This September saw the release of the first new Hallelujah Picassos recordings for nigh on 20 years, the topically-titled EP ‘Bullet That Breaks The Key’. Listening to the EP – three songs written in the last year along with a remix– writer Owen Harris found himself transported back to the late ’80s when ‘Picasso core’ was a staple of student radio, and they were a compelling live act. Owen talked with founding members Roland Rorschach and Peter McLennan.
This September saw the release of the first new Hallelujah Picassos recordings for nigh on 20 years, the topically-titled EP ‘Bullet That Breaks The Key’. Listening to the EP – three songs written in the last year along with a remix– I found myself transported back to the late ’80s, when ‘Picasso core’, the band’s self-coined term for their unique blend of “ska-punk-reggae-pop-thrash-hiphop-hardcore, was all over student radio, and their live performances never failed to ignite.
The band’s sound – at the same time irreverent and paying tribute to influences – hasn’t really changed, just been brought into the 2000s with more studio finesse and time in the mix. Bobbylon still sings sweetly behind the drums, Roland is in your face, gripping the mic for dear life, as Peter strums his guitar with fervour.
“I think the styles also occur automatically, when we explain to each other what the song needs,” explains Roland. “It’s more about emotions, a certain feel, and everybody interprets it their way.”
“It’s more intuitive than contrived,” Peter adds.
So how did the EP eventuate? With fourth member John Pain living overseas it seemed like fans, new and old alike, may only get treated to the occasional live outing?
“By accident really!” Roland exclaims in answer.
“It grew out of getting back together to play when we put out the reissue CD (2011’s ‘Rewind the Hateman’) and kept going from there really, continues Peter. “Roland brought new lyrical ideas to us, and collaborating the way that we used to. We played June last year with Drab Doo Riffs, played the Kings Arms in October, and we did Whammy Bar in December. That was good though, we were basically playing with a whole lot of young bands, and sort of brought the audience along as well.
“That’s one of the reasons why we wanna do some new music, basically so that any new fans who discovered us, and liked what they heard of our previous material, we could give them something new. The kids that have come up after gigs, they don’t care that it’s of the age of the music, when it came out, or that it’s reissued or re-mastered, they just go, ‘Oh it’s good music!’.”
“For me, it’s convincing new people, y’know?” Roland agrees.
The band’s original roster – Harold aka Roland Rorschach (vocals), Bobbylon (drums/vocals), Peter McLennan (guitar), John Pain (originally bass, now keys, his original pre-Picassos instrument) – now benefits from the addition of musical man-about-town wunderkind Darryn Harkness (LoudGhost, New Telepathics, BrainTree, Fagan & The People, producer).
Brought in initially to fill in for Johnny on bass – as he is living overseas – Darryn is now a fully-fledged Picasso, something neither the band or he take lightly.
“We have accepted him as a band member, but he has to accept the fact that he’s a Picasso, and he has to get his head around that, cos he also has his own band LoudGhost, and in other bands as well, but mentally he’s a Picasso,” Roland explains.
“I said to him, ‘Once you’re in, you’re in’ but he’s enjoying it, and he’s producing some stuff, and he’s quite proud of that.”
“I first heard about Darryn through Roland collaborating on some of Darryn’s ‘New Telepathics’, doing guest vocals,” says Peter. “He’s done a couple of gigs with us, and he’s got a sense of what our fans are like, and what the stage dynamic is like. We finished recording and Darryn spat out an MP3 and emailed it to Johnny in Kuala Lumpur, and he’d add his keyboard part and email it back. It doesn’t even matter that he’s not in the same country as us, he’s still contributing musically. The great thing about us as a studio band – because we’re always used to working really fast in the studio – now we’re in a situation where we’ve got unlimited studio time, we still work really efficiently.”
“It becomes intuitive and instinctive,” Roland adds.
Salvadore, the first new song tackled by the reformed/re-invigorated line up, opens the EP. A catchy number with a calypso-like feel – “skiffle beat” is Peter’s term.
“I’m really pleased with the guitar line, it’s got a chunky little guitar line. Somebody said to me recently it sounds like a Roy Orbison line, and I thought, ‘Cool!’ I like the way we’ve got different elements, you get through the first verse and chorus, and everything drops out and you’ve just got handclaps and Roland, and it dubs out for a second. It’s got a lot of elements like what we used to do, it’s a continuation of what we used to do.”
“Yeah yeah yeah!” Roland agrees enthusiastically.
Salvadore went through quite an evolution to get to what we hear on the EP.
“The first version that we played was like a really slow ballad, says Peter. “It was a very gothic ballad. Johnny was playing keyboards, and said, ‘I’m still playing this thing that sounds like a guitar’, so I said, ‘You play what I’m playing, you play the guitar line, and I’ll play something completely different.’ Then he put the drum machine under it and it was like a whole different tune! ”
“It was really scary, it scared the shit out of me, cos it was really close to a direction we didn’t want to head into! “Roland exclaims. “I won’t mention any names… If this was the first attempt at writing songs, and if it’s going to be this painful… but then it came to a point and it changed, and it came out to what we have here.”
By contrast, Cracked Salvation, the loping second track on the EP and a revisiting of sorts of early Picassos’ track Crack Dub, was much easier to complete.
“That one sort’a came about when we were playing Crack Dub, which was off out first album,” explains Peter. “Roland wanted to do something fresh with the lyrics, and it’s like doing a version of our own song, which I think is quite a cool thing to do.”
The EP’s third new track is the angular, crunching Hang All Bankers. Roland describes it as being closely related lyrically to Crack Salvation, written in the same time period and with the same fury in mind.
“There’s definitely an anger back there!
Final track, Salvadore (Dub Asylum vs Pains People remix), is as the title suggests a reworking of the first, courtesy of Peter’s and Johnny’s musical alter-egos.
“I was looking for a version of the song I could play on my own show, and could give to my Base FM DJ mates, a dance-y version, a way of getting it to another audience that wouldn’t listen to it otherwise,” says Peter, who has held down a Saturday morning slot on the Auckland station for the last decade.
The distinctive Bullet That Breaks The Key/Salvadore single artwork is by Erin Forsyth, a change in contributor as Roland explains.
“In the past we had an artist Martin Emond, it’s 10 years this year that he passed away. For this album we chose Erin and hope to continue to work with her. She’s a local artist, and she’s got some work in (Auckland Art Gallery/workspace) Cross Street, but she’s not necessarily a graffiti artist.”
The band formed in Auckland around 1987, originally as The Rattlesnakes, but within a couple of years became the Halleulujah Picassos.
“We evolved pretty fast, we were writing a lot of songs back then,” Peter recalls. “Our musical styles out-grew that name, so we came up with Hallelujah Picassos, and the first session we did would have been about 1990, which is where Clap Your Hands came out of, on cassette. We basically came out of the Central Auckland scene that was cross-pollinating a lot, like Roland and Bobbylon were involved in the Riot Riddum Sound System, we were all involved in DJ gigs, hanging out with hip hoppers like DLT, Slave and those guys.”
“We were big fans of hip hop and rap music, and we wanted to be able to be a band that played those styles as well, and Bob and Roland were very big on reggae so we wanted to play reggae, so we played our version of reggae. In terms of the Picassos, from when we were active from the early to mid 1990s, I don’t think there were any other bands in NZ doing what we were doing.
“It did confuse a lot of people, but also there were a lot of fans who really got what we were trying to do and jumped onboard, cos it was new and it was exciting. Here we are 20 years on, and the idea of crossing genres is something that’s utterly mainstream, but 20 years ago it was very, very weird. Anything that wasn’t rock or pop got labeled ‘alternative’. It’s kind of hard to explain looking back what it was like.”
The diversity and popularity of the band’s repertoire in turn saw them open for acts as diverse as Violent Femmes, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Faith No More, African Head Charge, Soundgarden, Beastie Boys and Ice T & Body Count.
So why was it they called it a day in the mid ‘90s?
“We worked really hard for eight years,” answers Peter, “then me and Johnny got a bit tired of it. I was keen on having a break, but the others wanted to keep going. I think the virtue of me and Johnny leaving, and then those guys winding it up when they did, is that over the time since then we still maintained contact, so that when we get together we’re still friends, which is one of the pleasurable things about making music again.”
“To be honest, I should have followed his lead and should have taken a break. If we had taken a break and kept going after that, I know exactly where we would have ended up, we would be definitely a household name by now, so this is a like a continuation of that now. We are quite unique, because I meet other people in bands who do not have contact with fellow band members any more, and I think that’s very sad.”
Even if the Hallelujah Picassos weren’t a going concern in the intervening years, the individual members kept their respective hands in the game.
“I’ve been doing it pretty much continuously,” says Peter. I took about a year before I started up with the Dub Asylum stuff, and that was basically mucking around with my sampler and keyboard and going, ‘Okay, I really like using those elements, but I want to keep on playing guitar’, and it took me a while to figure out how to meld those two together. Johnny’s done Pains People. He was in the Nudie Suits for a while and when he was living in Singapore until about a year ago he was playing in a thrash metal band there.
Released in 2011, ‘Rewind the Hateman’ is an 18-track compilation highlighting the diversity of music the band released during their original eight year tenure. When the material was originally released, it was fresh and of its time, but how do the Picassos think it holds up today?
Roland ponders before answering.
“Because I’m so close to it, I could not tell you how a person who’s never heard of us, how they would perceive it.”
Peter has another perspective.
“That’s the thing I like from when we got this re-mastered, we were sitting in Alan Jansson’s and we were loading up all the stuff… He hasn’t got a huge studio, but everything he’s got is like the best of the best. He’s got this curved wall with about eight different pairs of speakers, and I’m listening to our stuff after it’s been through the mastering tools, and I’m going, ‘It still sounds really good’, because the production we were aiming for was like contemporary records that we were buying at the time.
“A lot of NZ bands at the time weren’t very adventurous sonically. bFM was our first experience of working in a proper studio, getting the whole eight tracks. We’d been using a 4-track before that, and it was amazing what you could do with eight tracks!
“When we re-mastered our stuff, it wasn’t that it sounded bad, it just needed to be tidied up a little bit. We always knew what we were doing in the studio in terms of our sound, and what we wanted to get. That was the great thing when we were working on Salvador, we worked on it for a month or two of sessions, then Johnny organised to get it mastered with Angus McNaughton. Angus had given it a little bit of a buff and polish, and it just sparkled, it was amazing!
As for more new recording from the Picassos, Peter confirms they’re working on another EP, most likely digital, but talking about maybe doing a 7” single as a small collectors’ run.
“One thing I’ve really enjoyed about getting back together, rehearsing to do some promotion for the re-issues we’ve done and doing new stuff as well, is it’s really easy. I don’t have to explain things like if I was working with new people. There’s a musical shorthand and a shared musical history we have. It’s really great just hanging out with these guys, we’ve got so much in common, in terms of the time and places we’ve been, and where we are now.”
“I still couldn’t live with just one style, couldn’t be in a band with just one style,” adds Roland. “If you really want to understand it, it’s like what Picasso did. Look at the history of Picasso’s painting then you get exactly the idea of this.”
“It just gets boring,” concurs Peter. “That’s why we ended up describing ourselves as ‘Picasso core’, we’d get these reviews where they’d just have lots of dashes, reggae-hip hop-punk-ska. People like shoving you in boxes, and we were never about that. Picasso never stayed in one place, he was always moving in terms of his style.”
And the EP title, ‘Bullet That Breaks The Key’, does it refer to any particular key?
“I’ll leave that up to the people,” Roland laughs. “But all the titles are all connected together in subject matter, a common thread. In the band my alter-ego has always been Roland Rorschach, the Rorschach blot test, in order to discover your own psychology. It’s the same with the songs, what you see in the songs is your own psychology.”
‘Bullet That Breaks The Key’ is out through Loopy Fruit Recordings.