Karl Steven once fronted Kiwi music colossus Supergroove. Now he fronts The Drab Doo-Riffs, a band whose gigs are reputedly just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. Gary Steel asks the questions.
Witchdoctor – You majored in philosophy, but have gone back to music?
Karl – Certainly the perception is that rock’n’roll music and books about ancient thinkers are polls apart. Actually it’s not all that different, but culturally there’s a great abyss between them.
WD – You earn your living doing production work?
Karl – Yeah, producing and composing. Composing music to picture usually, for TV and films, and recording other bands and helping them out and mixing and stuff like that.
WD – Do you literally write music?
Karl – Yeah, I can do when necessary, but so much is done on computer these days that often you don’t have to. But if I’m doing something for a string quartet or something I write out the parts.
WD – You have musical training in the past?
Karl – Only at secondary school level, although I have recently been studying orchestration and getting a little bit more seriously into it. I’d like to be able to go nuts with an orchestra one day.
WD –The Drab Doo-Riffs vs. the NZSO…
Karl – Absolutely. Theremin concerto. That’s what I’d like to do.
WD – Do you have a theremin?
Karl – No, I don’t. And I feel like they’d probably be too difficult for me to play properly. The amount of discipline it takes to determine the pitch with one hand and volume with the other… you’d have to be a Clara Rockmore. And we have a kind of proto-theremin in the Drab Doo-Riffs as well, this little red box, and it makes a theremin-esque sort of sound. It’s a sampler with a couple of valves in it, and we take a sound and loop it, and change the pitch of it. It adds a bit of something science-fictiony, which we like.
WD – How long has the Drab Doo-Riffs been going?
Karl – I guess about a year and a half.
WD – The lineup in the band is still the same?
Karl – It hasn’t changed at all so far, which is great, because it’s a really awesome bunch of people to play music with.
WD – You’re the leader? They’re your musical ideas that inform what happens? Or is it more like a collaboration?
Karl – It’s definitely collaborative. I wrote a lot of the songs before I came back to New Zealand, while I was living overseas, so initially it was like ‘Hey do you want to play music with me? Here’s my songs, do you like them?’ And I am the guy historically taking the songs to practice and saying ‘what do you think of this?’ and so on. But I think it’s easy to miss the levels of collaboration with bands. We’re all able to have as much or as little input as we want. So it’s a mysterious thing really. If it was a different group of people that I was taking my songs to, the music would be completely different.
WD – That’s the thing with groups. Even the Beatles, you couldn’t imagine them without Ringo.
Karl – Exactly. Imagine if John Bonham was in the Beatles and Ringo was in Led Zeppelin, they’d be very different bands. And yeah, it’s been great working with Mikey and Marky and Phoebe and Lucy because they’re just… I can’t imagine this band without any of those people. And I hope I don’t have to.
WD – Was there a fundamental idea behind the band?
Karl – Um, make cool music. For me, everyone’s in bands for their own reasons, I guess. For me, this is my second time around in bands, and I felt like firstly I wanted to just do the music that I wanted to do irrespective of how I thought people would react. I actually thought after I’d written a bunch of these songs, about half the people in the room are going to hate this. It’s almost as if we’ve got to say at the beginning of shows, ‘half of you leave now’. But playing live it wasn’t like that, and people really seemed to think it was a blast. So one of the things I wanted to do was just to be completely honest and use all my weaknesses as a musician and turn them into strengths. Like a love of simplicity and not being able to sing like a singer can sing, and all those things. And the other thing was just not do all the boring kind of music industry type things that bands get bogged down with. And try and do all the fun stuff – just all the reasons parents don’t want their sons and daughters to join bands. Just do all the cool stuff. And make music and have fun and play shows and not get all freaked out and bogged down in the boring stuff that no-one thinks is any fun.
WD – I was going to say that after awhile it seemed that Supergroove were being bogged down by the industry, and I could imagine, having read quite a few rock bios and autobiographies, that it seems to be a typical thing that you start out with a bunch of mates and before you know it you’re kind of oppressed by industry and the need to market yourself and all that.
Karl – In Supergroove we really enjoyed marketing ourselves because we liked coming up with logos and playing the game. But we did definitely get bogged down very early on. We got accountants on board and lawyers on board, because we were being advised by people to do that. Even down to the way we divided up publishing money and all that stuff. And a few years down the track we owed thousands of dollars to lawyers and accountants, and it was just really stink. So it’s nice in the Drab Doo-Riffs to get a second chance to have a fresh start.
WD – Do you think the music industry is in a weird place right now?
Karl – It’s having a nervous breakdown.
WD – Do you think that’s to your advantage in lots of ways, in the way that you’re looking at the band?
Karl – I guess it is, in a way. I like to think that we’d be doing the same thing whatever was happening in the music industry, even if it was the mid-‘70s or something. That we’d still be going about things in the same way. Live music is really thriving in a way that it wasn’t 15 years ago, so we can play these little rock’n’roll clubs that just didn’t exist in the early ‘90s. So that’s awesome. And also, bands pressing their own CDs and selling them at the door for $10 – that’s not too frightening for people. So yeah, I guess it is a good time to do things in the way we’re doing them. But there’s just the necessity of… we don’t have a record label, and we want to make records, so we’ll do it ourselves. We’re not going to try and coerce someone into signing us if they don’t want to, we’ll just do it anyway.
WD – But if you really wanted it, it must be easy enough…
Karl– I don’t know. Maybe we don’t want it enough. It would be great not to have to pay for pressing the records, and to not have to walk to the record shop and give them the five copies ourselves. And to post them off in envelopes to people who email us. But it’s fun doing things in that way, too. There’s benefits to both things. But we just do what we do and if other people want to get involved, if they’re enthusiastic enough about it, and get what we’re doing, they’re very welcome, it’d be fun. But until someone comes knocking at the door we’ll just do it anyway.
WD – Why do you think the live scene has gotten so good?
Karl – I’m only speculating but one is that for the bigger bands money from record sales has fallen off, so they’re forced to get back together or trot out and make some money from the live scene. And also I think part of it is that because people can get recorded music pretty much for free these days. It’s become devalued, but if you’ve got a hundred dollars you wouldn’t go to the CD shop anymore and buy almost three CDs, but you might buy a concert ticket. So I think that helps the live scene. And also things like MySpace, a lot of bands just being able to have their own websites with their music on and being able to connect to one another, you can go ‘oh, there’s this other band that does a similar kind of music, we should do a show together’. That just didn’t exist when I first started doing music in the ‘80s.
WD – Networking with likeminded souls and building enthusiasm that way.
Karl – That’s right. I remember going to Dunedin with Supergroove in the early ‘90s and it was like going to a different country or something. They hadn’t heard any of the music from Auckland, we hadn’t heard any of the unrecorded bands from there, and it was like a cultural exchange, sharing the different dance moves and stuff. Whereas now, everyone knows what’s going on everywhere.
WD – Do you have a lot of contact with other bands playing around Auckland? Do you get a good sense of how thriving the scene is?
Karl – We’re lucky that we’re sort of in a family of bands that include the Vietnam War and there’s a bunch of bands I record with, the Hairdos, los Horis. And then there’s Tourettes who I mix. Lucy, our guitarist, was in the Vietnam War. And I play blues with Crystal from the Vietnam War, and do this whole Country Club thing that happens once every couple of months, like a variety show with all these different bands and configurations.
WD – Where does that happen?
Karl – It’s happened a couple of times at the Thirsty Dog, twice at the Kings Arms. There’s definitely a group of bands who are all friends. And Mikey used to play in Mean Street who are now called Street Chant and doing good things.
WD – So really you’ve got your own little mini scene, a kind of family of bands.
Karl – Yeah, it feels like a family of bands, and there are visual artists associated with it as well, like the rapper Tourettes, he has a show where visual artists put his raps to make art works out of them, it’s called Daydreams Start Fires. It’s a really great little community of people, and I feel really lucky to be part of it or on the outskirts of it or whatever. It’s a lot of fun.
WD – Tell us something about the music of the band. Where does that all come from? You’ve got what some people would call quite archaic influences in there.
Karl – I can only really talk about it from my perspective, but the first kinds of music I really got into when I was 10 or 11 was punk music and rock’n’roll and blues. I was into rap music as well, everybody of my age and living in central Auckland was. I guess having been in Supergroove the challenge was to find my musical identity again outside of Supergroove, and after noodling about with different styles of music to my great joy I reconnected to that stuff that I’ve been into independently all my life. And it was like ‘of course, this is what I should do’. I also – and this is thanks to the internet – I discovered music on the internet relatively late on. Only in 2006 or something! It was through listening to music on the internet, at the same time as writing a bunch of songs, I discovered there’s this kind of lineage of bands that goes right from that rock’n’roll stuff and even the late ‘40s jump blues right through to punk music in the ‘70s, and it all connects. The blues and rock’n’roll and punk – all those things I like are part of a long tradition. I didn’t know that before, I thought they were weird disparate things that I just happened to like. That was quite a nice surprise.
WD – Would it be fair enough to call it dance music, not as in house music, but in the original spirit of rock’n’roll. You see footage from the ‘40s and ‘50s and it’s not what we would call dance music, but everybody’s really going for it.
Karl – Definitely, and I think this is what a lot of blues has in common with rap music, is it’s so rhythmical. And for me, and for the members of the group, we respond to the rhythms in the music. It’s not melodically or harmonically very sophisticated. There’s stuff going on there, but it’s like b-movie emotions. That’s another big influence musically, films. But the rhythm is where the heart of the music is. And if the songs don’t have that good rhythm, if they’re not danceable on some level they lose momentum and submerge.
WD – From what I’ve heard it seems to have the spirit that early rock’n’roll and surf music and so forth have.
Karl – Yeah that’s another – surf is great because they borrowed a whole lot of Latin rhythms, but they use blues chord changes, and quite over the top exotic melodies. I think that’s a fabulous style of music that died a death in the ‘60s. But that’s a big influence on me, I just love that stuff, and it combines that movie music thing with dance music, which to my mind is the highest art form.
WD – Well, anything that involves bikini-clad girls dancing on beaches…
Karl – That’s right. Actually this guy Ignatio is making a short film, but we were the band playing in the strip club when the massacre took place, so we got sprayed with a lot of fake blood. That was fun. That stuff really stings when it gets in your eyes. It’s made out of golden syrup. I think the movie has the name of ‘Big Tits Massacre’. He got in touch because he wants some surf music for the titles, but then he asked if we wanted to play during the massacre.
WD – So you kind of see yourself as a b-movie band to some extent?
Karl – Yeah I guess so. There’s a difference when you’re looking back at that culture. It’s like ancient Greece or something. Back in the day all those sculptures would have been painted up with red lips and black hair. We prefer them all corroded and marbled, and there’s something similar that goes on when you look back to… whether it’s ‘70s punk culture or ‘60s surf culture or ‘50s rock’n’roll culture. I think it’s better when you’re perceiving the medium as well in the distance. And you can kind of – it’s mediated through these dusty black and white images, and that’s part of the fun of it. I don’t ever think of the Drab Doo-Riffs as a band that is trying to re-create some lost holy grail of rock’n’roll. We’re not a sound-a-like band. We’re definitely now, but it’s inspired by… when I’m producing the recordings, trying to get a feel that you can’t quite place what era it’s from, and trying to make it a cultural artefact in that way, rather than here’s a recording of us playing.
WD – Do you think that your audience, going by the people you see at your gigs, that they’re informed enough to understand your influences, and to be able to create their picture from that, or that they’re a younger audience who are completely oblivious to the things you’re influenced by?
Karl – It depends a lot where we’re playing. We were a bit worried when we supported Kitty Daisy and Lewis because they’d appeared – there had been a 1ZB push on them and a morning television push, and it got this older audience, like people in their 60s were there in force, and they all got there early, early enough to see the support band as well. And actually it went really well, because it was like ‘hey, this is rock’n’roll!’ And then these young folk who are more the night-time crowd around K’Rd, they enjoyed it too, and they’re very culturally savvy, they’re watching cool music from all sorts of eras and watching videos of the stuff on YouTube, videos I would have given my eye teeth to see when I was growing up, and I just had black and white postcards of Fats Domino and Muddy Waters. Yeah, it’s incredible, just being able to sit and watch all the footage of somebody like Muddy Waters playing live. I don’t know what people are getting from our music, to be honest, but I’ve been really pleasantly surprised that people seem to dig it, and that’s been awesome and different people might like different songs and different things about the songs, and some people like the lyrics or the drums, but that’s the cool thing with bands, you can like all sorts of different things, and like it to different levels. Some people might just like to tap their toes to it, and others might delve into the motivations and various references and the whole Drab Doo-Riff religion that underlies and informs what the songs are about and stuff like that.
WD – Is there an album in the works?
Karl –Because we just want to keep recording and having stuff available for those who are keen, we’ll probably do a handful of these EPs, but they’ll be short-run releases and if there’s enough interest we might build them into an album of 18 two-minute songs.
WD – Are most of them really short like that?
Karl – Yeah, they’re fast and they’re short. That’s part of it as well. It’s good to just make the statement and then move onto the next one.
* The Drab Doo-Riffs’ second EP, Postcards From Uranus, is just out.