"Chamber pop", "baroque pop", whatever the critics called them, the Able Tasmans were both part of the early Flying Nun community and stylistically distinct from it. They were never much interested in fame, but, through their unusual, captivating songs, left a legacy anyway.
Like most of their peers, they were moved to pick up instruments by punk rock; in this case, in 1979 in Whangarei, as a band called Sister Ray, playing new wave covers and their own songs. Things might have ended in 1981, when keyboard player Graeme Humphreys moved to Auckland to study.
But Humphreys persuaded Sister Ray’s drummer Craig Baxter to join him in the big city, and the pair made their first performances under the name Able Tasmans as a duo in 1983. The old band's bass player, Dave Beniston, was eventually lured south and his implacable stage presence provided an anchor for the manic figure of Humphreys on vocals and keyboards.
Humphreys' exuberance and the unusual format of the group helped make them both popular and memorable, and that early style was captured in the likes of the peppy, organ-led 'Rhyme for Orange' from their 1985 debut EP for Flying Nun, The Tired Sun. Peter Keen and Anthony Nevison provided vocals and guitar respectively on the recording, and although the latter would soon move on, Keen became a core member of the group.
Humphreys had always professed admiration for Keen's little-known previous band Raucous Laughter and one of that group's recordings, 'Relapse', was released as the B-side to the Tasmans' 1986 7-inch single 'Buffalos'. The pair had met studying zoology and the band's nerdiness and affection for science became a running joke.
Humphreys' student association-owned house in Marlborough Street, Mt Eden, became a hub for a lively community of Flying Nun artists and their friends, and was at various times home to Jeff Batts (The Stones), Matthew Bannister (Sneaky Feelings) and Nevison (who later joined the Headless Chickens).
The first album, 1987's A Cuppa Tea and A Lie Down, showed off a denser, more eclectic sound and more sophisticated songwriting, with Keen now very much the lead singer. The likes of 'Sour Queen', with Jane Leggott's dancing flute, still sound captivating. By this time, the Whangarei duo had swelled into a collective. A group photo on the back of the album sleeve included no fewer than 21 musicians and creative helpers. Foreign fans subsequently formed the mistaken impression that all 21 were in fact members of the band.
Hey Spinner! may well be the most-loved of the band's records. Delicate, nimble songs like 'Grey Lynn' and the gentle, pointed social commentary of 'Michael Fay' had something to say.
Music was never a career for the Able Tasmans and it would be three years (during which Keen worked as a marine biologist and Humphreys as breakfast host and programme director of 95bFM) before the next album, Hey Spinner! It turned out to have been worth the wait. Hey Spinner! may well be the most-loved of the band's records. Delicate, nimble songs like 'Grey Lynn' and the gentle, pointed social commentary of 'Michael Fay' had something to say, and with former Verlaines member Jane Dodd on bass and Ron Young on analog synth, the group found both fluidity and a broad sonic palette.
There followed 1992's Somebody Ate My Planet and 1993's The Shape of Dolls – the latter a return to the classic Flying Nun EP format that, in its lilting title track and the spiky 'Big Bang Theory', included two of the band's best tunes. The last original Able Tasmans record was 1995's album Store in a Cool Place, which was followed three years later by the compilation Songs from the Departure Lounge.
And yet, it wasn't quite over.
Humphreys and Keen pursued separate careers – as a broadcaster and a marine biologist respectively – but continued to write songs together. In 2003, with Keen about to depart on an oceanographic research vessel, they decided to record the songs they had written at Radio NZ's Helen Young Studio. The result was 2005's The Overflow, an album described by Bandcamp reviewer Andrew Dubber as "a stone cold masterpiece, a beautiful record – and an important piece of New Zealand art."
Although the album was released under the name Humphreys and Keen, former Able Tasmans Dodd, Young, Leslie Jonkers and Craig Mason were all involved in one way or another. It is not going to too far to say that The Overflow, with its lush string and brass arrangements and Andre Upston's engineering, is the most fully-realised album the Able Tasmans never made.
Original bassist David Beniston died suddenly in Melbourne on May 11 2011 of an aneurism. His ashes were spread in the forest hill of Parihaka that overlooks Whangarei.
Graeme Humphreys - keyboards, vocals, guitar
Dave Beniston - bass
Craig Baxter - drums
Peter Keen - vocals
Anthony Nevison - guitar, vocals
Leslie Jonkers - keyboards
Stuart Greenway - drums
Jane Leggott - flute
Dave Tennent - guitar
Jane Dodd - bass
Craig Mason - drums
Ron Young - synthesiser, vocals
Donald Nichols - clarinet
When he began broadcasting on 95bFM, Humphreys took on the name Graeme Hill, supposedly to avoid embarrassment when he had to play one of his own band's songs. As he continued a broadcasting career – as a co-presenter of the long-running Sports Cafe TV show, a host on Radio Sport and, since 2007, the host of Radio Live's weekend magazine show – he gradually became better known by his assumed name than his real one. He has also worked as a television scriptwriter for Eating Media Lunch and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand.
Early on, the Able Tasmans had an alter-ego, The Ogdens, who played straight-up covers of such 70s classics as Michael Nesmith's Joanne and Kenny Rogers & The First Edition's Ruby, Don't Take your Love To Town.
Humphreys worked with Children's Hour (and later Headless Chickens) drummer Bevan Sweeney on several projects, including music for the Māori dance troupe Te Kanikani o te Rangatahi, and the remarkable instrumental 'If God Had a Megaphone' for the multimedia event The Happy Accident. He even choreographed several works for the dance group.