Perfect Pitch

May 30, 2024
17 mins read

Twenty-five years ago GARY STEEL met up with wayward Kiwi electronic duo Pitch Black for a nice chat. A NZ Music Month special.


Gary Steel – Sorry I’m really unorganised.

Mike Hodgson – That’s the way we write our music, play live, we turn up, turn on the gear, if it goes ambient, that’s where it goes.

Gary – Is there some game plan to achieve more than underground success.

Mike – I think the underground is quite large now, and the top echelon of the underground is inside the popular world. If DJs can sell 5000 copies of a vinyl release and they’re still alternative, then that’s back to the days in the mid-‘80s. The fact that next year’s the millennium year I think it’s going to be a really weird year and a whole lot of things won’t fire. It will be a staggered year from our perspective. I’m looking at moving overseas after the year 2000. We’ve given ourselves a year to just build, learn, get ready, and then if it’s right, go, see what happens.

Paddy Free – I’ve been building my musical career here for years, so I’ll take a big step, take a revolutionary jump.

Mike – We’ve both got really solid careers. The music thing is a little bit aside from the pressures of survival. I’ve done a soundtrack for Lemmy hard on the back of finishing an album which had certain expectations which we haven’t placed on it. We’ve had to come to terms with… the way people are responding to our live sets and that’s a weird position, so we’re trying to make the marketing as low-key as possible, to let any hype be generated out of people who like it, rather than the marketing machine.

Gary – The album has come somewhat unexpectedly; you were originally planning a much longer gestation.

Mike – The minute we started talking about doing a release certain avenues opened and all of a sudden it became reasonably easy to achieve 60 minutes of work, and I don’t think album or EP are even relevant, because it’s an amount of time we feel comfortable with. It’s where we’re at.

Gary – It’s pretty representative?

Mike – It’s exactly where we’re at. When we play live we start and don’t know where we’re going to go. We know the songs we’re going to play and what order but we don’t know how long they’re going to be,how the audience is going to respond, if we’re going to come up with a new riff that we’ve never played and go, ‘Do we like this?’, ‘Are we over this track?’, ‘Are they over this track?’ It’s so much about being in the ‘now’ that… the whole idea that an album is really well-considered… there are a lot of things going on in the ‘90s that have changed what an album is.

Gary – What you’re saying is you’ve made a work-in-progress rather than a fully-fledged album.

Mike – If toiling over tracks endlessly to get them correct is… There was a moment of time when the electrons stopped being moved around and that was the point where we said ‘we can put this out’. We’ve been playing the same songs for nearly two years, they’re changing always.

Paddy – This is a snapshot of where they’ve ended up after their gestation.

Mike – We’ve had a massive creative development doing it. We learnt a lot creatively. We didn’t have a producer, an engineer. Everything

that’s on that is the product of our 10 or 12 years of knowledge up to this moment, and that’s really exciting.

Gary – What struck me was that it almost had a live feel.

Paddy – This is a sort of hybrid half way between. The songs had been written originally for live, and so we had semi-representative structures of how they could go on a particular night. So that’s maybe where the live element shows through. Not everything is immaculately considered and placed like a fully studio project.

Mike – And this is a dub album, because there’s not a second where there isn’t a delay or a studio dub technique utilised. Dub is inherently live by its very nature. A lot of electronic acts do not play live, and when they do it’s off CDs. I’m one of the generation… live has always fed the studio, and a lot of electronic has come out of the studio, and come into the live… We’ve got one foot in trance, one foot in drum’n’bass, one foot in ambient, one foot in cinema, one foot in live, one foot in studio. The songs, they build, and they go to different places, they don’t necessarily resolve. The scary thing for me is the expectation, and we’re starting to get it from people ringing up doing interviews. This whole concept of a hierarchy. That’s why we play early, we’re an early group, we don’t play at 3 in the morning. We’re quite happy, even on the night that we’re headlining… by 1 we’re off, finished. With a dance beat at 3 o’clock in the morning, the only option for the artist is to do stuff that’s very nebulous. Whereas Paddy can stop on the sequencer three beats ahead and play chords and… Our definition of live would be that we’re fully and utterly in control of the machines, we have got structures, but every individual piece that builds the block can be muted, altered, we can turn a stonking full-on dance track into an ambient track at the flick of one button. And that’s why I’m much more interested in producing an emotional effect in a group of people than satisfying them with some sort of dance aesthetic. I come from the art world into popular culture and it’s a weird shift for me. Paddy has come the other way, and he’s flying into this land. This whole idea of the band at the end of the night being the top one… a lot of people don’t stay to the end of gigs like they used to.

Gary – Do you think that stylistic variety is where it’s at?

Mike – It’s where it’s at for us.

Paddy – We’ll just try anything. We certainly don’t go out and say ‘let’s write a house track’, we’ll just pick an element and if that seems tasty and if it is flavoured by the genre… We have moments when we’re playing and Mike will go ‘more house! more house!’ and I’ll go ‘What?’ It’s that moment where a DJ mixer goes deeper into something. The last track was done at the end of our experience in the studio, and we could only cope with that kind of sound. We were so intensely stuffed from our experience that we wrote… it’s literally a sunrise track, end of the party, go off to the cafes and chill out in the sun. We made the album at a volume that was somewhere between loud and fucking loud!

Mike – We had Incubator for seven days. We did a lot of the arranging quietly, and when we needed to do performance stuff we would turn the big speakers up full-bore and get into a real live vibe, do the action sequences, then turn the volume down and fiddle with what we had created in the pumping state, and then work it back and make it more considered. But a lot of what we did in the first take we used.

Paddy – You can either spend six hours on a really technical process to get a result or impact or you can go the psychological route and work yourself up and spit it out. One’s a lot more fun. There is a place for the considered sculptural approach, but also one for the spontaneous approach.

Mike – We probably got more housey than we expected to, and it was just something that happened. We need to be more danceable live. With Lemmy I can get every ounce of my dark art out and come up with sounds that are just amazing. So I don’t have to be a 100 percent artist in a nightclub because you can’t. You just alienate people immediately and get side-lined. I’d rather accept that dance culture requires certain things in a certain order, and try and put a little bit of creativity into that, but make sure that the stream of creative artwork is still active in another project, so they each feed each other. I learnt a big lesson a few months ago at a fucking awful gig. I was frustrated and lost it, and got more and more aggressive, and it got weirder and weirder and more and more people freaked out. And we got put on at 3 in the morning instead of 1, and the artist before us played one stonking house track too many in a row, and we came on in the wrong vibe in the wrong place and time, and it completely failed us. I’d rather it was a seduction and a positive experience, rather than a freaked out thing.

Gary – I worry about that approach, meeting the audience, that Kiwi conservatism, not going out on the edge and not giving a fuck, an integrity to what they do.

Paddy – It’s part of our national psyche, we’re like an adolescent, we’re a little unsure and want approval. No other country has the term ‘OE’. We’re just a bit of a gawky teenager.

Mike – It is hard to continue, as you grow older and older, to maintain a level of purity that you had when you were young, and I’ve definitely developed two or three streams of my work, and I’m really happy for Pitch Black to be almost the most easiest one to absorb the most people. Even though we’re going slightly towards ‘normal’, I don’t think, given our natures, that we’re ever going to go to bland or repetitive. I find it very intriguing, because I’ve been doing stuff since 1986, never really bothered about the media, just been part of a scene I know I can generate an audience for. And it’s very odd now to be on a label, because my last experience with a label was frightening and completely unsatisfying. It was Deep Grooves. The artists were all good and everyone was trying really hard, but the process surrounding it from the management was just a complete waste of time, and that’s why I left, got out of the music industry, I couldn’t handle it. and now the music scene’s changed and the Kog guys are great, fantastic attitude, and Universal seem to be nice people, and genuinely interested in the market. They haven’t even heard this album yet… it’s finished, they’re going to be distributing it. And it’s like everyone’s just taken a gamble on us out of faith. Pitch Black doesn’t need to earn an income. It has to cover its costs, and covering your costs is easier than making money, because you can reinvest anything that’s coming back into it, and it’s running as an independent accountable system outside mine and Paddy’s lives. If things go really well then we can put some money back into us. But until that day it’s a cost-coverable experience which means it’s not driven by the need to satisfy somebody else’s marketing plan, because we paid for it up front. So it has no debt for the people we’re delivering it to. And if they get into debt by taking it on, that’s their debt, not our debt, and it’s their choice to spend whatever…

Gary – I’ve heard the criticism before that NZ bands tend to be hobbyists that have jobs.

Mike – We’re aiming for a 50 percent thing. Maybe it would be boring to be full-time Pitch Black.

Paddy – There’s probably a dozen people making full-time music in NZ. The good thing is that because people have no expectations in NZ they tend to be a lot more leftfield, and you get amazing bass players from Dargaville or whatever, as opposed to Australia where there’s all this infrastructure, and they think ‘this is where we can fit in’.

Mike – The other thing about NZ is that we have managed to get the absolute cream of the international music scene through here in the last couple of years, and the audiences are going out and seeing the best. An international act will do an okay set, and they’ll just get trashed. The level NZ electronic acts have to reach before they’ll even minutely accept us… look at AK97, it was outdated within six months, over before it even came out. After everyone’s got their first one out and done all their doodling, it’ll open up and become a lot stronger. And the minute someone manages to get NZ electronic music to America, that’s when the doors will open. It’s a culture that uses the ‘now’ and throws it away. We can always move, you know. Our style this year might not be our style next year. Our sound might be the same.

Gary – What would you call your roots, musically?

Mike – Noise, art, sound sculpture. Not music.

Paddy – For me dance music, music that switches off the conscious mind. Anything that’s groove or rhythm-oriented.

Mike – I grew up on Sounds From Way Out and Tomita and Switched On Moog records, Sergeant Pepper’s and Abbey Road were the only two Beatles my parents had. Classical music and choirs and listening to Sydney stations on an old valve shortwave radio. I didn’t listen to NewZealand stations, I listened to this strange fuzzy noise coming out of the shortwave. The whole On-U sound thing, which seems to be over, they were legendary in their time, the whole rise of industrial. You see, I came into funk via 23 Skidoo. My whole switch into music came from noise, sound. I met Paddy, and it was a collision… we couldn’t be further opposite.

Paddy – Our music ends up at the intersection of the two points. Sometimes we realise that the intersection is going absolutely head- to-head when we’re at a difficult bit.

Gary – You’re much more pop?

Paddy – I’ve made a living for the last eight years as a full-time musician and that’s been starting off playing in pub bands and doing music for TV. I’d rather do that than lay bricks. I love… I have this phrase ‘being fucked with by experts’, being taken, ‘there you are, you will feel this, and it’s really nice to be manipulated completely by someone that knows really well what they’re doing. It’s a form of escapism.

Mike – The same thing in the art world when you see a fantastic artist like Heiji Keino… Keiji Heino!… that was amazing, and Tony Conrad, exactly the same aesthetic. Those people are the purist forms of their art, and when they do their thing they might have a bad show but for the unwitting punter it’s just an experience. I had a tiny migraine going on in my head during Tony Conrad. Every time he hit a certain note part of my forehead vibrated. No-one’s ever done that to me before, and it was phenomenal, and it was a conscious-removing experience. And we’ve essentially got the same desire, the same attitude. But markedly different ways of doing it. It’s fantastic in the studio because we’re remarkably tolerant of each other where if someone feels strongly against an idea, the idea gets dropped even though it’s good as an individual idea. Unless it’s accepted to a degree by both parties it doesn’t go through. It’s a strange filter because you’re constantly throwing away stuff that you like, but when you find something that works you’ve got something you would never have got, because of the duality of the creative process. And I wouldn’t say that any of the songs has got a particularly strong focus of either of us. The whole record is a conglomeration of our skills.

Gary – Do you feel like the old guys… ?

Mike – I feel like the old guy, but then you look at Joost and Jim and… there are lots of 30-year-olds who are still doing it. Yes, I’m older, but I don’t think it has an effect, it just means we’ve had more time to have failed. Look at the Straw People, the Chickens, they shifted New Zealand electronic music. Jed Towne. When I left school I saw Fetus Productions, Children’s Hour, The Gordons, they were essentially electronic-ish. Some of them carried on in rock, and others went off into dance. They were the 21-22 year olds when I was 19. There seems to be a lot bigger acceptance of the age range. Some of the music that the younger people are putting out is inspiring. I would hate to think I was old. I still want to be fresh. It’s amazing to think that I’m actually a musician, rather than a sonic artist, that if I think before I play I can find the first beat of a bar. And then all of a sudden I’m improving and growing.

Gary – This new NZ electronic thing, Kog, etc… I presume most of those guys are quite young, inexperienced, and wouldn’t have anything like the depth of knowledge you guys have.

Mike – I had an interesting experience once with the AK97 guys where they were telling me about this act they’d just discovered, and it happened to be a hybrid of the back end of Throbbing Gristle. And they had no idea of the history. And we were sitting at home, so I went and dug down into the bottom of the closet and pulled out all my vinyl, and gave them a history lesson. New Coil stuff you would just have no idea; that Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle) built a sampler before they had even been made, and that they were capturing little tiny pieces of audio in their shows. The looking up to thing… de-hierarchy the hierarchy thing. It’s an irrelevant waste of time, and doesn’t get you anywhere quicker. That underground grass roots thing I still utterly believe in, and I hope that whatever direction we go in we’ll never lose where we came from. I’d hate to be eating these words in 10 years. I’ve had my kid, I feel very grounded, and I’m utterly happy and content in New Zealand. I might live in Auckland but I’m not an Aucklander. It’s just a convenient market for me to survive in. I want to travel as much as I can. If somebody wants to throw a lot of money at me, I’ll write a contract that says we’re not accountable, and if they still want to throw the money… we’ll do it! but Paddy’s life is music, whereas I’ve got other major career paths. It might reach a point where we stop, but I can’t imagine making music with anyone else anymore, because I’ve made a lot of music, and always been collaborative, never worked with people more than once or twice. Angus was my other constant. I’d hate to make music by myself again.

Gary – How important are the visuals?

Mike – Not as important, because when the visuals crash, we just get on with playing music. I can never separate sound and images: I’ve got ears I’ve got eyes. I can smell and touch and taste, but visuals for me grew out of not wanting to play on stage. I’ve always played from the back of the room, or onstage huddled over equipment with visuals going, and things for the audience to do, like canvas on the floor and paint. So the focus was not on ‘oh look, there are people on stage’, but ‘we’re in an environment with things to do and some sound as well’. And it’s grown out of that, the whole interactive… the software that drive stuff, the visuals. We haven’t yet had the time to make a video show, it’s been a second cousin to everything, because we just haven’t got enough time. and maybe the idea that this album might sell enough for us to buy a month of our lives… and spend time and develop a whole video show. But up to now we’ve led the way visually in electronic music. That’s going to be threatened soon as the software becomes available to others so it’s time for us to move sidewards and find a different way to do it. There was a moment in the Ninja Tunes tour in Wellington where three girls up the front were watching us playing and getting off on watching us, and you could see that they were realising that electronic music was made, not played back. And all of a sudden one of them realised that the visuals were all in sync, they all turned around, because the screens weren’t behind us, and spent the rest of the gig with their backs to us watching the screen! Fantastic, because they’d finally separated themselves from watching the human make… they got that interface. It was brilliant. That was worth more than having a full house and playing popular music, as an artist.

Paddy – I love to be blown away at a live gig.

Mike – Once you get away from memorising how to play, that note goes there, and you’re as gone as the audience, then you’re going to transcend that moment. I played at the gathering. I’d been up for two-and-a-half days. I was completely stuffed. And it was a miracle that we got on in 20 minutes, because we normally take two or three hours to pack in. And we started playing and I had some sound problems. I had to keep going off stage to turn the sound up because this guy at the back of the room kept pulling it down, because he didn’t understand that I can do things to PA’s that people would freak but it doesn’t blow them up, it just uses them in ways that they’re not used to experiencing, the meters going up and down in very weird ways. And at the end of the gig, I felt like I’d had a night’s sleep, it was a blinder, and I carried on for the rest of The Gathering without having to go to bed. In one hour, because the creativity was so special and amazing, there was this packed audience, they were screaming, jumping up and down and carrying on, the visuals were going off… but I wasn’t even in the gig, I was somewhere else having a sleep, and I woke up at the end of the gig completely refreshed, like I’d been to bed. It was amazing, special, exciting.

Paddy – You’ve got to practice until the difficult becomes easy and then practice again until the easy becomes beautiful. It’s just getting the mundane stuff down.

Mike – You get so teched that you’re not teching when you’re live. There’s no question that when you need it, it’s there. You’re not wondering why that sound you just hit didn’t appear in the mix, and then realise that you’ve left half of your samples at home in a box. (drum’n’bass) Has it gone so far that, like trance, it’s rung itself out? Gone so far down one alley that it’s reached the vaulted door that’s unopenable? It’s a very weird thing for a music style to run out. normally things hybridise, and the thing that created the hybrid peels off and ceases to exist.

Paddy – Become parodies of themselves before they self-destruct. But now it’s cool because it’s ironic or retro or…

Mike – We’re at the point now where the computers are big enough, the software is now creative enough, the musicians who perhaps got pushed out a bit are coming back in. The boffins are becoming more musical, and we’re just on the verge of music coming back to a bigger degree, where the rigidness of the form is going to start to break down.

Paddy – Rigid was a style because that was all you could do.

Mike – Like rap came out of the samplers only having 10 seconds, and the technology actually created a lot of music. Angus has Pro-tools and it’s his instrument. He’s got 20 hours of room on that thing. There’s no such thing having to have a sampler anymore.

Paddy – The technology is now exceeding people’s imaginations. So it gets back to the imagination, and the internal process of ‘okay, given that I can do anything, what shall I do’. Not ‘what are my six choices?’

Mike – The Salmonella dub track… that track is so ours, yet so theirs. And they now do what we did to their track, they now do live, because they like what we did. So we’ve got this track on the album and we’re like, ‘How do we credit them?’ [The track’s written by Salmonella Dub, remixed by Pitch Black]. We’ve claimed that track, because we’ve done such a job on it. We’re thinking we’ll record the whole tour.

+ The above interview took place on the 13th of August 1998 in Auckland. Presumably the album talked about is their debut, Futureproof.


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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