ALEC BATHGATE OF TALL DWARFS, INTERVIEWED (2022): Something has happened.

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Cruising with Cochran
ALEC BATHGATE OF TALL DWARFS, INTERVIEWED (2022): Something has happened.

Alec Bathgate – one half of this country's most idiosyncratic alt.pop group Tall Dwarfs with Chris Knox – is charmingly bashful when talking about the project which has occupied him for almost two years.

It is Unravelled: 1981 – 2002, a loosely chronological box set of 55 Tall Dwarf songs spread over eight sides of vinyl. It arrives in a slipcase with a 20-page booklet of posters, album covers, art work and lyrics, all of which Bathgate, who has his own graphic design company in Christchurch, has pulled together into a striking package.

But listening back on this music – some songs more that 40 years old, the most recent two decades ago – did he think, “What a great band”?

“There were some songs like that, but I can't say it,” he laughs, “It's a bit boastful.”

Tall Dwarfs began life intending just a one-off EP Three Songsbut – despite Bathgate in Christchurch and Knox in Auckland -- subsequently recorded seven EPs and six albums.

a0995606774_10They'd still be recording today, Bathgate says, were it not for Knox's debilitating stroke in 2009 which meant his Dwarf career was over for the Arts Laureate, post-punk polymath and lighting rod of music, animation and cultural criticism.

Bathgate and Knox had prior form together in the punk-era Enemy and the short-lived but influential Toy Love, and their shared passion for pop was brought to Tall Dwarfs.

The collection bristles with lo-fi pop melodies which run from Sixties influences to glam-rock and Abba, but with Knox's lyrics which could be acerbic, sardonic, sympathetic or silly. Pop with bite.

We speak by Facetime with a wet Christchurch street outside his window and something similar in Auckland where I am.

You must be relieved this project has finally come to fruition?

Really relieved, I didn't know what I was taking on when I started. I kept a log on the work and got up to 370 hours (laughs).

But I knew I had to get it right, there is just this one chance and it becomes the definitive Tall Dwarfs document, probably the only physical item we will have because all the albums and CDs are out of print now and have been for a while. There's probably some still available in secondhand shops.

Flying Nun did a reissue of the album Weeville in about 2013 but that's the only thing that has been reissued in recent times.

My understanding was, and I'm going back about six or seven seven years when I was looking after Chris, was that Flying Nun would would reissue on vinyl a Tall Dwarfs and a Knox solo album together, every couple of months or so.

I heard about that for a long time, I didn't know they'd done Weeville.

That had been the plan but it was problematic and the thing that changed was the Alexander Turnbull Project archiving the Flying Nun tapes. Prior to that I'd been involved in the Weeville project and the tapes had gone to New York to be remastered.

It was very complicated and time consuming to just do that one record and it started to feel like too big a task to do the whole back-catalogue, it was a lot of records so it all just stalled because it became to hard.

Doing that one album was fraught with difficulties, the test pressings from New York were really bad and we had to get them re-done.

I still had this desire to do something with the back-catalogue but as a result of that experience it put the idea in my head of doing some kind of retrospective box set.

This was your idea?

c6acb629_1Chris and I talked about it – this was post-stroke – and we started putting together a track listing for a set, although we didn't really know what form it was going to take. So the idea was there but then nothing really happened.

There was a chain of events which lead to it.

I'd recorded some new music a couple of years ago which I was posting on bandcamp and I realised that absolutely no one was going to find it because I had absolutely no presence out in the world. (laughs)

So I started an Instagram page because I thought this would be a way I could at least tell somebody about it that this bandcamp site exists.

And Mac McCaughan of the band Superchunk and one of the owners of Merge was following me and I think he commented on something and we had a bit of an exchange through messages . . . and I said to him did they have any interest in doing anything with the Tall Dwarfs back-catalogue based on the fact they'd done the Clean box set Anthology which was four LPs.

I thought it would be really nice to do something similar for Tall Dwarfs and also I was conscious of the scale of their [international] distribution and how well they promote their artists.

I didn't want to do something that was just local, I wanted to get it out into the world and it would be nice to have this document and get it to as many people as possible. They had a good network for doing that.

798_talldwarfs_unravelled_LP3_1400I pitched that and he was really receptive, this happened about the same time as the Turnbull project which meant I had access the high-res digital transfer of all the recordings.

It's a pretty chunky slip-case, then two double vinyl albums and a 20 page booklet of lyrics, record covers, photographs and artwork.

I did the design for it, it became quite a big project in that I was having to source photographs and posters, getting them scanned and retouching them. It was a lot to do.

Then working out track listings and getting everything remastered, overseeing the test pressings . . .

So when did the project actually start for you?

I think it was late 2020 I first started thinking about it and worked on it mostly through last year, so my original intention was that it would be nice for Chris and I to collaborate on this and we could work together on the project.

Then Covid happened and Auckland was in lockdown for months, Merge were giving me deadlines because there is a global backlog at record plants for pressing records and they'd booked it in with a pressing plant before I'd even had the final track listing worked out.

I became quite immersed in and keep it moving along at that point.

I came to the conclusion I was going to have to do it all and hope that Chris would trust me.

It's loosely chronological.

Yes, it is pretty much but I shuffled some of the tracks around so each side would play well as an experience in its own right. So I sequenced the tracks in an order that I thought would make it an enjoyable listen. You might get something from 1983 preceding something from 1982 but it's all more or less from the same time frame. It starts at 1981 and goes up to the early 2000s with some variation in there.

So it is 55 songs, how many were available to you?

I can't remember but it was over 200. I had to listen to everything because I hadn't listened to any of our records for a very long time. I had to listen to everything and assess.

When you listened back, what struck you about this group called Tall Dwarfs which you were actually quite distant from by this time?

knox_displayIt was quite strange because so much time has elapsed that I actually couldn't remember some things, because some of this is 40 years old so it goes way, way back.

Obviously I have recollections of recording and can remember some of the specifics but I could be outside it. I always liked what we did, we had a really individual sound and I don't think anyone sounded like us and that still comes through.

A couple of people have listened to it and felt it still sounded contemporary and could come out now because there wasn't anything to age it. If you listen to a lot of things from the Eighties you can kind of place it, but this feels outside of that which is a good ting.

One of the things I had to do was transcribe all the lyrics and we used to include them so I was able to get them. But I'd never really read them before and I was impressed by Chris . . . and I would never have acknowledged that back in the day because, you know, you just don't talk to each other (laughs) .

But all these years later I listen and his vocal tracks are just so good, he's really in the song and engaged and the lyrics are amazing.

How did you work together?

We often didn't write songs in advance [of recording] and the process was we'd just put something down like a rhythm track or a guitar riff and we'd be writing the songs as we were going. So the recording is the song basically, the recording of the writing.

Because we were working with basic technology we couldn't labour over something or spend too long on it, we generally also had a time constraint of just three or four days so it was do as much as we can in the time we have.

The songs were recorded very quickly and often Chris would write the lyrics on the spot. We'd put down some tracks and he was writing the lyrics very quickly, there was never any angst or reworking, he was just writing and we'd do a so-called take and that was the song.

So reading the lyrics I was just struck by these great lines and wondered how he'd done that because it seemed really effortless to him.

We fell into our roles very early on with the experience of being in the Enemy and Toy Love. In the early days of the Enemy he didn't play guitar so it became my role to come up with chord patterns or ideas that could form the basis of a song and Chris would just ad lib over the top.

Eventually this would just turn into a song and by the time we started doing Tall Dwarfs that was a really established pattern.

You mentioned that it sounds timeless but one of the things about Tall Dwarfs was there was always a lot of pop music in there, the verse/chorus thing. I was listening to a couple of things and thought it was like a Tommy Roe song from the mid Sixties then there's something very funny like Gluey Gluey which is like glam-rock in its own weird way.

As you know we are huge music fans and shared very similar tastes, we both really like melody but also things that are a bit weird. So there was a balance between weird tape loops and odd noises with great melodies which Chris was brilliant at.

We respected bubble-gum pop, Toy Love used to cover Yummy Yummy Yummy. I'd grown up in the the Sixties when you heard the Archies on the radio and didn't differentiate between that and the Beatles.

For us it was all the same thing so stylistically we were all over the place and I've tried to capture that in the choice of songs in the box set, that scope from the real thrashy punky things but then there quite folky or poppy noisy songs. I wanted to represent all those aspects of what we did.

Playing through the tracklisting from my albums or Spotify I got the sense that this really works.

It's a shame you can't hear the vinyl because as a record collector I wanted it to be a really nice experience. It's quite expensive, I was a bit surprised by how expensive it turned out to be which is a bit of a shame.

But I want when someone gets it to feel there's some real substance to it, not 'is this all I'm getting?'

I was very conscious of the quality of the pressings of the records because I still buy vinyl and a lot of pressings are pretty appalling. I've had test pressings from the plant in Cleveland and they sound really good.

I'm hoping the buyer will enjoy the experience and each side works well in its own way.

There are lot of great songs in there, were there some you'd completely forgotten about and you thought, 'Wow what a great band!' ?

There were some like that but I can't say that, it's a bit boastful. (laughs)

Distilling it down was difficult because it was really easy to fill up eight sides and I had to leave out a lot of stuff I liked. There were some left off because they were longer and I felt if I left that off I could put two other songs on.

For a lot of people this would be enough because 55 songs is a lot to get through.

So if this is all you hear than that is fine, and everything else is up on streaming sites so you can hear it all.

hqdefaultI think I've chosen our strongest material and the beauty of doing something like this is you can go , 'Ah, this doesn't sound so good' and you can leave it off. So this our best and when you hear it from one track to another you think 'Hmmm, this is really good'.

I'm kinda loathe to talk up our own stuff but the point of doing something like this is to try and extract the most interesting or best stuff into one compact collection.

The art design. It's very geometric.

It came from something Chris had created in the Eighties, this pattern, it might be in The Short and Long Of It. My thought was the artwork needed to feel right, to capture some of that style because we did everything ourselves including the packaging and although I've had a career as a graphic designer back in those days I didn't really know what I was doing but we would work it out.

The design had to capture some of that, I didn't want it to be slick or contemporary, but the way we would have designed something back then. I did all the lettering by hand and a lot of hand-drawn stuff.

The Christchurch Art Gallery did that Flying Nun exhibition and as part of that process I designed the catalogue and that reminded me of what pre-computer design was when people do things by hand. So the design tries to capture some of that.

It's a period a piece but the music is also timeless?

In my designer frame of mind it was getting the balance between capturing that style but also contemporary. There's a double CD version which is pretty much the same but shrunk.

Was it disappointing when you see it shrunk like that?

I did the vinyl first but the CD version is quite cute.

How many copies of the vinyl box set?

0026616258_10A few months back they told 3000 which is actually 12000 when you multiply it by four records. And 2000 of the CDs. I know they had some issues with the costs going up which is the trend internationally, for example the cost of the cardboard for the slip case went up considerably which is why the unit cost went up quite high. They've been very encouraged by the pre-sales through their site.

There's the mere fact this music isn't available as a solid object yet the audience for this wants that.

Yes, I'm a collector and was conscious of what I would want and also if this was in a record shop and 10 records were on display this one looks like a covetable item. If I saw this and was just marginally interested in the band I think I'd buy it on impulse because it feels like something you want to own.

I felt it worth rescuing all this and because the records were out of print we could just fade into obscurity. I wouldn't like anyone else to have done it and it means a lot to me that it is done properly. So it felt like the right time . . . also because you can't leave things too long because sometimes it becomes too late.(laughs)

Do you miss Tall Dwarfs?

I miss just hanging out with Chris like we used to. And that was a big part of what brought us together because we formed a very close friendship in the Enemy and Toy Love.

I shifted to Christchurch pretty early on so we always enjoyed getting together and seeing each other quite apart from the fact we were making music together. We shared this friendship, it was always nice to see each other and that was what kept us going and sustained it.

So I miss that aspect of it but I don't really miss . . .

I loved having a musical collaborator in Chris and I always felt like I enjoyed playing music with him. We worked really well together and I've never really worked with anyone else. And actually couldn't replicate that with anyone else so I've always had this feeling that playing with Chris was the only musical collaborator I'd ever wanted.

It's hard to analyse and talk about because it's not something we ever did, we just got together and made records and enjoyed our approach to it which was being in a room with a tape machine.

My guess is that had Chris not had a stroke in 2009 there might still be Tall Dwarfs?

I don't doubt that at all.

That would have become a very very big box set.

Yeah. (laughs) We would have just kept making music. He's seen the artwork and it has been a tricky process because as I was working through it I'd think, 'is this something I should be sharing with Chris and getting his okay?' I didn't want to burden him with some things and for him to have to make decisions, so the conclusion I came to was if it turns up one day and it is all done then that keeps it easy for him. He's seen photos of the artwork.

When I get the records my plan is to come up and see Chris and then we can share it together.

A launch in the lounge.

Yes, in the room where we first recorded. Coming full circle.

What is your day job?

I have my own graphic design company, just three of us. I am close to retiring I think, I'm at the point of doing a bit less . . . which hasn't been so successful because I'm just as busy as I have ever been. But I'm grandfathered now with a two and half-year old grandson and I'd like to spend more time with him.

But I still am as interested in music as I have ever been, play the guitar every day and am looking forward to catching up with Chris.

The last solo thing you did was that 10 minute repetitious instrumental (Burble)?

a0130197992_2Yes, I'd been recording instrumental stuff which has been really enjoyable because once you start doing that you never really know where it is going to go. If you write a song you have to think about the structure, but once I got immersed in the Tall Dwarfs box set I just didn't have any time, that has been the focus.

I'd like to do more of that and you can just put that stuff up on bandcamp and it's so easy. And surprisingly you can make money from it. I've made a couple of thousand dollars in the past couple of years.

Initially its kind of like an extension of how Chris and I used to work in that I can make something in my spare room, post it on bandcamp and it's out in the world immediately . . and you get a response from people. And if it sells they pay you in 24 hours so it's a very immediate process.

I just like that you can record something and post it and it's a real thing.

That last track you did I found you could just play it while doing something.

It was probably pretty indulgent but bandcamp is a good outlet. My goal was to do something really long because usually I just do something that is two or three minutes.

I did that Phantom Dots album which was all instrumental but my mindset with that was to treat it like an album of songs, but at the end of that I thought I'd just do a long and extended track.

Congratulations again on this box. I always assume people do have all this stuff because I have it but actually as you say, they aren't out there.

Yes, I know for example when Hello Cruel World came out in 87 which compiled our early 80s that there are probably people who have that. But that's all and nothing beyond that.

Going back and relistening, I find the later stuff I enjoy re-hearing and there was really good stuff on the later albums and I'd forgotten that. The later stuff of course was in the CD era so you were making 70 minutes and that's tough for most people. (laughs).


Alec Bathgate's solo output can be found at bandcamp here.

The Tall Dwarfs box set (on vinyl or CD) and other releases can be ordered here.


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