Singer, poet, actor, and Dead Brothers member Delaney Davidson returns from Switzerland to his homeland New Zealand for a one-off gig. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

*   *   *

DELANEY DAVIDSON has been an integral member of a rather odd and certainly in New Zealand, unsung movement called Swiss Primitive rock‘n’roll. Centred in the Swiss capital of Berne, the movement harkened back to the garage rock sounds of the 60s, bands like the Sonics, the Monks, the Count Five etc., the lo-fi, improvisatory, raw sound of a bunch of musicians having a raucous time. The movement has had some coverage in Europe, particularly tied into the integral record label Voodoo Rhythm that has fostered many of the key figures. One of those key figures was Delaney Davidson, a nomadic New Zealander, who played an important role in a number of the bands, and who has decided to relocate to Wellington to release music, play gigs, and perhaps even start a record label himself.

The term was coined by the self-styled Messiah of the scene, Reverend Beat-Man. “He was always into this primitive idea of eating ham off the bone, and lots of sex and lots of rock n roll.” The whole idea of the genre was going back to the basics. “The main thing is to make it roots-y and be honest, so it’s still got the emotional integrity and some kind of intensity – undiluted and raw.” The movement was connected with the Voodoo Rhythm label, “it’s got quite a lot of releases now, about forty releases. It’s really taken off, and all over Europe it’s got a name for itself. If people know you’re on that label, that alone will bring people to the gig.”

Davidson fell into the scene by accident. He lived in New Zealand and Australia, but ended up in Switzerland. “I guess you can say marriage took me to Switzerland, I think that’s what gets a lot of people to travel – love’s always the motivation for most things.” Davidson was always into music from when he was in New Zealand and Australia. “I remember to get on the dole, and they said ‘what do you want to do for a job?’ and I said ‘I want to be a musician’ and they were like ‘I think that’s just a dream’ – they totally discouraged me from that, and then I put down I wanted to be a cook instead, and I did that for a while.” But with music clogging up his veins, he naturally gravitated towards the sub-cultural sounds of the new city he’d moved to – Berne, where the stripped back guitar sound was taking off. A prominent local band was the Dead Brothers, a band whose concert Davidson found himself at. “My mum used to always say I had cloth ears when I was young because I was always eavesdropping and listening in on people. That’s how I got into the Dead Brothers – I overheard the accordion player saying to the Reverend Beat-Man, ‘we’re sick of rehearsing new drummers all the time’. I sent an email to their manager, ‘well I’ve got a drumkit and a top hat, I’ll join, and if you want, I’ll make a serious commitment. I won’t just come and play some gigs, I’ll make a proper commitment to the band.’”

This serious commitment required Davidson to quit another commitment that he’d just made. “I’d just committed to a cooking job, and just chucked it in and said ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t do this, I know I said I could, and been here only six weeks’”. But this sacrifice has allowed for Davidson to realise “shit, I’ve made my living for four years now from playing music, and from playing music I want to play”. He probably wants to go back to his dole advisor now and say shove it.

The Dead Brothers were a melange of sounds, from country and rockabilly to fuzzed out garage to roly-poly tuba and accordion riffs. They achieved considerable success in Europe, touring the common European circuit of Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. “It was basically living in a van a lot of the time”. Despite the varying countries, Davidson admits that “English is the language for rock n roll musicians”. The success of the band has also assisted in the band travelling to places such as South America and Russia, all state sponsored and all in the name of spreading Swiss culture. “There’s a lot of programmes in place for this sort of thing and a lot of institutions that will fund you to further what you’re doing. They see it as you taking your culture out into the world.” He highlights that this is something the Swiss, and the Europeans in general barely raise a sweat over, in stark contrast to the howls of protests over a state-sponsored hip-hop trip in New Zealand, for example. “Switzerland’s really fertile in a way a lot of Europe is fertile. Culture is really encouraged, it’s not a side project. In France, every town has its festivals, every little town puts a lot of money into having music, theatre. Switzerland too, there’s a lot of money put into it.”

That said, it’s still the usual grind and struggle for underground musicians. “Because if you want to make good music, you have to be really flexible and you also have to be able to live on a shoestring because often it’s not going to support it. You have to be able to move house in half an hour, you have to be able to carry everything you own with you.” Davidson as a consequence found himself in a multitude of projects, collaborating with many of the key figures, including the now legendary Beat-Man, a man he describes as “he’s got a heart, such a big heart, you can’t believe it.” Davidson was in four bands at once for example, including the One Tooth Ivan Band, and the Alpine Cretins. This posed its own set of challenges, especially the juggling of the different commitments. “Yeah bands will definitely suffer if you have a lot of them, I guess now it’s really easy for people to have a lot of projects, and I guess people will be like ‘I’ll play for that band’. It’s good for a while, and it’s good training as a musician, but in the end you end up diluting, and you have to make a decision what your priority is.” This has resulted in Davidson missing out on recording opportunities with other bands simply because he’d be recording with say, the Dead Brothers. Davidson admits, “I did put my main priorities with the Dead Brothers”.

However it did have its benefits, specifically in expanding Davidson’s musical abilities and experiences. “One Tooth Ivan Band was me learning to play the lap steel, it was great because mainly what I was doing was playing the lap steel for them, and singing as well, and I played a bit of acoustic guitar too. The Alpine Cretins, that was really song-writing and harmony work and that was nice for that, and then the Dead Brothers, that was just like training, because we were so busy. We were touring all the time, we were recording and we were taking really big steps in a really short space of time. It felt like a crash course in university in how to tour, and how to sound check, and how to get a good album put together. That was really good, I really benefited from that – and I couldn’t have done it if I had stayed in New Zealand or Australia. Having these European tours where you’d go five weeks on the road playing most nights, it’s really solid experience.”

The Dead Brothers have subsequently broken up, but still retain an iconic status in Europe. Davidson himself has just completed a solo album entitled Rough Diamond, and has another solo release in the works. Yet what would possess Davidson, who still manages to be successful in Europe due to the Dead Brothers reputation (he recently did a solo tour around Europe) to seemingly chuck it all in and move back to Wellington? “I came back last summer and I really liked the feeling of being here, and the fact that it was home, and the fact that it was my language. I think it was really a change, for ages, even if a lot of people speak English overseas, and you can learn another language it’s not your mother tongue, and you make jokes and people will look at you like you’re a bit weird or something. It can be strange to be in another country for so long, and I felt like I was losing touch with New Zealand. If I do want to end up living here sometime later on, I’d like to have some more connection to it, and build something here.” Yet for someone who has been as nomadic as Davidson, this is probably not going to be the easiest thing. “Any kind of staying in one place is going to be a bit strange” he confesses.

His new album is country infused, which perhaps explains why Davidson is a little reticent to claim membership of Swiss Primitive tag. “I guess I do have those aspects but I’m not rock‘n’roll so much. A lot of it seems to be tied into this big retro comeback thing which I don’t know, when I see that I think ‘I’m not interested in that’ you know. 50s were ok, and the 60s, but that’s where they are.” Particularly irksome for Davidson are the retro-freaks who think by having a “teddy boy haircut, a plaid shirt and some jeans and a muscle car’ that think that’s what you have to do in order to be a rebel... but they’re the most conformist people around, they’ve all got the same haircut, they wear the same clothes, there’s no rebellion at all, it’s just brainless trend following.” He makes considerable use of a “ghost orchestra” in his album – a tape delay machine that allows for loops and allows for Davidson to indulge in his love of “different colours in the music. I’m also a sucker for vocal harmonies.” But his work does display the no-nonsense, home-made feel of Swiss Primitive at its best, the type of sound he plans to showcase around in New Zealand.

He’s also excited by some of the music he’s seeing around in New Zealand. In particular two Christchurch bands have stood out so far – The Clap and The Cowboy Machine. “There’s new bands coming up who are somehow really mature for being a new band. I just like the way they think. It’s really, really nice to see good thinking going into music and not just following blindly along the tracks of let’s make a band and this is how the songs have to be.” Davidson is certainly a bit of a creative sucker for work – he’s planning more solo albums, solo tours around the country and in Europe, starting a record label and making a feature film (he’s just acted in a feature The Road to Nod, an experience he waxes lyrical about despite it being a “pretty heavy role. It was amazing, it was really intense work, it was great.”

The Swiss Primitive rock‘n’roll scene is one of the more interesting music scenes around the world, and bands like The Monsters, The Dead Brothers, Get Lost, Waltzloves, the Mad Cowgirl Disease et al have been achieving subcultural success in Europe for nearly two decades. Delaney Davidson has played a key role in many of the influential bands of that movement. Despite his half-disavowal of his belonging in the Swiss Primitive rock n roll scene, his description of his music taste probably sums up the personal and communal feel of the scene itself, and how he could play such an important role in it. “The main music I did like was from people I knew. It has some personal meaning for me, it connects up with that roots-y thing as well, that’s the grassroots, you know the guy that played it and you know that’s their personality coming across, and you like him or her. A lot of the time you have that experience where you hear some music and you love it, and then you meet them and you think ‘oh what a jerk’, and suddenly you can’t hear the music anymore because it’s been soured for you. There’s some corporate con going on there if it’s like that – here’s all this great music but the guys a wanker. Some of it was music that I really liked, because I can hear something in it that other people can’t, other people will listen to it and go ‘oh yeah’, and it doesn’t really grab them. I can hear that guy, and he’s my friend, that’s why I like it.

Delaney Davidson is playing a one-off show at Mighty Mighty, Saturday October 27.