Headless Chickens’ principal songwriter Chris Matthews joins Tony Stamp for the RNZ Music Mixtape, and reminisces about his life in music.
Headless Chickens formed in 1985, going on to become one of New Zealand's most iconic bands, with hits including 'Cruise Control', 'Gaskrankinstation' and 'George'.
One of the band's founders, and its principal singwriter Chris Matthews, joined us to choose songs and share some memories on the RNZ Music Mixtape.
Chris on the 1987 Rheineck Award which paid for the recording of their debut album Stunt Clown:
Certain members of the media weren't happy... which didn’t hurt. There were some people who pissed and moaned about the fact that we’d won and we just laughed. Controversy never hurt anything.
I’ve still got all the media from the time.
The year before they gave it to Ardijah. Which was a great choice, they were a great band. The next year they gave it to us, and people who thought it was going to go to another accessible funk-pop band got a bit upset.
But we went on to become an accessible funk-pop band, so therein is the irony
On New Zealand radio in the eighties:
The overwhelming ethos amongst people from commercial radio was that New Zealand music shouldn’t be played at all.
I remember when they were trying to get the quota system in place. Kim Hill was completely against it. I remember her proclaiming ‘New Zealand music doesn’t need to be on the radio’. A lot of people were saying the same thing.
When Crowded House released Don’t Dream It’s Over New Zealand Radio wouldn’t touch it. Is there a greater pop song written by a New Zealander? This is the guy from Split Enz who wrote all those amazing, catchy top 20 pop tunes and they wouldn’t play Don’t Dream It’s Over on the radio!
On creating a unique sound:
We didn’t have any constraints. I find the industry quite weird now. Even with indie bands. You get people coming over from other countries to host workshops on how to write songs.
It’s kind of like, ‘Why would you want to do that?’
I don’t get it. It’s like [musicians are being told] ‘if you want to make it somewhere else then you’ve got to sound like them’. It does not work like that.
If you want to get into the industry in another country you’ve got to sound like you don’t come from there. Lorde is a good example – she doesn’t sound like an American.
On being inspired by films:
Back in the olden days, TV One used to have a foreign cult movie night. I started watching that when I was about fourteen and saw some amazing films. Herzog films and all sorts of crazy stuff. A lot of them had an incredibly powerful effect on me.
There was a lot of alternative culture going on in New Zealand. There seems to be this myth that we were culturally isolated from the rest of the world. That’s complete bollocks. We knew everything that was going on in music and films.
On Grant Fell, the former Headless Chickens bass player who died in January:
We played music together for fourteen years, and after that, we stayed friends. I saw as much of him as possible of him in the last three years after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Grant was always up for anything. He was really into exploring things: sonically, mentally, psychically, whatever you want to call it.
I have to be honest and say in Children’s Hour and early Headless Chickens we did a lot of drugs. We were taking a lot of psychedelics. We were young and running around having a good time.
Grant was a really funny person. He had an amazingly varied amount of quite eclectic tastes and things, some of which I only found out about at the funeral service. He was an amateur ornithologist. I did not know that!
I was actually really pleased and intrigued to find out some of these things.
He always lived with such grace.
Chris’s selections for The Mixtape (one song per decade):
60s: La De Da's - 'How Is The Air Up There?'
70s: Split Enz - 'Maybe '
80s: The Gordons - 'Coal Miner's Song'
90s: Strawpeople - 'Porcelain'
00s: Humphreys & Keen - 'Bright Shining Star'
10s: Reb Fountain - 'The Arrangement'