It’s seen a long gestation – what with Malcolm Black’s death and then Covid getting in the way. But this week sees the release of DIRT’s debut, Bloom. GARY STEEL asks Nick Sampson all about it, and hears about the Netherworld Dancing Toys adventure in the ‘80s as well.
Gary Steel – Between yourself and Barry you’ve got quite the backstory – both in bands and in separate career paths. How did Dirt come about and why was the time right for three old buddies (now two, sadly) to get back together?
Nick Sampson – Mal Black and Barry Blackler (Baz) went to school together and started their first band at 12. Called Jailhouse, they managed to play in pubs and even did support gigs at the Town Hall in Dunedin. I met Baz in Dunedin in the early Netherworld Dancing Toys days. He was in the Idles and then went off and played in the XL Capris, a successful Aussie band. He ended up in London playing with Chris Sheehan from the Exponents in The Starlings who were much liked.
I’d headed over there and we had a bit of fun. He and Matt the bass player were headhunted to join the Jesus and Mary Chain. That was exciting. Seeing them at the first Brixton Academy gig was something. We had some adventures. The Goat and Boots, Baz’s local opposite his flat in The Kings Road in Chelsea was run by Simon, Keef Richard’s godson and singer in early Brit new metal band Samson. Bob, who directed The Goodies and Ab Fab was one of our barfly drinking buddies there along with many other characters.
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Later Baz and I ended up back in Auckland. I had some songs. We put a band together called DIRT (#1) with Mal and Dave Gent from The Exponents on bass. We did one gig – a birthday party in Laingholm with Chris Knox, Dave D and Graeme Downes all doing solo sets. It went well but Baz and Mal were both working in the management side of business and weren’t sure about putting their heads above the parapet properly at that stage.
Then about five years back I was at a pub with Baz and played him a demo I’d done on my phone. He suggested working it up in his garage in Piha and DIRT (#2) started. We told Mal and he decided we needed his help. It just grew from that. Every Sat or Sun, month in month out.
Nick – After a year or two someone said we needed a name. Baz jokingly suggested Grecian 2000. It seemed appropriate – for those old enough to know 1970s TV ads about ageing blokes’ grey hair. Maybe it also sounded a bit ‘70s sci-fi in a tongue in cheek way. We stuck with it until Mal got sick. By then we were doing the album and it was more serious. DIRT the original throwaway name came up. Does it have musical correlation? Yes, in the sense that dirty rock ‘n’ roll is still at the heart of what we enjoy. Anything that gives you goosebumps, makes you stop and think, or maybe makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable.
Gary – Your good self, Barry and Malcolm all ended up with sterling careers – the other two in jobs still attached to the entertainment industry as a promoter and entertainment lawyer respectively. You’re Strategy Director at Principals. What’s that all about?
Nick – I’m a storyteller. And I work in brand – a horrible word for many. In my book brand simply means what you stand for, your reputation, what people think of you and what you want to communicate to the world. Not spin. My job is helping people, be they Kiwibank, a Manuka honey exporter, Tex Tone speakers, Taranaki the region, a band, bFM, the Blind Foundation or Epic Beer (all of whom I’ve worked with) define who and what they are, and then articulate it. There are flash terms like brand strategy. But basically it’s getting a bunch of people in a company, organisation or place together and facilitating a pretty straightforward conversation where I ask a lot of dumb questions, usually with a bit of humour, to define that stuff. That evolves into a ‘brand story’ that I write. Things like their visual identity, their website and what they say about themselves through marketing and advertising (which is not my thing – ad people do that) follow. You’d be surprised how the people who are most cynical about what I do usually end up being the most positive, once we’ve been through the process.
Gary – When I last interviewed you about the Netherworlds back in 1987 you sounded as if you’d been well and truly burnt by the industry. International record deals had turned to dust and the band were really struggling to keep it together. Did this experience scare you off the rock and roll life? Have you kept your hand in music over the years since the end of the Netherworlds, or has DIRT been a long time coming for you?
Nick – It was a bit gnarly then. We’d worked so hard. We left Flying Nun because Virgin set up here and offered some decent budget to make a well-produced record, which we weren’t achieving on the small budgets that we self-funded for Flying Nun. We had horns and a different soundscape thing. Virgin UK said to their NZ people, ‘get a NZ band Top 10 and we’ll release and promote them in the UK.’ We did that with ‘For Today’ and the Painted Years album, won the Silver Scroll and a bunch of music awards, and Virgin UK turned around and said they wouldn’t release it because it wasn’t up to UK production standards.
We then managed to get more funding locally and make a more ‘produced’ album. CBS USA signed us and were going to put $1M (!) into launching the NDTs into America (just after Crowded House). But as it was happening Sony Japan bought CBS and it fell off a cliff.
While it was a life lesson I’ve just kept doing what I do. I played in a couple of groups in the UK. I did a few shows here when I got back. Then played guitar with The Lure Of Shoes for several years and on their album done with Tex Houston. I also had a band (pre DIRT 2) called Betty Loves Elvis. Things happen for a reason and a number of important things I’m very happy about in my life (being a Dad, etc) would never have happened as they’ve unfolded if things hadn’t happened the way they did. It’s just part of how things are.
Gary – How would you describe the music of DIRT and the songs on Bloom? When you initially started jamming at Piha did you have an idea of the group’s musical aesthetic, or was it completely subconscious?
Nick – Ha, a challenging question. While the NDTs was a soul-influenced thing, I grew up on British and American rock ‘n’ roll, and then punk. I love The Beatles, Kinks, Stones, Iggy, Small Faces, The Clash, Jam, Buzzcocks, Undertones, Ella, Miles D, and Louis Armstrong as much as I do Herb Alpert, Muddy Waters, The Band, Cilla Black, The Velvets, The Verlaines and The Clean.
Living in the UK when we did, Baz and I have a very soft spot for all sorts of stuff. Primals, Stone Roses, Madchester, Britpop, JAMC obviously, as well as the Ramones and Tom Petty, etc. It’s just eclectic. Old school soul is still big on my Spotify. As is lots of new stuff. It’s just a blender we throw stuff into. It varies. The common thread is a decent groove, hopefully intelligent lyrics, melody and a bit of ‘wig out’ guitar. That said, as we got into this DIRT thing some pretty big life stuff in all of our families started happening – not just the Mal thing. So that influenced things to quite a degree too. The songs on the album are all pretty heartfelt.
Gary – When you hear the Netherworlds now does it still sound like you, or is it like some distant dream? The style of the music is certainly profoundly different from that of DIRT.
Nick – Yes it does sound like a dream sometimes. I can picture being there and how it felt. Big experiences for a 19-20-year-old. But yes, very time machine stuff. It’s strange when ‘For Today’ comes on in the supermarket or you hear it at an All Blacks game. I sometimes walk into meetings for work with older white middle-class men of a similar age who go “are you that Nick Sampson? I remember when…” I’m happy to take that. Quite funny.
Gary – With the deification of the “Dunedin sound” did you find it difficult at times being musicians of different stripes? Is Auckland, therefore, a better fit for you?
Nick – It was a bit odd being one of the early Flying Nun bands. We were the obvious pop/soul ugly duckling. Especially when we left to join Virgin. Roger maintains we didn’t tell him. I’m still not convinced about that. But we always felt part of the extended family… as much as you can in a broad extended family. No one ever gets along with everyone. And as for Auckland… some of my best music-related friends up here were part of the Dunedin/FN scene from all those years ago. Maybe it’s just that I’ve got a thick skin and time smooths any tribal weirdness. Who knows.
Gary – Did you always keep in touch with Malcolm, and was it the Silver Scrolls reunion that sparked the desire to work with him again, or were you already working together on what became DIRT by then?
Nick – Mal was always my older, wiser (according to him) nice but slightly annoying brother. I’m the oldest of five, so he filled a role for me. We always stayed close. I think he liked the fact I was a show-off young wastrel when we met. I couldn’t play like him, but I had the fire in my belly and the bottle to get up and belt it out. Yes, we always stayed in touch. He was/is Godfather to my 18-year- old daughter. I’m Godfather to his two youngest daughters. As he said… I can’t find another ex-Catholic like you who I trust for the job. Between DIRT 1 and DIRT now we did snippets… but the last four years up till his death, where we pretty much did it week in week out, was precious, now in retrospect. We talked about all this before he died.
Gary – In terms of performance and composition is it more or less equal between you and Barry?
Nick – It varies. But it’s a pretty even creative relationship. He’s a clever bugger as a world-class drummer, and as an increasingly talented arranger and engineer. And highly productive, he surprises me week in week out. But I have a few purple patches and fire a lot of songs at him too.
Gary – The songs you’ve released onto YouTube are cracking up healthy views. What would you like for DIRT in the long run? Do you see it as potentially something that could coalesce into more than a studio project?
Nick – When we started this music thing way back the unspoken thing was always ‘take it as far as it can go and see what happens’… I’m thrilled at the views we are getting. That aside, I’ll always keep doing it anyway, and doing it with Baz. We work well together and have a mutual understanding. I can say something like “can you do a T-Rex drum thing there”, or he can say “can you ease off on the Ramones or the Dunedin a bit” and we both just know. Where could it go? It would be great to play to some people one day. Who knows.
UPDATE – The above Q&A was conducted back in September 2020 and the album’s release was imminent. That was not to be. With Bloom now finally due for release on Friday, November 26 (2021!) we asked Nick Sampson for a bit of an update:
“BLOOM was due for release in late 2020. There were hold-ups out of our control. By the time the album was sent to the USA for transfer to stampers in mid-2021, delays of several months were the norm due to Covid. When they arrived in Auckland the one local pressing plant (Holiday Records) had a backlog. Finally we have the end product. And we’re happy.
“In the meantime DIRT has recorded SEED (the ‘Home Lockdown Tapes’), which we’re very happy with too. It’s the loungeroom/garagey companion to BLOOM. And it’s not too shabby. Baz has become quite the home engineer/producer, and we really like the new songs as part of DIRT’s evolution (some of these are the ones that have done well on social over the last year).
“SEED will be available on Soundcloud and Bandcamp once BLOOM is released on 26/11/21.
– Nick Sampson, November 2021 – 85+ days into Auckland’s latest lockdown.