The last time Paul Cathro was pictured in NZ Musician it was as a member of Dunedin band Ha The Unclear, who were about to drop their debut album in mid-2014. Recorded not long before they moved north, the band’s off-kilter, darkly humorous tracks and subsequent videos have since earned them regular local gigs and a variety of international plaudits. It turns out that just before leaving Dunedin the bassist also put down the beds of his own album, which, two and a half years later, has plummeted to earth as ‘Head First Into Solid Ground’. Briar Lawry talked with Cathro about his old but new solo offering.
In some ways, Paul Cathro’s story mimics that of many musicians… local success and popularity leads to seeking broader horizons… leads to the band moving to the country’s music capital in order to maximise opportunities.
But at the same time Paul’s tale is entirely his own. It’s the story of a bassist happy making music with various others, then deciding to take the lead on his own material. A story of an album thrown together at breakneck pace, then messed and mulled over for 30 months, until the time was deemed right to step out of the band shadow and show off his own musical chops.
It’s also the story of a long time Dunedin resident who now calls Auckland home. But it turns out that was not the major upheaval that it may initially have seemed.
“Auckland’s actually been a really easy transition,” Paul muses. “There’ve been a lot of people to pave the way.”
It helps, of course, when you’re moving with purpose. Paul also plays bass in post-Dunedin band Ha The Unclear, along with his singing/songwriting brother Michael. Previously Brown, they recorded an eponymous EP in 2010, with Ha The Unclear’s debut album dropping in 2014 – about the time that the Cathros and their bandmates shifted northward.
“Dunedin’s a lovely place to be creative – the rent’s a lot cheaper. But you have to tour a lot, otherwise you burn out on all the local venues.”
He’s no stranger to touring, having performed his way around the country on 40-50 date tours with Dunedin psychedelic rockers Alizarin Lizard a few times in the past. The exhaustion at the end of those epic excursions is something he doesn’t feel the need to repeat anytime soon.
“The financial payoff is great, when it works out… but it’s so exhausting.”
He recorded two records with Alizarin Lizard and had strung together some low budget recordings with friends when playing with Fat Children, another Dunedin act that existed in the same time space as Ha The Unclear. Plus he’d recorded some of his own songs for an earlier EP, but admits it was something of a shambolic process and he really didn’t know what he was doing.
Still, he had some background to draw upon when creating his debut full-length offering ‘Head First Into Solid Ground’. He also had a particular drive to kick things up a notch, wanting to do something a bit more thought out.
“I took my time – for me, at least rushing never works. I was living where we recorded it, just chipping away at the process when my girlfriend went out.”
That aspect of really living the music creation experience was instrumental to the development of his record’s particular sound.
In contrast the album’s basic tracks were rather quickly thrown down, as legend has it, just days before he flew north.
‘Head First Into Solid Ground’ was recorded by David Craig and Louis Smith. Paul sang and played guitar plus percussion. Paul McLennan-Kissel took on drum duties, with Henry Francis playing guitar, Alex Vaastra on violin and fellow Ha The Unclear member Theo Francis on bass.
The ability to call upon a friendly jazz drummer helped in adding texture. The violin also brings something a little unusual to the mix – and Paul is effusive in his praise of Vaastra.
“He’ll take the backing vocals from the demos and turn it into something new on the violin. I love what he does.”
It was all so fast and crammed together, with “alcohol burnt as fuel”, that while little is remembered, the word ‘ordeal’ is an apt description according to Louis Smith.
“But perhaps the most sensible and carefully thought out part of the process was starting tracking the violin at five in the morning, eyes the widest that exhaustion-narrowed eyes can be, ears fuller than a teacup with a shark in it…”
Francis also joined Paul in the overdubbing process, which mostly took place at (Shakes’/Alizarin Lizard’s/ex-Verlaines) Chris Milller’s hydroponic farm in Katikati, Bay of Plenty – a step en route to life in the City of Sails – adding to some of the record’s tonality.
The album was then mixed by Andrew Straight (who was in Biff Merchants with Paul), and mastered by Jonathan Pearce. Clearly there was much to-ing and fro-ing even then – Smith’s Bandcamp summary mentioning mixing and re-mixing, mastering and re-mastering.
The very worthwhile result will feel familiar to fans of Ha The Unclear. Paul and Michael share a distinctive family voice and off-kilter sense of humour, and the instruments, even the musicians employed aren’t much different. Paul’s songs are personal, and a lot less existentially kooky than those of his brother. His lyrical imagery paints an entertaining picture of his (or is it imaginary?) social scene, covering the emotional spectrum.