Chris Matthews and Fiona McDonald of Headless Chickens talk to Trevor Reekie about the life and times of one of Flying Nun's most successful bands.
This interview first aired in November 2008.
Trevor Reekie: One of the things that always attracted me to the Chickens was the fact that you did use technology, which was kind of like a no-no in Flying Nun land. Who and how was technology introduced into the Chickens?
Chris Matthews: Michael Lawry [founding member and keyboardist], most definitely. He was the one with the gadgets and the affinity with playing with gadgets. I mean, I was quite happy to sit there and let him twiddle with his mini-Moog for four hours to get one sound.
[That one sound] only lasted about four seconds, you know, and he'd be going (imitates synth sounds), and I'd be going, "Yeah, yeah, that's great!". And then three hours later, it would have changed by a micro-something or whatever it was.
I also remember when you guys won the 1987 Rheineck Rock Award, which proved to be really controversial with the mainstream media. You must have laughed all the way to the recording studio.
CM: It was very controversial … And 20 years later, people would have no concept of what it [was] like to [be] attacked with such vitriol by the mainstream media.
Was it really that bad?
CM: Oh, it was terrible. There was like a three-page article in Metro Magazine that vilified us completely. I mean, they were appalled that a band like us could win something like that.
A whole bunch of people, like Paul Casserly from Strawpeople, and Graeme Humphreys [of the Able Tasmans], and a whole bunch of people actually wrote letters to Metro Magazine on our behalf, saying "You guys suck." Like, this band's actually pretty good, and they can actually sort of, kind of play their instruments, and they do write quite good songs, and ... you know. What are you talking about?
We were being described by these people at the time as two-chord punks who strangled kittens and nobody who came to our gigs ever bought drinks, because they were all on drugs. You know, obviously this was ... We probably could have sued them for libel.
Did receiving that award change your relationship with Flying Nun at all?
CM: Well, they liked us a lot more … that's probably the main reason why I entered the competition. Because we had all the songs for Stunt Clown and we wanted to record them, and Flying Nun didn't have any money
They never had any money, so the standard procedure was go and record it somewhere on a four-track or whatever, and then wait a year for it to come out. And I thought, "Bugger that."
I know it sounds kind of strange, but I actually thought that we would win, anyway.
Fiona McDonald: You did?
CM: Yes … Because that year [on the judging panel] it was Jude Anaru, ex-bFM station manager, Colin Hogg, champion of New Zealand music, and Doug Hood, who'd been our sound man ... So there [were] all these people who were our friends, and I thought, well, there's no reason why we couldn't win that...
FM: And who've got some taste in music!
Fiona, in 1989, you hooked up with Paul Casserly and Mark Tierney from Strawpeople, then you sang a Primo milk commercial, and of course the Chickens recorded a cover of the Strawpeople song, ‘Dreamchild’, which they re-named 'Juice'. How did all that lead to the invitation to join the Chickens?
FM: Well, my memory of it is that I was walking one way up Ponsonby Road, and Chris was walking down the other, and ... hey!
CM: Well, Fiona and I had known each other from years before and she used to hang around the bFM set, didn't you?
Because Michael, our keyboard player, used to work up there back in about '85 - '86. And then Paul and Mark from Strawpeople also both worked up there and had a lot to do with the place, and also recorded up there.
FM: I used to do jingles at bFM … that's kind of how my career started, is that they found out I sang.
CM: Good lord.
So you're walking down the road one day...
FM: Yeah, that's right. I was walking down the road one way, and then Chris was coming the other way, and he said, "Fiona, I was just thinking about you. I've written a song, and it's in the wrong key, and it needs a female voice anyway."
And he said, "Do you want to sing this song?", and I didn't even know what the song was, but I was such the most ridiculous Headless Chickens fan. I said, "Yes. Whatever the song is, yes."
And of course that song was ‘Cruise Control’.
FM: That song was ‘Cruise Control’. And that wasn't an invitation to join the band. That was just, do you want to come up and sing the song.
CM: Well, we never really asked anybody to join, they just sort of hung around for long enough.
At one time, you were balancing between "too alternative to be commercial" and "too commercial to be alternative". Was the band aware of the hit potential of both ‘Cruise Control’ and ‘George’, when those songs were written and recorded?
CM: No, no … the thing was ... there was no kind of plan. It was all like ... the genesis of ‘Cruise Control’ is the bassline, which Michael actually wrote from the guitar. And he always thought that he'd ripped off the main theme piece from ‘Betty Blue’, which is similar, but it's different notes.
He didn't really want to use it, and I said it would make a great bassline, and we could add this other stuff to it. So that's how that started. There was no, "Let's write a pop song, guvnor."
I figured 'George' would be, but-
FM: Did you?
CM: Yeah. But then Mushroom didn't even want to release it outside of New Zealand ... Even after it was Number One in New Zealand, they still wouldn't release it in Australia as a single.
FM: Well, Triple J loved it.
Chris, tell us about the tour you did in the UK, because you had a Number One here with ‘George’, you released Body Blow in Europe through Flying Nun, and you went on tour with Pop Will Eat Itself. What was that experience sort of about?
FM: It was awful. Look, I'll tell you why. It sounds really glamorous, right? You're going over to the UK to do a tour with Pop Will Eat Itself. Well, we were one of about three or four bands who were supporting them, and we were the first one on.
CM: Our name wasn't on any of the posters.
FM: And then you're the first band on, so there's maybe a few people in the venues. I mean, really, it was that bad.
The first place we ever played with them, I think was in Hull, which is ... talking about shitholes on the earth. Hull, right? And actually, that was the day of my birthday, which was supposed to be in Paris, but the gig got cancelled … because Pop Will Eat Itself weren't selling tickets in France.
So it was Hull instead, and I walked into this shitty little pub, and the first thing I saw was this absolutely mad junkie woman on the phone, screaming at somebody … I was sort of sitting there, and this woman’s just going off her nut. And of course it turns out that she’s Peter Perrett’s wife and manager.
This is looking good.
CM: He comes stalking out in his leopard skin coat, like, "Oi, love! What's going on? What's the problem?", and I'm like, "Oh my god! This is Spinal Tap all over again.”
The band went into a bit of a hiatus between Body Blow and your last album, Greedy, which featured the new lineup. Was that hiatus a result of burnout? Or was that record company machinations?
CM: Well, that happened with all of our records ... the first one's '88 and then, effectively, Body Blow was '91 and '93. So there's kind of like a five-year gap between each one.
So that was pretty normal, really. But no, after Fiona and Michael left, me and Grant [Fell] and Bevan [Sweeney] carried on doing stuff. And we got Angus [McNaughton], who'd been in another band called Tinnitus with Mike [Hodgson] from Pitch Black. So he was doing keyboard stuff, and then we got in Rex Visible on second guitar and backing vocals.
So we carried on working together, doing stuff, writing new songs, until all the songs from Greedy got written or worked through.
But then Grant, Angus and Rex decided it wasn't really what they wanted to do either. So I was kind of ... sitting in the demo studio going, "Okay. So it's me and the drummer then. Alright. What do I do now?"
I … got another bass player, which was another Bevan [Larsen], and at that point, I thought having two people called Bevan in the same band – this is not good. Oh, god.
No, no [but] at some point … Because bands are all about chemistry, internal chemistry. There's nothing else. You've got a group of people, and if they work together well, both personally and musically, then you can do some great stuff. But once everybody else left ... I didn't want to be a band, me and a couple of ring-ins. But that's what it ended up being.
And I just started thinking, "Oh god, I'm Martin Phillipps, and I'm in The Chills. And I've been through 18 people in the last 10 years, and I think it's probably time to stop.”
Being in a band is like being in a war sometimes, eh?
CM: Yeah. I'll tell you what it's like. It's like having five girlfriends at the same time, who all hate each other, and they all know about each other, and they're all arguing with each other, as well.
It gets crazy sometimes, but I mean, when it's good, it's great.