a fistful of drones

From The Wire, June 1999 

Through their anti-song manifestos, side projects like A Handful Of Dust and Gate, and the Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum labels, The Dead C have established New Zealand as, a vital link in the global free noise network. Words: Phillip Matthews

The year is 1995 and The Dead C are playing at the Super 8 Arts Collective in the basement of a deconsecrated church in Dunedin, on New Zealand's South Island. After eight years together, they have fully developed their improvised free noise strategy: beginning without an end in mind, their 'songs' sometimes bear a vague resemblance to their records - then they lurch abruptly into unfamiliar areas -in a manner utterly alien to rock conventions. Their music divides the audience accordingly. "You wouldn't play like that if you didn't know what you were doing" heckles a drunken, incensed Peter Gutteridge, from the 'rival' Dunedin group Snapper.Gutteridge's remark might have been meant as a putdown, but it neatly encapsulates the confusion which The Dead C can cause. In their early days they were often dismissed as local nuisances, and suspicious types still accuse them of perversely and defiantly messing around. Naturally, the group see it differently. Formed in 1987 by guitarist/singer Michael Morley, guitarist Bruce Russell and drummer Robbie Yeats, they held their first rehearsal in an abandoned pharmaceutical warehouse. From the start, Morley felt that something "strange, weird and special" was going on. And Russell remembers experiencing a similar rush of euphoria. "To us we just sounded amazing," he recalls. "I remember dropping my guitar and sprinting from one end of the warehouse to the other, laughing hysterically. It sounded great' What a great band' In a sense, that's never left us."

Their self-belief helped them brazen out the early years of local incomprehension. In the years since that epiphany in the pharmaceutical warehouse, they have released 14 albums and several singles as The Dead C, and many more by their sideline projects, among them Morley's Gate, Russell's A Handful Of Dust and the trio Pieters/Pussell/Stapleton. Initially, their music was disseminated through Russell's two labels, Xpressway and Corpus Hermeticum, which linked Dunedin into an international underground network of bloody-minded rock experimentalists. In turn, their influence now extends far beyond New Zealand's shores. In demonstrating how a tiny cell far away from world's established experimental circuits can eventually infiltrate and impact them, they have inspired countless other groups from the globe's more geographically challenged zones to pursue their own individual routes.

Though they presently trawl the farflung fringes of experimental rock, The Dead C began within a musical culture obsessed with the perfect pop song. The pace was set back in the early 80s by Dunedin's The Clean, whose lo-tech 60s psyche cum-garage punk, released on the Flying Nun label, established 'the Dunedin sound' as New Zealand's national style. Need less to say, The Dead C's future members did not participate in the city's defining music, aside from Yeats, who used to drum in the Verlaines, back then one of the more advanced 'Dunedin sound' outfits. Morley', school-to-university Industrial punk duo Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos and Russell's spoken word/noise unit A Handful Of Dust, quickly accustomed them minority audiences. Yet when the two came together with Robbie Yeats as The C, their early work was still largely song-based.

Before long, however, Russell's growing antagonism towards the song converted him into a flagwaving champion of free improvised music. His position is most clearly expressed in a debate with the York avant guitarist Alan Licht, who stands up for the song against the Zealander's "one-eyed gospel of free noise" in a debate carried out in an issue of Russell's occasional music/philosophy magazine, Logopondocy, packaged inside the Corpus Hermeticum CD, The Evan Dando Of Noise? But his position must be understood, Russell ripostes, "as going against a very dominant cultural paradigm where the song was everything".However, he will admit that in the beginning Dead C songs did seem to reinforce accusations of perversity hurled at them. "We were really just a bad joke, on the of what was going on at the time and what was acceptable," Russell says. Depending how you heard it, they could sound like deliberately bad rock music, a parody of or like three musicians playing three different tunes, with the drums leading and buried or mumbled vocals delivered deadpan, while the guitars generated droning, distorted layers of sound at odds with any tangible structure. The growing tension between song and free improvisation is revealed in early Dead C records like The Sun Stabbed EP, and the albums DR503, Eusa Kills and Trapdoor Fucking Exit. If some songs were well-formed enough to be played 'unplugged', others were derailed by their anti-music instinct for extended feedback and improvisation. Their music's disintegration logic is best illustrated by the relatively late example of "Outside", from 1995's The White House, where a riff-based song slowly falls to pieces over 17 minutes. For Morley, the piece marked a transition in the way it went "beyond the bounds, according to some people, of what was really warranted". Even though he has always served as the group's main lyricist, Morley too found himself succumbing to Russell's anti-song virus. "I like the idea of songs with words," he clarifies, "I don't mind songs with words. I just don't feel I can do that anymore."For Russell, The Dead C's turning point came with the 1992 double album Harsh 70s Reality (reissued last year, minus two tracks, on CD). "I can hear in our early recordings sparks of what we do now," he says. "I'm not denigrating them; they're unusual because they have that tension between songs and improvisation. Now we've really crossed over and are able to conceive of and execute that kind of material in a way that we couldn't then. I regard that as a huge development."

The album was recorded during 1990 and 1991, in a period when Morley and Russell shared a flat in a huge house in Port Chalmers, an artistic colony about seven miles out of Dunedin. One large room was permanently set up as a studio, allowing the trio to rehearse a couple of times a week - a fact which now surprises the rehearsal-shy Russell. "We were doing a lot of work and making a lot of progress," he marvels. "That record really encapsulates that." In many ways, Harsh 70s Reality works as an ideal Dead C sampler. The 22 minute "Driver UFO", based on the NZ electronic music pioneer Douglas Lilburn's 1967 anti-Vietnam piece "Poem In A Time Of War", is a fine example of their maturing improvisation, while tracks like the flatout garage punk of "Sky", and the abrasive stylings of "Love" and "Constellation", bring their rock song chapter to a close. From here on in they could only go further outthe two most recent Dead C records, Repent and Tusk, are both song-free sets of free improvisation.

Meanwhile, they have sought to push the boundaries back even further on their side projects, such as Morley's heavyweight guitar/noise unit Gate, and Russell's A Handful Of Dust, which has been operating as a duo with guitarist/violinist Alastair Galbraith for almost a decade, with drummer Peter Stapleton intermittently joining in. A Handful Of Dust's prolific release schedule - nine albums and five singles since 1992, plus eight compilation appearances - might suggest a regular group working hard, but most of their recordings have resulted from arbitrary practices. The bulk of their new album, Jerusalern, Street Of Graves, consists of unconnected performance excerpts. Such formlessness can be exhilarating. The four-part "Unreal City" is constructed from fragments of raw drone, buzz and distortion, as opposed to the relatively processed noise of a Merzbow or a Non. This is just pure and simple noise, as rough, elemental and unpredictable as bad weather. The 20 minute "The City Of God/Negative Jerusalem" exists inside storms of sound without any pointers or landmarks. "There's no premeditation about anything we do, other than possibly deciding instrumentation," Russell says. "Peter Stapleton was very dubious at his first gig, where we recorded "God's Love For His People Israel" [from The Philosophick Mercury, because he hadn't done any of this in public. He'd done plenty of jamming, but having to get up in front of a paying audience with Alastair and me - he was along for the ride. We were off and if he didn't keep up, he was left behind. He found it quite a salutary experience, possibly." How did they talk him into it? "We found that taking him around the corner and filling him full of marijuana helped."

One of the defining experiences in Bruce Russell's musical life occurred far away from home, in London in 1986, where he first saw Sonic Youth play live. "They were doing material from Evol at that point," he recalls. "They might have been playing recognisable songs, but everything ran together, and they were doing things that were decidedly non-rock."That Sonic Youth exerted an early influence on The Dead C is evident in both the music, and in Russell's record label Xpressway, named after the SY track "Xpressway To Yr Skull". They finally got to meet in 1989, when Morley guided the group around Auckland's record stores and thrift shops. Soon tagged as "Sonic Youth's favourite NZ band", The Dead C opened for the New Yorkers on their NZ tour. Lee Ranaldo returned the favour by touring and recording with Morley as Gate, with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley occasionally in tow. Russell admires "the benchmark for artistic responsibility" that Sonic Youth have set - "They've done immense good for us and many other people."Indeed, Thurston Moore bailed out Russell's other label, Corpus Hermeticum, when he agreed to release his duo CD with Tom Surgal, Klangforbenmelodie, on the label in 1995. The CD was the label's first non-Russell project, and was pressed in a run of over 4000 four times the usual amount. It was also its first obvious moneyspinner, especially as Moore waived all royalties so as to help stabilise the label financially. "At that point I had moved to Lyttelton," recalls Russell. "I didn't have a full-time Job and I really had to make some money out of the label. He saved me. I'll owe him a debt of gratitude for the rest of my life."

Corpus Hermeticum has repaid Moore's emotional investment by developing an international free noise network. Not only does it circulate NZ noise - including Russell's own projects, the ultra low-profile Omit and K-Group - around the world, it also releases music by Alan Licht, Flying Saucer Attack and Norway's Kjetil D Brandsdal. Corpus Hermeticum was the successor to Russell's Xpressway label, which was established in 1987, when Russell was working as a publicist for Flying Nun. From the inside he observed how NZ's then premier independent label was turned into a boutique imprint of a multinational major, at which point it began dropping its more idiosyncratic artists. Just as The Dead C were antagonistic to the prevailing Flying Nun sound, so Russell partly founded Xpressway as "a stick to beat some sense into Flying Nun with" by picking up the musicians it neglected - Peter Jefferies, Alastair Galbraith, The Terminals and others. His first six releases were only available on cassette. But in its four year span, Xpressway went on to release more than 20 records and tapes. Running as a non-profit collective, it established a formidable range of South Island talents in specialist record stores and fanzines across North America and Europe, often using the collectable 7" single as the ideal marketing tool. But "like the state in Marxist political theory, it withered away," Russell says.

By 1992 the operation had achieved its task of landing offshore deals for most of its artists while laying out a different way of doing things for its signings from home and abroad. "Flying Saucer Attack's Dave Pearce got his idea of a career, a non-career, from Xpressway," Russell suggests. "When FSA started, he didn't even try to get stuff released in England, which would have been considered foolhardy once. Instead he licensed stuff to American independents because he was an obsessive buyer of Xpressway and related material." Another enthusiast was the American Tom Lax, who runs the Siltbreeze label in Philadelphia. After corresponding with Russell he began releasing the group's records in America, starting with the 1990 LP, Helen Said This. Ironically, these later Dead C records are now only available as imports in New Zealand. By way of returning the favour, Russell invited Lax to play on his first solo album,  1998's Project For A Revolution In New York, also on Siltbreeze. "Tom was over here on a visit and I said, 'Tom, I've got a friend's place, we can go round there with a few beers and a tape recorder and bits and pieces and we'll smack the piano around and it'll be the second side of an album'. And he was up for it."

For his part, Michael Morley never had any doubts that The Dead C would eventually find an international audience, albeit one that was cult-sized and scattered- "We were looking for an audience somewhere and we were fucking thankful when we found one. It was surprising in some ways, but the population is gigantic when you get out of New Zealand. Of course you can sell 1000 CDs. It's not hard if you're producing good stuff." No Dead C release has ever cost more than $200 to record, but Bruce Russell gets annoyed when critics or punters refer to the music as 'lo-fl'. On the contrary, he claims, they release good fidelity recordings in that they genuinely capture how the groups sound. By way of an example, he cites A Handful Of Dust's 1992 debut single "A Little Aesthetic Discourse", which was recorded direct to a state of the art Studer two-track with two Neumann microphones. "It's a very good recording of a very crappy noise," he trumpets. "People can't make that distinction until they see The Dead C, for example, and realise that we sound like that - ten per cent of the noise is actually coming from the equipment, whether or not we're doing anything. If you want total quiet in a Dead C gig or rehearsal, I have to turn my amp off. It makes a lot of noise, and people often mistake that for poor recording." He does agree, however, that they have become masters of low cost, lo-tech methods-, adept at reducing the noise generated by recording Walkmans and four-tracks. The 'antiproduction' on many Sun Ra records was a specific influence for Russell, an admirer of free Jazz's direct to two-track approach, which forms a crucial part of Corpus Hermeticum's complex, distinctive aesthetic, alongside their rigorous theoretical background and enigmatic, careful packaging.

After the overwhelming Xpressway workload, Russell had no intention of running another non-profit label. By 1994 he had moved with his family from the now claustrophobic Bohemian bolthole of Port Chalmers to Lyttelton, a port town outside of Christchurch, about 220 miles north. The first Hermeticum release - A Handful Of Dust's "The Seventhness" single - came out the same year. The intention now was to make a profit and to pay royalties. "It's a flagrantly capitalistic enterprise in many ways, but still setting an example of self-reliance," he boasts. Manufacturing collectable records is still part of his strategy. Again, being peripheral has its advantages. "I can export to Europe, America and Japan and my products are seen as exotic wherever they go," Russell explains. "It's got that import cachet, the hard to find, real gold, collector scum mentality." The label's name, as well as A Handful Of Dust's cover art and song titles, reflects Russell's interest in the esoteric and the occult. He reads philosophy for fun, and for a while, he researched Renaissance magic, the Kabbala and Rosicrucianism. Issues of his Logopondocy journal have argued obscure points about free noise and mystical philosophy, which are intended to baffle as much as enlighten. "It's intended to be suggestive," he agrees. "You'll never piece together any real connection between a track like "The Dark Lantern Of Reason" and the ideas looked at in the accompanying issue of Logopondocy. There are certain philosophical points I'm making with the music that do tie in, but it's all really just because I say there's a connection."Something like The Philosophick Mercury - a lot of people, I'm sure, could not begin to guess what this was all about. And I loved doing that because it was so out of leftfield. It was valid, it was good, but it was going to perplex a lot of people. I got a lot of laughs out of it."

Michael Morley has made equally diligent efforts to perplex, baffle and dislocate audiences through his music and art. For the past decade, his career as a visual artist has run parallel with his musical one. And while The Dead C has become less and less of a priority, a decade as Gate, a one man band with various associates, has seen him move fluently across a range of forms- from Industrial-styled noise (Golden) to wild guitar mangling (Lounge) to computer-processed electronica (The Lavender Head) to more detailed, occasionally song-based music (The Dew Line, The Monoloke). He is just as interdisciplinary as an artist, moving between painting, drawing, photography, video art and installation work. Sometimes art and music cross over. Conceived as a homage to Antonioni's alienation classic Zabriskie Point, the Death Valley photographs on the sleeve of The Monolake were exhibited in a show of NZ artists reworking cinematic images. His 1997 solo record The Pavilion Of Fools - a primordial guitar/synth swamp that ends in discursive American radio dialogue - was the soundtrack to an art installation that was planned but never happened. One that did was 1996's My Dear Sweet Reluctant Sweetheart, in which thousands of 7" records were stacked in the gallery space, while the observer was "bombarded with noise", Morley says. "I guess it was a dislocating experience," he continues, "but it was using Top 40 records, so you were getting a leakage of your past in some ways. It was looking at memory and constructions of memory." (Morley is reworking this installation's soundtrack for a future Gate release.)

Leakages of the past and confrontations with history are an ongoing theme. Morley's publicity statement accompanying The Lavender Head urges us "to revel now in the woozy downbeat that is history". The statement is partly a tongue in cheek reference to the record's emphasis on sampling, but it also gives us a neat summary of much of Morley's musical work. Even when Gate music is combative, it frequently carries a melancholic edge in the shape of that woozy downbeat. Yet Morley has come up with some of the most conventionally emotional Dead C moments, and there's no denying that he has a knack for a particular kind of mournful ballad; listen to "Your Hand" from The White House, or "Baseheart" from Harsh 70s Reality. His melancholic mood is extended on parts of The Dew Line, the first of a projected Gate trilogy (to be completed by The Monolake and The Wisher Table) released through the US label Table Of The Elements. Of Gate's output, The Dew Line and The Monolake are the most precisely structured. Morley says- "I spent a lot of time obtaining the right sounds and samples, more than the earlier ones which were done on four-track." Intended as total artworks, Morley's cover art, his abstract, painterly song titles ("Venerable Clouds", "Dew Line", "The Hero Tree", "Standing In Fields") and Gate's abstract, moody and hallucinatory music, with vocals often slurred or mixed down, combine to steep the listener in a state of washed out melancholy or numb oblivion. On The Dew Line's "Needed All Words" he half sings, half mumbles the phrase "I don't remember, I don't remember' against slow, primitive synth pulses. It feels like a defining moment. As NZ art critic David Eggleton has written, "his paintings and photographs are mood pieces about estrangement, alienation and anonymous, impersonal power structures, just as much as his music is."Alienation and power structures- The Dew Line's title refers to an early warning system, a defence line that runs across the top of North America, as pictured on the cover of The Pavillon Of Fools. On The Dead C song "Power", Morley criticised Us interests in Central America and empathised with the victims- "They shut down the water/They've stolen our teacher/All we wont is for you to be out of here." Holed up in Port Chalmers, he often seems to express the paranoid sense of powerlessness common in New Zealand, a country condemned to a peripheral existence, where it is bullied by the USA, its cultural/mIlitary/economic superior. "We're trapped in that conundrum. There's no way out for anybody," he says. "We're vulnerable to any and every thing because of the position we're faced with - being isolated."

The Dead C finally entered the belly of the beast that is America in 1995. On their only tour outside NZ so far, they played I I shows in two weeks, their most intensive series of dates yet, performing what amounted to a greatest hits set. Well, the shows were as repertoi rebased as a group who hadn't practised for six months could get. "There was a relationship in terms of riffs and lyrics and what have you," says Russell, who is naturally antipathetic to the concept of repertoire, and has vowed that he will never tour like that again. Unlike Robbie Yeats, who continues to be a gigging rock drummer in several groups, both Morley and Russell are ambivalent about the very idea of performance. So much so, in fact, that Morley's new three piece Gate line-up has been rehearsing for three years but has yet to go out live. "I guess The Dead C have had some good live shows, but invariably people miss the point and I just think- what the heck?" Morley explains. "I find the whole thing so soul-destroying touring rock music. We're not rock music, and people can't dance to us, so they just sit there and watch us in a drunken stupor, or they have sex or whatever it is they do. All of the expectations that are brought to bear in a live performance - I don't feel they're all that valid at this point. The organisation that has to go on and you get paid nothing for doing it. I'd be better off doing something else, surely."

More respect has come since they tapped into the international network- the Sonic Youth connection, Gate's 1994 US tour with Faust, the 1995 Dead C tour. The Dead C might play together very rarely now - one show in 1998, none at all planned for this year - but Repent and Tusk make it clear how they are getting better and better at what they do, almost telepathically slipping into grooves and patterns. On such occasions they can still create that "strange, weird and special" chemistry of their very first rehearsal back in that pharmaceutical warehouse. Russell describes the state they aspire to as "a collective shamanistic trance". "That sounds like hippy talk to me," scoffs Morley. Undaunted, Russell cites the track "Head", from Tusk, as an example of what he means. Recorded live at Flying Nun's I 5th anniversary show in Dunedin in 1996, it builds a hypnotic, furious momentum that is all the more startling for being completely improvised. "It was astounding. It was one of those times when - I'm boasting here - we had a packed house with their jaws hanging open," he recalls. "The mothership began to levitate and we were all watching"It took all three of us in this almost peyote-trance state before it really took off," he continues. "it was a collective psychic effort. Another thing that works like that is "Air" from The Operation Of The Sonne - one long track, totally live, that goes 'into Krautrock territory. There's this whole passage, six or seven minutes, when both Robbie and I are playing the drumkit simultaneously. I abandoned my guitar in midflight, but by the time we came off stage we had come to and didn't know what we'd been doing. Where were we?"It's to do with drugs and breathing and concentration," he concludes, "that and the physical effort of wringing noises out of machinery for prolonged periods of time."(A Handful Of Dust's Jerusalem, Street Of Graves is out now on Corpus Hermeticum; Gate's The Lavender Head is out now on Hell's Half Halo)

RECOMMENDED DISKS:

The Dead C - Trapdoor Fucking Exit (1993, SiItbreeze 2 7 PN4 CD)On the definitive record of their early years originally released on cassette in 1990 - The Dead C devise an askew vision of the post-punk rock song: brutal, atonal and shambolic, mostly, but songs nonetheless. Their youthful angst and hostility would soon dissipate, but in the murky ambience of "Helen Said This" and "Bury (Refutatio Omnium Haeresium)" you can sense the shape of things to come.

The Dead C Harsh 70s Reality (1992, Siltbreeze SILT 17 72 CD 2xLp)Called both The Dead Cs "anti-war album" and "a deconstructed knock-off of Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (although not by the group themselves), this heavyweight double was named for the '70s reality' of some Dead C influences - Kraftwerk, Pere Ubu, This Heat, The Fall, Cabaret Voltaire as opposed to the 'fantasy' of the disco nostalgia boom. Content ranges from the legendary scattershot Improv of "Driver UFO" to some familiarly obnoxious garage punk, but the overall feeling is less aggressive, more sombre than before.

The Dead C - Repent (1997, SiItbreeze SB66 CD) The best introduction to The Dead C as a live group - short of seeing them play, of course - Repent collects six untitled instrumental pieces recorded in Auckland and Christchurch in 1996. Guitar squeals, fragments of riffs, sustained, hypnotic patterns and a powerful rhythmic undertow are seemingly held together by some force of collective will, to create an ecstatic and tranceinducing experience that might tip into you believing that telepathy is possible.

Gate - The Monolake (7996, Table Of The Elements kr36 CD) Drawn partly from the American tour which Gate undertook with Faust, this album features Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo on some tracks and a faithful cover of their travel companions song "Jennifer". It opens, dislocatingly enough, with a bona fide rock song, "Standing In Fields", based on a looped drum pattern from The Rolling Stones' "Sway", which is treated as so much sonic flotsam, a relic of rock music. From there on, It is all shimmering, expansive guitar textures, as wilfully oblique as ever.

Flying Saucer Attack - Flying Saucer Attack (1996, Corpus Hermeticum HERNESO 7 710 7 8 CD)Seamlessly assembled by Bruce Russell from live tapes posted from their Bristolian base by FSA, Flying Saucer Attack is more than an example of the international noise network in action - this ethereal, mind-bending piece of drone music is one of the high points of the Corpus Hermeticum catalogue. In taking the music further 'out there' than other FSA releases, Russell demonstrated his knack for loosening up song-based musicians such as this now defunct British outfit.

A Handful Of Dust Jerusalem, Street Of Graves (1998, Corpus Hermetlcum HERNES029 CD)Less 'difficult' or unsettling than some Handful Of Dust releases, this one features Russell, Alastair Galbraith and, on one track, Peter Stapleton, generating noise pieces that feel like environmental installations beset by random power surges. Dense drones, hums and buzzes eventually give way, on the last track "I Had Not Thought Death Had Undone So Many", to a kind of stillness and clarity.