The Verlaines have been a musical force for 35 years (in various guises), and intriguingly currently exist in two versions, one of which is the original trio of Graeme Downes, Jane Dodd and Robbie Yeats. The forthcoming album, ‘Dunedin Spleen’ belongs to the other version of The Verlaines, one that includes a good number of Dr Graeme Downes’ fellow University of Otago music academics. Almost incredibly a double-album, it’s been four years in the making as he reveals to Amanda Mills.
Dr Graeme Downes is a very busy man. It’s the end of the exam period at Otago University and he’s in the middle of a marking frenzy, while also scoring more Dunedin Sound material for next year’s second Tally Ho gig. Add to this putting the final touches on the brand spanking new Verlaines’ album (their 10th), and you start getting a picture of someone incredibly prolific, with an exceptional work ethic.
After recording one album in 2013, then writing and recording another in 2014, Downes, the band’s creative lynchpin, decided to make this next an epic, 21-track double album. In the intervening time, the 2015 Tally Ho concert (more on which later) took over Downes’ life.
“Here we are, trying to get to the end of 2016, now that it’s gone quiet,” he laughs wryly. “I decided on my epitaph: ‘He died of delayed gratification.’”
‘Dunedin Spleen’ follows on from the band’s 2012 ‘Untimely Meditations’ album, with most of the lyrics written around then.
“Each track is usually written in one, two, or three days, and that’s sort of arranging everything… There are a couple of weird ones, like None Of These Chords, the riff of which I actually wrote in 1981. It’s been a pet riff that I just picked up and played, but it’s so complicated, back then I couldn’t sing anything over it.”
Apart from The Verlaines (Downes, Stephen Small, Darren Stedman, Rob Burns and Tom Healy), others appearing on the album include Libby Hamilton and Shayne Carter on background vocals on Church And State.
“Libby slotted into the gospel mode, and sang three or four different versions of it to replicate a gospel choir,” Downes explains.
Carter recorded his BVs in his Auckland home studio, while the remainder of the album was recorded at Otago University’s own Albany Street Studios.
The sound of ‘Dunedin Spleen’ is dense and textured with the production shared by Downes and Stephen Stedman playing a significant part.
“Man Selling Poems, is incredibly intense… because the scene is so painted into the picture that you’re sitting on a bench on Karangahape Rd… it had to be really busy to compose the vivacity of what the scene is – the cultural diversity of the people, the age diversity.”
The album also has a strong melodic strand, with classical music still at the forefront of Downes’ compositions, providing complex, clever, and intricate elements to his music.
“I started listening to classical music when I was 11, and I’ve never stopped,” he says. “I’m looking at timelessness… I believe the art of songwriting comes from… you choose the right chord, and the right tempo, and the melody to go with the sentiment of the poetry… that’s when you’ve done something amazing,” he laughs.
“I’ve been trying to work a much more contrapuntal, linear thing, so there are melodies there, but there are ones that happen simultaneously, or there’s imitation between organ and the lead guitar or whatever… it’s purely as an experiment to see what will happen if we do this with rock instruments.”
Other musical influences include what Downes refers to as punk jazz.
“It’s only jazz in so far that it’s got saxophone on some tracks, and it’s a 12/8 shuffle. In fact, a lot of people say it sounds to them like Louisiana funeral music. It’s much darker… dark, spooky things. The harmony’s very elaborate on AWCWD and Church And State, which are the two most obvious ones.”
The many musical touches on the album – ascending chord patterns, jazzy chords and harmonics, and piano flourishes – he attributes to the fruit of studying.
“I worked on that chord sequence for about a day to get it just right… it’s so purposeful and upward moving that the chords themselves have a beautiful quality. And when it gets to the top, it collapses into the ordinary.”
The Leonard Cohen-reminiscent AWCWD and Church And State are on the timely theme of US elections, yet were written around four years ago.
“Church And State was largely a response to the 2012 election, when Obama beat Romney, and everybody heaved a sigh of relief the guy that looked like everybody’s first husband didn’t get in,” says Downes.
“There were no tears in anybody’s eyes as there were in 2008… I was looking to the next election… that line in AWCWD, ‘situations vacant 2016 awcwd’ – any war criminal will do… The poet’s role is the access to the unsayable, and you have a duty if you are able to articulate.”
None Of These Chords articulates another ‘Dunedin Spleen’ theme as he explains.
“As an artist, you kind of go into music, and you start doing stuff, and you play everybody else’s music that you like, and… you just kind of magpie, and you do your thing. And when you die, the chords will rise and scatter to the winds for strange young men to gather and make whatever they will with them.”
However, Downes doesn’t think music is transient.
“I think this music will stick around for a long time, I think it will outlive us, but the… substance, the actual ownership of it is a transcient thing.”
Downes admits having performed the title song a number of times over the past couple of years.
“I’ve succumbed to the gratification, thinking, ‘Bugger it, I’ll just play it by myself if I can’t get the record out!’” he laughs.
The song is observational, a geographical reflection on his own life.
“Stand two or three metres north of Dundas Corner dairy, and look south, take a snapshot around 4:45 in late April… The people there are all oblivious of me… it’s a weird kind of being in the world, but not being the world, which is something which goes with getting old.
“It’s also sentimental … ‘cause Shayne [Carter] and I were flatting at 772 Cumberland St and the photos for the ‘Dunedin Double’, and ‘The Verlaines’ were us walking across the North Ground, so it’s kind of like a stocktake of the beginning that led to this. In writing the song I realised that, apart from various short periods, I’ve probably lived a square kilometre from the Dundas corner my entire creative life.”
It’s impossible not to talk about the Dunedin Sound with Graeme Downes. The Verlaines are one of the key bands of the sub-genre, and Downes lectures on the subject. As a keeper of the flame, he’s also re-imagined the music through the Tally Ho concert of early 2015, with another planned for 2017. Tally Ho presents Dunedin Sound music orchestrated for symphonic performance and (some) operatic voice, and it’s due to this and a number of other factors that it still looms large.
“At some point, you’ve got to think there’s some really influential person somewhere in the music business going to go, ‘What? This is a phenomenon we’ve completely missed?’”
With the resurgence of the Dunedin Sound, does he think the new material some of the other artists are putting out stands up with their earlier works?
“I think Martin’s [‘Silver Bullets’] does, and [Shayne Carter’s]‘Offsider’ does… I think everything that I’ve done for the last what will be four albums… there’s miscalculations and performances perhaps that aren’t as good, but overall, the songwriting stands up to the best ones.”
‘Dunedin Spleen’ will likely be released in the first quarter of 2017, though the band are unlikely to tour it, simply for logistical reasons.
“Problem is it’s a five-piece band. That makes life difficult… I’m exploring doing the songs in different formats… [some songs] I think would be too complicated to actually pull off live – it’s just not good time management to get that through something like Man Selling Poems… the chord sequence is hard enough work!”
However, another version of the Verlaines could well perform in a town near you as there are currently two incarnations of the band – the original Verlaines (Downes, Jane Dodd and Robbie Yeats) re-formed for two re-issued albums in late 2013.
“It’s a miracle that Jane, Robbie and I ended up all back in Dunedin, and Flying Nun wanted to re-release ‘Juvenalia,’ and ‘Hallelujah’… so why the hell not?”
After 35 years, Graeme Downes is still enamoured with what he does.
“It comes back to that Lou Reed thing: ‘My day’s been better than your year’. Well, that’s how you feel when you get up in the morning in January, and you sit there, and there’s a poem, and then it’s 5 o’clock and you’ve got a finished song, and you push ‘play’ and listen back to it, and you go, ‘That wasn’t there this morning.’ It’s very powerful – it’s a drug!”