GARY STEEL celebrates New Zealand Music Month by selecting some choice quotes by Chris Knox, many of them previously unpublished.
I think as far as New Zealand’s concerned we’ve got as big as we really can manage. The only way if things could get any bigger is if cash flow got more flowing, so that people could actually be paid. I’ve only just started getting paid properly, I’m getting a hundred and fifty bucks for three full days work a week from Flying Nun now and I’ve been working for them for four years, the first three without any money. Only two people in New Zealand are officially being employed and getting any money, all others just do it as a favour. It’s going to take a while before we can afford to get behind some reflective glass in Queen St.
Everything we do is exactly the same as the day I first got the 4-track and still didn’t know how to use it. And in fact, we recorded the first record in a fashion that is totally wrong, but it worked really well. And we still try to do things wrong, because they tend to be more interesting when you do things wrong. Tall Dwarfs was brought together as a reaction to what happened to Toy Love, which was destroyed by bigness, and I’m still reacting against that, Alec’s still reacting against that. My attitude hasn’t changed one iota, and the way we record things definitely hasn’t, everything done in a panic, with heaps of mistakes, and I don’t see that we’d ever do it any other way.”
Music is about equally gratifying as doing some good graphics. Doing record covers is almost as much fun as doing the actual records. But… this is going to sound really corny, but family and friends are even more important than music. As far as what I’m being seen to be doing, the stuff that comes from deepest is the music, sure. The music is pretty important, as long as it’s done without having to change it because of market needs or whatever. If for some reason that I couldn’t predict or contemplate that went, I’d give up on doing it and just play to family and friends. Bringing up kids brings out the creativity. It’s much the same as putting a good record together; you’ve got to have a lot of creativity and a lot of patience.
About a boy
“When I was a kid of 15, I would put ‘Revolution Number 9’ (The Beatles) or John Cage (experimental composer) on the turntable, and put as many radios as I could find in different stations round the room, turn the TV on, turn all the lights off, and lie on my back in the middle of the room and listen to this smorgasbord of noise. That was a little ritual I did on a Saturday night when my parents were out!”
“I crave novelty. I’ve got a very short attention span. I’ve got no short term memory. I have no aims and no plans. I’m one of these people who just lives for the moment. And that’s the way I like it. I vowed and declared about the time of the formation of the Enemy that I’d never work a 9 to 5 again, never get into that predictable rut, and so far, touch wood, I’ve made it. There are joys to that, and rather large yawning chasms of terror. Generally, I am aimless and drifting.”
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“Investing all of your energy into a piece of music is still an extraordinary thing. I know some people who go into recording studios and do these incredibly angst-ridden singer-songwriter things, and come out sweating and palpitating and shitting their trousers, because of the intensity of it all. I find it hard to take myself that seriously, so it’s better to do the physical thing. It’s a bit like the alien coming out of John Hurt’s stomach!”
“People like words about love, because love is something they aspire to but very seldom have. I try to undercut that by being realistic about the whole process. Love, which is a word I don’t often use, is a very complex thing. There’s an awful lot of loathing, bitterness and compromise, all sorts of stuff mixed in there to result in what we call love, and that’s what I want my songs to talk about, not this ideal thing that most love songs are about, which to me is mostly unrealised lust. But there are times when you have really good sex with someone you’ve known for a long time and do go into that ethereal state, and I write about that too. I’ve got a song that was written after one of those wonderful sensual encounters, but by the time I’d gotten to verse four, I’d come down, and so verse four was about coming down.”
“The difference between what we were doing and what some of the lo-fi kids have been doing is that they were trying to degrade things in order to get a sound that was different. We were never trying to do that. We were trying to record as best we could. I’ve never been lo-fi, I’ve been lo-tech.”
“In the ‘60s you had to battle against technology in order to get what you wanted, whereas now virtually anything you want is at your fingertips, and you can do it with the utmost of ease. If you want the sound of 40 yaks barfing into a concrete pipe, there’s probably a sample on a CD somewhere. In those days, you actually had to go to Tibet.”
“It’s difficult to sell records because there’s so many out there, there’s far too much music, there’s far too much of everything in the world, there’s too much choice, and so much of it is bad. It must be daunting going into Real Groovy and seeing all that stuff… it’s no wonder that most of them buy the new Pearl Jam, or whatever they’ve seen on TV.”
“They take me very seriously, because the records do sound more serious than they are. They pick up on some of the humour, but it goes right past some people, they just want to get to the angst. When I go to a new city in the States where they have been waiting to see me since 1982 or something, they’ll be waiting for every word, and I get up and do something really dumb to start off with, and this idol fractures before their eyes, and some of them don’t recover, they can’t handle the silliness, the amateurishness, the ineptitude. But by the end of the gig 90 percent of them have clicked and realized that it adds an extra dimension: there’s the angst, plus the comedy and the physicality.”
“There was always two sides: this is amazing, I’ve got all this power, and all these people love me, but then why do they love me? I’m just some geek who gets up on stage. So I jump into the audience and make them very aware that I’m just a fat little fuck. I was in a lot of audiences before I ever got up in front of an audience, and was disheartened by the ones where there was no spontaneity, no correspondence with the audience.”
“The whole thing of the tortured, enigmatic artist in every sphere of creativity just gives me the total running shits. People crave having a god-head up there, and if it’s got a guitar and can boogie that’s really cool. I’d give them that but I’d also give them a cinema where the film continually comes off the sprockets, and burns, that great psychedelic thing where the frame burns, where the projectionist is really out of it, and puts the wrong reel on”.
Life in the margins
“I don’t have access to UHF. I don’t know anything about pop stars. I don’t listen to mainstream radio. I’ve got no idea who all those people on the front of this magazine are. I keep hearing names of people who are apparently really-really-really famous and I’ve never heard of them and wonder what they’re like for about 15 seconds, then I get over it. Marginalised is good!”
What is music?
“Melody is an inevitable part of a lot of music, but it isn’t music as a whole. If you listen to so-called primitive music that hasn’t got a fucking dance beat underneath it, then the most extraordinary things are people clicking their tongues or making splashing sounds. You can make music out of anything. Melody is something that humans like to hear, mainly because you can remember it the next time it comes around. Familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt in most human beings, and there is something colourful about melody, and people like colour, and melodies come attached to words and people like words, especially words about love.”
“It’d be great to write another ‘Not Given Lightly’, but it’s not something you can sit down and do. That one came out of nowhere. It’s been a bit of an albatross in some ways.”
“I hate censorship, but I also hate a lot of stuff that’s out there, and I wish there was some way to kill it without censoring it. It’s the problem of being a fucking liberal, you’re stuck with this dichotomy all the bloody time. You want everything to be nice but you also want everything to be free, and most of the free stuff is nasty.”