by Silke Hartung

Apollo SteamTrain: Changing To The Fast Track

by Silke Hartung

Apollo SteamTrain: Changing To The Fast Track

Sometimes you come across a song with a title so intriguing that you can’t pass on the chance to find out more about it. Brain Bell Jangler is one of those tunes, written and performed by Tauranga rock three-piece Apollo SteamTrain, a band name no less intriguing. Brendan McCarthy (vocals, guitars), Les Robinson (drums, vocals) and Ian Clark (bass, vocals) are no newcomers to the scene. Over recent years their songs have made it onto our TV screens as the soundtrack to local dramas, and they have proven their chops by steadily performing. Now they are planning to step their career up a notch. Silke Hartung covered some tracks with Brendan.

First off your band name – how did you come up with it?

The name is completely made up. The band (as it is now) was approached from a business perspective from day one, and thus I wanted to invent a brand name that would be completely unique. Something that could be used to deliver rock music but that could also stand on its own. So I had a few criteria. The name had to be able to be easily searched and I wanted it to begin with A in case we were ever listed in alphabetical order. “Ya might as well be at the top – right?” Secondly being a writer, I like to play with words and I liked the idea of a three-word sounding name that could be written as two words, e.g Bachman–Turner Overdrive.

I stumbled upon the Greek god Apollo who is recognised as the god of music and poetry (among other things) and I liked its imagery.

The ‘SteamTrain’ part came from word searching the net. I tested the audience response for a year as the name of my covers band at the time and people liked it.

AST are a Dunedenite, an Englishman and a Taranakian. What drew you there all to live in Tauranga?

I escaped to Tauranga from Auckland in 2007 after spending 14 years there. The main reason was my wife and I wanted to buy a house and Auckland house prices were out of reach even back then. Ian Clarke moved to NZ in 2009 from the Isle of Wight seeking the Kiwi lifestyle, he settled in Tauranga (great choice bro!) and Les Robinson moved to Tauranga for work purposes after a lengthy stint in both Hamilton and New Plymouth.

How did you connect with each other?

I formed the live band in early 2016 after a lengthy studio project to record some back catalogue of songs that I had written. Les joined after posting an ad on a music shop noticeboard. We had a few musicians come and go for the first six months and when the bass player left, Ian came along through social media contacts. From the moment that Ian played his first notes in the practice room with Les and I we knew this was the right combination. It just clicked instantly. Plus we all found a common interest in British comedy which now makes for endless banter when we are around each other.

Who do you think will be into your music? 

Anyone who can relate to songs sung with vocal harmonies over the sound of guitars and drums will get what we do. The songs are all started on acoustic guitars and built up as required. Some are loud and angry while others are more laid back and float along. Our sound varies depending on the track, but overall I guess we are a cross between Crowded House and Oasis.

You all have a prior background in music, you’re not new. How does that change things from being fresh to the business?


The on-stage experience is exactly the same. There is nothing that can beat the excitement and emotional high of playing live with fellow humans. It’s a shared experience similar to playing sport in a team. Age or experience will never change that fundamental reason for playing music which is a feeling of belonging.

Things have changed beyond compare in the NZ music industry from when I was in my 20s to someone who is of that age today. Society has now accepted that the ideal of being a musician (while potentially financially suicidal) is a viable career option and technology has both created and levelled the global playing field for all artists.

The business side of being in a band is also exactly the same as it was 20 years ago, but the responsibility for the execution of the business tasks has now fallen entirely on the musician. Being slightly older means that you have more contacts and experience to draw on plus you can call in a favour here and there. It also can mean you are more focused as the time available to commit to music is less when the standard pressures of life and family are considerably more evolved than when you are in your 20s.

Who wrote Brain Bell Jangler?  Is there a story behind it?

I [Brendan] wrote Brain Bell Jangler in a deliberate attempt to try to write some more upbeat material for our live set. I had just watched a documentary about the Foo Fighters. Dave Grohl was speaking about their first tour and the fact that they thought they did not have a strong set opener so he deliberately wrote a track at jumping tempo and they put it in the set the next day. It was a ripper.

Anyway, I borrowed the idea. So Brain Bell Jangler was written at the speed of jumping tempo – then Greg Haver sped it up even more at Roundhead.

All I had initially was the riff but I soon formulated a musical structure, which I find easy. Music is easy, words are hard. I happened to be listening to Th’ Dudes’ track Walking In Light at the time and I liked the way Dobbyn had written the first line of these two verses, “I see things through a different doorway” and “There’s a light at the end of the hallway.” I turned the idea of a ‘different doorway’ into a kitchen doorway. Not sure why!

This led me to think about what happens a lot in the kitchen and that took me back to my flatting days in the North East Valley, Dunedin. We used to have some ripper pre-gig spotting sessions in the kitchen. I was friends with some guys in a band called Brain Bell Jangler and I loved how the words rolled.

So I got to thinking what a ‘Brain Bell Jangler’ could be and dreamt up a theme as follows.The Brain Bell Jangler is a mystical creature that exists in all of us, a voice that is always pushing us to not settle for second best and to get out there, enjoy life and fulfil our dreams. Life is short, right?

It is sort of the underlying theme for all the lyrics that I write. There is usually some kind of play on motivation. The BBJ is what makes us want to party and have a good time. He is that little voice in your head that says, “We need to have a good party, it’s been ages since we did that thing,” etc.

So once I invented the theme and the rest of the lyrics just rolled out.

“Tracking knives that would change our minds from the rest”

“A different time that would shape our lives for the best”

You worked with name producer Greg Haver at Roundhead – couldn’t get much better in terms of recording. Why did you choose to work with Greg?

I met Greg Haver through the Music Managers Forum and once we started chatting about working together there was simply nowhere else to go. Greg understood immediately the sound that I wanted for Apollo SteamTrain and I knew that he would be able to produce it. I had already worked with Nick Poortman and Clint Murphy on another track and I knew that both these guys work regularly on Greg’s projects, so by default, I was going to work with the best. Recording at Roundhead was amazing. The atmosphere of the studio and its surroundings is almost a spiritual experience. The studio is a gift from Neil Finn to New Zealand. Neil could choose any city in the world to run his operation and live, yet he stays grounded like a true Kiwi and chooses Auckland as home base.

Can you run us through the process of recording a song with a producer who isn’t part of or a friend of the band? 

The physical process is easy. I sent the demos of two songs to Greg and he processed them in his mind for a few weeks while we set down recording dates and sorted logistics. We then did a day of pre-production work in the studio in Tauranga to finalise the arrangements. The recording process involved tracking drums and bass at Roundhead, then guitars and vocals at Nick Poortman’s studio in Birkenhead. Following the sessions, the tracks were mixed by Clint Murphy at Modern World Studios in Tetbury, England and then mastered in New York by Ryan Smith.

The mental side of the process is one of trust and a lot of give and take on ideas and parts. Greg is so experienced that he is able to communicate his vision easily and has a very single-minded focus when he is in the studio. No one is leaving ’til the task at hand is complete. He is a master of guitar sound and how to create it with effects and placement of riffs and parts.

I didn’t find any stage of the process difficult as we pretty much agreed on everything. I had a very clear idea of how the vocals and guitar parts would work, which are my strengths and Greg was able to drive the rhythm section to how he wanted it. I guess the advantage of using a producer who is not part of the band is that there is a strong focus on getting a great result and less distractions.

When you stepped things up a notch how did you guys sort out the business side of things? 

Initially, the money side of the band was unstructured and required a lot of goodwill and trust between band members to work together and achieve results. The band now has a parent company that manages the financial side of everything. The business model is relatively simple and reflects the industry as it stands at the moment. Apart from well-established brands who can sell good ticket numbers, in NZ the only sector where there is value still in music, is playing covers, so we play anywhere that will pay money for live musical entertainment and channel that money into the original side of the business.

Sure, but publishing deals are certainly important –and you’re signed with Songbroker – what is it that they do for you?

Songbroker are exactly what the name describes. They are a company that is a broker for songs. They compile all of your music into a catalogue and try to sell it to other industry. Musical copyright is still strong in film and television, therefore, the opportunity to have your music used as background music, theme music or even as an advertising hook is not to be passed up. It is very unlikely that you will be able to get your music in front of those producers by approaching them directly and the work involved would be immense, so a publisher takes away that burden and will do all the legwork on your behalf. They can negotiate a fair market price to use your music and will take a cut for their part in the deal.

What are your goals for Apollo Steam Train?

The short term goal is to tour NZ and take our music to anywhere that wants to hear it. The long-term goal is to keep writing music and try to keep the band together to head overseas.