August/September 2015

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Andrew Boak

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Andrew Boak

Legendary ‘’80s Auckland Punk band No Tag are reforming for a show at the Kings Arms in September. The band included Andrew Boak who has since had a colourful journey in music, his time on guitar with No Tag leading on to a varied career. Working at Radio B (before it became bFM) as an Auckland University student, he was one of the first local DJs to cross over into commercial FM radio. No Tag took off overseas in 1986 and Andrew has continued to indulge his passion, working (and playing) first in the London scene and subsequently in San Francisco, where he has been living for the last few decades.

Who is in the photo and when was it was taken?

This was at the end of the My Bloody Valentine ‘Loveless’ album tour of the USA – July 6, 1992 to be exact. The photo is of the crew for the tour, of which, three out of five are Kiwis. We are sitting on a roadcase full of expensive vintage Fender guitars at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

My Bloody Valentine were the innovators of the indie rock wall of sound, often referred to as ‘shoegazers’. Their concerts are famous for their sheer volume –– we clocked 117 dB onstage at the San Francisco gig, which is louder than standing next to a chainsaw for an extended period of time. Sue, at left, was the drummer’’s girlfriend and helped with merchandise. James Murray (a Kiwi who used to play in The Exploding Budgies) was the Lighting Director. I believe he created the fantastic visual film loops they projected on to the back of the stage, and is currently working on tour doing lights for Iggy Pop.

I was one of the guitar/drum techs, normally assigned to Kevin Shields (the ‘genius’ behind MBV’’s sound). Stephen Joyce was the other stage tech, doing drums mainly, and Levi Tecofsky (the third Kiwi of the bunch), was the FOH sound person. Levi had worked in NZ with Wellington band Swerve before heading to London. He has worked as sound man or tour manager for a load of international acts including The Young Gods, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Dinosaur Jnr, Suede, Hole, Placebo, Echo & The Bunnymen, Nick Cave, Killing Joke, Roxy Music and David Bowie.

Were there indicators in your childhood that pointed to your adult passion for music?

In my early childhood, not so much, although I know I enjoyed certain songs. I can remember as a very young child singing All You Need Is Love over and over again. I started learning classical piano and musical theory from around six, and used to hate my parents for making me get up early before school to practice. Of course, now I love them for making me do that.

My mother had a musical background as a soprano, and my father later went on to play saxophone in a big band. However, once I got to my very early teens, I decided that guitars were where it was at, and slowly merged from piano to guitar. I had seen ‘The Song Remains The Same’ live Led Zeppelin movie and was impressed by Jimmy Page. In fact, the soundtrack to that movie was the first LP I bought that wasn’’t a Top 40 compilation record.

I’’m not sure how my parents felt about me giving up piano and moving to guitar, but my aged classical piano teacher was horrified. I was lucky to have guitar lessons with a guy who would transpose any of the hits of the day onto cyclostyled sheets, so myself and my fellow students were learning by way of the current Top 40 and heavy rock back then. This gave me the drive to want to learn and play, form a band, and eventually play live. Funnily enough, one of guys in my guitar class was Mark Sullivan, who many years later would become the bass player for the Flicks, and later, No Tag.

Was your point of entry into the music business with the formation of No Tag?

In 1977, I was introduced to punk rock by a cousin who was around my age who had returned from England with records by The Jam, The Clash, The Damned etc. Plus I was religiously listening to Barry Jenkin on 1ZM radio in the late evenings. The raw energy of the music, combined with the do-it-yourself attitude was perfect for a rebellious teenager. I saved up some money for an electric guitar – because my parents refused to buy me one – they probably knew where it would lead to.

I loved the idea of live gigs, the presence of the performers, the volume etc. I even put on gigs at my school during lunchtimes, we had Hello Sailor and Citizen Band on different occasions, if I remember rightly.

My first real band was The Regulators (with Geoff Hayden on bass, who would later on be one of The Mockers). We played school/municipal halls with other bands from Auckland’s North Shore like the Screaming MeeMees, The Killjoys, The Flicks and many more. The Regulators even put out a self-released split single with The Ainsworths, another North Shore band.

There was a great group of people, both musicians and friends that allowed for these young bands to play out. We used to borrow each others’ equipment, make posters, help with transport etc., again very much a product of the DIY attitude. Around 1980, The Regulators ended up breaking up, and I was left without a band, but with a massive passion to play music.

So how did No Tag form, and how did you build an audience?

The Regulators broke up around the same time as The Flicks, and I remember meeting Mark Sullivan at a Screaming Mee Mees’ gig and saying, “Let’’s have a jam”.” For the next six months we rehearsed every weekend, rain or shine, at Progressive Studios, developing a few riffs into songs. We were on the lookout for a drummer and a singer, so when we ran into the Van Wetering brothers who had just moved up to Auckland from Wellington, it worked out perfectly.

We spent the next three months rehearsing at an industrial building at the top of Hobson St, where some friends had a demolition/construction company. We came up with about 10 songs in less than a month, some from stuff I had done with Mark, but most of it fresh as we gelled as a band fairly quickly.

We wanted to do something punk-ish, but with lots of energy and snarl. Our influences were wide-ranged; early punk, good classic rock and even reggae, but mainly the punk sounds coming out of England at the time, which included some Oi! bands. We pretty much had an audience from the get go, as the first wave of NZ punk bands had broken up or moved overseas, so we fitted into the need for a punk band fairly easily, and with that came a ready made audience.

Our first gig was a bbq at the building at the top of Hobson St, so there were loads of punks and boot boys and all types on that afternoon. The audience built itself from there, I would say through word of mouth, but also from doing the few gigs at venues that would have us.

We played with many other bands of the time, some punk gigs at school halls, and others at established venues. We pretty much wanted to play with most of the young bands of the time, our attitude, and hence our name, was based on the fact that people shouldn’t pigeon-hole us because of our image or audience – that we were just a rock band after all. We also made it a policy to get bands we liked to support us, no matter what style of punk/new wave they were. There were some very talented musicians around at the time, and as the punk DIY attitude was now firmly in the minds of up and coming bands, there was a plethora of people to play with. Getting gigs however was another thing.

Do you think that No Tag were a victim of some discrimination in that your audience were frequently perceived as violent or undesirable?

In my opinion, that is exactly the problem we had. Discrimination. Venues would blindly think that they were going to have trouble because of our following, whereas I would say there were probably more drunken fights at a suburban pub with other Top 40-rock bands at the time. Our audience might scare a few people on the street, but they were there for the beer and the music.

The Reverb Room (where our live album was recorded) was the only venue that would take a punt and have us on a regular basis. They knew that our audience were big drinkers, so they made plenty of money every time we played. I don’t think we held the record for capacity, but we definitely held the record for bar take on a single night. We made it a point to say that we didn’’t want any violence at our gigs, if there was a fight, we would stop playing immediately until it broke up. We even wrote a couple of reggae songs to play if there had been a fight, just to calm everyone down.

When we toured NZ to support the release of the live album we had small crowds in some places, to the extent that when we were on the first leg of the South Island part of the tour, we could only buy food when we had determined we had enough money for gas to get us to the next destination. We packed a few others, namely the Star and Garter in Christchurch. The bar had only just swapped hands and the owner and bar manager were a bit worried at first, but after the first night, they had made a bunch of money at the bar (it was packed, so much so, we couldn’’t even make it to the bar in a break between sets), and they were so happy, they gave us a few crates of Steinlager to take with us to an after party.

It was however very much a chore to get gigs, very surprising considering the audience numbers we would pull in, especially in Auckland. People had their discriminatory views, and even though the bad habit of ‘profiling’ a band was the basis for our name, we never really got gigs like we should have.

Unfortunately too, public perception of the ‘Oi’ movement was terribly askew, everyone thought skinheads were racist Nazis, just because of some English ones being affiliated with the National Front. The Oi movement was the complete opposite, extremely non-racist, anti-violence, anti police oppression and so on, however it had been tarred with the same brush as the right wing skinheads.

It was like saying all hippies are stoners and want to make everyone take LSD and vote for the far left politicians. It’’s just not true.

Generalisations are definitely a problem of society still today, and at the time we felt like we couldn’’t convince everyone they were wrong. Once we realised that people just got the wrong idea about Oi! and what it stood for, and we weren’’t going to change that attitude overnight, we dropped the refrain from the song No Tag. We also threatened to stop playing if there were fights at our gigs, and in 1983, did exactly that. We reformed for one gig with The Dead Kennedy’s at Mainstreet, and after that Mark left to live in London, so the band ceased playing for a few years.

Still, you managed to find a label and record the ‘‘No Tag’’ EP and later an album.

Propellor came to us originally with the idea of doing a record, but as they had very little money, needed us to pay for the recording. We loved the idea and Simon Grigg and Paul Rose were smart enough to see that there was a market for our kind of music. We recorded the EP in the wee small hours of the morning at Harlequin Studios with Steve Kennedy, and we made a record that I think still sounds pretty good today. The EP was received well by the fans and critics alike and it debuted at #15 in the NZ charts – pretty good at that time for a punk band, or any Kiwi act for that matter!

One of the songs, Mistaken Identity, made it onto the soundtrack for the NZ movie Queen City Rocker. We only ever pressed 1500 copies, so the record has become sought after over the years, occasionally appearing on TradeMe for $100 or so. We are about to re-issue the EP on a US punk label, which I think is pretty good proof of its value, even 30 years later.

The decision to do a live album was made because Propellor didn’’t have the money to put us in a studio, nor could we as a band afford it, so we came up with the idea of recording live at a venue over a couple of nights. This way we could get an album’’s worth of songs out to our fans on the cheap (seeing that we had to pay for it, and none of us were millionaires).

Unfortunately, you get what you pay for. The sound we recorded at The Reverb Room on Progressive Studios‘’ 16-track recorder was not as good as we had hoped, but doing the best we could, mixing-wise, we came up with something to get out to the fans. Obviously, we were not super happy with the sound, but putting it out was more of a priority. In hindsight, we did what we wanted to do, but would have preferred to record a bunch of songs in the studio, it was an unfortunate financial thing. Consequently, the name of the album became ‘‘Can We Get Away With It’’.

Back then did you consider that music was going to be your career in one form or another?

I loved music so much that I was always interested in making a living out of it. Part of our decision as a band to leave was that we knew, due to population size, NZ would never have a big enough pool of followers for us to live off the band.

I did work in radio too though, my love of alternative music brought me to bFM (AM at the time and called Radio B), where I volunteered and became one of the management and on-air staff. I also did the ‘specialist’ punk show on Sunday evenings. At Radio B, we worked hard to make the station more viable, and to take it to full-time broadcasting. I also helped curate the compilation ‘’Goat’s Milk Soap’’ on Ripper Records, and of course ended up flunking out of university due to spending too much time at the radio station instead of going to lectures.

They say though, that you go to uni to get prepared for a job in the real world, and I was lucky enough to be around when commercial FM stations were introduced into NZ in the early ’’80s, and through a few contacts became one of the early pioneers of student radio DJs transitioning to commercial radio. I helped out with the preparation for the launch of 89FM, and was later offered a midnight to dawn shift, and worked my way up from there.

Although 89FM played Top 40 and classic rock, nothing like the alternative/punk stuff we would play on Radio B, to me it was a job in the music industry, and I loved that idea. The older DJs there were very much into their Led Zeppelin/The Who/Hendrix stuff, but also totally cool with the newer chart stuff like Blondie, The Clash, New Order etc. and I would love arguing with the PD whether The Clash or The Rolling Stones were the greatest band of all time. They would let me slip the occasional alternative song in, I even got to play the Sex Pistols’’ Anarchy In The UK on Guy Fawkes night, but in reality, I was playing Madonna over and over again. I was okay with that, a job was a job and it paid the rent.

You later travelled to the UK and ended up working in various parts of the music business.

When Mark Sullivan came back to NZ after some time in the UK, we got back together again and did a few more gigs, but realised that if we were going to take it to another level, NZ was not where we needed to be, London was calling.

The band moved in dribs and drabs to the UK in 1986 to seek fame and fortune. Myself, Carl Van Wetering (No Tag’’s drummer) and his younger brother Mark stopped off in the USA on the way across and when we were in San Francisco, were invited to sing backing vocals on the Dead Kennedys‘’ ‘’Bedtime For Democracy’’ LP.

We were hanging out in the Alternative Tentacles‘ office when Jello Biafra came out and asked, “If you guys aren’’t doing anything tonight, would you mind coming and singing some backing vocals on our new record?”” We said, “Of course”,” but failed to mention that we would’’ve sold our grandmothers for the opportunity to sing on a DK’’s album! We ended up being on three songs on that record and afterwards went out and saw some local punk bands with their bass player Klaus Flouride.

When we all finally got to London, we rehearsed, continuing to write new songs and played gigs wherever we could get them, probably once every few months, doing our part in taking NZ music overseas. We had a small following of ex-pat Kiwis who would come and see us regularly, and a few English friends, but we never made it big enough. We even had people come along thinking we were a US hardcore punk band, because of the Dead Kennedys’ tie-up, but never really packed anywhere. We only recorded one song over there and that was for a friend’’s final project at his recording school, so it was free. We never got a booking agent or did demos for record labels etc etc. We just didn’’t really know how to do all that, or know someone that did. After 3 or 4 years of practising weekly and not getting anywhere, we called it a day.

London was a very interesting place to be in the late ’’80s, along with the growth of indie music, there was the advent of the raves and dance music also. We originally squatted out in the East End, which was an interesting experience in itself, but who can say no to free rent? We assimilated ourselves into the London culture, seeing loads of bands, hanging out in pubs with music stars sitting over the way from you, doing the Notting Hill Carnival and other street fairs. It was an excellent experience all round, I still miss London even all these years later.

I was lucky enough however to get a job while I was there working for Rough Trade Distribution, the big indie distributor (and record label). Harry Ratbag, who I squatted/flatted with in London, had got me a job there. It was great, working on the cutting edge of music, I got loads of free records, guest list spots and had a thoroughly good time.

The indie scene was massive and we shipped a good few records in our time, that’’s for sure. We had the capability of distributing a single in enough quantity to put it at #1 on the British charts in its first week. We also had well known bands like The Smiths and Depeche Mode on the roster too, so their albums and singles shipped large quantities in the week before the release. We had almost every indie single and album from around the UK and Europe as well, so the catalogue was fairly large. There was a massive sound system in the warehouse too, so we would blast out all types of musical genres through the day as we worked. Good times.

What drew you to San Francisco and how did your life and work there evolve?

Through the work I did at Rough Trade/The Cartel, I ended up getting the opportunity to transfer to San Francisco, to run their operations and logistics over here. Unfortunately, Rough Trade declared bankruptcy after I was there for six months, and that meant, after cleaning up the assets and accounts due to the bankruptcy, I had to find something else to do.

I did some temp jobs for a while, but then was lucky to get offered a job as a guitar tech for a US tour by an English band (that never made it due to visa problems), but while I was on the US East Coast waiting for the band to arrive, I happened to chat with ex-pat Kiwi Levi Tecofsky who offered me the job working for My Bloody Valentine. After that tour, I worked with The Chills on their ‘Soft Bomb’ tour, PJ Harvey on the ‘Rid Of Me’ tour, and did a Songwriters Showcase tour with Guy Clark, Michelle Shocked, Joe Ely, and Alain Toussaint. Road work was cool and I got to see the US a few times, albeit from a truck or tour bus window…

After a while I found the touring life too disruptive to making my own music, and decided to not do it anymore. I landed a job at a dance music/electronica distributor, doing operations again and that introduced me to drum’’n’’bass.

To me, although it was not punk, it was the style of dance music that had aggression and an edge, and I started going to DJ gigs locally. My wife and I ran into lots of local d’n’b producers who had no US labels to release their music, so we decided to start a label called Green Recordings to put out their records. We ended up releasing 13 12″” singles over a period of three years, some of them selling well, mainly in the US. Over that time, I left the distributor and ran the highly respected deep house label Imperial Dub Recordings. I even dabbled with a band that used samples and drum machines called Cardboard Truck, but sadly that band only lasted a short time.

I started a guitar band after that and ended up moving away from the dance music scene, back into the rock scene. That band has evolved into one of my current bands, Skinaffect, which has me on guitar and doing about half of the singing. We are a wall of noise-type band, along the lines of the late ’’80s/early ’’90s English indie bands. My love for playing punk rock has never died, so when I was offered the chance to play bass in a three-piece street punk band Blank Spots I jumped at the chance. Consequently I am in two bands at present, still putting a Kiwi face on music here in the Bay Area.

I also have recorded some bands on my trusty Tascam 464 four-track cassette recorder, the most prominent one was The Old Firm Casuals, a side project by Rancid’’s guitarist Lars, who wanted to get back to his roots for their first single. We recorded four songs over a weekend in my rehearsal studio. Even after all these years, that DIY punk attitude still prevails. After all, he’’s a multi-platinum artist that could’’ve gone into a big studio, but wanted to get a raw powerful sound naturally, and did.

How do you find the state of the American punk scene these days?

Still very healthy – because of the population size. Many punk bands can make a living out of touring and recording, and then there are some like Rancid and Green Day who are very rich through their hard work and perseverance over the years. If you compare my two bands for the amount of gigs each one gets, I am playing at least once a month with Blank Spots (the punk band), but only every now and then with Skinaffect. Blank Spots are putting out a self-released LP, and we expect we’ll sell all of our first pressing. I can see a punk gig almost any night of the week, in fact, on occasions I have to choose between two different gigs with good line-ups playing on the same night.

In retrospect, do you think punk changed much in NZ society?

I think so, even if only in a small way. Punk music, especially lyrically, makes people think. Years ago No Tag sang about the NZ police going beyond their jurisdiction in the song Legalized Dogs, and from what I read, that still happens today. If we can reach someone and make them think about the wrongs in society and how they can right them, then we’ve covered part of our reason for existing.

You’’ve associated with quite a roster of artists –– who made the biggest impression on you and why?

That’’s a very hard question to answer, as many have influenced me in different ways. Guy Clark always used to say about life, and therefore song subjects, “You can’’t make this shit up folks.”” But I think I’’ll quote Robbie Shakespeare of the reggae group Sly and Robbie who said, “All music is good, because you learn from the bad as well as the good.””

Your worst professional experience?

Tuning Martin Phillips‘’ lap steel guitar to E Minor instead of E Major when touring with The Chills at a gig in Toronto, Canada. Thankfully he caught it before they did the song, but I felt rather stupid…

What’’s the most important thing you can pass on to a young musician intent on a career as a professional musician?

Practice and more practice. If you want to be as good as those people who do it for a living, the only way you’’re going to get there is by experience, and that includes practising until the cows come home. The other thing is to just get out there and do it. It’’s not gonna come to you, you have to work if you want it. Recording is cheap nowadays, so get in the studio often, that’’s good practice also.

And another. Try not to have too many mind-altering substances before playing. Not only might you not be able to play well, but, because your mind is altered, you’’ll probably think you are playing well, which is worse.

What are 5 favourite records that never fail to brighten your day?

Hard nailing it down to five – even 10 is too few – but here we go:
The Clash – White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)
Iggy Pop – Lust for Life
Magazine – The Light Pours Out Of Me
The Ruts – Something That I Said
Big Black – Kerosene

What’’s the best book about music that you’’ve read?

Reggae Routes – The Story of Jamaican Music, by Kevin O’Brien Chang and Wayne Chen.

The best advice you ever got was…?

Don’t take yourself too damn seriously…