December/January 2024

by Dave Weir, Silke Hartung

Blunt Dog: Bluntly Honest Dog Bites

by Dave Weir, Silke Hartung

Blunt Dog: Bluntly Honest Dog Bites

The Blunt Dog sound is unadorned. Almost naively simple but oddly-named singles from the indie folk four-piece’s debut album ‘How Is A Dog So Honest?’, released in July 2023, did notably well on SRN radio stations countrywide. Blunt Dog admit to having one ghost member, but as their bowl empties, the supernatural role of Aotearoa indie superstar Aldous Harding also comes into view. Dave Weir caught up with the band’s songwriters Simon van der Zeyden and Dom Ashby.

Te Whanganui-A-Tara, 2019. Future Blunt Dog guitarist and frontman Dominic Ashby already had some musical going ons of sorts with indie project X/Vayz when he met self-proclaimed “long-time indie lurker” Simon van der Zeyden, guitarist, singer, and banjo player. Ashby describes meeting when they were both looking for a compatible flatmate.

“It was funny as hell, because this dude rocks up, and we were just immediately like, ‘Oh, you’re weird, this is good…” he remembers.

The pair’s rapport quickly became strong, and they were soon bonding over music tastes, creating what Ashby aptly names their ‘jam language’. Their indelible chemistry is clearly important to them both.

“I can express myself so much better when I’ve got Simon there. It’s always been that my closest friend tends to be the person that I’m writing music with,” Ashby continues with a smile.

Friendship is an obvious part of the Blunt Dog dynamics, with words of encouragement and acknowledgement passing freely between them as our interview proceeds. The band name, they joke, comes from being sick of pointy dogs “… and that’s really what this is all about.”

“It’s also a tribute to the Paulus Potter painting, Chained Dog. There’s no specific connection to Blunt Dog there, I’m just inspired by that painting. What a good boy!” van der Zeyden expands.

Presumably some more nautical names were considered and dismissed, because while Blunt Dog were forming Ashby was living on a tugboat in Wellington Harbour.

“It was a non-commercial creative space on a large, worn-out boat in the middle of town. We would put on gigs every week. It was called the Sealion, and it sank 16 months ago.”

He’s currently living back up north in Sandspit, near Warkworth, pursuing an apprenticeship in wooden boat building. His own wooden yacht, Shemara, is still rocking in the waters of Wellington and he dearly misses having ready access to.

“The boat is floating there happily and not letting on any water, so it’s fine, but I’m not sailing at all, which is a bit frustrating. I want to go out! I was gonna get another boat up here, but then I decided that, fuck that, I don’t want two boats in two different places. No, I want to hang out. I want to make some friends and play lots of guitar.”

He’s come a long way since being taught open chords by his brother and learning a handful of covers, though playing his own material live never quite felt right.

“I had only ever played singer-songwriter solo gigs, and I’ve never enjoyed the experience. I’ve always been like, ‘Oh, I just took up the audience’s time, they didn’t really want to hear these little ramblings’.”

A much-needed boost of confidence was provided unexpectedly one night when Hannah (Aldous) Harding arrived at their flat in Wellington to see if their flatmate, one Skud Gambosi, aka Reuben Grant of indie sensation Charlie Freak, and “…the hidden ghost member of Blunt Dog”, might be suitable to appear in her next music video.

“I was in my lounge, distracted. I heard the front door open and close. I rambunctiously barked ‘Supbo!’ thinking it was Simon, but when there was no response for a second, I looked up, and instead of Simon I see Aldous Harding peeking into my lounge! When our eyes met she replied with a very soft-spoken, ‘Supbo’,” he recalls with evident relish.

“It’s just a short way of saying ‘sup bro?’ My friends and I like saying ‘supbo’ because it’s less gendered than bro. She was like, ‘How you going?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m good. Wait, that’s a lie. I’m fucking terrible today, actually.”

“Alright, come with us to the supermarket then,” Harding insisted.

“And so we got to the supermarket. And that was us. She made me feel like hanging out. She kind of recognised our situation and looked at the wine in the supermarket and thought, ‘I’ll buy these boys a whole load of wine.’

“Slowly the yarning turned around to getting dinner made at our flat, so she and Skud made us some pasta. After that we fucking sent it. We were there till like 5am! And throughout this she’d convince us to play drum solos for her! About halfway through it was all just chaos!”

Ashby recalls Harding’s encouraging words that night, including how she told them they should give more attention to what he was bringing to the table as a songwriter.

“Our egos were a little bit in the way of seeing this fucking beautiful music happen, quite frankly. And Hannah gave us a little bit of guidance and a little bit of a blessing that helped us cultivate this level of collaboration.

“There was this moment where she was like, you know, ‘You guys have your music. You write good songs. Do you know this guy writes fucking amazing songs, and that you’re repping yourselves, but not really repping Simon?’ She didn’t say that exactly. But that was the sort of gist of it.”

On a side note, Skud Gambosi was ultimately cast in Aldous Harding’s video for Lawn, but back to Blunt Dog. Completing the line-up are bassist Chris Jackson (Cold Ceiling) and Logan McAllister (Macho Macho, Cold Ceiling) on drums. The new band produced ‘How Is A Dog So Honest?’ in record time. Having formed, written and practised their songs within five weeks, the recording happened much faster, just two consecutive evenings at producer and engineer Connor Lyttle‘s home studio for the nine-song album. Drums and other details were added later, also in something of a rush since Ashby was due to leave for Sandspit. He describes the production collaboration as both very immediate and serendipitous.

“We recorded the album in the basement laundry of Connor’s flat in the deep green Karori hills, where a bunch of our musician friends live. It’s not necessarily that we chose Connor, but more like the rock gods were smiling upon us and paired us with the perfect producer for that album.

“We had extremely limited time to record, and no budget. But we have friends who are oh so talented, and we reached out as far as we could. Connor was right there from the start saying he’d be keen, he was into our whole DIY thing immediately. And he’s our mate, so we knew we’d enjoy working with him. He knew just what to do to give us a good sound, and gave us the space and time to craft it into an album. Sonically, we kind’a hope his talent speaks for itself. He charmingly captured a moment in time.”

The songwriter pair describe Blunt Dog’s debut as something they felt compelled to complete in order to commemorate a special time in their lives, something everyone involved could be stoked with. The idea was to record in a raw, organic way, keeping it as free of effects and filters as possible.

“Connor was on board without needing much explanation, and we were all somewhat putting it together as we went along. We experimented a little, we’d listen back to things and try something else. We trusted his ears for when it was a good take or if we were split on a decision. Importantly, he knew when to tell us to take a break. Also, he played tambourine on Eshy Biang Biang. Basically, he Rick Rubin’ed us. He’s like Rick Rubin with a vape and no beard…

“It felt like it was constantly on the brink of falling apart, and we’re just proud that we managed to pull off this difficult thing that literally nobody asked us to do. We were all feeling weird and we wanted literally zero effects – a rule which Simon did break, but he’s the captain, he can do what he wants.”

Their album release show sold out, and there was a moment there when the band had a song at number 1 on bFM and Radio One. Blunt Dog are in danger of becoming the point.

“We’ve been given an unexpectedly massive amount of love and appreciation at our shows, and that means a huge amount. We’re really interested to see how our sound develops!”