It might be pushing it to call this a New Zealand album – but I still think of this as a great Kiwi album because a great Kiwi made it. Schnell Fenster was the band Phil Judd created in the late 1980s/early 1990s. They were around for two albums – and though I like Ok Alright A Huh Oh Yeah (1990) it’s this one, the debut, 1988’s The Sound of Trees that is the one for me.
I grew up in a house obsessed with Split Enz. I still remember being gutted I couldn’t go to the band’s original farewell shows in 1984. I’m like eight years old and pissed off that I’m home with a babysitter. Fuckit! And then, not all that long after that, I’m like 12 or so and my brother returns home from school with a tape by a band called Schnell Fenster. “Come and listen to this”, he says. “It looks weird, I say” – because the cover was freaky, especially combining it with that band’s name and album’s title. And then as soon as Whisper started I was hooked. “What the fuck?” I say. “Yes”, he tells me. “It’s Phil Judd”. Phil was the voice of Split Enz for us. Oh we loved the Tim Finn stuff. We loved the Neil Finn stuff. But Phil was the voice – he was the creative spirit of that band. And though we liked Crowded House this Schnell Fenster cassette tape seemed to offer another secret side. Crowded House was just what Neil did after Split Enz. And that’s all good and well but if Split Enz had kept going Neil might have made albums under that banner that had songs like the tunes on the first self-titled Crowded House album.
But Schnell Fenster! Man this was a whole other thing. This was so catchy and hooky and weird and wonderful but it was like the other side of the Split Enz ideal; the darker, weirder altogether groovier side – Tim had it, but lost it running off to chase after pop hits. Judd owned it. Still owns it. Still writes great pop songs too. They’re just pop songs that willingly, happily spike their own drinks.
My brother had this tape because his art teacher had told him all about it. My bro was in his final year at school and all he cared about was art – he bunked out of every other subject and pulled-finger painting and sculpting and sketching. He’d fucked around the previous years with art. He could draw. He could paint. But he wasn’t doing much – he wasn’t trying. Final year he got hooked on it and put in the effort. His teacher took him aside and they talked music. His teacher says to him something like “you remind me of a guy I used to teach – my top-achieving student”. That guy was Phil Judd. So my bro says he loves Split Enz and the art teacher tells him the real story – at this time – is Schnell Fenster.
Just like that we’re on board.
Yes, so Schnell Fenster is the world to me. I write it on my pencil case. I scrawl it on my bag. People are all like “what the actual fuck?” They wonder why I’ve written these words. I tell them. I say “Phil Judd!” I get blank stares. Fuck them. The headphones go on, the walkman walks me around town and The Sound of Trees is my soundtrack to everywhere. I get lost in this album every time I hit the button. It’s so damn good and why doesn’t anyone else know about it?
I find out that Schnell Fenster has other members from Split Enz – three quarters of the group were Enz members and Noel Crombie is in there, he’s part of the gang. We love Noel Crombie!
And it still feels like music that only our family knows about. I’m locked in my own world with this tape – and hey, that ain’t a bad thing. But it’s no surprise I ended up blogging daily and reviewing and cussing out about terrible awful shit while shouting loudly about all I love in music – I always wanted to share my thoughts about this stuff; it consumes me and I’m lost in it and baffled when I’m alone with something – or think I am. I’m happy to be the only one that likes something – just as I’m okay with being last in at the party. But I always want to know why – why hasn’t this made it? Why didn’t it get the response that I’m giving it? Why don’t you know about it?
Fuck I must have been an awful, embarrassing teenager. I’m older now. At least I have that. Age is a great excuse.
So I’m 12 and 13 and 14 and 15 and listening to this tape all the time. Like every day for a while. And every time I have a new favourite song, but That’s Impossible is so damn cool and so is This Illusion and Lamplight and Run-A-Mile and Never Stop. And then more songs get added to that list. I can’t fast-forward any of it; I can’t walk out of the room and leave it playing. I hit pause whenever I leave the room and play as soon as I re-enter.
“Oh yeah”, says mum, “I went to school with him”. The fuck?
I’m in the middle of proclaiming Phil Judd a genius. “He did the Split Enz stuff, all the best stuff anyway, and then there was Counting The Beat…” I’m breathlessly telling this all to the person who played the records to me in the first place.
“His folks ran the dairy out at the beach when we were kids”, mum tells me. Then she turns up the volume on the TV because Coronation Street is on now on meaning our conversation is done.
I’m back in my room and writing out the lyrics to This Illusion. My handwriting is atrocious, already. (It’ll get worse – as anyone who knows me knows). I have an electric typewriter and I scribble awful poems on paper then type them up. If I’m feeling on to it and brave/foolish I’ll type straight off, no draft, no words in front of me already. I’ll just make something up, commit it straight to type. I find The Sound of Trees is a very good album to play – over and over – locked in my room at night. A picture of Coltrane I photocopied and cut out, stuck on a folder, coloured all around it with a black felt pen. In the folder are the song lyrics I prize – David Bowie and Schnell Fenster mostly. Also that first Tracy Chapman album. Every single lyric. When I can’t write my own poems I type up the lyrics – just to practice typing. To get the rhythm, to keep it going, to mark the time while the tape plays out. And over. And over.
Not a lot has changed in my life really. I don’t wear shorts – or shoes – so much now. I’m older, fatter, a lot smarter in some ways. And then not so much in others. Not as cocky, not as know-it-all. There are only a few records that have stayed with me all of my life – in terms of the ones born and made in my lifetime. Obviously I’ll still get drunk with Abbey Road once a year or two, still crank up After The Gold Rush now and then and type along, but these records didn’t need me. I needed them.
Somehow I feel like The Sound of Trees needed me. Well, Just as much as I needed it.
A revelation to find my own cassette copy. (I’d dubbed my brother’s to begin with). And then, much later, up in Auckland I find the CD. And later still, after years of casual searching I find a sealed copy on vinyl. A trip to Sydney. I’d almost figured I’d never find it. (It’s still sealed – not a week goes by when I don’t wonder what the perfect time will be to play this record). I know one thing – I won’t share this record with anyone, the vinyl I mean. Not the first I time I play it. I’ll be home alone that day. Or night. Or…whatever…
Fuck, the title song. I forgot that in the list before. It’s the best song on the album! No, it’s not the best – it’s best-equal with almost everything else.
I get a daily blog for Stuff.co.nz in late 2007. I’m still going. Still firing up the stereo and typing along to it in rhythm – all night. Every night. Not much has changed. I’m in long pants, barefoot, I’m not copying lyrics, I’m pasting links. But fuckall has changed behind the concept of it all.
Back when I started the blog I had no real plans. Just write about music. Each night I’d mark the day with a story about how I got inside an album or how an album will never share my world or how I partied too hard at a gig, got drunk, tried to climb on stage or how I once told a drummer far better than me that I enjoyed playing Paul Simon’s 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and instead of nodding and saying he enjoyed playing it too he shot me a look of awe and handed me his sticks and speaking-so-fast he went, “really? Fuck. Show me! Can you chart it out? Can you write it down for me”. Ah, no, no I couldn’t. Like fuck I could. I could make up a story about his kit not being set up right for me and run away real quick. That’s what I could do.
So those were the stories and the stories keep coming. Fortunately. For now at least…
I did have a piece of paper when I started that blog – some topics to get me going. That Paul Simon drum-blunder was on there. The time I tried to climb on stage with Paul Kelly after muting his guitar strings with a drunken fist because he wasn’t playing the songs I wanted to hear; that was on there too.
And I had just one interview ambition: talk to Phil Judd.
I’ve done hundreds of interviews now – some of them special, some of them awkward, some of them awful. I’ve had a few pulled from me at last minute too. Always gutting.
But after years of emails and calls and searching for who to contact and then making direct contact I got my interview with Phil Judd. We chatted for hours. He told me the only reason we were talking so long was because I was on the phone in New Zealand and he was in Australia. If I had flown over to speak to him and arranged a time, he told me, most likely, even if he’d agreed to it before hand he wouldn’t have turned up. The fear would have got (to) him. He told me about the excitement of discovering songs at his own fingertips, he and Tim Finn, young and excited by each other and by their desire to make; to create. He told me about knocking out a cheap, sneaky, silly rockabilly riff with just a bit of punk spunk and it being called Counting The Beat. He told me about so many things. I told him my mum knew him at school. I told him my brother idolised him and shared an art-teacher who compared my bro to him at one time. I told him his brother (an architect) designed my parents’ house.
Kiwis. Talking to other Kiwis.
You know! You all know what it’s like…
And then I told him – or tried, just like I’m trying to do now for you – how much The Sound of Trees meant to me. The dubbed tape to original tape to CD to vinyl story.
He told me he’d sell me the painting – the original artwork, the cover. He has it. I want it. I can’t afford it. One day I’ll open that record I guess, stick it in a frame, hang it on the wall. Keep dreaming. And keep listening to the music. There just ain’t enough money to be made typing up words to buy the fucking-coolest-ever art in the world.
Oh, and he told me hated the record, it made him miserable. It was an ugly, unhappy, unpleasant experience.
That didn’t make me sad. It shouldn’t make you sad. It made me want to get even closer to the album. Made me go back to it – again. And again. As always. It made me appreciate the time he had given me. Not just for the interview. His sweat and blood and fears are in that record. It was an ordeal. And it’s meant the world to me to live with this album. And to talk to the guy who made it.