Perhaps it’s more a legacy of his famous Antarctic-exploring namesake, but Robert Scott’s name seems to carry with it a weight of New Zealand musical history. The Clean’s seminal early recordings surfaced way back in 1981, and three decades later the band’s re-released anthology still warranted double-page coverage in mainstream English music mag Mojo. There’s also The Bats, another long-lived Dunedin act that lists in many a fan’s top 10 ever bands list as well as numerous other collaborations and his own growing catalogue. Amanda Mills talked with Scott about his third solo album, ‘The Green House’, which was released in August.
The Otago Peninsula is beautiful, even in the depths of a southern winter. As a background to the raw landscape, the lights of Port Chalmers sparkle and ominous wharf cranes loom over the view. Robert Scott is well-placed in the Otago Harbour suburb he calls home – in close proximity to both Downes St and Kilgour St – almost Dunedin Sound central, if you like. In these surroundings he has been making music for a long time, and considers his environs important on his music.
“I love living on the Otago coast. I guess, the changing weather patterns, and the storminess… to an extent… that comes through in the music.”
Robert Scott has a lot going on. His third solo album, ‘The Green House’, is about to be released, he’s on tour in the U.S. with The Clean in August, and he’s writing material for the next Bats album.
Recordings for ‘The Green House’ began in 2012, and with no deadlines or time pressure took approximately 18 months. He was happy about how 2010’s ‘Ends Run Together’ had turned out, and enthusiastic about making another solo album, admitting he had a bunch of songs pretty much ready to go. There were other ‘distractions’ with The Clean and The Bats touring in the States as well as locally, plus personal and family commitments as well.
Many things informed ‘The Green House’ tonally and melodically – Scott’s enjoyment of German experimental rock, an ongoing engagement with folk music, and an admiration of one artist in particular.
“There’s a guy called Nick Jones – you can’t get his albums at all, but he was… an amazing guitarist and singer operating in the late ’60s and early ’70s.”
Lyrical inspiration is personal and internal. Scott is discreet about his own life but it’s not hard to sense that change has occurred.
“I’m quite secretive about my private life, but it’s pretty much about things changing, and about a new relationship,” he admits cagily. “A lot of it is about the way people interact, human emotion… I haven’t gone for any deep political observation… small observations of how people work, and how the mind works. There’s quite a lot of reference to the natural world… where we live, and things like that.”
The process of creating ‘The Green House’ with engineer Dale Cotton began in Dunedin. From there, sessions moved to Cotton’s Port Chalmers recording studio, where the bulk of the album was recorded. The creation process included pulling apart and re-building material, and questioning their approach to it, second-guessing their own decisions.
“There might be one or two songs that are from that [original] session. Pretty much most of it was written before I went in, but… there’s two or three songs that came about in the studio.”
Many tracks were layered up, and Scott cites Favourite Case as an interesting example.
“We built that up from Rob’s drum track from another song. We decided to scrap that song, but… we ended up listening to the drums by themselves, and they sounded fantastic,” he enthuses. “His kick drum was tuned to C, so it had quite a tonality to it. I decided to get a guitar and put it into open C tuning, and build it up from there.”
Rob Faulkner’s drumming is a significant part of the album.
“We very much approached it putting a guitar and drum track down together,” he says. “We went for a real tight but organic feel, so there’s a live element to it as well. He can anticipate a change, or where a change is coming… and he can pre-empt that with very little subtle touches. It enhances the songs.”
While he and Faulkner are the main artists involved, there are other interesting contributors. HDU guitarist Tristan Dingemans features on one song, while a major element on ‘The Green House’ is the inclusion of Hollie Fullbrook’s (Tiny Ruins) beautiful and evocative vocals on five tracks.
“She was down on tour, and… I really loved the sound of her voice, and thought maybe I should get her to sing on a few songs,” Scott enthuses. “She pretty much did all the vocals one evening… the melodies and harmonies that she came up with are just fantastic… the songs have really benefitted from her being on them.”
The album is certainly beautiful, and something different to Scott’s previous work, while still having his stamp over it.
“I’d like to think I’ve stepped outside to some degree and… taken some chances in some ways, so I’d like to think it’s a progression in my work. Having said that, it’s also… pretty obviously me!”
He won’t admit to having a favourite track, but laughs while considering it.
“I find it hard to be objective about my own stuff! I very much like the way Lights Are Low has come out… I like Now In Your Hands because it’s so naked and raw – it’s just guitar and two voices.
‘The Green House’ is out on Flying Nun, the label Scott’s music has been associated with for over 30 years, and they are offering extras, including out-takes, b-sides, and demos.
“We tried to make a lot of different things in the process, so there’s quite a few extras. A lot of them are… more experimental than what’s on the album.”
The cover art is arresting – a defiant goat staring the viewer down. The goat is from Makarora (near the album’s namesake Green House), and the photograph is Scott’s.
“A crazy looking billy goat, and I hadn’t seen such a big, fierce one in a long time, so I took a lot of photos of it. And one was good. I pretty much decided there and then that’s going to be the cover… I’m trying to emulate a certain style of cover, possibly.”
When we talk he is preparing for the Clean’s 13-date U.S. tour, which kicked off mid-August, after which he hopes to tour ‘The Green House’ locally, though the musical logistics are a challenge.
“A lot of the songs would be hard to recreate because they’re so involved. It’s quite daunting and tricky to see how to do it.”
There are other plans afoot too – Scott aims to complete writing the new Bats album, and also thinks it’s time for another Clean album.
“I feel we’re sort of due to make a new one, and the others feel the same way, I think, he muses. “It’s a case of the way things pan out… and how Hamish and David feel… if they feel like the time’s right to do it. I can’t see why we wouldn’t do another one!
Though busy (he admits he’s not good at saying ‘no’), Scott also often works with other musicians and bands. He plays bass in Kilmog, with Onanon’s Glen Ross, Ian Henderson (of Fishrider Records), and Males’ Richard Ley-Hamilton. There have been other intriguing collaboration requests.
“Finn Andrews from The Veils got a hold of me two years ago, and said he was listening to The Bats a lot, and was in a writing slump. He didn’t have many ideas and… I had five or six songs spare that I’d demoed. I sent him those. I didn’t hear anything back from him after that,” he laughs.
He’s busy enough, and it seems a good time to be a musician from Dunedin, especially as influential UK mag NME published a four-page spread on the Dunedin Sound in their July 19 issue. I ask if he feels there has been a resurgence of interest, and he agrees.
“Yeah… there’s a lot of younger people finding out about the bands just through… Facebook and stuff online. Good, strong music sticks around and it keeps resurfacing. I like to think that the music has its own longevity.”
This longevity is also apparent with Flying Nun’s reissue program, the most recent being The Bats albums ‘Daddy’s Highway’, ‘The Law of Things’, and ‘Compiletely Bats’. The Clean’s ‘Anthology’ has also been reissued to much attention – Mojo magazine giving it a double page review. Happy that the music is reaching new audiences, he does concede it is a little odd supporting material three decades later.
“It’s kind of bizarre… if you’re suddenly thrust into your own career, 30 years down the road. It wouldn’t be fun if you were putting out a golden oldies retrospective, and you felt like you had to play those songs!”
Before we finish I can’t resist asking if he thinks the Dunedin Sound actually exists. Turns out, he does – to an extent.
“There definitely was one when the bands started in the early ’80s, in terms of things like similar songwriters in the bands – often it would be someone playing guitar or bass and singing, as opposed to a front person. A lot of the writers were happy to not hone the songs to too much perfection.”
“Also… being in the cold, cheap rent – not everyone had to work, so you could be on the unemployment benefit, and actually just sit home and write songs all day. There’s those common elements. But, often people will like to put a label on things – it’s a very convenient label.”