Beat Rhythm Fashion – two ancient interviews

November 8, 2023
20 mins read
Start

To honour recent interest in Wellington’s post-punk era GARY STEEL digs up two interview transcripts with Beat Rhythm Fashion.

BRF’s first single, Beings Rest Finally b/w Bring Real Freedom (1981)

Note: This interview is the first of Steel’s new EVIDENCE-BASED series. The idea is that unless materials are dug up and published about obscure but important music scenes and artists, then in the public’s eye, they cease to exist.

This first interview took place in October 1981. Steel’s questions are mostly omitted, probably because they were utterly inept and stupid. A 21st-century reader might find the interviews indulgent and rambling, but keep in mind that this was an era when music publications published long rambling and indulgent pieces about artists.

Dan Birch – Whatever you make public becomes automatically out of context in isolation.

Nino Birch – We’ve become less worried about it. I’ve decided to let the music speak for itself.

Dan – We were upset about some of the things that came back to us after that interview (Redmer Yska’s story in In Touch magazine) because we were just trying to be funny really, and people got the wrong message, which always happens. The whole point of any article is that… what a musician says is totally irrelevant really, isn’t it? The idea that we might have something to say that’s important or interesting is hilarious really. The automatic response is to take the piss out of it because why the hell would anyone be interested in what I and Nino have to say? Taking the piss out of it is a bit arrogant, but taking it seriously is more pretentious. And that in itself is irrelevant and pretentious but we don’t tie the message to any philosophy; the music has to be important. It just so happens that that’s what we write about and it just so happens that it is important.

 

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Very few are writing things like that. It’s kind of frustrating really, because it’s music and words, and there’s a number of levels there. That’s the only reason I think it’s important. They do work on a number of different levels. And there’s a kind of level that we work around in that is rare, because no one else is really on that level. I suppose it is presumptuous and pretentious to assume that anyone would be interested in finding out what we’re talking about. But it’s only pretentious until… once someone’s reached, it’s not pretentious anymore because we’ve succeeded.

Nino – It’s communication. I think anybody who writes a song and is saying things should be answerable. We basically made a big joke in Redmer’s interview because we felt that the real message wouldn’t have got across. If we had said what we were up to – if we had put ourselves on the line – what he would have written would have still cut through as being untrue, you know?

Dan – You cannot trust anyone secondhand to get it right. The only way to get it right is in what we do first-hand. But then again, as soon as you do anything that’s public and people buy the record you’ve got a responsibility to people who listen to it. It’s really the artist’s duty to get that across.

Dan (left) and Nino (right) Birch of BRF

Nino – Dan and I only really speak the truth and say what we really mean in our music though. Outside of that we just talk a load of bullshit.

Dan – Speak for yourself, Sonny!

Nino – You do it too. You don’t give a fuck what you say.

Dan – I give very clear signals when I’m pissing and when I’m joking and being serious.

Nino – But those signals may not necessarily be seen.

Dan – But that’s not my responsibility.

Nino – Sure.

Dan – It’s my responsibility to give the signals.

Nino – We haven’t really found much reception outside the music in this country.

Dan – I like songs that work on at least two levels, then you’ve got the interplay between that and the music. (Dan talking to Nino) – You’ve got to learn to distinguish between your public image and the presentation of yourself in your social arena.

Nino – I’d prefer not to have one.

Dan – The thing is that the feedback you get is from the people that you know and I think you should ignore it. You should try and separate the two. Separate your friends from how you want to be presented. Just try and not talk about what they think about it because their views are as subjective and twisted as your own.

Nino – Point taken. We’ve talked about this before.

(There’s more discussion on interviews).

Dan – I don’t really mind. The reason why I didn’t ask Gary at the outset what the whole idea was… because I feel that whatever we do we can’t go wrong, because whatever we say has got nothing to do with the music. If we’re getting attacked it’s irrelevant unless it’s to do with the music.

Nino – All this bullshit about our pretentiousness and Cure clones and that we’re just trying to jump someone else’s train…

BRF’s second single, Turn Of The Century b/w Song Of The Hairless Apes (1981

Dan – What we write will stand on its own. The only song we used a Cure sound which was deliberate was on ‘Beings Rest Finally’. We used a Cure guitar. I think it’s legitimate to take an area that a band is into and try and work on that area, because that’s the whole nature of the music scene. Modern music will develop through that sort of interaction. Especially when The Cure has sort of left that area and they’re not exploring that anymore. So many other bands took the Joy Division thing – just sub-Joy Division bands. We just took a Three Imaginary Boys sort of thing and started working on that. I think it’s perfectly legitimate. There is a pool of consciousness in music. Inspiration in music comes from there. We never steal ideas like other bands do. Now that’s unforgiveable. I don’t think you can compose in isolation. That’s why I feel we haven’t developed sufficiently yet to go public, and that’s why I’m reluctant; we’re playing live reluctantly. I feel we haven’t developed sufficiently to show a public face. We’re steamrolled into it because of the enthusiasm of the people around us. Just the things we’re doing now are so advanced compared to what we were doing then that I don’t want to release the third single that we’ve recorded, I want to do something else. I think you can still hear the Cure guitar because Nino restrains a lot. I think he’s a better guitarist than Robert Smith. Robert Smith is a novice and that’s why he plays guitar like that; because all he can do is strum. All we’re doing is playing music we like and if it’s Cure MkII I don’t give a fuck because the melodies are not. They’re their own, and stronger than anybody else’s, much stronger.

Nino – Superstrong!

Dan – I don’t think it’s my problem. (Recites some of their lyrics). They’re not easy concepts. It’s not an easy kind of thing I’m trying to get across. It’s really my vision of what is wrong and how things should be and it’s not easy to see how it doesn’t have to be. If it was easy the world wouldn’t be the way it is. If it was easy politicians would know what to do. I think they do have a responsibility to try (audiences)j. But I do think the songs are accessible on an immediate level. We’re talking about a certain thin in the lyrics and the main concept is there in the first verse and on the accessible level you’re talking about something in the first verse. In the second verse, the concept’s there but on an accessible level it’s not there. I might be talking about something else. The song isn’t as well structured – the song has a structural problem. For a good song the way I see it – a well-structured song will have all levels running through it the whole way. Each verse. Each line. That’s the art of wordcraft, isn’t it? That’s what I find great. Each word is right, every single word. That’s why I don’t think this difficulty is a problem. I’m not saying all the songs merit close scrutiny, but some of them do.

Gary – Is it pop music?

Nino – Don’t care really.

Dan – It goes into the pop music machinery. I really hate that. I feel that, when I feel self-important, that my songs are going to change what singles do, they’re going to raise it to a more respectable artform, you know? Songs are all that count for me.

Nino – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ could be played 15 times a day for the wrong reasons and only listened to once in those 15 times for the right reasons. But that’s okay, it’ll spread it around and raise the standard. The public don’t really know what they like. It’s drummed into them by American-based DJs and stations. I don’t like the idea of hearing my music on the radio much. It’s the company it keeps. And that’s what killed Bowie. It’s killed people who are only popular artists because their music’s fuckin’ good.

Gary – Who writes the music?

Nino – It varies. Quite often I’ll write the music. What happens is I’ll come up with these chords, and what Dan and I do is we write words either by themselves or especially to suit the song. There’s no set way. We go through stages of feeling a certain way and that period will give rise to a certain amount of songs. The music will just fit with the words that we’ve written from this headspace we’re in. Dan writes most of the words.

Dan – You write just as many words. It’s just that we don’t end up using that many of them. You end up not liking them. He doesn’t realise that I feel the same way about some of mine.

Gary – Tell me about the Terrace scene.

Dan – We wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for the Terrace last year. It took us a whole year before we could afford any equipment. It was that Terrace thing that got it going because there was so much gear around, different people. It was just so much fun, and that’s basically what’s come out of it. [But] I’ve been playing guitar since I was about 12.

Nino – I’ve been playing acoustic guitar for a number of years but I’ve only been playing electric since The Terrace. Eleven months. I’m only learning. I’ve always just strummed, and you can’t do that on electric guitar.

Dan – The whole scene dissipated. That was the nature of the times.

Nino – We’re not ultimately negative, we’re not ultimately positive.

Dan – Truth is pretty negative. What is uplifting about it is getting it down. The substance of what you put down, if it is true, is going to be pretty negative. As soon as you say something positive, as soon as you say something good, problems start popping out at you. I don’t really see it as being negative or positive. The positive stuff to me is really just the frivolous stuff.

Nino – We’re not. They are.

Dan – I don’t think I am. If we’re going to be honest we’ve just got to do what we feel.

The back cover of the Turn Of The Century single

Nino – People can say what they like about the fact that it’s more important to get up there and have a good time, but they still wake up the next fucking day, they’ve got to go to work, the girlfriend’s pregnant – real life is real life, and until you accept the fact that, sure, cops are bastards, politics is fucked, there’s trouble in the middle east, war is looming… if you can accept that, and try and understand it, then you can go out and try and do things. But if you just try and chuck it all outside and make your world as nice as possible, you become a dead person. You just exist for yourself.

Dan – That’s why it’s not negative. It’s positive. It’s an uplifting thing when the truth gets out. ‘Not Necessarily Unnecessary’ is a send-up. Like something The Beat would do. That’s totally different. ‘Turn Of The Century’ isn’t all that morbid. It’s contradictory. It’s morbid musically. That song’s a vision of the future, but it doesn’t make any statement one way or the other.

Gary – Who plays synth?

Dan – It’s a string synthesizer.

Nino – I didn’t use a flanger in that song. It was just a stereo chorus. What a musician uses for effects is not a critic’s concern.

[Somehow, they get talking about Smelly Feet]. “We hate his guts. What he’s doing is very damaging, very dishonest. He’s a jerk. Because he’s been the anti-hero until now. Now all he’s doing is going on about smelly feet and his own fucking odour.”

[They ask me to turn the tape off. When it’s switched back on, Bunk label owner Mike Alexander is in the room].

Mike Alexander – ‘Beings Rest Finally’ sold about 400 copies. There was an initial pressing of 500.

Dan – It sold more everywhere than Wellington, I think. It got airplay in Auckland.

Nino – It got to Number 49.

Dan – We’ve had very little exposure.

Mike – It’s too long.

Dan – I think it’s a neat song, I like it! We thought ‘Turn Of The Century’ would do a lot better because it’s such an irresistible tune.

Nino – So pretty.

Dan – No, it’s not pretty. It’s really lovely eh? My grandmother likes it. My grandmother’s friends like it. My Dad likes it. Everybody likes it, you know? Those old people love that chorus, you know? I can see the turn of the century. It strikes a chord, you know? I was in this shop where it was playing and that old guy who was in there turned to me and said: “That’s a very nice sent-i-ment’! That would be great. To break across the lines of demarcation between the different sects. There’s so much aggro and fights between tribes.

I think what started it was The Beatles myth. The myth of becoming a pop star. People could become musicians – not driven, like we are – but doing it because it was their childhood dream. That makes them tailor their message. That thing that The Beatles did was so healthy at the time of beautifying everyone and everyone loved The Beatles – and this huge phenomena that put cheer into people’s lives, at the time of the Cold War. It’s resulted in all these bands wanting to be the only ones. We’re doing it because we’re driven. It’s all we ever think about, talk about, interested in.

I’d like straights and suburbanites to like us because as far as the straights are concerned I just feel that their lives are just so homogenous. I’d like to get into those lives. As far as the old people go, they’re thinking about who they are. The universe reverts back to self-analysis. They’ll be shuffling off the mortal chord quite soon, and they start thinking quite cosmically. They get a cosmic view.

Gary – Tell us about the “John Lennon is dead” lyric.

Dan – It’s just an example of how fucked the music scene is. It’s a little statement – quite a cheap shot really, quite trivial but the verses aren’t, like your enemies only become your friends after you’re dead.

Nino – We like John Lennon.

Dan – John Lennon’s message was never really got across. It was brought on by his death.

Nino – It’s not disrespectful, but I hope it’s not misinterpreted. The fact that they’re playing him just because he’s dead.

Dan – This is talking about the real greats, which John Lennon is. John Lennon, John Lydon, David Bowie. My main men of the last two decades.

Nino – It’s one of the most arrogant songs we’ve written. It’s blatantly arrogant and it’s blatantly cutting because it was written with that genuine anger.

Mike – The frustrating thing is that there are probably examples alive today who are equially as pertinent – what would happen if David Bowie dropped dead tomorrow?

Nino – Lennon cut across the whole fucking board. My father and plenty of other parents and kids listened to him and loved him. They were nice boys, they were revolutionaries.

The cover of BRF’s third and final single Art & Duty b/w No Great Oaks (In China (1982)

This second interview took place on 4 June 1982 and I’m guessing that it was to coincide with a proper BRF tour. The interview is joined by third Birch brother Matt, who I believe was their manager at the time, and drummer Caroline Easther.

Dan – To Massey on the 20th. Playing the Albert in Palmerston North too, plus playing Clyde Quay.

Gary – Is there a South Island tour?

Nino – We’ll play Timaru, Tokoroa…

Matt – That’s up North.

Nino – Is it? Beats me.

Dan – Three days in Christchurch, four days in Invercargill, four days in Dunedin and three back in Christchurch. Stewart island? What about Stewart Island? And then we’ll probably take in Ashburton, Timaru and Oamaru on the way. I’d like to do a concert for the troops in the Falklands Islands.

Nino – Shsh.

Matt – We’re basically playing the main centres, but we’re paying for the PA, and it’ll make it a bit easier to cushion the blow financially.

Dan – There’ll only be three little places.

Nino – We’re likely to get apathetic audiences anyway!

Matt – He said the biggest money’s in Invercargill.

Nino – We played at the Gladstone.

Dan – January the 21st. It’s a matter of doing that or getting a job.

Nino – On a lot of goodwill, mostly from him (Matt) and Caroline. Caroline works, Caroline’s a driving instructor, just like Matt.

Dan – We’re actually unemployable. We should become a band on a ship. Play on a ship. We could do that. We could do ‘Misty’, and Beatles songs.

Gary – How soon do you want to go to England?

Nino – Tomorrow.

Dan – We plan for about a year.

Matt – We’re going to try to get over there by summer next year.

Nino – The most important question is getting someone who’s going to give us work before we get over there.

Dan – It’s not just to go there and crack the music scene. I just want to live in England, you know? Change of scene. Go back to the roots.

Nino – That’s the main reason.

Matt – It’s as good to starve there as it is here.

Nino – It’s like a mining station on some far-flung planet here.

Dan – I would have a lot more enthusiasm and be a lot less unemployable there. Like, I’m not that excited about the music scene in England at the moment. I think it’s fucked. They’re all FUCKED. They really are backward. It’s like the early ‘ 70s all over again.

Nino – America’s like walking into a supermarket. I wanna go home.

Dan – I actually see our audience being more in Europe than in England.

Nino – I want to absorb a bit of English turf. I want to absorb a bit of English music whether it’s crap or not. We do heaps of different styles of music, but each song follows naturally. And we don’t try and put all sorts of different influences into each song. You write something and it’s a little crystal unit, you know? And it’s complete. Then, you can try another area.

Dan – People who contrive to be fashionable are never really major movers at all. You only get a couple every decade.

Nino – I would call The Passage a major mover. It moved me fucking miles.

Dan – If The Passage had come first they would have been more a major mover than Joy Division.

Nino – Rubbish.

Dan – You can tell in retrospect but I can tell intuitively and I KNOW. Joy Division will stand a lot longer than those other two.

Nino – Just tell ‘em we’re the greatest.

Dan – Caroline’s got a halo. It was designed as a tongue-in-cheek statement.

Nino – Sort of a disclaimer, it says what music is, right?

Dan – It’s a bitter attack on the state of the music scene.

Nino – It’s also what we are, because we play music on a stage and everybody comes along because we’re so bloody fashionable. Or unfashionable, because we’re unfashionable. Whatever.

Dan – If you go into the pop world, if you get together your music that you’ve written yourself and playing yourself, you’re automatically in that business, the pop business.

Nino – They’re selling out right from the word go (by thinking up a name that will appeal) when they should just worry about the music.

Nino – Everybody went “Ooooh!” when we told them what it was. “Ooooh!”

Dan – I think it’s good. It’s designed to be a mouthful. I like it to sound like an organization, an idealistic organization.

Nino – I was reading New Scientist the other day and there’s an ad there for research ecologist for the British Research Foundation and the ad had a big BRF and I freaked out!

Dan – It’s got everything in it (the logo).

Nino – It’s got the SS sign, the anarchy sign.

Dan – The circle of infinity, the ying and the yang, the fish of Christianity.

Nino – John, our brother, did the logo.

The highly sought-after 1981 compilation of Wellington “Terrace” bands, ****, featuring BRF and others

Dan – They’ve got an option on what we do next. It’s a really old song anyway. That song was written before the Four Stars album. And the words were written when I was 19. It sold 125 copies on the first day and a half, and then it sold 49 the second week and 50 the next week. Just Wellington.

Nino – We haven’t tried to flood the market.

Dan – It was really just tidying up a loose end. Yeah, they’ll do the next one. We have quite a good ongoing relationship of an informal nature with them. What we’ll probabaly end up doing is we’ll do the recording ourselves, and they’ll just do the distribution.

Matt – CBS came to see us at the Rhumba Bar in Auckland and they were really blown away by it all and they were raging right out the door.

Nino – I’ve never heard that expression. Raging right out the door. They wouldn’t leave if they were raging.

Matt – CBS can’t do anything. They poured all their money into Citizen Band.

Nino – They’ve offered us our own label.

Dan – If they get the master they’ll put it out. Fatal Records. Probably do that after we come back from the tour, mid-August recording. September I suppose. We’ve got so many new songs. We could do a live recording and put a few of the good ones on cassette and sell the cassette. I’d like to do that. I like working in studios. I’d like to do a 12” with 45 on one side and 33 on the other side. I’d like to record it at a place with digital mix-down. Marmalade I wouldn’t be satisfied now as my home studio.

Nino – The vocal capabilities at Marmalade are inferior.

Dan – The mix-down capabilities are inferior too.

Gary – How are you enjoying BRF, Caroline?

Caroline – I really like it. It’s more demanding mentally, and less demanding physically. In The Spines, Jon was writing a new song every day, and we were always working on new material, and always going over old stuff, and the stuff was such that… there were a lot of bits in it that needed rehearsing. Whereas BRF stuff, as far as I’m concerned, the drumming is quite regular all the way through. I have to find something tasteful that fits in. Completely different.

Gary – Do you have to restrain yourself?

Caroline – Yeah!

Nino – The band’s complete now, because Caroline can play keyboards and saxophone and guitar. But we’re getting a rhythm machine as well, hopefully, so Caroline can play synth.

Dan – We’re also getting a home computer. You have to get a textural compromise when you’re playing live, which is annoying. Each tune is vastly different than what came before it. Some of them are part of the stream of development, other ones are flashes of vastly different out of the blue. All the ones written this year are Nino’s. Some of them have my words in. ‘Land Of The Long Drawn Yawn’ – no prizes for guessing which country it’s about. It’s an upbeat song with reggae vocals. Fast music is a bit of an anachronism really. No, I just haven’t come up with anything for seven months. I don’t want to force it. I can write lyrics while I’m sitting on the bog. Part of the reason I haven’t written any songs is just that I’m getting into the world of being a bassist. Before I wasn’t a very good bassist at all – just playing it because we couldn’t find one. And now I don’t really like playing guitar of piano that much. I like playing bass but you just can’t write songs on bass. You can, but you can’t write all the songs on bass. So it’s not what I’m into at the moment, but I’m not going to sit down and start fretting about it. I used to say that I can’t write lyrics. But you have to have the courage of your convictions. That was only because I didn’t have the courage to write something down. The answer to that is get drunk.

Nino – Take Valium.

Dan – You can write untold lyrics if you get pissed. I don’t see it does have a function. If it does it’s only to a small minority. Its function is to provide a gleam of quality amongst all the crap. If everyone hated it we’d still arrogantly impose it on them.

Nino – By exposure you get a chance to learn to do it better. It’s a dilemma every artist faces. There’s no point in trying to be too pure about it. We’re not compromising because the music will always stay the same, how we’ve written it.

Dan – We were never against touring anyway. It’s just that we didn’t have a viable working band.

Nino – Don’t come if you want to bang your head against a wall.

Dan – We should try and emphasise the listening aspect.

Nino – If there’s a band of any worth they should be able to set an atmosphere. We never get a majority of people complaining they can’t dance to it. We only get the odd moron.

Dan – It’s a real obstacle because the function of a band in today’s society is being a medium for dancing and getting off with a chick and getting drunk and jumping around. It’s expected today from any band. The band isn’t the music. We don’t have much of a market.I’m a bit pissed off with NZ anyway. I’d quite like to get a job, save up and piss off.

Nino – Dan’s having another one of his massive reversals.

 

+ Beat Rhythm Fashion are still a thing, minus Dan who died a few years back. Nino helms the group these days and a new album, Critical Mass, is due soon. There’s further reading material about Wellington’s post-punk “Terrace scene” bands on Witchdoctor and Audioculture. Also, check out the podcast of Gary Steel’s recent interview about those bands on Radioactive. https://www.radioactive.fm/category/showsegments/breakfastsegments/thevault/

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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