Dave Edwards has been self-releasing his music for years in his native New Zealand. Under his own name and various pseudonyms, he has amassed a large solo discography. Edwards has also performed in the excellent instrumental improv group, The Winter (now disbanded) and the massive Ascension Band. After a brief stint in Melbourne, Australia, Edwards returned to New Zealand to begin studying music in Nelson, on the South Island. This interview was conducted via email earlier this year.
I got started in a slightly roundabout way - I don't come from a musical family (my Dad used to play bagpipes and his first wife was a piano teacher, but that was before I came along). I had no interest in music as a child, since it was the 1980s and the music on the radio sucked (though I did quite like Dire Straits...). I was much more into reading and writing, particularly science fiction.
It wasn't until I first heard Bob Dylan, specifically the song “Talkin Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues”, at age 14 that something clicked - finally, something I could relate to. And I never subscribed to the “Dylan can't sing” myth. So from there I got an acoustic guitar and harmonica and started writing songs. I never had any interest in learning covers, the main goal was always to do my own thing. And by then it was too late to take music as a school subject, so apart from a few guitar lessons early on I'm self-taught (until this year, which I'm spending at music school!). Early on it was all about the lyrics, the idea of listening closely to the instruments came a bit later.
Through my late teens music became my main interest and my tastes followed a natural progression through Neil Young and the Velvet Underground. Then came Will Oldham, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, The Fall, Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten, the Birthday Party, Nirvana of course... you get the idea. Seeing Fugazi live was just mind-blowing. And my first jazz purchase was “Crescent” by the John Coltrane Quartet. The next big turning point was discovering free music - when I finally got to hear Derek Bailey (as well as Cecil Taylor, Peter Brötzmann, AMM etc) that just clicked too.
As far as New Zealand music goes, I grew up in New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island. It's the main town of Taranaki, a dairy farming province with a mountain in the centre and surf beaches with black iron sands all around - the movie “The Last Samurai” was filmed there after I left, with Mt Taranaki standing in for Mt Fuji. New Plymouth's known for its punk/metal scene, so I saw local bands like Sticky Filth, 1080, Nefarious, Wrath, Dick Fukz and the Goat-Fucking Nun Rapers etc - great stuff but a lot of them were getting to the middle-aged-with-potbelly stage and not showing much musical evolution. I got to know Brian Wafer, who ran the 1980s cassette label Ima Hitt and organised the annual Mushroom Ball event which brought punks from around the country until the last one made a loss, and he put me on as opening act at a few gigs. I'd do my solo acoustic guitar/harmonica thing to indifferent audiences in heavy metal t-shirts - great experience.
The upshot of all this was that I recorded my first album, “Scratched Surface” at age 19, made the artwork, burnt it on CDR, and sold something like 25 copies. I also had the honour of opening for Peter Jefferies (who's also from Taranaki), and then Chris Knox.
In 1999 I was introduced to Paul Winstanley, an amazing bass player, sound engineer and electro-acoustic musician - he's 12 or 13 years older than I, and also from New Plymouth. He lived in Houston, Texas for eight years and played with the Charalambides etc, and is now an active member of the growing scene in Auckland. I got to join in his 12-piece noise ensemble “The Bird and Truck Collision” at Sweetwaters 1999 (big outdoor music fest that went bust).
Paul was also extremely helpful later that year in recording and playing on my second album “The Marion Flow” – which was based around imagery of the sea and the collective unconsciousness, and divided into “pastoral” and “urban” halves. It was less lo-fi and more varied than the first album, including acoustic pop songs, punkier stuff, spoken word, soundscapes, and free improvisation – to me these are all part of a continuum, so I didn’t see why some people found it confusing. And in between we recorded various jams on guitars, synthesisers, turntable and household objects, which Paul later layered and reconstructed into the “ddpp” album, which we're going to release any decade now. The two albums make interesting companion pieces - two collaborations with each of us taking a turn as composer.
I moved to Wellington, New Zealand's capital, in 1999 to do my BA in theatre and film. I spent six years in Wellington and in retrospect I had mixed success there. There's a great free music scene, which was gaining momentum as I arrived. Lots of other guitarists were influenced by Derek Bailey/Sonny Sharrock/Fred Frith/Keith Rowe, there were saxophonists everywhere, and Birchville Cat Motel was beginning his meteoric rise.
For myself though, I didn't quite fit into the free music scene, as most of the players are jazz school graduates and I didn't have the chops to operate on that level. I didn't fit into the noise side of things, as I was still a guitar-strumming singer/songwriter at heart, but I was too dissonant and rough-edged for folk music, not rocking enough for rock, and though I thought of myself as a punk I was too middle-class, not directly political enough and didn't fit the dress code for the local punk scene. And don't even mention my puny attempts to get work in the film industry.
I was fairly single-minded throughout about making albums though, emphasising lyrical content and narrative subtext more than other Wellingtonians, and committed to evolving constantly. For the third album, Mantis Shaped and Worrying, rather than putting songs, free improv and spoken word alongside each other, I tried to create a fusion style that combined all of those at once. NZ Musician magazine called the album “random squeaks squawks and squeals accompanied by a dreary monotone voice reciting obscure diatribes”, which is much more fun to quote than the good reviews it also got.
2003-2004 was a difficult period as I started to feel alienated from the Wellington scene, which seemed to be moving without me. I had a few battles with depression, unemployment, self-doubt and a bad break-up along the way. The fourth album, Loose Autumn Moans is kind of a darker version of The Marion Flow, with the bonus of a “string section” of cello and violin, and recorded through live takes rather than overdubbing. I also formed a band The Winter – an improvising trio of guitar, cello and drums – which was a good breakthrough. And I wrote two books of short stories and some music journalism – see www.fiffdimension.co.nz/davewriting.htm
Wellington at the turn of the millennium was an amazing place to be - as well as a flourishing avant-garde music scene, the Lord of the Rings was being filmed. Literally thousands of people worked on it, and I had my nine days as an extra. In a short space of time Wellington suddenly became “Wellywood” - the main newspaper changed its name to “the Middle Earth Post”, the hype built up and up, everywhere you looked there were Lord of the Rings posters. Three years in a row Peter Jackson and his entourage had big red-carpet triumphal processions, Roman general style, through town for the film premieres...
...so all this hype became quite stifling, ultimately. Wellington brands itself “the cultural capital”, and it's all about “the creative industries” (and being seen in the right places). Personally I found it difficult to create in that kind of environment, though some obviously thrive in it.
But these days I'm in a good headspace, with some new ideas, friends and resources, a change of scenery, a modest body of work behind me to try and find an audience for, and looking forward to the future.
The past year and a bit has been great. In early 2005 I organised a show for the Wellington Fringe Festival with Ascension Band – a 14-piece group that I formed for a one-off festival performance in 2003 (we did a “cover” of John Coltrane's “Ascension”; Campbell Kneale and Antony Milton joined in) and reconvened twice with different line-ups in 2004. Organist Nigel Patterson from the band The Chandeliers (www.thechandeliers.co.nz) took the role of composer and conductor this time, and we spent weeks rehearsing and planning our “Electric Symphony: Evolution”. We had two guitars, two basses, two drummers, two keyboards, computer, male (Japanese) and female vocals, trumpet and tone generator, and a full stage rig with lighting and video projections. We won the best music award for the festival - great to get some real recognition finally, and a nice Wellington swansong for me. I'm now trying to convince Nigel to release the recordings as an album, but it might wait until we reform somehow.
A week after the festival ended I got on a plane to Melbourne, and lived there for four months. It was my first time out of New Zealand as an adult, and very stimulating. Melbourne's a great city, and it was a revelation that New Zealand's not really that isolated - there's the whole Australian continent nearby to explore, and you could spend years there and not get bored. Australia and New Zealand have a lot of historic and cultural similarities, but also great differences - the colonisation process was harsher there, their current government is much more right-wing than ours, and the geography and wildlife of the two countries are completely dissimilar. Australia's a flat dry continent whereas New Zealand consists of mountainous green islands. And a great musical discovery for me was Australian hip hop - nothing like the New Zealand Maori/Polynesian variety, and doesn't follow American clichés either. They've got their own sound happening.
Since I didn't take a guitar to Australia, rather than buying a new one I bought a 5-string banjo, so that's been a great musical turning point. It's got so many different moods, and these days I play it more often than guitar. I like the idea of having a relatively uncommon instrument – New Zealand doesn't have anything like the American tradition of banjo playing, so I can blaze my own trail to an extent. Although, I have been noticing more of them in music shop windows these days so they seem to be catching on.
I also started using the computer for making beats and backing tracks, and to compose with, and made a lot of field recordings in Australia. The resulting album, “After Maths and Sciences”, is quite a departure from my earlier works: it looks outwards rather than inwards. It consists of soundscapes made with banjo, cello, acoustic guitar and computer, plus Australian voices, wildlife, street sounds etc. Rather than writing lyrics I’ve got Aussies talking in their own words (and accents…) about topical issues such as climate change, bomb threats, the race riots at Cronulla Beach etc, so there's an element of journalism. ”Kangaroo meat tastes like crap” is a nice one-liner in there. I had a second trip to Australia, to Sydney and Gosford in New South Wales for a couple of weeks over Christmas/New Year's to finish the album (and decided I'd much rather live in Melbourne than Sydney).
I put the album out under the name “Dave Black” - using my mother's Irish maiden name - to signal a stylistic change and for various other reasons. It might even be a Johnny Cash tribute.
Recently I've been working on getting the album packaging up to a professional looking standard, and have just put together “Gleefully Unknown”, a best-of compilation of my music from 1997 to 2005 - hopefully it'll make a good calling card or starting point for people..?
Trying to articulate something I can't quite grasp; putting together collaborative situations and seeing what happens; trying not to do what everyone else is doing; assembling bits and pieces of ideas; trying not to repeat myself. I love using acoustic strings and electric noise, and gradually expanding my range of possibilities.
I've always been into the album as my form to work with - choosing tracks and putting them in the right order to give a narrative/emotional/dynamic arc that's greater than the sum of the parts. There's got to be some kind of cohesive structure and subtext, to reward repeated listening. On the other hand I like to keep things loose, don't be a control freak, leave the mistakes in. And have a sense of humour.
Something I decided early on was that I'm in it for the long haul – so it's been great to see some of the artists I was into as a teenager still evolving. Bob Dylan's “Love and Theft” and “Masked and Anonymous”, the last few Fall albums, Will Oldham's continual high standard of productivity, Nick Cave writing “The Proposition” etc. And seeing local guys like Campbell Kneale and Antony Milton running successful labels and going out and touring internationally - proving it can be done.
I've always had a love of language, a lot of my songs and prose are about sounds and textures of words. I get compared to the American beat generation sometimes (Thomas Pynchon's my favourite - more of a post-beat), but Celtic writers like James Joyce (I loved “Ulysses”), Samuel Beckett and Dylan Thomas have been just as influential. I haven't read as much New Zealand literature as I should have, but James K Baxter's in there, and having seen Alan Brunton before he died I know his oeuvre is a treasure trove to explore. The last book I finished was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and I’m now getting into The Canterbury Tales.
I've been thinking recently about the idea of folk music and roots - part of the challenge is that New Zealand has a very brief human history compared to other nations. I'm interested in folk music, but I can't play American country or blues - it's not my heritage. I love listening to Harry Smith's Anthology but for myself I'm leaning more towards my Scottish, Irish and Portuguese ancestry, which I’ll investigate properly once I get over there. I learned to play “Auld Lang Syne” on the banjo, with those great lyrics by Robert Burns. Folk songs have real depth, and there's no reason they have to be bland easy listening music. To me, the Dead C and Birchville Cat Motel are New Zealand folk music!
Revisiting New Plymouth recently - I did a North Island tour, which went very well thank you - I was thinking about the affinity a lot of New Zealanders have for JRR Tolkien's writings (LOTR was the all-time #1 bestseller here years before Peter Jackson made the film trilogy - the myth of the peace-loving barefooted nature-dwelling little people who save the world seems to resonate strongly here). None of the LOTR films were filmed around Taranaki, but the mountain is a dead ringer for “the lonely mountain” described in “The Hobbit”. The Maori legend is that Taranaki fought Ruapehu for the hand of Ngaruhoe (other mountains in the central North Island) and lost, so had to retreat to be alone by the sea. New Zealand’s landscapes do have a mythical quality about them, but the ecosystems here are incredibly fragile – so conservation and the environment’s another of my interests.
I put a photo of Mt Taranaki on the disc art for the “Gleefully Unknown” compilation - seems to bring things back full circle. Maybe it does come down to land and place after all? Of this year’s releases, that one’s a summary of what I’ve done so far, while After Maths and Sciences points towards the future. It’s also a sad album in a way – as you hear in the second half, Australia’s drying out and the soil’s becoming saline; the people are living beyond their means and have some huge challenges ahead. And for me it’s good to have the progression from teenage angst in my early work to now looking with an adult perspective at real issues (as opposed to war-on-an-abstract-concept smokescreens) facing the planet in the 21st century. After my Australian album (“an Australian novel for the ear” according to one of my friends), I’m keen to travel and make albums in other places around the world - could keep me occupied for years.
This year I'm living in Nelson, at the northern end of the South Island. I'm spending 2006 studying at the Nelson School of Music - aiming to lift my skills up a few notches, and pick up the technical stuff that I missed through not studying music at school. I'm going to spend the year doing that and trying to get my music out through the Internet. I’m enjoying my new South Island setting, having three national parks nearby, and growing vegetables and native plants in the garden.
Ultimately the aim is to head overseas for a year or more from 2007 – my big project this year is planning and saving for next year’s trip to Europe via Australia and Asia, going overland as much as possible. And I would dearly love to get to the point where I could get an edition of “real CDs” manufactured and be confident of selling them, so touring could be an excuse.
My two important gigs to look forward to this year are at the Liquid Architecture Festival in Brisbane on July 1st – seeing what it’s like to perform as an international artist – and the Dunedin Fringe Festival in October. And we tour the West Coast of the South Island as our finale on the music course, so that’ll be great.
Absolutely, I’d love to, though not sure when or how. All New Zealand underground musicians should at some point, as the audience back home is so tiny. I like looking at the map and imagining a big question-mark shaped journey overland from San Francisco up to Seattle, across Canada, down the East Coast through the southern states and on to South America - better save my pennies!
Email me if you want to know more…
-- Brad Rose (10 July, 2006)