xpressway retrospective

Excerpts from Dan Vallor's completely excellent rundown of the mighty Xpressway label's discography, published in Popwatch #9. For copies of Popwatch, try Forced Exposure, or write them direct at: Popwatch, P.O. Box 440215, Somerville, MA 02144.

New Zealand's Xpressway label (1988-1992) was responsible for one of the most consistently powerful catalogs of releases of any label worldwide, The artists were nearly all exceptional, the work among the artists' best, and the taste with which founder Bruce Russell (often with the help of Peter Jefferies) chose material was unsurpassed. Xpressway harnessed the best from Russell's South Island domain and his small community of friends and managed to establish a substantial following on little more than word of mouth. in turn the label provided the spark that ignited the careers of many of New Zealand's most talented artists, including Russell's own The Dead C. In 1987 Russell was working as a publicist for New Zealand's reigning independent label Flying Nun in the South Island city of Christchurch. The nation's music industry was undergoing a crisis as EMI, New Zealand's last vinyl pressing plant, was closing down. This spelled disaster, particularly for the nation's independent labels. At this point vinyl was still the primary recorded medium and the cost of pressing overseas was prohibitive for smaller labels. Flying Nun's solution was to move north to Auckland, establishing a short-lived relationship with WEA and closing their Christchurch offices permanently. Russell found such a move implausible. in addition to harboring strong reservations about the changing face of Flying Nun and the inevitable influence of WEA, Russell's new band (The Dead C.) and his family and friends were firmly rooted in the South Island. As time passed Russell watched many of the bands he respected have their work rejected by the now higher profile Flying Nun. At the peak of his disenchantment with the increasingly profit-minded label, Russell started Xpressway, a home-taping label invented to issue releases by South Island acts he thought should be heard.

Working by day as an archivist for the Presbyterian Church and occasionally lecturing at Otago University, Russell's academic pursuits provided an aesthetic grounding as well as a stark contrast to his growing musical endeavors. The contrast becomes most apparent in Xpressway's sound, which, while as varied as its artists, was typically cheaply recorded and often improvised. The music was generally the product of technicallydisinclined-but-inspired musicians. Russell described his own expertise saying "I literally don't understand what a key is." Initially recognized worldwide from the cassette compilation Xpressway Pile-Up-later issued on CD and LP on Scotland's Avalanche label Xpressway has had numerous licensed releases bearing its logo on such labels as Ajax, Drag City, Twisted Village, Drunken Fish, Turbulence, and Raffmond. In addition, artists who have recorded with Xpressway have gone on to record for labels such as Siltbreeze, Flying Nun, IMD, Emperor Jones, Merge, and others. Many of the original Xpressway releases have since been archived by labels around the world. Meanwhile, the label's shadow still looms large over the underground music world. Russell has often suggested that the impetus behind starting Xpressway was to seed the availability of the music he and his friends were making. But the label did more than that, it documented a remarkable era in New Zealand music and paved the way for generations of musicians to free themselves of the constraints of the explore musical avenues not previously traveled.

X/Way 1
The Dead C.-Live Dead See (originally released as an Xpressway cassette, not reissued at this point) Bruce Russell: "Live Dead See. The first thing I ever mastered for cassette release, compiled from tapes made of performances over the first year of the band's existence. This pretty much outlived its relevance in the couple of years following release. Not a landmark in retrospect."
Prior to their Xpressway debut, The Dead C. had established enough contacts to garner interest from the Flying Nun label, perhaps primarily a benefit of the individual band members' visibility within the label's sphere, most prominently drummer Robbie Yeats (who had recorded with Flying Nun as a member of the Verlaines) and Michael Morley (who had recorded for Nun with both The Weeds and Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos). Bruce Russell had earned his local reputation writing for Garage and other seminal NZ music magazines, though certainly his time working with Flying Nun made him familiar to the label as well. By the time this Xpressway tape appeared Flying Nun had already released the band s first LP (1987's DR503). With that LP and a prior tape release on their own Diabolic Root label, The Dead C. were an established albeit obscure power in the South Island underground. This live document displays the more songoriented The Dead C. with a selection of tracks that had and would later appear on other "studio" releases. Showing splinters of a well-hidden fancy for SST-era Sonic Youth (from whence the Xpressway label name was culled), this tape is an engulfing swell that actually caused me to forget my way home from work one night after a year and a half at the same job. Even at their most structured, The Dead C. consistently has a sound so involving that it has a meditative quality. With guitars as thick as the soil in which they grow the copious amounts of weed I expect they inhale, The Dead C.'s juxtaposition of academia and a stoner mindset creates a stimulating and transcendent buzz. Smarter and more congenial than just about any other band with such a taste for mind alteration, The Dead C. have circled themselves with influences but remain the standard of invention in New Zealand.

X/Way 2
This Kind of Punishment Live 1985 (originally released as an Xpressway cassette, not reissued at this point) Bruce Russell: "This had been compiled by Peter (Jefferies) in 1985 after the tour which it documented. Hearing it and knowing it would not see release if I didn't do it was a key influence in the genesis of the label. In fact all three of the first cassettes were either mastered or at least planned in detail before the label was started." This collection of live material from the four-piece This Kind of Punishment (Peter and Graeme Jefferies, Chris Matthews, and Johnny Pierce, who recorded the 5 by Four EP on Flying Nun) is actually culled from shows dating from September 1984 and May 1985, at the time between A Beard of Bees and 5 by Four. Most of this material was recorded in 1985 while on tour with Jay Clarkson's Expendables; these were among the very last shows TKOP performed. Soon after, an arts festival, "The Nit-Picker's Picnic," dissolved this amalgam and a single 1986 performance with a line-up of the Jefferies brothers, Michael Morley, and Shayne Carter saw the end of the band. The initial sounds from this tape give the impression that Chris Matthews has gone from his pivotal but limited role on A Beard of Bees to pretty much the focal point of the band. He not only fronts the band for the first two songs but also acts as the voice of the band between songs. Matthews's material at this point was not as finely drawn as the Jefferies's and is occasionally evocative of early-80s John Cale records from Fear to Sabotage. Matthews's "Radio Silence" is the only exclusive track here and, fortunately, the live recording here comes off better than on otherwise memorable Matthews songs like "The Sleepwalker." Live '85 does not depict TKOP as nearly the band that their records demonstrate. Crucial elements of the band, such as their attention to detail and their artistic guile, are both lacking in these performances, which are essentially flat-sounding. There are some fine moments on this release, but it is not the place to start with this otherwise inspired band. Many of the vocals are strained and the full-band arrangement may have sounded fierce in the clubs but on tape sounds oversimplified. Had this been the sole legacy of TKOP they would not have the relevance they hold in retrospect. An exceptional band-an occasionally exciting recording.

X/Way 3
Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos-A Childs Guide to Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos (originally released as an Xpressway cassette, not reissued at this point) Bruce Russell: "I knew that there was more than enough material on various cassettes both released by the band and also sessions/live stuff that had never been released, so it wasn't hard to put this together. This one is still pretty good, and ought to be reissued at some point. Covered the whole range of different stuff they did at times, so it's a good career retrospective."
X/Way 3 is a compilation of tracks from the countless self-released tapes of the Michael Morley and Richard Ram duo between the years 1983 and 1986. Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos may be known to those less familiar with the NZ underground from their Flying Nun-released and Ajaxreissued River Failing Love EP. Hopefully we may soon have more material from them as I've heard whispering of a CD reissue of a load of their early cassette tracks. WSSCES' sound varied between a sort of pre-Dead C. kind of drone, elements of minimalist and vaguely twee pop, and a sort of rhythmic dance demolition. There is a strong element of the early-80s Rough Trade sound from around the era of NME/Rough Trade's C-81 tape which, while not as widely referenced as the later C-86 tape, was perhaps a more solid depiction of what was happening in the international underground at the time. WSSOES' sound exhibits bits of psychedelia similar to the Television Personalities from that era, but more prominent are elements of early-80s Pere Ubu (with perhaps a little Can thrown in on the amazing epic low rider krautrock track "Together We Sense"). Much like early-/mid-period Pere Ubu, WSSOES used electronics while avoiding the techno-pop cliches so prevalent in the NZ and international music scene at the time. Sadly, "Together We Sense" was omitted from the Ajax CD, which could be a reflection of the not quite sure-footed vocals on the track. However, "Rain" did make it to the CD and features Denise Roughan (Look Blue Go Purple/3Ds) on second voice. It is among the five bonus tracks on the CD (only two are reprised from the Xpressway release), and is a folky piece of sweet pop drone, It's a mystery that it was omitted from the Flying Nun EP as it appears to date from the same era. Most of A Childs Guide to... is made up of studio recordings, though there are some live tracks as well, The material varies quite a bit and some of it sounds rather dated...but dated in a really good way.
Michael Morley is of course still one-third of Dead C. as well as intermittently a half and the whole of Gate. He has appeared on recordings with Cobweb Iris, Tanaka-Nixon Meeting, and Faust, and cut his teeth with the Flying Nun supercombo The Weeds (Morley, Robert Scott, Shayne Carter, Jon Collie, Jeffery Harford, and Chris Healey) as we I as hanging 9 out in Angelhead for a while. Richard Ram now lives in Auckland where he works outside of he world of music and inside the internet business.

X/Way 12
The Dead C.-Dead C. Perform DR503b (originally released as an Xpressway cassette, not reissued at this point) Bruce Russell: "This one was conceived as an alternative version of our first LP because we had so much stuff in the can that seemed worthwhile but duplicated previously released material in some sense. I think we even deliberately rerecorded "I Love This" for the cassette. The best bits are on the Shock compilation CD World Peace Hope et at., except for the original "Max Harris" which went on the Feel Good All Over CD of DR503. The artwork is based on the first ever Dead C release, the Performs Max Harris cassette (ed. of 21, March 1987).
The Dead C.'s DR503 LP was issued by Flying Nun prior to the release of this cassette, making this something of a director's cut. Dead C. Perform DR503b begins with the resurrection of "(Beyond Help From) Max Harris," a cacophonous strum and twang fro m The Dead C.'s very first and very-limited cassette single Performs Max Harris. This is an epic 12-minute masterpiece of varying layers and one-half of one of the greatest works never heard outside of their small community until this release. Specifically for DR503b , The Dead C. rerecorded "3 Years" as a spare and quiet version of the raspier album track and reinvented "The Wheel" as the totally different "(Turning) the Wheel," maintaining the rhythm structure and replacing the spare melodic element with an extension of the sound collage that encircled the original piece, The only remaining particle of the Flying Nun DR503 LP is "Mutterline," already far enough into the stratosphere to survive this reconstruction. The tiny one-minute snippet "Sunstabbed (frag.)" is unrelated to the likenamed EP and would later appear, along with the longer version of "Angel," "Fire," and a recreated "Speed Kills" (this one burying the vocal beneath something of a stoned guitar) on the Shock CD World Peace Hope et al.

X/Way 7
Dead C.-The Sun Stabbed 7" EP (originally in an edition of 500 on Xpressway, currently available on the compilation Making Losers Happy on Drag City) Bruce Russell: "Easily the stupidest first vinyl release a label ever made, The Dead C. were not popular at all outside of about 40 people at the time, but we were determined to do a single. Flying Nun wouldn't touch the format in 1988 (it was to be 3 move years before 7's were once more acceptable to the management). We did 500, and it took a couple of years to sell them all. Everyone seemed to think it was shit at the time and we sold about 10 in the shops in Dunedin. "Angel" is still a great recording of a great song."
Three distinct voices of The Dead C. in what seems a pivotal moment in their development. "Bad Politics" is a rave-up, a paean to the ins and outs (mostly the outs) of personal/sexual politics with brutal ferocity to spare ... this was later covered by Yo La Tengo on their Tom Courtenay EP. "Crazy I Know" is perhaps the saddest and most passionate of The Dead C.'s cries. Michael Morley may not have the sweetest voice amongst his Xpressway peers, but he delivers such emotional turmoil that you can feel the loss in the pit of your stomach. It's a morose and beautiful moment of emotional nakedness. "Angel" elaborates on that forlorn figure centered around a subtle Sonic Youth construct (or is a Dead C. riff later co-opted by Sonic Youth?), but that's a structural element and not an indicator of where this goes melodically. The Dead C. has followed countless musical paths since the release of The Sun Stabbed, but the EP represents some of the most distinctive. It is the document that vividly defines their early work.

DEAD C.-DR503 (Feel Good All Over/Licensed from Xpressway) The Flying Nun album that Dead C. saw fit to reinvent on the Xpressway cassette DR503b, and I wouldn't have cause to discuss this version of it were it not for this Xpressway-licensed reissue. Frankly, this version is a hell of a challenge to find thanks to a rather dicey distribution system at Feel Good All Over-it took me a couple of years to find my copy. What differentiates the FGAO version from the original Flying Nun LP (other than the fact that it's on CD) is that it includes an excerpt from the morbidlylimited first Dead C. cassette Performs Max Harris as a bonus track, This mangled topography of three shattered minds is the "less commercial" of Dead C.'s two Flying Nun releases and it covers emotions and experiences that are like colors from a nonexistent spectrum. It's tremendous that a band so completely equipped to do an album this forward thinking were given an opportunity to do so and see it released by a label with the distribution of Flying Nun. It is equally thrilling that DR503 proved successful enough that Flying Nun would release Dead C.'s subsequent LP, Eusa Kills. The album has structure, but the experimentation that snakes throughout makes DR503 a vanguard of sorts, as in 1987 there were not a lot of new ideas in the indie music wasteland. Home recorded and immensely powerful, DR503 is a complete and remarkable album. Its strongest moments ("Three Years," "Polio," and the sound collage "Mutterline") define Dead C's purpose as well as anything before or after.

DEAD C.-Eusa Kills (Flying Nun/Xpressway) The second of The Dead C.'s two Flying Nun projects, Eusa Kills is quite dynamic in character and is seemingly something of a diatribe on the subject of continental superpower-the title seemingly an amalgam of Europe, U.S., and Asia. I don't think Dead C. are generally considered to be an outspoken political voice-they seem to be primarily measured by their musical texture-but the subject of international politics has surfaced repeatedly on both of these Dead C. releases and the releases of the band's various offshoots. They do embrace a kind of militancy that a lot of New Zealanders have as a result of international screwings their nation has had 6 endure within the last 20 years, particularly from the U.S. Specifically directed at this issue is "Call Back Your Dogs," though the inclusion ofT. Rex's "Children of the Revolution" adds a salty twist to this sort of activism I'm told. The Dead C.'s adaptation of the T. Rex gem apparently started with an original based around the drum beat of Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks" and mutated into the Marc Bolan cover with the encouragement of Peter Jefferies. Eusa Kills closes with the mantric and mostly instrumental meditation called "The Envelopment" that lends resignation to the disgust. This just might be the folk music of protest for the machine era.

THE DEAD C.-Helen Said This (Siltbreeze/Xpressway) I don't know whether to call this a 12" single, an EP, or a mini-LP. With two songs clocking in at just about 25 minutes, this is guitar monstery at its most ferocious. Brutal crashing gives way to an entrancing meditation and I don't know if it rivals or crawls into bed with that marathon "Xpressway to Yr Skull" that Sonic Youth used to play live, but I know they definitely meet up in some seedy haunt. "Bury" is more primitive, with Bruce Russell taking to the drums and Robbie Yeats to guitar as Dead C. veer into total lawlessness ... plus there's someone in there playing a pair of scissors. "Bury" follows a similar track to "Helen Said This," bursting forth and then crawling safely back into the womb where the fog is vast and enveloping. This is better than anything you'll find in a syringe.

DADAMAH-"Sun Scratch"/" Radio Brain" (Majora/via Xpressway) DADAMAH-"High Time"/"Nicotine" (Majora/via Xpressway) I suppose it's because Dadamah marked the reappearance of Roy Montgomery after a prolonged absence from music that this band is often spoken of as Roy Montgomery's project. While musical;y t. here are strong elements of Montgomery's guitar style and he does sing on some of Dadamah's releases, it is the filtering of his style with Peter Stapleton's like-minded history and Kim Pieters's vocals and bass that provide the foreground for Dadamah, defining them as a distinctive unit rather than simply an offshoot of other historically important bands. Pieters, Stapleton, and Montgomery, along with keyboardist Janine Stagg, would continue to develop this chemistry on Dadamah's This Is Not a Dream LP on the Majora label (now available along with these singles and "Replicant Emotion" from the I Hear the Devil Calling Me EP on a single CID compiled on the Kranky label). While Dadamah sustained the traditions of Montgomery's and Stapleton's past projects, they also established their own unique sound. Dadamah released a few very potent recordings in their time and, thanks to Kranky, these are all still available in one package. Peter Stapleton and Kim Pieters still work together in a more experimental vein with different collaborators, both as Rain and as Flies Inside the Sun, in addition to having collaborated with Bruce Russell on the Corpus Hermeticum CD Last Glass. Pieters continues to work in visual arts and has released a single, a CD on Corpus Hermeticum, and an LP on Fusetron with her project Doramaar. Stapleton still writes and drums with The Terminals. I understand that Janine Stagg is not currently working in music, while Roy Montgomery continues as a prolific solo artist, working in dark somber songs as well as introspective guitar experimentation. Montgomery has also released recordings with Chris Heaphy as Dissolve.