Robert Scott’s vulnerable voice, beautifully crafted pop songs, thematically dark subjects remain intact within The Bats’ latest album, The Guilty Office, writes BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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ROBERT SCOTT has spent the best part of three decades writing some of the sweetest pop music in this country’s history. From the early tearaway days of the Clean, to his much more mellowed-out band, The Bats, plus his various solo releases, Robert Scott has established an almost mystical international reputation and left his residue on New Zealand musical history. The Bats (Scott, Kaye Woodward, Paul Kean and Malcolm Grant) are still releasing excellent music too – The Guilty Office, the band’s first album since the very good At the National Grid. The album maintains the band’s original template established with the masterpiece Daddy’s Highway – driving, subtle rhythms, Scott’s vulnerable voice, beautifully crafted pop songs, thematically dark subjects. The band throws in a harp and strings this time around, and continue to diversify the sound – but the band’s ability to write wistful, haunting pieces of magic remains unabated.

The Bats have been releasing work since 1984’s EP By Night. More EPs followed until 1987’s landmark album Daddy’s Highway. The follow-ups, The Law of Things (1990) and Couch Master (1995) helped the band win further international favour – bands such as REM, Guided by Voices and Pavement declared their love, and they went on tour around Europe and the States with the likes of Television, Belly and Radiohead. Scott simply shrugs off the huge output of the bands he’s been involved with by saying “it’s like breathing and eating really. I just love to do it.”

The band has remained intact in spite of all this time, and despite all the various side-projects (e.g. Minisnap, The Weeds, The Magick Heads, Dissolve, Electric Blood, and a little thing called the Clean). I ask if the Bats have suffered in relation to all the other musical commitments, or whether the breaks have helped with the band’s longevity. “The breaks have helped keep us fresh I think. Each time we come back to it, it is fun. I don’t think working on other projects has harmed or hindered any other projects. It adds to it I think.”

The band’s modus operandi (though many great bands were doing this in the ’80s too) of constructing songs with upbeat melodies and dark themes, have been picked up by a lot of contemporary indie bands from the likes of Belle and Sebastian to the Shins. Scott says, “that’s just the way it comes out, it is easier to sing about the dark.” But he doesn’t really want to illuminate the process, suggesting there’s no real mystery. “I let other people pick it to bits and work out what it means.” Scott says that the new album wasn’t made in a particularly different way either. It was “pretty much the same as the others. I had a big bunch of songs and the rest of the band chose the ones they liked and we got them into shape and put them down live in the studio.” Scott says “our playing changes over time as well, so each time a new album comes around, we are in a different musical space in many ways.” The band has been criticised in the past for sounding a bit same-y, and they pushed their sound considerably in At the National Grid. Scott was aware of the criticism in the making of the album, which in part explains the strings and harps.

“I don’t have a great urge to smash things although I did smash a burning guitar in the ‘North by North’ video. And we did have a gig invaded by a biker gang in Barrytown, that was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. They drove straight through the front door.”

The band’s influence is certainly underestimated in New Zealand, like all the other great Flying Nun bands. “We are taken for grant in New Zealand a lot of the time. We are seen as part of the woodwork so to speak. If there is a gap of more than two years between albums, people think we have broken up.” But overseas, the band encounters considerable adoration. “Overseas, we are appreciated much more. To punters over there, we are an overseas band and a lot of those people have followed our career and bought the albums. So we do have fun when we go away – a mixture of roughing it and being looked after.”

The Bats have been called a G-rated act in terms of personas and mannerisms. They are possibly the most un-prima donna bunch of rock-stars, though I ask if they have the urge to cut loose in a rock ‘n’ roll sense. “I don’t have a great urge to smash things although I did smash a burning guitar in the ‘North by North’ video. And we did have a gig invaded by a biker gang in Barrytown, that was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. They drove straight through the front door.” The band’s van also caught fire in Scotland, and in the aftermath found their namesake, a bat, in the bed. Though Scott suggests that “I think we are more PG.” One of the key features of the band’s music is there use of driving guitars, evocative of great distances, and constant nomadic movement. “It’s just the way we play I guess, one doesn’t want the song to fall over. It maybe comes from writing the song on guitar first without drums.”

The band found themselves touring the United States on the same bill as Radiohead and Belly in 1993. “That was very interesting as they were just on the verge of getting big and ‘Creep’ was turning into a smash. They were very friendly and had us on their bus quite a bit. I think they were quite intrigued that we were from such a long way away, and they were quite impressed with our playing too or so they told us. It was a very cool tour indeed and we had to come back to NZ half way through, a real shame.”

The Guilty Office is yet another wonderful release by The Bats. It is beautiful – the interplay between Scott and Kaye Woodward in the album’s opening track ‘Countersign’ sets up the tone for the album – warm, comfortable but expansive and dreamy. The album is consistent too – no tracks necessarily stand out, but the melodies and arrangements are strong and distinctive. The menacing ‘Broken Path’ and the gorgeous ‘Two Lines’ with its subtle string flourishes are two of the stronger tracks, while the stunning ‘The Orchard’ is a fitting album closer. The driving rhythms, and wistful pop lashings of The Guilty Office is further evidence of how great The Bats are.