Arriving from the North Shore sprawl into the vacuum that was the early 00s Auckland live scene, the Mint Chicks provided a blast of wired, aggressive energy. Lead by the enigmatic Nielson brothers, the band would evolve into a riveting blend of pop, psychedelia and punk.
It’s tough to recall, at this distance, how barren New Zealand guitar-based music felt at the dawn of the millennium. The second wave (or was it the third?) of Flying Nun bands had mostly fallen apart. Venues like Kurtz Lounge and the Gluepot, which had nurtured live music through the ‘80s and ‘90s were literally demolished.
DJ Sample Gee seemed to be the most frequent name on Powerstation bills. Even bFM, long the champion of the weird and wild in Auckland music, was in the depths of its love affair with dance culture – Havoc was running a bug-eyed breakfast, and the biggest events they put on in that era were its Oonst parties. The rise of EDM was not a bad thing, by any means, but definitely made a whole sector of the local music scene a little doomy.
It was into this void The Mint Chicks stepped in 2001. And from the first it was obvious they were very different to what had gone before. There were hard and fast rules at the time – tie yourself to one scene, be deferential toward established artists, inhabit a specific venue, live in the central city, don’t play too often. They broke them all.
The band came from the placid, pleasant Hibiscus Coast, and was lead by the Nielson brothers – part-Hawaiian, darkly handsome and tough to read. Guitarist and principal songwriter Ruban, and his younger brother, singer Kody. They were complemented by bassist Michael Logie and drummer Paul Roper, an affable rhythm section which held the Nielsons together (or, occasionally, apart) when their bickering, sometimes escalating to fist-fighting, threatened the band’s survival. Which seemed pretty often.
‘The Son’ instantly made the nascent garage rock revival sound mannered and empty.
The first shot was a raw, bratty song called ‘The Son’, containing the lyric “I’m the son who gets my way/ Nothing can get in my way”, an apt description of their early years. It was informed by art-damaged hardcore coming from New York and San Diego, and instantly made the nascent garage rock revival sound mannered and empty. From nowhere they accelerated to near ubiquity, playing up to three times a night, in warehouses, pubs and living rooms – you could follow them round the city and get a great show every time.
‘The Son’ went to number one on the bFM Top Ten, and they played an agenda-setting half hour at the Summer Series. The Mint Chicks were instantly the most talked about new band in the city. Not everyone was convinced of their greatness – critics seemed evenly divided into ‘saviours’ and ‘phonies’ camps. But at least they provoked opinions. Flying Nun signed them up, a vaguely shocking move to youth during a time when the stolid Pan Am were the label’s standard bearers.
The band released two superb EPs in quick succession, but already were showing signs of the prickliness which would become their hallmark. Instead of recording their debut album in a proper studio with a proper producer, they headed up north, to an isolated bach only accessible at low tide. They returned with a flawed but exhilarating half hour lead by a title track named ‘Fuck the Golden Youth’. Both the album and single seemed a deliberate middle finger to the beginnings of mainstream interest rising after their catchy previous single ‘Opium for the People’.
Their reputation as enfant terribles apexed when they self-released a 7” single without consulting Flying Nun, and took up a residency at a 25 capacity venue on Durham Lane, leaving most of their fans out in the cold and ensuring precious few saw these convulsive live shows. That was hardly their only instance of self-sabotage. The key photo shoot for the album featured the Nielson brothers openly French kissing, and was deemed so provocative that Rip It Up reneged on a promise to run it on the cover, infuriating the band. They further cemented their bizarre reputation at the time by kidnapping Simon Pound, the writer assigned to the story, chucking him blindfolded in a van, and whisking him to an unknown location. Some saw it as hopeless contrivance, others the kind of theatre music had been missing. The press release suggested, quoting George W, that you were “either with them or against them”. At the time, it felt like the truth.
THEY CEMENTED THEIR BIZARRE REPUTATION by kidnapping a WRITER ASSIGNED TO THE STORY.
The next couple of years were a jumble of bizarre happenings, blurring the line between image-making and genuine weirdness. They turned down a support slot for New York’s TV On The Radio through the UK, at a time when that would have lead to near guaranteed success. Kody failed to show up for a key Kings Arms gig, forcing Ruban to assume lead vocals. It later emerged the singer had attended the show in disguise and watched from the crowd, neither the first nor the last strange moment of tension between the Nielsons.
Then they disappeared again, to a two-storey leaky building off Dominion Road, to record a follow up to Fuck the Golden Youth. The album couldn’t have been less anticipated – by that stage they were being written off throughout New Zealand’s press – and most of their own audience – as too difficult for their own good. The chaotic live shows receded into the memory, and a fresh crop of young bands they’d inspired, like the Naked and Famous and Cut Off Your Hands, started to take attention and fans from them. It seemed like they might be done.
The first murmur to the contrary came when they played support to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the St James. It was the best they’d been in years, and so loud that masonry fell and hospitalised a young fan. A few months later, still under most radars, they released one of the best albums of the past ten years, a technicolour art-pop dynamo called Crazy?Yes!Dumb?No!, which spawned hit singles, multiple NZ Music awards, sell out tours and eventually went gold.
It seemed like they’d grown up. From there they followed a more conventional trajectory – notwithstanding bloodstained tickets, major illnesses on disorganised US tours and the usual fraternal fighting. They eventually moved to the US, chasing the international recognition they deserved but never received, releasing one more perfect album in Screens, before breaking up. Since they’ve pursued careers apart which have brought more success than they achieved together, particularly Ruban’s Portland-based Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
The breakup itself was an archetypal piece of Mint Chicks mythmaking.
The breakup itself was an archetypal piece of Mint Chicks mythmaking. On a humid evening we gathered to basement pizza restaurant, in front of a livestreamed web audience. The band played four songs with a meaty, expanded line-up. They’d been away a while, but on that night were as good as they’d ever been. That was until Kody, taking offence at some real or imagined slight, started violently destroying the band’s equipment, rendering it inoperable. The rest of the band looked on, numbly.
Like so many of their defining moments, there was an ambiguity: was it engineered or spontaneous? It wasn’t clear, and it doesn’t matter. The show was finally over.
Some time the following day the band’s website was replaced with a single legend, one which perfectly captures the Mint Chicks’ impact. It read: Start your own fucking band.