Although Brannigan would eventually depart in order to concentrate on leading his garage rock band, Shaft, the long term on-and-off partnership with McCabe resulted in the ongoing release of an enormous output of recordings, mostly in a home-made cassette format but also including vinyl & CD releases on such labels as Flying Nun and Siltbreeze.
Cashmere teenager Stephen Carr, who would later call himself Steve McCabe, was inspired variously by the sounds of the British punk/new wave scene, the anarchistic punk-psychedelia of the And Band and Perfect Strangers, and pop music in general. He was already writing and recording songs as half of The Gorillas with his friend Peter Rees, recording the embryonic works on a wonky tape deck in the instrument room at Cashmere High while the other kids were out playing sports, and releasing the results as home-dubbed cassettes.
Meanwhile in Dunedin, Robert Cardy (later called Bob Brannigan) was similarly getting his creative chops together. Bob and Steve met and began to write, sing, play and record together in various guises before adopting the AXEMEN name for their 1983 cassette albums Axe of the Apostles and Scenes Like Beads. They were joined soon after by drummer/photographer/peripatetic artist Stuart Page (AKA Stu Kawowski) and a couple of chaotic but inspired gigs in Dunedin resulted in another Axe-cassette-album, Equinox.
To attract attention in the two local record shops where it was stocked, the cassette was packaged in full-sized LP record sleeves in the garish day-glo screen-print style that would become a band trademark.
The band embarked on a creative blitzkrieg of playing, writing, recording, and guerilla art.
Bob then moved to Christchurch and the band embarked on a creative blitzkrieg of playing, writing, recording, and guerilla art. Their posters and graffiti were a common sight in the city during 1983-85 – the AXEMEN were responsible for the first large-scale wild-style bomb jobs seen in Christchurch. The band played countless gigs, making (in Steve's words) "a few friends and many shady enemies".
The basic AXEMEN trio was augmented during this period by many other musicians, including bassist M.S. Agro (AKA Mick Elborado), saxophonists Richard Sedger (AKA Art Sheep), Alan Wright, and Paul Lee, vocalist/organist Lisa Preston, vocalists Angela Dawson and Reta LeQuesne, guitarists George Henderson (also on organ), Bill Vosburgh (AKA Fosby, also on sax), Damon Crowe, Bryan Baird, Gordon Baird (also on bass) and John Segovia.
Performances were generally wild and chaotic, as the band struggled with entire sets of songs written earlier that afternoon, additional band personnel who had mysteriously appeared in their midst since the last band practice, and Steve's jury-rigged electronics. He favoured a heavily modified cheapo-brand guitar played through a ghetto blaster and once brought his grandmother's 3-in-1 music centre into the Gladstone Hotel to use as a guitar amp.
More cassette albums emerged. Three classics of pop-art chaos from this productive era are Mick's Dancefloor (late 1983) including within its 12" LP-style gatefold sleeve (featuring a pastiche of Picasso's "Guernica" on the front) their tortured axe-attack on Michael Jackson's 'Beat It' and the autobiographical 'Banned From The Empire'; the politically motivated concept album Big Cheap Motel (February 84) which was packaged in an imitation beverage container (complete with straw); and later the same year, the double-cassette A Scar Is Born, once again sleeved as a double LP and featuring tributes to Mark E. Smith and William Burroughs among its 32 tracks.
The AXEMEN – or sometimes just Steve – were frequently found busking in Christchurch's Cashel St Mall at this time, where a merger of sorts was cemented with fellow Cashel St busking regulars The Connoisseurs, all three of whom would contribute to sessions for the epic double LP Three Virgins, Three Versions, Three Visions.
The album was mostly recorded at the old State Trinity Church in central Christchurch over Easter weekend 1985 by Larence Shustak, and released by Flying Nun in 1986. The album was a mind-bending 90 minutes of catchy songs, horrible noise, catchy noise and horrible songs – massed guitars and precarious structures – a stone classic.
During the period between the recording and release of the album the group went through some more changes: bass player Joanne Billesdon, vocalist Bev E. Rage, saxophonist Gary Scott, and trumpeter Peter Hall-Jones joined in late 1985, and Bob temporarily left the band soon after. Although it’s not documented on any officially released recordings, the band were generally billed as the Axmin, played many gigs and stepped up their busking activities (the anarchistic horn section, often including saxophonists Bill Vosburgh and Alan Wright, was useful for maximum al fresco sonority).
It wasn’t until 1991, when McCabe, Kawowski and Brannigan all found themselves living in Auckland, that band activity began again in earnest.
It was also at this time that the AXEMEN, on an expedition to a busking convention in Whangarei, met hot-shot Serbian guitarist Dragan Stojanovic, who would be a significant player in future AXEMEN incarnations. By the time the group returned to the recording studio (this time at Writhe Studios in Wellington) to record a second LP for Flying Nun in 1987, it would be in a radically streamlined form, with the original trio augmented by Stojanovic. This was Derry Legend, 11 tracks that showed a new "pop" (sort of) face of AXEMEN music – reputedly a great favourite of the late Kurt Cobain. The AXEMEN entered a period of semi-hiatus soon after the recording of the album, with members dispersing to various parts of the world.
It wasn’t until 1991, when McCabe, Kawowski and Brannigan all found themselves living in Auckland, that band activity began again in earnest, although Brannigan and McCabe had continued to churn out solo material. The cassette album Scary! Part III would later be re-released as an AXEMEN album, although it was originally recorded by McCabe and various cohorts, with Haydn Jones taking Kawowski's place on drums.
The reappearance of the AXEMEN coincided, more or less, with Flying Nun's release of Peter Wang Pud, a CD compilation of the more commercially viable items from the previous two Flying Nun releases. The trio played frequently in Auckland during this period, generally sporting their new band uniform of military-style fatigues and elaborate headdresses, designed by McCabe's wife Linda.
They resumed recording: both home-made practice room tapes (Dirty Den Sessions, Recliner Rocker, the Popeye Proot Chunk EP) and "proper" studio work (Across The Universe In 3288 Days, recorded at Frisbee Studios) emerged in cassette form on McCabe's Sleek Bott label in 1992. Bob also started his other band Shaft at this time, initially with Stu on drums.
This spurt of activity was unfortunately not sustained for long. Personal disagreements between McCabe and Brannigan led to another cessation of collective activities, with Bob now concentrating on Shaft and Steve continuing with his intermittent solo output (his 1987 CD Generations on Sleek Bott is an overlooked classic of psychotropic hi-tech easy listening).
Little was heard from the band until the American label Siltbreeze Records issues vinyl releases of two of their cassette albums, Big Cheap Motel (2008), Scary! Part III (2009) and followed this with the double LP Three Virgins (2011). This provided the band – McCabe, Brannigan, Kawowski and Stojanovic – with the impetus to reconvene for tours of New Zealand and the United States (in 2009), where disagreements between Bob and Steve led to the former once again quitting the band.
The remaining AXEMEN recruited William Daymond on bass, and in 2011 toured Australia and dashed off the B-side for another single, The Nutsack Suite, featuring 'Nutsack', a song co-written by Cardy and Stojanovic in the USA, and 'Nutshack Redemption Song' written by McCabe and Stojanovic, for Australian label Negative Guest List.
In 2013, they recorded the Sac Tap Nut Jam LP for US label Spacecase Records, which stands as their ultimate statement. The AXEMEN are not only still in the game, the AXEMEN are the game.
Stevie McCabe passed away in September 2023.
Bob Brannigan - guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Stu Kawowski - drums, vocals
Steve McCabe - guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
Dragan Stojanovic - guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals
William Daymond - bass, vocals