Rave reviews from French press. Charting on California radio stations. Being played on BBC6. Not your average response to a band from the deep south. So, who are The Prophet Hens? NZM’s resident Dunedin correspondent Amanda Mills dropped by the Hens’ coup to ask that and other questions.
“Dunedin musicians of varying backgrounds. Mainly from sort of a pop perspective, so lots of acoustic goodness going on,” explains singer, guitarist and songwriter Karl Bray. He, along with keyboardist/vocalist Penelope Esplin, bassist Robin Cederman, and drummer Daren Stedman form the band, whose sunny, jangle-pop debut album ‘Popular People Do Popular People’ has lately been released on Fishrider Records.
The Prophet Hens originated in that great tradition of band beginnings – by chance.
“I was recuperating from surgery in my house, when John White knocked on my door,” Bray recalls. “He was listening to some music I was playing on my bed… and he went, ‘That sounds really good, let’s start a band’.”
The four-piece took their name from the strange 19th Century English Doomsday Hoax of the Prophet Hen of Leeds, where chickens were apparently laying eggs inscribed with second-coming-of-Christ passages.
Former bassist White (also of Mëstar, and the Blueness fame) left for Germany last year, but his musical fingerprints appear throughout the album. Bray and Esplin are the founding members, with Stedman and Cederman joining a year ago, after White and original drummer Sefton Holmes departed.
‘Popular People Do Popular People’ was written by Bray and White – the title coming from Esplin setting levels by testing her ‘p’s. Bray says the album recordings were drawn out as the band regrouped.
“We had done the recordings just before John went to Germany, so it was… long and painful, but we are very pleased with the simplicity of it, we wanted to do as little post production as possible, to try and maintain a live sound.”
Newer material is more a division of labour, with everyone contributing to writing. A video for the single Pretty was filmed in Otakau, on the Otago Peninsula. The star of the video was an interested sea lion!
“It’s beautiful, [she] just turned up and hung out for a while… she was so docile,” says Esplin.
The instrument recording was done in one day at Dunedin’s King Edward Technical College, with vocals recorded at fellow Dunedin musician Edward Sunley James’ house. There was some talk about re-recording, but they decided to stick with the originals.
“I just want to get it out and move on with new stuff that we’re doing,” Bray explains. “I just keep coming back to songs like Kaleidoscope World and Rolling Moon – I think we really hit that right on the head, and I’m proud of that.”
Speaking of The Chills, The Prophet Hens are often compared them, and a roll-call of ‘Dunedin sound’ bands, including The Bats and The Magick Heads.
“I can’t deny that my influences at least are from here, a lot of them,” Bray tells me. “The new stuff that we’re doing is slightly less ‘Dunedin soundy’, and I don’t have a problem with that at all… it’s not something I think about consciously.”
The Prophet Hens’ live sound has matured since their early gigs.
“At a gig we played at the Crown recently… friends and peers who had known us since the early days came along and saw Darren and Robin really adding to the band,” says Bray.
Cederman hadn’t actually played bass before joining – he is keyboardist in another Dunedin band, Nanny State.
“This was the first time I’d ever played the bass, I was just learning how to play,” he admitted to an amazed band.
The Prophet Hens’ next move depends on finances, but Bray is keen to tour.
“I very much want to go to Wellington, and Christchurch or Lytttelton, there’s some good places to play there.”
Regardless, he is happy with their achievements, telling me, “I didn’t prophesise… having a music video and getting played on BBC6 in the UK, and getting all that exposure. I think I’ve pretty much far and away achieved what I really wanted to with this band. I’m pretty excited about what we can do.”