December/January 2018

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Julia Deans

by Trevor Reekie

Moments Like These: Julia Deans

Singer/songwriter Julia Deans has been performing and making music for over 25 years. Over the course of a decade, her high profile band Fur Patrol had an enduring NZ number one single (Lydia in 2000), relocated to Melbourne, signed to Universal Music, released three albums and returned to NZ. Julia has since recorded and toured with the all-star local line up called The Adults and developed a solo career that continues to flourish. She has also developed a number of theatrical projects covering the catalogue of Jacques Brel (with Jon Toogood) plus Joni Mitchell and Lady Sings The Blues. A dedicated musician and songwriter with a serious work ethic, Julia Deans is an artist who embraces the live experience and appreciates that the effect an artist has on others is the most valuable currency there is.

Can you remember when, where and who took this photo?

This is Pip Brown and I, backstage somewhere on tour with then-named Pacifier (aka Shihad) in 2003. Well before she morphed into Ladyhawke, Pip went through her pupal state as one half of electro-pop duo Teenager and, before that, shredded the fretboard in Two Lane Blacktop.

julia deans pip brown

We spent a good part of this tour doing interpretive dance moves side of stage, but I’m pretty sure that was far funnier in our own lunchboxes than anyone else’s. I know I was pretty stoked to have another woman in the touring party – and a musician, at that. It was an incredibly rare occurrence.

Fur Patrol were already living in Melbourne, and this would’ve been just before Pip re-located there. She ended up moving just down the road from me. There was a decent collection of NZ bands living within a relatively tight radius at the time; Shihad (who really led the charge and provided a landing pad for many of us), Weta, Fur Patrol, Cassette and Shapeshifter to name a few.

Plus a fairly steady stream of touring bands passing through that would borrow gear and nooks to sleep and party in; Salmonella Dub, Fat Freddy’s Drop, The Datsuns, Degrees K, Jakob, Goodshirt, The Brunettes… I know there are more, but my brain, ouch.

Were there childhood indicators that point to your adult passion for music?

My mum likes to tell a story about walking in on three-year-old me standing on top of an overturned laundry basket, using the heater chord as a microphone. I think that’s pretty telling. I feel lucky to have had a family that encouraged all creative endeavours. They were hugely supportive of anything we put our hands to. Except the drums. Apparently wanting to play the drums crossed a line.

Back in the early days did you consider that music was going to be a career?

I don’t feel like I ever deliberately set out to create a career in music, more that it eventuated from the work I put into this thing that I happened to be good at, and was passionate about. I don’t believe in doing things half-arsed. If you say you’re going to do something, you should do it to your best possible abilities – even if you’re regretting having said ‘yes’ in the first place.

Your first touring band was Banshee Reel. That must have provided a crash course in the nomadic musical lifestyle?

I joined Banshee completely box-fresh from high school. I’d moved to Wellington to study composition at the jazz school, but the opportunity to tour and play in a real working band was just that much more exciting to me.

We went straight into playing a lower North Island loop of Levin-Palmerston North-Whanganui-Wellington, every weekend, slowly venturing further afield over the following months. It was definitely an eye-opener for this baby-faced 18-year old, culturally and socially, but it deeply embedded my love for touring and playing live, and my band-mates helped me develop a strong work ethic and practical mentality. I feel very grateful to have had those years with them.

You formed what became Fur Patrol after returning to NZ from a Canadian tour with Banshee Reel in 1996. How did the band come together and develop its audience?

Throughout my time with Banshee, I’d been trying my hand at writing my own songs and, with Emily (Hakaraia, our sound engineer)’s persistent encouragement, I eventually started playing little opening spots for the band. Well, see what you created, Em? I got big dreams, didn’t I?

Simon Braxton was playing drums for another band doing the same whisky-soaked circuit, and we’d forged a friendship over Radiohead, The Pixies, Belly, and beer – pledging to form a band to flesh out my songs.

Steve Wells subbed in on electric guitar for a few shows with Banshee, and he suggested we bring his Svelte bandmate Andrew Bain on board to play bass. (Somewhere in the archives there survives a cassette tape with a recording of our very first jam, at some church in Newtown. Long may it remain buried.)

That was pretty much the end of Svelte, but the beginnings of Fur Patrol. We booked our first gig at Bar Bodega, back when it was on the corner of Abel Smith & Willis Streets, which we somehow filled with friends and strays. They loved it, so we played another, and another.

Then we started doing (now seemingly quaint) things like taking our cassette tape demos, with their handmade covers, into Radio Active and Channel Z, and sending them off to student radio stations around the country. We started getting airplay, so I booked us some out of town shows… and that’s basically how the story began.

We loved playing live. I still believe the key to developing not just an audience, but developing as an artist, is to play as much as you can. Nothing hones your skill as a musician and a performer like getting out there and playing for an audience. You can spend as many hours as you like practising in private, but there’s no critique in the world as powerful as the immediate feedback you get from a room full (or not full!) of people. It very quickly helps you learn what works and what doesn’t. I always think of performance as a conversation that goes back and forth between the stage and the audience.

What inspired the band name Fur Patrol?

Okay, so we spent years avoiding this question, telling people that the name was open to their interpretation because, quite honestly, their stories were always going to be more interesting than the truth! But here it is: sheer desperation. Fraser (the owner of Bodega) needed a name to put in his listings for that very first gig, and we needed something to put on a poster. After far too many failed proposals, the name finally came from the title of a magazine article about waxing, shaving and depilatory creams. Yay us! Good thing I’ve never had to name a child.

Having a hit with Lydia was obviously huge for Fur Patrol. Do you think the band changed as a result of that number one success?

That’s kind of a hard question to answer as, at the time, it didn’t feel ‘real’ in that I didn’t feel any different as a person, and our day-to-day situation was still pretty much the same. Our songs were on the radio and we might’ve been playing bigger gigs, but we were still working our day jobs, still struggling to pay rent, and our friends still thought we were dorks… We just got stopped in the street every now and then by people wanting to congratulate us or thanks us for the “sweet tunes”. Maybe the weirdest part was hearing Lydia playing in the supermarket – that’s when you know it’s ‘crossed over’.

Numerous Kiwi acts got beaten up trying to crack Australia. What were your expectations when you relocated to Melbourne in 2001?

Many musicians get beaten down, full stop. Whether it’s here, Australia, or further abroad – the music industry is hard slog. But yeah, the Aussie scene is, as they say, hard yakka. One of the main things that drove our decision to move was the difference in population: when you consider that NZ has a population of 4-ish million, and a ‘nationwide tour’ here generally consists of three to five shows… we wanted to play more shows to more people. It’s not logistically feasible to tour non-stop here. So we moved to Melbourne, expecting to tour our butts off. And we did.

In the first six months after we moved, we clocked upwards of 60,000 km in our Ford Econovan, just running that loop between Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne-Adelaide-Melbourne… and a bunch of small towns in between. We were usually never home for more than a handful of days at a time, living on a diet of two-minute noodles, petrol station food, and whatever generic state-favourite beer was on our rider.

How and why did Fur Patrol call it a day and what’s become of the others?

Steve left the band at the end of 2004, after a long run of physically, financially, and emotionally gruelling shows. It wasn’t so much a surprise that he wanted to leave, but a shock that he’d actually quit. We were all feeling jaded, and questioning what it was we were doing, and why. Steve moved to Paris and is now a professional photographer, and fluent in French.

Simon and Andrew and I took some time out to think, and to talk, and decided to press on as a three-piece.

We wrote and recorded another EP, and one last album, ‘Local Kid’, with the late Tony Cohen.

Simon still lives in Melbourne, playing music with Paul Trigg (Letterbox Lambs) as The Peccadilloes, and dabbling in a bit of music production. He and his partner are about to bring their own little human into the world. Andrew moved back to Wellington and got himself a ‘real job’ and a beautiful family. He’s been playing bass for various people including Tom Watson and Luke Buda and is currently collaborating with the wonderful Emily Fairlight.

In my heart, Simon, Andrew are I are still a band. You don’t spend 13-odd years living in each other’s pockets without forming some kind of unbreakable bond. We looked out for each other, even when we were getting up each other’s noses. Nothing proved this to me more than when we played a few shows in early 2016 with British shoe-gazers Swervedriver. They were our first shows in something like seven years, yet all those songs came flooding back like they’d never been put away. That muscle memory thing is permanent. It’s like falling off a bike! They are my brothers.

The transition from Fur Patrol to solo artist – was that a difficult process?

It was daunting. Fur Patrol was very much a band, as in we consulted and collaborated on everything. Going from a democracy of three to an autocracy of, well, one was quite a shock. Suddenly I was solely responsible for everything – all the decisions, all the glories, all the mistakes… all mine. And after touring with the same little family for more than a decade, suddenly only having yourself to kick out of bed in the morning and get on the road was actually a little bit lonely.

There is definitely freedom in only having to organise yourself, and when recording and touring I get to work with the most amazing musicians, but I definitely miss the deeper musical knowledge and intuition that comes from playing with the same people over and over and over. There’s a magic in that that can’t be cheated into existence.

Walking In The Sun from your forthcoming album is a great single. Has the creation process differed from previous albums?

I’ve written about 99% of my songs on guitar, some electric but primarily acoustic. This new album formed mostly from tinkering around with old synth sounds, following where they led. With the words, I deliberately worked to write about what was going on around me, rather than just confronting the voices in my head. I seem to have written an album that’s all about connection – about the things that link us together as humans, and about our need to communicate and to realise the importance of those connections.

There’s a lot of shit stuff going on at the moment. In a world that is more connected than it’s ever been, there’s a lot of shouting and blustering, but not a lot of listening. The technology we have should be giving us all these incredible opportunities to expand our collective knowledge, to improve our communities, and our planet, but it feels like all of that is being usurped by marketing and advertising and the whims of the ever-greedy dollar. I think we’re better than that.

I’m sure there have been times when you’ve thought, ‘What am I doing this for?’

Absolutely. I had a really bad patch around the tail end of Fur Patrol’s existence, and I’ve definitely had moments around setting up to release this album, particularly because it’s been so long between releasing anything of my own, so I feel immensely out of practice. But real failure is regret, I think. Regretting not having done something when you had the opportunity. Or when you start measuring your achievements against other people’s, that’s when you start thinking about failure.

You can trap yourself in this spiral of despair because you feel like everyone’s having a way better time and doing way better than you are. It’s fatal to the creative process – to the living process. Ironically, as a chronic bottler, the cure has been to talk to people. I love a good bit of solitude, but isolation is a killer. Humans need other humans, to share and contrast ideas. It’s how we find out we’re actually not all that different, and that we’re not alone.

What are some of your personal favourite records – songs that still never fail to brighten your day?

Yikes. Okay, three of each, and oldies ‘cos that ‘still never fail’ line says to me you want the eternal faves.
Albums: ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ by Boards Of Canada, Shuggie Otis’s ‘Inspiration Information’ (in particular the song Aht Uh Mi Hed) and John Lennon’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’.
Songs: Good Times, Bad Times by Led Zeppelin, Love Is A Stranger by Eurythmics, Sign Of The Times by Prince.

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

In all things, music and others, I feel my biggest mistakes have come from ignoring my instincts. I think it’s important to listen when your gut is indicating you should be wary – that “proceed with caution” voice is invaluable.

Was NZ a much different place (and were you a different person) when the band returned from Australia?

The music industry had become a lot bigger and more established. When we’d left it felt like it was just starting to find its feet, and by the time I moved back it felt much more like a bought one, so to speak. It had much less of a homespun feel.

I was definitely a different person. I’d lost some of the confidence I’d had previously, and I’d just left my home of 10 years, my siblings, and all my closest friends, but I was welcomed home with open arms.
One thing that struck me about the NZ music scene though, was the number of female musicians I kept meeting. The Australian music scene was very rock-oriented and male-dominated, but here there were all these strong and vibrant women doing-the-do, both on stage and behind the scenes. I know that the gender balance here is still skewed toward male, but as someone who has so often been the solitary pipi at the sausage party, to walk into a venue and find I wasn’t the only shellfish was so refreshing!

What’s the most important thing you would pass on to a young person intent on music as a career?

When it stops bringing you joy, just step away. An hour, a day, a week, a month, a year… it doesn’t matter how long. This is not an easy business to make a living from, so you need to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.