Graham Reid | | 10 min read
Despite a fine EP Lotus, the excellent album Mercury and songs beloved at student radio (notably Drive), Auckland's Malchicks barely rate a mention in overviews of the New Zealand rock scene of the Nineties.
Yet there they were, a tight four-piece which had elements of shoegaze, dream-pop, Goth gloom and melodic thrash alongside real roof-raisers.
They were produced by Chris van der Geer and Mark Tierney, had a video made by Greg Page, got good notices in Rip It Up, were on the bFM Freak the Sheep compilation in '91 with their terrific Vanilla, toured the country, played the Powerstation regularly . . .
They were also smart – a couple of university degrees among them – and were signed to the fledgling but rising Failsafe label.
We say they “evaporated” because they never actually broke up, simply went their own ways to different corners of the world: singer/guitarist Matthew Dalzell moved to Wellington with his masters in Chinese history to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was soon in Beijing; guitarist Simon Matthews went overseas and ended up in Boston; drummer Jason Ennor stayed on in Auckland for a while with Muckhole then went to London . . .
And bassist/singer Coralie Martin – now sitting opposite me in a Kingsland cafe – went to Japan with her degree to teach.
So when the album Mercury came out there was no band to promote it?
“Yeeeeeah,” says Martin with knowing laugh.
But Malchicks are back. At least all their music is.
Rob Mayes of Failsafe has diligently remastered all the band's released and unreleased songs into a bright and gripping 23-track collection appropriately entitled Everything.
"I don't think more than 80 people ever heard Mercury," says Mayes. "It's a bit of a lost classic as it was better than anything they'd ever done. But no band to tour it and it vanished, till now . . .
“The CDs sound terrible compared to the remasters. Mercury wasn't mastered in anyway at the time and is so quiet it's hard to playlist. The band are quite excited about the remasters.”
Mayes has astutely re-ordered the running of the Lotus and Mercury tracks with the additional tracks at the end, and Everything gets digital release and a very limited run of CDs as a handsome double-disc package with useful liner notes about the band's sometimes convoluted history.
"That'll only be available from the Failsafe website," says Mayes. "And very very limited. I'm not planning on making more than 25. The CD is essentially a Japanese release and there'll be no stock in New Zealand. But of course it is available digitally through bandcamp."
But although every Malchick is in New Zealand, there isn't the band now, 25 years after they evaporated, to promote it.
There will however be a video for the song Head to Head – which opened the Mercury album – which Japan-based Mayes is producing (“He is a real renaissance man!”) which will have footage of Martin, Dalzell and Matthews playing together recently.
But that might be the extent of any promotion other than maybe a few interviews.
A pity because Malchicks' songs stand up in the contemporary landscape where there has been a resurgence of interest in shoegaze, which is how they are most often – perhaps wrongly – described.
“Yes, Simon did say something to Rob about the shoegaze label,” says Martin, “because Simon always hated it. And in actual fact we weren't really listening to that much shoegaze. It wasn't a strong genre back then, other than maybe My Bloody Valentine. We didn't neatly fit into any niche."
Mayes agrees: "I know they hate that term as they found it derogatory and it doesn't fit them that well, they were a lot more than that narrow definition. They were into sonic guitars and literate vocals. But I'm expecting a lot of interest in the reissue to be from overseas as there is a huge shoegaze scene."
“Yes, these days there's a resurgence in popularity of shoegaze so we're jumping on that bandwagon,” Martin laughs.
“But I think the music does stand up today and I kinda wish I was still playing now.
“We actually spent a lot of time to-ing and fro-ing about doing a tour to support the release as we should have done when it first came out, or at least playing a gig.
“But we just couldn't get together in the same city. Everybody was in theory into it, like, 'Yeah, let's have a jam and go to Jason's place in Piha'.
“But people move on and are involved in different things and that's okay.
“We never actually broke up so as far as I was concerned it was going to be a hiatus. I had a one year contract so I had to go away, Matt had to go to Wellington . . . I imagined we could get back together.
“We're all still in contact too.
“But life goes on.
“Everybody is so busy. I'm the underachiever and they are all higher in their careers!”
A teacher of English at Taylors College in Auckland which prepares international students for university study, Martin is clearly joking when she calls herself an underachiever.
As with everyone in the band this former Malchick – who gave the band its name from Antony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and laughs loudly when it's suggested her fellow academics may be surprised to learn she was once a “rock chick” – Martin ran a parallel life before, during and after the band.
In the late Eighties she was studying French and German at Auckland Uni while “fully into the goth scene, in the band Icon. We had a few gigs around Auckland.
“I played bass in Honeylove and we did the Cramps support, there was another thing I can't even remember what it was called. But the Malchicks came about after that.”
There had been a few players in and out of the band Zombie Boy with singer Miranda Makin and Martin, which morphed into Malchicks with the arrival of singer/guitarist Dalzell (another uni student) and Simon Matthews.
There was always a revolving door of drummers but Jason Ennor was the longest serving and appeared on their recordings.
“It solidified around me, Matt and Simon,” says Martin who moved into a singing slot with the departure of Makin.
“There was a chemistry between us and we all really liked each other as friends, and we still do. So we enjoyed hanging out together so band practice would just melt into eating, drinking and going out together.”
As the Nineties dawned their EP Lotus – which featured Drive – was released in '92 was an exciting time for guitar bands. Groups like the Nixons, Love's Ugly Children, Semi Lemon Kola, Enigma, Second Child and Freakpower were their running mates, many of them on Mayes' increasingly impressive Failsafe label.
“And my all-time favourite,” says Martin. “S.P.U.D. I loved them so much, if I listen to songs like Motorway it still gives me a kick.”
Malchicks toured when they could, played university gigs, Martin and Dalzell became partners, then separated although continued to work together in the band, she continued her study and work . . .
“My first bout at uni was before the band. I got a bachelor's degree and worked at Inland Revenue for three years in debt recovery. That was a blast, I was in the section winding up companies and bankrupting individuals, made a few court appearances representing the Crown.
“Someone complained about me once because back then I used to wear the black leather jacket, black pants, boots, pierced nose and teased hair. It was like, 'This person's representing the Crown?'
“But luckily the people I worked with just said, 'No' to them.
“After that I went back to uni and did half my masters, which I never completed, in comparative language and literature. Then I decided after a year of that I just had to get a job. Economic needs pressured me into going to teacher's training college so I did the one year post-grad and majored in French.
“I should have been a French teacher. But jobs as French teachers were rare so I ended up teaching English.
“And the Malchicks were going on at all this time,” says the self-described “under-achiever”.
Her first job was a year-long position at Papakura High “and we toured during the school holidays, round the South Island”.
Then she started job hunting, applied for a position teaching English in Japan and to her surprise got it. And “around then Simon said, 'Why don't we do an album?' so there was a little bit of pressure – but I had time – to get the album out.”
She knew she would be going overseas, Dalzell knew he was moving to Wellington, Matthews had plans and drummer Ennor had announced he was leaving but came back to play for the recordings. The album was done and handed to Mayes at Failsafe.
Did Mayes know there would be no Malchicks around to promote it?
“He should have,” says Martin with a laugh.
Which is not quite the same as saying he did.
“I can't remember to be honest. But he was always in the loop because he was a friend. He's incredible, I don't know where he gets the energy.”
The album came out and they went. But a fair hearing of the expanded collection Everything with early demos featuring drummer Lorna Kittel and Miranda Makin on vocals shows what a range the group had.
“The demos were really early and some with Miranda sound different, a little bit punkier.
“We recorded [the Mercury album] with a collective approach to songwriting, the vocals being passed around, but they are basically my songs or Matt songs.”
So a song like Weatherman?
“That was Matt's. I like the song and I like the lyrics. Matt and I were in a relationship during the middle part so sometimes you hear a lyric and you think, 'Hmmm, not sure about that. What's he saying here?' And I think with Weatherman I might have altered the lyrics and kind of responded.
“The verses were written by Matt: 'Shadows across your face/hide the sun/ mysterious chill is creeping into none, [I think] and the mercury is falling, the mercury is falling, once again.'
“I wasn't certain that he was referring to me. Funny thing: we never talked about our lyrics to each other -- it's like they were a personal space and sacrosanct. But I had a strong feeling he was, and was a bit miffed at that.
“So, with not a little bit of irony, I wrote the chorus, 'You can tell which way the wind blows, you can tell -- you are the weatherman!'
“Then I changed part of his lyric in the second verse to 'silvery thrill is seeping into one'. He might have come back with the line 'When will the sun appear?' “Then again, it could have been me. I can't remember.
“I like Rob's placement of Fade Again immediately after that. It is one of my favourite songs on the album, and I also think the saddest. It follows on well, thematically.”
The album song Hayley by Martin sits at the centre of the 23-song Everything collection, a ballad which grows in intensity. It's fair to ask who Hayley is.
“Hah! Good question. I'd always hoped someone would ask me that. She's a girl I taught at Papakura High School and she was one of these pretty girls, intelligent too, but a boy would walk past the window and she'd turn into a ditsy airhead.
“It really irritated me because she could be an amazing person, and I hope she is. But I could see the great distraction when guys were around and she played up to them and turned into something less than she was. Hormonal teenager I guess.
“Vanilla had a similar vibe to it and also written about somebody I knew and was a bit critical of. I love having Vanilla on there because it was only on the Freak the Sheep album and I lost my copy.”
These days Martin doesn't play much, suffers from hearing damage (“standing too close to speakers and guitarists”) but has done music things on and off.
“But I'm dead lazy, and if you're not in scene it's hard to get the motivation. I've always enjoyed playing with other people. I've recorded with Niki Maera, the singer/guitarist in Mary and now in the Fuzzies. She and I had a lot of fun playing and recording, I sing and play the bass on one of mine.
“And with producer Steven Lothian I sing and play bass and there is an X-rated video for one of the songs, it's an edit from a Japanese animation from the late Sixties, kind of an erotic cartoon which goes well with the song. It's on Vimeo.”
She and Lothian, her partner, listen to a lot of Russian music around the house – he spent four years in Moscow and is fluent in the language – and African, world music, Fats White Family . . .
Her 18-year old son who is going to SAE next year is into electronic music so she also hears that.
She's not keen on the description dream pop although it applies to certain Malchicks songs: “Dream pop makes me think of My Little Pony a bit, sort of fluffy!”
She writes short fiction, is interested in spoken word with musical settings, speaks of perhaps going to France or Russia next year . . .
And on December 7 the remastered complete works of Malchicks comes back as Everything.
Without the band to promote it.
Yes, it'll come out . . . and we'll go to bed early,” she laughs.
“I hope people listen to it. We are very appreciative of Rob and the support that Failsafe has given us.When we were thinking of putting it out it was maybe for just friends and old fans who want to have a digital form of the songs. But I'd like new, young people to listen to it so we could reach a large audience.”
“I don't think [any reunion] is going to happen and maybe it should just stay like that. We're older now and generally I don't like to go to bands who have re-formed.
“There are people who are still going and you loved them then and you still love them now, so you go and see them.
“But these re-formations? It just seems a bit sad.
“I'd much rather to go Audio Foundation and listen to something I know nothing about. Something by young people.”