A record label at the right place at the right time can be integral to a music scene, often gaining revered status further down the track as history settles into place. Sub Pop, Motown and Factory are obvious examples. At the start of the 80s very few would have predicted the impact (albeit on a lesser scale) that a label started in the lounge room of a record shop clerk, on a culturally isolated island at the bottom of the world, would have.
Born in Christchurch in 1981 to Roger Shepherd and raised in Dunedin, Flying Nun became home to a unique cross-section of bands who were influenced by both the cold dark winters and the independent music that was coming out of the northern hemisphere.
Simon Coffey, who was a radio DJ and gig promoter at the time, sums up the origins of the so called ‘Dunedin Sound’. “I think it was the combination of the UK’s Punk ethic of DIY and rejection of bloated 60s/70s rock (seen clearly with acts like The Clean, Tall Dwarfs and The Puddle), the influence of US ’60’s psychedelia, up to and including acts like the Velvet Underground which combined to embody themselves as lo-fi pop.”
The original mission of Flying Nun was to create an outlet for bands from the South Island to have their music heard and the first wave included The Clean, The Chills, The Bats, The Verlaines and Chris Knox’s Tall Dwarfs. It is those bands that are now, more than 25 years later, being cited as influences by current acts such as Stephen Malkmus, Jay Reatard, Pete & The Pirates, Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls.
JB Townsend of US band Crystal Stilts recalls when he discovered Martin Phillipps’ The Chills. “The first time I heard Pink Frost I was astonished that there was a band out there with a song that sounded like that. The whole spacious half melancholy pop thing… It was exactly the feel I was going for in our earlier records. They took from all the right resources before them and make it sound thoroughly unique and as good as their classic predecessors.” says Townsend.
One of the key figures on the Flying Nun scene was Chris Knox. The singer of early NZ punk bands The Enemy and Toy Love, he was the driving force behind the label’s lo-fi approach to video, artwork and early recordings. Matthew Bannister of Sneaky Feelings summed up Knox well in his book Positively George St; “The most important contributor to the cult of shambling amateurism was Chris Knox, a punk puritan who mistrusts anything too polished or seductive.”
That perceived lack of aspiration worked in the label’s favour, so much so that contemporary bands like UK’s Pete & The Pirates see it as a defining part of Flying Nun’s appeal. “What makes them unique is that they never seemed to aspire to what most labels would: making money! and they didn’t seem to interfere with the artistic processes of the artists,” says singer Tom Sanders, “It seemed almost like a strong compulsion to capture the music that the label found and loved in it’s rawest and most honest form, seemingly for posterity rather than commercial gain.”
New Zealand writer Graham Reid has been writing about the Flying Nun since the mid 80s and recalls an insular scene which contributed to the lack of wider success for many of the bands. “They were so inward looking, some of them only played ten hours together before they recorded something, they didn’t tour, they didn’t play often enough to become good at their craft – they didn’t want to do that. They’d play 2 gigs in three months and want a cup of tea and a lie down,” he laughs, before adding, “It was like a little boys club that looked in on itself.”
Prior to punk music reaching New Zealand and planting the seeds for these bands, there had been little for people to latch onto and call their own. A cultural cringe outweighed pride and self promotion. Graeme Jefferies of Flying Nun bands This Kind Of Punishment and The Cakekitchen sees the label as a major cultural turning point for the country. “I think from my own generation’s point of view that it was extremely important for our cultural identity. That early Flying Nun stuff has some real milestones and was the first real indication of Kiwi underground culture outside of books and movies. It was really important then and historically it still is.”
As the label grew and the bands began to expand their sound with larger recording budgets the strain began to show. In the mid 80s the label shifted offices to Auckland to be closer to the wider music industry which was viewed by many as a betrayal. By 88, with cash-flow problems mounting, a deal was made with Australian label Mushroom Records which provided both funding and international distribution opportunities.
Though both The Chills and Straitjacket Fits inked deals with American labels Slash and Arista, the big push to promote many of the bands overseas ultimately led to burnout and disillusionment causing many of the label’s profile acts to disband. Shepherd battled on, relocating to run the London office in 95, but, by 97 he had departed the label and Mushroom had amalgamated with Festival Records, further distancing Flying Nun from its independent beginnings.
The label has been relatively dormant in the 21st century with The D4, The Phoenix Foundation and The Mint Chicks the exceptions. Recent activity in 09 from prominent ex-Flying Nun bands shows the creativity of the early pioneers is still strong with new albums from Shayne Carter’s Dimmer (Degrees Of Existence), The Bats (The Guilty Office), The Clean (Mister Pop) and The Verlaines (Corporate Moronic).
The most recent and encouraging development in the Flying Nun world is the news that a Roger Shepherd-led consortium has bought back the label’s catalogue from Warners who absorbed Festival Records in 05. Neil Finn is one of the other major backers of the group and you sense that in their hands the legacy of Flying Nun as well as the cultivation of new artists will be well looked after.
Though it never sold a lot of records it seems that there is still an immense amount of pride and respect for the label that started at the bottom of the world, took flight and ended up influencing so many with its pure and enthusiastic dedication to music.
This article first appeared in A Fine Line magazine