Opening for John Cale this week, local legend Jed Town remains at the forefront of experimental music. He talks to BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about the Features, Fetus Productions, and Bound for Pleasure.

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JED TOWN has been at the cutting edge of music for decades now, that it’s probably not surprising that he’s landed the opening slot for John Cale’s upcoming show in Auckland. The softly spoken Aucklander has flitted between punk, video-art, ambient electronic and film scores, and has maintained an experimental and exploratory outlook that few artists can match. He’s put together a pretty sweet band for the Cale show too, and the concert will be a good chance to see one of New Zealand’s most experimental figures alongside one of the most well-known musical provocateurs.

It was a quartet of 60s icons that indelibly stick in Town’s mind when it comes to early musical memories. “Probably the first sounds I remember hearing was The Beatles for me. I remember that very clearly, ‘Please Please Me’, the harmonies in that, ‘Twist and Shout’. He started a band at the age of fifteen called the Optics, which instantly led to him writing music. “When punk came along in ‘78 I started a band based on what I’d been through personally, personal ideas – the punk scene being perfect for that. I started a band called the Superettes which lasted for about six months, and then formed the Features.”

The New Zealand punk scene was extremely busy, and was the early forerunners of the more famous DIY sounds that were to emerge from New Zealand a few years later. “There was a party every weekend. Everybody was going around meeting at the parties. Windsor Castle was a great venue. We were pretty young and full of energy. We all kept the scene going by playing. It was a very vibrant scene. Town admits though that “the scene then was very violent – it was vibrant, but there were a few wankers who ruined it for everyone by having a fight.” A turning point for Town however was seeing some of the world scene’s biggest bands – Wire and the Ramones overseas. “I remember seeing the Ramones in Los Angeles, it was like watching a cartoon. They were just so together and the sound was fantastic, just that immediacy of that overall sound like a wave of noise as opposed to a wimpy little thing. It wasn’t a sound you could think about, you had to dance to it.”

Town then formed Fetus Productions which lasted for about nine years. It’d be fair to say they caused a bit of stir in their performances, with a Situationist-esque propensity to shock their audiences. Fetus Productions incorporated film into their performance – one of the early Kiwi bands to do so, and they weren’t afraid to show some rather disturbing footage. “We had a lot of Super-8 film that we used to use live, and some of the shoots that we did were from medical libraries. I don’t think people realised mostly what it was because it was shot in Super-8, and it was quite blurred. But then people might see a head coming off. One of the things we were about was dynamics, we might have had a shock, and then a beautiful shot of nature – the shock was there to enhance the sense of beauty.” It all came from an interest “in discovering new aspects of the human race”, and Fetus Productions was part of a movement in some circles of New Zealand music towards the avant-garde. Though Town confesses “you couldn’t really call it avant-garde now with so many medical shows on television.” Like most avant-garde art, it was also the conformist, idealised representations of modern life that Fetus Productions were reacting against, and Town mentions that there were bands like SPK in Australia and the Plague, who were doing similar things.

Town states that Fetus Productions used multiple forms of media because “you had to kinda stand out. It’s the same today, so many different groups out there, you had to get your own niche. That was one of the ways we did it.” They were also trying to mess with a few minds. “We were shooting for TV, so you can see the pixels really big. It was quite psychedelic.”

By around 1987, Town also got into the burgeoning electronic scene. It started when Town was “in England, and I bought a keyboard with a sequencer on it and that enabled me to tour with a lot of keyboard sounds in Germany and England.” That led onto a computer, and allowed Town to shift his musical trajectory in a totally different direction to his punk days, moving into ambient. “I think Eno had a big influence, I love a lot of Eno’s work. It’s always quite a powerful medium if you can get the right sounds together. I’m also very open-minded. Sometimes musicians don’t like moving into new areas because it’s difficult, I see it as more of a challenge.” He earned a reputation in Europe, and continued until in the electronic scene until 1997. It was from there, he moved into doing TV work and film soundtracks.

Town has always been interested in film from the Fetus days of incorporating film into the live shows, and it was stuff like the avant-garde work of Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou and David Lynch’s Eraserhead that stand out for Town. Eadweard Muybridge’s “early animation was really mindboggling” too. New Zealander David Blyth was doing similar film work from the late 70s onwards (and earned plaudits from the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky) – his 1978 film Angel Mine was a rather controversial outing in Muldoonist New Zealand – and Town maintained his love of film by collaborating with Blyth later on in both their careers. The two had a similar love of surrealism and film noir, and he mentions to me how the opening scene of Angel Mine was “almost like a Dali painting”.

They worked together on Bound for Pleasure – Blyth was wanting some “classical sounding music, and someone put him onto me”. A mutual love of horror films helped, and Town reckons that “these days with low budgets you can do all the instruments yourself with a computer or multi-track. I’ve got a lot of live instruments – violins, cellos, saxes, trombones, which I end up playing myself or inviting other people to play. It’s quite, not easy, but it’s within my grasp to create this eerie music.” They collaborated on Fish Tank Telly, a result of wanting to do a series of ambient DVDs. Still cameras, unobtrusive filmmaking, and subtle imagery seemed to perfectly fit with a man who has made ambient and punk music.

It also continued a fascination that Town has with the sea, and its inhabitants, and he has plans to do an “underwater” film. It also helps captures an essence of life for Town. “I love diving, because it really puts you in the moment. I love being in the moment when you’re not thinking and experiencing things. The power to focus your mind on one thing is very difficult, I’m always trying to improve that ability. Because I know it is possible. You always try and see things for what they are, not what your mind is telling you.” Another notable achievement for Town was editing the soundtrack for vinyl release of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the unsettling low-budget thriller that caused a stir worldwide following its 1986 (and earning notoriety in NZ for being banned for some time.)

For the Cale show, Town has been coaxed out and plans to just play music without machines. “It’s quite refreshing to do that”. He’s not sure if he’ll incorporate film into the mix, but he’s also got his show planned, with the help of a few guests (such as former bandmates, and another rather wellknown Kiwi band) “I was quite keen to do a Western soundtrack, so that theme kind of stayed with me. We played with a theme called Ghost Town, a modern atmospheric soundtrack and then sliding back into the past with a few quiet campfire songs, and then moving into the punk era with a few songs from the Features and the Superettes.” One of the ideas is “to have musicians who can play different instruments – you can go from ambient to classical and from there to rock”. Town and co plan to “treat it as though the show is a soundtrack”.

It’s also quite exciting playing with Cale. Though he wasn’t a huge influence on Town, he admits that “it’s great that someone like him is still working and able to recreate his music live.” After this, depending on how the show goes, Town is planning to tour around the country next year, recreating some of his legendary underground punk days for New Zealand audiences. He’s challenged audiences the world over, and pushed musical boundaries. I ask him if it’s been difficult being an avant-garde artist. “It’s a funny word difficult. Yeah, I’ll pass on that one, because life is difficult in itself. Just learning how to survive doing art, you rely a lot on the grace of God to keep you going. I don’t know how it works, there must be a bit of help coming from people who’ve seen your shows or your work. That’s the only way it’ll spread is word of mouth. I don’t have an agent, I’m very much self-employed, hoping the phone rings when I get home. Luckily it’s kept me focused on music and video.”

Jed Town opens for John Cale on November 15 at the Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland.