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Tuba Frenzy - Graeme Jefferies Interview 1995 (USA)

Tuba Frenzy: A.C. Lee and Tim Ross

Not only has Graeme Jefferies been an essential part of New Zealandīs extremely prolific music scene for the last fifteen years, but in many ways he is the complete distillation of several noble ideas and concepts that have a long standing tradition in the music world: music as an emotional expression that can benefit both artist and listener: music as a folk medium in which anyone can participate: and music made for its own purposes, regardless of possible financial gain. If any of these ideas sound corny or cliched to you, then maybe listening to some of Jefferiesī viscerally powerful and emotive guitar /or vocal excursions (see Nocturnal Projections, This Kind of Punishment, The Cakekitchen, or his solo work) would soften your jaded shell a bit. Thereīs something about Jefferies (and the quality with which he pulls all of this off) thatīs all too rare in America. Iīm not quite sure what it is, but after a thrilling one-and-a-half hour plus Cakekitchen set and a generously-given interview with Jefferies outside a Waffle House on a late and bitterly cold January night. I think I like it. (Tim Ross)

Tim: Iīm going to go back a long way to try to put some of this in an order. I wanted to start with a few quesions about the Nocturnal Projections.

Graeme: Wow, thatīs going back a long way.

Tim: That started in 1981?

Graeme: Yeah. We formed in January of 1981.

Tim: How old were you then?

Graeme: I donīt know. Let me think about it. Um, I was 19 years old when we started that band.

AC: High School years, college years?

Graeme: No, I never went to college. I quit school pretty early, started working.

AC: Knew you wanted to do music?

Graeme: Yeah.

Tim: How did you first get involved in music?

Graeme: Well I started learning guitar when I was thirteen. Our mother Gwen brought me a guitar and Peter a drum kit and we formed our first band about a week later. As soon as I knew a few chords I started to write tunes and Peter would bash along with me. As soon as we could write a song we wrote one.

AC: How old is Peter? Is he older?

Graeme: Yeah, heīs older by eighteen months.

Tim: So punk was a kind of natural place to start (as a player / musican)?

Graeme: Well in a way. We started way before punk though. As soon as we had a dollar we were buying seven inches and banging on tins. We were music fans - a lot of New Zealand people will tell you that most of the people from the early New Zealand scene were...

Tim: Music geeks?

Graeme: Music junkies. They really loved music and they really wanted to...

AC: Collectors? Record Collectors?

Graeme: Not necessarily collectors but people who liked a particular sort of music. People who were moved by the feelings that were portrayed in that music.In a way they wanted to make something that made them feel the same way as the stuff they really loved listening to. To collect their influences and recycle them. To make music that mattered as much to them as the music that really turned them on. As soon as I had money I was buying seven inches. When I had a real lot of money I would proudly buy an LP. They were about 5 dollars ninety-nine when I first started buying albums in New Zealand. From that point of view I listened to to music for a very long time before punk came out. Stuff like Mott the Hoople, Cockney Rebel, David Bowie... I suppose alot people listened to that sort of stuff. Then when punk came along, well that was an extra shot in the arm as well, because it was the ethic of "OK, you donīt have to be too proficent, you just have to want to be a writer or a musican": The first Nocturnal Projections stuff is relatively "punk" I suppose. In a way you didnīt need to spend a long time in your bedroom to do it.

Tim: Were you influenced by or were you big fans of the Clean or any of the other early Flying Nun bands?

Graeme: I liked them. I think they were a really good bands especially the Clean. I think David Kilgour is responsible for the way a lot of people played guitar in New Zealand, but for us we lived in New Plymouth, so we were very isolated. We didnīt hear the Clean until they did a record whereas most of the music minded people in Dunedin would have heard the Clean play live for years before they did a record. In a way I canīt see much simularity between what we do and the Clean, although I really like what they do. I didnīt feel influenced by there music but I liked it.

Tim: Who would you cite? Itīs hard for anyone to cite their influences but...

Graeme: Well, itīs just like all the records Iīve listened to since time began. Any song that portrayed a colour of emotion that turned me on or touched me emotionally became an influence. Itīs very difficult to be precise. Itīs a subconscious thing. My brother brought the Velvet Underground records and the Syd Barrett records and I thought they were really interesting. In New Zealand they were very rare at the time, so you might have to go to a record auction to get a Syd Barrett record... (in raspy auctioneers voice) "Twenty-five dollars, thirty dollars, thirty-one...) It was difficult to get a lot of stuff in those days. At that time it didnīt really seem to have a catergory but I guess itīs like anything. It doesnīt need to have a catergory. People who were moved by it would seek it out and sneak off home with it. I listen to a real lot of stuff and I just wanted to make music that had a similar sort of feeling than the stuff that I liked. It could be anything. It wasnīt based on what was cool or what wasnīt cool. It was based on the noise coming off the needle of our tiny little mono record player.

AC: Was the stuff that was coming on punk-wise in Australia a factor at all in New Zealand? What about Nick Cave, Boys Next Door... that sort of stuff?

Graeme: A little but not much. I kind of liked some Nick Cave but Iīm not influenced by him. I think what he did was good but itīs...

AC: Not a personal influence...

Graeme. No.

AC: What about other people in New Zealand - were they influenced by what was going on in Australia?

Graeme: No, Australia and New Zealand were pretty seperate, at least when I started making records in New Zealand. The scene was way primitive then. Everything was pretty isolated.There wasnīt even much interaction between the North and the South Island. Nocturnal Projections was one of the few North Island bands to play the South Island. It worked a little better the other way with Dunedin bands sneaking up to Auckland but the whole scene was totally unrelated. We were lucky that we were pretty much immediately successful once we moved to Auckland.We even charted as far back as 1982. That was a big deal in those days. Not many alternative bands were charting at that point. Well, Toy Love were. They were pretty big but the other early pioneers like the Gordons or The Builders were pretty underground.

Tim: His stuffīs recently come back...

Graeme: Yeah, Bill and the Gordons were early pioneers in the south island scene who have now been acknowledged. They made music that mattered. They were part of the forerunners.The first lot of real Flying Nun albums were Beatin Hearts, the first This Kind of Punishment album and The Gordons album. Really those were the first three real New Zealand albums that werenīt like the sort of plastic sounding middle of the road type stuff. The Clean were also alive and kicking at this point. Tally Ho and the Pin Group single were the first two Flying Nun singles ever. I mean the whole thing in New Zealand at that point in the early days was that if you got really big all you could really do was drive around in a van for a while trying to tour Australia, probably get ripped off, become disillusioned, earn no money and then split up. That was as high as you could really go in those days. No one had any sniff of an idea of any other sort of international recognition because in those days it just wasnīt there. People in New Zealand in those days made music primarily because they wanted to make music. It wasnīt like there was any where to go. So it was nice in the nineties and late eighties when New Zealand music finally got acknowledged but that wasnīt the reason people made it, not at that point anyway.

Tim: These This Kind of Punishment reissues have been coming out over here and now everyoneīs heard them. What do you think about that stuff? Obviously you probably still like some of it a lot (the Cakekitchen played"From the Diary of Hermann Doubt" live earlier that night).

Graeme: Iīm quite proud of what This Kind of Punishment has done. Itīs hard for me to know how itīs been perceived because I havenīt had much feedback on it really. Personally Iīm quite proud to have been a music writer for it and of what itīs done. But the recognition thing is hard for me to gauge. I havenīt heard much about it - it was amazing when Cat Power played a This Kind of Punishment cover tonight. Iīve never heard a This Kind of Punishment cover before. Iīve never heard a cover of any of our songs. So , that was really crazy. It was really amazing - in a way it made me feel really old!

AC: Well, it was even weird you guys starting off your set with a This Kind of Punishment song. How did you feel ten, eleven or twelve years down the line? When you wrote that song in that magic moment, did you ever think that youīd be in America, in North Carolina playing that song?

Graeme: No, it sounds grand but in all honesty I donīt really think about it in that way. We just wanted to write songs and make music. There was nothing stopping us from doing it so we simply went ahead and got on with it. We had no great ambition other than to play music for ourselves and even now we still just play for ourselves. Itīs between the members of the band where the reward is. Of course itīs really nice when people like it, but if it became uncool to like us - and I donīt know whether itīs cool to like us or not - but if for some reason we were uncool because we wore pointy shoes or something, it wouldnīt particularly bother me because we do it for ourselves. That way you really canīt be disappointed. Itīs really nice if people like the music, and I want them to like the music and get to as many people as possible with it but...

AC: Thatīs not the prime motivation.

Graeme: No. You do it for yourself. We live real poor. I donīt own anything but an amp, a four track, a few clothes and a few records. I donīt own a car, I donīt even own a CD player, stereo. Nothing. But for all that I have a pretty interesting life in that the music enables me to travel.

AC: Sure. Itīs a life that Iīm pretty envious of myself.

Graeme. Itīs not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes itīs really hard. The last year I lived in London I survived totally off playing in the subway.

AC: Iīve heard that thatīs actually moderately lucrative - you can at least make some money.

Graeme: In the summer itīs pretty good - you can get more money that you can get working in a bar during the summer, if your clever and you know where to go. All of my bar jobs in England seemed to end in violence. It wasnīt so good so I tried playing in the subway during the summer and survived that way instead. But in the winter you get nothing. All the tourists leave London and then suddenly you donīt get a bean, and in the winter thatīs when you need more money for power and food. So, itīs pretty hard to survive from playing in the subway in the winter. Itīs a pretty weird way to live, but during the summer... a lot of the tape that we needed to complete "Far From the Sun" was in reality funded by the patrons of the London public transport system (laughs) But I wouldnīt recommend doing it that way. Itīs a shit lifestyle really.

AC: Do you ever think of going back to New Zealand or are you happy in London?

Graeme: Not really, actually I donīt live in London anymore. I havenīt lived in Lodon for two years. I moved to Paris and then later in the countryside near Munich. Iīve got a lot of friends in Europe and they help me out. A couch or sometimes a room and stuff. At the moment I kind of live like that.

Tim: You like to move around donīt you?

Graeme: Yeah. Even in New Zealand, I always changed the city that I lived in every couple of years. Itīs good for your writing...

AC: Is that typical of a lot of people in New Zealand?

Graeme: No, itīs really untypical. Most people like to have their house, their cat...

AC: So, Dunedin had their "scene" and Auckland had their "scene" and the people who lived in those certain cities did music there?

Graeme: I canīt really answer that. Umm, each city in New Zealand is kind of different. In the early days there was a really big division and arguements between the scenes. It was kind of unhealthy.

AC: Really?

Graeme: Yeah, it was kind of stupid really.It had a lot to do with people opinion of production and stuff like that. Whether your record was recorded on 24 track or 4 track. Stuff like that.

AC: Really, Dunedin, being the more 4 track, lo fi...

Graeme: Yeah mostly, When we finally made a record on 16 track, we had some people in the audience in Dunedin yelling out "better than the bloody record", which was incredibly dumb. I donīt think it matters too much what technology you use. Itīs how you use the technology that matters and whether you can retain the colour of the song using the technology at your disposal. We mostly engineer our own stuff. Projects like "Far From the Sun" were totally done on a 4 track. Everything. And then we heard a few people say "Oh, this production is a bit slick". Itīs not lo fi verses hi fi, itīs how much you know about getting sounds and your budget and time to achieve this. Basically itīs an equation of everything from the microphone, to the chords, to the amp, to the guitar, whether itīs equalised alot, the size of the tape... It depends on how you engineer it and how you record what youīve got. It also depends on how you actually play your instruments and how much imagination youīve got to colour your ideas... All those things make a difference to what the sounds like. So that whole "No-No, you can only do it this way" argument to me seemed really stupid. It just tears things apart...

AC: Did that turn you off to New Zealand? Why did you want to move out of there?

Graeme: I left New Zealand for personal reasons really. I didnīt leave to make it big in the Northern Hemisphere but I had English patriality, so it was possible for me to live in England. So I thought "Why not go and live in London?" But as soon as I got there I hated it. But at least it gave me access to Europe though, which I found really interesting. I really like France, even though my french is very bad. Itīs not so easy for me to use the country, but there is something really magical about it. Hollandīs really interesting too, itīs easier as far as lauguage goes. But you know, New Zealand was a european colony anyway. It was colonised by the English, the Germans and the French. Itīs like part of my roots are kind of in Europe anyway...

Tim: Youīve moved a lot, but youīve also changed lineups alot.

Graeme: Itīs been three lineups over six years. In a way theyīve been quite stable really. The first one lasted two and a half years. The second one about two, and this oneīs been going for a year and a half.

AC: Whatīs the drummers name again?

Graeme: Jean-Yves Douet. Heīs French. Heīs the first non-New Zealander to be in the band. This lineup is actually the most fun. Itīs really enjoyable working with him.

Tim: Do you find it healthy for your writing to keep playing with different people like that?

Graeme: Yeah, to some extent. Bands can be like relationships - they can get to a point where they level out or peak. Thereīs always some inherent problems with them, so to have only worked with five people in six year period is a fairly healthy ratio. Itīs actually been pretty solid and the people that Iīve worked with have always given it their best, and Iīve been pretty happy with what weīve all done. Peoplesīlives change you know? Maybe they want to get married, maybe they get sick of living off noodles, living donīt get much money, sleeping on floors. Not being able to really rent a house. I havenīt rented a house in 5 years. All those things change and you canīt expect people to sacrifice their lives for the Cakekitchen. I mean, why bother? Iīm really grateful for the help the people Iīve worked with have given me, they have their lives to live too. For me I want to do this, but after a couple of years...people say "Look, Iīve got to get on with my life, I canīt keep moving." I wonder myself sometimes - can I keep doing this? I guess the best part about doing it is people actually liking it enough too to come up after shows and ask some little question or other about some little tiny aspect of it that theyīre curious about. Theyīre usually quite shy about it but I think itīs brave of them to make the effort. Usually the questions are quite well thought out.
I guess itīs the little things like that that make me feel good about it. I couldnīt give a damn what happens publicly - itīs on a personal level that I actually get something from it. And also what happens with the people that you play with...thatīs where the reward is for me... thatīs when you get something back from it.

AC: And then thereīs people who interview you in the freezing cold outside a Waffle House. What a reward!

Graeme: Yeah, itīs freezing out here and Iīve just come from a New Zealand summer. I must be crazy.

Tim: Not to get too personal but you played with your brother for so long. What exactly happened there?

Graeme: I donīt really want to talk about that Iīve heard enough stupid "Jefferies brothers" stories to not want to add any more to the list.

AC: Thatīs fine. We figured that might be the case. Now what about Alastair Galbraith. Heīs done well playing with both of you and Peter.

Graeme: Yeah, Alastairsī worked on three Cake songs over five albums. We just did another song together recently called "Escape To Fire Island." We finished mixing it the day before we left New Zealand.

AC: Heīs able to keep seperate relationships with you and Peter?

Graeme: Well, yeah, but he also works with a lot of other New Zealand musicans too. Just because Peter and I have the same name doesnīt necessarily mean that... I donīt know, Alastairs seemed to want to help... he also plays violin on a song called "Mad Clarinet", on the new Merge album called Stompin Thru the Boneyard.

AC: How did the whole Merge thing come about?

Graeme: It was through Karen Booth. She was going to organise a tour for us but Huw Dainow, the New Zealand drummer living in London couldnīt do it, so we had to can it. Karen was our American agent at the time. So I rang her up after that and she was really helpful. I sent her some stuff and she played it for Mac, and Laura and Mac liked it. So here we got onto Merge.

AC:What seems your impression of Merge been so far?

Graeme: They seem really good. John and Spott have been really good to us here. Were foreigners, so we arrive in a strange place and we donīt know where anything is, or....

Tim : What a Waffle House is.

Graeme: Yeah, the Waffle House.

Tim: Now youīve lived in and made music in so many places - from your time in New Zealand, what could you say about it or how would you exlpain it being such a fertile ground for music?

Graeme: I think that sort of goes back to the thing where most people that made music there in the early days were genuine music fans who just wanted to make music that they hoped would be as good as the music that inspired them. The ones who didnīt play pinball, but went out and brought a seven-inch single or a guitar instead. The people that made music in New Zealand were pretty much genuine music fans. It was the music itself , they got a kick out of listening to stuff. I guess New Zealand Radio when I was growing up was predominantly a mixture of British and American radio, a weird kiwi blend. They wanted to try; and to make music that had a similar color to the stuff they loved. Also, the isolation. There was nothing to corrupt it. People did it purely because they just wanted to do it. At that point there really wasnīt any road to glory.

Tim: Werenīt there some financial supports? Like the Arts Council? Has any of that changed? I heard that some of it got cut.

Graeme: Yeah, the Arts Councilsīreally, really, good. Itīs gotten cut a little bit, but we were really lucky, because they helped us to fly Jean-Yves to New Zealand. This meant that (For One) we could play New Zealand for the first time in four and a half years and (Two) that we could start working on new stuff together and then work our way back to Europe via America. Were on Raffmond in Europe. Theyīve been really helpful. We also have an amazing agent there. Heīs a really nice guy and really fun to tour with. Heīs very well connected. The European Tours are great. We havenīt been able to play the States because we have to pay for every expense in doing so. We donīt have any real tour support, so thatīs like the air tickets there and once you get there you need to rent amps... a vechile...the last time we played in America we lost about 500 pounds. We didnīt have any merchandise for the tour, so we lost a chance to make any money with that, but itīs not like we had any money to lose anyway. The prospect of losing it again was to hard to swallow so weīve kept away from America for a couple of years.But it seems like were getting things together a bit with Merge and things are looking pretty good. Itīs nice that we finally managed to play in Chapel Hill because we meant to play here a couple of years ago but it got canned for some reason. Weīve had a bit of interest from this part of the country. I like playing places that are smaller by comparison to a lot of American cities.The people arenīt as hard- I was born in the country and I kind of like it when thereīs trees and stuff around.

Tim: And you do have a lot of fans here.

Graeme: Yeah, it was really good to play here tonight. I was amazed at the response we got. It always feels much more rewarding when the audience really appreciates what you do.

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