For you newbies, The Dead C are a lo-fi guitar-based improvisational noise trio formed in Dunedin in 1986 featuring the same three members for its entire existence: Bruce Russell and Michael Morley on guitar and Robbie Yeats on drums.
The trio will play a rare festival set at Laneway this January at Albert Park in Auckland. This can be a frightening proposition for both the band and the audience, who may not know what to expect. Radio 13's Marty Duda talks to Bruce Russell about the upcoming show and the band's unique approach to playing together.
MD: So you guys are playing at Laneway.
BR: Yes I know, isn’t that a surprise?
MD: It is! Did you have to think about doing that? I would imagine for you guys, you’re used to playing in front of an audience that knows kind of what to expect, and that possibly might not be the case here.
BR: Well, interestingly yes and no. We have played a few festivals overseas where, although you might say the population is a little bit skewed in terms of their tastes, it will be also fair to say, many of those people had no expectation of what they were going to get when we got on stage. So you know, in New Zealand, yes, we very seldom get in front of an unsuspecting audience, we supported Sonic Youth a couple of times and certainly the first time we did that ’93 I know there was, well put it this way, it was reported to me there was widespread consternation. But that’s probably not so much the case now. But I mean Laneway is... we played a festival in Helsinki in June which was very mainstream. We were admittedly sort of on the 3rd stage where you might expect to find challenging listening, so nobody got hurt by that. But this will be really interesting. And I’m not lying, we’re actually really happy to get in front of what I would call unsuspecting audiences because I think in 2018 if people are not ready for something that’s a bit left field, then well, they should really wake up.
MD: Right. I mean, compared to the audiences say, in 1993 would you say audiences in general were open to less song oriented, traditional structured music?
BR: There’s a lot more that’s going on. I mean even point to things like, within the electronic music genre, something like Burial, they have beats and what not, but still that’s really kind of sonic and bleak and a long way from ABBA, and we’re kind of, I’m not saying we’re the same thing, but within the post-punk garage band kind of area of business, we’re a long way from ABBA too.
MD: ABBA, your kind of touch point for commercial pop music.
BR: Oh I just think it’s a convenient short hand that sprang onto my mind. I could have chosen Taylor Swift but her name gets mentioned too often!
MD: Fair enough. I read somewhere that you claim that you don’t really want to confront audiences, that’s not what you’re about.
BR: Well yeah, put it this way. It’s not our raison d'être. We don’t go out looking for people to outrage. Because that would be facile, in the sense that we don’t dress up in Halloween masks, we don’t have any of the trappings of… we’re not industrial, we don’t have weird piercings, we don’t exude that aura of ‘lock up your children’, we’re perfectly un-extraordinary looking kind of late middle-aged white guys, and you could take us home to mother and we’d probably pull it off, but what we do creatively is challenging and we certainly… we’re not interested in ruining people’s night. But we didn’t seek this opportunity. Genuinely this came out of the blue, I was astounded when they offered it to us, I really wondered ‘what hath God wrought’ and the only concern was, ‘is this a genuine offer, and do they really, actually, want us to go and succeed in what we can do to their audience?’ Then they showed the numbers, and we went ‘clearly they’re serious, okay let’s do it’.
MD: Cool. Have the three of you had any discussions about…are you going to approach this gig like any other, or…
BR: We have a no discussions policy Marty. We never discuss how we’re going to approach... our modus operandi is pretty well established in year 31 of our era and we don’t need to talk about what we’re going to do. No, we’re not going to show any mercy in the sense that we’re just going to do what we want to do. That’s what we always do.
MD: Is that kind of the key to having been together for 31 years? Just don’t talk to each other?
BR: It’s one of the keys, but to be brutally honest this came up in the other interview I did last week, the key to having an unchanged line up for 31 years its the money, stupid. Everything is split equally all the time, and nobody’s a songwriter so nobody’s getting a premium from the royalties, that’s the Martin Phillipps conundrum, lovely guy but he’s never worked out that everybody else is a hired hand that you’re going to have to rotate. But with us it’s completely different. It has to be the three of us, it can’t be any substitutions or else it’s a completely different thing.
MD: Did you know that before going in to forming the band or is it just kind of the way it’s worked out?
BR: When we formed the band Marty, we had absolutely no inkling about what we were doing except we thought we’re gonna get together, we’re going to be pretty loose, the other two essentially knew I couldn’t play properly and that wasn’t an obstacle to them so having got over that ‘hump’, we had no idea, literally, we couldn’t have conceived what we had done because what we had done was not possible or indeed readily conceivable in 1987. So yeah, it’s been a wild ride and certainly an unexpected one.
MD: And what has been the high point so far?
BR: Personally, high point so far happened in 2006 so from our point of view quite recently, only 12 years ago and that was when we went to the first English All Tomorrows Parties at Minehead and we were on the big stage on the first night and the line up went Nurse with Wound, Flipper, The Melvins, Stooges, Sonic Youth, Dead C. That was the line up. So I got to put my 4 and a half watt briefcase sized amp on the same piece of stage that Ron Ashton’s Marshall stack had stood on only an hour earlier. And they made us so loud that my trousers flapped regardless of the 4 and a half watt. That was a real highlight.
MD: Fantastic. And just in general, did you get to spend some time with these other acts and just commiserate and hang?
BR: Yeah, there was a bit of that. I didn’t personally meet any members of the Stooges other than a passing encounter with Iggy after the show, lovely guy, but he wasn’t really in a position to talk. He was clearly coping in recovery at that point after what was an epic performance. It’s always good to go to those things and you catch up with people and yeah there were plenty of folks there that we knew and new friend were made, that’s a plus. And with Laneways I’m sure there’ll be some people, to be honest I had little knowledge of any of the acts that are playing because we’ve got 30 years on almost everybody, but that will be interesting.
MD: Well I think that’s kind of the point of Laneways, I think I hear that every year from people- ‘who are these people on this line up here?’ But you learn, and you go to it and you’re like oh yeah, this is cool, so I guess that’s what it’s all about, enlightenment, as well. Now I also read somewhere you mentioned that you don’t like to do too many gigs because you’re afraid of losing your edge. So I’m interested in the concept of you and your edge and how you have it and how you know you have it and how you know you don’t have it. Can you elaborate?
BR: I mean, I think part of being any kind of creative artist is self-reflection. You’ve got to have a perspective on what you do, you’ve gotta have a grip on your ‘thing’, for want of a better word, and I know when I’m going through the motions or when I’m actually cooking, if you like, and to be honest this year I played a lot of gigs and I certainly started to say no to a few things on the basis that ‘I’d like a month off’ kind of thing where I don’t have a gig. I think it’ll be fine. Just the actual logistics of getting to Auckland and getting on stage in quite possibly in daylight in front of a festive crowd, I think we’ll be a little bit on edge. I don’t think there’ll be any problem with having someone or something on the day.
MD: Now you guys have a new album on the way as well, right?
BR: Yes, the answer to that question is there’s always a new album and this is no exception. I’m not absolutely sure what day it’ll be out but, I think between now and Christmas it will emerge with the customary very modest fanfare, it’s on Ba Da Bing, which is American label we’ve been with for the last 12 years or so, and we’re pretty happy with it. It’s representative of a Dead C record, they’re always the same, they’re always different.
MD: Is it called Trouble, is that the title?
BR: No that was the last one from a couple years back, the last one was called Trouble. This new one is called Rare Ravers.
MD: Rare Ravers, that’s right. And it’s your 32nd album or something, right?
BR: Yep, depending on how you count them. But yeah I think we’re kind of 31 years and 32 albums with my best guests in it, that’s where we’re at, at this point in our career.
MD: It must be different for you playing in a studio and playing in front of people. Does the band kind of interact differently in those different environments?
BR: Not really. No actually, the band interacts remarkably little in the sense that, somebody, I think it was from Pete Swanson from the Yellow Swans, I read an interview with him recently and someone asked him about us and his comment was ‘I could never understand what they were doing until I saw them play and I realised they were three autonomous players who actually don’t pay attention to each other’. And that’s really the key to what the band does because almost every other group, people are trying to work together. With us, we’re actively trying not to work together and that’s the thing that we’ve kind of mastered really well. So in the studio or in front of a crowd, we’re really immersed in our own worlds and I mean, it’s not like we can’t hear each other or don’t listen, but honestly I’m listening probably 75% to my own amp and 25% to the other guys, and on a really good day I just don’t even notice them. I just do my thing. And then when you hear the results the brain automatically makes the connections it expects to find between the different aural elements and that’s the magic, because actually the connections are not necessarily there.
MD: Ah, so how does the decision making process work when you’re recording and you’ve decided that’s a keeper or when you need to do it again?
BR: Oh we do have to listen back, usually what happens now is we’ll have one or two sort of sessions where we all play and record, and it’s not a given that there will be overdubs, sometimes there are bits overdubbed but often there isn’t, but what we’ll do is we will convene, usually after a suitable interval to let the dust settle so that it sounds a little bit fresh when your ears have recovered from actually being in the moment. And then we listen through and go, ‘oh that bit from here to here I really liked it’, and we generally don’t disagree and we mark the bits that we want and later on Michael usually goes and chops it up and gives it a polish and says, ‘does it sounds right?’ ‘Yeah, that’s good’.
MD: And how do you imagine the ultimate listening experience, how should people listen to your music? Is it through headphones, live or is it on stereo, on vinyl or does it matter to you?
BR: My only comment is personally I’m not really much of a headphone listener. I mean, the headphone is a good tool when you’re working on stuff, but as a listening experience I don’t personally enjoy headphones and I don’t think necessarily our music sounds the best on headphones. I don’t care how you listen to it, so long as you listen to it at a reasonable volume. And I’m not asking for it to be blindingly loud but I don’t see any point in listening to it on little 1 inch speakers that can’t actually reproduce the full frequency range, so anything that’s got a whole frequency range and will play the stuff at or above conversational volume is fine by me. To be honest, stereo, schemereo, a lot of the mixing Is pretty straight down the middle, and my own stuff is even more mono, with the band it’s a bit more stereo than when I tend to be on my own, but that’s not really the issue. I think it should be immersive and you should be able to kind of get lost in it, because it’s not great background music, it has to take control of your psyche to some degree and that’s what’s great about live performance. Through a decent PA in the right circumstances we’re now quite capable of essentially taking people’s consciousness into other places, and that’s psychedelic, and that’s what we do.
MD: Excellent. Well I’m looking forward to see this goes down at Laneway, because it should be good.
BR: Hopefully it’s gonna go down. Hopefully it doesn’t just kind of lie there and look weird. Hopefully it’s gonna take off. I have no idea of the running order but my fingers are crossed for at least dusk. But I don’t know, the way these things work, we’ll take what we’re given.