From DIY beginnings in an apartment on Auckland’s Karangahape Road to the stages of Reading and Leeds, the four-piece really did, in their own charismatic way, reach great heights. But burnout came hard and the comedown was long. And even though their sophomore release was frustratingly delayed, the album’s maturity and density reaffirmed just why the band struck a chord with both local and international audiences and critics alike.
Steve Mathieson (guitar, vocals) and James Brennan (guitar) had been playing music under the alias Lunavela for some time, and were looking to form a band for a different project. Mathieson worked with Tim van Dammen (drums) at Rialto cinemas in Newmarket, and suggested the three jam together.
Mathieson and Brennan were making noisy rock material, while van Dammen was more interested in the indie-electro scene coming out of Australia; the likes of Cut Copy and The Presets. They soon recruited their school friend Stephen Parry to play bass and the band practised in the apartments above Revel Café on Karangahape Road in central Auckland,.
Eager to perform, Mathieson sent a draft copy of ‘Elixir Always’ to Ian “‘Blink”’ Jorgensen in the hope of joining an A Low Hum tour. After playing only one house party, Collapsing Cities secured a spot opening for Disasteradio, Kill Surf City and Zoom at the King’s Arms on Saturday 16 May 2006. It paid off. Blink was impressed and asked them to join his September tour with So So Modern, Alps and Frase+Bri. “That So So Modern tour was fun because I remember us just being little shits, being all about the party,” laughs Mathieson. That summer they played the first Camp A Low Hum at Brookfields Outdoor Education Centre, Wainuiomata (3 to 5 February 2007).
Recorded at various locations across Auckland, the aptly titled Collapsing Cities EP was released on 12 May 2007. The release included five originals and one remix of the song ‘Elixir Always’ by the North Shore Pony Club. “We had friends [studying] at SAE [School of Audio Engineering] and MAINZ [Music and Audio faculty, Tai Poutini Polytechnic], so we tried to just sneak in there and do overdubs,” reflects Brennan. “It was a bit haphazard, just whoever had a studio, we’d go wherever we could.” Dunedin engineer Dale Cotton mastered the final cut.
Later that month, 95bFM hosted two New Zealand Music Month showcase nights called “Fancy New Band”, with Collapsing Cities on the Friday bill. Their set caught the attention of Paul McKessar and Campbell Smith from CRS Music Management, whose roster included Bic Runga and Anika Moa.
CRS helped with the release and distribution of their debut album, Elixir Always, recorded over a short three-day stint at van Dammen’s parents’ place in Hamilton. The short duration of the recording session seemed to complement the jangly, lo-fi quality of the music.
COLLAPSING CITIES WON THE BREAKTHROUGH ARTIST OF 2007 AT THE BNET NZ MUSIC AWARDS.
At this time the writing process usually started with Mathieson, who would present to the band his lyrical ideas, often accompanied with a chord, and together the band would flesh out the music and animate it.
“ ‘In The Valley’ we just wrote in the practice room as a jam, and with ‘Fear of Opening My Mouth’, I had the basic chords of the song and Stephen made them a little more complex because he was better at piano than I was,” explains Mathieson. “‘Elixir Always’, me and James wrote that in a bedroom. ‘So I Said Last Weekend’ I wrote on a guitar and took it to the band. ‘Those Party Pills’ wasn’t gonna go on the album, but it was 1am; I performed it in one take on acoustic guitar and Tim put a beat over it.”
Mathieson’s observational, deadpan lyrics coupled with their brand of chaotic guitar pop was fresh and perhaps most importantly, honest. Stories of backstabbing-friends, spending nights boozing and days sleeping, working soul-crushing jobs and other day-to-day pitfalls narrated their tunes. There was energy and attitude too. Where else in New Zealand music could you shout: “If I’m still a telemarketer next year I think I’ll kill myself”?
“There was definitely an honesty to what it was like then,” recalls Mathieson. “Basically I was just partying too much. I was working at the wine society and going out three nights a week. Lyrically, I just sung about things in the subtext of my brain that I probably wasn’t addressing any other way.”
Dale Cotton tracked everything live, mastered it, and the album was completed at the end of October, 2007. On 16 November, Collapsing Cities won the Breakthrough Artist of 2007 at the bNet NZ Music Awards. That summer they also played Big Day Out 2008.
Released on 31 March 2008 on their own Pastel Pistol label through Universal Music, Elixir Always was an instant hit. The New Zealand Herald rated it four out of five stars, stating, “There hasn’t been a New Zealand release in a while that spits and kicks out of its skin like Collapsing Cities’ debut Elixir Always. It’s noisy, at times naughty and nasty, but always danceable.”
‘So I Said Last Weekend’, ‘Fear Of Opening My Mouth’ and ‘Seriously’ were chosen as singles and all charted well on student radio, while van Dammen’s background in visual arts allowed the band to direct the music videos themselves.
CRS used contacts in the UK to help the band secure a spot on London-based SuperVision Management, who looked after acts including Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Crystal Castles and White Lies, and ‘Fear of Opening My Mouth’ started getting played on BBC Radio 1.
At the end of April, the band flew to London and embarked on a series of support slots and tours to rival even the most seasoned band: opening for Metronomy, Late of the Pier and the Black Kids and playing Reading and Leeds, The Great Escape, Lovebox, Dot-to-Dot and Stag and Dagger festivals. Then there was the live-to-air show on XFM, joining the Levi’s ‘One to Watch’ tour and an NME Club night at London’s infamous Koko’s, performing alongside Bombay Bicycle Club.
NME listed them as one of the 10 hopes of the future of music.
The British music press took notice. NME listed them as one of the 10 hopes of the future of music, while the Guardian hailed them as New Band of the Week:
“If you like ramshackle, anarchic, chaotic guitar-pop based on nagging, high-register, angular riffs, brainy/dumb choruses and lyrics that expose the contradictions of the modern world and the human condition, you should check them out.”
Radio hosts Zane Lowe, Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens endorsed their music, and ‘Fear of Opening My Mouth’ was later released on vinyl as a 7” through London-based Way Out West records. ‘Seriously’ was even mixed by Ed Buller of The Psychedelic Furs, though this wasn’t officially released. Everything seemed to be going exceptionally well for the Auckland band, but the touring lifestyle took its toll.
Brennan reminisces on six months of living in London as exhausting. “It was super fun but a really draining lifestyle. We were all quite strong personalities and some gigs would go fantastically but others would be disastrous.”
Mathieson remembers their set at LoveBox festival fondly. “We got this sweet set at 3pm after White Lies and before Dandy Warhols. No one knew who we were. We played ‘Seriously’ last and my amp cut out so I just sang and stage-dived into the crowd.”
“More than anything it was a fun OE,” he continues. “We got to party and see the world for a year and had some really good opportunities. Maybe fucked up a few of them, nailed a few of them and had a really good time”
“We were never the most obsessively organised band,” adds Brennan, laughing. “Being shambolic was part of our charm.”
The band returned to New Zealand at the end of 2008, intending to write their second album quickly and head back overseas. Once home though, they found themselves seeking a little bit of normality after a whirlwind period in the UK. “When we got back we were keen to resume a bit of comfort and familiarity and not have to sleep on double mattresses in the living room,” explains Brennan. “We got back into the different parts of our lives that we had left behind when we went overseas.”
Brennan and Parry resumed studying and van Dammen got into filmmaking, and together the band pitched away at recording and writing sessions in a part-time capacity for about three years. The band continued to perform live when requested though, playing Rhythm and Vines 2008/2009, opening for the Arctic Monkeys’ Big Day Out sideshow tour in early 2009, and for The Pixies at Vector Arena in 2010.
Recording took place mostly at The Lab Recording Studio in Auckland, this time with the aid of Nick Roughan of the Skeptics. “He was really fun to work with, a real smart-arse with a punk attitude,” says van Dammen. Writing the album collaboratively this time around meant each member contributed their own musical ideas, with the downside being everyone was far too picky. Living in different locations and communicating over email was also testing.
This laborious effort proved a little frustrating for the band. “The songs were written over a really long period of time and we sat on recordings for ages,” recalls van Dammen. “We had just burned out and it was like, ‘is this the kind of sound we want to go for?’”
Musically, they took inspiration from their time touring overseas “A lot of it was written – or ideas begun – while we were in the UK,” says Brennan. “I think that was reflected in the album; the alienation, homesickness, stuff like that. Just weird pop music, which is what we were aiming for.”
Released in 2009, lead single ‘Tazers’ gave audiences a taste of things to come. Polished production and hints of electronic influences underpinned the band’s signature melancholic indie-rock. Van Dammen says he looked to the Chemical Brothers for inspiration on the drum work in particular. “That’s where you’ll notice the big-beat feel set against the indie rock.”
With funding from NZ On Air, Strangers Again was released on Pastel Pistol three years later on 13 July 2012. The NZ Herald rated it four out of five stars and Under the Radar rated it eight out of 10, both noting the thematic maturities and sonic densities throughout the release. The hardships faced in London certainly filtered through, yet the darker tone didn’t compromise the excellent songwriting. The diversity of their strengths was highlighted, as the band could easily switch from the abrasive post-punk of ‘Mega 5th’ to the emotive and climactic ‘This Mess’. And while there wasn’t anything as immediately catchy as the singles from the debut album, songs such as ‘Regret’ retained the cynicism in the crashing outro: “I just wanna make life harder on you.” ‘Regret’ and ‘Favours for Favours’ were released as promotional videos.
The band toured throughout New Zealand later that year, and Strangers Again was nominated for the Taite Music Prize in 2013. Despite the encouraging return, Collapsing Cities slowly faded away and the members turned to other life directions. Tim van Dammen is a filmmaker, Stephen Parry is a lawyer, and James Brennan is a practising psychologist. Steve Mathieson works in insurance and continues to write and record music as Lunavela, this time as an electronic-based project.
Steve Mathieson - guitar, vocals
James Brennan - guitar
Stephen Parry - bass
Tim van Dammen - drums
Way Out West