Hold On To The Rail: A Conversation With Roger Shepherd of Flying Nun (Part One)
Back in February I had a chance to sit down and catch up with Roger Shepherd for a feature in Barkers’ new lifestyle mag/look book 1972. The rest of the publication is well worth picking up too, with original writing from Steve Kilgallon, Gavin Bertram, Aaron Yap and Shayne Carter. Shepherd, for those who don’t know, is the founder of Flying Nun Records, whose musical and visual aesthetic became one of our main exports to a number of other fertile cultural undergrounds in the 1980s. I’ve been looking at Flying Nun’s product and hearing well-worn pressings of some of their key releases since I was able to crawl. So as usual, I found myself piledriving too much idle chat into a word limit, and with 1972 editor Duncan Grieve’s kind permission, I’ve reproduced the first part of my unexpurgated chat with him (NB: the ‘on the record’ bits) here.
PP: This week you’ve been at Laneway, and then the next night you went and saw Holy Fuck and Les Savy Fav play at the Kings’ Arms. Tired, much?
RS: I’m not very good at being out in the sun. But I didn’t have a choice, since it was Children’s Hour – a band not suited to the daylight either, really. Since it was early there was hardly anyone there, and so I pushed my way to the front.
PP: Yeah – still, this year’s Laneway improved immeasurably on last year’s. I remember the sight of grumpy people sipping beer and wine in pens while the bands were playing over on the other side. Kinda heartbreaking.
RS: Doesn’t work. I remember the old Sweetwaters actually, where you’d have to drink in a certain area, and you’d be patted down going in and out.
PP: This isn’t the ’99 one with the gang members doing security and drinking what they confiscated?
RS: Nah, nah – this was back in the eighties. We had a caravan there that we shared with Rip It Up. On the first day we took enough booze – whiskey and beer, for some stupid reason – to last us the whole of the three days. It ran out after one day. But Murray Cammick was having to drive back into the city every day to write up and cover the stuff. So, he immediately became the designated booze run. So we’d be hanging out for Murray to get back with the supplies, and then we got…well, Doug Hood was very much involved and he’d helped to bring the lights down, helped the festival with the audio and visual stuff and he’d set up a mini-PA outside of the caravan. And so we played what we wanted to. And at that time, your Sweetwaters audience wasn’t really interested in The Stooges. And we were playing Fun House out of this giant sound system. One time I went out the front and all the way up the hill, to the perimeter of the festival, and you could hear it just as loudly between songs of the bands playing on the main stage.
PP: Was the stuff playing on the main stage very much…hippie sort of stuff?
RS: Nah, absolutely new wave by that stage, haha. I remember The Narcs complained about the volume of noise we were making and threatened to push our caravan over into the neighbouring ditch. Then…Warners got really angry, because we’d apparently been audible during the Talking Heads set, or something? And then we decided to have a game of cricket in…well this small, open space in between all these caravans and this PA. And the sound of a cricket ball hitting the side of a metal caravan made quite a….”
PP: Reverberated for miles?
RS: Yep. For some reason, the ball didn’t come back.
PP: What did you do then?
RS: We decided to play with vegetables instead. Somewhere, there’s a great photo of me batting up defensively to a cabbage. I think possibly bowled by Harry Ratbag. I’ve been looking for the pic for a few years, so hopefully it comes to light now. It was jolly good fun.
PP: You mentioned The Stooges before, which, again, circa-1980 anywhere in New Zealand, wouldn’t have been something that prevalent. And prior to 1980, you were working in a record store. How easy was it for someone in that position, who’d maybe heard of The Stooges or The Velvet Underground, to track that stuff down?
RS: Not a show. Impossible.
PP: Out of print everywhere?
RS: Not necessarily internationally, but essentially you’d have to go overseas. Someone you know would, and come back with a crate of the stuff. Then when punk started, there was a group of us who would chip in together and buy new releases by mail order? And then one of the things that did help a little was the way major labels started touching some of these bands and making these bizarre decisions to actually release them. I was talking to Kody (Nielson) just recently and saying how one of the big things was that first Wire album, and that was kind of the way forward. I mean, I liked the Clash, but they were, really, another rock ‘n roll band.
PP: And they’d been a pub rock band six months earlier.
RS: Yep. And I mean, we loved the Sex Pistols, who had two fantastic singles, that changed the world, and were ultimately an incredibly significant band, but you looked at the rest of their output and wondered…where would that lead? A few years later, of course, you got Public Image Limited who were incredible, but for me, it was Wire. Because that record turned up really, really early on. It was like, “Shit. This is what’s next. This is what’s going to come out of it.”
PP: Wire were older than the others though, and they’d done their time as art students.
RS: Yeah, and I mean, I hear the influence of early Roxy Music really strongly in them. Because if you watch…there’s that DVD/CD release of them…it’s in Germany, it’s between the second and third album. They look glam. And it’s something that never really came across in the music.
PP: Even a band like Wire, though – sure, they had a lot of creative license that very few other bands had , but they were still under a major which ultimately frustrated them. So what actually planted the seeds of being able to do it yourself?
RS: That was a big part of the whole post-punk thing, do it yourself. There were those bands that signed to majors, and they probably got away with blue murder because the big labels didn’t know what the parameters were. It was that whole period where they were like – how is this going to work? Can we try and make money out of this?
PP: And that led to Public Image, who you mentioned before, being able to do things like Metal Box-
RS: Exactly. ‘We haven’t done this before, maybe if we throw a whole bunch of money at it until we get an idea of what the model is!’ (pauses) Sounds familiar, eh. But there were these models that were coming to us as a mail-order, word-of-mouth sort of thing, like Desperate Bicycles in London. This message that you can do it yourself. And in America, that whole thing of starting your own company to be a band and make your own records. It was happening there too.
That was an international feeling that you’d read about from week to week in NME, read about in handprinted fanzines…you couldn’t read about them in any timely sort of way because these things were being shipped to you. Much later on, I did this outrageous and cutting-edge thing by getting a paid email subscription to NME just to get it quicker, which seems strange now because what you’d read in there is so appalling. It’s an appalling rag now. But then, it was very much the bible. Great writers, writing about good stuff. And you’d be able to track that stuff down yourself just by looking at the ads. Though of course, you’d be reading about these great records that had just come out – six months later.
Flying Nun was very much a part of that whole culture. These people said – oh well, no one else will put it out, let’s make it available – and so my idea with Flying Nun was …I mean, in Christchurch, it was localized to a point. But the Flying Nun idea was about breaking down some of that because it was so localized, trying to reach down to Dunedin. The idea of Dunedin just being self-sufficient for them – I mean, those ‘Dunedin Sound’ bands had to go to Christchurch and farther afield to find their audiences. That in turn gave them the sort of confidence that gave them the natural urge to make more music. So to me, it always seems like a bit of an oversimplification to say – oh, these wonderful things suddenly happened in Dunedin in isolation, because they didn’t.
PP: It’s interesting to read Rip It Up articles from 1981, 1982…that’s an Auckland-based editor and writers were doing what could be considered quite trad ‘There’s something in the water down South!’ hype articles after the Dunedin Double came out. So what was the relationship with Auckland like for you guys? It seems like it was full of more typically trendy bands, as the big smoke.
RS: Well fashion always was – is, still is a more significant thing here. So to be honest, the sense down south was that people in Auckland tended to be a bit more…’in tune with international developments’. In Dunedin, I mean, you didn’t know what ‘international developments’ were! But, you know, it’s interesting seeing Children’s Hour on Monday, because I think they were our first Auckland band, one of the first that we started working with. Chris Matthews I would have met when his first band, Prime Movers, that he drummed in, supported the Clean at the upstairs of the Edinburgh Castle. Which, for us, coming up, was the scariest place in the entire world. You walked up some open stairs above the public bar. It was terrifying. You had to make sure you didn’t leave at the same time they were emptying out downstairs, or you didn’t have a shit show of making it out in one piece.
PP: So, basically there were a bunch of guys looking to pick fights with students and punks?
RS: It’s like that in Dunedin to this day, actually. But I guess in being Dunedin, I missed out this whole clash Auckland had between, say punk and disco people. It wasn’t a musical thing, necessarily. There were always just awful student-bashings in Dunedin…but Auckland was bit more vicious.
PP: Would you have gone to see a band at the Kings Arms 30 years ago?
RS: <laughs>. I made the mistake of going into the public bar once. I needed change, something stupid like that. I didn’t have any cash, the doorperson wouldn’t let me in to get money out in the concert venue part, I wasn’t allowed to and had to go to the public bar! I thought: what are you trying to do to me? I snuck in, and luckily they were so drunk that I wasn’t even registered. No idea. I still got in and out, quick.
Next time: how one record store geek started a label to document his new favourite band, pissed off Mark E. Smith, and almost scored a worldwide heavenly pop hit…