Twenty Years Ago – Dave Dobbyn

To celebrate New Zealand Music Month, GARY STEEL dredges up a bunch of old stories and never-before-published interview Q&A’s. Today, it’s Dave Dobbyn’s turn, a real epic from way back in 1998.

There’s a general preamble, in which ‘Dobbo’ refers to having given up the booze.

Dave Dobbyn – I’ve got mornings. I never had mornings before.

Gary Steel – What are you taking?

Dave – Cigarettes, cups of tea. I’ve got kids and they get up quite early, so I usually get up around 6.30 anyway. I woke up the other morning and the stereo was blaring, it was Bjork’s last album, a beautiful melody, and my daughter’s got the headphones on but she’s got the stereo on as well and screaming along at the top of her voice singing along with Bjork, and the little fella’s got the computer turned up playing Dr Seuss’s ABC, and it’s all clashing together.

Gary – I’ve never heard of somebody trying to sing along with Bjork before.

Dave – She did a remarkably good job. She’s got a little squeaky voice so she got right up there.

Gary – Why do you think you’re more conscious in the morning?

Dave – I gave up the piss, so I don’t get hangovers now. I was buying a silver birch tree yesterday, wandering through Tippet’s Garden Centre when Tippet came up to me and said, ‘Have you got a hangover?’  I said, ‘No…why?’ and he said, ‘You were on the telly and I thought you would have got out of it’. It’s quite a liberating thing, to get a couple more hours a day.

Gary – You were a constant drinker?

Dave – I think I had a low tolerance. Two beers and I’d have a hangover. It’s a fairly clumsy drunk, that one. I don’t regret it. I like choosing wines these days. You can tell a good one just by reading the label, knowing the history, smelling it. It’s fun choosing wine that you know you’re not going to drink, for other people. Rock’n’roll!

[Dave asks which publication this is for. I tell him a national newspaper. He imagines the headline].

Dave – ‘Useless Old Auckland Hippie Delivers More Discs.’ [Laughs]. I’m excited about this record because it’s the most lucid one I’ve come up with I reckon. [Laughs]. It’s a good start to whatever comes next. [Laughs]. It flows on nicely from the last two, so even though it’s a slow train, I’ll get there.

Gary – The four-year gap.

Dave – I had a bit of a gap where I didn’t write at all for about a year. That’s a long time in a kid’s life, so I was concentrating on that. It became more important than what I was doing. A kid’s life is so important, so it’s good to hang out. You know, get the bonding [said in funny voice].

But when I did start to work on it, it came together pretty quickly. I wrote a lot of stuff, maybe 40 songs to get to 13 songs. I’ve never done that before because I’ve been too lazy. So I worked hard on making a lot of music. God knows how I’ve archived it all, but it’ll come in handy. Some stuff you keep, some you just file.

I rented a little studio around the corner from where I live in Grey Lynn. There are a lot of photographers and rehearsal rooms. There were a couple of techno records being made, ak97 and a rave party underneath my studio. It came through the walls.

One night I went back really fired up for a night’s work, and as soon as I got on the computer, pulled out the guitar, biscuits, tea, everything organised, bFM on the radio, and then BRRRRRRAAAAGHHH!!! This guy was trying out his big PA, it was amazing. Suddenly, it was like being in a rocket ship. It sounded like Darnang on a busy day. It’s hard to find a quiet space in the city. I don’t work loudly, I just work with bookshelf speakers.

The space I was working in… I had a great view across the Waitaks and Pt Chev and stuff, and it was good to work in a space like that, because the outside was coming in. I had the choice of a place with no windows, but that can become too claustrophobic, you know, if you work too long in a submarine… [laughs].

Gary – Computers?

Dave – I just use them. I don’t profess to being a whizz at all. I’ve got a little digital set up. It’s perfect for pre-production. Just a computer and a couple of digital toys. But it’s great fun being able to make notepads, sketches of things. Got this little Roland digital recorder, and it’s just like a songwriter’s surfboard. Really good for arrangement. Bang the notes down, not worry about what the toy can do.

That’s a lot of what pre-production is, just figuring out structures of songs and stuff. And the more work you define… in the end you just end up with a bunch of simple songs blaring away. It’s a dichotomy in a way, because you put work into making the songs and then when you’re playing them you’re trying to strip them down to their essence, and that can be a deceptively simple-sounding process, but it’s funny how you can try a song every-which-way before you settle on the way a song goes, what feel it has, whether it’s psycho-country or a piano ballad.

It’s good to be able to scan libraries of sound, to find out what register or tonality a sound should have, and then I’d go through that journey but not too far, because you can end up sounding like Saturday morning at the music shop and not getting any work done. I might find a harpsichord sound or something, and then realise I could do that with a mandolin instead. The only thing limiting you is your imagination, you know. Arranging is so exciting, a lot of fun.

Gary – It was nice to hear a Mellotron on the record, better than using an orchestra.

Dave – I really want to use strings at some point, because arranging them is so much fun. But it’s that Nickelodeon sound, a bit of circus about it. That sense of mystery. That’s what was so great about Beatles albums, the way they recorded it was so odd, it puts everything in relief against other things, so from an arrangement point of view it makes everything more colourful. I taught myself how to do things from that perspective, the way the Beatles or Stones did things, and just pickup those things, and I’m very eclectic these days with what I listen to, I listen to all sorts of things. I listen to new stuff. I love Stinky Jim, Stop Work and Chill Out, the True School Hip-hop Show or something.

Gary – You’ve never been tempted to try your hand at something like that?

Dave – No, well I’ve got a… Ian Morris, who I’m working with now, he used to be in Th’ Dudes, we’re going to do something together as Six Billion Satellite Universes.

We’ll make some records, but we’ll probably produce some stuff too, because there’s so much music being made out there, and record companies are not necessarily going to record things. There are all sorts of reasons why that doesn’t happen, so if you’re ever in the position where you can let someone use your gear or give someone a hand or whatever, I love that, it means there’s somethin’ going on, and there is somethin’ going on in this country, it’s fantastic, a kind of air of revolution. At least musically.

We’re not going to limit ourselves to any kind of style, we’re just going to come up with some weird shit and hope it all hangs together. I like the idea of exploring grooves and textures, and maybe a few words, or none at all, just instrumental stuff. And have fun with the computer while we’re at it.

Ian’s got a great attitude in that everything he does is on the computer, but he doesn’t get stuck with the technology at all. He’s playing this weird mandolin thing, he’s got a hurdy-gurdy arriving any day, a collection of guitars and a funky old C3 organ that’s scrubbed up really well in the corner. And we can make records without even thinking about it, so we might as well do that. And then I’ll just keep doing what I do anyway, so whether it ends up being part of what I do or not, it’ll be okay.

Gary – Does ‘Dave Dobbyn’ have to fit a certain style?

Dave – No, it doesn’t really. I think there’s something coming through. The last three records hang together pretty well. A growth to the process, or the songs. So it’s going somewhere, where I don’t know, but I’ll play round with it a bit, because you’ve got to keep moving, but ultimately with my own stuff, if I can stand up onstage with an acoustic guitar and it works, great, and stand up with a five piece band and it works, great. That’s what that is, it’s what I do. So it would be nice to counter that and look at it from a different point of view, with the freedom to make a lot of noise, get it out there, rather than analyse it too much. It’s an annoyingly long time getting an album out there running.

Gary – I guess with the Sony thing if it was too strange…

Dave – Yeah, they’d probably have to put it in some other box. I’d like to keep it easy, because it keeps me mobile. If I have any success and get some airplay, hopefully like England and Ireland. The English are really interested in this record, which is great, so going over there and establishing something with an acoustic guitar, which may be the reality, because taking a band these days is quite fickle.

Paul Kelly came through town not so long ago and the only reason he had a six-piece band was the Australian government had an export scheme going where they matched dollar for dollar on accommodation and travel and shit. That’s what it’s come down to. It’s a long way from the ‘20s and ‘30s where big bands used to travel on the railway and… we’re down to four-piece bands barely struggling to get by. The road is that expensive. But it’s great, I love it. I’m looking forward to getting a band and getting to that point where we’re doing a body of touring, just to whip it into shape, not slick but…

Gary – You still like getting out on the road.

Dave – I do, I do, but it’s keeping the balance with the family life. It’s a good challenge. Being able to hang out on an island somewhere in the end of a big jaunt is a good reason to do it! [Laughs]. It’s more exciting to me more than it’s ever been. That keeps you fired up. Any excuse to play. You get so uptight about stuff when you’re younger, you bang against your own self-imposed brick walls, in terms of your own communication and stuff, that’s why I like the honesty of rock’n’roll music, you can tell it like it is, and if you’re as honest as you can be, that should come out in the music, and that’s a liberating thing.

Gary – International touring planned?

Dave – The last time I played in the states, some of the Columbia crew came along and hung out, so we made some connections. I last played there in ‘94, and they’re still talking about it, so it’s like, ‘Okay, we’d better go there then!’ and there may be a possibility of playing some stuff with Neil (Finn) in Europe, supporting obviously, at some point. And hopefully connect up with Ron Sexmith and do some gigs with him. I had the pleasure of touring with the two Finn brothers when they brought their album out, acoustically around the UK.

Gary – Who are your backing guys on the record?

Dave – Mad Ross Burge, the diabetic, permanently wired. They did a great job on the record, because they only had like three days in town. I had five other tunes to either redo or… I’d written a few more. The bulk of the album, about eight tracks with an Australian rhythm section. We got the Muttonbirds on the rest. They had been playing a lot all round Europe, so you could feel it, it was like ‘wow’, these guys feel like Elvis Presley’s rhythm section, they’re that onto it. The luxury of the guitar-playing troubadour.

Gary – There aren’t that many around any more.

Dave – No, it’s refreshing to meet someone like Ron Sexsmith. It’s funny because it puts you in a… there are millions of singer-songwriters out there, it just depends how good your story stacks up against the next guy’s. [Laughs]. I loved the Massive Attack gig, seriously Socialist London music. Saw them at the Logan, the Gulag gig. You definitely get a feeling of London life, yeah it does get dark at 3 o’clock, I am broke and stuck in London. There are some dark things on that album, but it’s pretty hooky.

Gary – Your album’s quite sunny by comparison!

Dave – Yeah it’s really chirpy and happy and a pain in the arse really [Laughs]. There I’m going ‘I’m getting all my dark blues out’ and people say it’s a happy album, oh, oh God! It’s a celebration I think. It’s pretty exuberant. It’s going to be interesting to see who comes to the shows. I’ve got to get babysitters to go and see shows these days. The audience changes. Sometimes there’ll be some people attempting to mosh and stage dive, and behind them will be people a little bit older and quite drunk, and behind them will be people standing there with folded arms, and behind them grey-haired people. A fairly eclectic audience. That’s why I want to get into theatres, but it would be great to do the pubs in the summer. Even though I don’t drink myself these days, it’s great doing those gigs, because people just cut loose.

Gary – It’s an interesting attitude, because so many bands just HATE that whole pub thing.

Dave – I just love it eh, I’m just in love with the whole thing. It beats a residency at a hotel playing smarmy piano.

Gary – DD Smash were often called a pub rock band.

Dave – We were, and that’s exactly what we were, and I kept elements of that, the guitar stuff on this could be heard at a pub just as well as a theatre. There’s subtlety in there. In a pub you’ve just got to get out there and get the chemistry going, at the risk of flying jugs, and God knows I’ve ducked a few flying jugs in my time!

Gary – I find that duality interesting: you’re an acclaimed, intelligent singer songwriter, and on the other hand you’ve got this fun pub rock…

Dave – Chasing oblivion, the oblivion of the weekend. God knows I did it. The weekend was always reserved for being in party mode, you know. You can’t lose that. It’s a workout on stage. It’s a cleansing thing. Just opening your mouth and having a holler gets rid of so much stuff. A stress reliever. I highly recommend it. Sing in the shower. Don’t bottle it up.

Gary – You do have this history of creating havoc!

Dave – [Laughs]. I remember playing with Neil Finn, a cover band we toured with, the Party Boys, before he got Crowded House together.  He hated every minute of it, but one great part, we were playing this pub up in Whangarei, and the place was absolutely chocka, really sweaty, really hot, and Neil got on stage and this Maori guy came up and had this full face moko, the rippling body, tats everywhere, he looked amazing but really scary, and Neil looked up and was so freaked out about it, because he was used to being onstage a bit further away from the audience! It was so funny, but once he got over it… I’m totally used to it, wasn’t threatened at all. I love all that shit.

Gary – There’s an NZ tendency to be down on the more commercial pop side of things.

Dave – To make that leap to doing something that might actually be quite popular. It’s a funny one. There is that attitude… you get relegated to one line of that alternative thing. It’s always been a misnomer.

God knows how long I dragged the ‘Slice Of Heaven’ thing around with me. That’s still a thing I wear. And that target’s still painted on the back of my t-shirt. I used to hate it too, but it pays my bloody taxes, so what the hell. I don’t have too much of a problem these days with that commercial side of things. It depends how long you want to stay in the business. Guys like the Foo Fighters, those American acts that are loosely called post-grunge alternative… they all work fucking hard for a living, and any success they get they really enjoy and don’t think twice about it.

I just think it’s just a process of the thing evolving, talking about stuff, the dialogue across the genres in New Zealand is only just starting to happen, it’s healthily competitive. But the potential for getting shafted in this business is immense. Everybody’s got stories. There’s a guy in Auckland still sitting on my master tapes and I can’t touch the things. I can’t touch the fucking things. From Th’ Dudes days. Stebbing. I can’t get the masters out of them. He just won’t let ‘em out. Maybe that’ll resolve itself one day.

Gary – You lived overseas for awhile. Are you around in NZ for good now?

Dave – I lived in Sydney for 10 years. I’m here to stay. Too entrenched. [Laughs].

Gary – Is the professional future for Dave Dobbyn assured?

Dave – I’m not running out of things to do. There’s no vocabulary for… I’m pretty driven these days. I’ve got some neat projects coming up, the music for a film from a Jane Campion protégé. And working with Ian. My stuff. I think it’s just going to flow now. You tend to make those decisions once you reach the 40 mark. You stop worrying. I don’t suffer fools gladly now, even though I’m a fool myself half the time. I’m much more impulsive, and I trust my own impulses more in terms of how I see things. I listen a lot more and talk a lot more and play a lot more… yeah! Things fall into place! I love being 41, I’ve got two fantastic kids, a great marriage, a house and stuff. I’m one of the five percent who got away with a marriage that actually works. It’s pretty rare.

Gary – Do you still relate to Dave Dobbyn, a continuum?

Dave – I’m not cringing anymore, because that’s what you do when you’re a 20-year-old. I didn’t do anything worthwhile until I was 27, when I got married. Everything before that was an accident, you’re just tearing around. It’s nice to let that stuff fall away and not worry about your mistakes, and use them. The only way you can have success is from your mistakes anyway. If 20 percent of what you do works you’re doing really well. People have stupidly high expectations of themselves. The reality of getting by with your relationships and family is so much more primitive and crucial… all the pain and all the joys are all there, that’s living. Whereas stuff that’s reflected off that, that’s where the truth gets screwed up and you’re living in a world of bullshit and you have to wade through it to find your own truth.

Gary – You seem to have a lot in common with Neil Finn in that respect.

Dave – It’s an odd one because his was more of a country middle class experience, and mine was a working class experience, and that does make a difference, but coming from that Catholic tradition does spur some creativity, because you’ve got so much imagery to deal with. I’m Irish, English and Scottish, and there’s some Tasmanian in there too… I think my mother’s folks were caught stealing a chicken or something and sent out there. That’s about the extent of my European roots.

Gary – Is that why you’re an islander?

Dave – We’re all mongrels in a way, and we’ve inherited this legacy,  which we’re trying to work out. I can look at a Ralph Hotere painting and go into some kind of dreamland within seconds. It’s great to be transported like that, and concentrating on that fire in the belly is what I want to do. I’ve got a few bad habits. I’m obsessed with gadgets, real boy things. I’m not interested in a big house or flash cars. I’ve got a very anonymous car, a white Telstar.

Notes: I’ve interviewed Dave Dobbyn on a number of occasions between 1981 and 2012, and he’s always friendly, funny and accommodating, but I think deep down that he’s a little terrified of the whole process. Perhaps that’s why he tends to speak in staccato sentences. This epic interview took place in a studio complex in central Auckland, and Dobbyn was pushing his then-latest album, The Islander. I don’t know what came of the curious extramural projects he mentions, but of course his producer/collaborator Ian Morris took his own life 12 years later, in 2010.

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