An Alastair Galbraith record exists in that place between sleep and full awakening where bright flashes of sound and image tumble over each other in a race to form the most unlikely and quixotic conjunctions. Orchestrated on analog four track with the lost art of an alchemist, musical and lyrical sketches enter the world, exist for only long enough to say and do what needs to be said and done, and vanish back into the hypnagogic world from whence they came. The reality they leave behind is slightly less consensual than it was prior to their passage. This is a truly liberating psychedelic music because of its refusal to adhere to conventional rock notions of structure, duration and the use of instruments. Guitars may be strummed into a violent storm, or sound like obscure and fragile eastern instruments on fated modal journeys. Violins mourn and scrapes in forward and reverse. Vocals whisper and rail and multiply alarmingly, magnetic cries into the void. Lyrics map out dark childhood recollections, almost medieval characters, and many things way to strange to get a grip on. Between the juvenilia of The Rip to the mastery of ‘Morse’ and ‘Talisman’, is on of the most intriguing to come out of the New Zealand underground, truly Xpressway’s greatest gift to the world. Talking to Alastair is very much like listening to these records, a sense of wonder envelops the conversation and time contracts as the mundane concerns of the world are left behind for a while. A planned 20 minute phone call becomes a hour, and what you have to discuss seems barely touched. I pulled some salient conversations out of a massive transcript for this portrait, and started by asking Alastair about early memories of wanting to be a musician:
AG. When I was either five or six I apparently expressed an interest to my parents that I wanted to play the violin. They didn’t take me seriously because of my age, but apparently I was very insistent, like (mimics an obstreperous child) ‘...no, I want to play the violin!’. Eventually they enrolled me in violin lessons with a private teacher and I totally took to it. I think it was much like the kind of thing I do now, because it was a solo occupation. Playing the violin was something I could do by myself, and it was an escape from whatever kinds of pressures a six year old feels, bearing in mind that I was not a particularly happy or well-adjusted child. I find it strange to say this as an adult now, but I know its true; the violin was form of relaxation therapy and meditation, and I used to completely get into what I was playing. Even the very simple, banal exercises they give to young children so that they can find their pitch, understand rhythm, and so on, utterly entranced me and I could do them for hours and forget where I was. So that was the first musical thing that I remember.
When Alastair was fifteen, he decided to start a rock band with friend Robert Muir. They bought cheap guitars and a tiny practice amplifier, and The Rip was born. Influences were idiosyncratic:
Prior to The Rip I was mainly listening to the classical music I was playing on the violin. I also did an embarrassing stint, from age ten to about age twelve, as a choirboy (laughs), and listened to a lot of church choral music, and some of that really appealed to me, particularly the very early composers like Palastrina and Byrd, very simple with no accompaniment, as well as modern stuff like Benjamin Britten. The desire to start a rock band was mainly due to seeing The Clean live. The Clean didn’t inspire me the first few times I saw them, but there was something about their stage presence, or I suppose at that stage I thought of it as lack of stage presence, that did get through to me. They seemed to be completely normal people, paradoxically both relaxed and intensely into what they were doing. I thought ‘that’s how I feel - when I want to play music I feel how they look’. I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you needed fancy clothes and a special heroic kind of stance to perform. Instead they had these amazing, stirring songs. Sometimes when hearing them live there were moments without end. It transported me.
Many strands of what is now a recognisably New Zealand sound seems to have originated with The Clean, and especially David Kilgour’s guitar sound. Alastair agrees:
The sound of it! It was amazingly trebly. I never got over how wonderfully sharp it was, and how it seemed that two-thirds of the sound was just his guitar. You could hear the drums and you could hear the bass, but most of the sound was this beautifully simple tubey guitar sound, in clanging rolling, perfectly formed waves.
The Rip self-released a cassette in 1983, called ‘The Holy Room’ which I heard recently for the first time. I was interested to know how Alastair remembered it:
It was horrible! I really, sincerely, genuinely do not have a copy and haven’t had a copy since about 1988. I don’t know who would, hopefully no-one. We had the covers printed with a wooden block. That was just stuff we recorded in our practice room of the time. In those days it was very difficult to get a gig in Dunedin. There was really only one pub, The Empire, that alternative bands ever played at, and to get in there we got to know this man who styled himself ‘The Earl of Dunedin’, and who used to walk around in a silk dressing gown and pontificate about everything, slavishly copying Malcolm Maclaren. He was a hideous man, and it helped to have attractive females in your band to get a gig. We didn’t have any. Eventually we got a support slot for our first gig, I think it was for Sneaky Feelings. Robbie and I turned up, but our drummer at the time, Nicholas, was not allowed to come. We were fifteen and he was fourteen, and his mother decided that fourteen was just too young to be in a pub. He phoned us about ten minutes before we had to start to tell us. We appealed to the bands that were playing with us, and someone said that they would drum for us. So this guy proceeded to massacre the two songs we had to play (we decided the rest of them were awful). He hadn’t heard the songs and played a really loud, wild drum piece to them. Before this, he had been eating some kind of hash and honey mixture and he was totally out-of-it. We were deeply embarrassed and I swore never to play live again.
Fortunately, Wayne Elsey from The Stones and later The Doublehappys was there and asked me to come and sit on the steps with him, and just...blew me away. He told me that I had something, something that he couldn’t really describe, not a great musical talent or instrumental proficiency, more of a spirit that he could see when I played, and that I had to keep doing it. He offered to help me any way he could, and he actually did that over the next few months. He got Robbie a better bass, let us use their practice space, got us gigs supporting The Stones and just encouraged us the whole time, saving us from a very, very short career.
After several frustrating years as ‘the perennial support band’ and ‘the cheapest band in town’, the Rip had basically truncated to just Alastair and in 1987 the magnificent ‘Stormed Port’ EP was recorded for Flying Nun:
Peter Jefferies and Graeme Jefferies (This Kind of Punishment) came into town about three months before ‘Stormed Port’ was recorded, and I had just bought one of only three copies of TKOP’s ‘Beard of Bees’ that made it to Dunedin and was so inspired by it! I went along to their gig, cheered wildly and talked to them afterwards, and we immediately hit it off as people. Peter said that he had heard of The Rip and had heard one or two things he really liked. He also said he was moving to Dunedin in a few months and was keen produce and engineer the next Rip thing. He had a strong philosophy, which he wanted me to adopt, that recording in a professional studio and paying a lot of money was a very bad idea. Graeme had a four-track, and he suggested that we could record on that. By the time he got back to Dunedin we were playing our last gig. Peter talked to me and was keen for me to do it solo, and just call it a Rip record. They had a flat above the ‘New Joy Ice Cream Shop’, and we worked late at night when they weren’t using it for recording ‘In the Same Room’. We would get so inspired. Peter could talk to me in those days like we were revolutionaries, and what we were doing was really important, at least to us, and if no other line was being crossed we were crossing lines within our own lives. I still didn’t have much idea of what he was doing, but I could hear that the results were so much more like what I thought I had done than the studio sound of the first EP.
‘Starless Road’ from ‘Stormed Port’ seemed to have a specific and personal intent, and seemed to hold a great deal of personal meaning for Alastair, reappearing on the ‘Hurry on Down’ cassette and the Plagal Grind EP. I asked him about this:
It was written for Wayne Elsey. When he died in an accident he was only nineteen or twenty, and I was younger. I realised what he had done for me, in that I wouldn’t have carried on making music without that initial boost from him. It is honestly true that the very last thing he said to me before he had to go off on the tour on which he died was ‘you have to want to live...look I’ve just given up smoking...you have to want to’. When somebody, for whatever reason, says this really positive thing to you and then dies, your last contact with them is like a gift from them to you. The middle verse of 'Starless Road' which goes ‘You said that you’d seen stars/on a stretch of starless road’, came from when The Rip and The Doublehappys were on tour together. He, the driver and I were the only people awake in a van in the middle of the night. We were drinking whisky and he looked at all the reflective dots down the center of the road, and, being drunk, said ‘look at all the stars in the road!’. I very pragmatically said to him ‘those are not stars, they’re those reflective dots’. That song still works for me as a connection to my self and my past when I am playing it live.
The next thing that came out was the ‘Hurry On Down’ cassette on Xpressway. Curiously it was released in two different ‘editions’:
One side of it was recorded live at a gig to benefit the Regent Theatre, a large theatre in Dunedin that the owners never stopped doing up. They would get musicians to play for nothing for 24 hours over a Friday and Saturday. It was a chance to play to a horribly mainstream audience of people browsing through second hand books that had also been donated to the theatre. I really stupidly agreed to do a 3am performance and went to sleep and woke up at 2:30am and went down there with Bruce. He recorded the whole thing, but I was under the influence of something very strange, I can’t remember what, and when I listen to it I can tell that I wasn’t fully awake. The other side was a result of Bruce coming to the warehouse where I was living at that time and asking me if I’d written any songs. I said I’d written about eight or nine and he said ‘play them all to me’. I played them one after the other for him and he recorded them on a walkman. I honestly thought he was recording them for personal listening, but he released it! It was good of him, but within a few months of it being out I said to him that I never really knew at the time it was recorded that he was going to release it, and that I would quite like a go at giving him something slightly better, and so there was a first and second edition. Just prior to this, a friend who was an elderly woman I used to do gardening for (and I had known since I was twelve) had asked me out of the blue what I would most like materialistically, and I thought for a while and said ‘a four-track recording machine’. Later, she came back into the room with a cheque that was almost enough to buy a second hand one. So I was learning how to record myself at that point and was able to give Bruce slightly better versions of some of the songs.
The Plagal Grind mini-LP was the only 12’ vinyl artefact released by Xpressway, the only thing not on cassette or 7’. The formation of the band was traumatic:
When I came back to New Zealand in February 1987, after quite a surreal time in Melbourne, he said ‘let’s start a band, and we’ll call it the Cake Kitchen, and you play the violin and I’ll play the guitar...it’ll be a duo’. I was really keen to play with him, but part of the plan was for me to live in Christchurch and live in his warehouse. I didn’t really want any more strangeness. I wanted to be back in my home town of Dunedin so I said no. I went back to Dunedin and within a few days Peter Jefferies said roughly the same thing, ‘let’s start a band, I’m dying to play drums again and you play guitar’. Graeme came down and we decided to form a band with the three of us, and came up with the name Plagal Grind. After only two days of just talking about what we were going to do, it was clear that Peter and Graeme weren’t getting on, and, like a divorcing couple, they asked me to choose which of them I wanted to go with! As Bruce Russell said to me at the time ‘this is the worst can of worms you ever opened, Alastair’ (laughs). But it was a nasty scene, and in the end I chose Peter because he was going to be in Dunedin, Graeme left and it took a while to patch things up.
Peter suggested this guitarist that he had done an experimental album (‘At Swim Two Birds’) with, namely Jono Lonie, and we formed the first Plagal Grind. Jono Lonie played in a super-psychedelic guitar style with heaps of space effects, like sounds of seagulls crying on the beach and so on, but it was a little bit much for the songs. In the end we probably fairly unkindly just dumped him and got Robbie Muir to play the bass, sort of the Rip with Peter on drums and songs maybe a little better. David Mitchell came up to us after a gig (at that point the 3Ds hadn’t quite started) and said ‘I like those songs, I hear weird sea shanties in them and I want to play the bits that I hear in my head that go with them and make them like old, wild, fucked sea shanties’, and he did. That was the line up that lasted for about a year and a bit and recorded the Plagal Grind EP.
The Plagal Grind EP has the first in a great series of David Mitchell covers, the first glimpse of some art that seems connected to nightmare without mediation:
Yeah, but Bruce objected to it when he first saw it saying ‘there are eleven penises on this cover!’ (laughs).
‘Midnight Blue Vision’ has a very Indian raga feel about it and continued a fascination with tape reversal:
That was a backwards accident. I never labelled working reel-to-reel tapes, and often because there are were labels I would put them on backwards, and think I’m listening to something that I’ve done and find it’s actually, as you say, almost Indian sounding. With ‘Midnight Blue Vision’ it was not a matter of looking for that effect, more of stumbling on and thinking that I could turn it into a song. Since then, I have stopped having ‘accidents’, and have looked for them.
I asked Alastair what he thought the legacy of Xpressway Records was:
It was a very down time before Xpressway was forced into being by the generosity of Bruce’s response to the dumping of all the perceived non-commercial side of the Flying Nun stable, which happened over a short period of time. People would approach Flying Nun with a proposal for their next project and be told ‘no, we don't want to do that’, and yet not be told that they had been dropped. It happened to Peter and Graeme Jefferies at the same time that it happened to me and The Terminals. Bruce got this idea that as long as we didn’t mind recording really basically and only releasing cassettes with Xeroxed covers he could take up the slack, and we would at last have a chance to get something back for what we had done, and would actually see (admittedly small) amounts of money. He would provide, as voluntary work, his own statements for the various acts on the label. It was always just for those people who had no other outlet for music he really liked...friends. It worked pretty well. He said that we were a collective yet he did the lion’s share of the work, closely followed by Peter who took up a lot of the mastering side.
In terms of legacy, when the Europeans and Americans first heard the early Flying Nun stuff, part of what grabbed their attention was the sound, how immediately it was recorded, and the degree to which the people who were playing it seemed to feel passionately about it. By the time Xpressway needed to come into being, a lot of that had faded from the output of the Flying Nun catalogue and Bruce seemed to have found it again. You can hear in those Xpressway releases that there is nothing trying to be what it’s not, or seeking favour in any particular court.
It is 1991 and the wonderful ‘Gaudy Light’ EP is licensed by Xpressway to Siltbreeze. Bruce Russell had sent Tom and Mac at Siltbreeze the ‘Hurry On Down’ cassette, and they expressed interest in doing a 7’. At that point Alastair had begun to write shorter songs, and it ended up as a five track EP. The EP seemed very much about characters of almost mythical stature, ‘John of the Palsied Eye’, the protagonist of ‘Gaudy Light’, ‘Mrs Blucher’, ‘ Warden Tye’...
‘John of the Palsied Eye’ was partly about the proprietor of the Empire Hotel in Dunedin, where as I mentioned, a lot of the bands in Dunedin played. He was a lurid, red-faced old drunkard who used to talk to people in this horrible, sleazy, conspiratorial way. At the end of the song he fell down the stairs and died. ‘Mrs Blucher’ was about a German woman, Helga, who entered into a marriage of convenience with Bruce Blücher (from Trash) so that she could stay in the country. After they got married she became my girlfriend (laughs), and it became a kind of standing joke, that I was having an affair with Bruce’s wife. ‘Warden Tye’ is an odd song, not so much about a character, more about thinking sometimes that everyone and everything is so fake, and then turning around and questioning myself: ‘aren’t I, wouldn’t I do the same thing?’. So it is about the constant desire to reach out of that state where you would compromise yourself.
The EP was followed up in 1992 by the ‘Morse’ LP, also on Siltbreeze. The songs have collapsed inwards, become shorter, some really jagged, compressed and spat out like ‘Hawks’, and some beautiful acoustic pieces like ‘Portrait’. I was interested to hear Alastair thoughts on song duration and the processing of anger through the record:
I think for me there has been a lot of anger worked out through music full-stop, right from the beginning. And yet I thought at the time that I had left all that behind in my punk days and that all the anger had gone and become a lot more reflective. I can see now that it is very much an on-going process and I don’t know whether I will ever actually get to that calm remote point, although it is very much the direction I am headed in.
The songs got shorter because traditional song structure suddenly stopped appealing to me. The verse-chorus-verse format seems to misrepresent the way the songs arrive in my imagination. They rarely arrive structured like that for me, they come in short bursts as one rapid insight or metaphor strikes me. From ‘Gaudy Light’ on I wanted just to leave the things in the order and ‘parcel’, for want of a better word, that they came to me in and not really chop and change them to fit a particular idea of structure, or try and make any sense of them or explain them any way. I’m still not sure what the song ‘Gaudy Light’ is actually about.
Which reminded me to ask him about ‘Screaming E’, a personal favourite from ‘Morse’, although I’ve never been sure of what it is about:
That’s one I can explain. It’s basically a song about horror. It goes:
‘I’ll scream an E
Until I raise the hackles on you
Give you that skin wall drum feeling
Hammering yammering cry
Half the time the train of thought derails
Wait until your unseemly anger pales
It will pale
And leave you stranded
Grandma said to me
This will boil your blood
And then the pipes began to stray
They were skirling skirling skirling.
When I was five, my maternal grandmother took me to the Dunedin Botanical Gardens on a day when she knew there was going to be a massed bagpipe band playing. She got me to stand right at the front of the path before they played. They came marching past and stopped almost directly in front of us, maybe thirty or forty bagpipers and the drums and everything, and as they warmed up and blew all the air into those horrible big leather bags, she said to me ‘this will boil your blood’, which was just a terrifying thing for her to say to me at that age, because I really believed that sound that happened just a few seconds later was going to actually, physically cause my blood to boil in my veins. She obviously meant that if you had Scottish blood in you, this will cause you to feel strong emotion, but that wasn’t obvious to a five year old!
1993 brought the first Handful of Dust LP, ‘Concord’. I was surprised at Alastair’s attraction to the ‘free noise’ aesthetic but on reflection it made sense in the context of the freedom from structure his records have increasingly pursued:
Bruce Russell has always had this laid back way of approaching things, as he did with the ‘Hurry On Down’ cassette, and he didn’t really make a big thing of it. He asked me if I wanted to make a record with stringed instruments where we don’t touch the strings, and use one type of amplifier and have one channel each and we’ll see what happens. Later he told me that Twisted Village were going to release it, and we were happy enough with the music that we were pleased it was going to come out.
The performance side of A Handful of Dust’ seems particularly important to him:
It’s really important because it is a chance to totally throw away all idea of structure, and I love improvising with no idea what is going to happen at all. There is only one kind of thread that I believe that Bruce and I follow, and that is a certain empathy for each other’s mood, but that doesn’t mean exclusively musical mood or emotional mood, more a synthesis of the two. We are aware of what each other is doing and feels, but we never look at each other when we perform. The only thing I will know before we play is that Bruce will say ‘I’ve got some titles for what we are about to do’, and he will say ‘A Single Eye All Light’ or ‘The Kaballah of the Horse Pegasus’ or some other great and ridiculous stringing together of esoteric findings of his. The title somehow forms images of what kind of mood we are going to follow for the piece, but it also evolves as it goes along. Generally I just find that I am staring at one spot on the floor the whole time, and I think it is visually terribly boring for the audiences.
In the very beginning, audiences hated it (laughs), and they stood as far back in the pub as they could. We had people like Peter Jefferies come up to us and say ‘that was horrible, not only was it musically awful but it hurt my ears’. I guess it was fairly loud. Later, when the CDs came out, people who hadn’t enjoyed the performance at all would say ‘what a great record!’, and Bruce would take great delight in saying ‘well you were there and you hated it’. I think a lot of that has to do with A Handful of Dust being so boring to watch and it seems like we are just playing around with the instruments and have no idea what we are doing at all. But I think that if you close your eyes it instantly gains a whole new dimension.
1995 saw the release of the ‘Talisman’ album on Alastair’s own Next Best Way label. ‘Talisman’ is a dark album to, a theme of death running through it, but also densely poetic, with some awe-inspiring lyrics on songs like ‘Carlos’ and ‘Black Flame’. ‘Carlos’ was a highlight, with intriguing references to the life of Henry Miller:
The part about ‘Henry’s June’ refers to Henry Miller’s partner and how she was on his back to write a lot, and she seemed to have this really fated kind of life, that not only attracted but inspired a lot of people to create after they met her. The force of her character and the sense of destiny that she seemed to embody is shared by a couple of people that I have met that seemed to have that same quality, and ‘Carlos’ is about that. There are some people who seem to be on a different path to most others as though they are listening to another voice.
‘Talisman’ has a certain spectral quality that was always there in Alastair’s work, and seems to finally get full reign. I asked him if he shared this view:
Thank you. There were a couple of times when I have been recording things like the actual song ‘Talisman’ that the word ‘spectral’ has become not really an afterthought but something that is going on at the time. With the recording of that song ‘Talisman’ there was a point during recording the vocals when I was convinced that there was someone standing just behind my shoulder, even though I knew that there couldn’t be because the door was closed. I was half tempted to turn around and look, but on the other hand I knew that the only reason I had the feeling that there was someone there was that this was the version, and I told myself ‘don’t turn around, finish it’.
Alastair now has his own label Next Best Way (great wordplay) with the brilliant compilation Runner following ‘Talisman’ into legend. I asked him about his plans for the label:
Just to continue the way it is, I don’t really want it to grow. It is at a nice cottage industry level. It is not enough for me to live off, and I guess it financially amounts to a small part time job of a couple of afternoons a week. For some reason I love the simple work of putting a thousand CDs into covers, doing the photocopying, folding a thousand inserts, posting away boxes of them, and hassling to get your money back several months later. I can really get into that because there is something about personally touching and therefore, in a kind of weird way, blessing each one that you do that is really satisfying.
The third Next Best Way release will be my next solo album called ‘Way Back Out’, realistically March 1997, not because of limitations of writing, recording and mixing, but because I need to wait for money to come back from earlier releases.
And currently the soundtrack to the typical Galbraith day:
The Cannanes and Crabstick from Australia. Charalambides and Neutral Milk Hotel from the US. I got to stay with the Charalambides in Houston, and Tom and Christine Carter were the first people in the US I had said ‘you are honorary Dunedin people’ to. They seem so relaxed to me, very un-American! They didn’t have this big career thing and they were really just nice people. I have a compilation tape of Charalambides that contains things I think are so beautiful...put it on out the windows at night and sit on the beach and listen to it...fantastic.
© Ptolemaic Terrascope 1997