‘Way back in 2011, Threat.Meet.Protocol thought they were pretty original. Being a combo consisting of just bass and drums this was thought to be edgy and cool. Especially for Tauranga. So imagine their chagrin while organising a gig for God Bows to Math where another bass/drum two-piece from Tauranga called Flogging A Dead One Horse Town wanted to play. Not being the best songwriters or musicians, the Human Ashtray and Scowlin Wolf had but one thing. Then they meet Flogging, who did it better…’ It’s irony in abundance with Tauranga Music Sux, from whose extremely entertaining website comes the above introduction. Martyn Pepperell engaged Messrs Ashtray and Wolf (Stefan Braunias and Austin Cunningham), who populate both TMS and TMP, to cover off their now three-piece band’s recently released album.
“Things were pretty abysmal,” reflects vocalist/bassist Austin Cunningham. Casting his mind back five years, he’s talking about the cultural conditions under which Threat.Meet.Protocol, the noise punk band he shares with drummer Stefan Braunias and keyboardist Luke Turner, came about in their hometown of Tauranga.
“The majority of the town was just covers bands. You had a couple of music venues, one was a metal place, and one was more inclined to show reggae bands. There was no real local scene, and no real local bands getting together and putting on shows or bringing in people.
“The bands that did come and play usually played to no one. So no one came back, and they would tell their friends not to go there. So when we started, it was a way of having a band in place. I promote events, so I could bring in bands from out of town, Auckland, Wellington whatever, and there would be someone to play with them, give them a place to stay, and make them feel welcome in this town.”
Five years and several releases later, Threat.Meet.Protocol are an accomplished and inventive band, and Tauranga has a music scene that can accommodate their existence. Friends since high school, Cunningham and Braunias started playing instruments in their late teens. Along the way, they went from listening to nu-metal and Brit pop to exploring the scope and history of punk music, noise, and various other DIY musical forms. They fell in love with The Replacements, Mudhoney, The Beatles, Flipper and Nirvana.
“We think [The Replacement’s] Paul Westerberg is probably the most underrated songwriter of all time,” Cunningham says.
Coming from a musical family, drumming came quickly to Braunias. Cunningham on the other hand had to work really at it.
“I didn’t have any natural talent whatsoever,” he claims. “But I just kept progressing and saying, I want to be in a band, I need to do this.”
Promoting music events under the brand Tauranga Music Sux, he needed a support act for the out-of-towners he was hosting in Tauranga. Threat.Meet.Protocol fit that bill. After a few years of playing as a duo they recruited Turner, the younger brother of one of Braunias’ friends, to play keyboards.
“There is no way we’d play without Luke now,” Cunningham laughs. “He’s the best thing about the band.”
Given the realities of Tauranga’s music scene at the time, he and Braunias kicked off Tauranga Music Sux and Threat.Meet.Protocol in a very DIY manner. They began hosting koha entry guerrilla shows in tunnels, under bridges and on the top of mountains. The first act from out of town was Auckland post-punk band God Bows To Math. Through GBTM they started connecting with like-minded groups not just around the country, but in the case of fuzzy rock duo Pairs, China.
“Pairs were the first band from overseas to play for us,” Austin says. “They played in a tunnel, and that kind of legitimised everything I was doing. It was the biggest turnout I’d seen at Tauranga, and everyone had a great time.”
Alongside cultivating the local scene, they began touring around the country (even doing a tunnel tour once), as well as recording and releasing a series of EPs and albums though Savant Garde Records (a collaboration with Tauranga Music Sux). Release by release the sound shifted from extreme noise to a punk-informed aesthetic, with a genuine emphasis on classic songwriting.
“At first, I wanted a DIY scene, and I wanted nothing to do with anything conventional,” Cunningham admits. “I didn’t want to record in the studio. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. We recorded our first EP on a dictaphone and tried to keep it as low key and DIY as possible. By this point, it has evolved too much, and I realise it has to evolve. We’ve just let it unfurl as it should have.”
This ‘unfurling’ is best heard on their new album ‘Mindless Consumption’, released by Muzai Records. Recorded by their longstanding engineer Evan Pope, at Media In Motion studios, it represents a logical progression, noise terror transforming into memorable songs that still ripple with fuzz and energy.
“We spent a couple of years writing the tracks and whittling away the ones that weren’t up to scratch,” Cunningham says. “We knew we had written a really good batch of songs – recording them on a dictaphone or 4-track would have been a shame. People don’t gravitate towards lo-fi songs. To some degree, you need a semi-polished sound so that people can listen to it and gauge it for what it is.”
In the process of recording ‘Mindless Consumption’, they were reminded of their core musical values, and with that, the path ahead.
“We’ve got to keep challenging ourselves,” Austin says. “That is the main thing. We’ve got to keep pushing. We don’t want to be repeating stuff. So as much as it was originally about just making noise, we could never go back to just making noise. The goal is to get better and better. Not necessarily playing our instruments, we don’t care about that, but getting better as songwriters…
“We’re going to forget about these songs, write a new batch of songs, record them, then forget about those songs and keep evolving. I dislike those bands that keep playing the same sound over and over. It might work for them. It might be an original sound, but man, I don’t see how you can keep playing the same songs or writing the same music for 20 or 30 years. What’s the point?”