A Q&A with Graeme Jefferies
By Phil Grey, The Hum 106.7
Coming up on 26 April, Graeme Jefferies plays an evening of songs from his back catalogue, from his bands The Cakekitchen, This Kind of Punishment and Nocturnal Projections. The Hum 106.7’s Phil Grey caught up with Graeme and talked about the history of his bands, former Hamilton shows, what we should look forward to on the tour, and much, much, more...
Phil: Graeme – growing up in Stratford, what was the first music that you recall having a profound influence on you, and how did that inform your early musical experiments?
Graeme: It made one kind of dependent on local releases as imported records weren’t around then. My brother and I were keen record listeners and buyers and pestered our mother for money to buy records from a very early age. Stuff like David Bowie, Badfinger, Mott the Hoople, Cockney Rebel, The Velvet Underground were fairly typical examples of what floated the boat in those times. But also a lot of individual songs as 45’s too. We liked buying singles at first it as was easier to siphon the money for them because they were cheaper.
With older brother Peter, you formed Nocturnal Projections in 1981, releasing material at first on cassette, then vinyl. The band has been described as an antipodean Joy Division. Is that a fair comparison?
I suppose Joy Division is a comparison that I can understand because there were some elements of our stuff that were similar and we really liked Joy Division. But we had already written over 50 songs before we even heard Joy Division. Some of Peter’s vocals made the comparison easier to make. But there were also songs that sounded nothing like Joy Division. Musically we used a lot more different chords than Barney managed. If you look at how he played in Joy Division it was pretty much moveable E bar chord up and down the fret board most of the time. The Nocturnal Projections had a larger chord vocabulary and also played a lot faster than Joy Division. But it’s a fair enough comparison for some songs. The Another Year EP has some similar things to Joy Division.
Phil: Following Nocturnal Projections you and Peter formed This Kind of Punishment, who gained greater exposure through releases on Xpressway and Flying Nun. The second LP A Beard Of Bees is now recognised as an NZ classic. It has elements of sparse instrumental work, experimental noise, and a clear Velvet Underground influence. Who in the band exerted the strongest influence on the sound?
Graeme: That’s a hard one to answer in a meat and potatoes fashion because it really varied from song to song. By the time we got to TKP we had written maybe 100 songs together where I had written the musical skeletons and Peter had written the lyrics to accompany the completed music. I had also worked out a couple of hundred other songs that I liked that other people had written that we played together for fun growing up, with Peter playing along on drums and me playing electric guitar.
Those were our specialized fields. I was more specialised in writing music and arranging songs and Peter was more specialized in writing words to completed pieces of music. So with TKP each one of us bought those skills to the table. Peter had no idea how to write music but had good ideas for spacing it. If anything (although the cut and dry answer I presume you want doesn’t always apply) I was still more responsible for the arrangement of the music and the getting it from an idea to a concrete music bed that could then have lyrics added. The words were always added after the music was completed. So I suppose I exerted a very strong influence on how to put the music into a way where it could have words added to it.
Peter exercised the strongest influence lyrically. But we swapped things over and tried lots of different things to try and write different types of songs. TKP was deliberately undoing the style we had used as a writing team by analysing what we didn’t do and trying to do that rather than just writing songs without thinking about what sort of song we wanted to write. It was a very conscious effort to bake a different sort of cake.
Phil: Were there any other musical elements left on the cutting room floor [so to speak], that you would have liked to be more prominent?
Graeme: Most of the ideas that we worked on together we ended up using. At least for the first initial run of from the first album to the end of A Beard of Bees. Those two albums were written one after the other with no real gap and we didn’t waste a lot of ideas. Most stuff we finished and or resolved to our satisfaction. When we tried to put a live band together with Chris Matthews we had a lot more wastage and songs that somehow didn’t work so well or we got sick of and left behind. As a band it didn’t really work trying to write together and most of the stuff that we started with the Chris Matthews/ Michael Harrison line up didn’t get used.
TKP was really a music writing and recording project more than it was a live band. The live thing was only a dozen or so gigs over a short period of time, but as a writing thing it was a straight year and a half of nonstop writing and then recording before we ever even thought about playing a gig or trying to recreate any of the songs live.
Phil: How were the dynamics with fellow band members?
Graeme: Um, everyone got on fairly well. We all had similar tastes and were all fairly introverted and socially awkward. There were three incantations of the group initially. The first was a recording unit; the second two were live band line ups that operated for a fairly short time in order to play music in pubs to kiwis drinking pints. Running through the people in it……..
Johnny Pierce had been managing The Nocturnal Projections and was a lovely guy. He had the best people skills. Everyone really liked him. Gordon Rutherford was the drummer from the Nocturnal Projections and in the first incantation of TKP was the recording engineer for the first couple of albums.
Peter and I had grown up together and been working on bands for years from High School on. Michael Harrison was a painter who was moonlighting as a musician. He was a nice guy. The first live line up was with Peter, myself, Michael and Chris. When Michael left, Johnny replaced him.
Peter had mentored Chris Matthews quite a lot when they first met. Chris was in this funny little pop band called The Prime Movers that played a show with The Nocturnal Projections at the Rumba Bar early in 1982. Chris told Peter after we played a show with them that he hated his band but really loved our band. He eventually persuaded Peter to ask everyone in the Nocturnal Projections group flat to let him stay on our couch for free because he had nowhere to go. So we let him stay there for free. He didn’t really have any money at the time. We felt sorry for him because he had nowhere to go. They became pretty good friends and would spend hours talking together.
So you had that dynamic between those two added to the inter-workings of how the rest of TKP operated. I never really knew Chris very well. Still don’t really. He didn’t write very much of the material in TKP and songs of his like The Sleepwalker were written outside of TKP when he was in a band called Children’s Hour. Strangely enough they didn’t want to use the song because they thought it was too wimpy, but Peter and I really liked it and helped Chris get it out by recording it as a TKP song with Gordon Rutherford.
Gordon has never really been acknowledged as a member of TKP very much, but he worked on every song we did for the first couple of albums and did all of the engineering. It’s funny how people perceive bands in a way. TKP was a recording project more than a band and Gordon was definitely a member of it.
Phil: TKP, like Nocturnal Projections [and arguably the Cakekitchen later], music could best be described as sombre. Is this something that band members cultivated, or did it truly reflect something from within? [Jefferies has alluded to this - “1985 and 1986 were pretty bad years (for me) and I think that’s reflected on the record” [Audioculture.co.nz]]
Graeme: Oh, I hate people trying to describe our music because to me each song is different from the previous one and they are all meant to convey different feelings and emotions. I guess some of them were a bit sombre but everyone in those days was very young and intense. So I guess that that’s going to come through in the music. Particularly if you analyse the lyrics and say that that is what the song is meant to be about. But the music was always written first as a blank canvas for the lyrics and had an emotional essence that usually had more to do with the joy and beauty of the world or the share pleasure of sound travelling through pockets of air than being sombre.
Once the words are put in place people tend to forget that the music had a deliberate feeling and meaning of its own, in an emotional sense, and I usually saw these invisible type meanings as being uplifting and full of the vigour of life and the mystery and beauty of life more than being negative, sad or sombre.
The Audioculture piece you referenced is written by somebody who doesn’t really like The Cakekitchen much, or know very much firsthand about what it did or why it did it, and was made up by cobbling bits out of our dot com site and without any direct interview or question asking to see if he had it right.
It also hasn’t been updated to include the last two full length releases and misses the point on a lot of things. I wouldn’t pay much credence to what it says. It’s funny that even the compliments are half arsed in a way. He thinks we made one classic album in 1991, which kind of means that the all the albums since then have presumably failed because none of them to him are considered classic. But he never even really says why the one he thinks is classic is good and why the others aren’t.
In a way it’s like saying we haven’t made a good record in 25 years. If I did a similar thing and reviewed every article he had written for 25 years and said that one of them was a classic piece of writing but left a pregnant pause over the other quarter of a centuries work he did, I imagine he wouldn’t be that pleased about it either. The lay out and video inclusion of the Audioculture piece is good though. I suppose, all in all, it’s a presentable enough effort to touch on some of what we did, but I wouldn’t use that as a reference to the Cakekitchen if I were you, because it’s fairly obvious that it’s written by somebody who doesn’t really like or understand what we were trying to do.
The press and public representation thing is a funny beast and just something that I suppose we all have to put up with. He obviously has his favourites and The Cakekitchen isn’t one of them. Never mind. There are better pieces of the group in other locations.
Phil: The tour coincides with the rerelease of Nocturnal Projections material. Any nerves about this material being heard by a new audience?
Graeme: Oh, it was me that put all of the production master material together for the Nocturnal Projections reissues. So in my opinion they are really good. The album of unreleased material in particular should be of interest to anyone who liked what we did. I went to a real lot of trouble to go the extra mile on the quality for that one and the song selection is really strong. The studio recordings that were released during the bands life time make up a really good complete ten song album that runs well together. I still really like this material and the mastering quality of the new version of this material is very good and a joy to hear after all this time.
There’s still enough material in the archives for maybe another volume of songs to be added at a later date. The Nocturnal Projections had over 100 original songs and most of them were never released for one reason or another. So it’s a welcome opportunity to shed a bit more light on a few very well kept secrets.
The only thing that’s made me cringe with The Nocturnals was the Worldview seven inch that was released while I lived abroad and culled from our first cassette release. If I had been asked about it before hand I never would have agreed to release it. You can’t hear the snare drum on any of the songs on it. So all the drum parts are totally inaccurate to what Gordon Rutherford played as drum parts. I thought it was a bootleg and bought one for ten bucks when I saw it thinking it was a bootleg. But apparently Peter had done a deal with a guy who wanted to bring it out and just not bothered to ask anyone else who played on it if they wanted to do this.
Phil: How did the collaboration with Alastair Galbraith [of The Rip, Plagal Grind] on 1989s Timebomb 7 inch come about? Was there any further material recorded?
Graeme: After TKP had broken up for a year and then Peter and I had decided to give it another shot and resurrected it in Dunedin in 1986, one of the projects we did there was to record the second Rip record on my four track in the house we were renting. It was mostly an acoustic record of Alastair plying most of it but Robbie Muir did play on it too.
After about 4 months I left Dunedin and set up my studio in Christchurch, when Alastair was passing through Christchurch on his way to emigrating to Melbourne. He happened to drop in and I recorded the songs that eventually became the single as a favour and a historic last stand on native soil. He was meant to be leaving for good but after a few months he decided he didn’t like Melbourne and came back. I was given carte blanche to whatever I wanted to the songs he left and when I felt I had gotten it right I sent it on to Alastair in Melbourne and he really liked it.
For the next couple of years I would occasionally send him something to work on and he would post it back. He played a marvellous violin part on the Cakekitchen song, World of Sand. He was always really enthusiastic and easy to do stuff with. Out of anyone that I’ve helped to do a record he’s one of the few that’s ever actually paid it back by giving something back in a musical way. It worked pretty well doing stuff with him.
Phil: The Cakekitchen is a band with a rotating cast of members. Formed in 1988 a highpoint was the attention [mainly through NZ student radio stations] of releases such as Messages For The Cakekitchen and the band’s breakthrough 1989 EP that contained classic Cakekitchen tracks Dave The Pimp, Witness To Your Secrets and Airships. Looking back nearly 30 years later, what’s your recollection of this period of activity?
Graeme: The original Cakekitchen was a two piece band with myself and drummer Robert Key that added Rachael King as a bass player after a few two-piece shows. As a unit we lasted a couple of years and eventually went our separate ways. Messages For the Cakekitchen was an album of material I started writing when TKP broke up for the first time in 1985. It’s much more like a TKP record than anything else but without Peter’s vocals. It was completely finished off as a record before the band line up of the Cakekitchen ever existed. It wasn’t as the Audioculture site states a thing that contained all the seeds of the band to be. It was a separate thing on its own, containing a collection of material I wrote with no intention of making a record at the time, but just to keep doing what I was doing after TKP broke up.
The Cakekitchen EP was culled from the groups first year of playing together. Airships wasn’t on it but a two-piece version was on the Xpressway Pile-Up. Other material from that first year was added to EP material to make up the first Cakekitchen album released by Homestead in the USA. The second Homestead album, World of Sand, contains most of the other band type songs from the second year of the original bands activities, and the best examples of what we were doing live at the end of our time together. Both the Homestead albums also have a few acoustic songs or recorded on a four-track; songs that Robert and Rachael didn’t play on that I wanted to include to mix up the style of the album a bit more. The four-track Cakekitchen songs on the Homestead albums are closer to TKP type songs in style and recording than what the live band was like.
Looking back thirty years my recollection of those times is that we were fairly solid as a band. We rehearsed two or three times a week and had a lot of fun and satisfaction doing what we did. It was all pretty organized, fun to do, and worked pretty well without anyone having to pull teeth to get a good result. I enjoyed working with Robert and Rachael and we had a lot of fun doing what we did together.
Phil: The Cakekitchen played at least one memorable gig in Hamilton. Do you recall playing here, and did your earlier bands ever play here?
Graeme: Yeah, I remember the last time I played in Hamilton. It was with the 1994 two-piece line-up with Jean-Yves Douet. It was his first show in New Zealand. I remember that I forgot to take my jersey off before we started and almost had steam coming out of my ears by the time we’d finished. I like to go straight from one song to the next and build up a tension in the performance by not letting it get luke-warm with too much blah-blah-blahing inbetween. So I didn’t want to stop and take my jersey off.
It was a fairly good show and after that tour I did with Jean-Yves it took 11 years before I made it back to New Zealand to do another show, because the band ended up being based in Germany after that and concentrated on playing Europe and the USA instead of playing down-under. We never had enough financial resources to swing the flights for coming back home and in fact if a guy called Paul Toohey from the Arts Council hadn’t helped us apply for a grant to soften Jean-Yves air fare expense we wouldn’t have been able to do the Hamilton or the New Zealand tour at all.
I’d played in Hamilton with Robert and Rachael a couple of times before that. Once on an Orientation Package Tour in 1990 and once in a small club the year before as a test gig for Rachael’s first show with the band in April of 1989. TKP and the Nocturnal Projections never played in Hamilton.
Phil: From a local perspective, the band largely petered out around 1990. In reality, you had headed offshore, and over several years built a pretty solid following. Where were you based, and where did The Cakekitchen enjoy the strongest following?
Graeme: I left New Zealand in August of 1990 and based the band in London for three years, France for a year, Holland for about 3 months and Germany for about 12 years. Various incantations of the group did a total of 8 European Tours, 3 American ones and loads of shows on the continent on a one off basis.
Since I financed it all on a shoe string there was never the money to come back to New Zealand and it was better to concentrate on the Northern Hemisphere which is a massively bigger market sales and profile wise. We didn’t have any business dealings in New Zealand once I left, so I suppose that it did look like me disappeared but in fact we had a much bigger profile internationally than we had had before I left and did far better than we ever could have done by staying in New Zealand.
It wasn’t so much disappeared as surfaced on the other side of the world. It would have been nice to have been able to retain a kiwi market too but if you can only afford one set of operating costs then the bigger worldwide market was the obvious one to go for because it was on a much larger scale and operated in a much more lucrative way than the old 1990s Flying Nun scene that we were part of.
Phil: The Cakekitchen music ranges from the power of Airships to many beautiful [but less known] tracks from later albums. What’s your preferred sound now?
Graeme: That’s a tough question because my preferred sound changes a lot from song to song. I try and use a broad palette of colours to texture the music with and it really varies from song to song. I also play a lot of instruments and this really changes the texture from song to song to. Trying to answer the question in the way I imagine you intended it I guess I use distortion and the brizzle brazzle of guitar distortion pedals less than when I was continually playing electric guitar in a live band situation. But I still use it in the shows. Just shorter bursts for maximum effect. I like the contrast of not using it and then suddenly adding it in.
I tend to use more pastel shades than harsh metal ones these days for the recordings but that can change at the drop of a hat depending on the song and what you want to convey with it. Since by and large I spend much more time recording than I do playing live I tend to not use that much the usual band type artillery of sounds that you hear when you watch people playing rock music in bars. The idea with a show is to vary the sort of sounds and the sort of songs you do as much as possible during the course of your set. To try and push the boundaries of what can be done on stage in performance as much as possible in a show and to emotionally deliver as varied a set of feelings as can be portrayed in a live performance setting.
Phil: What instrumentation can we expect on your upcoming mini tour?
Graeme: Live for the upcoming shows I will be using electric guitars and electric pianos and vocals, drawing on a selection of material from all of the musical projects I have been in. Playing by myself has the advantage of being able to vary the performances radically from gig to gig and town to town. You can change to performance as you go along and no-one will know if the next song you play is one that is on the set list or one that’s just come off the top of your head.
I will be paying a lot of the recently re-released This Kind of Punishment songs in the set as a way to salute the recently made available again material and to offer an alternative version of the songs to the one the Peter and Chris presented in Auckland last year at the Golden Dawn show they did. Some friends told me that they murdered a few of them so I figure it can’t hurt to do them properly again in a live setting for the small amount of people still interested in hearing the material in a one on one type way.
Phil: Your autobiography ‘Time Flowing Backwards’ is about to be released. Can we expect any Mick & Keith type revelations? How’s that relationship?
Graeme: No the book doesn’t offer any Mick and Keith type granny knickers mithering sessions. The purpose of it was to tell the story of my life since leaving New Zealand and to detail in an honest way how I survived and prospered in the International Music Scene by living outside of New Zealand for 17 years. It talks about things like recording and playing in Russia, living and operating in London, living illegally in France for a year. Living in Holland and working for a large music distributor in Germany. I worked on and off for Rough Trade Germany for 7 years. I had hardly any press in New Zealand while I was living abroad because I didn’t have any ties with the old-boys network here. So these stories and wild adventures are new for kiwi readers.
The book also talks about a lot of non musical things and how I view life and some of the secrets about it that living it has revealed to me. Without getting too cosmic. It was originally 480 pages and has been cropped down and edited to a little over 300. The editing process has been going on since the original draft was finished in October of 2014 and I have updated it as time has rolled along. We are now down to the final proof reading and have hashed over the re-written pieces and the deleted parts to where both myself and the guy who’s publishing it are fairly chipper with it. It will be interesting to have it out there in the market place but it’s slightly disconcerting to know that people will have access to so many of my personal secrets without the benefit of me telling them first hand in a conversational setting about it.
It’s a hell of a good read in a way and is unlike anybody else’s take on what it takes to survive in the music industry with no manager, no publicist and only using independent tour organisers who work on a 30% of the gross profit basis to organize your tours. It doesn’t dwell on the bad things or the grumbles but tends to focus on the good things and the funny stories.
Peter and I mutually agreed to stop writing together in 1986. After 6 years of writing and playing together all the time we had somehow become like two lions in the same jungle and we needed our own space to grow as artists and also as people. So we aren’t like Mick and Keef who got stuck together for years and years and years just to keep the money coming in and the show rolling along.
Phil: Around 1989 my old mate Grant McDougall sat down and interviewed you for Critic. You described yourself as ‘shy and highly strung’.
Graeme: Ah, Grant McDougall. He was a friendly guy. I remember talking to him in Dunedin before we played at the Empire there. I think I’m still probably shy and highly strung. Perhaps my skin has gotten a little harder over the years but I enjoy feeling things and am shy and highly strung because that is how I am or how living in the world makes me. I like being this way and am this way by choice.
Phil: As late as 2005 you were talking about a preference for solitude. This seems at odds with a career in performance. Care to comment?
Graeme: Your feelings are all you have and should be treasured. They are the difference between you and the rubbish tin across the road. It’s a fairly hard world out there but I would rather feel it than not feel it and I am happy in my own skin. I don’t see this as a contrast to being a performer or enjoying solitude. The performance is only a small part of the day and I like performing and being on stage but I also enjoy my own company and the solitude that you need to court to write the material that you perform. I chose to be by myself a lot of the time by choice. I like being this way. It doesn’t seem a contradiction to me all and I think a lot of performers and artists are actually like this.
Phil: What’s life like for Graeme Jefferies now?
Graeme: I live in Wellington at present. The studio I shipped back after financing with my song writing profits from the years of success living abroad fits onto pallets and I ship it to whatever country I want to live in so that I can keep making records and writing songs. I earn my living by other means and only play live when I decide that it’s a good idea to. I usually spend most of my music time writing and recording and I still release new records and CDs internationally when I want to. It’s the logical conclusion to many years survival as an artist and songwriter.
Like I’ve always done; I still write and record exactly what I want (minus the limitations of my lack of talent or ability to do so) and keep staring my little creative boat down the river of song. I have a small but dedicated fan base that support what I do and keep me a float and stop me from getting big headed. For the time being I am quite happy to be in Wellington but if for whatever reason I decide that I want to go somewhere else I have the resources to do so and the pallets to pack it all up on again and ship it to the next port of call. It’s the perfect artistic existence in a way because it’s self funded and keeps itself going without outside intervention or need for approval. I can still do exactly what I want.
Phil: We’re really looking forward to your gig [Nivara Lounge, Thurs 26 April]. What’s in the setlist? Any particular highlights for you?
Graeme: Thanks, I’m really looking forward to playing it. I hardly play in New Zealand very much these days and even less in the top of the North Island. I haven’t quite decided what’s on the set list yet and I will just decide on the day itself. I’ve been rehearsing a lot of different material from all aspects of the music that I am known for. Nearly every song I have ever recorded is possible to still play. But I will just see what I actually feel like on the night itself. I’ve got some pretty big blisters on the end of my fingers already. So anything is possible in a way. I spent the last couple of weekends screen printing a special back drop for the shows and have gone to a lot of trouble to make the night something really special. I also did a limited run of about 20 TKP tee shirts made especially to sell at the shows. It should be a lot of fun.