GRAEME DOWNES OF THE VERLAINES INTERVIEWED (2003): Such brave, flawed diamonds

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The Verlaines: Anniversary (from Some Disenchanted Evening, 1990)
GRAEME DOWNES OF THE VERLAINES INTERVIEWED (2003): Such brave, flawed diamonds

If there were awards in local rock for candour beyond the call of duty, then Graeme Downes, linchpin of the formative and formidable Flying Nun band the Verlaines (1981-97), would be saying “Thank you” at the podium more than most.

Always a straight shooter, Downes settles over lunch to chat about the long overdue Verlaines’ compilation - the 19-track You re Just Too Obscure For Me – and immediately admits the thing wasn’t driven by him, the band or even Flying Nun.

Credit for this collection of dark, dramatic and literate Verlaines’ songs goes to band-fan, fellow Dunedinite, former Mastermind champion and author of the biography of cricketer Chris Cairns, Hamish McDouall.juven

“He’d just finished a law degree, and in January said he had three months when he was doing nothing before he went to do profs, so wanted to make a Verlaines’ best of. I was way too busy myself so said, ‘Knock yourself out',” he laughs.

“He did legwork to find out who had the rights for the stuff we did on [American label] Slash before handing things over to Flying Nun. He started the ball rolling with his track listing, and then it was a case of sitting down and listening to that, and going through the rest of the records with a few other people.”

Because the Verlaines had a number of line-ups it was “too ugly and complicated” to consult everyone involved in their half-dozen albums. However, Paul Heck of the American company Red Hot and Blue (who did the various Aids-fundraising compilations, and released No Alternative on which the band appeared) came up with some interesting suggestions defining what the Verlaines were about from an American perspective.

“There were some on the initial draft he didn’t care for but knew had to be there. For him the two songs which defined the outer limits of the extremes were Don’t Send Me Away (from the 1985 debut album Hallelujah All the Way Home) and CD, Jimmy Jazz and Me because of the orchestration and the whole sense of symphonic flow, the ‘movements as he called them.” hallelujah

Dont Send Me Away didn’t make the final cut because it didn’t make sense out of the context of Hallelujah, but the collection includes the band’s best-known songs Pyromaniac, Joed Out, Death and the Maiden, Doomsday and Downes’ emotionally wrought farewell to Flying Nun, Ready to Fly . . . and the more obscure Heavy 33 from the million-selling No Alternative.

The compilation serves to introduce this significant band to a new generation, but also reminds of their uniqueness born of Downes' background and vision.

“Marinated in the classics” as McDouall puts it in the liner notes. Downes is correctly Dr Downes who presently lectures at the University of Otago. He received his PhD for his internationally acclaimed thesis on Gustav Mahler and now writes CD reviews for the Canadian journal DSCH dedicated to the life and works of composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

A classy cricketer with a passion for sport who presents talks on the Concert Programme, Downes is an athletic aesthetic, a description which would amuse him.

In the early Eighties Downes’ intellectual interests collided with being in Dunedin as the city was boiling with bands. From the first three-piece line-up, the Verlaines marked themselves out as distinctive.

They appeared on the ground-breaking Flying Nun Dunedin Double EP alongside the Chills, Sneaky Feelings and the Stones, wrote their own signature song in Death and the Maiden (with the chorus “Verlaine, Verlaine”) and staked out that sparsely populated territory between high art and populist rock.

Downes’ lyrics reference poets (Verlaine, Byron), painters (Durer) and classical musicians (Claude Debussy is the “CD” of CD, Jimmy Jazz and Me).

They also come with darkly romantic lyrical and musical undercurrents, are shot through with personal references, their swelling sound can capture the landscape of Central Otago which Downes loves and yet work within the broad parameters of rock.

They signed to Slash and were distributed in the US through Warners, toured regularly to great acclaim and Downes remained one the most clear-eyed of rock musicians.

Even now he has a bemused and candid perspective of where the Verlaines fitted in Kiwi rock history and particularly in the Nun stable.bird_2

“It was a halfway house between the bands that fitted and those that didn't. There was always only ever room on Flying Nun to put any kind of muscle behind the most likely candidates to succeed, which was the Chills and, when they went into hiatus, Straitjacket Fits – which was completely and utterly the correct decision, if for no other reason than they were the most committed band.

“They were prepared to put in the hard yards to succeed to the next level, where I was farting around doing a doctorate and doing gigs when I could. I was hardly the play-seven-nights-a-week committed rocker.

“We fitted and we didn’t fit, but we weren't in a position to make ourselves fit. We didn’t go out and play those yards, and probably didn’t care to do so subconsciously. Playing gigs is fun, touring is not.”

Yet they did tour frequently and the cover of the collection wittily refers to their status. It is of a marquee billing -- Downes thinks maybe Toronto -- where they were playing a Tuesday night. The album’s title -- the opening line of Death and the Maiden -- underscores that they were always, metaphorically, tucked away on a Tuesday.

For Downes -- whose debut solo album Hammers and Anvils was released in the States on Matador two days before September 11 and consequently disappeared from greater appreciation there because American bands he might have supported weren’t touring -- the Verlaines seem some while ago now.

He lectures and oversees the rock music degree at Otago Uni, doesn’t see so many bands live because he spends his days working with young musicians, and with the wisdom of reflection occasionally puts one of his songs up as an example of what not to do in a rock song.evening

He has only played live a couple of times since Hammers and Anvils’ release, but has enough material for another solo album.

From his detached, relaxed demeanour you maybe shouldn’t hold your breath for it.

“I had two whole days on the semester break and wrote a song, but it’s just finding the time. For writing you need uninterrupted time . . . and my creative urges are sated through students working on original material. You live vicariously through your students,” he laughs.

“They’ve got the energy and passion so, ‘Go run with it’. You pass the baton, sometimes I feel it like that.

“lt’s great to write stuff yourself but most of the writing I’ve been doing is classical stuff, chamber music. There might be another solo record, we’ll see.”

When the final Obscure track-listing was settled on and sequenced he sat and listened through to the band which took up so much of his life and energy.

“I had to sign it off in a day so I got up at 6am and drove to Prospect Park and stuck it on. I watched the sun rise over north Dunedin. It was a good place to listen to it, the area where predominantly I had lived while writing that stuff.

“So it was cool and I enjoyed it. It wasn’t something I normally do and not something I did when I was listening through the albums to make the selection.”

And so a smile to yourself about all those rehearsals and bad motels, the highways of America and so on?

“All those things come back. I’m quite distant from it sometimes. Listening to older stuff I’m often saying, ‘What were you thinking?’ because you’re so distant from the head space you were in when you wrote it.grd

“I was shooting in the dark when we did a lot of that stuff. I knew enough music theory and complicated chords and a lot of classical theory, but didn’t know diddly-squat about rock music and what made a rhythm section function, so it just kind of happened.

“The naive approach gave the music some of its identity. The obverse is maybe it stopped it reaching a wider audience. I look back on them as outrageously brave, flawed diamonds. Occasionally I'm struck by the audacity in attempting something like that.

“In the final analysis,” laughs the man renowned for his candour and wry humour, “it’s an album of songs that don’t sound like anybody else. It’s endearing, it’s flawed. But sometimes there are moments where I go, ‘That’s glorious’ – even if the line before made me cringe.”

An overview of the first Verlaines albums -- which were reissued on the resurrected Flying Nun label in 2010 -- is here.

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