I have often felt that Alec Bathgate is one of New Zealand music’s unsung heroes. I know that people appreciate his work with Chris Knox – in The Enemy, Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs. But when I heard The Indifferent Velvet Void I thought it was a gem; a lo-fi masterpiece. I felt privileged to have the album and to be able to disappear in o his world by listening to it – but I also thought it a great shame that more people wouldn’t hear the album.
For all the absurdities of the internet – for all the idiots that troll about and try to get under the skin of people they don’t know and could never even possibly be close to bold to in real life – it is a magical place. It is a tool for communication, for connection – in so many forms/ways.
I was listening to The Indifferent Velvet Void one night and I just decided that I wanted to get in touch with Alec Bathgate and ask him some questions about his music; about the music he made and the music he loved.
The search for Alec Bathgate included an email from his daughter who told me that she a) was a reader of [my old blog] Blog On The Tracks and b) would put in the word to her father to answer some questions from me because she had “come to see that his music is really great. There was a time when it was annoying that I couldn’t put my bike in the shed, or whatever, because I was like seven and dad was using the garage as a recording studio…but actually now I think that’s kinda cool”.
I decided I would not ask Alec questions about his musical soul-mate Chris Knox. As you will know Knox suffered a stroke and though his initial recovery was reported as positive there is of course a long way to go.
But you will see – in the answers that Alec gives below – the bond between Knox and Bathgate is one of the crucial ones in New Zealand music. And there’s a pathos and a celebration in thinking first that there will probably not be any new Tall Dwarfs music but then to consider what is there still waiting to be discovered by many; to be rediscovered and handed down the line…
I had one question I wanted to ask Alec Bathgate. Well, it wasn’t even a question. I wanted to tell him that I loved The Indifferent Velvet Void. And I wanted to know if he loved it too. If he knew that people (me, at least) loved it. And to find out some of the story behind it. I decided it was best to just tell him, straight out, that I was a huge fan of the album.
My thanks to Alec for taking the time to take us all on this journey…
We kick off with the most gushing, unprofessional question I could ever ask:
The Indifferent Velvet Void is one of my favourite albums — it’s not often you get to say that to the artist that made the record, but enough time has passed now too for me to say it without feeling like I’m just sucking up. I’m wondering what you think of the album? If you could tell us a bit about the making of it. Was it a happy experience? Were you pleased with it? Did you get much of a chance to tour it at all and play the songs live? Do you listen to the album yourself now and if so how have your thoughts on it changed?
I was really happy with The Indifferent Velvet Void. I recorded it in a little room in our old house in Riccarton, Christchurch. The room was completely red and had a nice womb-like quality. I had all my records in there, so I would play music and drink coffee then get down to recording. It took a long time to make — 18 months — because I could only record on weekends. I had a Creative NZ deadline to meet though so I couldn’t ease up. It was stressful!
It was hard writing the songs, but the recording was fun. I played all the instruments, so I had to construct the songs from the ground up. I enjoyed arranging them and messing around with different sounds. Obsessively so. I had a list with places for 16 songs. Once it started taking shape I would write songs to fit the gaps. I was very conscious of how it would all fit together as a whole. There are a few tracks that reference T.Rex.
The Slider is an album I really love so I wanted to acknowledge that. WFMU in New York had my cover of Overundersidewaysdown on their playlist and played it heaps. I wonder if any Yardbirds heard it. I like my version more than theirs. Hah!
I did three shows when the album came out, but I don’t enjoy playing solo and I’ve since decided not to do it again. Being the guitar player in a band was much more fun. I haven’t played the album for a long time, but I know I still love it. My son says it’s a good demo for a great album. The recording’s very amateurish. I discovered after finishing it that I had been using my mic incorrectly. I actually had it facing the wrong way a lot of the time!
Reviews were indifferent — but I wasn’t expecting to get much attention (hence the title). But, to be honest, I was a bit disappointed after all the work that had gone into it.
You’ve recorded two solo albums. Are you working on another? Will you go back to releasing solo work w/ Flying Nun?
No plans to do any recording any time soon.
What has been your favourite recording experience? What is the best album you have worked on? Do you have a favourite? And are there songs that didn’t work out on record that you would change now if you could?
Favourite recording experience: just being in a room with Chris, some recording gear and a bunch of shonky instruments. It was a bit like being kids in a sandpit pushing round toys; making things and watching them fall over.
I don’t know what the best album is I’ve worked on. It would be a Tall Dwarfs album, but I never play ‘em. There’s good stuff all through our back catalogue, but you’ve got to search out the gems.
Songs that didn’t work out like they should have: that would be the complete Toy Love album. There’s actually a Toy Love tribute album coming out shortly on a US label: Burning Sky Records. Strange to think of those songs being revived all these years later. Like zombies back from the grave.
What are you currently working on musically? And how much time do you spend on music?
I listen to music all day, every day; but I don’t play anymore. I’ve played the guitar pretty much daily since I was 13, but since Chris’s stroke I’ve completely stopped playing. Strange.
What are your three favourite NZ albums?
And what are your three favourite records?
David Bowie’s Hunky Dory: My friend’s sister left this and Ziggy Stardust behind when she was home from Uni. They were the first records I heard that had a life-changing effect on me (apart from I Am The Walrus which I had heard when I was eight and had my little mind totally blown). Their covers smelt seductively of stale cigarette smoke and I promptly took up smoking.
John Cale’s Paris 1919: I found this in the Dunedin library in 1977 and fell for it straight away; been listening to it ever since. I met Cale in 1984 and had an awkward conversation with him due to his heavy Welsh and completely indecipherable accent. Embarrassing.
And I’d like to squeeze in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over the Sea and the entire output of The Velvet Underground and The Beatles (minus a few songs) … and while I’m at it: Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi, Pavement’s Slanted & Enchanted, the Nick Drake albums; I could just keep going …
What have been the best live shows/venues you’ve played and what was so special about them?
Too many good shows, venues to relate, but here’s a bit of an overview of the bands I’ve played in:
Being in The Enemy was a blast because none of us had played in a band before. We got good pretty fast. We thought we were the best band in the world and on a good night were at least the best band in Dunedin.
Toy Love shows were something else again. Bigger audiences, more need to prove ourselves to the doubters that came along wanting to hate us. Our crowds would go mental: it could be complete mayhem on the dance floor. I took it for granted until a few years went by and I realised what an extraordinary experience it had been. I still have vivid dreams where I’m playing in Toy Love (not that I’d wish to go back). Those songs are etched in my memory forever.
Tall Dwarfs shows were special because it was just Chris and me and when we connected it was awesome. We got more free-form in later years which was fun. There was an uncanny intuition between us that was freaky at times.
What have been the top three gigs you have watched/experienced?
The Stooges, Big Day Out, 2006. I kinda lost control in a way I never have before or since. I shouted myself hoarse and ended up bloodied and bruised by the end of their set.
Too many great Clean gigs to mention. Provincial Hotel, Christchurch 1999 was a particularly good night with a crazed bunch of old fans going completely nuts and The Clean looking totally baffled by the reaction.
What else? Ravi Shankar was good at the Wellington Arts Fest this year. I remember a great Fall show at a deserted Christchurch Town Hall in the early 1980s. Nico at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Wire in Auckland and then Brian Wilson doing Smile in Paris a week later.
What are your favourite musical guilty pleasures? And what would surprise your fans about the music you listen to/are influenced by?
Philly Soul, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Aretha Franklin, bubblegum pop, glam rock, 60’s girl groups, Led Zeppelin, 70s Floyd; the early Bee Gees albums are great, The Monkees; too much other oddball stuff to mention.
What is the last record that has blown you away?
I’m liking the MGMT album, Congratulations. It’s been getting some patchy reviews, but it’s a wee gem; it just takes a few listens to get its hooks in to you. Also liking Embryonic by the Flaming Lips, but generally I’m stuck in the past and just listen to old stuff.
Alec Bathgate sent through these answers to my questions last night. I had a tear reading them; reading between the lines to take in the effect of Chris Knox’s stroke on Alec and the decision that he has arrived at to not play. The respect that he has for that work – so crucial.
And I thought that the internet was a pretty cool place – in terms of connecting you with people. Here’s a guy with no product to push and nothing to prove just happy to answer my questions because I wanted to ask them.
And then I watched this clip; Alec and Chris making music again together – albeit separately.
And I thought that you might like to read these questions and answers and share any thoughts on Alec’s solo albums, on his work with Chris Knox across so many great songs, albums and bands.
And I wrote back to tell Alec that I hoped he was at least at some peace with not playing.
His reply: “not at all worried about not playing music; I feel like I’ve done enough and I love listening to music as much as ever”.
He also told me that his new non-music work, independent, after many years “as an employee” was “really exciting; not unlike being 18 and playing in a punk rock band!”