In Witchdoctor’s famous BLINDFOLD TEST, we invite a musician into an audiophile sound lounge and play them a provocative record selection. This time, revered Auckland-based singer-songwriter SJD visited GARY STEEL’s humble abode where he scoffed cream scones while passing comment on the mystery selection.
SJD – Sean James Donnelly – is one of the most critically acclaimed NZ songwriters of the last couple of decades and released seven albums between his 1998 debut (3) and his last, in 2015 (Saint John Divine). He has also collaborated with Don McGlashan, Neil Finn and been involved with numerous other projects.
Originally a bass player who was drawn to loop-based and electronic infusions on his first few releases, SJD’s music has become progressively more organic and musician-driven.
Sean’s latest project is a series of very short songs called ‘Miniatures’. These are available digitally as an EP of 18 tiny songs, and they’re also available on social media accompanied by video clips.
THE BEACH BOYS – SAIL ON SAILOR (Album: Holland, 1973)
Sean – I fucking love this song. The way that chorus comes in is so good. Beach Boys, ‘Sail On Sailor’. And it’s a Brian Wilson melody but it’s not even him singing it, it’s some South African guy. Seventies Beach Boys… love it!
Gary Steel – There’s this thing that the Brian Wilson era is the only one.
Sean – But they’re all such incredible melodicists in their own right. Maybe because it can rub off on people… people learn from being with someone like that. Brian Wilson was always still part of it. And in their minds… they would have been still trying to impress him, too.
Gary – And to me there’s something about their music that you can’t quite put your finger on, which is what I hear in your music, too. A melodic sophistication. Are the Beach Boys part of your personal musical mythology?
Sean – Yeah. Absolutely.
Gary – And mostly this era?
Sean – No, probably up to this album. I don’t even like much on this album, but this is a great song. I don’t want to hear some Mike Love song about student protests.
Gary – Poor old Mike Love, he’s so vilified.
Sean – Not without reason.
Gary – And there’s the Dennis Wilson album, too. [Pacific Ocean Blue].
Sean – It’s so good! I love that song ‘Lady’. I don’t care about the lyrics.
Gary – Is that something you do? Finding shit?
Sean – Yeah. It’s been a while since I’ve done it, but finding that stuff and obsessing about it. I don’t obsess about artists anymore per se, it’s just the things that I like. The things I don’t like I don’t care about.
CURTIS MAYFIELD – WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE (Album: Curtis, 1970)
Sean – Curtis Mayfield?
Gary – Do you know the song?
Sean – I do, but I don’t know what it’s called.
Gary – It struck me that while the soul influence in your music isn’t overt – obviously lots of people call it blue-eyed soul – that you may have spent some time with these more orchestral soul tunes.
Sean – I’m a big fan of Van Morrison up to St Dominic’s Preview. He was literally making two albums a year from about 1969 onwards and they were all… there are some missteps there but Astral Weeks, Moondance, Veedon Fleece, St Dominic’s Preview, It’s Too Late To Stop Now and then moments from his later oeuvre, like Wavelength.
Gary – I wouldn’t have picked that you were into Van.
Sean – I love that stuff. My favourite it Veedon Fleece. Van Morrison, Nick Drake, Vaughan Williams. He’s hardly the most cutting edge composer of the 20th Century, but to me that music’s truly great because it’s so beautiful. It’s the pastoral thing.
Gary – Somehow I would have always thought that you were more American oriented.
Sean – No, a weird mixture of both.
Gary – What’s your relationship to black soul music.
Sean – Total dilettante. Individual songs and bits but I don’t exhaustively have any black soul artists, unlike Shayne [Carter] who will have every Marvin Gaye thing. I have bits that I dip into. And the big thing I was right into for ages was gospel music.
SCOTT WALKER – ANGELS OF ASHES (Album: Scott 4, 1969)
Sean – ‘Angels Of Ashes’ from Scott 4.
Gary – Obviously you know his stuff fairly well.
Sean – Love it. If there wasn’t Scott 4, or Scott 3, I’d have more difficulty working it out.
Gary – I almost chose one of the latter-day ones because they’re so critically acclaimed.
Sean – I’m really interested in his new music and I have all those albums but they’re hard work. I don’t really ever want music to be hard work. I like music to have confronting and challenging elements to it but mainly music – it might seem like it’s an intellectual thing for me but music is really not intellectual. In fact it’s failing a little bit if it’s intellectual. Hearing a bit in a Katy Perry song I like is more intellectual for me because I have to sift out all the shit and go ‘I really like that bit’. I mean, Scott is kind of corny. Even something like ‘The Electrician’, which is a scary piece of music, it’s still never fully able to stop being corny. I don’t know what it is and part of me recoils against the corniness.
Gary – Well, obviously his vocal style is pure Las Vegas.
Sean – It is and it isn’t because… that’s the thing that first strikes you and then you sink beneath the surface of it and… to me it’s like a guy that really wants to say something, is bursting to say something, and he doesn’t know what the fuck it is. He’s not content to just say ‘the universe is all one thing and we’re all connected, I’ll drop some acid and I’ll really feel this’. Instead it’s angels and ashes and… it ends up sounding stupid a lot of the time but it’s so redeemed by… it’s almost inarticulate lyrically, but melodically and harmonically it’s just so stunning.
Gary – For me you can feel his voice, what’s underneath. Almost like there’s a little boy underneath, and the reason I wanted to pull it out to play today is that parts of your new album remind me of it in the sense that it’s like a warm blanket, you feel like somebody’s pulling this thing over and suddenly you’re comforted by it.
Sean – Very much so, very much so, but comfort for me is not the comfort of teasing the familiar synapses. It’s more like if there’s an unfamiliar comfort in it. It’s almost like a defamiliarisation of that notion of comfort that I just love.
Gary – A lot of children’s lullabies are communicating what a perilous, scary world it is. They’re comforting against an inconceivable or unknown threat.
Sean – They’re shrinking it down to size.
UNITONE HI-FI – NATURAL PROGRESSION (Album: Boomshot, 1996)
Sean – It sounds like [Auckland electronic act] Dooblong Tongdra. Coldcut? No, it’s either Unitone or Phase 5.
Gary – I couldn’t resist that. [All of Sean’s albums have been released on Unitone Hi-fi member Jim Pinckney’s record label, Round Trip Mars].
Sean – I was trying to think of things that sound dubby. To be honest it sounded too good for New Zealand dub. I was thinking ‘Pitch Black never did anything that interesting’.
Gary – I listened to this again a few months ago and thought that, at the time because I knew Jim so well I kind of couldn’t take it seriously. But now… it sounds fresh. And it’s nicely mastered because it’s done in Germany. All the stuff that came out of the [now defunct] Incoming label sounded good. What did you make of this sort of stuff at the time?
Sean – I wasn’t a fan. I remember writing down on a bit of paper one day when I’d been writing songs with guitar – thinking maybe I should just make dub music or something like that. Because then I could do it in a way that meant I didn’t have to argue with these songs all the time and just make music. I was listening to Future Sound Of London or something like that and thinking that was really good. Just delving into bits and pieces. But it never stayed with me as being a thing I really liked because it’s kind of genre specific music. I couldn’t pick this until it flashed back into my mind. I was trying to think of what English thing it would be. When you said it’s New Zealand I thought ‘oh yeah, it can’t be one of those boring Kog Transmissions dub things.’
Gary – I thought this was interesting because of Jim and Round Trip Mars and obviously he’s released all your records and there must be some sort of symbiotic aspect.
Sean – He doesn’t like all my stuff and there’s certain stuff he likes more than others. He likes things that are quite adventurous, the weirder end of things when it really works.
DAVID AXELROD – SONGS OF INNOCENCE (Album: Songs Of Innocence, 1968)
Sean – It’s David Axelrod. I’m going to say ‘Songs Of Innocence’.
Gary – The bass lines remind me of yours.
Sean – But it’s quite naïve, especially this one. All these baby-like melodies, like two fingers on a piano. And beautiful arrangements around them. It’s a good idea. He’s a cool guy.
Gary – You’ve spent time studying his stuff?
Sean – Not studying, just enjoying it. I like the Electric Prunes, Mass In F Minor, that’s really cool. But later Axelrod I don’t know at all. It’s only these two albums and Electric Prunes. I know there’s a lot of really cool later stuff that I don’t know at all.
LINDA PERHAC – PARALLELOGRAMS (Album: Parallelograms, 1970)
Sean – Yeah, that’s the Parallelograms woman. It’ll come to me. Linda Perhacs. She became a dental hygienist.
Gary – It’s the only album she ever did, I think.
Sean – She’s started making music again now. I don’t like everything on the album, but ‘Parallelograms’ is the most fucking amazing piece of music.
Gary – I thought of this when you brought up Judy Sill. Completely different stories but both fairly obscure singer-songwriters.
Sean – But lots of people know about them.
Gary – Judy Sill obviously had some sort of career and three or four albums.
Sean – Two albums and one posthumous album. And I don’t really like the posthumous album that much, it sounds like Christian music to me. A lot of people really love her voice and she’s a very perfect singer, she always sings everything in tune, but it’s not my favourite thing about her, it’s her melodic sense that’s just incredible. Sings perfectly in tune, and they’re strange tunes and strange lyrics and they wander all over the place. An absolutely unbelievable talent. The lyrics are weird, and they don’t all work. Even all the arrangements she worked out herself.
Gary – It can be hard to find a way into it. I’ll hear an album and think ‘nah’ and then I’ll be in a pool hall and hear a track from it and think ‘fuck that’s good!’ It’s right in this environment. That last Scott Walker album before the Sunn O one I played in the car when I was in a bad mood and turned it up really loud and really enjoyed it, but usually if I sat down to listen to it in the lounge it’d be like ‘nah, this is just too hard’.
Sean – Emotionally, there has to be a way into it before you get into the music. As opposed to the music being able to take you from wherever you are, it’s specialist in the fact that you have to be in the correct zone before you even go near it.
ROY ORBISON – WHERE IS TOMORROW? (Album: The Classic Roy Orbison, 1966)
Sean – One of the greatest singers of all time really, isn’t he? But I’m not super familiar with Roy Orbison. It’s just one of those things I’m sort of saving up. If you’re an expert I’d love a good playlist. I’ll swap you a Judee Sill playlist for a Roy Orbison one.
Gary – But you’re familiar with the hits.
Sean – Yeah, the hits and a couple of obscurities. But I figure there must have been some album tracks that people don’t know as well that are a bit weird and interesting.
Gary – You rate the voice?
Sean – Unbelievable voice. It’s one of those voices that’s unnaturally… incredible.
Gary – It’s almost like a freak of nature because it’s got the depth of Elvis but it can soar.
Sean – Yeah, it’s a freak of nature. And to me a lot of things about freak of nature… like Beyonce’s a freak of nature, for example, but that resolutely keeps me outside that experience. The Roy Orbison thing invites you in because he’s singing from a broken heart. I can’t believe that Beyonce is a real person. I don’t get the sense she’s a real person. I get the sense that Roy’s very much a real person, like Johnny Cash. They’ve come up against fame and it’s really fucking bruised them. And they were bruised beforehand and then they were just bruised in a different way.
Gary – What strikes me about Roy and the reason I’m playing with it is that he’s got that vulnerability that you also have in your singing. The way you sing, it has that, not operatic but an old fashioned style.
Sean – I have gone up too high in the past as well. There is an element of vulnerability in that. Falsetto and stuff.
BIG STAR – KANGAROO (Album: Sister Lovers, 1978)
Sean – Big Star. Sister Lovers. I only discovered this not so long ago. I was into the first two albums, and had this but hadn’t really listened to it. I listened to it again and got past about the first three or four tracks and then got into the real genius stuff.
Gary – It seems strange what a universal lack of acclaim this album had in the ‘70s. You didn’t discover thus song through This Mortal Coil in the ‘80s?
Sean – No. Apart from ‘Song To A Siren’ and it took me a long time to realise that it was a Tim Buckley song. I’m not really a massive Tim Buckley fan. Certain things are so good but it is like ‘Song To The Siren’ soars above everything else. That’s just unbelievably good.
Gary – For me there are songs on all the albums that are amazing. For instance, ‘Sweet Surrender’ from the album that came out after Starsailor, Welcome To LA. It’s a funky album, a lot of people said it was a sell-out, but that song is just amazing.
Sean – What’s got ‘Blue Melody’ on it?
Gary – Blue Afternoon. There are great tracks on all the albums and what amazes me is just the exponential artistic growth from one record to the next… between ’66 and ’74, 10 albums that… and they don’t resemble each other, extraordinary artistic growth from the guy with the angelic folk-rock thing through his discovery of jazz to the point of Starsailor being so weird, and then no audiences coming, empty halls wherever he played, bones of his arse, and then remaking himself as funky guy to get a bit of cash. Somehow always out of time. If he’d kept to that original folk thing with that voice he might have been huge.
S – Ahead of his time. As were Big Star. There was a weird way that they were both retro and futuristic.
G – And drug-fucked.
Sean – Yeah, and they couldn’t stick to it because of the internal tensions.
CROWDED HOUSE – INTO TEMPTATION (Album: Temple Of Low Men, 1988)
Sean – Oh yeah.
G – Too obvious.
Sean – To me, this is somehow akin to a lot of the music you’ve been playing… sort of melodic and harmonic mastery that’s more than craft. He’s trying to get to something here. He manages to get to it in a way that really communicated to a larger audience.
Gary – It was very much the difficult second album at the time, the album that nobody really seemed to want to like very much, because it had tracks like ‘Kill Eye’ that were just a bit too nasty.
Sean – Confrontational. They want to hear songs like ‘Something So Strong’, which I don’t like at all. But this is so good. It’s a kind of mastery and prodigious mastery of the form. At the time who else was doing this? So even though it was a bit into a mainstream sensibility people outside the mainstream really liked it. Radiohead really liked it. You hear about critics who really thought it was awesome.
Gary – I always thought of this album as a record that didn’t have hits but it’s got ‘Better Be Home Soon’ on it and…
Sean – Apparently Bruce Springsteen rang the record company and said ‘why isn’t this album a complete priority for you?’
Gary – I wonder why he gave up on subsequent albums on this starker, more exploratory style. I guess it had more to do with personal circumstances than anything else.
Sean – I think there’s a bit of that. But I think the thing that people probably might not know about Neil is that he’s a very, very hard worker. He has a whole lot of endurance that most people don’t know about. Apart from being prodigiously talented – and I know how good he is at playing any instrument he chooses to play, I know how good he is as a singer, I know his ability to negotiate his way around a song, feel his way to a melody and find a good harmony for something, and to have interesting ideas… all those things. On top of that, he really has a hell of a work ethic. I know because, just that last album, he was working on a song that didn’t even end up on the album, he spent a week trying to find a good guitar solo for the song. And that’s not a week that we might think of as a week. That’s a week where he’s down in the studio eight to 10 hours a day until he gets something he likes. He has maximum endurance.
Gary – How did you meet up with him and how did you end up working together?
Sean – The first time I met him we were doing an album release gig at Tabac, which is his bar, and we did it the same night as Sola Rosa, and it was for Lost Soul Music, and he was in the back room and came out and said ‘that’s really interesting’. He really liked the track ‘Guiding Light’, and wanted to know about the brass samples and the piano. Just very interested in the details. And then I met him a couple more times through Don and other people and just started slowly getting to know him. He’s a great guy, a really great guy.
Gary – What was the point where you actually ended up playing together? How did that happen?
Sean – We were having whisky evenings that a few of us were doing and he came along to one of those, single malt tasting evenings, I love it, I love it. Probably over the last 10 years or so I’ve been into it. Long story short, he said “I’ll play you some grooves that Sharon and I have been working on. We’re doing this thing we just call Pajama Party.” And he said maybe you’d be interested in helping us out with it, and I said yeah. I took something away and added some bits and they liked it, and it went from there.
Gary – And you toured with the Pajama Club to the UK.
Sean – The UK and the US.
Gary – And what were you doing in the band?
Sean – Playing keyboards.
Gary – And you got really sick.
Sean – Yeah. At the end of the tour I went into what they call the London Clinic. I was supposed to be on tour. It was due to a bad reaction to medication, and I had to have a massive blood transfusion and stuff.
Gary – Did you have to come home straight away after that?
S – It coincided with the end of the tour.
BLAM BLAM BLAM – CALL FOR HELP (Album: Luxury Length, 1982)
Sean – ‘Call For Help’? Blam Blam Blam?
Gary – You’re familiar with the Blams?
Sean – I love Blam Blam Blam. I love Don’s music. The first thing I ever heard was ‘There Is No Depression’. I remember liking him in every phase of his musical incarnations. I really liked Blam Blam Blam, From Scratch, and he did this thing with a guy called Ivan Zagni which I really thought was fantastic. Don is a total original.
Gary – I always thought it was amazing that the two of you were working together because to me you’re both quite introverted individuals in some ways.
Sean – Yeah, in a way.
Gary – I always remember bumping into him at Womad in 2003 and he was just starting to come back. He came up to me in the crowd and seemed so unsure about whether he was any good or not and whether anyone would like what he was doing.
Sean – Don’s an open book like that, he’ll always tell you what he’s thinking about. What the fuck’s going on with this song? Awesome, man! The angularity of his melodies, and the beauty of them, right from the start. He told me that the first song that he ever wrote was ‘Don’t Fight It Marsha’. How could that be the first song he ever wrote? I wrote a hundred songs before I wrote a good one.
Gary – I first met Don in the early ‘80s and just always liked his stuff. Just amazing. Just a really interesting nice guy. Although I thought the Muttonbirds got fairly boring in the same way that Crowded House did, over time.
S – There’s a way that they got four-square. I feel like it was Don censoring himself a little bit, like ‘I can’t do anything weird now’.
Gary – They were Q Magazine’s favourite band at a certain point and they were just so much on the cusp of making it. The pressure must have been huge. It was a sad ending after such an amazing start. But if his only work was in the Blams he would still have an important place in NZ music history.
Sean – If his only work was in any of those things.
Gary – And Front Lawn… man!
Sean – It’s totally original.
ROBERT WYATT – AT LAST WE ARE FREE (Album: Nothing Can Stop Us, 1985)
Sean – Robert Wyatt, from the keyboards. But I’m not familiar with this song. Is this one of those things from Old Rottenhat, or something like that?
Gary – It’s from an odds and sods compilation he put together in the mid-‘80s, Nothing Can Stop Us.
Sean – You can tell by that keyboard sound that it’s him. It’s all over Rock Bottom.
Gary – It’s a Chic song, Bernard Edwards. I love his ability to cover a song and completely make it his. Like that Elvis Costello song, ‘Shipbuilding’.
Sean – Yeah, it’s stunning.
Gary – You came to Robert Wyatt when you were quite late?
Sean – Yes, when I was 28 or 29. Thanks to your good self, actually. [Gary was the owner of experimental record shop Beautiful Music at the turn of the century].
Gary – What do you like about him, and has he seeped into your music at all?
Sean – He’s definitely seeped into it. Weirdly enough, although you wouldn’t be able to hear it if you listen to it, it was that period before Lost Soul Music. That was the biggest conscious influence on that album, Robert Wyatt and particularly Rock Bottom. There’s nothing that remotely sounds like that album. Pastoral psychedelia. I haven’t listened to Robert Wyatt for quite awhile, and there’s a way that he’s into jazz that I’m not particularly into.
Gary – Yes, there’s a big jazz sensibility there.
Sean – It’s very readily identifiable music even though each track is very different. The languidness, his voice is amazing, his harmonic sense, his sense of getting inside a track and opening it up. His version of ‘I’m A Believer’, it’s a lot about imperfection, that crack opens a song.
Gary – And again, emotional vulnerability and truthfulness.
Sean – Yeah, I love it. There’s no bravado about that voice, nothing macho about it, nothing arrogant about it.
BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD – EXPECTING TO FLY (Album: Buffalo Springfield Again, 1967)
Sean – This is ‘Expecting To Fly’. The Jack Nitzsche string arrangement. Neil Young never went back to this. This was the beginning of his career, I fucking love it. I couldn’t give a shit about anything he did after 1980.
Gary – I wish he had done more like this.
Sean – Totally, but what he did was so good. You’re not a massive Neil Young fan, are you?
Gary – Sort of agnostic. There are moments for me.
Sean – Even a Neil Young fan is like that, surely. He’s done so much.
Gary – I’m a Frank Zappa fan and I’ve got every Frank Zappa album and I genuinely think that 99.9 per cent of them are worth listening to. Whereas Neil Young…
Sean – No. Fifty per cent if you’re lucky.
Gary – It’s amazing, though. There was one album he did in 2013 and I think it rocks. He did another album that same year that sucked the big one.
Sean – He did one with Crazy Horse with big long stream of consciousness…
Gary – That’s the one I like. Psychedelic Pill. They’re songs that go on forever but you don’t mind.
Sean – Did you hear that Time Out Of Mind Dylan album? You’re not a Dylan fan. Some people just can’t do it, eh?
Gary – Talking about voices.
Sean – There’s no way past that voice.
Gary – My ultimate Dylan album – and I’ve never been able to get it on CD – is the Greatest Hits album that he had in the ‘60s. And it just had all those great electric songs on it – ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ and all those songs. But to me it was just perfect in the way that, you know how some compilations just fit together really well? I acknowledge that he’s written some great songs and you get people covering Dylan songs and you realise that these aren’t just Dylan songs, they’re songs that are good songs that you can cover and make something of them. But generally speaking I just don’t do Dylan. I don’t think I’ve got a Dylan album.
Sean – I can understand it. If I’m not in the mood it seems deadly dull to me, because there’s nothing about a Dylan song that’s transporting in a way I often require music to be transporting.
Gary – But you are a fan. Got a bunch of albums?
Sean – I’ve listened to them so many times. And bang-bang-bang in the ‘60s great albums one after the other. And not just Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde. John Wesley Harding is awesome and I really love the Basement Tapes, and I really love The Band…
Gary – You really love The Band?
Sean – Not across the board, just the first two albums. My point of unfamiliarity is probably the early Dylan albums. Jamie, my son, really knows those first Dylan albums back to front, and I don’t know them in the same way. They’ve got great songs on them.
Gary – I just can’t stand story-songs. I want to but my brain tunes out. I want something more interesting.
Sean – You like poetry as opposed to prose.
Gary – I love Joni Mitchell, I can listen to her lyrics, but they’re sung in an interesting way and there’s all sorts of interesting musical things going on.
Sean – What’s your favourite Joni period?
Gary – Easily my favourite Joni album is For The Roses.
Sean – Great! I’m doing this Joni Mitchell show with Julia Deans, we’ve already done a few of them. She didn’t even know Joni Mitchell before she started singing them. She’s doing a pretty fucking good job. It’s like a Joni Mitchell tribute show.
Gary – I didn’t know about it.
S – We did a couple of shows last year. If you ever doubt that Julia’s got the chops, she can sing those songs and she gets every inflexion. But we don’t always see eye to eye as to what’s the best choice. I love that For The Roses song ‘Electricity’, a stunning song melodically and lyrically. Nobody else in the group gets it, and there’s four people. I literally wrote a treatise. “I’m sure that you guys haven’t listened to this song properly. This is what’s happening in this song. It’s super important in terms of the Joni narrative. It’s super important lyrically, it’s the period between her losing the plot and having a breakdown when she was making Blue, going out to the wilderness and finding herself again and putting herself and her band together and moving on to Court And Spark… it’s crucial, it’s a missing link to that album.” And they were still like, “it’s very nice of you to put it that way but we’re just not feeling it”. [Makes angry monster strangle someone sound].
Gary – It’s an amazing song. What gets me about those Joni albums is the way she layered the vocals, back when it was quite hard to do that. Overdubbing was quite new and she’s singing multiple part harmonies behind herself, low and high voices and… she was even doing that on her first album.
Sean – She was, she was. And that’s one of the things I like about, probably one of the most hated Joni albums aside from Mingus is Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, but she does that kind of stuff on there. It’s incredible.
Gary – I find most of the albums after Court And Spark quite difficult. There’s a sort of emotional disconnection.
Sean – Yes, totally an emotional disconnection. I think she gets it back on Hejira, a little bit, she finds herself again.
Gary – There must be a way into them but I’ve just never found it. Then in the ‘90s there was Night Ride Home, which was really nice,… but I always thought that For The Roses was one of the great underrated records.
Sean – Yeah, that’s something like On The Beach is for Neil Young. Fans must know that. We are doing ‘Blonde In The Bleachers’. That’s the one we’re going to learn.
* This Blindfold Test was conducted in 2015 and published here for the first time. Read Gary Steel’s profile on SJD at AudioCulture.