40 years ago: Wellington’s Tin Syndrome

It’s New Zealand Music Month and for the occasion, GARY STEEL digs up some musical skeletons from his past. Today it’s Tin Syndrome’s turn.

Tin Syndrome are a bright new image for Wellington. New music, the clothes fit an attitude more at home in Auckland than with the underground chic prevalent in their home city.

Many will have already pigeon-holed the band since their video clip, recently screened on Radio With Pictures. A snazzy-looking clip just brimming with ideas and surprises, it showed the band (especially singer Mark Austin) with varying shades of extremity and colour in clothes, makeup and hairstyle.

 

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Austin strenuously points out that the fashion aspect of the band is unimportant taken out of context; that the group are not heavily into that area of the entertainment spectrum. The best thing about doing the clip, he says, was “the free haircuts”.

“I’d hate people to write us off as a fashion band, and really not contributing anything artistically.”

Getting down to brass tacks, it’s ‘Street Song’ – the song on the video – which the band is most avidly interested in promoting. It is influenced by the current crop of English groups with the most obvious reference being Simple Minds. The sound features propulsive bass (Kevin McGill) and drums (Malcolm Reid) overlaid with tone/textures from guitar/synthesiser and a singing style which could best be described as an updated croon.

The song is from Tin Syndrome’s debut EP, a 12” which captures the band at its most commercial. Recorded in January, the band now call this their “stylised, slick phase”. Since then, emphasis in the band has switched to slightly more experimental areas.

“Just jamming over the past month we’re getting some exciting things happening that are radically different from what we’ve been doing,” says Austin.

“All of our parts are becoming more open, so that you can play them freer,” says guitarist David Long. They all agree that the space they are purposefully leaving in the music is a natural allowance for improvisation.

Suddenly drawn to the public’s attention, the band, in fact, are not quite new. Tin Syndrome formed initially in December 1981, but became inactive due to the prolonged illness of one key member. Reforming in September 1982 with a new drummer, the band set to with the business of writing new material and long, diligent periods of rehearsal.

The result is a group that, while they have yet to shake off all influences, are tight, powerful and professional. Their presentation is quite formidable, with gleaming banks of synthesizers, and shiny new equipment. Says synthesist Peter Robinson: “I’m serious about what I’m doing, and I need all this gear.”

As for the songs, Tin Syndrome believe they have something to say.

“I really like political music,” says Long. “But if you overdo it you’re only playing to people who think exactly like you.”

Therefore, lyricist Austin tries to be less obvious, leaning towards satire.

Tin Syndrome are keen to release an album to rid themselves of a backing of old material.

And in a few months, they hope to launch a national tour. In the long run, they have a clear plan for creative operation.

Says Austin: “To have three months, say, where we just didn’t gig at all, and where we completely changed our repertoire, and then spend two months of constant touring. We’ll tour with a particular sound, which is what we’re into at the time, and we’ll really feel as if we’re into playing all those songs.”

+ Originally published in The Times on 12 June 1983, this is yet another story I’m quite embarrassed by now. If I could go back in time I’d try much hard to describe the band’s essence and get them talking about their deepest desires (ha). Somewhere I’ve got a long transcript of the interview which I’ll endeavour to publish. It should be more interesting than my flawed interpolation of Tin Syndrome. Those wanting to hear the group’s music, which has stood the test of time quite well, could check out my review of their 2014 compilation CD. https://witchdoctor.co.nz/index.php/2014/10/the-tin-syndrome-artefacts-which-reason-ate-1980-83-no-ordinary-sickness-jayrem-cd-review/

+ Whatever happened to? Leader Mark Austin went on to a busy and productive career writing scores for films and stage productions, while guitarist David Long joined The Muttonbirds, and later worked as a producer and musician in a number of bands and projects. Keyboardist Peter Robinson – a hugely admired musician – sadly died in 2016.

 

+ Keep reading for a second story, published around the same time in TOM magazine!

THE Tin Syndrome. Not ‘Tin Syndrome’. It means more, the group have agreed, with a THE at the front.

When I interviewed three of THE Tin Syndrome I forgot to ask what the name actually meant. But it tells you absolutely nothing about the group, and ambiguity hath many charms.

The three are vocalist/guitarist/front-person Mark Austin, synthesist Peter Robinson and guitarist David Long. Absent are Kevin McGill (bass) and Malcolm Reid (drums).

THE Tin Syndrome are a band which has, from its beginning in December ’81, had keen audience support in Wellington. They have not met with critical acclaim or exposure – there hasn’t been much media to acclaim them.

With their first 12” EP in the shops, one could assume that the band has had an easy couple of years building up to the first peak. Not so. The first incarnation of THE Tin Syndrome only lasted three months – December ’81 to February ’82 RIP.

Mark: When we started off we were full of enthusiasm. We didn’t think that we were all that good or anything. Our first few gigs were really successful – we got encores every time we played. The illness of a key member, though, forced the band off the road until September. When they re-emerged, it was with new drummer Malcolm.

Mark: We played a few gigs that didn’t really sound right. The problem was that we weren’t playing songs that we had written with Malcolm, and our musical tastes had changed a hell of a lot anyway. The old stuff was pretty frantic, all uptempo.

They had to start from scratch. This time was one of hard graft; writing new material, intensive rehearsal, and certain insularity.

Mark: We went through a period of taking ourselves a wee bit too seriously.

The band call this their slick phase, which culminated in the recording of the EP in January.

Mark: We’re really sick of the EP. We don’t sound like that anymore. (He later adds that it’s still a good EP, and one they’re all proud of).

Mark: You’re so full of what’s in your head, what you’re putting into the music, that it’s actually quite hard to stand off and be objective about what you’re projecting outwards.

This was painfully obvious in a gig at Victoria University where an overworked, over-wrought band played to a disinterested audience of swillers and invoked the ire of our very own Tom Tiddler. He called them ‘Spandex Ballet posers’, or something.

Mark: I’m sure that it was justified. I’m sure we were transmitting that at the time. David (about the gig): …This pack of piss-head first-years who think they’re something now because they’re at varsity. They weren’t there to listen to the music.

THE Tin Syndrome point out that they are not a fashion band. They don’t even like Spandau Ballet, and aside from an interest in ‘fashion as art’ (in Mark’s case) the categorisation ends there. Says he: I feel we have something to say, and I’d hate people to write us off as a fashion band, and really not contributing anything artistically.

On close inspection, it’s obvious the man speaks sense. They do present themselves well – bright clothes, impressive musical gear and slick lighting onstage. I guess it’s this middle-class germ-free presentation which pisses off some of Wellington’s more frugal/minimalist ‘art’ exponents.

They justify all the gear by explaining that they need it, not so they can exploit it, but so they can make subtle use of more musical sounds.

Peter: I’m serious about what I’m doing and I need all this gear.

At the same time, THE Tin Syndrome’s gear looks more impressive than it is. The banks of keyboards, for instance, are programmable, but unlike THE Body Electric, the band do not own sequencers or computers.

Peter: We’re not as technical as we used to be. There aren’t as many fancy rhythm changes.

Mark: We’re much better musicians than we used to be, but there’s less in a song than there was.

Of the song content, David remarks: I really like political music, but if you overdo it you’re only playing to people who think exactly like you.

Mark writes the lyrics, and a device he tends to use is satire.

Mark: I wrote ‘Superman’ about four years ago, before I realised there were people who actually wanted to be average blokes. When I wrote it I wanted people who were sexist or whatever, to be drawn into it and listen to it.

In THE TS method, music does not always seem to reflect lyric content.

Mark: There’s real skill in music and lyrics that generate the same sort of feeling. I expect that we’re a bit immature at that at the moment. But we’re getting better all the time.

THE Tin Syndrome are at a stage where people can start taking them seriously. But they shouldn’t go on the example of the EP and expect more of the same. The band are excited about what they’re doing now and what’s coming up, not the past.

Mark: We’re getting some exciting things happening that are radically different from what we’ve been doing. David: All of our parts are becoming more open, so that we can play them freer, in a way.

Mark: The music’s becoming much more flexible, and all the individual parts are much simpler.

They even express interest in heading into the general direction of improvisation, although that may have to be a separate project under a different name.

THE Tin Syndrome are positive people with a positive attitude towards Wellington and its bands. I’m sure they were genuine when they expressed appreciation for music as diverse as Naked Spots Dance, The Pelicans and Primitive Art Group.

Whether audiences prove to be as open-minded towards THE Tin Syndrome – a mainstream band which makes more than a nod towards originality – only time, talent and luck will tell.

 

 

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