22 Aug 2018

Christchurch musician Roy Montgomery on his latest album Suffuse

From RNZ Music, 9:56 am on 22 August 2018

Roy Montgomery is a NZ guitarist more well known in international cult music circles than in his hometown of Christchurch. While his output is sporadic, his contribution to our musical landscape is vast and influential. Kiran Dass speaks to her underground hero about his latest work. 

Roy Montgomery

Roy Montgomery Photo: Maeve Montgomery-McCarthy

Looking over Roy Montgomery's discography from his first record – 1981's Ambivalence 7” with The Pin Group (Flying Nun Records' first ever release) – to his solo work, one thing that stands out is that while Montgomery is often referred to as a solo artist, he has always collaborated in one way or another with other musicians.

The Port Hills musician's new record Suffuse – on Brooklyn's Grapefruit Record Club label, is a collection of six tracks, which features Montgomery on guitar accompanied by a different female vocalist on each song, singing words penned by him.

The collaborators – Grouper's Liz Harris, Julianna Barwick, Katie Von Schleicher, Circuit des Yeux's Haley Fohr and Jessica Larrabee of She Keeps Bees, are mostly from the United States, apart from Coromandel's Purple Pilgrims.

All of them are unique vocalists that each lend a different quality to the track they contribute to while being sensitive to Montgomery's style. Despite having a distinctive and striking singing style which perfectly compliments his lush atmospheric guitar pieces, Montgomery is a self-described reluctant singer. So what was it like for him to hear other singers interpret his words?

Roy Montgomery in younger years

Roy Montgomery in younger years Photo: supplied

“Very strange. I think I'm just going by the aural quality and I'm thinking 'wow, you know, this is what a real song sounds like when someone who can sing comes in and does a vocal track and wow, they've got great voices'. I'm still in that slightly stunned state,” he says.

“I mean, there are no real comparisons but if you imagine a very, very, very poor man's Burt Bacharach, that's what it felt like. You know, he can't sing, but he can write songs that are credible when other people sing them.”

Montgomery isn't giving himself enough credit. He may be reluctant but he is a superb singer. He says that while collaboration is not his main way of working, it provides an interesting counterpoint to working alone.

“Some people don't ever work alone, they can only work in the context of being in a band, or in some sort of team. But I can function in both worlds and I think it's often good to step out of the interior world of your own work and just throw your lot in with what someone else is doing sometimes.”

Montgomery's previous release, 2016's epic four-LP set of records RMHQ is a collection broken down into four 'quarters' or moods: songs with vocals in one quarter, filmic pieces, noisy pieces, and then more conceptual works. Suffuse could be seen as a further exploration of employing vocals.

The idea for the Suffuse project initially came about around the time of RMHQ when Ben Goldberg at Grapefruit Record Club suggested prefacing the release with other people covering the songs with vocals from the Tropic of Anodyne record from RMHQ.

“I shuddered when I heard that because I hadn't written them with anybody else singing them in mind. But he had already reeled off some names of people that he thought would be good.”

While Montgomery wasn't familiar with most of the artists Goldberg suggested, he did some digging, listened to their material and set about either using existing pieces he thought would suit them or writing something new. The resulting album Suffuse is a sensational deep listen of spectral widescreen soundscapes. 

In addition to The Pin Group, Montgomery's other previous groups include The Shallows, Dadamah, Torlesse Supergroup and a solo recording career that spans over twenty-three years of deep mood pieces. With all of Montgomery's work, there is a real sense of space where “less is more", which lends a kind of directness, intimacy and immediacy.

Roy Montgomery

Roy Montgomery Photo: supplied

Born in England, Montgomery lived in Cologne, Germany, until moving with his family to Christchurch by the time he was five years old. He has largely remained based in or around Christchurch, particularly the Port Hills. It's hard to imagine his immersive and atmospheric sonic pieces being created anywhere but there. Montgomery agrees that the landscape has a major impact on his work.

“I think it's something to do with the isolation. It might have something to do with being an immigrant as well. Because you don't take anything for granted. And for me, when I was younger, my opportunities to get into the backcountry and travel were very limited. I didn't really start seeing parts of New Zealand outside of say, Christchurch or Wellington until I got a driver's license, and that was at 15. And I literally didn't look back.”

“And most of those places were remote. Places you couldn't get to easily. And I think that's what you do when it's not your home in the first place. You acclimatise, you absorb, and you look at things through slightly different eyes,” he says.

The places Montgomery says had an impact on him were remote areas with “a lot of sky, a lot of mountains, a lot of openness. Places that seem to me to be calmer. Even when the weather's rough. There's a sense of calm".

“A great place for a philosopher, this country. A terrible place if you aren't comfortable with your own thoughts. You know, and I mean that. I'm not being flippant. It's a hard place to live if you aren't at home with your own mind,” he adds.

Montgomery isn't mucking around. Hot on the heels of Suffuse, plans are already underway for a re-issue of Dadamah's 1992 album This is Not a Dream and an album of new material Audiotherapy set for 2020.

“I mean, the labels could always say 'no thanks, you've had your time'. Right now, I just need to make sure I don't lose momentum while I've got it. I mean, I'm quite happy to stop if I run out of ideas. And I hope I tell myself that before someone else has to tell me. But you never know! You never know when it's come...”

Suffuse is out now through Grapefruit Record Club

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