Matthew Bannister (born 1962) arrived in Dunedin with an itch. His head was filled with dreams of The Beatles, The Kinks and Fairport Convention and a vague notion of making music like they did, big bold albums defined by great playing and lofty musical experiments, songs drenched with harmony sitting atop soaring melodies and chorus’s that hooked and wouldn’t let go. Fortunately for Matthew he was at exactly the right place and time because a musical revolution was about to sweep over Dunedin that would make that kind of dream possible for those so inclined.
Scotsman Bannister is 17 years old and swimming the unfamiliar cultural waters of Otago Boys High. On his way to join the schools guitar club he walks into David Pine. Pine points to Bannister’s guitar case and they start talking music. Inspired they are spurred into action decide to form a band but first Pine needs to learn the guitar so while that is happening Bannister joins an established covers band called Feedback. While the music is not exactly Bannister’s thing, he finds in bands leader Gavin Keen something of a mentor and in the band a suitable education.
A little while later Bannister and Pine, now studying at Otago University, put together a band called itself Sneaky Feelings. On a trip to Christchurch they come to the attention of Roger Sheppard who invites them to record for his fledgling Flying Nun label. They contribute to the labels legendary 1982 Dunedin Double E.P (alongside The Clean, The Verlaines and The Stones) and over the following 6 years record and release 6 singles and 3 albums of original material. Of the three albums it is 1986’s ‘Sentimental Education’ that gives us the best portrait of Bannister as the young artist, songwriter/arranger.
The bands first LP 1983’s ‘Send You’ had been driven by David Pine and was a great success both commercially and critically. For album number two Pine stepped back and Bannister up. Contributing half the songs, drafting the arrangements and directing recording process, this was Bannister’s baby.
Drawing deeply from his love of sophisticated pop music, this album was less Beatles (Bannister’s musical touchstone) and more Burt Bacharach, a composer Bannister had long admired and whose style had coloured Bannister’s musical palette as much as anything he had taken to heart. The Bacharachian influence abounds throughout ‘Sentimental Education’, an affair filled out with strings, brass, lush harmonies and Hammond organ, it was more Brill Building than Flying Nun and in that context went down like a lead balloon with many of the labels inner circle who had nothing but contempt for The Sneaky’s thoughtful and ‘wet’ approach to music.
Chris Knox (the labels conscience and spiritual leader) famously said to the band of the album as it was being prepared for release “I’ve heard your album and it sucks.” This statement combined with poor sales and middling reviews (from the local press, the British and European press were more enthusiastic) stalked Bannister for a long time after reinforcing his doubts and uncertainties and confirming his belief that the audience preferred Pines words and melodies to his own. Bannister took it hard.
Sneaky Feeling: Husband House
History has been much kinder to ‘Sentimental Education’ and for other Bannister penned Sneaky’s songs notably ‘Husband House’ which the subject of a loving article written by Canvas Magazines deputy editor Greg Dixon. The album has been written about a number of times over the years by a variety of people who had fallen in love with it when it was released and had never quite gotten over it.
I was one of those and in 2015 tracked Bannister down and recorded an Audio Documentary with him that explored the album’s creation and aftermath. After we had finished the documentary I asked Matthew what he had been doing since The Sneaky’s parked the van up in 1989. He pulled out his i-Pod and over a few beers dazzled me with tracks from his post-Sneaky’s catalogue.
The Sneaky’s last hurrah was a rather desultory 1989 European adventure that left Bannister washed up in Rennes France, broke, bereft and alone. He limped back to NZ and got a job at the Auckland University Library where he met multi-instrumentalist Alice Bulmer and found a new lease on life.
Alice replaced David Pine as Matthew’s main muse and together with Alan Gregg they formed The Dribbling Darts of Love, later shortened to the Dribbling Darts (Bannister, a Shakespearian scholar, lifted the name from the great mans play ‘Measure for Measure’). Between 1989 and 1993 The Darts released two albums, 2 E.Ps (through Flying Nun) and scored a minor chart hit with their 1999 single ‘Hey Judith’.
The Dribbling Darts Of Love: Hey Judith
The Dribbling Darts faded and music generally took a backseat as Bannister and Bulmer focused their attention on raising and supporting a family. Over the next few years Bannister worked as a journalist/music reviewer, checked the accuracy of crossword puzzles for the Women’s Weekly and sub-edited at Rip It Up, scrapping together a living however and wherever he could.
In the mid-1990’s Bannister decided to write a book about the Sneaky’s and get some stuff of his chest while setting the record straight. “I felt we were being written out of the label’s history and indeed out of indie history, for example our non-appearance in various articles about Flying Nun, in indie discographies, in local rock polls and worst of all, our exclusion from 1991 Flying Nun 10 year retrospective Getting Older”.
‘Positively George Street’ was published and released in 1999 to rave reviews. Part musical autobiography part historical account it examines place and time with irony, humour and at times a measured but withering acerbic fire that is squarely aimed at Bannister’s critics within Flying Nun, notably Chris Knox. There is a strong case for marking ‘Positively George Street’ as one of NZ’s best musical biographies, but whatever that case, for Bannister the writing was an exorcism that put to rest the ghosts of the past.
Suitably set free Bannister returned to University to study for his PhD (in media) graduating in 2003. His thesis later appeared as his second published book ‘White Boys, White Noise: Masculinities and 1980s Guitar Rock’. He otherwise filled out the decade playing lead guitar for The Mutton Birds (1999).
13 years after the last Dribbling Darts last release Bannister, Bulmer and their new band The Weather went into the studio with producer Ed Cake. The result was ‘Aroha Ave’, a labour of love whose long gestation came close to being financially ruinous. (Bannister describes working with the obsessive Cake both as joyous and as an exasperation he would not ever care to repeat). The album was completed in 2006 did not see the light of day until 2008 by which time the Bannister’s had moved to Hamilton where Matthew had secured a job as a Thesis Supervisor at WINTEC’s Media Arts School.
With a small financial grant in hand, he had the album mastered at the WINTEC recording studio by Zed Brooks who also polished up a home made solo album called Moth (released under the moniker One Man Bannister). Both albums received startlingly good reviews and while they did not exactly reignite his career, they certainly lifted his profile.
The Weather: Aroha Ave
By this stage the various members of The Weather had dispersed about the world so Bannister set to work on a new project called The Changing Same who released their self-titled debut album in 2011. One of Bannister’s ongoing musical themes concerns ‘place’ (a theme that is partially informed by his fear of being alone and rootless) heard in tracks like the Sneaky’s ‘Husband House’, The Weathers ‘Aroha Ave’ and most recently with The Changing Same’s ‘Hillcrest’, a descriptive song of the Hamilton suburb where Bannister lives and a song that has become something of minor city anthem alongside Chris Thompson’s ‘Hamilton’ but unlike Thompson who states ‘Greatest little town in New Zealand/But I’d do any thing to get away,’ Bannister has discovered a convivial and easy going city that suits both his needs and temperament. *(Hamilton has produced two musicians named Chris Thompson. The one mentioned here is a folk singer, not the one who became vocalist for Manfred Mann).
The Changing Same: Make Up My Mind
In 2013 Bannister watched with interest as his students tackled a recording project where they were assigned classic albums and asked to re-record them. One of the albums was The Beatles ‘Revolver’ which proved too difficult for those concerned and was abandoned but not before it had set Bannister’s creative mind into motion.
He decided to have a crack at it himself and the result was released later that year on Powertool Records to universal acclaim. Peaking at number 16 on the national album charts, One Man Bannister’s ‘Evolver’ became his most successful post Sneaky’s endeavour, both critically and commercially.
Bannister: “You release something original and the response is ‘Ho Hum’ but then you say ‘I have reinterpreted the Beatles’ and everyone is interested.” The irony has not escaped an artist who has long struggled for recognition but there was an upside. On the back of that success he was approached by boutique German cassette label Thokei Tapes who released the third One Man Bannister album ‘Birds and Bees’ in 2015.
One Man Bannister: Tomorrow Never Knows (Evolver)
Bannister played ‘Evolver’ in its entirety at the 2104 Hamilton Gardens Festival accompanied by a band and a 12-piece string section. I was a little late arriving for the performance but as I walked up the hill toward the outdoor show I was struck by the lush rich sound drifting through the warm Hamilton night.
By the time I arrived on the scene the audience was lapping up the magic Bannister was conjuring. He was mesmerising, a towering figure belting out the tunes of his youth, the very songs that had set him his musical course so many decades before and you might say he had come full circle, but he hadn’t, not quite. The full circle came with the news that Sneaky Feeling had reunited and recorded an album of new material (due for release sometime in late 2016 alongside a planned re-issue of Sentimental Education).
One Man Bannister: A Boy And A Girl (The Birds and Bees)