As well as the great songs and harmonised duet vocals from band leaders Dianne Swann and Brett Adams, the latter can play that guitar in a manner disarmingly free of the slick factor too often associated with the über-skilled. Instead there’s a fresh exuberance and joy that almost suggests he woke up this morning and discovered this ability anew. His infectious energy and inspired playing has seen Adams accompany artists as varied as Tim Finn, Rodriguez, Don Walker (ex-Cold Chisel), Graham Brazier, Dave McArtney, and Jan Hellriegel, as well as playing in original bands all over the world.
The Bads first appeared on New Zealand stages in 2005, releasing their first album Earth From Space and appearing fully formed and fantastic from the get-go. But no one gets to be this good without some serious growing up, which in rock and roll is always done in public. Brett Adams and Dianne Swann did a whole lot of theirs overseas.
Some people were familiar with Dianne Swann from Everything That Flies, the band she fronted in the 1980s, and from her stint in When The Cat’s Away. Others might recall Brett Adams being the lead guitarist in The Mockers from 1984 to 1989, which is when they packed up and left for London. Brett and Dianne, with former Mockers bassist Geoff Hayden and Londoner Nick Yeatman on drums formed The Julie Dolphin in 1992, not long after the Mockers split. Which is when their solid gold dues-paying began.
Brett’s commitment to the guitar started pretty early. Every day after walking home from the Taupaki train station (a toilet cubicle-sized corrugated iron hut beside the railroad tracks) in rural West Auckland where he would get dropped after high school, he’d play his guitar until late at night. By the time we started hanging out when I was 15, he was already pretty good.
Brett’s dad had wired a guitar lead into its amplifier input so he could plug his old Hofner through it and play … for about 15 minutes.
In the garage between some hay bales and a chest-high freezer was an old radiogram. Brett’s dad had wired a guitar lead into its amplifier input so he could plug his old Hofner through it and play… for about 15 minutes. Then the valves would start to overheat and the tone would get warm and fuzzy, and actually sound pretty damn good for a short while, with a woody tone Jack White would kill for. Twelve minutes in and the distortion would begin to eat the signal, and the guitar would slowly disappear into the fuzz and shrink away like the dot of light when you turn off an old TV set.
“That was a Hofner Galaxy, it had big humbucker pickups with the Hofner logo embossed on them inside a diamond, and a good tremolo system … I swapped my ancient, dangerous old skateboard called a Moonskate, which had the most treacherous trux on it … and 12 dollars. Yup, 12 dollars and a skateboard for my first guitar. I wish I still had it. It was a 1960s guitar, and it was pretty beat up. When we turned up to gigs on the North Shore there were kids with new Ibanez and Aria guitars, they would look at it like, what is this old piece of … I didn’t even have a case for it. Sold it and bought an Ibanez telecaster, $150 dollars from Big City Music, cheapest guitar in the shop. They were both good guitars.”
A bunch of us hammered ourselves into some kind of group, influenced by blues, Latin rock, and the stripped down rock and roll of bands like Cold Chisel. A distinctly unfashionable mix (which somehow remained uncontaminated by the music I soon started taping off Barry Jenkins’ Radio Hauraki show), but one that reflected our rural West Auckland surroundings. This was a place where kids rode their horses to school.
We played at high school dances on Auckland’s North Shore and rehearsed every weekend at the Kumeu Masonic Lodge, writing songs and creating a sound. After a Sunday afternoon audition for Russ le Roq, we ended up as a kind of resident band at his all-ages club The Venue on Symonds St, supporting local touring acts like The Mockers, The Dance Exponents, and The Wastrels. It was there that Brett was spotted by Andrew Fagan and headhunted to replace Dean Heazlewood as The Mockers’ guitarist.
“Working with that band and especially with Andrew at the helm, I realised the importance of creating an economical melodic part that complements or lifts the song, something concise and effective ... its own composition within the song. When there was a new song to work on, everyone in that band went into their own little world for a while trying to come up with the most hooky part. I guess that’s something I took from that period, something I still try and do.”
Brett, a quiet young fellow of 19 years, suddenly found himself in a new group of extroverted people playing to large teeny-bopper crowds all over the country. A friendship and musical partnership was forged with bassist Geoff Hayden that was to continue through the next 18 years, and he and drummer Steve Thorpe introduced Brett to new influences like The Cramps and The Gun Club. Steve’s death in 1986 was unexpected, and a serious blow. “Steve was moody for sure, but his dark moods were usually pretty short … he’d seem to be able to laugh it off pretty fast.”
Recording The Mockers’ second studio album (1985’s Culprit And The King) in Australia forced Brett to confront his limitations.
Recording The Mockers’ second studio album (1985’s Culprit And The King) in Australia forced Brett to confront his limitations. He began to work hard at becoming proficient in a professional recording environment. That, combined with rigorous touring, soon saw Brett becoming one of the best guitar players around, touring with acts like Graham Brazier and When The Cat’s Away. The Mockers found themselves tiring of repeating the same circuit and set their sights on Britain, but shortly after relocating there, the band broke up.
“When the Mockers split I was in London thinking ‘what do I do now?’ I auditioned for a couple of bands, one full-on heavy rock, almost Motorhead-type band. I didn’t think that was quite me … but then Dianne appeared, she came over for a holiday. We knew each other and liked a lot of the same things. The Pixies, Patti Smith, The Gun Glub … I was playing with Dave McArtney in one of those NZ shows in London, maybe Waitangi Day. So she knew Dave and turned up to that. We got talking about writing together. My flat was too depressing, so I’d bring my Les Paul to a park and we’d sit outside in the sun and write songs.
“The Julie Dolphin was a chance to play something darker, more energetic … and also to reflect the experiences of life. I had more sadness, more anger in me. After hearing Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth, even The Cocteau Twins, there were things I wanted to do … but it wasn’t just about reflecting musical influences, it was a chance to write about things inside myself, to express something.
“We had control, we were producing and had free reign. Both Geoff and I played very aggressively… there was no click track; we were just playing very hard. Definitely very spirited! I was let loose, and I really wanted to play the hell out of my guitar.”
This was really the start of Brett’s songwriting. ‘Shell’ off their first EP is the sound of his voice emerging for the first time, and it still shines. Nowadays he and Dianne write together in all possible combinations, and Brett says he most often brings phrases or parts of songs to the table. And though his voice is pretty much half of the vocal presence of The Bads, he doesn’t think of himself as a singer.
“I’m a guitarist … am I a singer? I don’t like to call myself a singer. I sing some of the time, that’s how I like to be, that feels good. But when it comes to the songs, we share a common goal. We listen to what we are working on and try to come up with what the song needs, whatever will help the song be the best it can be. If there’s a good guitar part on the recording that helps the song, I will try and play it live rather than just play the chords.”
Brett and I discussed the apparent audience divide between alternative/ underground/ hip guitarists and their mainstream counterparts. This divide is not as obvious or pronounced as it was in the 80s and into the 90s, but even now a certain crowd will voice their appreciation of Chris Heazlewood (King Loser) or David Kilgour, but not acknowledge (at least out loud) players like Brett or Geoff Maddock (Goldenhorse).
This led us somehow to Jane’s Addiction, who were a band comprising a couple of freaks who liked noise, Joy Division etc, and a couple of slick-playing LA rock types. So you ended up with a band that was kind of commercial, but also distinctly weird. I note that this is similar territory to that occupied by The Julie Dolphin.
They toured through Europe with Radiohead and supported Oasis.
They released the Roses EP, followed by an album, Lit, and their singles got good airplay in the UK. They toured through Europe with Radiohead and supported Oasis. They eventually morphed into a more commercial unit called Boom Boom Mancini, and signed to Almo Sounds. After a promising start with songs like ‘Super Model Human’ and 'Arguments And Alcohol’ getting Radio One airplay and an NME song of the week, Almo decided to abandon some of its developing artists and the band were left high and dry. The album they recorded for Almo has never been released.
That period spawned too many mad stories to list here. Late night altercations with a drunken Graham Coxon at a London pub, Liam Gallagher popping his head into the band’s dressing room moments before they went onstage to tell them Kurt Cobain has died …
But after a decade in Britain, returning to NZ seemed like a good option. They settled in West Auckland, not far from where Brett grew up, and soon afterwards returned to their roots in a musical sense as well, and The Bads were born. The pair soon became an essential part of the growing alt country/ roots movement in NZ, and Brett once again found himself playing with a range of other musicians.
“I remember getting asked to play with Graham Brazier when I was 22 and going, wow … I heard ‘Blue Lady’ and 'Gutter Black’ on the radio when I was a kid and 10 years later I’m playing with Graham, and later on with Dave McArtney. It’s a great feeling, how did I end up here? Lately, playing with Tim Finn was like that as well. Playing ‘I Hope I Never’ live as a two-piece, translating the piano parts to guitar using Memory Man delays … it’s a pretty cool situation.”
Brett and Tim have toured the US as a duo (one visit saw Brett jamming with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones live on his LA radio show), and played numerous shows large and small over their nine year period working together (including a gig opening the WOMAD Festival 2013 and at the Leigh Sawmill café, where The Bads doubled as Tim Finn’s backing band). He also performed with Tim Finn on Finn's song cycle ‘White Cloud’ at the Auckland Town Hall as part of the Cabaret Season 2015, and a new song cycle called ‘Fiery Maze’ (a collaboration with the late poet Dorothy Porter) is to debut at The Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne.
“I got to play with The Exponents recently as well. Two of my favourite Kiwi records are their second and third albums, Amplifier and Expectations. Darker, moodier and slightly gothic for them. That was pretty amazing, to be playing those songs, Chris Sheehan’s parts in particular. I persuaded them to play ‘Ashened Autumn Leaves’. That was a great moment.”
2015 saw The Bads head to Nashville during Country Music Week, to play on the bill at Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam at the Ryman Auditorium alongside Charley Pride and Jimmy Webb. Stuart requested The Bads to perform after hearing their music via an old contact.
“Marty Stuart is a country music legend, he used to play in Johnny Cash’s band as a very young man. I got to play Clarence White’s Telecaster, with the first B-Bender system, which Marty Stuart now owns. So I’m holding this legendary guitar, and I couldn’t think of what to play! And later I’m standing offstage behind Jimmy Webb as he plays ‘Wichita Lineman’ …”
West Auckland summer evenings can turn up all manner of weird noise. In the early 80s, in one direction you could sometimes hear the lions roaring at the safari park over towards Massey, while the rumble of the surf from the west coast beaches bounces over the Waitakere Ranges from the other.
One summer Taupaki night we heard the sound of a guitar-driven blues-rock band echoing off the hills away to the west. So we walked along the pitch-dark country roads in the direction of the music, following a phantom. It would get louder, as if we were getting close, then fall away into the night as the sound travelled on the breeze. The music was rocking, wild guitar compelling us to pursue it further, maybe just around the next bend. We found ourselves in a dip, surrounded by old pine trees and squinting into the darkness to catch more of the sound. Suddenly we noticed the silhouette of a large peacock high up in a tree, its tail hanging down against the backdrop of stars, and at that moment it let out a piercingly loud otherworldly cry. Utterly freaked out, we turned tail and scurried back to the warmth and light of the house.
Later we put it together. The music was most likely the Kevin Borich Express rehearsing for some shows. Borich (formerly of The La-De-Da’s) is a local boy now based in Australia who occasionally returns to NZ. Brett seemed surprised when I suggested that he had, in a way, come full circle. Now he is the accomplished guitarist, living in rural West Auckland playing roots-based music, and maybe the sound of his guitar is echoing down the valleys at night, spooking young ears all over again.
The peacock incident mentioned near the end of this profile has been immortalised on the cover of The Bads’ debut album Earth From Space, and also in a tattoo on Brett’s person.
The shots of Dianne and Brett performing in the Carry The Weight video were filmed in Taupaki Hall, where Brett and John Pain played before an audience for the first time, at age 16.