Music editor and former member of Die! Die! Die! Henry Oliver talks to his ex-bandmates about making music together for nearly 20 years.
I met Andrew Wilson and Michael (we called him Mikey) Prain in the summer of 2003-04. I’d seen their old band Rawer open for Trans Am, if my memory serves, and they had since moved to Auckland and formed Die! Die! Die! with a new bassist, Kane Goulter.
They played super loud and super short sets, with minimalist rhythms beaten into the drums with the wrong end of the sticks, basslines of two notes circling around each other, and ranting staccato vocals paired with abrasive chords ripped out of the guitar. Where Rawer had been a sea of pedals and effects, this new band had a stark minimalism. As few sounds, as few parts, as few notes as possible. When I saw them open for Wire at Galatos, the first ten minutes was one beat and two notes on the bass in a seemingly endless repetition (I don’t think Andrew was even on the stage for most of it); and the second ten minutes was five or six songs, with almost no breaks in between and certainly no banter. They were militantly tight and tinnitus-inducingly loud.
It was meant to be their last show.
Soon after, I became fast friends with Andrew and Mikey and within days we’d formed a new band, with Andrew and me playing guitar and Mikey on drums. We talked about finding a bass player or just not having one (forgoing one of the traditional rock instruments was en vogue at the time), but pretty soon I borrowed a bass guitar from my friend Henrietta and started playing bass because that seemed easier than finding someone else who’d want to play with us.
We immediately started practising four or five times a week and soon decided to continue the name Die! Die! Die!. I always liked the name, people already knew the band, and they had recently received NZ on Air funding for a single which was still to be released, so, why start at the bottom of the hill again?
Within two weeks of practising, before we had enough material for a set, we had booked a four-date tour of the North Island. A couple of months later, we left for a national tour. We existed in a constant state of momentum. Soon, we playing in Australia, recording an EP, driving down the country again, touring the UK and Europe, touring the States, recording an album with one of our heroes (Steve Albini). Everything seemed possible when you didn’t have to wait for permission or an invitation from anyone. We just did it. We turned up and, usually, people turned up too.
It was an incredible time for me until it wasn’t. For much of our lives we spent every waking hour together. We drove in a van, waited for soundcheck, drunk, played, watched bands, slept on someone’s living room floor (or worse), all together, all the time. And eventually, I didn’t want to anymore. So, when we had a month off in the UK before the second leg of a tour there, I went to New York to spend time with my then-girlfriend (now wife) and knew immediately when I got there that I wouldn’t go back.
But just as I’d helped Die! Die! Die! continue, someone else stepped into the void. Lachlan Anderson [“Lachie” below] joined on bass and they kept on going, recording three more albums and playing countless more shows. Then he left and Michael Logie (our old friend from the Mint Chicks) joined and they recorded another album and toured. And then he left and Rory Attwell joined and played countless more shows and, late last year released another album, Charm Offensive, funded in-part by NZ on Air’s New Music Project.
And through it all, the constant is Andrew and Mikey, two high school friends that have been making music together for nearly 20 years – an amazing feat for any act, let alone a band that has thrived on instability, uncertainty and unpredictability.
I only see Andrew and Mikey every couple of years and this is the first time we’ve ever really talked about Die! Die! Die! We’ve taken pretty different paths in life since I took that flight from London to New York nearly 12 years ago. But you can’t help but feel some weird connection to people you used to live your life with. And I can’t help but admire what they’ve done and what they still do – still doing it themselves, still turning up, and never waiting for permission.
The Spinoff: It only occurred to me the other day but you guys are kind of veterans now. Is that weird?
Michael Prain (MP): I think it’s weird in the sense that the way I view the word ‘veteran’ is that you’ve been through something sort of really intense, and I really don’t… it’s funny because I never really take the band as a whole, it’s more like ‘Okay, this album is a new album, it’s a new part of the process it’s only been literally one year or two years or whatever’ rather than thinking right back and going ‘Oh that’s from the first album’.
Andrew Wilson (AW): I think also maybe because it’s always kept moving and we’ve kept doing stuff. Which also does have the Dunedin tie-in because we always grew up with older people who were always telling us about their heyday, their bookmarks of their careers or their music. They might have done one album, an EP, they toured America once and, you know, to me they were always the veterans because they had a stop and a start like a bookend. So, I don’t know, I don’t regard myself as a veteran yet.
I was writing about the Music Awards recently and Phoenix Foundation came up in conversation, something about how it’s 20 years since they formed. And it is really weird to think of them as a 20-year-old band.
AW: Yeah because they supported Mikey and my high school band Carriage H at our EP release show in Wellington and that was 2001 and they’d been going for years before that.
Totally, and so then I thought about Shayne Carter and Die! Die! Die!, and that the time between now and when I was in Die! Die! Die! is a similar time between then and the height of Straightjacket Fits. And, at the time we did their reunion tour, they did seem like a band from history, you know what I mean?
AW: Yeah, they did seem like something from the past, yeah. I suppose it’s how you think of it. Seeing as how the band’s been a continuation, it’s not like a retrospective or looking back on the past. It’s like a new album is just sort of another part that’s moving forward from the last bit. Like a natural progression rather than ‘Oh, I’m going to consolidate everything I’ve done in the past’.
You’ve been remarkably consistent over the years too. An album every two or three years, still touring a lot…
AW: Yeah, but we only just consolidated all of our material onto Bandcamp in the past month, which I think a lot of bands take a lot of care about – so in that regard, not so much. It’s almost like the things that have gone wrong have kind of spurred us on to keep going in some way.
MP: To be creative is to keep making new stuff. I think the band’s always been more about the process of making it rather than trying to particularly achieve anything with it.
AW: It’s about doing things rather than achieving things.
Maybe this ties in with the longevity, that maybe you’ve remained a band way longer than most other bands partly because there hasn’t been a big jump in success. But there hasn’t been a lack of interest either. There haven’t been extreme peaks and troughs. Does it feel like that?
AW: Yeah. I mean there have been many versions of it. There were some higher points and there have been a lot of lower points, too, but I can definitely see what you’re saying there.
Bands tend to burn out either when they get successful and struggle under the pressure to sustain it, or, if you don’t have success, at some point people lose interest and neither seems to have happened to Die! Die! Die!
AW: I think a lot of that is tied to do with ego. Like one of the ways in which I really admire The Clean is we played Homegrown music festival in 2008, 2009? And I just remember feeling like, because we were on after them, that was embarrassing for us. Like, we can’t go on after them. Anyway, there were probably like 20 people in the audience, I’ll put the disclaimer there, but you know? Still, it felt like there wasn’t that ego [with The Clean].
MP: I suppose it’s like when I say achievement it’s more like not really having these huge expectations of what it’s going to be. Like, oh, it was really great to make that record and then after we go ‘Okay, after we’ve made that record, now we’ll want to play shows’. It’s not really about having people suddenly say this is the greatest thing in the world, and if 500 to 1000 people don’t show up to my shows I’m gonna stop doing this. I suppose because that’s never really been important to the band, it’s been able to sustain itself.
That kind of relevance is hard to sustain. If that’s what you’re after, it’s really hard to do because the goalposts shift so much.
AW: As long as people are still wanting to book your shows. If we were like, ‘Hey let’s go on tour,’ and our booking agent was like, ‘No.’ I think then I’d be like alright maybe it’s time to stop going on tour. I don’t want to tour open mic nights, you know, that’d be a bit embarrassing.
It seems like you’ve been going to Asia a lot. That’s something that’s opened up for you…
AW: We first went to China in 2011 and nothing ever came of it and I thought that was a bummer because it was such an amazing trip but really gruelling. And we ended up having to part ways with Lachie actually, it was pretty intense. Then they started doing this intense western indie-music festival called Concrete and Grass last year, I think that was their first year, and they flew us out. So finally something came from this tour that we did six years ago. And then this year we played the China Hardcore Music Festival and that was hilarious. I’ve got a t-shirt. You should see the poster. So yeah we’ve gone back two years in a row. I was so glad that that first tour actually eventuated into something. Because that’s kind of what you do when you go on tour – you kind of expect to be wanting to come back. You put in all that effort and you want to see something. It is awesome.
I also bought a Chinese band out here to tour in February, called Birdstriking. Actually, Ricky from The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Hamish from The Clean are going there after to do shows. So it’s all kind of this weird scene-vibe, veterans if you will, hanging out in China.
Because, of course, in places like that they might not have known you for that long.
AW: No, exactly. I think that was what was quite cool about when we played there at the time. There was this DIY venue called D22 which has been operating for ages but went down in Beijing history as one of those really defining points, a lot of bands, you know Carsick Cars, Birdstriking, PK14 all these bands kind of came of age playing there and stuff and it all closed down in 2012, and then the younger musicians, we played there just before it closed. And then our album Form is the album that kind of defines that period so that’s the only songs they want to hear from is that album.
So then do you find that common? That different places respond to different eras of Die! Die! Die!?
AW: Yeah. It depends who released the record, how well it got promoted, whether it’s really stuck with people. Or if we were touring a particular country more at the time of that album release.
Has streaming changed much for you?
AW: Not really. I think the odd person gets into us from streaming, but, particularly in Europe, people really want to get the records, buy the vinyl. Maybe it’s because I don’t really understand streaming. I still buy digital downloads [laughs], so maybe I just don’t get it. You definitely find people have more eclectic ideas about our band. Usually, I find the songs that we’ve done music videos for or the traditional singles, like through NZ on Air that have been pushed out, sometimes overseas those won’t be the songs that have translated to different audiences.
Some people who are very into streaming would know what’s popular in a certain country and then know they could tour some place because they could see all these people listening to their music from that country.
AW: I’m sure for a lot of bands that’s a good idea but for us that would just be absolutely atrocious. You’ve got to understand the different communities and scenes, all the different levels of things you have to take into consideration.
What do you think when you see someone like Fazerdaze – whose music is different but not a million miles away from what you do – and the opportunities she’s had, some of which have been generated by being placed on Spotify playlists? Which is kinda what radio used to do for bands. But do you see stuff like that as just being separate from what you do?
AW: Yeah, I couldn’t even start thinking about that. I think it’d drive me nuts.
MP: When we first started playing in the band, it was like ‘Okay great, if we can get our song on the radio that’s fantastic, but I don’t need the song on the radio – we’re a punk band, we can still go play a show’. It’s the same thing. You don’t have to play by those rules.
AW: It’s also like, you think about it in the context of the things you’ve been told to do – like we could probably have spent thousands of dollars to get articles in the NME or a ‘MySpace Presents’ and stuff. It all didn’t end up being that important.
It surprises me that you, in particular, aren’t super into that internet side of it. You were so into it – you used to be all about the internet!
AW: I was all about the internet! I was about the internet at that time. Maybe I missed the boat!
You were kinda into it in the early days of bands actively using the internet.
AW: Exactly. I think that a lot of it was that mystery did have a big part to do with it. Like, when we did the first EP and stuff, people were sharing the downloaded files and it probably took them like a day to download – they had to commit to it. With so much saturation, you can get anything you want on the internet now and sometimes I get bamboozled, like what do I even play?
I think the context of everything’s changes. Remember how I was really into Slint? We toured with Slint when they reformed in Europe, in 2007. And I remember how that killed my fandom or something, because the mystery was gone. Like, they had to jam on stage because they had to fill a time slot and it was just kinda yucky. And a lot of my favourite bands reformed because they had to make money, they had to pay bills because record sales weren’t rolling in.
The other side of that is they reformed because lots of people discovered them through the internet.
AW: Yeah… I’ve got a sceptical view of that. After talking with a few people, like the Pixies, they had to reform because the records weren’t selling anymore. But sometimes, in the context of the internet, it’s good to keep your head out of it so you can stay really positive, so you don’t get jaded and bitter.
Being at the Silver Scrolls and having Lorde win over some kinda indie favourites, there was a feeling of disappointment among some indie people. But I was thinking that just a few years ago, they probably wouldn’t have cared at all, they wouldn’t have known who’d won the Silver Scroll. It just wasn’t on their radar. Before James [Lawrence Arabia] won it, it wasn’t even part of those people’s worldview. When we were playing music together, we never even talked about who won Silver Scrolls or New Zealand Music Awards.
AW: Everything’s moved a lot more into the centre. In every aspect of their lives…
But you don’t feel like that? You feel separate from the centre of the music industry or community?
AW: I wouldn’t really say it’s like a deliberately separate thing, it’s just I’m quite busy and don’t really have time. For example, I think we’ve only ever entered a song once to be judged and I don’t think I’d ever written out my lyrics, and I’d just be in a whole world of pain if I did.
So, for you guys in New Zealand, is your audience just slowly and constantly regenerating? Or do you see the same people from years ago?
AW: A little bit. It’s a little bit more common here than anywhere else, that Die! Die! Die! really suits a certain period of a person’s life. There is a group of people who used to follow us to every single show around the North Island and it’s kind of whittled to two people from about 20. But some of them are coming to this show [the release show] and they’ve been messaging me, ‘It’s a throwback!’ That’s a bit depressing.
MP: No, no, no. Hang on, there’s a new record! Remember the continuation! No throwback!
So when you play, it’s to young people, right?
AW: Yeah, half-and-half.
MP: I think this is part of the longevity of the band, that we’ve always wanted to play in other places – it’s been a main thing, to go somewhere new. If we never left New Zealand, of course it wouldn’t work, it would just shrink in on itself. But that’s the thing. You find in new places, like going to China more, that keeps the band engaged and fun and doing new stuff and talking to new people.
AW: And people’s lives get complicated. People have got to get babysitters, jobs in the morning. Sometimes you just don’t wanna go out.
It’s also the role that aggressive music has in someone’s life…
There’s Die! Die! Die! and then there’s you two. Because as long as Die! Die! Die! has been going, you guys have been going even longer. So you started playing together in what year?
AW: 1999? 1998? We were in the Rock Quest in 1999. But that wasn’t Carriage H, that was The Drummer Smells Nice, our first band.
So that’s a long time… How have you done that?
MP: I suppose music’s just an extension of the friendship. It works well. But also with other people who have always played in the band, or been involved in the band. That’s your little group and you do your thing and then other people move away because life changed and other people come along…
AW: Like we just did this new music video and we got mine and Mikey’s best friend to fill in on bass because our bass player is in London and we just put a helmet on him. So we’ve always gotten other people involved.
MP: It’s changed with Rory, because we never planned to do another record. It doesn’t really happen like that. We had a bit of a break, got offered a couple of shows, did those, and then Rory’s always been a recording engineer and producer so that was a really good asset for us to be able to set up anywhere and do anything. We just started getting a few songs together each time we played.
AW: And Rory comes from the same school of creating on the fly, improvising that turns into songs. When Michael Logie was in the band and he was committed with Bic and Kody for Opossum, Rory filled in on bass and we were jamming all the time at soundchecks and I remember that was quite fun. Whereas Michael had been a lot more song-structured.
So we were doing this Chinese festival last year and we flew to London and my cousin’s friend owns a boat which Rory had a recording studio on, and instead of rehearsing for the Chinese tour, we ended up recording for the four days and that became 80% of the record. We wanted to finish it on tour but that was impossible but when we were doing the NYE A Low Hum festival, we booked a week at Chicks (in Port Chalmers, Dunedin) and finished it there. And also in Whanganui when we realised Rory was leaving and we hadn’t done vocals for two of the songs and some guitar stuff. There used to be a DIY space called Space Monster that closed down a few years ago, so we got the keys and set up there and finished the morning before the Wellington show.
So did the two of you write some of this record together, just you two?
AW: Some of it, yeah. We had demos that we sent to Rory, like rough phone recordings.
But because of your dynamic, it feels like you could be a band forever.
AW: It’s never going to stop!
Not in a bad way. But if you’ve got like four members, it’s much harder for a band to last.
MP: On a really simple level, music does offer me, personally, the opportunity to go overseas and go do things which would not be possible on my own financial means. Which is really cool. That’s always fun to pursue.
AW: Yeah, it’s gotta stay fresh and interesting too. We’ve never really wanted to just tour and play the places that make financial sense – like we’re going to Russia on this tour.
Last time I saw you Andrew, you were working on a solo record. What happened to that?
AW: It’s still in the pipeline. It’s more the … confidence. I like that ‘Yeah, let’s put it out to the world!’ I’ve finished it. Mikey’s heard it.
MP: That’s the thing. Making a release, having the confidence to drive whatever you’re doing.
AW: It’s easy to throw out Die! Die! Die! records. Easy to hide behind the band.
Because there’s an inherent confidence in the entity?
AW: Exactly. And I kinda just had a lot of other life things going on and it fell by the wayside and then Die! Die! Die! came along and this record overtook the process. But I was doing it with Jeremy Toy. Yeah, maybe I’ll release something. I’ve finished it. Got some stuff. We’ll see.
So how do you get to Russia? Is it through a European booking agent?
AW: We’ve got a European booking agent and some Russian booking agent emailed me and said they’ve been a fan since the first album. So we were going to go in 2011 but we cancelled three months of shows when we broke up then. So he saw we were touring again and asked us to come to Russia and I said ‘Totally! Fuck yeah’. It’s going to be awesome. I’m pretty excited. I’ve realised I don’t have any clothes for it though.
MP: How do you dress for minus 20?
AW: We’ve been offered a show in India in February. A festival, but it’s right after Laneway.
So there’s still new things you want to do?
AW: Yeah, like our booking agent in China was talking about next time we go there, touring into Southeast Asia. He’s lived in Beijing since 1998, but he likes to book shows in places he’s never been to, so he says there’s cities in the jungle in South China and we could go play there and into Southeast Asia.
MP: He was talking about Inner Mongolia!
AW: I guess Die! Die! Die! is going to turn into this weird way to get free trips to Mongolia and Cambodia. But there are worse ways to live.
There’s a way in which you guys traverse these different scenes, from more traditional indie scenes to these DIY punk scenes. Like there’s probably opportunities there that aren’t in indie scenes.
AW: That was the weird thing when we did this hardcore festival in China, it was the first year that they’d run it and we were the only non-traditional hardcore band and some people were yelling and I thought everyone fucking hated us. Actually, there was an Australian dude going [*Australian accent*] “Put on a fucking hardcore band!” But after the show, heaps of people were coming up to us. It was the last show of the tour and we had to lug all our equipment on trains, so it was pretty hard-out.
Did you play faster?
AW: We just played shorter, because of the tension, though I think the tension was all in my mind and it wasn’t as badly received as I expected. The reviews were good and we meet lots of people afterwards. But we still got asked to play that show where that would never happen in New Zealand or Australia or America, like Die! Die! Die! at Hamtown Smackdown. It’d go down like a pile of shit.
MP: But that’s fundamentally what the band’s been about all the time – we’ve always been a staunchly DIY band. Like, ‘This is how we’re going to do it, we don’t need to listen to you to do this, blah blah blah’, which has been really great in so many respects, but then of course in other ways we’ve kind of sabotaged ourselves by doing that.
Because it seemed like with the Promises Promises record, that you got close to the industry and then kind of quickly backed away…
AW: Yeah, that was getting pretty close to that, we were flying to America and playing festivals and stuff. And we’d always just find a way to fuck it up. Not fuck it up maybe, but we’d have a way of not making it work out.
MP: In a funny way, when I think about how we could have done things differently or maybe we sabotage ourselves or something, the music’s always been quite uncompromising in so many ways that it always lends itself to having… not a limit, but you can only get to do so many things.
AW: But then I think in the context, it’s really not as extreme as some people let on. Like, with Promises Promises, some people said it was unlistenable, but some of it sounds like just straight-up indie pop.
In terms of your new album, has that approach changed at all? Have there been elements when you’ve gone for a more produced sound?
AW: Nah, never. I think Promises Promises, working with Shayne [Carter] that was a bit more production heavy, compared to the first album we did with you. And also, we were in LA, hanging out with people, spending more time with songwriters. Then with Form on Flying Nun, I wanted to make quite a dense sounding record. Harmony, that was when the band wasn’t really around. I was just working on my own with different people. I recorded the vocals with Shayne Carter in Dunedin and then re-recorded the vocals in Tasmania and then Chris Townend, who mastered this album, he really encouraged… not my indulgence, but encouraged what I was doing on guitar in particular. And I think that worked really well on Harmony and then didn’t really work so well on SWIM. That was a little bit too much guitar. You can only do so many overdubs.
It’s been interesting hearing the guitar come in and out of prominence…
AW: Yeah, especially when it was such a minimal thing at the start. And then I had a broken hand for Promises Promises so I didn’t even get to use the guitar in some of the songs.
And, to hear you talk about the recording of this album because it has a looseness to it, a jammy-ness..
AW: Yeah, a lot of jamming.
MP: It was one of those ones that wasn’t started out to even be an album, then it just came about. Which is nice. If it happens that easily, then that’s only a good thing. That’s always been the thing with everything in the band – if it becomes too difficult, if you’re pushing too much, it’s not working.
But you haven’t quietened?
AW: Mellowed out? Not yet.
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