Invisible Jukebox: The Dead C (2006)

Tested by Nick Cain
The Dead C, a trio of guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley and drummer Robbie Yeats, formed in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1986. Morley had previously played in Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos, Yeats was a member of Flying Nun group The Verlaines, and Russell started the Xpressway label in 1987. The group’s first releases — a couple of limited edition cassettes and the DR503 album (Flying Nun 1988) — immediately set them at odds with New Zealand’s prevailing musical culture. Their music was a loose form of downer rock, deliberately recorded in low fidelity. The songs were marked by Morley’s lugubrious vocals and his and Russell’s feedback discourses — in interviews, Russell happily confessed to not being able to play his instrument. In the late 80s the group struck up a relationship with US label Siltbreeze. Following the raw song deconstructions of 1990’s Eusa Kills, Siltbreeze released Helen Said This, with its memorably anthemic title track. The Dead C left Flying Nun after Eusa Kills, and almost all the remainder of their 90s albums were released on Siltbreeze. The excellent double LP Harsh 70s Reality (1992) was a pivotal release, gaining them an increased profile in the US. By 1994’s The Operation Of The Sonne, Russell had wound up Xpressway, relocated to Christchurch and started the Corpus Hermeticum label, whose first release was an album by A Handful Of Dust, his free noise duo with Alastair Galbraith. Morley, meanwhile, had begun releasing solo and collaborative noise records in the early 90s under the moniker of Gate. The White House (1995), Repent (1997) and Tusk (1997) cemented The Dead C’s 90s sound: churning, heavy Improv rock, incorporating passages of blistering free noise. After a hiatus in the late 90s, they started their own label, Language Recordings, and in 2000 released a self-titled double CD, whose intense explorations leaned more towards all-out noise than rock. In 2006, The Dead C marked 20 years of activity with the Perform Vain, Erudite And Stupid double CD (Ba Da Bing), which compiled tracks from almost all of their major releases. A split LP with Australian group The Hi-God People was released in early 2007, and the group’s next album, Future Artists, will be released on Ba Da Bing in mid-2007. The Jukebox took place in London after The Dead C’s appearance at ATP’s Nightmare Before Christmas festival. 
The Enemy “I Don’t Mind” from LIVE AT THE BENEFICIARIES HALL (BOOTLEG) 1978 
Michael Morley: [Immediately] It’s a New Zealand band, is it? Toy Love? Enemy?
Bruce Russell: It’ll be The Enemy. Were you all living in Dunedin when they were playing?
BR: The Enemy were a Dunedin band, but that was before we got there.
MM: We were still at school.
BR: I saw Toy Love [group formed by Enemy guitarist Chris Know after they disbanded] in 1980 a couple of times, when they were on tour, but they moved to Auckland in I think it was 79. I certainly didn’t see The Enemy. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have experienced New Zealand punk at the time it happened.
Robbie Yeats: I saw Toy Love on their last tour in Christchurch in an airport hangar. A lot of skinheads. It was pretty ugly. You shifted to Dunedin in the early 80s?
MM: 1982. When did you form Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos?
MM: 1979. But we weren’t really a punk band [laughs].
BR: You were totally punk! [laughs] Weren’t you more new wave?
MM: I think our hairstyles screamed new wave perhaps, but that was inadvertent. 
The Fall “Hard Life In Country” from IN A HOLE (LIVE) (FLYING NUN) 1983 
MM: This Heat? No. Oh – The Fall?
BR: Yeah, I think it is The Fall. Can you name the song?
MM: I think it’s off one of the first two albums.
BR: No, I think it’s off Hex Enduction Hour, actually. I reckon this would be from their New Zealand tour.
RY: From Fall In A Hole.
MM: I first heard The Fall when I was 16, and I thought they were the most incredible band. I couldn’t believe it. Musical listening pleasure.
RY: I heard one of their old albums recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. Like fine wine [laughs].
MM: I still play Totale’s Turns.
Which you spoofed for the cover artwork of 1992’s Clyma Est Mort.
RY: [Siltbreeze proprietor] Tom Lax’s influence, really. There was a Fall obsession going on. What were they like live in those days?
BR: Frightening. Absolutely frightening. It was amazing to see, they had two drummers. You don’t often see a band with two drummers, and there’s something inherently worrying about a band with two drummers, I find. They were incredibly welldrilled. Mary-Rose Crook, who had a bit to do with the Christchurch end of the tour, said that they were like Mark E Smith and a rugby league team. That’s how it worked. Basically there’s a bunch of boys who just want to drink beer and talk about football. And Mark E Smith was running the show, he clicked his fingers and they did stuff. Which didn’t last long after that because he clicked his fingers once too often and Marc Riley left. Wasn’t Marc Riley pictured on the cover of Fall In A Hole?
BR: He was photographed in Christchurch International Airport, arriving in New Zealand. They put his picture in the paper, which I think The Fall found absolutely unbelievable. I can’t think it was the front page.
MM: But they had a number one hit at that point. Top 20, sorry.
BR: “Totally Wired”. There was a video which was on television at least once, which was incredible. As soon as some friends of mine in Christchurch heard they were coming, they rushed out and on this billboard they spraypainted in huge letters “BANG FUCKING BANG THE MIGHTY FALL ARE COMING”. Which indicated the level of excitement generated by their arrival. The Fall, the thing with me is the whole attitude to recording. You listen to something like Dragnet or particularly Grotesque – the way they use low fidelity and high fidelity, mix and match, chop things up, it was hugely influential. The way they take different recordings of one song and cut them together, it’s influential on what we’ve done, absolutely. They are one of the greatest things in rock music, ever, and I don’t think anyone can ever take that away from them. Who could not be profoundly influenced by The Fall? Only someone with cloth ears. 
Sonic Youth “Burning Spear” from WALLS HAVE EARS (NOT) 1986
MM: Sonic Youth? Is this on Walls Have Ears?
It is. When did you first hear Sonic Youth?
MM: 1985, 1986, when I was living in Dunedin in my hovel of a flat with the ceiling collapsed into the bathroom. Confusion Is Sex.
BR: I first saw them in London in 1986. I’d never heard a note and I only saw them because they were supporting The Jesus And Mary Chain. The Jesus And Mary Chain were already past their prime but Sonic Youth were just incredible. I’d read about both them and Swans in NME, and I’d bought a Swans record and hadn’t liked it very much. But I hadn’t investigated Sonic Youth, because their records were almost impossible to get in New Zealand. So after I’d seen them, I basically rushed out and bought everything I could. When I went back to New Zealand in 1986, I bored everybody shitless going on about Sonic Youth at great length.
MM: It’s not “Brother James”?
“Burning Spear”.
BR: You see, if I were them, I would have just kept doing this for 20 years. But they’re much more restless souls than we are. I think it’s impossible to overestimate the effect that they had on rock music in general, as an example to bands of all stripes of what could be done. And also if you do achieve a modicum of success, how you can actually turn that to your advantage and also to general public advantage. I can’t think of any other bands who’ve achieved their moderate level of success and done so much good with it. 
T Rex “Cosmic Dancer” from ELECTRIC WARRIOR (REPRISE) 1971
BR: I’m guessing that’s T Rex. I should know exactly what this track is but I have trouble with his song titles.
This is after Tyrannosaurus Rex, this is T Rex. It’s “Cosmic Dancer”, off Electric Warrior.
BR: I don’t know Electric Warrior quite so well.
You covered “Children Of The Revolution” on Eusa Kills, in a deliberately inept fashion, when you were trying to subvert song forms.
BR: One of the reasons our version of “Children Of The Revolution” sounds so inept is that we were actually trying to play something else altogether. We were initially doing “When The Levee Breaks” because Robbie was so good at the drum part for it.
MM: I didn’t know the words.
BR: It was Peter Jefferies who pointed out that the riff you were playing was “Children Of The Revolution”, and it was at that point that we changed it around quite spontaneously. 
Douglas Lilburn “Summer Voices” from COMPLETE ELECTRO-ACOUSTIC WORKS (ATOLL) 2004
BR: I really don’t have any idea what this is. It sounds to me like the B-side of “Nag Nag Nag” by Cabaret Voltaire [laughs]. Is it not?
No. It’s an electroacoustic composer.
MM: Parmegiani? Franççois Bayle? Closer to home.
MM: It’s off the NZ electroacoustic music triple album. Is it that Christchurch composer? It’s not John Cousins, it’s Douglas Lilburn.
It is Lilburn.
BR: Ah. I should have got that. That’s humiliating. You sampled Lilburn’s Poem In Time Of War on “Driver UFO” on Harsh 70s Reality. He was one of the few New Zealand electronic composers. MM: There’s Lilburn and the others that followed, like John Cousins. I think Cousins is definitely an important figure in electroacoustic music in New Zealand. I was aware of this history of music in New Zealand because it was something that I was interested in. But it was only in the late 80s that I came across that triple album [New Zealand Electronic Music, Kiwi/Reed Pacific Records, 1975] and looked at other things. By the time Harsh 70s Reality came out, it was obvious how far away you were from anything else going on in Zealand at the time.
MM: Yeah. We felt incredibly isolated. On numerous occasions. And even still today.
BR: When Byron Coley visited New Zealand in 1988, I think, he was talking to a musician in Auckland, who said to him incredulously that they had heard that someone in America was going to release a record by The Dead C, and just could not believe why anyone would do that. The comment was: ‘Why would you release a record of this? It’s just a big fucking noise.’ To which Byron replied: ‘Yes – great, isn’t it?’ [laughter]
Did you feed off that kind of negative reaction?
MM: Gotta do something with it.
BR: Absolutely, we certainly didn’t let it slow us down. We rose to the challenge.
Harsh 70s is often referred to as your best album.
MM: It’s a nice album. I wish it had been released in the way it was intended, with the beautiful gatefold sleeve. It took a while to put that record together. It was a slow process.
BR: We worked at it pretty hard. Eusa Kills was recorded in two or three sessions, and although it took a while to finish the mixing and the overdubbing and all the rest of it, it was relatively compact. Whereas the double album was done over quite an extended number of sessions in various times and places. To us it represented a new level of... something.
MM: A desire to really push what we were doing beyond any kind of nice idea of a formula of song. That’s why “Driver UFO” works really well as a sound collage.
BR: And as an opening track. We really wanted to fuck people up. 
This Heat “Independence” from DECEIT (ROUGH TRADE) 1981
MM: This Heat. I knew you were going to play them sooner or later. It’s off Deceit.
BR: “Makeshift Swahili”?
MM: “Independence”.
This Heat were something of a talismanic group for you. One of your song titles on Harsh 70s refers to them.
MM: “Suffer Bomb Damage”. What made them stand out from the other postpunk groups of that time? BR: They didn’t sound like anything else. When you heard their records, you’d never heard anything like them. You thought: ‘How the hell is it done?’ and ‘Why are they doing it?’, but at the same time you knew it was something really great. They came out of nowhere, they didn’t seem to belong to any scene, the records were mysterious, there was nothing written about them. This song critiques America’s concept of democracy, and when you’ve made political references in your music, they’ve all been critical of America. But at the same time America is the one country where you’re most appreciated.
BR: Yeah, but it doesn’t absolve them from taking responsibility for what their government does in other countries. And the people who are interested in our music are not necessarily rabid supporters of America’s foreign policy. They seem to take it in good heart, we’ve never been chastised about it. 
Sun City Girls “The Venerable Uncle Tompa” from KALIFLOWER (ABDUCTION) 1994
BR: It’s obviously Sun City Girls. I’m not going to be able to guess what the track is.
MM: I’ve only got about seven or eight of their records. I never look at the titles.
They were contemporaries of yours in that they also came to prominence in the early 90s.
BR: Torch Of The Mystics came out in 90, 91, and that was the thing that really put them on the map. That was their calling card.
MM: What Sun City Girls album is this off? Kaliflower.
MM: I don’t think I’ve got that one.
BR: But there you go, it doesn’t matter what the track is, it’s completely obvious who it is.
MM: They’re such a great band, seeing them live [at ATP] was fantastic.
BR: A shame it was 15 years after we really wanted to see them. Better late than never. Sun City Girls started their own label and indulged themselves by releasing far too much stuff.
You also started your own label, but release almost nothing. In the current noise scene, it’s the norm to release 10, 15, 20 albums a year, but you release an album every three years.
BR: I think we don’t have the luxury of doing a lot of playing together because we don’t live in the same town and we have lots of things to do like earning livings and raising families. But also we were relatively prolific for a period of quite a few years.
MM: It got us nowhere [laughs].
BR: All we wound up with was a huge unavailable back catalogue. We got a lot of it out of our system at that point. Now, one of the reasons that people do a lot of releases is that they’re doing a lot of touring and they need a lot of merchandise to sell at gigs. We don’t have any of that so there’s no real incentive. And also quality control... Quality control is sadly lacking in the noise scene these days.
BR: You could say that, but it’s the kind of opinion that’ll build your popularity immensely [laughs]. 
The Blue Humans “Movement” from CLEAR TO HIGHER TIME (NEW ALLIANCE) 1993
BR: My guess would be The Blue Humans. That sounds like [percussionist] Tom Surgal.
It is.
BR: Is this with Alan Licht? Yes. They have the same line-up as you but sound slightly different.
BR: [Laughter] I have to say that at a very critical juncture in my musical development I heard “Implosion 73”, the single on New Alliance Records, which was accredited to Rudolph Grey. To realise that someone was making records like that gave me incredible confidence. It was a duo of Rudolph and Rashied Ali, and it just sounded like a million dollars. There were no records like that back then, absolutely none. That came out around the time of his first album and it was hugely influential. Rudolph Grey is an absolute genius. He then formed a band with Tom Surgal – very sensible. Tom is just a huge drummer, it was so good to see him [at ATP] with White Out with Nels Cline. He’s the guitar player’s guitarist, that guy. A bit more refined than me, but still pretty good. Feels the need to have six strings for some mysterious reason [laughs].
MM: With The Blue Humans there’s a connection to that New York punk and No Wave period.
BR: That made sense. Certainly when I listen to things like Albert Ayler, when I listen to the saxophone, guitar feedback is essentially the same thing, screaming self-expression. And Rudolph was possibly one of the first people, after maybe Sonny Sharrock and Masayuki Takayanagi, to really realise that that was the same thing. 
Mouthus “The Harbors Taken” from FOR THE GREAT SLAVE LAKES (THREE LOBED) 2006
BR: You’ve got me.
It’s Mouthus.
MM: Ah OK, I wouldn’t have got that. I’ve never heard them.
BR: Sounds all right. Are they American?
They are. In their music there’s tension between noise and rock. There was a similar kind of tension in your releases in the late 90s, which tipped into full-scale noise with the self-titled double CD in 2000. When it came out, I thought you’d turned into a noise group.
MM: Tusk is a rock album. When we use the term ‘rock’, our definition is different to other people’s.
BR: I thought we totally rocked at ATP, but probably people listening didn’t recognise that was really the case [laughs].
MM: The security guards thought we were shit. People said they were mouthing to each other, ‘This is shit’, while we were playing.
Why did The Dead C sound the way it did?
RY: I got really sick of playing the drums. I ended up playing a lot of keyboards. I was playing rock music in other groups, and I was sick of it. A lot of it was done with just two of us in the studio at a time.
BR: We were in a hiatus because we didn’t have any way of releasing material for a couple of years. We didn’t have the money to do it ourselves. So we just kept recording and kept putting stuff aside, and going through it and sorting it out. There was four years’ worth of recordings.
MM: There wasn’t any real rush. 
Porter Ricks “Nautical Nuba” from BIOKINETICS (CHAIN REACTION) 1996
BR: Never listened to much Techno. Is this on Chain Reaction or something? It is.
BR: How’d I get that? Actually, I’ll tell you how I got that. Andrew Moon [NZ noise artist, works as RST] sent me a couple of cassettes of Basic Channel and Chain Reaction stuff. I really liked the sound but I couldn’t understand why they had to have a constant beat going through it.
MM: It’s to help with the Ecstasy. There’s a track on The Dead C called “High Original”, which has the feel of a Chain Reaction track. I assumed that was Michael’s doing.
MM: [Laughs] No. I’ve never heard of Chain Reaction, I don’t know what you’re talking about. 
BR: It’s a German Techno label.
MM: I don’t listen to any Techno. You guys know all the Techno stuff.
BR: Apparently so. Even though I don’t listen to much of it. So what is this? Porter Ricks.
MM: [Recognising the name] Ahh.
BR: [Laughs] You are so full of shit. Look down your nose at me.
MM: [Laughs] That’s great.
You used a lot more electronics on the double CD and New Electric Music.
MM: We’ve always used electronics.
BR: We just acquired more. Had more electronic devices at our disposal.
MM: We’ve had two synthesizers since the early 90s.
BR: But also because we were able to use hard drives for recording. That gave us more space and more ability to process things and dick about. But I think the reason we did something that sounded like [Porter Ricks] is that if you have repetitive electronic pulses going and record them in a careless sort of way, you produce something that sounds like that.
MM: I’ve been using the laptop now for seven or eight years. The looping thing is really handy, because otherwise you’re building loops on tape. I remember the first Sony Discman that was released had a function where you could repeat between point A and point B, and you could assign those points anywhere on the disc. So I was playing that, in 88, as a way of creating loops. 
MM: Is there talking on there? It’s a shortwave radio.
BR: I’m guessing it’s AMM. 
Well done. Is it true that on the forthcoming Dead C album there’s a track called “The AMM Of Punk”?
BR: Yes, it’s true. MM: We’ve claimed that mantle. No one else is willing to stand up.
BR: I can’t believe no one else has bagsed that one.
I know it’s meant flippantly, but to me it’s the other way around, that you’re bringing a punk/noise sensibility to improvisation.
BR: Yeah, that seems fair. I’m not at all flippant about it, really, I mean that most sincerely. It came to me in a vision [laughs]. It’s totally obvious really – how else would you describe us? You’ve been improvising since the group began – can you talk about how your sensibility has developed?
MM: It was just there, for some reason. We didn’t even discuss it. It was just one of those things, that’s how we operated. I don’t know why we operated like that.
BR: At our first practice, my recollection is that you said words to the effect, ‘I’ve got this song here’, and you started playing it, and we started playing it with you. That’s us. You didn’t say, ‘It’s in G minor.’
MM: It wasn’t a very carefully thought out plan at all. It just seemed to be the way it worked for us.
When I first heard The Dead C, what I found most intriguing was that the two guitarists were playing at opposites to each other. That’s changed, and gone back and forth, but there’s still a negative dynamic at the heart of your music.
MM: Two people playing guitars, and there’s a drummer in the middle who keeps us all together.
BR: Or not. There are plenty of people out there playing together. Why do it? Fundamentally, for me, anyway, I’ve always had the approach that if there’s a rule, then musically speaking, do the opposite. And we’ve gone a long way with that. It’s remarkable how far you can get if you think: ‘What would people do, normally? What’s the way to do this? Well, OK, so what else can we do?