(Note: this is an unpublished piece I wrote in 2007 for a Canadian magazine called ACHE that never saw the light of day. With their permission, I’m posting it here, as I did on my old Detailed Twang blog in 2008. The actual written piece was also to contain an interview I did with Julie Cooper of The Kiwi Animal, but I seem to have misplaced that).
We are currently in the midst of an extended revival and belated celebration of lost outsider folk music of the 1970s, defined by obscurity more than anything else, with simplicity & pureness of sound running a close second. Examples of said 70s folk artists include the excellent VASHTI BUNYAN, LINDA PERHACS and SIBYLLE BAIER. It may be many years before the lost acoustic children of the 1980s are accorded the same due respect, yet the magical, often experimental New Zealand duo THE KIWI ANIMAL deserve their just psychic rewards posthaste. It’s probably a decent time to be paying them as well, as there’s an oft-delayed CD retrospective set to come out “soon” – current rumors place it this year, in 2008 – on a German label called Pehr. This set encompasses both of the band’s LPs: 1984’s minimal, beautifully weird “Music Media” and the following year’s sinister, ten-song acoustic concept piece “Mercy”. Completists, of whom there will surely be more of once this music sees a wider release, will be shattered to learn that the band’s 1983 7”EP “Wartime” & assorted cassette-only live tracks won’t be on the CD, but I’m certain that this is due only to the 80-minute space limitation of the storage media itself. These fragile and wonderful sounds weren’t asked to be “file(d) under New Acoustic Music” on the back of their first album for nothing.
Let’s take a step back for a second and think about what the 80s represented in terms of New Zealand and its place in the larger world of independent rock music. This small two-island country garnered an obsessive amount of “indie cachet” during the decade – I knew of Americans at the time who would have given a left arm for the complete discography of Flying Nun records; later in the decade, the rough & homemade Xpressway label burrowed an even deeper level of allegiance to the country and its seemingly endless supply of strange & unique bands.
A partial role call would include larger acts like THE CLEAN,THE CHILLS and THE VERLAINES – all pretty much on the fuzzed-out, alterna-pop side of the spectrum – to more difficult-to-peg acts ranging from all of BILL DIREEN’s projects to THE GORDONS, THE BATS and even smaller-scale bedroom geniuses like SHOES THIS HIGH, SCORCHED EARTH POLICY and MARIE & THE ATOM. This lowest level was the milieu in which The Kiwi Animal worked during their career – 1982-1986 – while still touching a fair share of their countrymen & -women thanks to a well-timed video of their lovely 1st-album track “Blue Morning”. They arose from the aforementioned Shoes This High – in a matter of speaking. Brent Hayward, one half of the duo that formed the core of The Kiwi Animal, was the vocalist for that fantastic art/punk act, who left behind a criminally underpressed single that was very much akin to a spastic Pere Ubu or a de-bluesed “Safe As Milk”-era Captain Beefheart. Hayward struck out on his own, after that act imploded, and released a small handful of 45s under the appetizing moniker of SMELLY FEET; I’ve not heard them but intend to, as I’m sure you will as well.
When Hayward, then in Auckland, met theater performer and local artist-around-town Julie Cooper, a bond was sealed, a pact was made, and in 1982 The Kiwi Animal arose. Both played guitar, and both sang, sometimes in unison but more often taking turns or signing entirely different but complementary vocal lines at the same time. I’m unfortunately unable to comment on the band’s work the first eighteen months of their existence, having mistakenly spent my time in America as a teenager during those years, while also not having sufficient current adulthood resources to procure a copy of their debut single “Wartime”. But here’s what Gregor Kessler wrote about it online:
“….their first output, the purely acoustic Wartime five-track 7" EP, released on their Brent and Julie Records label, oscillated between near-classic minor-key folk territory (in the achingly beautiful “Flying (Again!)” or the sinister “Back to the Moon” which, in all its purity, gains a menacing touch through the floating chord changes that convert dissonance into sinister hypnosis) and Smelly Feet-like sparse and angular song sketches like “Private Stanley.” Julie’s input and especially her crystal-clear voice had added a breathtaking gentleness, and at the same time intensity, to Brent’s formerly often harsh musical ventures. The combination of their voices and guitars in songs such as “Jokers & Clownes” make the back of your neck tingle time and again…..”
I can imagine, because that’s what happened to me the first time I heard their debut album “Music Media” a couple of years ago. I immediately decided I needed to spread the word about their majesty, in hopes that others could approximate the same sensations. This twelve-song set could be easily, and somewhat mistakenly, summarized as a lovely acoustic folk record with a not-too-well-hidden experimental streak. The strange echoes, baroque instrumentation and the uplifting, pitch-perfect clarity of Julie Cooper’s vocals have many parallels with Barbara Manning’s late 80s LP “Lately I Keep Scissors”, especially on ghostly, hypnotic tracks like “Just How Close”. Her voice has this ethereal but not corny quality that drifts way, way beyond “pretty” – it’s an accented aural massage, one that you can’t imagine ever shifting out of pitch or yelling, screaming or cursing.
When Cooper is not singing, Hayward is sing/shout/talking over their folk-cum-acoustic rock music, like on the pulse-quickening political murder tale “Assassin” or the pseudo-pornographic “Performance Peace”. The two sing together on the opening “Union Song”, which puts one in the mood for an album’s worth of reflective protest/troubadour music that never follows. These different moods slot in very well between Cooper’s more spectral (the incredible “Time of the Leaves”) and sometimes buoyant tracks (“Every Word is a Prayer”), making this a carefully crafted, multi-varied, every-track-a-winner LP, the likes of which I’m sure you’ll agree are exceptionally rare. It’s a fairly quick learn that the album is not all sweetness and light by any means – there’s a somewhat nasty undercurrent to some of the tracks, carefully camouflaged by the sparse instrumentation and lovely vocals. Something sinister and jarring is hiding within the grooves, only peeking its head out in strange couplets about stiff penises, government cover-ups and tired, frustrated clock-punchers.
This darker undercurrent comes full circle on 1985’s “Mercy”, a record almost completely taken over vocally by Hayward, though still very much a Cooper/Hayward production. Patrick Waller, who played a bit of viola and cello on the first album, is also given equal billing on this one as being a full-fledged member of The Kiwi Animal, and he plays on nearly all of the tracks. It is a record that perhaps lacks the instant gratification and classic status of “Music Media”, but its rewards are returned in proverbial spades with repeated listens. Only one track truly sounds like something that could be plopped back onto “Music Media”, and that’s the opening “Flesh and Time”, perhaps not coincidentally only one of two songs that feature Brent & Julie and no one else. The experimental nature of this LP at times reminds me of soundtrack work rather than out-and-out folk music. I hear the sorts of sounds in “Conversation Piece” and its companion “Fag Piece” that could have scored bleak, wintry tales like those in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s incredible 10-part “Decalogue”. Haywood works some anger loose into these songs, some of which appears to be remotely political in nature, and yet it’s a sort of gently seething anger, on a slow boil rather than a big bang of released tension. As mentioned previously, one also gets the feeling that there might have even been a “concept” at play behind the record, but it’s certainly not easy to put a finger on. Pluck just about any single track from the record and you’re left with stark, minimalist folk music, full of warmth & depth, and bursting with strange & wonderful feelings of all kinds. Peter, Paul & Mary this most definitely ain’t. I can only hope that when the 80s folk revival steamrolls through your town in a few years, you’ll remember to give your thanks & prayers for the glories of The Kiwi Animal, and tell that bandwagon that they arrived just a little too late at your house.
** Much – no, check that – all of the “history” portion of this article was swiped from a great online piece/interview on & with Brent & Julie, written by one Gregor Kessler, who was the man behind the CD reissue. It has since disappeared from the web.