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February/March 2017

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Great Danes

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Great Danes

Chester Travis is one of those driven, uber onto it people that started playing music and promoting shows as under age kid, before heading out to find success overseas. After a stint in London he was ready to settle back in his hometown of Christchurch, just to see his life complicated by earthquake-related issues such as the destruction of his precious guitar collection and difficulties finding a place to live. Frustrated, he decided to see what life in current Kiwi OE hotspot Berlin would be like, and it turned out that he loved it there. Alongside former colleague, Brit Tim Hook, Chester has since recorded a duet with under-age gig chum Kimbra under the moniker of Great Danes, toured with Scottish band Travis (Why Does It Always Rain On Me), and charmed them into helping him to record his upcoming album, due later this year.

Who are Great Danes?

A question that shouldn’t be at all difficult to answer but somehow is! My name is Chester Travis, and a few years ago I met a guy called Tim Hook in a small vintage guitar shop in London. We both worked there together, often alone, and I’d play Tim songs (he’d later confess he was terrified customers that came into the store would think I was serenading him). This shop was on Denmark Street (remember this).

After moving to Berlin I lured Tim over with the promise of musical possibilities etc. and he eventually caved and moved over. We began playing together and settled on the name Great Danes after discovering they were German dogs, and the fact of us having met on Denmark Street.

We recorded an EP together, played some shows, then I travelled around the world for a few months on my own and ever since it’s been a kind of buffet band set up. Sometimes it’s two of us, sometimes a full band and sometimes just me. Depends on the appetite.

As far as music is concerned, what projects were you involved with back in NZ? What’s your background?

I made a couple of EPs when I was 16-17. I burned them myself and printed the cases out on manila folders which I then cut and glued into CD sleeves. I think I broke a couple of my family’s printers as the card was so thick. Worth it.

I also started renting out overly ambitious venues at around this age. I’d find other NZ musicians on MySpace and get them to fly down to play shows at places like The Great Hall in Christchurch. They were called Acoustic Footprint (bleugh) and it was through one of these I originally met Kimbra. You can still see one of her performances from this show, her covering Jeff Buckley’s So Real, on Youtube.

When and why did you move from NZ to Berlin?

Well before Berlin I’d lived in London for a few years. I eventually decided to move back permanently but it turned out to be mere months before the earthquake. I’d worked in this acoustic guitar shop called Hanks in London and shipped back this huge collection of guitars I’d acquired during my time there. Before I had time to sort out any insurance they were all destroyed in the February 22 quake.

Before the quake I’d been staying at my Mum’s house, but that was a near write off so we all squeezed into Dad’s place, like a clown car. All my friends had moved away, I had no job and it was near impossible to find a place to live, so I decided to move back over to Europe again. I’d been to Berlin before and it seemed like a good alternative, so I just made a snap decision.

great danes studio

When you first arrived there, what were your biggest challenges?

For me personally it was finding my feet as a musician and songwriter again. London is a fairly oppressive place to try and be any sort of artist. A lot of time disappears while working non-stop to pay rent, battling big crowds and scavenging to try and make any kind of name for yourself.

Someone once told me that no great musicians were ever born in London, they moved there. I’m not sure that’s entirely true but it resonated with me and made me think perhaps the reason so much great music comes out of places like Scandinavia and NZ is space, time and capacity to create.

The four years I spent in London, while enlightening and exciting, were detrimental to me as a songwriter. I virtually stopped writing and playing. It took me a while to find a natural sound and surround myself with musicians that had the same sensibilities. In many ways I’m really happy it took this long as I think I needed to develop a lot before really putting anything out there.

How difficult was it to get integrated into the local music scene?

Berlin is particularly accommodating when it comes to new musicians. It feels like stepping back in time in a way. In London, every bar or music venue’s live music is run by an outside promoter, shaking you down to bring audiences or requiring payment in order to play. But in Berlin there’s a music venue on every corner. Or a bar without a sound system that sets up acoustic nights. I was pretty blown away by the way in which Berlin crowds really come to listen to music, forming a circle, silent as anything and as the hat would come back round there’d often be EU150 in there.

Before Berlin I felt as though this kind of dynamic didn’t really exist anymore, so it was a pleasant surprise. We were gradually asked to play bigger shows and eventually small festivals and Berlin has a very familial music scene, so people get to know you pretty quickly. I’d say Berlin is one of the easier places to integrate yourself as a musician.

What sort of support team do you have around you these days?

Well up until now it’s been pretty DIY. We have arranged our own shows, pressed our own EPs and done our own promotion etc. The biggest help to us are our two producers, Josef Bach and Arne Schumann, who fortuitously came to one of our gigs and said they’d like to produce an EP with us. It was extremely generous of them as we weren’t in a financial position to do something of the scale (it ended up to be) ourselves.

They own a publishing company so it just became a kind of contra deal as they welcomed us into their beautiful studio in Charlottenburg.

They put an enormous amount of work and time into creating this thing with us and we learned a lot from them. They’re our mentors I suppose, so of course we roped them into doing the upcoming album as well.

How have you found the German reaction to you and other Kiwi acts?

Berlin has an astonishing amount of NZ acts and Berlin, in particular, is extremely receptive to us as people. They find the accent amusing. In general, German music is quite straight, they love their four-to-the-floor acoustic/electronic party ballads, but Berlin seems to be an island within Germany that is as progressive as the most musically innovative cities on the planet.

But the whole of Germany is just like any other country really. Their collective music taste cannot be determined by what’s on the radio and, while there doesn’t seem to be a big alt-country/folk audience here, the audience that is here is brilliant.

great-danes-in-switzerland-Juri-Junkov

Could the success you’ve had overseas be replicated in NZ do you think?

It’s hard for me to say as I’ve been out of NZ for quite some time now. From what I understand a lot has changed. It certainly seems as though there’s a bit of a folk movement going on there so I think in the sense of finding venues and crowds there’s not a lot of difference.

What I will say, however, is Europe allows you a lot of freedom in terms of touring internationally cheaply, or being offered a gig in another country and being able to arrive the same afternoon.

People say that touring is the key to an artist’s growth and that’s a much bigger upheaval if you’re coming from NZ. In saying that, my friends French For Rabbits and Nadia Reid seem to tour Europe every year with great success, so who knows? I think the world has gotten a lot smaller.

Maybe your best known song thus far here is Where The Down Bit Starts with Kimbra – that was quite a coup to get her involved.

As mentioned earlier I met Kimbra through MySpace. She was about 17 and I was 19 I think. We decided to go on tour without ever having met! We started in Dunedin and moved up through the South Island, but it quickly became apparent we had inadvertently booked our tour alongside the ABBA Tribute show – which absorbed most of the crowds in the small towns. It was a disaster.

We’ve kept in touch since and in 2015 she came to Berlin. I was making the video for Goldmine at this time, with our mutual friend Timothy Armstrong, and I played her the song. She said she’d like to feature so that was that! She recorded her parts in New York and sent them over for us to mix in. Definitely a big boost for us, especially as her previous duet went number one in basically every country in the world. No pressure.

You toured with the Scottish band Travis recently and got along rather well…

Yes, that was truly bizarre. I grew up listening to Travis. I think Fran is an exceptional and classic sounding songwriter. His songs are incredibly McCartney-like. Along with the Beatles they were sort of my earliest songwriting teachers. So it was fairly surreal to get a call from him while on the bus back from a friend’s dinner asking me to support them the next night in Berlin and then to have them ask if I’d like to join the whole European tour.

Near the end of the tour Dougie and Neil asked if I was planning on recording an album and whether I’d like them to play on it. What a question! So they flew out in December and we did a week of tracking. It was so exciting to have such seasoned and musical players for the rhythm section, they really transformed the songs.

great-danes-travis

What else is on the cards for you in 2017?

We should be releasing our first album mid year sometime, we contributed a lot of music to a new Amazon series called You Are Wanted which comes out in March. Doing a German tour supporting one of my favourite artists, Thomas Dybdahl, and plan to come back to NZ at some stage. Hopefully to play some shows!

What would you suggest to any musicians considering a move to Europe?

I would hands down suggest Berlin. It’s cheap, easy to find work quickly as an English speaker and it’s one of the most vibrant and creative cities I’ve had the pleasure of living within. The quality of life here allows a lot of time to create, form connections and make a name for yourself before branching out into other parts of Europe.

Anything you wish you’d known before moving?

Chutney doesn’t exist. They’ve never heard of squeegee mops and for all the talk of German efficiency – get ready for a lot of paperwork and long lines when it comes to renting a place or getting a tax number.

Do you have any favourite/secret spots over there that you frequent?

So many! Prachtwerk is a great venue to play when you first get to Berlin. Big stage, great sound, lovely people and excellent coffee. Ä Bar is another great venue for intimate shows. And for non-musically related excursions, The Technology Museum is fascinating. Also our place is pretty nice, so get in touch if you need a place to stay while you’re here.