Nick Bollinger discusses the rhythms, rants and recent releases of Wellington-based independent musician Mr Sterile.
Here’s an act that has travelled as far and wide and played to audiences as diverse as any band from this country ever has – though that hardly means Mr Sterile is a household name.
Mr Sterile is the performing alias of Kieran Monaghan: drummer, vocalist, occasional bassist, guitarist, and – for these particular recordings – virtually everything else as well.
Monaghan has been performing under the Mr Sterile banner since around the turn of this century, often in collaboration with his partner Chrissie Butler.
There’s a high level of theatricality about what they do. Their stage costumes are like some mash-up between Bride Of Frankenstein and early Split Enz. At times they incorporate other musicians as well. These larger aggregations are known as Mr Sterile Assembly. Otherwise it’s simply Mr Sterile, which is the case with two new releases, which are essentially Monaghan solo works - though that doesn’t mean they are not packed to the gunnels with sound.
The music might not conform to any old-school punk-rock rulebook, still there is a punk impulse behind it - perhaps politically even more than sonically. The lyrics are like wake-up calls; warnings of the various mechanisms and instruments of oppression that threaten our lives.
But there is a satirical as well as a sinister side to the Mr Sterile aesthetic, which you’ll find everywhere from the lyrics to the handmade packaging. Sacred cows and self-congratulation are prime targets. The first of these two recent releases is called The General Pathetic, with both its title and graphics parodying a well-known Kiwi rock classic.
Monaghan’s primary instrument is the drums and this music comes at you rhythm-first. Those rhythms can be layered and complex, as in the industrial waltz of ‘Cast Adrift’, or furious and combatant - try 'Kraschenbanger's Return'. At other times the effect is almost folky ('Setting Fire To Bob').
The General Pathetic was actually recorded about six years ago, though it has only just been mastered, and is the more lo-fi of the two new releases.
The other album - Haters, Wreckers and Other Friends – is a bit more sonically refined, though sheer ferociousness isn’t compromised. This is music with a lot of sharp edges that seems to combine the sonic force of Fugazi with the angular rhythms of Captain Beefheart. Chimes of gamelan deepen the textures. Tracks like 'Would We Be Alive' imply a spiky kind of funk.
A third new release, also from Mr Sterlie’s label Skirted Records, could be heard as the antidote to the other two. It certainly makes for a study in contrasts.
Two Hands Twice comes out under the name DSLB (that stands for Ditsy Squalls Lunch Box) the alias of Mr Sterile Assembly bassist Chrissie Butler, and consists simply of five instrumentals played on a wheezy old pump organ. These are minimal and meditative. Built around single note drones in no discernable tempo over which harmonies are very slowly added and subtracted, it is like music in slow motion. The song of a glacier, or an organic, handmade version of Eno’s ambient music.
After listening for a while my nervous system seemed to settle to where just the addition of a second note became a momentous event. But sometimes the organ is joined by unidentified rattles and bangs – it might be a washing machine in the next room - and something almost akin to a groove enlivens the drone.
With these three releases out in the world, Mr Sterile Assembly are heading back on the road soon, premiering some brand new material. In the past they have toured extensively through South East Asia and Eastern Europe, places few New Zealand bands have ever set foot. But this midwinter jaunt takes them to Christchurch, Dunedin an Invercargill.
Catch them if you can. There’s nothing else like it.
Mr Sterile Assembly – Thursday 7 June, The Darkroom, Christchurch; Friday 8 June, Dunedin Musician’s Club, Dunedin; Saturday 9 June, Southland Musicians Club, Invercargill.