20 Years of Achromaticia: An Interview with Michel Rowland
HUP: Why have you decided to re-release your debut album?
Michel: Achromaticia has been physically out of print for a very long time, and interest in the album and demand for it has grown. That resurgence of interest coincides with Disjecta Membra having become a lot more visibly active in the last four years, after an extended period of silence. There were several offers from labels to reissue it in 2013-14, but our focus at that time was on recording, releasing and promoting new material. The twentieth anniversary, 2017, seemed like the obvious time to do it, and to do something a little more interesting and special than to just reissue the album alone. With a special anniversary edition of the album, there was also an opportunity there with the bonus content to release a lot of old songs and recordings that nobody has heard before. And moving forward, clearing out the attic of unreleased material also ties in closely with the band’s current focus on a steady flow of new output.
HUP: The album has been described using terms such as “seminal”, “classic”, and “legendary”. How do you feel about the album — the songs and its legacy — in 2017?
Michel: I feel a lot more comfortable, happy and at peace with the album now than I did at the time of its release. I didn’t always have a great deal of confidence in my songwriting at the time, and I’m still probably more aware than anyone else of those shortcomings, particularly from that age. There were often times during the first few years after it came out that I would look back and wish I’d done certain things a little differently. But with twenty years’ distance it’s a lot easier to look back on it fondly and accept it for what it is; I can even take some degree of pride in what the album has achieved, and continues to achieve. And of course positive response, like the sorts of appraisals that you’ve mentioned, obviously all helps to give me a broader perspective on the album than my own narrow focus. I have a much stronger appreciation for what the album has meant to other people now.
HUP: The album is being released as a 3-CD set, including the original album, along with two CDs of bonus material. What is included amongst this bonus material? Is it derived from a similar period to Achromaticia (up to 1997), or from throughout your career?
Michel: The focus is confined to the very early period in the band’s history, i.e. the period of Achromaticia – from some of our earliest garage recordings in 1994, through to the album’s release and the short New Zealand tour to promote it in 1997. So it includes some of the earliest ‘rough sketches’ and demos of songs from the album, a lot of unreleased songs from the same timeframe that never made it through to the final album sessions, one-off studio tracks that appeared on compilations, a fair bit of live material (a mix of songs from the album, unreleased songs, and a few staple cover versions from our early set), and a whole bunch of stuff like that. 1996-97 in particular was a fairly prolific period in the band’s recorded history, making it impossible to fit everything that I wanted to include onto three discs, so there’s another album-length download of rarities from the period that comes with the CD set as well.
Michel: Undoubtedly life in Hamilton was a huge influence. All of the songs were written between 1987 and 1996 (between the ages of 12 and 21), growing up in Hamilton. As a kid, mid-late 80s sometime, the day I accidentally discovered Contact 89 FM on the dial was a life-changing event. But it wasn’t until I saw local band The Haunting in 1990, practicing in the basement of The Music Box (a record store where Metropolis Café is now), that I decided I wanted to get serious about teaching myself guitar and start my own band. Our cover version of The Haunting’s song ‘Rats’ is still one of my favourite tracks on the album. Our earliest studio demo of ‘Androgyne Waltz’ from 1995 (included in the bonus material) was recorded with Dave Whitehead at Theta Productions. Cygnet Committee, who Dave Whitehead used to play with, was another Hamilton band who were a direct influence on Disjecta Membra. Book of Martyrs was another, and musicians like Stan Jagger, Paul Oakley, Adrian ‘Webclaw’ Scott, Alan Deare, Chris Paki… they were all important influences. Dave Whitehead in turn introduced us to his business partner Dave Lowndes, who recorded and produced Achromaticia with us at Waikato Polytechnic in December of 1996. All of the people that played on, co-wrote, recorded or otherwise contributed to the vast majority of Disjecta Membra material between 1994 and 1996 were people I knew from Hamilton. The bonus material includes live tracks recorded at The Wailing Bongo, The Meteor, Corso Poverty & Recycling Shop and The Exchange, as well as tracks from our first ever ‘gig’ at a house party in Hamilton East. There are two recordings from The Fridge studio at Contact 89 FM in late ’96 – one’s a live to air performance of a previously unreleased song, ‘Orchid Trick’, and the other is our first promo single, ‘Cauldron of Cerridwen’. There are excerpts from the first ever Disjecta Membra interview on the ‘Urban Jangle’ show on Contact, with Adam Hyde. And of course all of the other early demo recordings, garage sessions etc featured on the bonus disc are recorded at various private locations around Hamilton. There’s also live material recorded in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and one studio single recorded after we’d relocated to Wellington, but the vast majority of material featured is inextricably linked with our early years in Hamilton. Kane Davey, now the longest serving member of Disjecta Membra other than me, I also knew from Hamilton since about 1995 and we share a lot of similar experiences in terms of how life in Hamilton shaped us, both as people and as musicians. It’s the birthplace of Disjecta Membra, and Achromaticia.
HUP: Do you have any favourite memories of your early Hamilton years?
Michel: That would be hard to narrow down. I think a lot of my favourite musical memories of Hamilton have more to do with other bands I saw or that we played with – seeing The Haunting in a basement that first time; buying tapes of Cygnet Committee and Book of Martyrs from the same record shop; going to see former members of The Haunting and Book of Martyrs playing their weekly residency at Ward Lane as covers band Hapukalips Now; and later, as I got my own band going, seeing bands like Department of Correction, FALLen, Lure, Usine, Nihil, Janitor’s Lung and others live. One personal standout memory was playing/singing a few Cure and Bauhaus songs with Raleigh 20 (Adrian Scott, Chris Paki and Rik O’Kane) when they had their covers residency at The Exchange. But when it comes to Disjecta Membra it’s probably fair to say that almost every track included on the bonus discs is chosen at least in part because of a memory associated with it, as much as for the song captured. So I guess the musical experiences documented on this collection would double as a sort of audio snapshot album of my favourite memories from that time.
HUP: Since we last talked to you, you supported The Mission in Auckland and Wellington in late-2016. Where would you rank that experience among your career highlights?
Michel: The Mission were one of my favourite bands from the time that I was 13, and Simon Hinkler has been my all-time favourite guitarist ever since. I also rate Wayne Hussey very highly as a guitar player, and the interplay between Hussey and Hinkler is right up there for me among the best guitar duos I’ve ever heard. It was definitely a personal highlight not just to open for the band but also to spend time with them; they were warm, gracious, down-to-earth and very encouraging people. But I do find it very difficult to ‘rank’ musical experiences; I’m terrible at creating these numerical, ordered lists of favourite gigs, songs, albums (etc) that proliferate online these days. I wouldn’t have a clue whether to rank playing support to The Mission above or below seeing The Haunting in a basement.
The album can be listened to, and the anniversary issue pre-ordered now, on Bandcamp.