This is part 2 of the Graeme Downes Interview conducted through email on 18.12.08
SANZ: Would you consider yourself a legend One of the many legends in the NZ music scene
Graeme: From experience you are only as legendary as your last and or next record. And we always have the highest hopes for the next one and that someone other than the composer will say something nice about it.
SANZ: What would you prefer to do work and record in a studio or perform live
Graeme: studio definitely
SANZ: what would you say is the best thing about performing live
Graeme: Its immediate I guess from the audience's perspective and the visual aspect makes it a more rounded experience (and an easier one to digest in many respects). I personally value the solely listening experience without any visual element competing for my attention. It's emotionally deeper and more sustaining I find. An orchestra or someone (like Leonard Cohen whom I'm seeing in Wellington next month) who doesn't move around too much is OK.
SANZ: Do you feel NZ music is stronger now then when you first started out
Graeme: Its different, more diverse and so on. Comparing eras is fraught with difficulty however.
SANZ: what are your thoughts on the nz music scene now compared to when you started out
Graeme: technology has made it all a lot easier for more people to have a say. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. A lot of the basics though, growing an audience by playing live and touring, hasn't changed a whole lot. Learning your trade still means hard yards (even with institutional help).
SANZ: If you had to choose a song from the early Dunedin sound to represent the Dunedin sound what would it be
Graeme: paradoxically "Pink Frost" because it is such a singular and awesome song and, in terms of its actual sound, the least like traditional notions of what the Dunedin sound was (jangle and drone)
SANZ: What made the Dunedin sound different to what came from the rest of NZ
Graeme: It is a complex question I've been trying to answer for some time now. i despair of ever being able to publish my findings in words ordinary people, other than trained musicians, will understand. I'll be trying again over the summer. Form is an important issue. If you've dabbled in songwriting you'll know the basic formal types (AAA, AABA and various variations on the verse/chorus model). A good many of the iconic Dunedin Sound songs create an original structural outside of the aforementioned conventions (and in a unique and singular way-a new structure for each song particular to what it is trying to achieve and which isn't replicated in any other song). Form is more difficult for the untrained to apprehend ("sound" is much easier). Then there is a host of organisational details and the relationship between form and content. So basically, you could be band in Dunedin, but unless you were prepared and able to take on this rather difficult task of independently thinking through each structure on an individual basis, you wouldn't be likely to be considered a Dunedin Sound band. A lot of the songs have pure instrumental music doing a lot of the communication, which is not typical for pop music.
SANZ: What been the most memorable moment in your music career
Graeme: I haven't had it yet.
SANZ: is there a moment you'd like to forget about and can you tell us about it
Graeme: Lots of them. There are regrets all over the place. Too many to mention. This is certainly a marked advantage the musician has now with home studios and protools and the like. They can fix mistakes or miscalculations relatively quickly and inexpensively. Back in the day when you did an album at a studio with tape (expensive) and paying 100s of dollars a day, once the money ran out that was what the album was going to sound like, even if it wasn't all you'd hoped. There have been plenty of songs with "could have done better" on the report card.
SANZ: If you had a chance to go back in time and repeat your musical career over again would you take that chance
would you do anything differently if you did
Graeme: A million things. When you reduce 100 odd songs down to a small handful for a compilation album, it is actually a depressingly simple task, it assembles itself more or less. I feel like I'm writing the best material of my life now but I probably wouldn't be in this position without having grafted all these years and learning from mistakes. Successes you tend to enjoy rather than interrogate. Success is great, but not necessarily helpful in terms of developing.
SANZ: What was it like to do the flying nun under the influence album
Graeme: very very strange
SANZ: What was it like to work with stephen malkamus
Graeme: ditto, very strange. The song was rehearsed and recorded in about twenty minutes. Stephen kept changing his mind and only decided on D@TM at the last minute. I played bass cos I knew the chords.
SANZ: What was it like to do the 24 hour national anthem back in 2004
Graeme: a bit nerve wracking. The whole band (the core, keyboardist Stephen small, and the horn section) really only had an hour to rehearse prior to the gig. We were flying by the seat of our pants. we made a lot of mistakes but proved to ourselves that we could rehearse remotely and pull something together, which gave us the confidence to do Potboiler.
SANZ:(here is a strange question) when you are in a music store do you get the urge to check if they have any of your cds in stock
Graeme: I make a point of it.
SANZ: Do you ever check ebay or trademe to see if anyone is selling any rare records of your work
Graeme: no, but I hear anecdotally they can be quite pricey.
SANZ: What are your thoughts on you tube seeing as there are a lot of verlaines videos on it at the moment
Graeme: I didn't put them there. It's regrettable in some respects that there's no control over publication any more but for better or worse I guess it's a library of sorts and a very inclusive one at that in terms of access. I shouldn't quibble when I enjoy other people's clips on there, who have also been posted without their permission undoubtedly.
SANZ: If you had to pick a song of yours to be your signature which would it be and why
Graeme: "Incarceration" from WOW. I think it catches the limitation of self rather well. The last verse may as well be on my headstone (not that I plan having one).
SANZ: What are your thoughts on the Elemenop cover of Death and the Maiden
Graeme: Its interesting what they felt they had to do to make it palatable to this generation (trim the four bar intro to 2 bars-too much dead air, and the death waltz? What was that Downes feller thinking he was doing? Doh!). In wanting to make it sound like a Greenday song it loses pretty much all of its ennui. Though ennui is sooo "century before last" I guess.
SANZ: How long till we see another Graeme/Verlaines album
Graeme: it's being mixed. March maybe?
SANZ: Will we finally see a nationwide tour from you guys aswell
Graeme: I've looked at it and it may be possible, but it would perforce have to be a very stripped down version of the recent songs and some would perforce remain unperformable due to the complexity of the arrangements.
SANZ: Can you name a few bands who have become big that went through your contemporary rock degree
Graeme: Well the Tweaks are in London now and playing SXSW in the new year. Simon Comber's second album comes out soon as has George and Queen's. There are many, many others. Not household names by any means but success is relative. They make beautiful records with consistently high songwriting standards. I remain proud of them all.
SANZ: How did you come to do the theme song for the documentary series scarfies
Was it ever officially recorded and how can I get a hold of a copy if it was
Graeme: I was approached. Used a student as a sounding board co-writer and went from there. I'd never really done a "write to order" gig but well, it was OK.
SANZ: Now in the ads for Otago uni there is a song with the verse (where I come from I know my home by heart but theres a doubt of belonging) by any chance did you have a hand at writing that song if not do you know who did and how to get a copy of that track aswell
Graeme: Not me I'm afraid. I'm not sure if I can divulge the author/composer. Top secret info.
SANZ: what are your thoughts on NZ idol
Graeme: At the very least it makes me appreciate how good the best divas in the world actually are (your Mariah Carey's and Beyonce's and what not)
SANZ: In your opinion what do you think makes NZ music stand out from say music from America
Graeme: Increasingly our accent. I think the old stereotype of the taciturn, self-deprecating NZ male is in there somewhere and finds a voice ("fourth best folk duo in the country" sound familiar?) even amongst the ladies I'm sure.
SANZ: What would you consider a classic NZ song
Graeme: "Now is the Hour/Po Atarau" (Maewa Kaihau and Clement Scott. 1913).
SANZ: and what would you consider an iconic NZ song
Graeme: "Counting the Beat"
SANZ: Who are some of your favourite NZ bands/artists to listen to
Graeme: For the fear of being too parochial I will dodge this one.
SANZ: What was the last NZ album you bought
SANZ: What are your plans for the remainder of 08/09
Graeme: Finish mixing (and recording) the new album. Write another one to be recorded in June (maybe, I've started already). Other composition projects, maybe some film work. Trying to finish the aforementioned book.