From The Under Ground
New Zealand Music Month is hip and happening with all your favourite artists, but surprisingly, some Kiwi bands don't even have videos on Blender! In Unison talks to two of these 'radical' unsigned artists about life, love and the pressures of being quite well-liked by people in Newton.
Phony Bone are a bunch of nerds.
Well, perhaps not, but when three out of four bandmates work in the same Mt Eden bookstore you have to expect a certain level of geekery. There's also the fact that they're named after a comic book character most of the cool kids have never heard of (hey, it worked for Fallout Boy). Vocalist Graham "Graham" Panther elaborates. "We were sitting in Frank [Gibson Jr. II, drummer]'s garage after our first gig, a 21st birthday. It went down a treat, despite the fact that we had no name." "No, we did", interjects guitarist Tim Neale, "Hot Space Station Justice." Panther continues.
"I guess it's kind of a joke… of all the bands that we see around, we consider ourselves the least cartoony, the least caricaturish. I don’t mean that in a bad way about other bands- we're just going for something a little more straightforward, less naff."
And fair enough, too- their songs are doing just fine without a gimmick. A hybrid of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Chris Knox and what they call "smuggled country", their slightly-gritty pop singles Penny and Babydoll have held their own in bfm's Top 10, with the latter peaking at #6. They've appeared on Alt TV's Rock 'n' Roll Circus, and most recently played at Fleet FM's Convoy #5 event with the King Brothers from Japan. So what's next?
"Brandy snifters full of brown M&M's - that’s what we perceive to be in our future", says Panther, citing Van Halen as a successful business model. "If there's only one non-brown one in there, he won't do the concert." Gibson Jr. II agrees: "That's what we do, us Auckland bands with our big fat gig cash. You know, Mariah Carey only drinks her champagne through bendy straws. That's what we want to be, keeping it real."
drummer Tim van Dammen meets me in the cramped studio of Fleet FM, a low-frequency local radio station that's become a favourite for central-city hipsters. He smiles and shrugs off any sense of status when I ask about their recent interviews in Groove Guide and on bfm: "It's cool, people seem to be behind it and stuff. Every now and then you'll get a text message, [or] we just get myspace messages and then do whatever… I don't think the others even know I'm doing this."
But despite the quiet, apprehensive vocabulary, van Dammen defies all stereotypes of the non-committal slacker. Admittedly, it's been three years since he and vocalist Steve Mathieson first began fleshing out oddly-titled post-rock ditties such as Eli's In A Cult Now and Hey Esther, Thanks For The Poster, but the time that Collapsing Cities has spent gigging and reworking their songs has garnered them many fans in the Auckland indie scene and within the music industry itself. Far from dragging their heels, this is a band that simply sets its own pace.
Nonetheless, the pace is quickening. Collapsing Cities are currently recording their first full-length album with legendary indieengineer Dale Cotton, the man behind albums by HDU, Dimmer and our own Sola Rosa. While it's not exactly a guarantee of the giddy heights of fame, the band is clearly taking the project seriously.
"We're real anal about it…. With the EP we recorded probably about nine or ten songs and just chose five we liked the best, but that’s changed hugely. If [the song]'s not good enough, it's not going on."
However, the album is just the beginning of Collapsing Cities' new momentum. Once pressed, the band will launch into a final tour of the North Island before gapping it across to Melbourne in June. If it sounds like starry-eyed romanticism, it's not - there are tough decisions involved, and one of them is bassist Stephen Parry's split from the band. "His girlfriend is from Sweden, so he'll be moving back there… It's unfortunate."
The other big question is how to secure an album's distribution across two countries without signing to a major label. While van Dammen is confident in the short-term about calling in favours from Melbournian acts he's hosted over the years, he's also keen to catch the ear of cult Australian act You Am I, a band who recently split from BMG to start their own record label.
"There's all these reps from HMV and Sony, but all those guys want to give you is lots of exposure and debt…. The guys at You Am I got completely destroyed by a record company, so they've set up a new one. They'll distribute, do all that shit for you, and they take nothing. They just do it because they've got all the connections and don't want you to get fucked over. It's just rad."