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The Pied Pipers Of Noise: The Dead C. Interview

Dunedin improv noise rock behemoths the Dead C have just turned 20 this year. (The Wikipedia tells me that this is their ‘china’ anniversary gift givers!) This is quite an accomplishment for any band but it is a spectacular one for one that started off which such large degree of indifference and, sometimes, downright hatred from the music listening public in their early years. Even in Dunedin where they live shows were often sparsely attended. Never the less they persevered and one album followed another and before you know it sometime in 1992 the Dead C. became ‘hot’. Overseas labels started releasing their records, setting up tours for them, many fanzine articles were written, songs covered (more on this later) and Sonic Youth became their pals. Flying Nun (where I worked at the time) was constantly being visited by American music fans fresh off the plane who would burst into the foyer with a sprightly step and ask “When are the Dead C next playing??”.

The Dead C. have a chemistry that is unlike any other band. They produce a unique guitar and drums squall that is unequalled. Originally a semi song based band the last decade has been pretty much devoted to complete free form improvisation. They have also started employing electronics and sampling but they have still retained the patented Dead C full immersion sound. What sets the Dead C apart from anyone else mining similar territory is that the Dead C have an aesthetic/music language that required the listener to either fully accept it or not accept it at all. There is no middle ground. You can not ignore the bits you do not like and emphasize the bits you do like. You can not employ selective listening with The Dead C! The reward for the persistent listener is that when you take on board the entirety of the sound you enter a uniquely captivating sonic landscape with it’s own inner logic and rules. It’s this singular musical language that has beguiled so many of their diehard fans and also created so many imitators. As sonic landscapes go it is one of the best!

The Dead C. are made up of three stalwart individuals; Michael Morley, Bruce Russell and Robbie Yeats. Early this week I caught up with Bruce and quizzed him on what the hell was going on and how the hell did this happen?

“In January 1987 I had just got back from a year in London and was flatting with Michael in Port Chalmers, when he suggested we form a band with Robbie. It was completely his idea, and I was quite surprised, since he knew precisely how little I could play conventional music, but he was quite undismayed. We had our first practice a few days later and everything fell into place. We recorded the first album inside about 4 months. It happened very easily because we decided to do everything the wrong way. That meant we could dispense with things like practicing, ‘honing our chops’, all that stuff. Our entire career has been built on defeating expectations of what bands do and don’t do.”

Twenty years is a long time to do anything let alone be in a band. “Did the dead C ever expect to still be around twenty years later?” I ask.

“Absolutely not! We wanted to make a record. When we made one we wanted to make some more. In 1987 we did not have many role models for bands like us that had been going since 1967, really only AMM and perhaps Smegma, neither of which we knew much about at that time. So it didn’t seem like a possibility worth considering. We took it one year at a time.”

One of the out of left field surprises has been that two middle to high profile US indie bands (Yo La Tengo and The Rogers Sisters) have covered the same Dead C song Bad Politics. I remember when Yo La Tengo’s version first appeared and a semi mystified Robbie Yeates viewing it with some consternation and proclaiming “They even copied the mistakes!”

Bad Politics was originally found on the super rare Xpressway released Sun Stabbed 7”. Copies of which have been know to sell for over $100.00 (US). It is a very unusual and atypical Dead C song being uptempo, almost punk and ‘sung’ by Bruce. For a long time it was their most played song on student radio and for years it even featured on the tail end of BFM’s Freak The Sheep promo. I asked Bruce to shed some light on the origin of this song.

“I was listening obsessively to the first Alan Vega solo album, the really raw kind of cyber-rockabilly one with Motorcycle Hero and Viet Vet on it. That’s what I was trying to emulate, but it was well beyond my ability. I wrote it in 1984, when I’d been playing about a year, and about 4 years before the band got together. It’s all A, E and Em. I have never written any other ‘songs’ in my life, actually.”

“Its very flattering [regarding the cover versions], but none of them really do it justice. Peter Jefferies did the best version because he shifted it to the piano. The guitar versions can’t come close, they don’t get the moronicism of the riff and they can’t emulate the lead part Robbie did on the single. Mind you, most of them can sing better than me, but they sort of seem to miss the point that its written in an angry disgusted monotone. We haven’t played that since about 1989, I ‘gifted’ it to Peter, he’s the only one I’ve ever ‘sanctioned’ to perform it, since I’ve given it up, I figured he may as well have it.

Personally I would love to hear more Dead C covers. Just off the top of my head I would be very keen to hear Maria Carey perform Angel. Bruce somewhat concurs.

“We haven’t ever contemplated other cover versions, but we do have other songs that are more coverable than Bad Politics. I think U2 could do very well with Power if they made it a ‘lets feed Africa’ benefit, I’d certainly vote to let them do it. The thing is, we get mechanical royalties as well as potentially performance royalties, so we’re only too keen. Basically very few artists have the balls for it, that must be why the Rogers Sisters did it!”

One of the more unusual aspects of the Dead C success story – and lets be honest it is a success story – is the fervor of their fans especially the overseas ones. While they seldom sell albums in the low 5 figures it seems that everyone who buys an album has a fanzine or website to write about it in. This became such an epidemic of sorts that when NZ legend music legend Duane Zarakov published his The Jewish Beatle fanzines he profiled a number of US fanzines using as a reference how many of them were obsessed with the Dead C. From memory most of them were. This all pervasiveness in the overseas underground media made some very vocal NZ armchair critics annoyed and irritable. They viewed the Dead C as bourgeoisie fakers and corrupters of the youth – ‘the Pied Pipers of Noise’ if you would – leading young people astray into unproductive musical ventures with no hope of ever making any money or finding girlfriends and/or boyfriends. For the sake of future youth of New Zealand I confronted Bruce concerning these claims.

“Corrupters of youth – almost certainly, but bourgeois fakers – no! and I can’t
say our music has ever got anyone laid that I know of.”

With that out of the way we moved on. I consider the Dead C a success story as although they are not rolling in bucks they are not indebt to any record companies, they have made some lasting art and what’s more they have been flown around the world to play some of the most enviable gigs. To name a few; All Tomorrows Parties in 2002 (Where they shared a dressing room with Peaches. (“She’s lovely well-spoken Canadian school teacher, so well brought up.”)), Le Weekend in Scotland and this December they are being flown to London to play at Thurston Moore’s Nightmare Before Christmas Festival. I asked Bruce what their most memorable gig was.

“Most memorable gig for me would have to be the Port Chalmers Town Hall three hour set, the free concert we did in about 2002. We had an old upright piano on stage, it was great fun, with a 20 second video loop playing the whole time, which kind of unhinged the audience over the course of the show.”

To mark the 20th anniversary US label Ba Da Bing! have released a double CD ‘greatest hits’ album called “Vain Erudite and Stupid: Selected Works 1987-2005”. An album of new works entitled Future Artists is due out on the Dead C’s own Language label sometime in the near future.

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