2 Jan 2022

The Dunedin Sound with Stephen Kilroy

From The Weekend , 11:28 am on 2 January 2022

The ‘Dunedin Sound’ - characterised by jangling guitars and indistinct vocals - is still winning over music fans around the world.

New Zealanders should be proud of the originality of the South Island city's distinct and original musical heritage, says sound engineer Stephen Kilroy.

Dunedin Sound posters in the Hocken Collection.

Dunedin Sound posters in the Hocken Collection. Photo: Supplied

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Dunedin sound engineer Stephen Kilroy

Dunedin sound engineer Stephen Kilroy Photo: Stephen Kilroy / Facebook

With their proto-punk ethos and psychedelic guitar work, ‘Dunedin Sound’ bands like Toy Love and The Chills forged a style that attracted a dedicated college radio fan base in the States.

In the 1980s, Dunedin became a mecca for indie-pop followers and Stephen Kilroy – who's also a musician, artist and stonemason – was one of the key players in the scene.

The city's cultural and geographical isolation,  including from the punk capital of Auckland, meant Dunedin artists forged their own unique blend of innovation and authenticity, he says.

“You really had to make a pilgrimage to get to Dunedin and early on promoters that promoted The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reid, The Dudes even came here. It was just so far removed from anywhere else.

"Dunedin has always had a crisis of identity because it’s got the Scottish heritage and it’s always looking to that place that’s overseas. And it had done it for so long... the place had sort of caved in on itself."

'Dunedin Sound' musicians created their own path to music and cultural success – hiring old halls for gigs when they had no other venue.

“The Clean and Chris Knox really taught us the do-it-yourself ethos – you hire the hall, you put on the gig, you do all the promotion yourself and you get all the money yourself at the end of it.”

The Clean, formed in 1978, are considered the most influential Dunedin group signed to the independent record label Flying Nun, which was based in Christchurch though synonymous with the 'Dunedin Sound'.

“The Clean were front and centre, people have referenced then... Nirvana even mentioned them, Pavement mention them. Rolling Stone did a thing on independent music in the world, albeit known as indie pop, and right in the centre of the whole thing, it was like a family tree, there was The Clean.

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“Of course, they were the forerunners of the second wave – Chris [Knox] with Toy Love and Tall Dwarfs. They kind of paved the way, because that Toy Love thing with (the 1979 single) Rebel / Squeeze, showed everyone in Dunedin that someone from here could actually make a [hit] record. Before that, it was like this impossible dream that only people from other places made it. So the international success that came – Chris going over to Australia with Toy Love, Jane Walker and Paul Kean… they came back all disillusioned with what they’d been told had been the right thing.”

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Kilroy says 'Dunedin Sound' was a useful moniker, but there was much variety among the artists in that scene.

“There were several things in the myth about how it came about… For a great musical culture to exist, you need good practice spaces, cheap rents, good record shops and a good music shop and that creates the community. So the 'Dunedin Sound' become a thing that people could put in a record bin and it became a moniker. It was journalistic laziness as well, because you compare Sneaky Feelings to Snapper both beside each other in the record bin, but they’re a million miles away from each other in terms of their sound. So, it was a convenient moniker, but then again, with the Liverpool sound they probably went through the same thing. Gerry and the Pacemakers were not all that different from The Beatles, but there were certainly other things happening there that were different.”

Today's bands can learn from the influence of The Chills' 1984 single 'Pink Frost', he says.

“The first people to really go out were The Chills… and 'Pink Frost' become a sort of iconic trend. [English rock band] House of Love covered 'Pink Frost' and John Peel rated [The Chills]. Iggy Pop famously said, after playing 'Pink Frost', "a finer piece of art you will never hear anywhere else in the world". They were definitely referenced, so really influential.

“We can be proud of those people because it’s our own, as much as we should be proud of Māori music as well, because it’s our own. It uniquely comes from here and I say to people constantly, 'Don't be a copy of something overseas, we’ve already got that. Be unique, be your own thing and that’s what will make you great. They don’t want another Beatles or another Talking Heads, be something new.”

The popularity of the Dunedin Sound was helped along with the founding of the University of Otago radio station Radio 1.

New Zealand's commercial radio stations barely featured any local music until a voluntary quota of 10 percent was introduced in 2002, Kilroy says.

“Radio 1 was a brilliant thing because it started playing New Zealand music.

“New Zealand music was ignored. We had to fight so hard. New Zealand music never got on to the radio. It was never played, it was always considered not commercial, not well-recorded enough. They are just simple throwaway things, but Radio 1 came along and of course, we had Radio 1 put on end-of-year gigs, so they supported us through those ways.

“[Radio 1] were instrumental in making the whole scene take off. If you think of Flying Nun, about '81 to '85 was the first period. [1985] was just when student radio was taking place. You then had that second wave, which was like Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, Straightjacket Fits, Outer Space. That was when they really got traction, both nationally and internationally. And it was mostly from the support of the student radio network, the BFMs of this world.”

The heyday of Dunedin music was the mid-to-late 1980s, although music in the style is still being recorded and released, Kilroy says.

In 1989, he set up a recording studio in part to help raise the quality of local music.

“The recording process... was you’d do usually an orientation tour, wind up in Auckland, have to produce an EP or LP in two-to-three weeks because of studio times and how much studios actually cost…and if you were off, you’d make a terrible record and you were stuck with it.

“My idea was you give it more time and you gave the musicians a comfortable environment. I had clients who came from Germany and overseas and they looked at Fifth Street and said ‘you do it in this?’ We’d agree on the price and we wouldn’t count the hours. The most significant thing was in about 1991 I took on David Houston, who was a fabulous engineer. Our agreement was, if we stopped being friends we’d end the partnership because our friendship was greater than that. He was the right person… he just did a fabulous job.”

Take in the Sun, a 1997 track by Bike, is a song most people believe typifies the 'Dunedin Sound', Kilroy says.

“It’s Andrew Brough post-Straitjacket Fits outfit. It’s what people would typically call the Dunedin Sound and Andrew was such an amazing songwriter, beautiful singer.”

Brough had been part of the scene centred around The Empire - a venue and social hub for many musicians.

“After Straitjacket Fits, he was a certain little dark cloud that was always in the back bar of The Empire with a bottle of wine and a few stories… It was the back pool bar of The Empire, which was kind of like a hang-out place in the late '90s for Dunedin musicians, a glorified clubhouse… Our buddies were running a bar, which was sometimes not the best thing to have available to drunken Dunedin musicians but it was a fine time.”