Graeme Downes and Mathew Bannister – Unsung Godfathers of the Modern New Zealand Music Scene.

In the early 1980s I was listening to The Verlaines, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Sneaky Feelings, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Split Enz, The Swingers and Mike Nesmith and while they all eventually drifted from the forefront of my musical palate I never forgot the joy of these formative music discovery years.

Those sparkling melodic memories are burned into my psyche and all that has required for them to reappear was the right set of circumstances. In the case of The Verlaines it was seeing a vinyl reissue of their first album 1985s Hallelujah All The Way Home on display in a record store in 2016.

 

With a cover that re-imagines the band in iconography from the Middle Ages this LP is especially beautiful in the way that CDs can never be and seeing it again bought back memories of its treasured place in my collection and over the next few weeks bits and pieces of tracks I hadn’t heard or thought of for years started popping into my mind from the mysterious ether, ear-worming me in the most delightful of ways.

For a while I was such a fan of The Verlaines that I even went to see them play live and I hate live gigs. It was at Mainstreet in Auckland and what I remember most was Graeme Downs breaking a series of guitar strings and slowing up proceedings as he stopped, sometimes mid-song, to thread a new one. I don’t know if he was having a bad day, nervous or playing true to form, but he was testing the limits of the guitar and the audience. I decided I needed to hear some actual Verlaines for real and discovered a nice cache of material at the Auckland Central Library. The album I selected was called Untimely Meditations (2012).

Almost three decades years after his professional debut, Verlaines muse and leader  Downes has mellowed not at all. Imagine a swath cut from the last 100 years of musical history referenced and archived in a twisted lucid dream. This is Untimely Meditations – an alchemical soup that defies easy categorisation but here is a hint a what I was I was hearing: The Who, Television, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Coltrane, Fela Kuti, Gil Scott Heron, the Brill Building, Beefheart, The Velvet Underground and Fripp.

Perceived influences aside, Downes is a true original. His melodic structures and arrangements are like nothing else under Kiwi sun, edgy and angular affairs that serve to challenge, confound and thrill the listener at any given moment. In the decades since the Verlaines debut album Hallelujah All The Way Home, Downes has added horns, organ and strings to the original mix of bass, guitars and drums and the result is intoxicating.

Age has not diminished Downe’s fire; it has improved it, taming the wildness, focusing it into rare heat. Once this fire melted iron ore, now it’s the kind of fire that makes glass, that delicate reflective substance with the ability to contain the world in its shifting light. The good news is that a new album is due to be released sometime in 2017.

 

The Verlaines ‘It Was Raining’ from Hallelujah All The Way Home (1985)

Sneaky Feelings: Coming True from Sentimental Education (1986)

 

This brings me around to The Verlaines long time associates and former Flying Nun stable mates Sneaky Feelings. The Sneaky’s and Verlaines were among the influential labels first signings and spent a lot of time together on the road and in the studio and though their sound and styles were very different, in their first recordings (The Dunedin Double EP), you can hear the two bands feeding off each other.

While the friendship between the acts remained strong, artistically they were destined for different paths and by the time of their respective debut albums, that difference was well apparent. The Verlaines were an alternative rock band with progressive overtones, The Sneaky’s were a classic pop and soul band with that drew from influences as diverse Motown, Gram Parsons, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles.

The bands 1986 album the Bacharachian Sentimental Education was a lush and melodic affair that appealed to my sensibilities so perfectly that I wore out my first copy. Playing it over and over on my cheap stereo, I was trying to graft something of what I was hearing into my own song writing style and listening back to my own recordings made around that time, I succeeded, but like everything I was drawing from back then, The Sneaky’s faded from view as new interests caught my attention.

The Weather: Aroha Ave from Aroha Ave (2008)

 

In 2012, the Sneaky’s, somewhat indistinct in my musical memory, came bursting back into my life in the most unexpected of ways. I was working behind the counter at a Hamilton DVD store called Auteur House, an oddball affair that catalogued its movies by director, when a customer bought an empty case up to the counter for retrieval. He was a shambling figure with greying hair and sporting a visibility jacket, one that made me wonder if he had spent the day operating a roadside stop/go sign, (he was in fact a safety conscious cyclist).

Processing his request into the computer I asked for his name as per standard procedure. “Matthew Bannister,” he replied, “The Matthew Bannister from Sneaky Feelings?” I asked, “Yes” he said. Then for whatever reason I said, “You got old,” a rather absurd statement bearing in mind that we were the same age. He looked back at me like a possum caught in headlights so I hastily took his money before attempting some kind of redemptive statement. I wanted to say how much I admired his music but it came out garbled and still looking like a possum caught in headlights he grabbed his movie and fled the shop.

I bumped into him again two years later at the home of a mutual friend. We were drinking beer, smoking pot and listening to music when in ambled Matthew who was in fine form. He spent the evening bouncing about the room while we swapped tracks and talked philosophy and music history. We parted friends and have been ever since.

Like Downes, Bannister has maintained an impressive output of music over the years demonstrating continued growth as a musician/songwriter. As a solo artist and a member of various bands, his songs reflect his fear, rage, disappointments and efforts to wrest happiness from life’s shifting tides. The result is music whose delicious melodies and playful arrangements belie their dark acerbic underbelly and impending sense of tragedy.

The good news for fans is that the Sneaky Feelings have reunited and have recording new material (due for release in 2017). Nice except that Bannister barely needs them. With albums like The Weather’s Aroha Ave – produced by the legendary Ed Cake, anything from the Dribbling Darts and his own solo efforts, the albums Moth and Evolver, (a gobsmackingly good reimagining of the Beatles Revolver album) and his current squeeze The Changing Same, Bannister’s post Sneaky’s career speaks for itself, describing a unique musical voice with a legacy any songwriter would be proud of.

Like Downes, Bannister has proven himself over and over to hardly anyone and the time is long overdue for both musicians to be honoured in some way by the local musical community for their efforts. Both are unique writers who must rank among the nations best if not among the best sellers and lets face it, if they were operating in a larger market, say France, Germany, Britain or the USA, they would probably be making a living from their craft.

This is tiny isolated NZ where their minority appeal means that they are mostly destined to work on the shop floor during the day, dreaming of the music they might make when get home as time, energy and hard won finances allow. I don’t know Downes except as a distant semi-mythological figure but I do know Bannister – a warm, caring and slightly eccentric character for whom I wish nothing but the best.

The Changing Same: Make Up My Mind (2014)

 

The Verlaines: AWCWD from Dunedin Spleen (2016)

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