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February/March 2013

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Dr Graeme Downes

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Dr Graeme Downes

Dr Graeme Downes is a rock musician well-versed in classical overtures. He did his PhD on the symphonies of Mahler. He is the principal songwriter in The Verlaines, who first appeared in 1982 on the groundbreaking Flying Nun ‘Dunedin Double’ EP.

The Verlaines proved to be one of Flying Nun’s most lauded bands and long-lived bands, touring extensively and releasing a number of well-received albums in America. Their back catalogue now numbers nine albums, the most recent being last years ‘Untimely Meditations’, with another already in the pipeline, along with a live album from 1986 scheduled for 2013 release.

In the ’90s Graeme migrated to academia, first teaching and co-ordinating the music programmes at MAINZ in Auckland. Moving back south he joined the staff at the city’s university in 2000, introducing courses in composition and musicology and developing the country’s first degree in rock music. For the last year he has been Head of the Department of Music and Theatre Studies at the University of Otago.

He has described the development of the degree course at the University of Otago as a grand experiment, “… part of the rationale behind the degree is that the course will teach students a bunch of things that will allow one to do more than just play guitar in a rock band.” In todays musical landscape a musician has got to have a plethora of survival skills. Graeme Downes should know.

When and where was this photo taken?

It’s our wedding reception (Jo and I) at Chippendale House in Dunedin, July 1987. The entertainment included a solo set of bad Dylan covers from me, Look Blue Go Purple, Verlaines and Straitjacket Fits (and probably others after we left). I’d set up a sting with SJF to bump Shayne off stage to take lead vocals on She Speeds, hence the hilarity on Shayne’s part. He had the good grace to sing BVs.

What you were doing at the time this photo was taken?

It explains itself really. The months before had been prepping this wedding do. Buying cheap alcohol for punch and all the other wedding things (organising threads, guest list etc.). I would have been finishing my honours degree and writing ‘Some Disenchanted Evening’.

What was your first exposure to music and what got you started writing songs?

I was a radio junkie from age two or three, so got a good earful of the ’60s (Dylan, Bacharach, Beatles). Writing songs was inspired by the others that were doing the same (and in a most remarkable fashion) in Dunedin in the late ’70s / early ’80s.

How did The Verlaines get together and find their sound?

The band came together in fits and starts really, only solidifying intro a three-piece in ’81. The very first song I wrote was Slow Sad Love Song, and so I guess that set something of a tone. Quite dissonant. Not that all Verlaines songs are dissonant, but a good many are.

You’ve performed extensively in a number of territories, especially America. How did those live opportunities present themselves?

NZ, Aussie and US mainly. A few gigs in UK, no Europe (as yet). It is still the same. Get a following in your hometown, get out of town (impress people who aren’t your mates), get out of the country (Aus) and then get out of the hemisphere. Each stepping-stone is a proving ground. The opportunities only present themselves when the prerequisite steps have been conquered. This has not changed.

In 1991 and ’93 The Verlaines released albums on the U.S. Slash label. Was that a positive experience for the band?

Positive beyond measure, mainly for the experience of working with Jo Chiccarelli on our album ‘Way Out Where’ in ’93. It taught us a whole new level of preparation for recording (and showed us just how green we were in so many ways). We’d released the early Verlaines’ albums over there on the Homestead label and had a pretty good college radio following. We weren’t happy with prospective arrangements in this part of the world and the manager got a Slash deal instead. The Slash deal didn’t work out, but was invaluable just the same.

Even though touring is essential it’s not always a glamorous experience. How was it for you?

As someone said of war, touring is an organised bore. Erratic sleep, in cramped vans, irregular eating and fatigue. Oh and being not much more than a furniture removal man twice a day. Still, a few years after this photo Verlaines and Straitjacket Fits shared the stage at CBGBs in New York. Outrageous!

You made the transition from musician to academia. Can you tell us about your early studies, your academic goals?

There was no transition, they were always hand in hand. I was studying scores of Brahms Symphonies at 14, well before I picked up a guitar. And serious academia (university) came about because I became aware of the skill deficits that were stopping me finishing certain songs. Analysing others music is about working out what makes it great (and Mahler, my PhD topic, was a great, great songwriter – I continue to learn from him). When you write a song you are analysing your own work on the fly – why choose this chord here and not another one?

More than anything else I’ve learned the ability to manipulate form in the service of the poetic essence of the song (rather than pour a barely original thought into a cookie cutter mould of verse/chorus or AABA). Occasionally those moulds are quite useful but it helps to know when they are inadequate and how to go about constructing a freer structure without the whole thing falling into chaos. This more than anything typifies the Dunedin Sound (the sound of the bands back then was similar, sure, but is of second order significance to the unique forms they created).

You wrote, ‘Poetry can be a real inspiration. It oils the wheels of creation for me’. How does the creative process work for you?

I have always binge-read to get in lyric writing mood and keep fresh ideas coming – whether it be poetry, literature, philosophy, history, political commentary – there’s no end. And of course studying songs by others, or scores of composers. If you think you can write original music in a vacuum you are fooling yourself. No musician is Adam (or Eve) as much as marketing schemes would like to make the world think they are.

I’m frank with my students that I have written good, average and lacklustre songs and also some that were good potentially, but that through miscalculation got murdered in the recording process. You can’t move forward without being frank about your back catalogue. In fact you need to continue to try to bury it, to surpass it. Recent live gigs have contained songs from 1981 to 2011. The better ones still excite people.

What makes for a good lyric and how do you create the DNA of a song?

The old method was chords and structures and then trying to get a lyric to fit. Hard work and the hit to miss ratio is not favourable (although it did yield some monster songs). Now I draft lyrics on computer for months on end, keeping multiple versions so I can backtrack if necessary. I set them to music, usually over the summer, and the music generally revises the text some more (usually takes the knife to it and pares it down).

For me a good lyric is down to coherence and no padding, no weak lines there for perfunctory reasons. Focus, focus, focus! The DNA comes from the music (the right key, tempo, melodic shape, rhythmic ideas etc.). It doesnt matter how you go about it, but in the end a good song is music and words that seem utterly inseparable.

Was the process of writing for your 2001 solo album ‘Hammers and Anvils’ different from writing for The Verlaines?

No different. I just wrote songs. The band had scattered to the winds so I cut up drum loops and played bass myself or programmed it in. It’s a Verlaines’ record in all but name.

Looking back, where do you consider The Verlaines fitted into Kiwi rock history and particularly in the Flying Nun stable?

To be honest we were probably considered second tier behind Chills and Straitjacket Fits here. Having said that The Chills spent more time in Europe but it was Verlaines’ albums that made the first impression in the US and Straitjacket Fits made their impression there later. In the end it was a collective thing that drove Flying Nun, not one band but many from a small country far away and all with their qualities. The breadth of utterance over a dozen or so Verlaines’ albums seems to sustain the brand in many pockets around the world.

Who is in The Verlaines these days?

Darren Steadman (drums), Stephen Small (keys), Tom Healy (lead guitar), Rob Burns (bass) and me form the recording and recent live unit. Sometimes Chris Miller on bass.

You give the impression that you have never compromised your musical vision but surely there have been times when you have thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’

Nihilism is a daily battle if you are awake. The sustaining thing is the creative sense of accomplishment. I’ve just finished writing the last three tracks for a new album. The texts are uncompromising. The music fits like a glove. The first audience is an audience of one, often times in conversation with the long dead. That thrill of something created and extant at the end of the day that wasn’t there first thing in the morning is satisfaction enough as long as you feel it deserves a place in the world – hence the conversation with present and past masters.

A number of musicians who are now teachers have said that there are times when they feel like they equally learn from their students. Is that something that you subscribe to?

Yes there is an element of that, insofar as students introduce you to new music that you might not have sought out without their bringing it to your notice. A lot of the process is coming to a better understanding of self.

When I started teaching songwriting I realised how little I could articulate about the process, that so much was instinctive, which is fine from a creative perspective if it works, but no use when a student asks why their bridge section sucks. So yes, we learn together, and Im much better at fault diagnosis than I was a decade ago. And that too helps my own work. Truth is, faults in songs are very hard to spot – it could be the text, the harmony, melodic interest, word setting, some infuriating discrepancy between several parameters.

Your careers as a musician and as a teacher each make for wonderful achievements. How you define and view success?

It’s relative. We know of bands that are one hit wonders and then disappear. I’ve never had a number one hit but I’m over 50 and making hard hitting albums still. I haven’t come close to exhausting myself creatively, nor has the industry destroyed me (and that’s a big club). I’ve taught some wonderful people who have been able to take their own creative steps in the world. A friend in NY emailed last week that he’d bought a copy of ‘Some Disenchanted Evening’ in a record shop there. It was released in 1989. If it still commands space on a record shelf 24 years after it was first released, that is relatively successful.

Do you have a managerial structure in place with The Verlaines?

Due to work commitments there isn’t much to manage. We’re mainly a studio band and perform only on occasions. Writing, recording, artwork, interviews I handle and Darren (Steadman) helps a lot with logistics. We get the important stuff done, but we’re beyond conquering the world by endless touring. We can really only let the albums do the walking for us these days.

What would you consider your proudest musical moment?

Writing Last Will and Testament.

Is there one mistake that you learned more from than any others?

Overly defining what comprises a mistake is the easiest mistake to make. I could point to various deals that we got screwed over on, but without them, other doors wouldn’t have opened. There’s an element of swings and roundabouts to each rock and roll odyssey.

How does studying for a music degree help keep alive rock and rolls history of rebellious ‘spirit’? Does knowledge of the great classical composers play a role in that evolution?

We could be here all day discussing this question. Rock is only a late flowering of an independent spirit, of writing whatever one pleases irrespective of any service to a government, church, or more recently corporation (with the caveat that that spirit has constantly been subjected to eroding influences since time immemorial, or for arguments sake the Reformation). Even 200 odd years is no great stretch of time to my thinking.

It’s tempting to think of rock in terms of a purely self-referencing history (via blues to rock etc.) It is far more complex than that. Because rock has a literary element, the thoughts it enunciates can go a long way back beyond Robert Johnson. ‘OK Computer’ is pure Dante after all. And I think ‘rebellious’ smacks of slick hairdos in the ’50s and rockers and mods. The more serious moments in rock’s history have been a little more like unmasking than rebellion.

The best advice you ever got was…?

“Go back to school and learn your craft.”