NEW Zealand’s Flying Nun Records is a paragon of what a great independent record label should be. For more than 35 years they’ve been restlessly inventive, surprising and exploratory. From hugely influential ’80s stalwarts such as
Christchurch record-store clerk Roger Shepherd founded the label in 1981 with a $350 investment – $300 for a plane ticket to Auckland to sign The Clean, and $50 to record their first single. They had instant, unexpected success; The Clean’s anthemic ‘
The Flying Nun catalogue was grounded in smart, melodic guitar pop, shot through with a dose of mystery and magic that people began to call the Dunedin Sound because most of their early bands were from that remote university town in New Zealand’s South Island. The label was always more eclectic than that, covering dark industrial rock and eventually chart-topping electronic pop, but they’re still famous for the thoughtful jangle of bands such as The Chills,
Flying Nun managed the rare feat of releasing amazing, adventurous music which actually reached a large audience.
Major-label takeovers and the changing musical landscape saw the label falter a little in the 2000s. However, in 2009 Flying Nun wrested their entire catalogue back from then owner Warner Music, and set about re-establishing the label as a powerful force for Kiwi good. Auckland bassist Ben Howe came on as label manager around then and has been instrumental in ushering Flying Nun gracefully into the modern era.
The current stable of new artists touches on Flying Nun’s history but moves the label forward in powerful ways. As Roger Shepherd says in his autobiography In Love With These Times: “Flying Nun has stuttered at times but it keeps on going … New things need to happen to keep it vital and alive, to propel things forward and help make sense of the immense history it is built on.”
Roger and Ben have selected 10 records that helped shape the rich history of Flying Nun (with a weird one thrown in by us just to be cheeky).
A surprise entrant into the New Zealand music charts at number 19, this raw lo-fi pop ditty was Flying Nun’s second release, and has become an unofficial anthem for the label. Chugging Dunedin trio The Clean are still one of the label’s best-known acts, regularly touring the world and releasing new albums almost 40 years after they formed.
Roger Shepherd: I’d seen them in Dunedin in the late ‘70s, perhaps their first or second gig, and they were really rough. And then they came through Christchurch a few years later, with Robert Scott (later of The Bats) playing bass, and all of a sudden they were cohesive, fantastic, the best band I’d ever seen. I was pretty much on stage saying hello as soon as they finished. Then I followed them up to Auckland.
Ben Howe: To make sure no one else signed them.
Roger: I’d introduced myself and said, “I’m starting this record label, let’s do something.” And they were going, “Oh yeah, we could, we’re just on our way up to Auckland.” And the alarm bells started going off in my head – if anyone from a record label sees them in Auckland, the centre of the New Zealand music industry, obviously they’re going to think the same as I do, cause they’re the best in the world ever. So I fretted for a couple of days and then I bought an airline ticket and flew to Auckland to make sure that they remembered me. It was in Auckland that they agreed to record ‘Tally-Ho’ on their way back down to Dunedin.
Ben: I know David Kilgour (The Clean guitarist/singer) has said that he can’t believe the first song he ever wrote is still the one he always gets asked for.
Roger: None of us knew anything. It was like, “Well how much will it cost?” And the reason we spent $50 on it was because someone suggested $50 and it was just like, “Well why not?” Then it went top 20. I guess it was an indicator that things were changing, as far as there being a New Zealand music audience who were willing to put up with the sonic limitations of that recording. I needs to be re-recorded! It’s probably only the last 10 years that I can listen to it.
TO follow up the surprise chart success of ‘Tally-Ho’, The Clean released 12” EP Boodle Boodle Boodle, which did even better, reaching number five in the NZ charts. This EP format became the template for Flying Nun’s key releases for the rest of the decade; a short, sharp summary of a band’s best work, rather than a bloated album laden with fillers. After Boodle, Flying Nun’s coffers were bursting with cash, and so the obvious next step was to release a gatefold double 12” EP of Dunedin bands, featuring future icons The Chills, The Verlaines and Sneaky Feelings.
Roger: Through ‘Tally-Ho’ I met up with The Clean’s friends, Chris Knox and Doug Hood. They felt they could record The Clean better on Chris’ four-track than the studio had managed on ‘Tally-Ho’. So they recorded Boodle and it sounded great. The Clean were talking about these other bands they knew back in Dunedin, some of whom I had seen in Christchurch, so this ridiculous idea of doing a double EP developed.
There was a little bit of money sloshing around, and I guess that just opened the floodgates in a sense. And that really kicked off the label. That meant the label wasn’t just a one-band concern, it meant it was a proper record company, really.
None of those bands, even The Clean, had an album in them at the time. Making an album would have been the end of them. An EP was a middle ground, something substantial enough to take seriously but cheap enough for students to take a punt on. It was an important format for us and the bands.
Ben: I remember Martin Phillipps from The Chills saying that when they recorded and released those songs, it was the first time he’d ever heard himself played back. It’s an interesting contrast to today when people have been demoing in home studios for ages before they go into a studio.
FOR the next few years, Flying Nun releases were for the most part fun, raucous, eccentric lo-fi pop music, slightly better recorded than ‘Tally-Ho’ but not by much. The first sign of something a little more ambitious in scope was this mysterious, loping single by Dunedin’s The Chills. It set a musical template that has come to be known as the Dunedin Sound – rich melodic pop, imbued with an indefinable haunting quality.
Roger: ‘Pink Frost’ indicated that there were other things going on in New Zealand, a coating of weirdness, of different sounds and ideas.
Ben: Being an Aucklander at the time, I remember ‘Pink Frost’ was immediately South Island sounding, even though I hadn’t heard anything like it before. It conjured up some mysterious thing from another place in New Zealand. What’s going on down there?
Roger: I’m still wondering that myself now. I like Dunedin, but it is like the land that time forgot. It’s so remote from the rest of the country.
Ben: If you travel there by bus or car, you feel like you’re traveling to the end of the world.
Look Blue Go Purple
WOMEN played mostly supporting roles in Flying Nun bands in its early days. The Chills, The Verlaines and The Bats featured female musicians, but only one or two were placed front and centre. In the mid-’80s, all female quintet Look Blue Go Purple turned that statistic on its head, releasing a string of classic EPs that were compiled in 2017 as a double album reissue. Their combination of organ drones, rhythmic chug, mystic lyrics and sudden bright pop moments has made them one of the most distinctive acts on the label.
Roger: The traditional music world was boys, but that’s what we despised about mainstream rock’n’roll; its pathetic misogynistic blokiness. I like to think that Flying Nun wasn’t part of that. It wasn’t articulated but we had a more civilised view on things, including gender and sexuality. Look Blue Go Purple wasn’t me thinking, “Oh look an all-girl band, this is a huge commercial opportunity.” It was more, “Well actually I really like the sound of their music.” The sound was different and the songs were differently structured and I just knew that people would love it. There was nothing like Look Blue Go Purple before they came along, they made their own thing. They pretty much learned to play largely together as a band. They created that thing from scratch.
BY the late-’80s, Flying Nun was getting recognition around the world for the quality of its roster. Bands like The Chills and The Clean were heading overseas to begin building a fanbase that would last them for decades to come. A second wave of FN acts began to emerge, with a new understanding that there was a large potential audience for their music. Key in this new wave was The Straitjacket Fits, led by the charismatic and ambitious Shayne Carter, who made rock music on a much bigger scale.
Roger: We all knew Shayne, he was intelligent, he got that band together after the whole tragedy of the Double Happys [Shayne’s earlier group, cut short by the death of bandmate Wayne Elsey in a bizarre train accident]. The first time I heard it I couldn’t believe it. I just knew they were going to be huge. Any band that records and makes a video for a song in a tunnel in the middle of a volcano, should have been as big as U2. There was general progression at the time towards the sound getting heavier, or just a general feeling that things had to harden up.
FIRST Flying Nun’s official engineer, recording much of the label’s early output on his Teac 4-track, Auckland’s Chris Knox was also the label’s resident weirdo. With his band Tall Dwarfs and his later solo output, Knox brought art-damaged eccentricity to the stable of rough and ready pop acts. He had also formed one of New Zealand’s first punk bands The Enemy in the late-’70s, and was an often vocal critic of anyone on the label expressing less than righteous punk spirit.
1989’s home-recorded Seizure featured uncharacteristically tender love ballad ‘Not Given Lightly’, which became a smash hit in NZ and is still one of Flying Nun’s best known songs. A severe stroke in 2009 has left Knox largely non-verbal, but he continues to paint and make visual art.
Roger: Tall Dwarfs were really important early on. It wasn’t just that Chris Knox helped make the records, and even put the records around the shops for us in Auckland. Tall Dwarfs as a band brought a different kind of music to the label. What they were doing was experimental and weird and interesting. These days, I’ll pop around and see Chris if I’m in Auckland. The stroke has affected his mobility and his ability to communicate.
Ben: But he still has so much energy. He’s doing lots of art, which is apparently selling like hotcakes on Facebook.
Roger: There’s a bit of paralysis down his right-hand side, so he has taught himself to paint with this left hand. A lot of the portraits he has done of family and friends are really remarkable and insightful. He suffered from epileptic fits all his life, so that’s probably why he called his solo album Seizure.
Ben: ‘Not Given Lightly’ from that album is kind of an informal New Zealand classic. And it’s currently in an ad for Vogels bread.
Roger: He’s had a long association with Vogels. I think they paid his mortgage!
Body Blow (1991)
FESTIVAL Records bought a 50 percent share of Flying Nun in 1990, and the label grew to become a comparatively slick, professional affair, with a large Auckland office. Originally dark and industrial, Headless Chickens had been with the label since the mid-’80s, but by the early-’90s they were experimenting with smooth electronic pop. In 1991 they delivered the label’s best-selling album ever in Body Blow, featuring radio-friendly single
Roger: I got involved with Headless Chickens in the ’80s. They were more of an aggressive industrial thing. I absolutely loved them and they just gradually transmuted, I guess. That’s the problem with technology, it somehow drags you towards that dance thing, but they did it well. They were always kind of experimental, it was about the experimenting rather than selling out. It was about having fun and trying new things, making new sounds rather than ‘How can we have a hit?’
Ben: It’s almost like there’s two phases to the label. Here in New Zealand in the ’90s, it felt like Flying Nun was huge, and the bands were all really popular, but not so well known elsewhere. In the minds of New Zealanders, that’s the era that people almost remember, more than the ’80s, which seems to be what people outside New Zealand remember best.
Roger: The whole thing had got bigger, much bigger than my $300 initial investment, which I’d spent on that plane ticket to go and chase The Clean in 1981. Festival and Mushroom were in a position where they could really help us out. They knew how to work a band like Headless Chickens in Australia.
Ben: We even had our one-and-only number-one single (‘George’ in 1994, bundled with later versions of ‘Cruise Control’).
ROGER Shepherd moved to London in the ’90s and slowly began to withdraw from the day-to-day running of the label. Flying Nun continued in Auckland with artists such as Garageland, D4, Mint Chicks and Betchadupa flying the flag throughout the ’90s and ’00s. Universal bought the Festival Mushroom Group in 2000 and the label became wholly owned by Universal in 2006, at which point Flying Nun stopped releasing new material. That is, except for an EP by Melbourne grunge-pop trio Children Collide.
Because Universal owned the rights to the label name, they decided in their wisdom to revive it in Australia for one lone EP, making Children Collide the only Australian act ever to appear on Flying Nun. It’s not a period that Roger and Ben seem particularly keen to talk about.
Roger: Mushroom asked me, “Can we put this on Flying Nun?” and I said, “No”. And they did it anyway. Children Collide always seemed like such nice young men. I liked them as people.
AFTER a few years in the wilderness, Roger managed to buy back the rights to Flying Nun’s entire catalogue from Warner in 2009, backed by a consortium including Split Enz/Crowded House’s Neil Finn and an anonymous millionaire businessman. Roger moved back to Wellington and began the slow process of re-establishing the label.
Ben Howe came on board at first to restart Flying Out, a long-dormant import-distribution side of the business, then gradually assumed more responsibility over the label. Flying Nun in the 21st century has proven itself a natural extension of its ’80s/’90s incarnation, releasing new acts such as Tiny Ruins, Fazerdaze and Lawrence Arabia, as well as making much of its back catalogue available again for the first time in decades.
Christchurch folk artist turned international icon Aldous Harding is a key figure in the label’s new success. Her latest album, Party, was released outside NZ by UK label giant 4AD.
Ben: We have been a part of Aldous’ story right from the first record (2014’s Aldous Harding). It was one of those things where the very first thing I heard, before the record was even released, I was straight away in touch with her saying, “We’d love to do something together.” That first album was on Lyttelton Records and then we re-released it on Flying Nun, so from the very beginning there’s been a conversation with Aldous about her career and where she’s going.
In terms of Party, I remember sitting down and having a conversation with her and she was like, “I want to go to the UK and record it with John Parish”, and she just went ahead and did it. There’s always been a determination and a vision of what she wanted to do and she fulfilled that. Now she’s selling out the Civic Theatre, which is the biggest seated theatre here in Auckland, over 2000 capacity.
NON-NZ acts on Flying Nun have been few and far between. Sonic Youth,
Ben: It has worked very well, they’re a great band and they cited Flying Nun often in their influences and what they liked. We toured them down here in New Zealand and they seemed like great people, and it just seemed like an interesting, different thing to do. The way they sound is suitably influenced by early Flying Nun, but it does have a fresh take on it as well.
They’ve been touring pretty much all year. Personally, I always like to know the bands. People often send me something from the US and I think, “Well, this is really good”, but just ‘cause I don’t know them I can’t relate to it. But I did get to know The Courtneys quite well, so that helped. I was pretty confident they would be successful ‘cause they were one of those bands who had flown below the radar in the music industry in North America but had gotten quite a good audience just on their own backs from hard work.