There are also few acts in the Flying Nun canon that inspire descriptions like sweet, gentle and lovely; but their intelligent, folky/country inflected jangle pop has regularly been framed in these terms – which isn’t to say that they don’t have a darker side.
It’s an output that is as single minded a musical vision as four people can produce – the work of a band that was at the forefront of Flying Nun’s international push in the late 80s and early 90s before they retrenched to their twin South Island bases of Christchurch and Dunedin (from where they continue to operate).
The origins of The Bats lie in two illustrious late 70s/early 80s NZ groups – The Clean and Toy Love.
The origins of The Bats lie in two illustrious late 70s/early 80s NZ groups – The Clean and Toy Love. When The Clean somewhat prematurely disbanded in 1982, bass player Robert Scott was left without a band. Looking for an outlet for his own songs, he began playing guitar and his flatmate Kaye Woodward – herself an aspiring guitarist – started adding her own parts.
Meanwhile, Scott also appeared in the short lived Thanks To Llamas with Paul Kean, Jane Walker and Donna Sheen. Kean was lying low in Christchurch after the dissolution of Toy Love – performing with The Playthings and mixing sound for passing Flying Nun bands. Several impromptu performances featuring Scott, Woodward and Kean followed under the unlikely name of The Percy Taiwan Band. The Bats were born when Scott and Woodward moved into the same flat as Kean and drummer (and Bill Direen fellow traveller) Malcolm Grant.
The new band debuted at The Empire in Dunedin on New Year’s Eve in 1982. Progress was initially restricted to performances at parties with a growing repertoire of Robert Scott penned songs alongside covers of ‘The Munsters Theme’, some Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes and Mike Nesmith’s ‘Different Drum’. This rural inclination led Scott and Woodward to approach the producers of the Nashville focused TVNZ series That’s Country but they were promptly rebuffed.
The Bats recorded their first EP with Arnold van Bussel at Nightshift Studio in Christchurch in 1984. The production was less than stellar but the elements that would characterise their sound for the next three decades were already in place – the warm folky strum and jangle of Woodward and Scott’s guitars (with occasional sonic variation) and the interplay of their voices with Woodward’s pure harmonies behind Scott’s rapidly improving lead vocals, underpinned by an accomplished rhythm section in Kean and Grant – whose muscular live combination is often only hinted at in their recorded work.
The six song By Night EP was released by Flying Nun and soon picked up airplay across the Tasman.
The six song By Night EP was released by Flying Nun in September that year and soon picked up airplay across the Tasman on JJJ.
Scott moved back to Dunedin in 1984 but geography didn’t hinder the band’s progress. An increasingly prolific songwriter, he began sending cassette demos of his new songs up to Christchurch for Woodward, Kean and Grant to develop. While the technology might have changed, The Bats have retained this way of working from their twin bases of Dunedin and Christchurch ever since – as a resolutely South Island band.
A second EP And Now Here Is Music For Firesides followed in 1985 and featured violin contributions from Alastair Galbraith. They recorded again at Nightshift but, even in the unashamedly lo-fi early days of Flying Nun, there was a feeling that the studio wasn’t doing the band too many production favours.
In 1986, The Bats took flight once more and spent three weeks in England, Scotland and Europe (dodging the disruption of Chernobyl as they traversed seven countries in 10 days). A recording session in London resulted in the Made Up In Blue EP (which earned them Single of the Week honours from the NME).
In Scotland they began recording their debut album. The remainder of the tracks for Daddy’s Highway were put down back in Christchurch at Nightshift with Alastair Galbraith again contributing violin. Arguably one of the most accomplished NZ albums of the 80s, it was a considerable step forward in production and contained at least one bona fide classic in ‘North By North’. It earned them favourable notice in Billboard and was the pre-concert music of choice for REM.
Progress then slowed with Woodward and Kean expecting their first child and Scott occupying himself with the reformed Clean. Recording for their second album started at the end of 1988 at Writhe Studio in Wellington but the release of The Law of Things was delayed until 1990.
Arguably one of the most accomplished NZ albums of the 80s, it was a considerable step forward in production and contained at least one bona fide classic in ‘North By North’.
With Flying Nun increasingly looking offshore, there was pressure on the band to use international producers. Fear of God, their third album, was recorded in Auckland with American Nick Sansano at the controls. In a climate of Gulf War paranoia, Sansano did the final mix back in New York without the band. The results were tougher and more polished than their previous outings. It was still very much a Bats album but a bit of their charm had possibly gone missing in the process.
A further tour of Europe and the USA in 1992 included the sessions for their fourth album Silverbeet which was recorded in Stoughton, Massachusetts with Nick Giordano (who had worked with The Pixies, Sugar, Husker Du and Pere Ubu). The following year saw them back in the USA on the Noisyland Tour with Straitjacket Fits and The Jean Paul Sartre Experience.
Touring pressures began to take their toll and image building was making them uneasy (with one photo session makeover for Woodward raising hackles). A support slot on an American Radiohead tour was a turning point. "We looked at it and their life didn't look that comfortable. We were being packaged as something we weren't and being pushed around, so we pulled back”, Paul Kean told The NZ Herald.
Pulling back saw them produce their fifth album back at Nightshift in Christchurch. Couchmaster channelled some of their frustrations in darker lyrics and a musical moodiness (particularly evident on the smouldering single ‘Afternoon in Bed’); but there was also something of a surprise with Woodward given a long overdue vocal lead on her song ‘Shoeshine’. Couchmaster was well received but, with little promotion, made few ripples and The Bats drifted away on what became a major hiatus. Scott continued to work with The Clean and his new Dunedin group The Magick Heads while Woodward and Kean had a family to support.
The prolific Scott released his first solo album The Creeping Unknown in 2000 while, in Christchurch, Woodward and Kean began playing with a drum machine as Minisnap. When the vagaries of technology proved too unreliable, Malcolm Grant sat in on drums.
In 2003 The Bats re-emerged. Following a national tour (with Minisnap as their opening act), a new album was recorded with former Sneaky Feeling John Kelcher at his studio in Christchurch. After 10 years, At The National Grid was a return to familiar form for a band who sounded like they’d never been away. Critic Russell Baillie could note in his NZ Herald review that “the phrase ‘bold new direction’ has gone unused once again” but also conclude that the album was “cohesive, curiously fresh and oddly in tune with the times”. The Guilty Office repeated the dose just three years later, this time on Auckland indie Arch Hill.
In 2011, they were back on Flying Nun with the release of their eighth album Free All The Monsters which was recorded with producer Dale Cotton at the disused Seacliff asylum on the coast just north of Dunedin. After a career of producing themselves – and at least two not wholly satisfactory experiences with outsiders – they found a remarkably sympathetic partner in Cotton. The result was some of the richest and most rounded music they had created.
After three decades together, The Bats are a unique institution in NZ music. It’s hard to think of any other band with such longevity with an unchanged line-up. It hasn’t been a career founded on wild variation. Instead, it has been the soundtrack to a band growing ever more comfortable in its own skin.