He was referring to the great San Francisco venue for psychedelic bands in the late 60s and was spot-on, because singers Gussie Larkin (guitar) and Lily West (bass) with drummer Abe Hollingsworth extended their songs into exciting psych-rock with subtle melodic and dynamic shifts, hints of downbeat microtones and a real sense of enjoyable urgency.
They were also charismatic, West as strong a singer as Larkin. They played off each other and had distinctive personalities on stage.
Although the audience was there for The Beths, Mermaidens hadn’t come from nowhere: their 2017 post-punk/psyche-rock album Perfect Body – which closes with a time-shifting six minutes of ‘Fade’ (“I don’t have a sense of what is right in this place”) – was a Taite Prize-nominee and their 2019 follow-up Look Me in the Eye saw them nominated for Best Alternative Artist at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards.
But neither album hinted at what they were like on that night. And what they have become …
Mermaidens’ 2023 album – called just Mermaidens – is their most immediately approachable with its mix of indie rock, shoegaze, early 80s post-punk and crafted pop. It comes after a decade-long journey which began in Wellington when Larkin and West were in the late stages of high school.
Larkin recalls, “We probably became friends because we saw that one another was a bit indie. I remember Lily had a Pixies t-shirt on mufti-day so I clocked her as a very cool art girl. That’s how we became friends and through discovering music together like the Pixies, Sonic Youth and P J Harvey. Patti Smith was a big one too.”
“Amelia [Fazerdaze] Murray’s school band made a massive impression on me. Four girls.”
They gravitated to local bands and “we loved Amelia [Fazerdaze] Murray’s high-school band. She went to a different school and played in a band called the Tangle. Four girls. That made a massive impression on me.”
In 2013 Larkin and West released an acoustic demo EP and drummer Hollingsworth, who’d been a friend since school, joined them. The intention was to get a band together for the 2014 Camp A Low Hum. They played at friends’ parties, a few gigs at Wellington’s Mighty Mighty and Puppies, and recorded two three-song EPs in 2014: the moody and sometimes dreamy psychedelic prog-folk Bones – which includes the grinding Jefferson Airplane-like ‘Stoner Battles’ – and O.
Maddie McIntyre wrote in New Zealand Musician, “If you took a dash of stoner rock, sifted in a bit of classic 60s surf, added a pinch of dark dream psyche pop and then stirred through a healthy dose of mood punk, you’d get the tall, long-limbed glass that is Mermaidens.”
The word “psychedelic” often comes up in regard to their early albums. Fair? “Yeah, I think so,” says Larkin. “I think it’s because we’re all self-taught musicians. I did some lessons early on but what got me started was just listening and making up chords.
“I think I have an unconventional playing style. It’s got a less busy, but at the start I was trying to do a lot! And the band also started as two guitars – Lily and I both playing so we liked to take turns at being the ‘lead’. Maybe that’s part of the psychedelic thing.”
Right from the start Mermaidens defied easy categorisation, and expectation. Just when you’d assume they would capitalise on their releases, Larkin and Hollingsworth went overseas in 2015: Larkin to Britain for six months, Hollingsworth for three months around South East Asia and Japan.
Right from the start Mermaidens defied easy categorisation, and expectation
However before they left, Mermaidens recorded what became their 2016 debut album Undergrowth at Blue Barn Studio in Newtown, Wellington with James Goldsmith, an engineer at Munki Studios. Five of the eight songs were around the five-minute mark or longer and Larkin says “it sounds like it’s live because it was live. We played it all together, and we can’t do it any other way, that’s just our style. It’s not polished, it’s pretty loose.”
Hollingsworth: “It would’ve been weird if it was slick because it wouldn’t be right. We’re not heavy, but we are a bit gritty.”
At Bandcamp a fan Art Fin said, “this slow, brooding, psychedelic, dark rock trio of creative musicians from New Zealand reminds me very much of Warpaint, a little of Wolf Alice and going back further, may have been influenced by seminal slow-paced hard rock bands like Black Sabbath.”
Larkin has acknowledged California rockers Warpaint as an influence but other references could also include early Grateful Dead alongside post-punk indie rock. Their real step up came with Perfect Body on Flying Nun in 2017. Larkin considers carefully how she hears it now: “I hear … well, it would be easy to go straight to critical!”
“I hear our heads butting in a way because we never set out to write songs that were just straight up and could be played on acoustic guitar and sung. [They come] from jamming together and learning our instruments, there’s some sense of being directionless in some parts. Actually, meandering is a better word.
“I love that it’s a great aspect of our live show as well, the jamming. But I’m happy now to have songs that are lot more easily assimilated, you get the songs faster on the new album.”
Ben Yung, writing for Wellington’s The Review, went further and more effusively about Perfect Body: “Beneath the veneer of their methodical mix of post-punk, psychedelic, and witch rock, the record is rather a brilliant piece of sociological, anthropological, and psycho-analysis of people living in a changing world.”
Mermaidens were inviting that kind of enthusiasm and analysis, and the band were exploring new territories as Larkin said of the five-minute ‘Sunstone’. “[It] is made up of three contrasting sections, gradually becoming more and more brutal as the song progresses. I didn’t want the song to have a ‘hook’ that it returns to – instead I wanted to create an unpredictable journey: full of time signature changes, evolving guitar textures and imposing vocals. It’s not a song you can just put on in the background.”
Mermaidens were moving on fast but at their own pace
Mermaidens were moving on fast but at their own pace: over the years they opened for Death Cab For Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, Gang of Four, Mac DeMarco, Lorde and The Veils, played the Laneway Festival in Auckland and toured Europe, Britain and Australia.
They curated their own Mermgrown festivals (cancelled in 2020) and Mini-Mermgrown in Wellington in December 2022, and Larkin has appeared in a fashion magazine (“How Mermaiden’s Gussie Larkin Gets Her Signature 70s Beauty Look” in Ensemble). They developed their own Moon Cycle guitar pedal featured on their third album Look Me in the Eye and have a hand in creating their own videos and cover art.
“I love Look Me in the Eye,” says Larkin. “I think it was under-appreciated in just the amount of plays on Spotify and Apple and YouTube videos. It just hasn’t hit the right people. I think it deserved more ears. The instrumentation is really interesting and there are so many interesting drum beats. And the lyrics feel just so Mermaidens.”
They were nominated for Best Alternative Artist at the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards (The Beths won, the event a week after that Auckland Town Hall show) and West picked up Best Album Art for Look Me in the Eye.
“The art room at school was my safe place,” she says. “The art teachers encourage a bit of rebellion I think. I studied all of the disciplines [but] felt I didn’t have enough to say to just be an artist, you have to have a strong ego to just do art. I wanted to do something more involved with other people, and maybe a bit more commercial.”
After two albums with Flying Nun, the Mermaidens’ self-titled fourth album came out on their own label. Again it featured West’s eye-catching cover art and Larkin directing their videos. West says after the portrait photo on Perfect Body there has been a retreat from such obvious imagery; the cover on Look Me in the Eye was her composite of blurred faces and now on the Mermaidens album the three of them are partially obscured by bubbles.
“It speaks to the sort of thing we do in the music, particularly on Look Me in the Eye,” she says. “We were thinking about the masks people wear and that’s something that me and Gussie’s songs touch on, introspection. And for that artwork I was thinking about disguises, mystery and multiplicity.”
The cover of Mermaidens is much more fun and, in a word, bubbly. “Yes, the colour and the whole look of it is tied together. When we started writing for the record the goal was to be more bold and clear and distinct, so it made sense to do that visually by having us on the cover a bit clearer, in bright colours.” That feeds into the graphics which are loud, primary colours and the clear typography which is playful. “We wanted to express how much fun the record is to us, so the more the packaging helps with that the better.”
The typeface for the song titles looks like 1969? “Yes, they are by Very Cool [in California], quite a self-aware design studio and their typefaces are all referencing the retro look from the early 70s. That era has such a warmth to it which is quite appealing.”
the new album captures the sound they have been trying to attain
Larkin and West agree the new album captures the sound they have been trying to attain. Recorded at the Surgery with The Phoenix Foundation’s Samuel Flynn Scott working with them on material recorded in their own DIY home studios – and with Lee Prebble engineering – the album brings in brittle indie rock, shoegaze moods, early 80s post-punk pop-rock (‘Sister’, ‘Sour Lips’, ‘Dress For Success’) and crafted pop on the fuzzy ‘I Like To Be Alone’.
There is also the electro-pop of ‘Greedy Mouth’ and just a smidgen of moody psychedelic moves (‘Foolish’, ‘Push It’).
“We wanted to make something that was bold and clear in terms of lyrics and the sound of the drums, stripping away the fat from drum and bass parts, and letting the vocals be the focus – that was a big one.”
However you try to describe or pigeon-hole Mermaidens they always offer something to the contrary or which denies analysis. And that has made them one of the most interesting, challenging and enjoyable artists in our local landscape.
As Larkin told Ensemble magazine in 2021, “I guess we have an intuitive sense of what works for us. I think our aesthetic has evolved along with the music in a pretty organic way, and we’ve hardly ever been stuck for visual ideas. Having illustrated our posters, album art and merch from the beginning, Lily plays a huge part in our aesthetic, and I feel very lucky to have her.”
Now that they’re back as an independent unit they are more cautious about where their money is spent. “I didn’t want throw heaps of our own money into the void so we’ve been very New Zealand-focused because we’re not planning on touring overseas any time soon.”
But it is still a struggle and Larkin expresses frustration at the charts – “it just doesn’t change, with L.A.B., Mitch James, Niko Walters” – but concludes that while Mermaidens are still to the left of the frame, “I think we’ll just stay in our spot”.
“We have great supporters and are cultivating an audience. Our audience has got older, more of a Radio NZ crowd, and we’re just leaning into that. We know our audience and they are dedicated. There’s not many of them, but they are good people.”