In the process of creating their latest album prolific Wellington trio Gold Medal Famous set a new pace for themselves – taking a slower, more craftsman-like approach to the record than they have in the past. And as the queen and kings of refusing-to-be-pigeon-holed, Tamsin Grigg, Vorn Colgan and Chris Wilson continue to keep fans guessing with ‘Activity’ as Briar Lawry reports.
Past Gold Medal Famous recordings (and there’ve been a few) have dabbled in everything from jazz to heavy metal – leading to the entirely appropriate descriptor of “extreme genre fluidity” – or even “genre gaseous”, as multi-instrumentalist Vorn Colgan offers. Even John Key Is A Dick – probably the band’s most well-known song – has been reinterpreted ‘for different markets’, according to the band’s Bandcamp page, with versions in every style from “modal jazz” to “festive party” to “BBQ reggae”.
Talking with the three GMF members is a joy – admittedly helped by the fact that your friendly NZ Musician writer used to work at Unity Books with guitarist Tamsin Grigg – and it’s also a joyful meandering trip through genres past and risks taken.
For their sixth album, instead of ‘just’ picking a new genre to try on, like a velvet coat at an op-shop, they’ve broken down their construction process into something different. Chris Wilson, the band’s frontman and famed stageside exhibitionist, explains the process.
“I’ve got a lot of machines that make funny noises and there’s this outfit in Wellington called The Wellington Musical Electronics Library – the main library’s actually in Auckland – and we borrowed a bunch of stuff from there and we all recorded things. We’d each record a bit and then we’d pass it on to the next person, so we didn’t actually know who’d recorded what.”
By the end of the that inital sound-sourcing mission, the band had somewhere in the realm of two and a half hours of “totally weird noises”, according to Vorn.
“Vorn is the person who then has those noises and then smashes them together to make a chart-topping hit,” Tamsin adds with a smile.
Vorn’s response to Tamsin’s wry quip is impossible to accurately convey in written words. This is a meagre attempt…
“You’d be listening back to things going ‘BWECK’ and ‘PRROHRRRR’ and ‘KRCKK’ and you’d go, ‘Oh, that KRCKK sounds pretty good, kind of like a snare drum’, and then you’d chop the tiny bits out of it and turn them into riffs.”
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that this sounds like an off-the-wall way to make music. But then, Gold Medal Famous are not known their adherence to convention.
“I guess a lot of it is influenced by avant-garde pop – in the production, there’s a sort of mid-period Nicki Minaj sound. Stupid Hoe, that kind of non-melody stuff.”
“We’re also really highly influenced by Frank Zappa on this record,” Tamsin puts in. “Chris and I were listening to quite a bit of Zappa last year, and we read his really awesome memoir, The Real Frank Zappa Story, which is full of excellent anecdotes and cool and biting ideas on the state of music.”
“But there’s no virtuosity on our album,” Chris interjects.
“No no no no no. Frank Zappa would hate us.”
“Especially because our music is untranscribable,” Vorn adds.
“Oh, I don’t know – maybe if you put some snot on a piece of paper,” Tamsin says.
Speaking of paper, the album’s liner notes contain a rider for gigs – including the food they like and stationery.
“Yes,” Tamsin confirms, “we’ve got to have quality stationery. It makes a great big difference, and just makes me happy – I want people to know what I need.”
The liner notes also include a lot of influential bands in their thank yous which Chris explains.
“I always enjoy reading that in other albums – it always helps put the band in context. You see who they hang out with, who they’re influenced by, what the scene is like. It becomes quite a good time capsule.”
“And pre-internet, that used to be how you’d find new bands,” Vorn agrees. “They’d be thanked in the liner notes of some other band, and you’d be like, ‘Hmm, I wonder who this Mudhoney is?’”
You may have gathered, between the songs that have been name-checked in this article, that Gold Medal Famous have rather a political take on their music. They have a sequel to John Key Is A Dick – entitled John Key Is Still A Dick – and their next track is Bill English Is A Social Conservative, apparently strongly influenced by Napalm Death.
‘Activity’ is an album that could quite well reflect their current ages and stages as Chris observes.
“Pop and rock music don’t have to be a young person’s game – you don’t have to be in your early-to-mid-20s or a teenager, you can be in your 30s or 40s or older, and then you’ve got more stuff to reflect on – and it’s still nominally pop music.”
“And you write way less love songs,” Tamsin notes. “I think at that point, you know what is more enjoyable. Those things that really get to you when you’re in a more adult part of your life. And it’s nice to focus on those things, because they get passed over a lot of the time in music.”
“The second age of pop music is probably when you’re getting divorced in your 50s,” Vorn laughs. “And you start writing love songs again. That pretty much explains Rod Stewart’s ‘90s output.”
The band have to think for a moment as to whether they’ve written any love songs.
“We’ve written a sex song,” Chris muses.
“I think I Want To Make You Cum is a love song,” argues Vorn.
“It’s definitely a love song,” Tamsin agrees. “It’s just about being considerate. And that’s what true love is.”
The creep of time has inevitably impacted where they are at in their own lives. We Bought A House, the lead single from ‘Activity’, is described by Chris as their most obnoxious song.
“Buying a house is just so difficult – and the first time we played it live at UFO in Auckland, Vorn felt really uncomfortable.”
“I was deeply uncomfortable,” Vorn nods. “We do some gross songs, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable on stage the way I felt standing there saying ‘we bought a house’ in front of a room full of people who will never be able to afford a house.”
But even if it makes the band uncomfortable to play, it’s a damn good track. The sampled sounds make for a driving beat, and the matter-of-fact lyrics are hilarious. ‘We did due diligence. Building report. We did due diligence. LIM report. We did due diligence. Electrician’s report. We got a lawyer. Yeaaaah.’
On the flip side of the inaccessible banalities of home ownership is Stet, the album’s opening track, which couples whispery Latin with highly distorted noise between each verse. Then you’ve got title track Activity, a frenetic and diverse to-do list with each band member taking a turn to chant through an esoteric list, including the glorious rhyme ‘negotiate a trade deal / run from a fur seal’.
The band have also recently taken a punt at broader recognition, submitting standalone single Real Men Ride Max Key for the Silver Scroll Awards. They’ve put themselves forward for festivals, having written more family friendly material for just those occasions – but as Vorn describes, “…a preliminary Google will change their mind pretty quickly”.
Gold Medal Famous are never going to be everyone’s cup of tea – and really, that’s the way they like it. They somehow balance great musical passion, commitment and knowledge with total irreverence. And that’s what makes Gold Medal Famous so great. They try something out, see how it goes, and then go onto the next thing.
They are beautifully weird and they own that fact with every decision they make musically – so love or loathe their sound, one thing is for sure – they are the living embodiment of the opposite of boring.