In 1977, when NASA scientists pressed a Golden Record of sounds and music representative of Earth’s cultures to include on the Voyager 1 spacecraft, they might as well have shipped off a copy to New Zealand as well. “I remember when I traveled around the UK, having come from New Zealand as a young adult, being blown away just kind of wandering past the house where a famous poet lived,” says Dave Yetton, the singer and bassist for now-defunct 80s kiwi pop group The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. Yetton reminisces over the phone as he sits in his Auckland home: “There seemed to be a value in that poet, and society looked at the musicians and the literary people, et cetera, the painters, with a lot of respect.” His fawning tone gives way when shifts focus back to his home country. “In New Zealand our most celebrated artists have been absolutely sidelined and looked upon as freaks in their time.”
While the British and American underground music scenes of the late 70s and early 80s provided space for punk and post-punk to rip up popular culture and start again, New Zealand barely had a rock culture to start with. Yetton, who was a founding member of that scrappy, exuberant Flying Nun band, grew up devouring records and cassettes his brother hauled in from overseas. Now, decades later, a collection of the band’s songs entitled I Like Rain: The Story Of Jean Paul Sartre Experience is set for an August 7 release via the UK’s Fire Records.
To understand Dave Yetton’s New Zealand is to understand a culture coming to grips with its place in the world. Britain’s grip on the nation diminished greatly in the 70s, including the end of assisted immigration from the United Kingdom. New Zealand’s traditionally background role in world affairs came into question when apartheid South Africa’s all-white Springbok rugby team chose to tour New Zealand in 1981. Police violence marred protests by anti-apartheid activists at several of the games, and one daring group of protesters commandeered an airplane and circled the field for the entirety of the match. Youtube archival footage shows rugby players piling on top of each other as leaflets and flour bombs descend from the sky.
“I see it now looking back really clearly, but wasn’t so aware of it at the time,” says Yetton. “It was sort of an ‘us and them’ thing. The alternative culture, the culture we were involved with in terms of music and our outlook on life and our politics to a degree. The whole package was very much opposed to and quite separate to the mainstream of New Zealand culture, and so there was a whole musical culture that went along with that alternative viewpoint.”
The Go-Between’s Robert Forster speaks of growing up in Brisbane, Australia in similar terms: “Writing songs about librarians and movie stars seemed like a rebellious act within itself,” in the conservative social milieu of the time. Growing up in a disenfranchised generation descendent from colonists left Yetton searching for a “cultural depth.”
“We were sort of outside the mainstream and then within the arts community we were looked upon as troublemakers,” Yetton chuckles. Growing up in a society with little support for the arts and obsessed with obscure bands from halfway (or, more likely, most of the way) across the planet was a “double whammy” for the young members of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. They were outsiders in an community of outsiders.
In 1981, everything changed for New Zealand outsider music. The Clean’s Boodle Boodle Boodle, a collection of five shaky, defiant, yet highly melodic songs rocketed to the Top 10 in the New Zealand charts. While Boodle Boodle Boodle may have been a lighthouse to steer like-minded bands into safe harbors, the EP’s success also financed the early years of Flying Nun. According to Discogs, the label released 16 slabs of vinyl in 1982, only it’s second year of existence. While the “Dunedin sound” may have been debatable as a branch of musical genealogy, Flying Nun Records was definitely establishing an alternative economy to New Zealand’s mainstream music industry.
In the mid 80s, Yetton, witnessing the expansion of Flying Nun’s off-kilter pop, began to put together a band. “For a long time it was just Dave [Mulcahy] and I kind of playing guitars in our bedrooms, really. We had an arrangement where we’d get together every few weeks.” Over time the two met up with drummer Gary Sullivan, and started practicing in a jam space Dave Mulcahy’s sister had put together. “We started to do some little recordings, we put that all on a cassette tape and then released that in a dog food tin.”
I can pick apart the New Zealand accent alright with my California-bred ears, but over Skype it takes me a good couple of seconds longer than usual to process what Dave is saying.
“You released it in a what?”
“We released it in a dog food tin. Yeah, I don’t know why but we just thought it was a good container for holding the cassette tape, so we washed them, we cleaned the dog food out, and then we wrapped our own label around the outside and put a wee plastic lid.” The young JPS Experience carted the cans to New Zealand record shops and put them on consignment. In my estimation of ‘weird’ New Zealand culture, I cannot, for the life of me, guess how a jaded kiwi record store clerk would react to a scruffy hippie kid showing up with tapes in a dog food can.
The songs delivered in the dog food tin, and the subsequent three albums on Flying Nun, demonstrate a sort of bizarro pop evolved in Darwinian isolation on the small island chain. Much like the Clean’s 4-track pop anthems, the Tall Dwarf’s everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink basement productions, and the Verlaine’s bargain-basement symphonies, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience made wondrous music from limited means. Whereas the Verlaines and the Clean mined the angst and exuberance of a young person entering the adult world, the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience sounds firmly rooted in the experience of being a child. Tracks like “Transatlantic Love Song” build a sound world out of a skeletal repeating guitar line, played on three strings, punctuated by plinks on a piano during the larger parts of the song.
By the time The Size of Food, the JPS Experience’s second full-length, was released, both Flying Nun and the band had relocated to the northern island city of Auckland. “We all decided that we really wanted to pursue this music thing, and Flying Nun had relocated from Christchurch to Auckland,” Yetton relates to me. The famed label’s attention was so scattered across the myriad of acts, “we felt like we needed to harass them to get things to happen for us,” Yetton explains. “I’m not sure if it made any difference at all, to be honest,” he laughs.
Yeah, I don’t know why but we just thought it was a good container for holding the cassette tape, so we washed them, we cleaned the dog food out, and then we wrapped our own label around the outside and put a wee plastic lid.
“I felt like it was almost our loss of innocence,” Yetton says of the move. “It opened our eyes to — it was a gritty, gritty city of the music industry.” Flying Nun’s financial success had, predictably, caught the eye of the commercially-minded labels on the North Island. As the label grew, it began to enter into business relationships with studios and other entities that had no idea where bands like the JPS Experience were coming from musically. Sure, the band had a bigger budget for their last album, but “there was no point in going up to an engineer and being like ‘you know that first Suicide album?’” Yetton laments the gradual process towards “giving up the autonomy” he saw in Flying Nun. Flying Nun may have moved to the city because of, not in spite of, the demons of modernity, but tale played out just like it has countless times.
A quarter century on, it’s a slight surprise that I Like Rain, which draws from JPS Experience’s entire recorded output (dog food tin cassette included) was even possible. “Trying to find master tapes was basically impossible,” due to haphazard archiving at Flying Nun, and the re-release, spearheaded by Fire Records America head John Foster, ended up using the band’s CD releases as the master tapes. None of the lengthy process of putting together the reissue fazes Yetton, and remains pleasantly unconcerned about what John Foster’s role in the label actually is (“I think he does a lot of the album artwork”).
Maybe he’s mellowed out with age, or maybe I’ve caught him in a good moment, but Yetton can’t seem to be bothered too much by anything. Before he ends our interview to take his daughters to a winter holiday camp on a farm, I ask if he feels gratified to hear these records nearly thirty years on. Yetton laughs and notes, “well the thing is I haven’t heard or seen them yet. I’m looking forward to it.”