Graham Reid | | 16 min read
Rob Mayes was a musician in Christchurch, however his more abiding legacy to New Zealand music was the fact he recorded dozens of local artists (and Kiwi bands who passed through town) on his Failsafe label.
The label was prolific in the Eighties and NIneties but Mayes has been living in Tokyo for the past 11 years where he works in audio mixing for film.
He recently worked on the Ridley Scott-produced Don't Think and a Chemical Brothers feature film shot at the Fuji Rock Festival.
However with that massive back-catalogue of Failsafe artists (and tapes) he has been assiduously making compilations and revisiting his earlier releases to ensure this alternative (to the Flying Nun alternative) is documented, kept alive . . . and enjoyed.
Elsewhere has frequently written about Failsafe releases which -- in their limited edition CD versions -- come with gatefold sleeves and extensive liner notes. Most recently we went into bat for their Keepin' Secrets sampler compilation.
There is a lot of love lavished on the Failsafe catalogue and Mayes should be justifiably proud of the work he did then, and now.
"I divide my time between personal music projects," he tells Elsewhere, "and thinking about all the label projects I need to do (most of it), and just enough location sound recording and audio post mixing for films to pay the rent and feed me.
"I do enjoy the audio post mixing for film as it's another level of complexity and difficulty as you're dealing with a two hour 'song', with multiple parts and scenes, and you have to balance that whole two hours and keep it in your head.
"Three minute pop songs are easy in comparison."
Given the effort and energy he puts into his compilations, we thought it time Rob Mayes have his say about his background and the projects he is working on.
The first compilation album you remember buying was . . ?
Class of 81 which had The Newtones ‘New Way’ on it.
This was an entry level drug to loving local content for me.
The song was right up my alley and I could and did see the band play the song live many times on the local front which was the start of my exploration of ‘the importance of connection with local culture’ journey which I wouldn’t fully comprehend for another 30 years.
The local voice.
What prompted this current Keeping Secrets compilation?
As with most of the content on the label, I was immersed in a local cultural environment, people writing and performing songs to express themselves in a way that mere words on paper could not.
The motivations for this compilation, (which is part of a series of reissues and expansion of the label compilation collections) are the same as the event that initiated my move to record, collect, collated and present music.
The triggering event for me was I had seen the aforementioned Newtones rip though their post-punk instrumental set opener Four Ships at one of the first all age concerts of local artists I attended; a series of concerts unappealingly titled Sundays Kool, weirdly staged by local radio station 3ZM who wouldn’t be seen dead playing any local artists on their airwaves, which I guess was all part of the equation in hindsight.
We were in an environment that actively suppressed ‘us’, our sounds, the sounds of our peers, although the general public including myself weren’t really consciously aware of that, if you weren’t in the local music scene you jut thought there wasn’t much local music happening.
The local voice was just missing from our wider media and we were unaware of it, or the importance of having a ‘local voice’ to the local community.
The concert was at the Christchurch Town Hall, so a big venue with an impressive sound system, and I remember being blown away by the power of the track.
So first thing Monday I heading down to the local record store (The Record Factory staffed by Roger Shepherd, soon to be of Flying Nun) to buy the song so I could re-listen to it at volume at home on the fountain delta 301 family stereo system.
I was shocked to find out that not only was that song not available but almost nothing was.
A few more months passed and the Newtones released an EP and a single, neither of which contained Four Ships, and then the band broke up, never having recorded it and that was it, the song was lost to history, only contained in impressions in people’s memories.
After the initial shock of that I started trying to record bands live (with permission) for my own use since local records were few and far between, and I just had to have that connection to the local culture and community.
It turned out that some of the bands did manage to scratch down recordings at local studios but many of them went unreleased either because bands split up (their life spans were often burn bright and vanish quickly, such a temporary thing) and the act of releasing and promoting the recordings became moot, or because the cost and difficulty of releasing and promoting a record was and is quite substantial.
So as I expanded my personal collection of local content I figured I could and should do something about it so I talked to the artists about it, got permission and made the first compilation, Accident Compilation (1983), with 27 artists and the material they had recorded. Stop the waste, colour in the scene, paint a permanent picture of the landscape etc.
It’s the same motivation almost 40 years later.
These are cool songs I connect to an enjoy that wouldn’t be, and aren’t being captured and presented. It’s a bit like making your own record collection or playlist from scratch. It’s music I want to hear.
There is the social imperative but the impetus for it is I’m doing it to satisfy my need for cultural connection, for myself, hen the whole obligation for the community comes in and makes it all serious, but I try not to think about that so much.
What one great compilation would you take to a desert island?
It’s probably one of my label’s ones because it is the photo album of part of my life experience. It’s a record of my culture and my community. I’m not picking a favorite child though. My music experience has been pretty long and goes through many scenes from punk, post punk, 90s shoegazer and dream pop, the indie scene and on and all though those scenes the core element of ‘Powerpop’ permeates in all those genres.
So it’s probably going to be a mix tape of the mix tapes.
Any track you either couldn't get, or reluctantly had to drop, for the current compilation?
This ‘current compilation’ is actually from 2005 so it’s part of my remaster re-release program with expanded liner notes. It’s a bit different to most of the collections on the label in that it’s a sampler gateway into a series of artists who do have additional material to investigate. ie there’s Eskimo (kimo) albums, Degrees K, Substandard, Deluxe Boy etc etc.
Most of the other Failsafe compilations are of isolated tracks from artists who mostly did not get to do full albums, which was pretty standard for the CHCH music scene, so the compilation tracks are the only examples of their work.
For the current compilation releases I’ve gone back and remastered the 6 major compilations from the label.
- Accident Compilation (1980-84),
- Biding Our Time 1984-86,
- South 1986-88,
- Keeping Secret (2000-2005)
and the forthcoming
- Avalanche EPs (1992 -93)
- Good Things (1993-94)
I’ve included detailed liner notes and artist information in deluxe double gatefold covers and 16 or 24 page booklets, with photos of bands, poster art and scene photos to make them better representative documents of the time and place.
With each compilation I’m working on an ‘Encore’disc where I present additional material from each band on the original collections, so they’re not just one note, one hit wonders.
So I pick up those tracks I didn’t manage to get on the original collection: Playthings - Bird Eye View; Bird Nest Roys – Moongo; Stones - Fad World 14 min Punakaiki Festival version, would love to get Swingers – Yellow Star . . . and more Androidss but I’ll talk about that later.
I’m also doing an‘Expanded’disc collection which is comprised of bands that I missed the first time round in my scene overview, mostly because they didn’t fit on the size limited original releases, constrained by what you could fit on a C60/C90 or later a compact disc.
The ‘Good Things’ Compilation from 1994 was exactly 74:34 which was the maximum limit of content you could fit on a cd at the time.
So these collections pick up things like Danse Macabre - Ancient Monuments, Mainly Spaniards - Some Thing, Penknife Glides - Big Business World, Pleasure Boys - Last Straw, The Terraces - Jumbo Thoughts, The Vandals, Victor Dimisich Band- Love the One and Then The Other, Blue Flesh Syndrome - Crack in the wall, Jims Live Deer Recovery – Distractions, South American Question, Otis Mace, Amazing Broccoli, Burn, Chameleon, Changeling,Crash, Invisible Dead, Mezzanine, One etc etc .
There’s always been more songs I wish I could fit on the collections.
My music community (the Christchurch scene, and the wider NZ music scene as viewed from the CHCH perspective) has been lucky to have a vibrant interesting and creative scene, and later I expanded the scope to take in wider NZ bands as we were often well visited by wider nz bands, and also as I got involved with similar scenes in different cities, all with their own thriving but under represented scenes.
So yes, lots, but I’m addressing that in the forthcoming collections.
Which period in pop music history desperately needs more compilation attention?
The post punk era of 78 – 84 had a lot going on musically and probably not much going on outside of that if you weren’t moved by rugby, racing and beer, which is possibly why music was thriving.
There was nothing else to do. Limited options for time-wasting and expression.
Sadly much of the period predates my involvement so I don’t have live recordings that I did and PA systems were vocal PAs so popping a cassette into the machine off the mixer didn’t often yield much of worth, just loud voices and kick drum.
The Androidss are badly under represented from the period and I’ve been working on trying to find material of them past the 2 songs on their classic 7” single, and the audience recoding track on Accident Compilation.
They had an albums worth of originals and they just don’t exist in a reasonable quality format that I know of.
The Swingers also suffer from this. They had a live set of legendary and memorable songs they were gigging prior to the Practical Jokers Album.
The band decided to write new material for the album and never got to go back and revisit a large amount of material.
Songs like ''Over The Teacups'’, ''Shona'’, ''Yellow Star’', "Some Women”, “Yoyo”, “Louisa” and “Jinx” are vividly remembered by their avid audience, but they were never recorded.
There is a demo recording that does include a few songs of the standout live tracks like ‘Jinx’, but those first 6 songs remain unrecorded.
Andrew Brough’s early band The Orange played two concerts in CHCH around 1986 and played a handful of songs that never made it to recording or release. I still remember one haunting song some 35 plus years later.
I’ve been looking for it ever since.
Any interesting, valuable or just plain strange musical memorabilia at home?
I have a couple of file boxes of clippings and photos and a few hard drives of digitized videos and audio recordings I work from, but after the CHCH earthquake and with the push to downsize as houses become smaller (I presently live in the city of compact living, Tokyo) storing stuff at my mum’s house became impractical so I don’t have anything that I can’t carry in a bag, but I used to have lots. I do have a substantial poster collection in storage though.
Finish this sentence any way you like: The best compilation albums . . .
takes you to a time and a place, immerses you in a scene, a sound, tell a story, not just a collection of songs.
If you could get to compile another album around a theme, what might that theme be?
Luckily I’m in a position to make that ‘could’ a reality so I will be compiling many albums around themes. The theme is my experience and enjoyment of music, culture, and community, from my limited perspective of living in a South Island town. It’s been working for me so far.
The three films you'd insist anybody watch because they might understand you better are . . .
I‘m more an audio person than a visual one.
There are some films that capture the experience of songwriting/producing/arranging/recording in a non-sensational way. So much of modern media dumbs down or ‘enhances’ the process for cinematic effect.
Begin Again (2013) has a great scene where a drunk Mark Ruffalo imagines the sounds around Keira Knightley’s solo acoustic guitar and vocal live performance in the pub. This really resonated with the producer/songwriter side of me. To see past the bare bones of a track to how a song ‘could’ sound.
When I’m recording a new song I often want to play it to friends and family to show them the cool bit I’ve just done, but often the piece is in a half finished state and I’ve painted the missing bits in in my head, but the person I’m playing it to doesn’t see that, so I inflict half finished recordings on my family and friends so they can hear the cool drum edit I just did, but often it just sounds like a demo mess, which they’re going to hear many more times as each new piece goes on. I’m aware of the dilemma but it won’t stop me inflicting.
Interview continues after the clip
Ruffalo ends up really buzzing off the sounds in his head which is the same feeling I get.
Later on they get into writing and recording an album just cos they want to, no stardom, fame or money objectives, just music for the fun of it, for the community spirit of it, the social aspects of it and for the expression of being human through sound.
There’s a great scene where Ruffalo’s character ropes his teenage daughter in to playing guitar on a session, The actress who plays her (Hailee Steinfeld) actually did play the lead line on the track as we hear it improvised and at amateur level, which is a good point for music making as a community endeavor.
Just get up and do it and channel the magic.
Yesterday (2019) – There’s a lovely scene in the film where a couple of ominous fans approach the star to (he thinks) oust him as a fraud for his playing the Beatles material as his own, and all they do is thank him for allowing them to enjoy the music again.
There’s a lot of silliness in the movie but it’s a touching scene and a celebration of the enjoyment of music.
The third movie I’ll leave empty, fittingly for the music that didn’t get recorded, didn’t get kept for future generations.
The last current CD or vinyl album you bought was . . . (And your most recent downloads include . . .)
Well, most of my recent physical ‘purchases’ have been albums I’ve done for the label. I’ve made an effort to make physical representations of the collections I’m working on to show respect to the music and to make it not some disposable content you breeze past on line.
It’s an older way of engaging with music and yes a lost art, but there’s worth in it for a listener because it makes the content more visceral, and there’s a hard core of music appreciator that also feel that way, buying vinyl when they don’t have a turntable, to own the object and connect them to the music and artist in a more tangible way, there’s definitely merit in that.
I will note that all my label releases have been hand assembled and made, so there’s a level of commitment to them that pretty much consumes their cover price.
I grabbed Caroline Easther’s – Lucky album recently and that was really good.
Also Andrew Thorne’s band Silk Cut and their new EP. Shoegaze/Dreampop tones. .
I’m also a fan of some great Australian powerpop bands like The Ups and Downs
One old song from any era you wished you had written is . . .
Since I see music as personal expression it’s not quite that simple. I’m glad that certain songs exist, and admire their beauty and that they came from other people. My songs have to be an expression of me and don’t have to compete, I’m glad that people like them when they do but I’m only making them to please myself, but I am always looking to write the perfect chiming power pop song, to capture that undefinable impression in my head.
The Las ‘There she goes’? Doesn’t get much more perfect than that.
And Jesu – Farwell
Interview continues after the clip.
The compilation cover you live with on your bedroom forever would be . . .
I like the new Accident Compilation artwork.
A photo by Lorenzo Van Der Lingen from Haemogoblin of a audience standing around Mark Rastick of Balloon d’Essai waiting for the next song to kick in.
Three non-compilation for a desert island would be . . ?
Modern Eon – Fiction Tales
Comsat Angels – Sleep No More
Slow Pulp – Moveys (minus the terrible mood destroying last song)
The artist or group you would most like to do a compilation for would be . . ?
The elusive Androidss or The Swingers collections.
I’d love to write those chapters into history.
And finally, is there a track on your most recent compilation you would love people to hear. And, if so, why that one?
I quite like the Astro64 track – Wasting it on You. There’s a bit of a story with it so bear with me.
It was an ‘inbetween’ bands song, I wrote it in the UK while recording with Dolphin and working on unreleased Throwand Springloadermaterial, so I had three projects on the go. Kev Stokes from Dolphin had found a cheap small home studio in Richmond, London in the basement of a nice dude named Pete’s house for us to do work on these projects.
We didn’t know the guy personally and he was recommended by a music pal of Kev’s.
He was upstairs watching TV while we worked on our chiming powerpop tracks and he came down periodically to make sure we were happy and contribute supportive comments. He seemed to like what we were doing.
He said he was a drummer and if we needed any percussion on tracks to just yell out. We were a bit skeptical as we didn’t know him but thanked him for his kind offer and we would let him know.
Later we found a stack of Elvis Costello CDs in the studio and there was a picture of him on them. He was Pete Thomas the legendary Attractions drummer.
There was a marking on the headphone amplifier that said Dave Edmund’s loud level on it. Next time he popped down we said we did have the need for a drummer on some new material we were working on as we’d lost our drummer in the move to the UK.
Pete said he’d love to do it and to tee up a time with his wife, he had a space between a Suzanne Vega session and the current Costello album tour (this was about 1996).
We booked a couple of days to record drums on six songs and it ended up being just me and Pete tracking them cos Kev had an actual day job and had to pull out at the last minute.
So me and Pete laid down six Dolphin songs which were a lot rockier than he was used to and he worked up a good sweat. We had a little bit of time over and I asked if I could stripe some drums down for a new idea I was working on which was the ‘Wasting it on You’ track.
Pete really liked it and came up with a lovely drum beat for it.
After he finished his take he said there was “a certain bespeckled fellow who could do to write a few more tracks like that”. Neither me or Kev wore glasses so I’m assume he meant Declan McManus, ie Elvis Costello.
It was high praise (probably too high but we were enjoying playing these songs), and Pete really like that we were a couple of independent passionate musicians doing our thing and he supported that. He ended up charging us 80 pound a day, which is just electricity money and token studio rent and nothing for his sevices.
We finished off the six songs a few months later at a different space Kev worked at and there was talk of Pete drumming for us but he’s an incredibly in-demand guy and schedules never met and we moved on with another drummer.
‘Wasting It On You’ never made it into the Dolphin set and I ended up finishing it a couple of years later back in CHCH with the help of local singer James Scott, who did the vocals for me on some of my lyrics.
Sometimes the path to birthing a song is quite long and difficult, and there’s not an easy presentable package for it, to make a video and tour it and sit on a sofa in a network tv studio and talk about it.
To a listener who discovers and enjoys that song, none of that matters and it’s just their ears and your song, but as with many of the songs on the label the traditional path to wider listening just doesn’t present itself easily,’ so much of this isn’t household name’ material.
And it isn’t an easy street for artist or listener, my label stuff is hard to find and you have to put some work in to get it, and that’s ok.
But the good thing is this material has made it to completion and that’s one better than many many great tracks lost to the ether and time.
Failsafe's extensive website has the label's catalogue available to buy with information on the albums and artists. Worth checking out.