Sneaky Feelings: A Sentimental Education

Sneaky Feelings

Sneaky Feelings

In 1981, Christchurch record store manager Roger Shepherd launched Flying Nun, a label that was to change the face of the NZ music industry forever. Among the labels first signings was Dunedin Band Sneaky Feelings, a guitar driven rock/pop ensemble who featured on the labels second release, The Dunedin EP. They went on to record 3 albums for the Flying Nun- Send You in 1983, Sentimental Education 1986 and 1988s Hard Love Stories.

Sentimental Education was an anomaly for a label that had built an international reputation for its lo-fi alternative sound. Multi-layered and finely crafted, the album was a critical and commercial failure that earned the ire of the godfather of the Flying Nun scene Toy Loves Chris Knox who told the band – “I’ve heard your album, and it stinks”. Knox believed that Sneaky Feelings brand of “bland and wimpy soft rock” had no place on the label. But he completely missed the point.

Label mate The Verlaine’s Graeme Downes remembers: “To like the Sneaky’s you had to appreciate the songs first and foremost and had to be prepared to forego all the other aspects that are usually the hallmark of the successful rock and roll package.”

Sneaky Feeling took their name from an Elvis Costello song and drew their influence from artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach, 60s soul, Fairport Convention, the Kinks, the Hollies, Motown and The Beatles, Dave Brubeck and Tom Verlaine.

The players were David Pine (vocals, guitar), Martin Durrant (vocals, drums), John Kelcher (vocal and bass ) and Matthew Bannister (vocals, guitar), who writes in his book Positively George Street, a biographical history of Flying Nun:

We were a bunch of wooses, wimps, tossers, MOR bourgeois-buggering pop-picking schlock-sucking wet-as-wankers. We liked pop music.

Bannister was 17 when his family migrated from Dunblane Scotland to Dunedin NZ, and he came ashore with a dream, to score a recording contract and make finely crafted and heartfelt albums like the ones that had thus far inspired him. He didn’t have to wait long finding himself at the right place in the right time as he did.

While the first Sneaky’s album, Send You, was largely a David Pine driven affair, the next album was Bannister’s baby. The band had taken on Jeremy Freeman as their manager. A sharp operator, he had secured the band a series of lucrative gigs which allowed them a healthy recording budget for their next album, Sentimental Education.

The album was recorded at Mascot Studios in Auckland and cost $13,000, a considerable sum of money for a local indie band at the time. It took two weeks to record with a few extra days for mixing. It was recorded by Victor Grbic with some assistance from Phil Yule.

Bannister: “We didn’t want it to be like Send You which was basically recorded live over a 3 day period. We wanted to take a little more time and move away from that albums guitar driven sound. We also wanted expand our musical pallet with the addition of brass, piano and violins.”

In particular the band were keen to add a Hammond organ to their sound. Finding the synthesiser organs unsatisfactory they set about seeking out the real thing  which they borrowed for the duration of the recording process. The Hammond added its particular gift of melody and harmony to the Sneaky’s sound, allowing the band to fully flesh out the ‘rousing’ emotional notes that are a hallmark of Sentimental Education.

Bannister: “We wanted to pursue a layered recorded process, building up the tracks rather than banging them out. We wanted to experiment, and like the Beatles, we wanted to progress rather than make the same music over and over.”

At the time the band was listening to Burt Bacharach and wanted emulate the sophisticated arrangements and unusual time signatures that were a hallmark of his music.

Sentimental Education wasn’t at all what Flying Nun fans were expecting. Bannister: “The main movement then in alternative music was toward loud and nasty and the Sneaky’s were moving away from that.”

Well received overseas, especially by the English music press, the reaction back home was “cool” to say the least. Bannister: “It was disappointing for the band but we were artists who weren’t afraid to experiment and we couldn’t expect everything we did to be successful. One of the things about Sentimental Education was that I wrote most of the material, it was a heavy burden for me and because it didn’t go down well with our audience I took it rather hard, but I dealt with it as you do. It seemed that people preferred David’s stuff to mine.”

As for me, I was 24 years old when Sentimental Education came out, the same age as Matthew, and we shared, as I learned through the course of our interview, a remarkably similar taste in music which I guess accounts for my continued attraction to the album. Back in the day I was a staunch supporter of local music and spent all my spare cash on every new release. I loved what I was hearing but nothing touched me in the way that the Sneaky’s music did. Sentimental Education was a complex record of seriously emotive pop songs that appealed to my musical sensibilities. I played it over and over and knew every song by heart.

As for the Sneaky’s, they made one more album in 1989 but by then they had run out of steam. For an epilogue I return to Bannister’s book Positively George Street:

It wasn’t a very Beatles ending. There was no messy divorce. No one sued anyone. David [Pine, singer-songwriter with Sneaky Feelings] and I didn’t exchange put-downs on vinyl. Our record company didn’t drop us, but then they had never really taken us on in the first place. It was more like the Transit van on the road between Dunedin andTimaru, coasting to a standstill in the silent landscape.

Bannister continued making music with his bands The Dribbling Darts of Love and The Weather and continues to do so with The Changing Same and as a solo artist – One Man Bannister. He also did a stint with Muttonbirds. These days he works as a thesis supervisor at the Media Arts Department at WINTEC in Hamilton.

Pine spent some time with Dunedin band Death Ray Cafe and is currently NZs High Commissioner to Malaysia.

Kelcher played in The South Tonight and recently stood as a Green Party candidate for the Christchurch seat of Ilam and as for Martin Durrant? He graduated University with a Phd, that’s all I know.

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