Auckland post-punk band This Sporting Life has just released a collection of songs recorded between 1980 and 1983. Kiran Dass spoke to bassist Ben Hayman about the project.
They've gone through a few name changes: Arms for Children, Alms for Children and This Sporting Life, and played around Auckland with like-minded groups Children's Hour, Herco Pilots and Nocturnal Projections. Formed in late 1979 on Auckland's North Shore, which co-founding member and bass player Ben Hayman describes as “fairly boring” at the time, the group of four friends grew up on a steady diet of imported post-punk records, NME and Barry Jenkins' ZM All Nighter radio show.
A new and extensive remastered CD compilation AFC on Failsafe Records (a label named after the b-side of This Sporting Life's first 7” 'Danny Boy' so it was meant to be) collects a staggering 24 tracks, eight of which are live. Bringing together material from 1982 LP Show Me to the Bellrope and 1983 EP In Limbo, both originally released on Flying Nun Records, the compilation has been four years in the making.
While it had been around 25 years since some of the group – Hayman, joined by Paul Fogarty (guitar), Gary Charlton (vocals), and Daron Johns (drums) with soundperson Simon Shanahan as a kind of fifth member - had even spoken to each other, with members now living in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, they re-connected and set about putting the compilation together.
Initially calling themselves Arms for Children after Hayman and Fogarty noticed a warning “Harmful to Children' on the back of a medicine bottle, the group eventually settled on the name This Sporting Life after the song by DIY art-rock group The Mekons.
“We were pretty besotted with The Mekons and the sound and approach they had,” says Hayman.
As young men growing up in Springbok tour era New Zealand, Hayman says they were identifying themselves by what culture they couldn't relate to.
“At that time there was a lot of change in the air in New Zealand. There was domestic reflection of what it meant to be New Zealanders. There were lots of question marks. As young people we were pretty clear on the things we didn't identify with. So it was much clearer to us what we didn't like.”
“So when post-punk emerged and it was very much about being oppositional and being on the edge, it really suited us.”
Hayman says the group shifted from the name Arms for Children to Alms for Children when they noticed a mounting violence at their shows.
“We were getting a little bit grumpy and we just wanted to distance ourselves from aspects of that kind of violent angle. Already, we'd done a few gigs where there had been fantastic artwork (on gig posters) but there were guns on them, and you know, 'Arms for Children' and it was like, 'what are we actually saying with that name?'.”
It was being exposed to groups like Wire, The Fall (who the group supported in Auckland and Christchurch in 1982) and Captain Beefheart that initially made the group feel like they could have a crack at making music, too. “Also, music was the most accessible form of art we could make. And we've never really been 'musicians' and I think probably still today we know just as little about how to play 'technically' as we did then.”
Alms for Children/This Sporting Life has a bare, brittle and spiky sound, which developed into a louder, more dense sound as they progressed. It wasn't unusual for the group to simply come up with a song at soundcheck then play it at a show that same night.
“We were really hooked into the idea of simply sound-checking or rehearsing and coming up with a riff and just stretching that riff out. Just really obsessively playing that riff over and over. Repetitious, but always just putting more tension in it between us then laying some words across the top of it. Those riffs were just tumbling out.”
Hayman says minimalism and removing all flourish was important to the group, to focus on “a really angular sound”, which avoided distortion or any effects that masked sounds. Hearing other groups like Delta 5 and the Au Pairs inspired them to turn the bass right up. “It was that kind of fusion of the punk ideas but with a funk sensibility and without the pretension,” he says.
“I think 'musicianship' was always a thing that we felt slightly suspicious of. And yeah, really in awe of as well, but it wasn't about being musicians, it was about making noise together and finding our own weird language of collaboration.”
Despite this rejection of traditional approaches to music-making, their single 'Danny Boy' featured in the NZ Top 50 charts. “Outrageous! Nobody was more shocked than us,” Hayman laughs.
“We always had an uncomfortable relationship with that song, and we still do. We're all a little bit sheepish about it. And that's not because it charted. I think it's just because it's more of a “song.” But people loved it when we played it live and that was cool.”
You can hear a kind of nervy tension in some of the compilation's live recordings. Gang members were frequenting gigs and contributed to a volatile atmosphere.
“I remember as a young man, being intimidated quite often by all of that, and feeling very uncomfortable with it. There was a lot of gang faction stuff happening in Auckland. We had friends that were well-connected with some of those factions and that helped is to not be a target,” says Hayman.
“I do recall some gigs, where depending on how chemically altered various members of the gangs were, they would either be your friend or your foe. And you couldn't tell. That was why it was a bit unpredictable and scary.”
Hayman says he is thrilled to have re-connected with his bandmates. “We're on four different land masses but I don't rule out the fact we might convince ourselves that it'd be smart to play in front of people. But it's going to take a bit of time to organise!”