The band was called Sofa. It was a placeholder name. It was because a name was needed. For a gig. The band’s first gig. And the name would be changed straight after. Instead the name stayed for the three and a half years that the band played gigs around Wellington and Hawke’s Bay.
Sofa was my band. But not mine alone. It belonged to the other members too – but I’m the one writing this.
And if you’ve had enough of silly anniversary puff pieces celebrating an arbitrary set of revolutions around the sun and linking that to music in a way to allegedly make it suddenly more meaningful then you’re gonna love this light read: 25 years ago today Sofa played its very first proper gig!
We were a covers band. And we actually played an ad-hoc thing at a university hostel in the late 1995 and that was fun. It was me with a snare-drum, hi-hat and a ride-cymbal. It was Tony with his guitar. Sometimes he put a harmonica in his mouth but he had no harness for it so he just held it there and blew in and out. We were mesmerized by how “professional” he could actually make that sound. And it was Vonce. The lead singer. He had a guitar as well.
That was it. No bass player. No shredding solos. No bass drum. Just two semi-acoustics and a lot of U2 and Radiohead songs. We did The Exponents. Pearl Jam. Cat Stevens. The Mutton Birds. James Taylor. Oasis. Many of the songs were utterly recognisable.
Sometime in early 1996 we were all in Hawke’s Bay on our university holiday – first year completed – and the idea arrived that we should get a gig. We hit up the local pub and they agreed. We borrowed a mate’s amp. We were sorted. Oh, and we needed a name. We had one of our two or three practices (the total amount for the three and a half year duration of the group) and we spent more time mulling what to call ourself than we did sussing all of the chords for Wonderwall.
My mum popped her head around the corner and said something about “Couch”. Since that’s where we were sat. Was there anything more prosaic ever? We thought to riff on the word and did so more than we ‘riffed’ on most of our repertoire. We arrived at Sofa. Decided that would do just fine for the gig. And then we’d change it. We never did.
The Sleeping Giant was the venue. The scene of far too many key parties I should imagine. It was later called Diva. And though it’s very different now it still stands. Back then it was this strange haven for partying boomers not yet a meme. And for young Gen Xers mingling – underaged and thinking they were looking brave. We were perched in the corner playing just over the dinner-time chatters. And then we got louder and they couldn’t. So we won. We played The Nameless Girl – a deep cut by The Exponents. We played Father and Son. A song I have a personal love/hate relationship with. We played several U2 songs – not just One. And some of our friends were in the crowd. That made if easier. Alan Duff was there too. He wasn’t a friend. But we knew him. Everyone knew Alan Duff in Havelock North in the mid-90s. I joked, during one of the breaks, that we might end up in his column the next week. We laughed. A few days later we got what we called our first (and later only) review. Alan Duff might have said something about “gentle melodies”. Alan Duff definitely said something about “deeper meaning lyrics”. We wore that like a badge. A strange thing to do really, since the entire set was comprised of songs we did not write.
We would go on to create a few originals. It doesn’t feel right to say we ‘wrote’ them. I’m not sure that anyone, let alone Alan Duff, would call “Mine Tonight” deeper meaning. We didn’t just take the “Be” off Th’ Dudes’ song by the way. We imagined it as a whole song. It took several minutes in fact. “See you in the corner, oh how I adore you, and I’m gonna score ya/You’re mine tonight”. I wrote those lyrics. I’ll own up to them. There is no I in team. There was no MeToo then either. I’d wince to write those lyrics now. But this is about something that happened 25 years ago and was so very close to meaningless as to be very easily placed on top of a cod-reggae acoustic groove. Think Violent Femmes. Then think a bit more about how that’s really what you’d rather be listening to.
We covered The Femmes too of course. Blister In The Sun. American Music. Kiss Off.
That first night though. It was fun. It felt good. It was just enough to hook us all in. We planned more shows. And did them. Often. In Wellington we would add a bass player (Lennox, for a while – a couple of phantom fill-ins when he went awol). ThenTony left to OE and we drafted in Kev. He’s now a famous singer, songwriter and front man of one of Wellington’s most middle-aged of groups. They play all originals too. WOW!
We only ever wrote a very small handful of our own tunes. Even better, we only played them every now and then. One was called Meltdown. We used a drum machine and I played a conga drum out the front. I used that conga to play Ben Harper’s Burn One Down too.
Sofa played a few venues once. And sometimes we were invited back. We had something resembling a residency at a pub called The Woolshed. The noise control officers determined us Wellington’s Loudest Band. But that can’t have been true. I’d seen Bailterspace. Wellington’s Loudest Covers Band though? Another badge right there!
We also became borderline-famous for undercutting. We played for beer and parking-money. We played for $50 a head. We played for fucking hours. We’d hand out percussion instruments to the audience and they’d join us for the encore of Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. They’d shake their tambourines and maracas and band triangles and bongos and we’d all have our own idea of (a) good time. I was like the wicketkeeper behind the kit with this giant slip cordon of makeshift beatmakers and percussion-instrument shakers. Eight or nine slips as if the song’s bowler was throwing down to Ewen Chatfield in the final overs. Anything for a wicket!
It was fun. And it was mad. It was silly. And often wonderful. We’d let audience members up to duet if they knew the words – we’d take requests and get through as much of the song as we could on the fly. And there were times – playing Crowded House’s Private Universe or U2’s Running To Stand Still or The Mutton Birds’ In My Room or Pearl Jam’s Betterman – where even if it actually sounded dreadful it felt transcendent. We made a beautiful noise together. And we filled bars with laughter and beer-buyers and we not only stuck with the name sofa – we made t-shirts. I stole the image from Frank Zappa’s One Size Fits All album cover and got a flatmate graphic designer to re-draw it – he barely changed it at all. I took a quote from the Zappa song, Sofa No. 2 – “I am here/And you are my sofa” – and we put that on the back of the tees. The red couch on the front. They must be collector’s items now. There were only about 25 of them ever available. I heard Alan Duff won one in a raffle at a key party.
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