England Street Hall. A couple of years later we played in Auckland with Richard’s next band, The Letter 5. Richard had written some of the best jangle-pop ever, and was a good person to be around.
We caught up the next summer and did some busking in Cashel St. We sang and played too hard, trying to be heard. We followed it up with some lacklustre four-tracking in the lounge at Kilmore Street.
We ran into each other again in Christchurch the next summer and spent a day with Campbell at Damian’s parent’s place in Holly Road, recording Richard’s song ‘misery, suffering, despair and futility’. It was great fun.
Campbell and I headed to Asia shortly after the recording. I stopped in Auckland for a few days on the way home. I wrote ‘good place’ at Richard’s and demoed it on the Fostex he shared with Matthew Bannister.
Richard was keen to get some gear together at home and record more songs as ‘The Letter 5’. Damian got involved and a few months later we flew to Auckland to record in Morningside.
Richard, Andy and I played guitar and bass in the kitchen while John Pitcairn and Damian sat in the lounge recording us onto John’s reel to reel. The drum machine laid a synch track, leaving room for vocals and overdubs. The bigger tape sounded brighter, bigger and warmer, raising the stakes. We wore headphones as we played. It took a while to adjust. We slowly honed three songs to the drum machine as John and Damian adjusted things next door, going for gold.
I made several trips to Auckland to play live with The Letter 5.
Richard sang and played guitar, Andy played bass and sang. John Matheson played drums at the start, and then Steve from The Apehangers took over. Most of the songs were Richard’s and a few were mine.
I saw a little of what Auckland had to offer. Auckland was expensive, big and warm. Richard and Nellie were generous and hospitable for weeks on end. We ate and drank well: Grapefruit and gouda, peanut butter and salted coffee, garam masala, magi sauce, bok choi, pak choi, fried rice, broad beans and coriander.
Richard and Nellie’s friends were diverse, generous and welcoming. They met regularly for ‘lodge’ on Friday nights in different places around Auckland. I never had any idea where I was. Homebrew was drank and compared. It mostly tasted the same. There was food and enthusiastic talk about music I knew nothing about; mid-seventies Boston power-pop, Spanish new wave, Dutch progressive rock.
I biked over to Andy’s in Jervois Road to watch The Twilight Zone. Auckland streets were narrow and busy. I only did it once. Andy’s flatmate Matthew drove us over shingle roads to Anawata one day. The surf was enormous. We swam in a warm lagoon and river.
We met in town for lunchtime beers. At one place a guy asked us if we knew where he could steal a drumkit. He had ‘heaps of orders.’
We looked at the music shops. I spotted a black Fender Starcaster for $900 down near the waterfront. I gave them $400 and my Squire Telecaster. I was pleased.
The starcaster had no case, so Mark and I spent a morning making one with things we found in his garage. I lined it with polystyrene and brushed cotton from Nellie, and screwed on Richard’s plastic briefcase handle. Four bathroom latches and a leather belt held it shut until Christchurch.
We practiced as much we could and played a few low-key gigs. We played at ‘The Venue’ one Wednesday. It was my birthday and I had a streaming cold. The soundman took exception to the way I set my mic. stand and reset it immediately after our sound-check. He didn’t want to be there. We played averagely to a small group of friends, hoping not to make too many mistakes.
We were too loud for Richard and Nellie’s lounge, but still had a couple of practices there. I used Phil’s HH guitar amp high in an office building. It had an immense reverb and a telescopic support poll at the back, like a pull out radio aerial.
We had a practice in a place setup in a basement under a white hall with a big gravel carpark, somewhere else I didn’t know. The room had been soundproofed in grey to within an inch of its life. It was like a sonic vacuum – sucking the energy out of our jingle jangle.
We shared the stage with Andy’s band Meatboy at The Ponsonby Community Centre at the end of 1989. Nerves and few drinks led to a fast and loud performance. It was deafening on stage. The noise from our amps and drums bounced back to us from all over the empty room. I wondered how the KCs were finding it in their clubhouse downstairs. The council wanted to fine us $50 for each of the a4 posters found sellotaped up at the community centre. Auckland was hard work.
A few days later we spent an afternoon in ‘The Pod’, a tiny soundproofed sunroom at the back of Andy’s house. We ran through our newer songs while Mario recorded us onto his Fostex in the bedroom next door. Steve’s drumming gave us energy and Richard and Andy always played well, but it wasn’t enough to push us on. I was living in the wrong town to add much.
The ‘Now You Are Here’ ep came out on Flying Nun in 1992.