GARY STEEL pulls yet another mouldy 40-year-old story out of his considerable behind. This one’s about an obscure Wellington group called The Digits.
The Digits are the unknown band with the album with the crazy title. Their music and ideas are pretty crazy too.
To say that they have worked independently would be putting it mildly. They’ve virtually existed in a little bubble of their own dabbling. Many Wellingtonians knew nothing of their existence until recently.
Would you like to support our mission to bring intelligence, insight and great writing to entertainment journalism? Help to pay for the coffee that keeps our brains working and fingers typing just for you. Witchdoctor, entertainment for grownups. Your one-off (or monthly) $5 or $10 donation will support Witchdoctor.co.nz. and help us keep producing quality content. It’s really easy to donate, just click the ‘Become a supporter’ button below.
The Digits are peculiar. They are Malcolm Pickup, guitar, vocals, great name, Delmar Mason, vocals, (“Anything else?” “That’s enough!”), John Derwin, drums, and Tony, bass.
The catalyst and spokesman is solo dad Pickup. We talked to him at his Johnsonville home.
Pickup is the most experienced Digit. During a seven-year stay in America, he played “mostly proms and stuff like that” with a rock duo called Sister Ray. “You can puke all over the place. It’s just accepted that that’s what you do at proms. You get people wiped out on mescaline in the bathroom, people spiking drinks and stuff and multi-sickness, you know?”
His several groups fell apart. “The guitarist OD’d, Zilly turned into a speedfreak and got a farm somewhere…” And Pickup woke up with a shock in ’77 in “the outback of Esk forest outside of Napier shooting goats and things like that”. This man calls himself a pacifist?
Coaxed back into playing, Pickup got involved with Smashed Executive, recorded evidence of which can be found on the Radio Windy Home Grown album. This band dissolved/evolved into Petracken, which in turn evolved into The Digits.
“Apart from the name changes, the ideas are still the same and the music’s still the same,” says Pickup.
The Digits, then, have effectively been together since Christmas ’79. They stayed pretty quiet through 1980 with only a couple of gigs to their credit. But by early ’81 they had their first LP completed (it has already sold out of its first pressing), and had their second and third albums well underway. They are also doing tracks at Marmalade (until now they have worked at 4-track studio Sausage) for a possible single.
Apart from the band, the members are into their own sidelines. For instance, Delmar plays in his own heavy rock band, and Pickup himself is an obsessive meddler with tapes and sounds. He keeps his TV on an off-channel for the patterns, and can often be found taping and transmogrifying electronically sounds recorded from television. He played a tape of Johnny Carson audience laughter recorded like gunshots punctuating the night.
Not your run-of-the-mill band, The Digits are in the not enviable position of being a non-commercial band which vehemently avoids being trendy. Their music, which although quite experimental, avoids making new wave concessions.
Their Wellingtonzone gig was ample demonstration of the ultra-trendies’ reaction: ultra-negative! But there may just be an audience for what the Digits have to offer. Either way they’ll get their revenge on the unconvinced, with honour.
* Notes: Although I long ago lost all my interview transcripts from this era I can remember the slight awkwardness of my visit to the Digits suburban house. This was a time when anyone remotely hip lived in the inner city, and Digits just didn’t fit the bill. I haven’t heard the album since 1981, but it may scrub up better now than it seemed to at the time. The Wellingtonzone concert referred to was a showcase of Capital bands at the Town Hall that included The Steroids, The Mockers and BRF. Parts of the gig were used on a subsequent compilation album released on Bunk Records. I suspect that parts of Pickup’s story were flagrantly fictional. I had forgotten about the very 1980s habit of tuning a TV to an off-channel to watch the patterns. Life before the interweb! Ha!