Reactivated semi-mythical Wellington post-punk band Beat Rhythm Fashion return to their homeland for the first time in nearly 40 years this month for a precious few live appearances on the back of their highly praised album, Tenterhook. GARY STEEL, who was there the first time round, conducts a poignant Q&A with the trio’s main writer/singer/player, Nino Birch.
Gary Steel – I wanted to ask about those far-off days back in what seems to me to be a very monochrome post-punk Wellington. Obviously, this was when the template for BRF was formed – the whole aesthetic. How do you assess/process that time now? For you and Dan, it appears to have been an intense period of creativity. BRF is kind of lumped in with “the Terrace scene” – largely because of the short doco that’s on YouTube – and I wonder just how enmeshed you were with those other bands and the dynamic in Wellington at the time. You know, that whole nihilistic thing perpetuated by bands like Life In The Fridge Exists and the political edginess (the Springbok tour, etc).
Nino Birch – These were fairly irreverent and fashionably chaotic times in this milieu. Certainly there was a degree of quasi-nihilism brewing in Wellington and though, to the observer, it would have appeared there was a wee punk revolution occurring, the jury is out for me as to whether this cluster of energy was driven by any particular ‘anarchic’ ideology. It was indeed a ‘get fucked’ kinda gesture, however…but this was not essentially where BRF was coming from at all. Although ‘Not Necessary’, one of our first tracks we did, which was on the 4 Stars comp, was all about this gesture: “I would much prefer to be made of air… it would make me so happy…not to be here…” Etc. ‘None In The Universe’, my favourite of the very early BRF tunes, went about posing a more complex question rather than simply giving the establishment the fingers, if you like. Instead of hammering out an ‘us agin them’ kind of statement of point of view, it was a declaration pertaining to our collective human failing; our inadequacy as we continue to ignore our ‘past use-by’ date. It also spoke to a sort of dark night of the soul as the song ends with the chorus line: “I’m looking for light, but there’s none in the universe”.
Gary – The reason I ask is because, for someone with no knowledge of all that, if all they had to go on was the three singles you released back then, I think BRF would be viewed as completely unique and somewhat insular. To me, there always seems to be an aura of separateness around you and Dan, and I wondered if this was simply that you were intent on what you were doing and doing it with some degree of seriousness, or whether it came from the fact that you’d grown up in Hong Kong with an international perspective on the whole thing, and of course, brotherly love.
Nino – Yes, Dan and I did feel, for one reason or another, rather separate from what was happening but we rubbed shoulders energetically with what was occurring as we had little choice but to do that. Certainly we had come from a vastly different background and we did approach our music and gesture to life from a global influence and experience, having travelled the world a number of times, and Wellington did feel a little tiny as did the content that fuelled the musical direction and sound. But having said this it was raw, heartfelt, rebellious and fresh. It had an energy all its own and we enjoyed watching it unfold. We did feel like aliens a fair degree of the time and we were often accused of being pretentious because we didn’t blend in. The boot boys thought we were too pretty. I had the odd argy bargy with them at gigs, but were friendly with some of the more hardcore ‘punks/anarchists’ of Welly in so far as we were not unfriendly with each other. Dan and I were very serious about our music, in every way. How we brought it, played it and what it was about. We were pretty locked into that and held fast by our worldview as it projected into the immediate landscape. It was just who we were and this still holds true for me.
Gary – Would it be true to say that, while most of those Wellington post-punk bands were essentially schooled only in punk, that BRF was also reaching back to ’60s and ’70s rock and pop music? There seems to be an almost John Lennon-type of feel about the music at times… his more provocative stance.
Nino – Yes, what you say here is true. We were not trying to be punks, post or pre. In fact, we never claimed to be. But our musical roots stemmed right back through the ‘60s/’70s UK music evolution and we chose to be involved in that continued musical commentary. Lennon was (and is still) mine and Dan’s greatest influence, I would say. It began when my father who worked in Radio HK brought their singles home when released. He was a big fan… but we took over from him! So coupled with this we had an ear open to the intelligent edgy stuff that was filtering out of England through the late ‘70s/’80s, bands like Gang Of Four (early), Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mekons, the Fall, PIL, and of course the Cure and Joy Division (oh, and I did like The Sound, LKJ, the Clash, Elvis C, etc). These were some of the main players I/we listened to and found relevant to our sound landscape. Interesting-unpredictable non-rock melody and gutsy clever lyrical content with purpose was vital in my view and this is still so for me. So in the past I dug the prime movers like Bowie, Lou Reed, Hendrix, Small Faces, Marc Bolan and so on. These were our early influences.
Gary – Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how you washed up in Wellington in the first place?
Nino – My Mum was a Kiwi, born in Dunedin. We used to visit Wellington for annual holidays to catch up with the Kiwi side of the family. My Dad was from the UK so we went there also. Dan and I used to hassle Dad as to why the hell he didn’t take us there, but I think we were always going to end up in NZ as they didn’t feel the UK was the place to retire to. Matt, my eldest brother, had already made NZ his home, deciding to stay in boarding school after a holiday in Wellington when he was only 13. This was a curious move, but it served him well to get away from his weird HK family (laughs). He was into sport and the healthy NZ lifestyle appealed to him. We ended up leaving HK for a number of reasons, one of the main being that Dan was getting into smack (etc) at like 14-16, and Mum and Dad thought it was time to get out of that scene that their kids were enthralled by. It was a pretty wild place to grow up. Our school was pretty ‘liberal’ and we grew up VERY early. My history teacher, Mr Willet, from the UK (who played in a band back there in his youth) was my first guitar teacher and Dan kept me going by our playing together. Dan was a great guitarist able to play all our favourite tunes as jammed on through the years. Great memories and I still have some tape recordings of our early jams in HK. Our musical journey together began when I was about 12.
Gary – Talking to the two of you back then it was clear that you were the friendly one with a real desire to communicate and Dan was very much the dark horse. I gather that most of the work compositionally was yours but that he was a kind of inspiration to you? How did that work?
Nino – Well, it was not a simple arrangement and the lines were never drawn. Dan was way more than ‘my inspiration’. He introduced me to just about every dark corner available (laughs) and he was my music partner. I just ended up writing more of the tunes and we used heaps of his lyrics that he had penned. Dan played the guitar as well (very well indeed) and wished he was also the guitarist in BRF but we needed a bassist and too bad for him but he played it so well …far better than I did, so he got the job. Indeed, Dan marvelled at my ability to communicate and take the social landscape in my stride while he was more broody and didn’t take to people easily. This is why life was a struggle for him and he is no longer with us. So yeah, most of the guitar compositions were mine except for the verse of ‘Beings Rest Finally’ and ‘No Great Oaks’… maybe one or two more in our song base. With those, Dan played me his idea and I took it from there. A number of our songs sprung instantly out of our jamming. I am and was then a rather prolific tunester, so when we practiced together songs just rolled out as they do with active bands. Dan wrote a great deal of the early lyrics – his being fairly pointed commentaries on the human condition but often discourses on the political landscape or shite status quo. So it was often the case that he just had a bunch of lyrics and I would put them to a tune on the gat and he would lay the bass down. I wrote the lyrics to a number of the tunes and co-wrote some when we worked on ideas to form a song. My lyric was often more poetic than Dan’s and I chose also to focus on the ‘human condition’ if you like, our inhumanity and folly… the hoi polloi, etc. But I liked to and still enjoy word-smithing and creating lyrical pictures. I had a different style to Dan but we both came from the same corner and though we walked our life differently we were bonded fast to the same worldview and valued or disregarded the same stuff.
Nino – I suppose it really came down to Dan and his self-sabotage. He really couldn’t sustain it any more and Caroline and I became weary of it and the struggle associated with working together. Much of this revolved around substance abuse I suppose, and Dan being a wrecking ball in a way. So it sort of just happened and I really don’t remember us sitting down and saying, “right, that’s it, we are done”. We just simply couldn’t continue. It had become too difficult, which is a shame. Dan and I at the time often regretted that we hadn’t gone to the UK to cut our teeth. But in truth I don’t feel it would have changed things. Dan simply was not cut out for meeting what life demanded of him. He constantly had his eye on the EXIT sign if you know what I mean. So our last gig was in ‘82 at the Clyde Quay tavern in Wellington, to a packed house and indeed given the sound of the band and what was occurring there that day, it was not an odd thing to ask why it was over. Not all that uncommon for bands to fold on the edge of perceived ‘greatness’ or smashing out their best work.
Gary – When did you and Dan go overseas, and what did you both do for all those years? I gather that Dan was in later years somewhat of a troubled individual. Can you tell me a little about that? ‘Dan’ is very moving. Do you think what happened was an inevitability?
Nino – I left NZ before Dan around ‘84 and Dan followed me over to Australia when I eventually compelled him to come over and join me playing again. He was fading into his bed-sit. I had done some demos with Paul Hester of Crowded house cos I was working with a good mate called Phil Reid who was close to Paul and we needed a drummer to do the tracks. Damn solid drummer and a great and tragic loss when he chose to move on. So my plan was to get a working band sorted again. This was at the time when Paul was just about to go to the States to produce their first Crowded House album and their first single ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. I had started writing again, Dan came over, and we got a group happening again with Des Hefner of the Scavengers on drums, a young lad called Matt Heydon on keys and Dan and I doing our usual thing. We called the band The Egg. Dan wanted to call us ‘God’s Penis And The Egg’ (Laughs). Too funny! And later, The Anvil Chorus. Our first and final gig was supporting Crowded House at the Venue in Melbourne. It was Neil’s 30th birthday celebration gig, and a great night. A good gig for us but Dan screwed up, couldn’t cope I suppose, got too smashed on codeine or whatever, so we packed it in. So yeah, same deal again, sadly. Not long after this Dan and I drifted apart for many years as he had become damn hard work and extremely self-destructive and difficult to be around. Loved him dearly but had to keep my distance. In situations like this no matter how close you are to your troubled kindred, there is little one can do and frustrating and tragic as this is I know many who have faced this difficulty with loved ones would agree.
Nino – The rebirth began to develop through my contact with Rob Mayes. I had become fully disenchanted with teaching and towing the line to the bureaucratic whims of a somewhat fascist and entirely misguided education department here in NSW, and my core beliefs just started to explode out of the mediocre trap I had misadventured into. I got burn out, heavily. There were a number of years I truly enjoyed teaching cos kids are the treasure of our present and future and I strongly believe in preserving the kingdom of childhood given that the adult one is such a cluster-fuck. I resigned under duress eventually. Anyway, a friend taught me how to use Ableton. I got the software, learnt the basics and started to record some material. I started to fire these bits and pieces to Rob. He gave me feedback and we developed this really damn cool working relationship; one that is honest enough for him to say to me… ‘Hey, listen to your original work… drop into that space that fuelled your drive… that sound that is yours’… or words to that effect. And so I did just that. I reworked some of the old material …Rob scored me a Jazzmaster with band funds cos all I had was a Maton acoustic, and I cranked it up and there you have it, Tenterhook, a culmination of some 2.5 years journey-work between Australia, Japan and eventually, when we had something for Caroline, NZ. Rediscovering my sound and my musical essence was not difficult at all, because it is who I am, it is my true gesture. I simply had to discard a bunch of unnecessary baggage that had held sway for me to cope managing the middle road. Once that process began it was just like a fish landing back in the water. Rob was instrumental, due to his devotion to BRF and its core message, in facilitating a process that made this inevitable, if you know what I mean.
Gary – From your liner notes it seems that many of the songs on Tenterhook were “works in progress” for many years, and a couple of them even have their origins in the ’80s. How did you go about assembling all the fragments, and was it easy to connect emotionally and intellectually with things that had been in the works for so long?
Nino – I think what I share above answers this to a degree. I simply brought some of the old tracks back to life while the newer ones except ‘Dan’, which I wrote just after his death in 2011, were fairly current and were approached with a renewed BRF vigour. I feel as activated now as I ever was, and to be true probably more so as my purpose is clearer now than it was in the heady times of my early 20s. So, actually there was nothing really that had been in the works for so long. ‘Dan’ was written but I just needed to whack it out with the Jazzmaster, bass and drums with the true conviction that it deserved. For me that is as natural as my breath.
Gary – It’s astonishing to me that Tenterhook does almost sound like it’s picking up where you left off back in the ’80s. Not that it sounds old-hat or anything, just that musically you haven’t lost the thread. I can think of hardly any bands that have managed to do that, so was wondering how you did it… did it all just come naturally? Were you tempted to go in different musical directions?
Nino – I have played around with other genres but it was quite a natural process to drop back into my sound. I just got a VOX AC30, a Jazzmaster, some software and let the rest unfold. Rob gave me the right kind of nudge, just well chosen words of encouragement. It was a case of timing in a sense also because I had become extremely activated to push for change and advocate toward music becoming relevant in our social landscape and key dialogues that serve to subtly shape more desirable pathways forward. Music can do this so effortlessly while also providing joy payback to the creator and the listener. Ah, the ‘60s come to mind… ha-ha.
Gary – There’s this cliche about middle-aged white guys being conservative and right-wing that’s perpetuated by millennials that just seems wrong to me, and listening to the lyrics on Tenterhook it feels like your view of the world hasn’t really changed since the early ’80s… more mature, perhaps, and maybe more optimistic in some ways, but still essentially anti-corporate and suspicious of the mechanisms of governmental machinery that seek to monitor and control us, and clearly environmentally oriented. What kind of life do you live and what’s stopped you devolving into the stereotype? [Even John Lydon has recently been quoted as supporting Brexit, Trump, etc!]
Nino – Ha-ha. poor old Johnny Lydon! Drugs not workin’ anymore, huh? I live off the grid near a small town in NSW. I choose now to walk my talk. Chop wood, carry water. My wife and I have a small Eco Hemp Shop that she got off the ground, which sells eco-friendly wares and we are steering toward most products we can find sourced from hemp. We sell local musicians’ works, didges, etc. While this is occurring I retreat to my little studio as often as I can in a converted container berthed next to another one bridged by a roof and floored with an outdoor kinda setting: potbelly, couches, lots of animals and no traffic, no power bills, water bills, etc. I do have a phone and use wireless or I could not function and Tenterhook would never have seen the light of day.
But yeah, I am a rebellious bugger with a cause as much as ever, I have to keep my anger in check because I am very angry at times about our human folly and what we have become. The global climate is a circus of insanity and tyranny and most have become so seemingly incurably desensitised to the horror of the current play of the world, be it in a conversation in the local pub between a couple of lizard brains, between a couple of deranged TV anchors or the theatre of hate in the Middle East and the global political stage. We have become ridiculous…so much so that I simply cannot watch TV or participate in the mainstream flow of psychotic information. Are we completely lost? The jury is out for me. I am certainly not lost where I live but I feel deeply for those in the grip of despicable human behaviour. This is the charge that fuels my music and yes, sadly there is an abundance of fuel right now.
Gary – There was a hint that another album is in the works. Has Tenterhook kind of opened the floodgates to a bunch of new material?
Nino – Yes, a new album is on the way. We wanted to be prepared enough to start recording it with Caro in Wellington while there, but it may be a bit difficult due to time constraints. We will see how we go.
Gary – I gather that Tenterhook was very much a product of sound files floating through the ether between Melbourne, Tokyo and Wellington? Have you, Rob and Caroline actually met up in person yet to perform/rehearse? Will you be performing both old and new material in the forthcoming show? I notice that you’ve specifically not wanted any association with the ‘punk revival’ show that’s on around the same time in Auckland. Are you anti-nostalgia?
Nino – Never thought about whether I am anti-nostalgia, actually, but I could say that I don’t consider BRF’s sound to be stuck in a period of musical history, it’s just our sound and that is when we started and this is where we are now, sounding the same in my view, but maybe even better, ha-ha. I was not aware of any punk revival thing going on in AK, while I can say that it would not necessarily be something that I pitched BRF towards had I known.
I have played in the same room with Rob not long ago when I went to Japan to master the album with him. Rob produced and engineered as I worked all the ideas and arrangements through with him. It was an excellent decision for me to go over. We had a great time and actually played two gigs there, one at the Ruby Room in Shibuyu, the other at a friend of Rob’s cafe. We managed to shoot a full day’s worth of video footage for two songs – ‘Hard As Hell’ and ‘Fake Peace’, which still has to be edited for an upcoming release. So it was a very busy nine days or so. When we land in Wellington for our pre-gig rehearsals it will be the first time I have played with Caroline in real-time for at least 37 years! It is going to be very special as will bringing this material live together. Rob also played with Caroline in 1992 with his band Throw, so we’re familiar and friends, if not often in the same city. We communicate regularly and instantly with modern technology.
Gary – If the shows go well are you keen to do more, or do you see the current manifestation of BRF as more of a studio-based thing?
Nino – We will definitely do more gigs but not ‘pub-bar’ tours like this NZ return tour. This tour is a personal gesture and homecoming I feel passionately about rolling out, but after this our revisiting NZ down the track would be more to play the odd festival or suchlike. We plan to do some shows in Australia and we don’t draw the line there. I like Japan so we may well look at playing there, given that Rob lives there. So playing in each of our homelands makes sense. Recording another album and continuing to record is certainly our immediate pathway.
* Beat Rhythm Fashion (BRF) perform at Blue Smoke, Christchurch on Saturday March 9, Captain Cook in Dunedin on Sunday March 10, Whammy Bar in Auckland on Thursday March 14, and Meow in Wellington on Saturday March 16.