In 2002 Goodshirt’s Rodney Fisher and Gareth Thomas talked to Give It a Whirl about their experiences in the New Zealand music industry, starting with their early memories of becoming inspired to pursue music as a career, through to playing in covers bands and recording tracks in the garden shed towards their 2001 debut album, Good. Just months before this interview the Gareth Thomas-penned single ‘Sophie’ had reached No.1.
Earliest musical influences
Rodney Fisher: Music in general – at primary school actually, probably my first exposure to music was through a really good teacher that I had, [he was] singing Eagles songs and stuff like that to the classroom. And he was really into getting the kids singing and stuff and I remember being like, “oh pluck up enough courage”, and then he’d get a few people to sing a little solo piece, and I remember singing ‘Hotel California’. I got Mum and Dad to buy me a bongo drum when I was in standard two or something.
My parents have a wide range of music in their collection. Anything from African music to Pink Floyd and Eagles and Beach Boys. There’s always been quite a wide range of melodic music, that’s what I was brought up on. Anything with a very strong melody and good rhythm basically. That’s what I really dig, I’ve always aspired to writing stuff with melody.
I’ve learnt a bit about my parents over the years, and apparently my mum first met my dad, or saw my dad, performing ‘King of the Road’ or something like that at college in New Plymouth. I never realised he was a performer, but he had a few little moments like that. So, it’s somewhere in my blood, from Dad getting up there and doing that.
Gareth Thomas: I first noticed New Zealand music when I was in Canada. My parents were sent overseas to work, so I had to go. ‘I Got You’ [Split Enz] was a big hit over there at that time, and I think it was more when [the album] Time and Tide was out. It was quite a buzz for me to say, “oh that’s where I come from, where those guys come from”, and it wasn’t long after that I said I wanted piano lessons.
Rodney: I have this Split Enz memory, they were playing at the Bowl of Brooklands. I can only just remember it; my parents were listening outside the gates and being a little kid, I ran inside. They had to pay to try and find me amongst the crowd. But yeah, Split Enz, I definitely started noticing them; my parents had all their music as well.
Rodney: For me, bands like Jean-Paul Sartre Experience – I’m not sure why they stuck out – and obviously Straitjacket Fits as well – they’d had a little bit of radio play and I remember going to a gig, there were three of us. I was a teenager and loved their music. I thought they were huge, and the music scene was at a bit of a low there. If there was a band who were quite big in this country, and they could get three people in my hometown, I was quite disappointed by that. But they still put on an amazing show for the three of us, it was a two-hour show and it blew my mind, it was really inspiring.
Gareth: I was quite impressed by the Tall Dwarfs, how they could record everything at home, and it didn’t really matter, and the songs still came through. That was really inspiring, so we decided to try to do it ourselves as well.
Rodney: That’s true – when you first discover Chris Knox’s music, the songs are leaping out at you, and you don’t even notice the production really. When I first started trying to be in a band everyone was talking about production levels. It’s not really all about that, it’s actually just something that sounds good and you’ve gotta have the ear for making music and mixing it right. It’s not about the sort of gear you use to do it, it’s about the actual product.
“We record our demos on a dictaphone ... if the song comes through, you know it’s gonna work.” – Gareth Thomas
Gareth: We record our demos on a dictaphone, and if it sounds like crap, you know it’s not going to work as a song, but if the song comes through on a dictaphone while being all crusty, you know it’s gonna work.
Gareth: I was impressed with the fact that he was stubborn about it and just did it his own way. The Kiwi ingenuity thing’s quite appealing, we’re quite an inventive bunch. That drove us on, yeah, particularly the Tall Dwarfs. We learnt that sort of approach because that was how we started doing it. We didn’t really have any preconceived ideas about record companies and stuff like that. You make music with what you’ve got, it’s just a way of doing it.
Rodney: I guess it was the first Mutton Birds album, I didn’t really know much about The Front Lawn even though I’d heard songs on the radio and found out more about them afterwards. But that first Mutton Birds album just sort of blew me away really, like nearly every single song freaked me out, how songs work inside New Zealand really. And this was the first time I’d really heard music identified as “this sounds like this country” – it couldn’t be from anywhere else. Even to the point that his accent was just so New Zealand, and it really made you aware of the uniqueness of this country. We hear so much overseas stuff that it was cool to identify with something which was local, and all those songs are just so timeless. They’re incredible, the guitar playing, every aspect of it is just so well thought out, it’s really inspiring. I guess that taught me a lot about songwriting as well, just hearing music like that made me know what sort of music I wanted to make. It was quite nice to get a lesson from Don McGlashan just by buying that album really, and just see where everything comes from and understand it a bit more.
First band experiences
Rodney: I had a couple of original bands when I was at school, we just played in a garage, never played to anybody at all, recorded some four-track demos; they might be around somewhere. I started writing originals before I learnt any covers, and I went through a phase of losing all faith in that. I guess because there were no venues or anywhere to play, I started playing covers, busking in the street, playing in cafés and stuff like that.
Throughout sixth and seventh form where I could have gone hard and followed through with it, I stopped playing music altogether until I was at art school in Auckland and met these guys. Gareth introduced me to earning money from playing music, offered me a job in an Irish band that he had. Until that point, I thought the notion of making music as a living was ridiculous.
Gareth: Yeah, you can make music if you sell out and do covers in a bar.
Rodney: It’s really sad but it teaches you something about the whole industry and gives you a chance to be performing every week in front of people.
Gareth: It’s really good practice, it hardens you up a lot. Rodney used to show off four nights a week doing that.
Rodney: I don’t do it any more just for the record, never again.
Gareth: Yeah, we got stuck into that Irish bar for about two years, was it?
Rodney: No, you did, I was there for about four years. We were learning the ropes, playing four nights a week, and yeah, learning to cope with punters and hecklers. It was quite interesting, I got so disheartened by playing music in New Plymouth and then discovering it wasn’t so much about being able to make the money or anything like that, more about seeing how people responded to music and getting a real buzz from the fact that you know someone who wrote this song. And whether it’s ‘For Today’ [Netherworld Dancing Toys], they just knew it so well, you could go, “yeah these guys rock”. I realised the power of the song, the power of a song which has been on radio, which people identify with – that’s the thing to aspire to. Even if you’re in a drunken pub with a crappy PA and playing out of tune, they still recognise a good song.
“I realised the power of the song ... which people identify with: that’s the thing to aspire to.” – Rodney Fisher
Gareth: It’s quite cool in that respect.
Rodney: When I was at school, there was no real support or encouragement to go for something in the music industry at all. Gareth’s brother Matt, who’s in The Feelers now, was playing in a band in the third form when I went to school, and I was so amazed by this band playing, it really inspired me.
That was the last time I ever saw live entertainment in my school, until I did it myself in seventh form. I said to our headmaster, “you know when I was in the seventh form, I went to play at least three times in front of our school, and that by not letting kids get up here you’re actually stopping kids from having what I had when I was in third form. So there’s not gonna be people coming through the system.”
There wasn’t any real encouragement. No one said you could make money or get a job, it wasn’t related to some university course or anything like that. So that’s probably why it took me quite a while to get back into finding that you could actually do something like playing in a pub, to find you could get back into music and you could make a living from it. So that’s what was quite important, learning about that whole aspect of things.
I hope the school system is supporting that now because, well, if there was encouragement back then, then the whole music industry would be growing at that point, you know? Kids getting encouraged to get out there and do stuff, how to get a song on radio, the whole industry would be cool. It would be good for kids to be learning that stuff.
Gareth: That’s a good point. Mike Chunn and Tim Finn from Split Enz told us exactly the same thing about playing in their school hall at Sacred Heart and trying to win the Walter Kirby Cup, it was the end of the year performance. If they hadn’t done that, Split Enz would not have been the same.
Rodney: I guess you can’t really look back and say, “oh I wish it had been this way”, but in a way, because I went to an all-boys rugby head school, I was forcing the issue that I wanted to be doing creative stuff. It was a bit of a battle.
Gareth: You were more passionate about doing it really.
Rodney: Gareth went to the same school, but had finished school when I was in fifth form.
Gareth: Yeah, it was like that. It was a bit of a rugby school and we couldn’t practise at the school.
Rodney: You took music at school though, didn’t you?
Gareth: Yeah, but it suddenly got better when I left, apparently.
Rodney: It dropped away again pretty quickly. I didn’t take music as a subject, so I never got brought through the music system, we’ve got quite a different take on it. I was just doing my own thing.
Doing it yourself
Rodney: Gareth and I always planned on making original music together, because we both knew each other. We wrote songs when we were doing the Irish band thing. Gareth went away to Wellington and I stayed working in the Irish band, and we agreed that you were going to come back at some point and we’d start doing original music.
Gareth: We said, “right, we’re not gonna play covers ever again”, because it was very demoralising.
Rodney: It was.
Gareth: That was the idea right from the start; we’ll do what we want to do, and the best way to do it is at home. I just managed to afford to buy a computer with a sound card in it, and I had nowhere to put it, so I put it in Rodney and Murray’s shed where Murray got his hands on it and we just started recording solidly for about three years.
“We said, ‘right, we’re not gonna play covers ever again’ ... it was very demoralising.” – Gareth Thomas
Rodney: It originally started out as a project. Gareth and I were just writing songs, we never thought that we were going to have a band or anything. But my brother Murray was living in the same flat as me. We didn’t even know how to write songs really, but we did it. [Murray] did music at school and made compositions, but he’d never made pop music or anything like that. He was such a natural at computer stuff, he figured out how to use the computer and started recording our stuff. And then he’d be making his own music, and we’d walk into the studio and go “hey, that’s really good”. “Oh yeah? I just did this. Oh, I’ve done this as well.”
Gareth: So, he was in the band, definitely.
Rodney: And so then, he joined the band by default really, and [we] couldn’t do it without him. He’s been a really crucial part to the whole thing, production and songwriting, but he’s always been quite a shy person. He does a lot more than anyone realises. He ended up writing half the songs on our album.
Recording in the shed
Gareth: Yeah, we recorded in the shed. There was enough room to put a microphone on and point it away from the hum of the computer. We got our friend [Mike Beehre] who was a drummer, he came back from overseas and he wouldn’t fit in there, so we managed to get a snake cable through to Murray’s bedroom, which had good acoustics. It’s a villa with a high ceiling, and we had a few spare mattresses and we positioned them in the right places. So it was recorded in a garden shed with the cable through to the bedroom. We were using it more as a control room, so there was separation from making the sound, for monitoring and stuff.
Rodney: Or whatever room in the house was right for the sound we were going for. That was quite a big jump in time though. Before Mike [Beehre], our drummer, came back, we played a few party gigs, Murray was using the sampler and drum machine, and we had heaps of sequenced stuff going on. Gareth was playing saxophone and I was doing percussion, and the bass was programmed. Murray said, “oh I’m the guitarist, I don’t want to push buttons anymore.” He wasn’t feeling passionate about pushing buttons. He wanted to play guitar, because that’s his main instrument. When Mike came back, he did a few gigs with us, played percussion, and it just wasn’t feeling very honest really, it just felt like we were always trying to do something we weren’t quite getting.
Gareth: We tried to be a different band quite a few times. We tried to be a lounge band at one stage, but we got over that really quickly, and we tried to be something else as well. We tried to be an Irish band.
Rodney: We were just trying too hard to write music, and then at some point we realised – and it came from having the computer –that we’d do our own little projects.
Gareth: We stopped trying to do stuff together as much, and we let each other go off and do things on our own a bit, and then brought those songs back to the band. We’ve all got the ability to record and write all the parts ourselves. We probably got a little bit more involved on our own, so when we brought it to the band we had written the parts for each other, and they started to evolve after that.
Gareth: The next album will probably be more like a team effort, in a way.
Rodney: Because we’ve been touring around. We’ve had four years of playing together really, Gareth, Mike and I. Playing live is completely different from recording music, we just treat it quite differently.
Gareth: I guess our songs have evolved from that quite a bit. We were pretty much a studio band when we learnt how to play the songs.
Rodney: But then before that, we were a live band. There’s a balance.
From DIY to the wider industry
Gareth: We put together an album that was basically a glorified demo. It was something we were happy with, we were going to release it ourselves, from the shed. We were going to sit there with lists and accounts and everything and distribute it ourselves, and we were happy to do that. And then EMI came along, and they got their hands on a copy, and asked if we wanted to do something with them, and we suddenly thought, “maybe we’re taking the ‘do-it-yourself’ thing a bit far”. It was good to have help from them, they’ve been really good, so we licensed it to them to distribute.
“EMI came along ... and we suddenly thought, ‘maybe we’re taking the ‘do-it-yourself’ thing a bit far’.” – Gareth Thomas
Gareth: We could have done it ourselves but you can get your music to a lot more people. You could sell like 2000 albums independently, or you could sell 10,000 albums for the record company, and have the same amount of money, but by having the support of a record company you get to a whole lot more people.
Rodney: It took us a long time to decide that’s what we wanted to do. We had a manager, he helped us out before that, it was good to have someone helping us get a long-term plan together – so we’d always have something to aim for. We’d achieve that goal and move forward, with someone who had an overall vision for what we were doing, so we could concentrate on being artists. It was all getting a bit out of hand, being fascinated by the industry, and trying to do it ourselves.
Gareth: We learnt a good deal to have is the promotion-distribution deal. So many bands in New Zealand – like my brother’s one The Feelers – never see anything back from record sales, even though they’ve sold ridiculous amounts, quadruple platinum or something. They never see a cent back.
Rodney: That’d be an exaggeration, wouldn’t it?
Gareth: No seriously, they didn’t get any money back from album sales.
Rodney: Oh, that would be because of the cost of recording the album.
Gareth: So we decided we’d try to do it ourselves, that’s one of the things that made us want to do it ourselves.
Gareth: I guess something that freaked us out, in a way, is as soon as we did our deal with EMI, we made a profit, which is quite unique for a New Zealand band, because it didn’t cost us anything to make it. We haven’t made heaps of money, but we’ve always put it back into the band. Each goal we have, you put that money aside to pay for an airfare or to do something else. There’s always been a plan to keep the ball rolling.
Releasing the album
Rodney: The single ‘Green’, which is out now, is the first song we had on Radio New Zealand; it had b-Net support before our manager came on. It was a demo which we entered in 1996. Grant Hislop, our manager now, heard that song and said that he wanted to work with us. It took us about a year to go with him. We got a feel for what he was about, he learnt more about us but was also giving us advice along the way before we ended up committing to him. He was working for Warner Music at that stage, so as you can imagine we were all quite confused and sceptical of what he wanted to get out of it. But he’s been incredible.
Gareth: He was really good at getting us focused on putting an album out. And then, we put out the album at the same time as [the single] ‘Blowing Dirt’ went out, and we got a guy, Joe Lonie, who made a video for that, and that’s done really well.
That was something Grant really talked to us about, as well as something he always found frustrating. You see a lot of New Zealand video clips and they have such a low budget in comparison to the overseas stuff, giving people the illusion of, “they’re not as good as overseas bands.”
Rodney: He had a real fight because on production levels and stuff, which we were also concerned about, he was in the record company mindset. Whether you master it loud enough, because everything that’s from overseas is mastered so the sound wave is like a block of sound, and when you have something that isn’t heavily mastered it’s going to sound quieter on the radio. He has a very big radio background as well, Grant, so he’s got a wide perspective.
Gareth: Yes, he was really keen to push it into international standard of production value. Just trying to find the best way that you could do something, to get the best out of the gear. We wanted to record at home in the shed, but we didn’t want it to be crusty garage quality. Not that we don’t like crusty garage stuff.
Rodney: Home studio gear jumped up in levels, like just streets ahead of what it would have been in the days of Chris Knox doing it. And the fact we were doing good high-quality digital recording at home – the difference between a studio recording and what we could do at home was a lot smaller, if you had a good microphone and a good preamp, you could get sonic levels up there. Yeah, a good song as well, but there’s no longer that excuse.
Gareth: I guess the production thing has just evolved with the band and the music, so it’s all been the same thing, Making low quality or high quality recordings, you just do whatever’s right for the song.
Further reading: Nick Bollinger on Give It A Whirl