The first Superturtle album, 2008’s ‘Freeride’, was essentially a solo project for Darren McShane, formerly guitarist with Chainsaw Masochist and radio DJ, now studio owner. It was followed two years later with ‘About The Sun’ and now in 2013 with a third album, rather brashly entitled ‘Beat Manifesto’, and firmly based around the early British post-punk band sound. All have been recorded at his Earwig Studios in a holistically analogue manner and released on vinyl. Richard Thorne caught up with the past and McShane to talk ’turtle.
After a pause to consider, Darren McShane describes Superturtle as a part time band – on the basis that all five members have other full or part time roles.
“No one is at a point in their lives where they would want to pursue it full time. But it’s a serious part time band in that we are all very focused on trying to make top notch records.”
Superturtle have just released their third album, the pointedly-titled ‘Beat Manifesto’, 12 tracks of new Kiwi, but recognisably British post-punk pop, circa the late 1970s/early ’80s. The LP (and yes, it is on vinyl, as well as CD) is reminiscent of various influential bands like Television, Magazine, and more locally the likes of Citizen Band and The Swingers.
We’re sitting on a couch in his low rent, determinedly analogue recording studio in suburban Birkenhead, on Auckland’s North Shore. It’s been his workplace and hang out since 1994 and is the working home of his band of five years. Darren is Superturtle’s chief songwriter, guitarist, recording engineer, producer, mix and mastering engineer and band spokesman – you could reasonably say it’s his band but he doesn’t play it that way.
It turns out that one of his bandmates, Murray Jacques, is actually Darren’s older brother. Their surnames are different because Murray was raised with a foster family. He is a guitar mender and the band’s multi-instrumentalist, handling the Rhodes and other keyboards along with electric and acoustic guitars.
“I actually got acquainted with him because his covers band by coincidence booked a demo here. That’s how we latched onto regular contact! He’s a handy band member, I like the way he plays,” Darren enthuses.
Since Superturtle’s last album, 2010’s ‘About The Sun’, backing singer/synth player Jude Morris has married and also changed her surname. The rhythm section of bassist Adrian Ashdown and Tye Stott joined Superturtle just ahead of that album’s release tour.
“Running this place is a real luxury because I get to hear lots of musicians. The previous guys, Paul [Taylor – drums] and Ben [Furniss – bass] both moved out to west Auckland quite far away, and left at pretty much the same time. I knew Adrian was a good player and that his band had recently folded, and Tye was a similar thing. I really liked his solid simple drumming with The Roulettes and I knew he wasn’t with them anymore.”
Darren is a laid-back kind of guy but says Superturtle are very efficient, getting together just once a week and achieving a lot in three or so hours. Their songs almost entirely come out of practice session jamming.
“Sometimes I’ll have a vocal phrase in my head, but most of the time there’s nothing. I really like making up something to a groove so always ask them to play a beat or a groove, and if they don’t I’ll start with a riff or something. It’s no different than being solo and writing on acoustic guitar. When I’m doing it solo I write with an acoustic and a melody will pop into my head and I’ll sing it. I just do the same process, but it’s in the band room playing electric guitar. I make up the vocals on the fly and we just jam it out.”
He says he became practised at jamming with a band called Figure 60, who took the art to the extreme of jamming whole sets live. More often than the original lyrical concepts are kept, just embellished.
“I think spontaneous works for me, if I think about it too much I get a block. If I’m in just in the band room and relaxed it happens very easily.”
Darren records these practices / writing sessions (with just one room mic) onto DAT tape, from which he later pulls the best bits to listen to on CD and refine over the week ahead.
“I tend to do the structuring of the songs. We can pretty much nail the three components of a song – like a verse, chorus and bridge – in a practice if it’s going well. The best songs tend to be the ones that happen real quick and you don’t have to slog over. Sometimes a bit you thought wasn’t good turns out to be the best bit when you have listened to it. So you change the structure around. It’s normally something really simple like a riff that is the hook, and the noodley guitar bit gets weeded out.
Owning and operating his own recording studio Darren obviously listens to plenty of music. His radio listening preference is indie music, but more pertinently he still regularly enjoys the music of the post-punk era.
“I would say that this record has a real late ’70s / early ’80s vibe to it, and that’s just how it come out. There was no advance plan.
“I like bands like Television and Buzzcocks, Souxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, B52s, The Stranglers… those sort of bands. If they are modern bands they tend to be bands influenced by that sound, like Franz Ferdinand, The Strokes, Interpol… I feel they are just a modern contemporary progression from that post-punk era.
Two decades ago Darren was bassist in a Flying Nun-signed band called Chainsaw Masochist, which included another brother, Ricky McShane. With little training on guitar he says he enjoys making up chords.
“Superturtle is the first band I’ve played guitar with. I think I sound like someone who hasn’t played much guitar, not in a bad way cos it’s tight, but I haven’t got to the muso stage yet. I think I’ll avoid that progression, I almost think it’s a step back. Because of that post-punk stuff I do quite trebly chords, high up, and I don’t worry what they are called I just do it with my ears.”
Retro from the beginning to the end, he plays a 1963 Burns guitar combined with a 1958 Jansen amp and a lot of effects. A bulky tape echo, wah, phaser, tremelo.
“I like the sort of trebly, sharp sound but prefer to steer away from the straight Tele thing. Probably from working here I hear that too much and it’s too identifiable. The Burns is different in that regard.”
Once the band have three or four songs sorted they track them all in one practice session as a pre-production demo.
“I will close mic everything, so about six mics, with two on the drums. That’s just so I can experiment with taking things in an out, ’cos I am quite into stripping back. It’s real rough and ready, I don’t bother baffling or anything like that but it does give enough track separation so I can mute a track to see what it’s like. I can practice a few overdubs on that recording as well. The live recording tends to be stripped back as a result of that process.”
The rough demo recordings are typically shelved until a full album is ready to be recorded, when full tracking can typically be done over just a few days. The main music bed is all tracked live, meaning the band’s live sound is very close to the recordings.
“It’s keyboards, guitars, drums and bass live – baffled and separated, but all in the same room. I even like doing the pianos live, as much as I can. You get a bit of spill but I know the tricks of that room so it’s all do-able. The only overdubs are the vocals and any stabs or sound effects.”
A 24-channel analogue desk recording to 2 tape is Earwig Studios’ recording standard and lends itself wholly to Superturtle’s atmospheric era-evoking sound. The small studio also has a special plate reverb room that is integral.
“I like that sound. You can mimic it digitally with tape saturation plug ins, tape reverb chamber plug ins and so on, it’s not as nice but a lot of bands do use those digital copies. I prefer the real thing. Even the top end digital processors I’ve heard don’t give you that same visualisation, it still sounds like a processor.
“I like to try and capture all the energy and charm of a band and analogue and live tracking help that. I’m doing what I can to make it rough around the edges but even then it still comes out sounding more smooth than I’d like it to!
It’s his voice on most of the album’s dozen songs, with Jude Morris taking lead only on track eight, Never Would’ve Known.
“I was trying to encourage her to sing on more songs, ’cos her voice is so smooth, but it wasn’t happening. She sings very quietly live and it’s tricky ’cos we are writing the songs as jams. What happened with that track was that her vocal was recorded as the backing vocal and when I was mixing it I realised that her vocal track could be the lead vocal.
Punky, talkback radio host-belittling single, Cos Ya Said So, is one of five or six “message-y songs that led to the choice of album title.
“Not in your face political Billy Bragg-style songs – I can’t make that work, it’s always cheesey when I do it. They are more indirect message songs, with a political bent. That isn’t so common in music at the moment, but I think that was almost a norm in the late ’70s/early ’80s period that this album is influenced by.
“I just thought I would point that out with the album title, that it has a bit of a message. I am really liking a lot of the music I’m hearing at the moment, but it almost irritates me that so many songs just have a banal kind of boy-girl lyric – and that’s in indie music! Not with every band, but The Horrors would be one example. The PDs are obviously leaning towards [that] so I am not doing my cause any good I suppose!”
You’d tend to think that presenting the album on vinyl, with a ‘free’ CD version included isn’t doing Superturtle’s cause much good either, but Darren is both realistic and pragmatic about sales and returns. He knows they will sell more to his band’s demographic (mainly indie music types in their 30s and 40s with some younger, mostly active musicians) if it’s on vinyl.
“We did a similar package with the first album. That was a 7″ single on vinyl with a CD enclosed and the retrospective sales at gigs, when they are on display, everyone gravitates towards the vinyl. I value every physical sale because I feel that if somebody buys something they are way more inclined to play it than if they were given it.”
The vinyl + CD pack will likely retail for $35, with gig sales at $25 and mail order sales, via Auckland indie label Sarang Bang Records, priced somewhere in-between.
“I just think it’s an attractive package. I love that and Interpol did do it quite a bit – having a free CD for the car or whatever. Plus if you have an iPod you can easily rip a file off the CD as well. Which is why I haven’t bothered doing a download – I think for the consumer it’s a good package.
Indeed it is, great music with striking black and white LP cover art by Sarang Bang owner Gianmarco Liguori, and separate mastering of the vinyl and CD pressings.
“To fit the tracks onto CD the files needed to be provided at 16-bit and 44.1K sampling rate with the standard CD hard limiting. For vinyl there’s no need for that brick wall limiting of course and those files were mastered at 24-bit, 96K. It took six hours to upload them!”
The vinyl pressing and inner sleeve (300 copies) were done in the UK by Curve Pressings, with the LP covers printed locally in New Lynn and 500 CDs pressed by More Core Audio. He does own his own studio sure, but still, how can ‘Beat Manifesto’ hope to cover costs and return any profit to the band?
“It would be if it was a larger run, but if you factor in the reality of promo copies and so on, probably not,” smiles Darren acceptingly. “We’ll sell those 300 and I don’t know if we would with CD.”
“What keeps the thing financially not so depressing [he laughs] is royalties, probably mainly Kiwi FM and a bunch of provincial stations, but our accumulated royalties since 2008 have surpassed 10 grand – and that’s a lot more than we have done from physical sales. Royalties are a good thing for us.”