Graeme Downes

Unsung Legends Of NZ Music

May 3, 2017
5 mins read

ANDREW JOHNSTONE waxes lyrical about Graeme Downes (The Verlaines) and Matthew Bannister (Sneaky Feelings).


It was a vinyl reissue of The Verlaines’ first album that did it. Hallelujah All The Way Home (1985), which beamed at me proudly from a 2016 record store display, was a sparkling melodic reminder of musical memories from the first part of the 1980s that were burned indelibly into my psyche, and just waiting to reappear in the right set of circumstances.

You never quite forget the joy of your formative music discoveries, and mine were mostly in the early 1980s: bands like the Amazing Rhythm Aces, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Split Enz, The Swingers and Sneaky Feelings. And The Verlaines.

For a while I was such a fan of The Verlaines that I even went to see them play live, and I hate live gigs. It was at Mainstreet in Auckland and what I remember most was Graeme Downs breaking a series of guitar strings and slowing up proceedings as he stopped, sometimes mid-song, to thread a new one. I don’t know if he was having a bad day, nervous or playing true to form, but he was testing the limits of the guitar and the audience.

Their records however, were something else. With a cover that re-imagines the band in iconography from the Middle Ages, the album artwork for Hallelujah All The Way Home is beautiful in the way that CDs can never be, and seeing it again brought back memories of its treasured place in my collection. Over the next few weeks bits and pieces of tracks I hadn’t heard or thought of for years started popping into my mind from the mysterious ether, ear-worming me in the most delightful of ways.

This culminated in a decision that – rather than rely on memories of songs – I needed a refresher course on The Verlaines, and happily, a nice cache of material was waiting for me at the Auckland Central Library. Untimely Meditations (2012), recorded almost three decades after his debut, Verlaines muse and leader Graeme Downes has mellowed not at all. Imagine a swathe cut from the last 100 years of musical history referenced and archived in a twisted lucid dream. This is Untimely Meditations: an alchemical soup that defies easy categorisation but feels like it contains the spirit of The Who, Television, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Gil Scott Heron, the Brill Building, Beefheart, The Velvet Underground and Robert Fripp.

Perceived influences aside, Downes is a true original. His melodic structures and arrangements are like nothing else under the Kiwi sun; edgy and angular affairs that serve to challenge, confound and thrill the listener at any given moment. In the decades since that reissued debut, Downes has added horns, organ and strings to the original mix of bass, guitars and drums and the result is intoxicating.

Graeme Downes

Age has not diminished his fire, but has improved it, taming the wildness, focusing it into rare heat. Once this fire melted iron ore, now it’s the kind of fire that makes glass, that delicate reflective substance with the ability to contain the world in its shifting light. The news is that a new album is on its way and due for release sometime in 2017.

The Verlaines ‘It Was Raining’ from Hallelujah All The Way Home (1985)

Sneaky Feelings: Coming True from Sentimental Education (1986)


This brings me around to The Verlaines’ long time associates and former Flying Nun stable mates Sneaky Feelings. Both were among the influential label’s first signings, and spent a lot of time together on the road and in the studio, and though their sound and styles were very different, in their first recordings (The Dunedin Double EP), you can hear the two bands feeding off each other.

While the friendship between the acts remained strong, artistically they were destined for different paths and by the time of their respective debut albums, that difference was well apparent. The Verlaines were an alternative rock band with progressive overtones, The Sneaky’s were a classic pop and soul band which drew from influences as diverse Motown, Gram Parsons, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles.

The band’s 1986 album, the Bacharachian Sentimental Education, was a lush and melodic affair that appealed to my sensibilities so perfectly that I wore out my first copy. Playing it over and over on my cheap stereo, I was trying to graft something of what I was hearing into my own song-writing style and listening back to my own recordings made around that time, I succeeded, but like everything I was drawing from back then, The Sneaky’s faded from view as new interests caught my attention.


The Weather: Aroha Ave from Aroha Ave (2008)


In 2012, Sneaky Feelings came bursting back into my life in the most unexpected of ways. I was working behind the counter at a Hamilton DVD store called Auteur House, an oddball affair that catalogued its movies by director, when a customer bought an empty case up to the counter for retrieval. He was a shambling figure with greying hair and sporting a visibility jacket, one that made me wonder if he had spent the day operating a roadside stop/go sign. (He was in fact a safety conscious cyclist).

Processing his request into the computer, I asked for his name as per standard procedure. “Matthew Bannister,” he replied. “The Matthew Bannister from Sneaky Feelings?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. Then for whatever reason I said, “You got old,” a rather absurd statement bearing in mind that we were the same age. He looked back at me like a possum caught in headlights, so I hastily took his money before attempting some kind of redemptive statement. I wanted to say how much I admired his music, but it came out garbled, and still looking like a possum caught in headlights, he grabbed his movie and fled the shop.

Matthew Bannister

I bumped into him again two years later at the home of a mutual friend. We were drinking beer, smoking pot and listening to music when in ambled Matthew, who was in fine form. He spent the evening bouncing about the room while we swapped tracks and talked philosophy and music history. We parted friends and have been ever since.

Like Downes, Bannister has maintained an impressive output of music over the years, demonstrating continued growth as a musician/songwriter. As a solo artist and a member of various bands, his songs reflect his fear, rage, disappointments and efforts to wrest happiness from life’s shifting tides. The result is music with delicious melodies and playful arrangements that belie their dark acerbic underbelly and impending sense of tragedy.

The good news for fans is that the Sneaky Feelings have reunited, and have been recording new material (due for release in 2017). Nice, except that Bannister barely needs them. With albums like The Weather’s Aroha Ave, anything from the Dribbling Darts and his own solo efforts, the albums Moth and Evolver (a gobsmackingly good reimagining of The Beatles’ Revolver album) and his current squeeze The Changing Same, Bannister’s post Sneaky Feelings career speaks for itself, describing a unique musical voice with a legacy any songwriter would be proud of.

Like Downes, Bannister has proven himself over and over to hardly anyone and the time is long overdue for both musicians to be honoured in some way by the local musical community for their efforts. Both are unique writers who must rank among the nation’s best if not among the best sellers, and if they were operating in a larger market, they would surely be making a living from their craft

This is tiny isolated NZ where their minority appeal means that they are mostly destined to work on the shop floor during the day, dreaming of the music they might make when getting home as time, energy and hard-won finances allow. I don’t know Downes except as a distant semi-mythological figure, but I do know Bannister – a warm, caring and slightly eccentric character for whom I wish nothing but the best.

The Changing Same: Make Up My Mind (2014)

The Verlaines: AWCWD from Dunedin Spleen (2016)

Andrew Johnstone is Witchdoctor's Film & TV Editor. He also writes and produces music (with creative partner, legendary Waikato music producer Zed Brookes), is an avid gardener, former dairy farmer and food industry sales person. When he isn't making up stories he writes about the stories he sees on television and at the cinema. He is also fascinated by politics (the social democratic sort) and describes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his religion.

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