August/September 2000

by Shaun Chait

Fur Patrol: Groomed For Success

by Shaun Chait

Fur Patrol: Groomed For Success

Fur Patrol are the most buoyant I’ve ever seen them. Certainly, there have been lots of reasons for celebration over the past few years – signing to an indie label, a successful EP and scores of big gigs. But the aura surrounding Fur Patrol tonight is different, it is the sort of glow reserved only for a debut album.

As drummer Simon Braxton and bassist Andrew Bain are joined by guitarist Steve Wells for our chat, talk quickly turns to music. And by the time singer/guitarist Julia Deans arrives, we are into a fully fledged discussion about ‘Pet’, the band’s soon to be released album with Warner Music. As we look over the artwork for new single Holy, I can’t help glowing myself, satisfied that after years of watching Fur Patrol fight the good fight, they are finally about to be rewarded.

From their inception in 1996, Fur Patrol have always had that all important edge. Their gigs have always been bigger, their songs better – and they’ve always impressed the right people. By the time Wellington musician Allan Clark had the idea of setting up an independent record label Fur Patrol songs had already been all over local radio, Man In A Box even sifting through to influential Australian station Triple J. By 1998, Fur Patrol had won Best Original Band at the Wellington Music Awards for two years running and had even been profiled in NZ Musician!

The engaging success of the band left Clark in no doubt that this was the act with which to launch his label, Wishbone Music. Simon Braxton tells the story.

“I had a meeting with Allan one afternoon, and he said ‘I’ve got this great idea. I’m gonna start a label and you guys can be on it. It’s going to help get Wellington bands up to a national level. Don’t sign anything yet, I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks.’ He did that, and we signed to Wishbone.”

Clark was friends with Deans through their time together in Irish rock combo Banshee Reel, but his attraction to her new band was based more on smart business sense. Fur Patrol were among the cream of a very auspicious Wellington crop, and they were demanding attention as one of the most ambitious and commercially viable bands around.

Now he had the talent, Clark sought financial support for Wishbone, and found it with Marmalade Studios, where he was working as the music studio manager. Founded in 1977, Marmalade was the country’s first 24-track studio. Although Marmalade set up its own label, Toast Records, in the early ’80s, it had subsequently become focused on advertising and commercial work.

Fur Patrol had gone into Marmalade, which includes two music studios and three audio post studios, to record a batch of demos in early 1998, impressing the studio management, and consequently Clark had a willing ally for his project.

By the end of ’98, Wishbone was ready to release its first EP.  ‘Starlifter’ was a victory for the power of a good song – or in this case, six of them. With Wishbone handling the marketing, Jayrem the distribution, and the band playing up a storm all over the country, ‘Starlifter’ debuted on the national singles chart at number 17, staying in the Top 50 for six weeks. This almost unheard of success for an indie label was rich reward for Wishbone and Marmalade and, most importantly for Fur Patrol, it was a huge thumbs up from the public. ‘Starlifter’ has now sold roughly 3000 units, its longevity providing a sound springboard for ‘Pet’.

Wishbone’s first release was a success and with the concept working Clark left the label to take up new projects in the South Island. Marmalade co-founder and Marmalade Group chairman Rocky Douché became Wishbone’s new label manager.

“Marmalade is the funding behind Wishbone,” Deans explains. 

With Wishbone networking and providing Fur Patrol with a base, major label interest followed. In February this year [2000], Wishbone signed a contract with Warner Music NZ for ‘Pet’ to be licensed to the major.

Fur Patrol describe the Wishbone/Warner balance as “pretty 50/50”. The band are still signed to Wishbone, like Shihad remains signed to Wildside. Warner’s role is the marketing, promotion, and distribution of the album.

Some see the success of Fur Patrol as being due to a well-executed masterplan. Certainly, they’ve left no stone unturned, with captivating videos, Indie and Kiwi Hit Disc slots, and a brains trust of Wishbone/Marmalade, Warner Music, manager David Benge and the band themselves. However, the band laugh off any suggestions of being marketing or promotion geniuses.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve attracted good people,” Braxton begins. “But primarily all that has happened because people like the music, they’re excited about what we do, and they find something which they think they can take further.”

“A lot has to do with our live shows,” says Deans to much agreement. “We’ve gained a good reputation as a live band. That comes from the fact that, above anything, we just love playing music. We try to make our shows special. That’s given us a solid fan base.”

The role of Wishbone cannot be downplayed though.

“They made it attractive for the majors to look our way and think that they could do something with us,” says Braxton. “They helped give us a financially viable product, and they got us to stage one with the release of ‘Starlifter’. That gave fans and radio something to play.”

Having a label that is part of a recording studio has some pretty healthy advantages, especially come album time. Like ‘Starlifter’ before it, ‘Pet’ was recorded and mixed at Marmalade. The exception to the rule was first single Now, mixed at Roundhead Studios in Auckland. With former Mutton Bird Dave Long calling the shots, Sam Gibson handling the mixing, and Welly’s man of the moment Mike Gibson also involved, there’s some pretty big wheels turning ‘Pet’’s sound. (I’ll resist the temptation.)

The 13 tracks engage the listener, with beautiful melodies, plenty of backbone, and immense listenability. Although the band haven’t made a conscious effort to crossover into commercial territory, there are songs on ‘Pet’ (the stunning Lydia for example) that have the potential to go through the roof. The band agree that this is a possibility, but they haven’t forgotten who they are.

“We’re a pop band who loves to rock out when we play,” states Braxton.

“We thought we were at the lighter end of the rock spectrum,” adds Deans, “but when we talked to Eddie Hribar (ZM Wellington) we realised it gets a lot lighter – and we were much relieved.”

‘Pet’ was recorded over three weeks in August last year, on 24-track reel to reel using mag 2” tape. The recording was done in analogue, with Wells saying that “…little bits were done on Pro Tools afterwards.” 

The band were impressed by Long, and are obviously happy with the results.

“Dave was really amazing at helping us get exactly the right sound in each song,” enthuses Braxton. “We worked hard on the sounds and making sure all the textures were right, down to things like moving the drums around different rooms.” 

Deans concurs. “We experimented with sound. It ate up a lot of time, but it’s really good to be able to play around like that and try new things.”

Texture and atmosphere were clearly key elements on ‘Pet’. When asked what the album sounds like, Wells says “beautiful, warm”. ‘Pet’ has captured every facet of Fur Patrol, from gorgeous pop ballads to more intense, rockier stuff (although the band say they could’ve got a lot nastier).

“It’s a mixed bag,” reckons Deans. “There’s no standard sound.”

Braxton expands on this. “All the songs sound different, but together there’s a nice diversity between colour and shade.”

The songs on ‘Pet’ were written during a four-year period, and the band have a tale to tell about each, showing genuine excitement when talking about them.

Short Way To Fall is “…the most perfect song on the album,” according to Deans. “I did the vocal in one take and it sounds exactly how it’s meant to.”

Loaded features “…a cool guitar sound. I plugged my guitar into the Hotcake and Andrew’s bass rig, and turned everything up really loud. We were standing around in the studio talking and I started playing then suddenly all the talking went away and our mouths were moving but there were no sounds. We used that take.”

Bonus track Bottles And Jars (a spine chilling masterpiece that didn’t suit the rest of the record) features looped guitar feedback and samples done at Long’s house using “…a PC-based recording program thingy.” There’s even a story about old favourite Man In A Box, which the band were sick of but Warners were very keen on.

“We had to go back into the studio a couple of months later to record it. It’s been reworked, and it sounds awesome.”

‘Pet’ is due out early October and Fur Patrol are looking forward to the tour to follow, saying they’ve got plenty of new songs to take with them. In an industry where everyone’s a slave to fashion, Fur Patrol are strikingly themselves. Douché thinks it is this which will bring them success.

“There’s a uniqueness – they’re not a carbon copy of overseas bands. That’s an important ingredient.

Weird things Fur Patrol have done for the sake of a good video!

Dominoes: We spent a considerable number of freezing hours standing around in a swimming pool before being ‘drowned’.
Beautiful: Firstly, we strapped Julia to the front of a truck before speeding her around the Petone foreshore and then Simon, Steve and Andrew had a chaffing time (ouch) being suspended in parachute harnesses in the back of the truck.
Now: We jumped around in a big blue room, to later find ourselves paper thin, doubled, etc., and in a strange new computer world.
Holy: We took great pleasure in throwing Julia through a wall. Enough said!