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December/January 2009

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Chris Matthews

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews formed and fronted the Headless Chickens, a band that wrote and performed music that was dark and mostly loud, occasionally brooding and always powerful. Between 1985 and 2000 they delivered three studio albums, each of which continues to stand up creatively and artistically. Neither commerce nor commodity has anything to do with why Chris has continued to be creative. He just is. The most delightful contradiction about Chris is that for someone who delivers music that is often seriously dark, his imagination and sense of humour remain original and enlightening.

Who are the people in the picture, Chris?

Chris Matthews, Peter Jefferies, Graeme JefferiesThis Kind Of Punishment and me.

What do you remember about the photo?

It was taken by Chris Knox at his house and it was probably in 1983 since only the three of us were in the picture, and at that time T.K.P. was just the Jefferies brothers, with myself generally helping them out with their new musical project. Since the first T.K.P. album was recorded on Chris’s trusty Teac 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder (I think, although it might have actually been Michael Lawry‘s one we used) we were probably at his place to borrow it or talk to him about something to do with it.

He had some kind of Polaroid camera which he could double-expose photos on, so he got us to stand against the lounge wall and took our picture… twice. There’s a brief glimpse of this photo in the collage-style music video that Chris made for the Tall Dwarfs’ song, Turning Brown And Torn In Two, but it was never used for anything else ‘cos the Jefferies brothers were always pretty gun-shy when it came to doing promotional publicity of any sort.

Is there any particular reason why you look like you might be in Eraserhead?

I think it’s just ‘cos we were lit from underneath to get the big looming shadows in the picture that Chris was after and my face and hair make me look a bit like Jack Nance who played Henry in the film. If you turn the picture upside down, I look completely different in the other shot, so it wasn’t intentional, even though when I saw Eraserhead at the old Classic Cinema back in about 1980, I actually did want to be Henry and live in his world, for quite a few years afterwards. I often still do…

What else was going on when this was taken?

Peter and Graeme and I were good friends and we’d been flatting together since about 1981. I first met them when their original band, Nocturnal Projections, supported The Prime Movers, my high school band that I was playing drums in at the time. We got to talking and immediately hit it off and I went back to their place in Ponsonby after the gig for a bit of a party and basically moved in that same night, since I was more or less homeless then. At the time of this photo I’d been in Children’s Hour for about a year and Peter and Graeme had recently started T.K.P after the Nocturnals split.

Can you give us an outline of your own career since this photo?

Well, Children’s Hour split up late in ’84 and then I played the drums in Jay Clarkson‘s Expendables and also on her first solo album. (T.K.P. did their one and only national tour in early ’85 with The Expendables and I was playing in both bands, which is an experience I’ll never repeat. Playing in two bands just about every night for two weeks is bloody exhausting!) Then I formed the Headless Chickens in 1985 and did that for the next 15 years.

I started being Robot Monkey Orchestra when I moved to Dunedin in 2002, which is basically just me and my computer for recording purposes. I get a few musicians to play with me live on the odd occasions I do, and I just released my first solo album this year called ‘The Map Of Love’ and I’m on MySpace so check me out. Ask me to sell you a copy of my CD since it’s not really in the shops or anything yet!

The Headless Chickens won the 1987 Rheineck Award… Fiona McDonald joined as vocalist… ‘Greedy’… would you consider these as pivotal moments for the band and can you fill in some gaps?

Jeez – okay, here’s a quick potted history of the band: Formed in 1985 with myself, keyboardist Michael Lawry and ex-Children’s Hour bassist Johnny Pierce. Toured NZ for the first time with legendary ex-Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico and her band in ’86. Johnny killed himself later that year. Released our first self-titled mini-album early in ’87 which contained most of the songs we’d written and recorded with Johnny in the previous two years.

Ex-Children’s Hour members Grant Fell and Bevan Sweeney, and ex-Birds Nest Roys‘ singer Rupert E. Taylor, all joined the band later that same year on bass, drums and vocals respectively. We won the Rheineck Rock Award at the end of ’87 and recorded ‘Stunt Clown’ with the prize money. First toured Australia in ’88 and recorded the Gaskrankinstation 12″ single in ’89 with guitarist/keyboardist Anthony Nevison now also in the band.

Recorded ‘Body Blow’ in late ’90 with Fiona McDonald joining as the second singer after Rupert left earlier in the year. Released a couple of singles (Cruise Control, Donde Esta La Pollo) off ‘Body Blow’ in ’91, which both went top 10 in the NZ charts and the album did also.

Recorded four extra tracks in Melbourne in ’92 for the Australian release/NZ re-release of ‘Body Blow’ and went top 20 in Oz with a remixed version of Cruise Control. The other singles – Choppers, Juice and Mr Moon all went top 10 in NZ and did really well across the ditch too. (All up, we toured Australia about 10 times between ’88 and ’94.)

Anthony left the band in late ’93 due to hearing problems. We toured the UK and Europe (and a few gigs in New York) for a couple of months late in ’94, having recorded a new song, George, in an Auckland studio just before we left. Arrived back home in December to find that George was the number 1 single in NZ and it stayed there for four weeks. Michael and Fiona left the band in ’95 shortly after our third Big Day Out performance.

New member Angus McNaughton joined the band on keyboards later that year and we wrote and demoed a lot of the songs for the ‘Greedy’ album but then Grant and Angus decided they wanted to do other things and left the band in ’96, which left me and Bevan and new bass player Bevan Larsen to record ‘Greedy’ in ’97. New keyboard player Simon ‘Flex’ Claridge subsequently joined the band but I decided to call it quits in 2000. Oh, and the Headless Chickens won a bunch of NZ Music Awards in the early/mid-’90s for various things, too.

What are some of the worst places you have ever played and the best things that ever happened to you on tour?

I’m not saying that Gisborne is a bad place but there was a gig we did there in about ’92 – when we were getting audiences between 600 and 1000 people everywhere else in NZ at the time. But when we arrived at the pub to set up and soundcheck the bar manager blithely informed us not to expect much of a crowd because there was some big international rugby match on that night and everyone would probably stay home to watch it on TV. Of course, we thought he was taking the piss but, sure enough, we only had about 30 people turn up that night! Mind you it was a Wednesday or something so maybe Gisbornites just didn’t go out on early weeknights back in those days, but I don’t think we went back to play in Gisborne again after that…

Another pretty weird one was when we were on tour in the U.K. in ’94. Towards the end of our tenure there we ended up supporting Peter Perrett, the ex-singer/guitarist from the late ’70s post-punk/pop band, The Only Ones, who did Another Girl, Another Planet, amongst many other great songs off their brilliant first album. Mr Perrett was attempting something of a comeback with a new backing band, after living in junkie limbo for 10 years since The Only Ones had split up (and it’s okay for me to say that ‘cos it’s all in his openly confessional and very entertaining autobiography).

At the beginning of our trip to UK/Europe we’d toured with Pop Will Eat Itself all around England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and Belgium. But the most exciting gig for me was gonna be the last one in Paris on the very same night of my birthday, especially since my girlfriend who was in London was gonna come over for the show. Unfortunately P.W.E.I. had to cancel their gigs in France due to poor ticket sales, so their tour finished early and then we immediately got added as support band to the Peter Perrett tour of England. The very first gig was on the same date that the Paris show was supposed to be, except it was in bloody Hull in the north of England, and there’s a good reason that ‘Hull’ sounds a lot like ‘Hole’ – ‘cos that’s what it is…!

Anyway, so we drove up there from London and arrived at the pub that we were playing at, and I went inside and there was this apparently insane drug-addled woman screaming at the top of her lungs at someone on the other end of the pub telephone for about 20 minutes. I thought she was just some local nutter who’d gone off her meds or something until Peter Perrett casually strolled out of the band room in heavy black eyeliner and a full-length leopard skin coat and asked her what the problem was. It turned out that not only was she his wife but she was also his manager and that was apparently her way of handling some minor problem with the band’s accommodation! It was a Spinal Tap moment having a Diane Arbus day. We ended up telling our London management that Fiona had laryngitis and couldn’t sing, so that we didn’t have to play any more little bumhole English pubs with Peter and his motley crew.

The best thing that ever happened to me on tour was playing our songs, in the band I loved, to mostly great audiences everywhere in NZ (and Australia, etc.) for about 15 years. All the other stuff involved with touring – driving for hours and hours with a bunch of people in a smelly van; loading and unloading tonnes of heavy equipment every night; sitting around for hours and hours waiting for soundcheck to start or finish; going without a decent night’s sleep, and being away from the person you love, for weeks on end – that’s generally not much fun. It’s the endlessly tiresome touring routine that often splits bands up or at least makes them hate each other’s guts after a few years of it, but the hour and a half every night of playing your heart out to an appreciative crowd is what makes it all worth doing.

As a writer do you have a process that sees you collecting ideas for your songs?

Well, basically anything and everything – I’m a magpie for interesting words or phrases and they can come from anywhere, even overhearing strangers chatting on the bus. Most of them come from my mind, although, once again, I couldn’t begin to tell you how my brain arranges them into what they become in my songs. And I have no idea where the music itself comes from: it’s a David Lynch-style mystery and that’s the way I like it: I am full of secrets…

You have a considerable body of work that you have created over the years – how do you value the sum of your achievements and what else would you like to be doing?

I think the bands that I’ve played with – Children’s Hour, This Kind Of Punishment, Headless Chickens – are all largely considered to be seminal and influential NZ bands who strove to do something unique and original, so I’m proud of that, of course. And I think I always tried to write interesting lyrics for my songs and generally succeeded, so I’m pretty happy with that, too.

I guess the future is what the future will be, but hopefully, a few people will get to hear the solo album ‘The Map Of Love’ that I released recently, even though I haven’t exactly been doing much to get it out to the public yet. I’ve got loads of songs that I’ve written over the last 10 years either finished or waiting to be finished or waiting to be started(!), so I’ll be making more albums soon. I still haven’t thought of anything else I’d rather be doing than music, so I guess I’m in this thing for life.

What’s on your playlist now?

Loads of bands, but I love recent stuff by: Klaxons, Lykke Li, TV On The Radio, Amos Lee, Royksopp, Giant Drag, The Knife, Jose Gonzalez, Die! Die! Die!, Stef Animal, Future Of The Left, Gravenhurst, Queens Of The Stone Age, Grizzly Bear, Air, Miss Kittin, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Low, Cornelius, Gemma Hayes, Graeme Humphries & Peter Keen, etc.

Complete the following sentence:

“Sometimes I feel so …so-so”