Three albums in, Napier three-piece Golden Curtain can sometimes seem to be taking the piss, such is the recognisably channelled and casually vibrant nature of their latest alt pop offerings. Michael Hollywood chatted with singer and guitarist Andrew Mckenzie about the gestation of ‘Hell Is Other People’, and to enquire how they engineered such a light pop guitar sound.
It’s the province that gave us Pixie Williams, Johnny Cooper and Phil Judd. More recently, it’s where Connan Mockasin and Lee Prebble learned their formative music chops, the domain of Devils Elbow and home turf for 2015 Taite Music Prize winners, Jakob.
Hawke’s Bay is also home base for Andrew Mckenzie, Andrew Gladstone, and Brad Gamble, who collectively go by the name of Golden Curtain. If the names seem familiar it’s likely because you recognise them from past lives with Grand Prix (Mckenzie), Garageland (Gladstone) and A Twin Moon (Gamble).
Golden Curtain has a new release out. Called ‘Hell Is Other People, it’s the trio’s third album. Despite some previous form as a philosophy student in Wellington, Mckenzie is quick to deny any connection the new album’s title might have with one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous lines.
“I’m sure people will listen to the title song and know I’m not being super heavy or dark. It’s a light-hearted chorus, and I wasn’t getting into existential philosophy or anything when I wrote that one.”
Andrew Gladstone was initially planning to join us, in the wake of a well-received Garageland reunion gig in Auckland, but had to pull the plug after becoming consumed by his very own personal version of hell – the brutal seven-day cold that has clogged up GP waiting rooms right across the land this winter. The drummer and Mckenzie share a couple of different musical projects. It’s clear their collaboration is as much about embracing a much coveted work/life balance as it is about a mutual love of playing music.
“More and more as time goes on, you start wondering what the game plan is with this whole thing. By the time you get to our incredible old age you start asking yourself about the things you enjoy doing. The most enjoyable thing at the moment is just coming up with new stuff and recording it.
“As a band we’re just trying to go forward and come to terms with the fact that people don’t buy albums anymore. I think it’s really important to keep on making music, but to also understand that at the same time you’ve got to keep your day job. This is where I grew up. I’m working on the orchard – and I’m doing music.”
Having returned to Napier and started playing music with Mckenzie, Gladstone decided he needed to pull back on the Americana. ‘Hell Is Other People’ might just be the band’s most pop-geared effort thus far, yet for all of its hooks – and there are a few – Mckenzie wasn’t shy about keeping things experimental and fresh.
“I came up with this idea that involved re-stringing the guitar as well as re-tuning it. All of those songs are on a guitar where two of the thickest strings are taken off and replaced by thin strings, like you’d find on the other side of the neck. So instead of going across two octaves, theres one octave, but there’s a lot more notes, and once you realise that, you can hear it in the music. Because we’re a three-piece I can’t be doing anything too involved on the guitar while I’m singing, so I was trying to come up with a way I could try to play some more interesting chords, but in an easy way.”
He’s keen to share the credits and present the album as very much a team effort.
“Brad is a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter. He’s about 20 years younger than Andrew and I. His first instrument is the bass, but because he can play everything he can listen to it from the perspective of a songwriter, a drummer, and a guitarist. Andrew had the idea to add some brass and wind to a couple of songs, and there’s a Girl From Ipanema feel to some of it. So a friend of ours, Anton Wuts, who is a guitarist, but also an accomplished wind instrument player, came in and helped us out.”
Matt Mear was originally drafted in to play trumpet, but helped out by adding flügelhorn.
“We had access to some really great gear, great mics and a lot of really old German equipment owned by sound engineer Brett Stanton, another friend of ours. We set things up at my home in a way that gave us a much better sound quality than we’d been used to. I came up with a rough mix and tracking, but Brett tidied up the mix and mastered it.”
Even before the albums release plans are in place for another Golden Curtain album. It’s likely to feature a songwriting collaboration with San Francisco-based writer Alex Green, who edits a website called Stereo Embers.
“Alex put out a book called Emergency Anthems, a collection of his prose. I did an interview with him about a year ago, and learned of some stuff culled from his book that the publishers didn’t want to use. He sent some through, and I read it and saw how it could be turned into songs. So he gave me free rein to do what I like [with the words]. We’re actually seven songs into it –– he’s sending through lyrics and we’re coming up with the music.”
Although not quite a return to the halcyon heyday of yesteryear, the live scene in the Bay has flourished since the return of the storied Cabana venue in Napier in 2008. More recently there has been the emergence of Hastings’ venue Common Room. It hosts regular jazz nights, and generally acts as a hub for all manner of creative revelry.
In addition to gigging as Golden Curtain, Mckenzie and Gladstone partner up as country “side-project Michael Rhinestone Cowboy – just guitar, drums, and unrecorded old Grand Prix country songs,” as Mckenzie casually describes it.
“Andrew’s got this really old drum kit, older than us, and I play acoustic guitar. It’s really good for parties and we’ve done a few gigs at the Cabana as well. It’s light-hearted and fun. The beauty of this is that none of us need Golden Curtain to be any sort of money-making thing. I know some musicians who have gone down the road where they want their career in music to be their living so they get into all sorts of stuff, including chasing government funding, and playing gigs that most of the time you wouldn’t really want to do. If you don’t need music for your income then you’re free to play the music you want to play.”