‘Sugar Mouth’, David Kilgour’s second solo album is out now on Flying Nun, as is a side project, the Pop Art Toasters’ EP featuring ‘60s covers performed by David and other Dunedin musicians, including Martin Phillipps. Victor Billot ventured south to make some enquiries.
I visited David Kilgour earlier this autumn to talk about ‘Sugar Mouth’, and to have a retrospective look at some of his other musical endeavours – and what the future holds for him. We got settled in David’s lounge on a bright Sunday morning, with a weak Dunedin sun shining in through the windows and a copy of ‘Sugar Mouth’ playing quietly in the background.
The actual recording of the album was finished in November last year, with mastering completed in February 1994. Originally, says David, the album was going to be recorded in Dunedin, with the current band line-up of himself, Noel Ward on bass and James Stephenson (drums), with co-producer Nick Roughan coming down from the North Island with some extra equipment. These plans, however, went awry.
“I got really busy around that time, and I had 10 days in which to find a building to do it in… so at the last moment I rang up Nick, who’s living in Auckland now, and who’s got access to the Writhe Studios’ 24-track.”
In the end, they did get hold of a “nice old farmhouse near Waiuku,” plus some gear through a deal with Revolver Studios, and headed out to the country to live and work for a month in the middle of 1993.
“We realised it wasn’t quite finished, so ended up spending a week completing it in the old TVNZ studios in central Auckland.”
The strains of Fall Away, a personal live favourite of mine, are humming on the stereo when I ask David about the age of material on ‘Sugar Mouth’. Quite a few of the songs on the album are old, he admits, but there are also brand new ones that came up at the time of recording. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes, I suggest that if the bulk of the material is typically short Kilgour pop numbers, then there will be quite a long track listing.
“There are some different things there, weirder things there,” notes David. “It’s got elements of ‘Here Come The Cars’ [his first solo album], but there is sort of more guitar on it, and some of the songs are a bit different too.”
David says that the production was a collaborative effort, but that Nick Roughan had more control than he did over ‘Cars’, which he also co-produced.
“I let him make a lot more of the decisions, which is good. I didn’t really get to make the album that perhaps I wanted to make. Noel had a lot to do with it too – giving other people decisions, letting other people screw with it.”
‘Sugar Mouth’ is being released in the USA, Europe and Australia later this year all going well – which didn’t happen with ‘Here Come The Cars’. I ask if he and the band going to make a big push on promoting the album, or take a more low-key approach?
“It’s a hard question. I guess it’s a case of pushing it as hard as we can without killing ourselves! It depends on who we sign with over there – it’ll be on Flying Nun /Mushroom in Europe. Depending on who picks it up in the States we’ll be busy with it all year I suppose, and try to make another album next year. I’d love to begin recording at the end of this year.”
David seems less than enthused about the prospect of touring.
“If we can tour and cover costs overseas that’ll be great, which we could do. Covering costs also means paying James and Noel a wage, and me too hopefully, ha ha!”
The conversation drifts around to rumours of a Clean reformation – which actually did happen, shortly after this interview took place. The band played a kicking gig of old and new material to a packed Sammy’s in Dunedin. At the time of our conversation however, the arrival of third Clean member Hamish Kilgour from New York was still somewhat up in the air.
“We’ll probably continue to do it whenever we can find the time… it’s really easy. It’s like falling off a log, the three of us playing together.”
The previous Clean reformation album, 1990’s ‘Vehicle’, represented a heavy period of touring followed by a brief, live-style recording he explains.
“It would be nice to put our minds on one project and not worry about running round and touring.”
David’s involvement in original music stems right back to the late ‘70s. The three bands he is best known for – The Clean, the Great Unwashed and Stephen – have all met with varying degrees of success, but ensured his status as one of the best songwriters in New Zealand. I asked how he saw his future as a musician in those earlier times.
“I think I thought initially that I’d be doing it for the rest of my life, but there was a period there after the Great Unwashed split where I’d had a gutsful and thought I’d try something else, and things kind of meandered along for a few years there.
“I think after doing the Stephen stuff, and then connecting back up again with The Clean – I think it made me realise that maybe it was what I should be doing.”
Though often lumped in the ‘alternative’ bracket, an impeccable melodic sense and increasingly confident production seems to threaten David with success, of a kind. Do people actually buy his records, at a level to make music a personally viable option?
“Not really… ‘Here Come the Cars’ sold going on 2000 copies in the first six months. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a big name act anywhere – I just see it’s possible to scrape a living out of being a ‘cult figure’ (though that’s a horrible term). There’s enough interest in America and Europe. If you keep your expenses down and get released all around the world, I do see it’s possible to scrape a living. Its been getting better year by year.
“I think it is important these days for me to make a little bit of money out of it” he adds drily as an afterthought.
David says he finds it easier to write songs about pain rather than happiness, countering this with a deprecating laugh and an acknowledgement.
“I always go back to that Neil Young comment that it made him really happy to do down, depressing songs, it actually cheered him up. It’s like being on the couch really!”
He confesses to leaving the lyrics until the last minute, often ad-libbing even on tour, and settling on something only once in the studio.
We delve into the subject of amplifiers and guitars, and David’s evolution from what he terms the “white metal noise sheet” he generated in The Clean with an old Gunn amp, to the more refined sound he seems to be producing these days. A new combination of a Fender Twin and striking blue Rickenbacker axe are what he wields today, though he notes that the rhythm sound of the Rickenbacker tends to limit his lead playing. He also reveals that he has fallen in love with Telecasters. His attitude towards his equipment seems to be similar to his overall approach to music – pared down, combining melodic yet often surprising songs with a sound that is uncluttered but full, and a relaxed live approach.
“Two guitars and one amp – I think you’ve got to keep it simple.”
David ‘popped up’ under that title on the front page of Billboard’s first issue this month. Sharing the article with Australian Mushroomers Frente! and Jimmy Barnes, the accolades for ‘Sugar Mouth’ continued on page 119 with quotes from Nick Roughan, Flying Nun’s Paul McKessar, and the man himself.
McKessar admits that 1992’s debut solo David Kilgour release ‘Here Come The Cars’ suffered seriously from bad timing on the part of Flying Nun, which held out a little too long in its negotiations to license the record outside of New Zealand.”
As a consequence it didn’t get licensed anywhere else, and can claim sales of only 5000 worldwide, which he continues, “… is a crying shame. The man’s made more great music than just about anyone I can think of, especially in New Zealand, and he’s got nothing to show for it.”