Hold On The Rail, Part Two: A Conversation with Roger Shepherd
Last week, I published the first part of my interview with Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd for 1972. In the final part, we talk about those rough n’ ready early days of Flying Nun, how close at least one of the bands came to being the next My Bloody Valentine (or at least, a big deal on the same UK label) - and a tough question has to be posed - did Roger know what he was doing half the time?…
PP: Even by the standards of this DIY movement flourishing all over the world, Flying Nun must still be an early adapter. I mean, we’re talking 1980, 1981. If it was in the air, you weren’t exactly chasing anything that had happened elsewhere years earlier.
RS: I think we were fortunate to all have access to tap into the same common influences and ethos – it was almost a seeding process. I just felt very strongly that there was some great music being made and it just needed to be documented. I certainly wasn’t like, ‘There’s a real business opportunity here, we could sell 5000 singles by this band and make a killing.’ It was more like, ‘I love this band and I love these songs and maybe we can make a record and sell a pressing of 300 and maybe cover our costs, and I’d be really happy with that.’ But there was that really strong anxiety, that maybe this would come and go and never be seen again – that it needed to be documented.
PP: Did you know what you were doing, though?
RS: I probably had the confidence to make people think I knew exactly what I was doing, but the whole initial Flying Nun progression was very much about finding out how to do things by doing them wrong, making horrific mistakes and then trying to stumble and recover my steps. My mistakes were mainly around…the kind of stuff they probably teach in high school accounting now. How to balance your books, how to keep track of ingoings and outgoings…how to keep track of which shops were stocking your record. It sounds appalling now, because probably no child could go through school without learning the basics in, let’s say…debit/credit. Just the concept of that initially eluded me.
But I think we had really good people involved, like Chris and Doug (Hood), who became an integral part of it really early – I mean, with The Clean – Doug was the original singer of that band, with Peter Gutteridge in there as well. Robert Scott joined much later. So they sort of stumbled around, Doug left the band and slipped into his preferred role as soundman. I talked to Chris (Knox) a couple of years ago, before the stroke, and one of the things we’re still really excited about is The Clean. What they get up to, whether there’s a new album on the way. In retrospect, I realize that that was the connecting thing for us and the thing that was why Flying Nun…even was.
PP: So it pretty much coalesced around The Clean?
RS: Pretty much! Although we never nescessarily…realized it? Chris eventually came up here, and with everyone else being stuck in Christchurch, we had an ‘Auckland branch’ and just kind of developed.
PP: Did a band like The Clean, before Flying Nun was born…did they field offers from other existing labels?
RS: Oh, they were shambolic. I was there at the first gig, with The Enemy at the Beneficiaries’ Hall and they played three or four songs over and over because they were the only songs they had. And you couldn’t make out a hook, or a lyric, but it didn’t really matter. Because they had a little bit of a spark. And then Doug left and Peter left and they went through a brief but endless cycle of having various different people play with them, until I think Bob turned into someone quite solid that the brothers could work around? The way it works traditionally in The Clean of course is that: they argue for a while, and then they make Robert decide…or mediate. So it’s always the old “The Clean are back together! But for how long this time?” I mean, that’s only…a casual observation on my part.”
PP: I guess working in a record store in Christchurch at the time you encountered buyers going up and down the country from actual record labels. What kind of response did guys like that, and the people who worked in commercial radio give to Flying Nun at this point, or any of those bands?
RS: Well, they’d be dealing with middle-of-the-road kind of artists and releases. I’m just trying to think…they weren’t interested in anything that was going on that we were interested in, really. I mean, and The Clean were successful. They were the biggest band there for a period. But that was absolutely grassroots – not buyer’s supporting it, or anything. We sold a lot of that record (Boodle Boodle Boodle) and I remember at least one guy from a major record company being like: “You sold how many?!” Then they said how many time more they would have been able to shift, though it’s hard to see how in New Zealand in 1981.
Print media was really important. So journalists like Colin Hogg or Rob White…any journalists in proper newspapers who chose to review things, you’d be lucky. On the other hand, you got responses like “That’s not a proper album!” And then when proper albums…LP’s, as late as Bailterspace, came along, there was still resistance. The ODT, funnily enough, were dead opposed. Other print were good – Rip It Up, obviously, was really good. Student radio was really good. Mainstream radio…(pauses)
RS: Quite often bands would have an expectation that those commercial stations should play them. And when that didn’t come to fruition, they’d get pretty angry – which I always thought was wasting your breath, really. They sell advertising. They have no obligations to any one artist, or band, or anything. I didn’t really see the point of lengthy toll calls from the South Island to these Auckland offices trying to get them to play things. It seemed pretty…dispiriting.
PP: That’d be like cold calling.
RS: Yeah, you wanna keep a focus on the people you like, basically. And, you know, sometimes there are opportunities to push stuff out. It’s got to be there, though. You can’t just get on the phone and ring everyone.
PP: But you actually got two number 1 singles in the charts, was that right? And one number one album.
RS: Headless Chooks- George, and The Chills – Heavenly Pop Hit? Hmm, or was the album – (Submarine Bells) number 1 and the single number 2? But something like The Clean, Boodle was…I think that got as high as number 3. Now, that was in the chart for half a year, and it would dip, and then come back as and when they toured.
PP: With Boodle, were you caught short?
RS: Always – some of the record shops would get wise to the fact that it took us longer to turn repressings around than a major record company. Our stuff was always bottom priority – it’d get pressed at the end of the month, when they had some spare capacity. So we’d always run out of stuff. And so it’d be a lot of kudos for the band, you know – to be able to say that they’d ‘sold out’. So some places started buying multiples of a hundred, up to 500 copies of everything.
You’d have to wait for some older rocker guy to decide he needed twenty dollars, and you’d keep an eye out and he’d sell it to you. You couldn’t buy it for love nor money otherwise.
PP: Then, gradually, Flying Nun started making some of those things available. Flying In became the import wing for several years, and of course, you released that live Fall album (Fall In A Hole) – though the band - and by the band, I mean, I guess I mean Mark E. Smith - weren’t fans of it.
RS: Well, it was quite a chaotic time…I’ve read that book, that Mark E. Smith book – well, it’s not a book so much as a rant. I enjoyed the whole thing, but I disagree without about 90% of what he says, and I’m sure I’d probably disagree with about 90 % of his account of the recording of that performance. I think it was brokered between Chris and Doug, and they would have been the ones who tried to talk to The Fall or their people before recording it, but it didn’t seem very clean-cut…I’d like to look at getting it repressed, actually.
But then later on we did clean-cut deals with the likes of Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth – and maybe made those available a little sooner. I felt as though it was just good to be connected to the rest of the world in what we were doing? We live in quite a funny little insular place, you know, and there’s not very many of us. Even Australia is a long, long away.
I guess I started to realize quite early on in the label’s existence that the bands were all developing and evolving rapidly, and so for some of them looking outside this place was going to become important. And that started to show up limitations too: because they wanted, say studio time, and back then as now, studio time was expensive. The economics of it were always going to be exhausting when it came to selling our music overseas.
PP: So who was asking for this music from overseas first? Hardcore fans?
RS: We started off being mail order only, and that caused frissions of excitement where those people got jobs in little record stores, and then in other little labels overseas, and that created things like licensing opportunities, and a little more buzz. Tuatara, the first compilation we did, might have been the first time we really appreciated and became aware of that. It made up for the hours we spent around the table trying to decide on the name.
PP: Did Tuatara do what you expected it to do?
RS: More, actually. It helped to set low expectations.
PP: The other thing which was legendary in Rip It Up was Russell Brown’s coverage of a long, exhausting tour with the Chills around Northern Europe and the UK. Was that the first great push outwards?
RS: Yes, but I have to concede it was very much driven by the band. They were really ambitious at that stage. And we tried to help them in every way along the line.
PP: Had they put out Brave Words yet at that stage?
RS: No, Brave Words got recorded in London, when that tour eventually ground to a halt. We’d get intermittent faxes saying: ‘MORE MONEY NEEDED’. Still: how many bands in history have tried and do a tour like that having not even released a full-length album in their home country?
I often feel like I need someone on hand to produce a timeline for interviews like these: I could rifle through a document under the table, and say ‘Oh yes, May 1986, when the Chills were in Brussels!’”
PP: There’s actually probably more than a few luminaries around the world who would have timelines that exact and would love to present them to you, Roger.
RS: There are…there are.
PP: You should hire one of those people at some point. They could just hover at the next seat over.
RS: Yeah. But I mean, Martin (Phillips) was really ambitious and he wanted to get out there and do it, and god…they gave it a real crack. And at the time…I mean, people in the industry almost laughed at them. To the publicists and the promoters who were very much embedded in that way of doing things, the idea of them trying to take England like that was just laughable. It was still incredibly expensive to travel to the UK – I mean now we all try to browse websites at 5 in the morning to get cheap deals. But for the time, those people were right. It was outrageous.
PP: Did it pay off, though? I mean, by the release of Submarine Bells, they’d built up a sizeable cult following. Relatively speaking.
RS: They got really close. So close. The band was hungry, Martin was still keen…and lucid. They had good, dedicated management. They were so close to ‘Heavenly Pop Hit’ being enormous in the UK. And I think that Martin saw that that could happen. I feel as if he saw it could happen, and ran away completely…that’s the tragedy.
Today, Roger Shepherd, after 15 years away from the label he started, is back in management and joint ownership of Flying Nun after it spent the better part of a decade in cold storage at Warners NZ (yes, the same label that blew a cap at Shepherd and co when they made a Stooges-and-cricket din at Sweetwaters back in the early eighties). The reborn Flying Nun has made a very deliberate habit of keeping to new releases by young artists (Die!Die!Die!, Grayson Gilmour) and new work by original members of the roster (Robert Scott) rather than becoming a ‘nostalgia’ label (in Shepherd’s words). However, reissues remain on the cards - the near-inaudible mastering of The Chills’ Brave Words has haunted Shepherd and all involved since the day they heard it, and it’s a loop he’d finally like to go back and close. Remasters of New Plymouth’s extraordinary industrial pioneers Skeptics, who Shepherd and others have made a strong case for as the single greatest act the label ever had, are also in the wings.
The Clean, who started this all, still record and perform intermittently. Both events are greeted with rapture by an international cult following.
The Chills never quite regained their stature after Phillips fled home, their early head of steam dispersing into lineup crises, drug addiction, and finally, inertia. They remain the interviewer’s favourite NZ pop band of all time. He still holds a candle, in hope.