BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to the Sunday-Star TimesGrant Smithies about his new book, Soundtrack, an invigorating, unapologectically personal ode to New Zealand music across 118 albums.

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WRITING books on musical history would never be the easiest thing to do, figuring out what to omit, who to include, maintaining that steely dour tone needed to do justice to the bare progress of history, giving enough coverage to all the key figures and iconic moments. For example: New Zealand had a punk scene starting just after the Sex Pistols and co in England, which expressed youth ennui of the time. One band involved was Toy Love. Toy Love included Chris Knox who would go on to form Tall Dwarfs and play an integral role in Flying Nun. Etc. Etc. Bollocks to that. That’s exactly the type of approach that Sunday-Star Times music reviewer Smithies refuses to go down in his new book Soundtrack, which is essentially a personal, subjective trawl through music that he likes. In the process, he uncovers a lot about New Zealand musical history, and gives a snapshot of some of the great artists that we have been fortunate to find in this country. After all this is the country that uber-trendy US website Pitchfork says has “accrued probably the best per capita ratio of great bands of any country in the world.”

In his introduction, Smithies talks about his early love of the NME and Melody Maker writers in the late 70s and their personalised descriptions of the music they listened to. Smithies follows this trend, this book is full of outrageous metaphors, gross exaggerations, dubious inclusions, and scything commentaries on some of New Zealand’s more well-known figures. It also provokes discussion and debate – I know I’ve already debated with friends about inclusions and exclusions, whether Split Enz really were as good as everyone is supposed to think, and it also includes introduces some artists that for me as a young buck I hadn’t heard of. It’s also accessible, it’s not only for the folks who love a band when twenty other people do, but stop listening when thirty people or more like them.

Smithies says “I thought it was overdue that someone wrote a book about New Zealand music that has a more emotional angle rather than historical. There’d been a lot of books over the years that have largely concerned themselves when a band sprang up and who was in it, how long between albums, all that kind of palaver. Basically a lot of those more dry historical music books. When I read them I just feel my enthusiasm evaporating. I really enjoy music writing where the writer gets to spin their wheels on why they love the music, what it means to them within their broader life that they have and also giving some context outside of what it sounds like.” Smithies was attracted to rants, people raving about the music they liked, the fashion, the haircuts, the drugs, the album covers, the wider culture in which the music was made. “They really transmitted their enthusiasm. It made you want to go out and buy their records, their writing almost kinda unlocked those recordings.”

Smithies also got some influential Kiwi figures such as John Campbell, Karen Walker, Sam Neill, and the late Nigel Cox to contribute their views on a particular album. “I harassed people who were good writers or suspected were closet music writers.” A particularly good inclusion is Shayne Carter talking about that annoying myth that Straitjacket Fits were going to do big things before they broke up, therefore collapsing too soon (what, and Dimmer and Bike are shit???).

Smithies admits to being a compulsive listener early on, obsessing over the likes of David Bowie, Earth, Wind and Fire, the Ohio Players, the Commodores. New Zealand also had a healthy touring circuit for decades (which no longer exists so much), which meant even so-called musical backwaters like Wanganui (where he grew up) or Napier (where he lived later on) had truckloads of live music coming through. He never differentiated between NZ music and others when listening either as a teenager. “I never really made the distinction, it was all stewing around together. I wouldn’t listen to anything from here just because it was from here. There was always stuff that stuck out as good, and stuff that was so-so or just terrible.” Consequently, his book avoids the hey-it-must-be-good-because-it’s-New Zealand schtick, that frankly embarrassing, but a widely subscribed-to view. But he’s also keen to knock those myopic idiots who still claim that ‘New Zealand has no good music” – scarily enough, those ignoramuses are still around.

So when Smithies picks his targets in Soundtrack, he really does rant. “I wanted to round up New Zealand records, a lot of great records that hadn’t been covered, or had been covered badly.” The 3Ds, the Bats, Bachelorette, Dam Native, HDU, Micronism, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, the Shocking Pinks, for example. He raves about the Gordons – “I thought they just deserved to have the kinds of rants deserved in music books for the Exponents or Crowded House”. He reckons the Gordons self-titled album “still sounds extraordinary today, it still sounds peculiar and intense now.” He raves about Shihad’s Killjoy despite admitting the album makes him “hellishly” uncomfortable, and that he can listen to it only sporadically.

There are also some choices that people might not necessarily agree with, but this suits Smithies fine. It’s all in the name of provoking debate. “This book doesn’t remotely pretend to be objective. That seems to be one thing that’s really worked for people.” He argues passionately for the inclusion of artists such as Dei Hamo (“the guy is hilarious. He’s really skillful, there’s a lot of other people emulating US hip-hop in a dull way, he’s exaggerating it on a scale that’s really great”) or Stereo Bus, potentially creaky choices considering the omission of the likes of the Headless Chickens, Bill Direen, Birchville Cat Motel, The Jefferies brothers (Nocturnal Projections, This Kind of Punishment, Cakekitchen), Alastair Galbraith, the Dead C (actually, Xpressway in general), Superette, Alec Bathgate (well he does get Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs credit, but The Indifferent Velvet Void is fantastic), etc. Smithies concedes “in the end it could have been twice as thick, great records were left out.” But also this does show that New Zealand has had some amazing, amazing musical talent.

Smithies is not entirely sure why. “I reckon it’s ultimately anywhere where people have access to ways of recording it, you’ll have great music. Some places that you’d think would have great music don’t, and others do.” He also reckons “there’s no shortage of people doing interesting things,” and things are probably going to get easier for New Zealand artists. “People are forever churning up ideas and turning them into sound. Years ago you had to convince a whole lot of other people that your music was worthwhile, and you needed to have a whole lot of money. Now you can make a record for $50 in your bedroom, including buying pizzas and beers within that fifty bucks, and broadcast it to people. There’s a lot of wailing about how that’s going to kill music, music endures whatever happens technologically. It’s musicians finding cunning ways of trying to survive, rather than the old model of splitting the costs with the record company.”

Smithies is also ranting about the type of music that has got some of the key indie bands the world over salivating over – from REM and Sonic Youth in the 80s, Pavement and Guided By Voices in the 90s, to Peter, Bjorn and John and the Clientele now. “A lot of bands had a similar type of aesthetic trying to make really creative music in pretty cheap and shabby circumstances. They recognised this in each other. A lot of Flying Nun bands recognised this too – they may have been recorded on a four track in dubious circumstances, but they had really chunky melodies, and great amateurish singing. Likeminded people around the world immediately took to them.” Shared influences such as the Byrds, Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground probably helped too.

Smithies admits that there is a guitar bias in here, which probably reflects New Zealand musical history particularly in the 70s and 80s. “Yep. I suppose it does. Some of it will reflect the fact that I‘m an old bastard. It would have been stuff that made sense to me.” Smithies does capture electronic, dub and hip-hop in here too, and certainly there’ll be plenty of people who’d argue that NZ’s noise, classical and electronic scenes are as potent and well-loved overseas, and could do with a bit more recognition. However, Smithies does suggest hip-hop is something that probably needs a bit of development. “There was a big upsurge of people blathering on about NZ hip-hop coming of age [a few years ago], they were saying it at a time when most of our rappers were trying to sound American. And it was probably the least original time, artistically it was a lot less interesting. A lot of hip-hop artists are still stuck in that trough. That’s why I wanted to write about the Dam Native record.” Smithies enthuses about Dam Native’s incorporation of New Zealand accents and Maori motifs, and suggests New Zealand hip-hop went backwards from there.

There are some potentially controversial omissions from Soundtrack – there are few of the multiple platinum or whatever selling artists. No Bic Runga, no Don McGlashan, no Dave Dobbyn. And he bags Split Enz too. “There are some national heroes, bands that succeeded early on, there’s always this assumption that they’re heroes to all of us. There’s this assumption that all of us care deeply about the All Blacks, for example, I don’t. I don’t think that makes me any less of a New Zealander. Actually this thing we’re all supposed to like, I don’t actually like. I just thought it was important to have that on record somewhere. It’s not a diss.” However, he does concede he likes Split Enz’s first album Mental Notes, and gets Sam Neill to write on True Colours.

He’s also enthusiastic about New Zealand music’s current prospects, mentioning the likes of SJD, Phoenix Foundation, Fat Freddy’s Drop, Shocking Pinks to me, and also up and coming figures like So So Modern, Coco Solid, Cut Off Your Hands and Disasteradio. He also mentions indie labels like Lil’ Chief, Arch Hill, and the work done in Wellington by Blink and A Low Hum as doing good things for New Zealand music. “I still maintain the music from here that’s going to catch attention overseas is not the NZ bands who sound like other bands overseas.”

Soundtrack does subscribe to the tyranny of the album (i.e. the idea that the album is the ideal form of musical expression). There are plenty of bands who probably weren’t able to translate their sound into a studio, but were shit-hot live. But that’s fair enough, that’s the nature of musical canonisation. “I wanted to celebrate times when a whole bunch of things came together and made a great record.” Smithies mentions that novelist Chad Taylor (who contributes here) said to Smithies that this book is “a celebration of narrow mindedness”. Taylor was right – Soundtrack is a celebration of narrow mindedness told by a man whose love of music drips from the pages. It might get people out there exploring some of these albums and find out about Ghost Club, Upper Hutt Posse or the Subliminals; it might force people to put down Hayley Westenra’s new album when they’re in a record store and pick the 3Ds or the Clean instead; it might provoke furious debate about the continued neglect of the Jefferies Brothers or the Dead C in the New Zealand media; it might comfort you to think that someone else feels the same way about Bressa Creeting Cake. What Soundtrack also ultimately shows, is that we live in a pretty amazing musical country.

‘Sountrack’, by Grant Smithies (Craig Potten, NZ$49.95), is in bookstores now.