A Retrospective Interview with ‘The Wetbacks’
Ian Duggan, with Jeff Sinnott, Dianne Archer, Chris Corby and Pateriki Hura
Between 1982 and 1986, The Wetbacks carved a small, humble niche in the New Zealand music scene. Based in Hamilton, at the time not really the epicentre of anything much except large tracts of peat swamp, cow shit and corny blues covers bands, The Wetbacks was born out of as much frustration as they eventually self-combusted in. Born of myriad musical roots, from folk, reggae, jazz, punk and good old-fashioned rock & roll, they gradually formed a unique sound that ran both alongside and counter to the post-punk, pre-grunge era of the early 1980s.
Much has been written of the Flying Nun/Dunedin sound in New Zealand during this time; one that glorified the raw song-writing, low-fi, angst ridden energy of bands like The Enemy, The Gordons, The Clean and The Chills. This label probably did more to establish New Zealand’s music credibility internationally than any other label in our musical history. It is a label that has stood the test of time and now, nearly 40 years later, still rings true. Yet there was a small spark of a cleaner, dare we say, more produced sound happening further north. Not the sterile, commercial radio influenced pop emanating from studios in downtown Auckland. But something that hybridised the social commentary of the southern sound with the musical sensibilities of the north. Yet the greatest pity of all is that this small, yet significant force, quietly slipped away pretty much before it was noticed.
We need mention no names, but ‘80s New Zealand music was riddled with bands rising from wellsprings such as Sacred Heart College in Auckland, the pubs, houses and marae of the South Side, the clubs of the Shore, and the studios of several successful musicians of the 1970s with enough nouse to invest in facilities and technology that enabled another generation to scratch their itch.
New Zealand music was generally divided by latitude at that time. In the south it was all angst-ridden, teen spirit, resulting from new-found freedom; booze, sex, drugs and a sense that “fuck it, we can play anything, even if we can’t pay anything”. The veritable three-chord bash, played with enough chutzpah that could pass as marketable (or un-marketable) music. In the North it was whatever would get you in front of TV show Radio with Pictures, commercial radio or on the infamous ‘Do Da Coruba’ Tour.
What had proved fertile ground for the English post punk/new wave sound of the likes of XTC, Shriekback and The Jam, made sense to a bunch of musos in Hamilton. Dianne Archer, a Waihi local, guitarist extraordinaire, and as yet undiscovered vocalist of considerable talent, met up with Jeff Sinnott, a young impressionable drummer, fresh out of high school in Hamilton and gagging for an outlet for his musical excesses. Cambridge guitarist Chris Corby brought his layered, textural nuances, deft song-writing and penchant for obscure lyrics. The line-up was complete with the addition of Pateriki Hura, who joined initially on guitar and then replaced original bass player Paul ‘Scooter’ Donnelly.
Hamilton Underground Press caught up with Jeff Sinnott, Dianne Archer, Chris Corby and Pat Hura to explore the memories of a band that one Australian music critic, 3RRR’s Richard Wilde [a.k.a. Richard Wilkins], described as ‘one the greatest bands that never was’.
Jeff: The band kind of evolved when Di and I met in the early 1980s.
Dianne: I was looking to get a band together when I met Jeff.
Jeff: I think I may still have been at high school. Anyway, we got together with Paul ‘Scooter’ Donnelly from Thames who had a fascination with the whole UK punk thing. Di and Scoot had previously met at a punk gig near Hamilton so it was easy to get things going. Dianne had come from Waihi and was a great blues guitarist that had discovered punk. I remember meeting this crazy, purple haired lady, pulling up on a Suzuki road bike with a guitar strapped to her back and laying us out with her incredible playing, as well as a voice that could cut steel.
So, after a few jams we started a kind of thrash three-piece thing in late ’82 called ‘Rhythm and Skins’. I think we did one gig, realised we weren't that good so got on with practicing, wrote a bunch of songs, tried out a few other players, drank way too much Whisky, busted out a few urban commentary riffs like ‘Life of the Lifeless’ and ‘Buy Me’, and worked on our versions of covers like XTC's ‘Radios in Motion’ and the La De Da's ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ - the latter of which never failed to fill the dance floor at the Hillcrest on Bursary night. Incidentally, ‘Lifeless’ and ‘Buy Me’ were two songs we never got to record but by hell they were fun to play live.
Di came back in the spring of ’83, which we celebrated by throwing a huge party that pretty much got us kicked out of our house. But as we had practiced and sounded cohesive of sorts she decided to re-join and start to formulate a plan for global domination. As Scoot used to say, lead bass, lead drums, lead guitar - subtle we were not, but I believe we had a pretty unique sound.
Dianne: I left the country for a short time and when I returned Chris Corby had joined the boys, and I rejoined and we became 'The Wetbacks'.
Jeff: We felt that while playing as a 3-piece, guitar, bass and drums, worked for The Jam, it didn’t quite work for us, so I gave an old mate a call. Chris Corby and I had met a few years before when we were at Intermediate school. His older sister Liz had been at school with my sister Anne and she recommended we get in touch, so he brought his unique guitar sound and sensibility to Dianne’s impeccable rhythm and The Wetbacks were born. We played our first gig as The Wetbacks at a friend’s 21st in Tirau and literally brought the house down. From memory there was an all-in brawl between the local metallers and these blow-in punks from up the road. There were bottles and people flying everywhere and we were lucky to get out with ourselves and our gear. This was the gig that our eventual sound tech, manager and old school buddy Kevin Oliver joined us.
Jeff: He had a pretty good ear, even if he was a hopeless Joy Division addict. We forgave him because he looked like he knew what he was doing on the desk. Chris’ brother Pete, a stunning drummer in his own right, also joined us on this escapade as a roadie, lighting tech, barman, doorman and bouncer.
From there we moved on to the Coromandel, and Raglan, and strangely enough started to appeal to the surf-punk scene that was emerging at the time. It seemed we were seen as a local imitation of the Butthole Surfers. Gigs like the Rob Roy in Waihi, the Whangamata Hotel and Waihi Beach pub were favourite places to play where we could work on songs, learn how to play together and work on our show.
Eventually we started to get gigs in town [i.e., Hamilton], got ripped off at places like the Lady H, and wrote a few new songs. [Our songs] ‘Fighting for the Right’ and ‘Watching the Skyline Grow’ had their genesis at that time. Scoot left in late 1983 to go on his OE to his ideological hometown of London, where I believe he still is today. That led to us putting an ad for a bass player in the trusty paper and who should answer but our once-time guitarist Pat Hura; this time on bass and this time to stay.
Dianne: Paul left and Pat joined us. This was an exciting time, as Chris, Pat and myself were all writing songs. We used to have band practice in an old cowshed at Chris's parents farm. It was freezing in winter, but we were young and keen and it didn't bother us much.
Chris: Yes, it was bloody cold but it didn’t matter of course. We were in a band and we were committed. My Dad had handed over the old woolshed to my brother Pete and I and we created a little stage inside for rehearsing our respective bands. I do remember we had to run the power cord across to the cowshed about 20 meters away for power and cows sometimes would shit all over that lead, and it was a dirty chore rolling it back at the end of rehearsals! Did I mention commitment!
Dianne: Our aim was to have about thirty original songs before we started gigging. We were adamant we weren't going to take the easy route and play covers, which so many bands were doing at the time. We were young and naïve and in hindsight should have had management...
Jeff: We more-or-less locked in straight away. Pat was a huge folk fan so he offered quite a different dynamic to Scoots from the hip punk style, and The Wetbacks evolved in a slightly more melodic direction. Still very lively, still full of angst, [and] still raging about the injustices we saw on a daily basis both in New Zealand and overseas; themes that pervaded through our lyrics for the entire time we played together. We saw ourselves as a mouth piece for social justice and were heavily influenced by the likes of Billy Bragg, John Cooper-Clarke, Marley, Dylan as well as the more subtle pens of Joan Armatrading, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Songs such as ‘Poison Rain’, ‘Entertainment’ and ‘Silent Man’ emerged during this period, from mid ‘83-early ‘84.
Jeff: ‘The Wetbacks’. Probably not the most PC name these days, but it seemed to work back in the day. From memory the name came from a conversation around the politicisation of the boat people arriving on the shores of northern Australia and made us think that in general nearly all of us are boat people in a sense. Whether we arrived on camels, ocean going waka or tin planes, we are a nomadic species that has distributed itself around the planet. So, the notion of ‘illegal’ immigration is a little strange when we’ve been doing it for millennia.
But we thought ‘The Boat People’ was a little too provocative, and that we may get confused with the Village People! The conversation turned to so called illegal immigration in general and I recalled a book I read about Wetbacks, Mexicans that crossed the Rio Grande into the USA raising the ire of the political elite, and used as a wedge to encourage paranoia and a badly misplaced sense of nationalism. So, we decided on the Wetbacks as a great name. It was short, catchy and had a political ring to those that bothered to think about it.
HUP: What were your impressions of the Hamilton scene during your time together? Where did you play, and who with?
Chris: Hamilton at the time was of course a very strong Uni town and I recall many gigs at the Hillcrest Hotel in the band room, with strong student support, and many support gigs for touring bands.
Jeff: The Hamilton music scene was filled with blues and covers bands that, while played by some extremely competent musicians - many of whom were our mates that we jammed with - weren’t really to our taste. We decided that if we were to make an impact we had to write our own stuff and perform it to people who understood it – and given the appetite for Top 40 pub rock in The Tron, the Uni was the obvious target.
Chris: There was quite an underground Punk and Ska scene in the early ‘80s and The Wetbacks had a core group of people following us for a time who rode mopeds and wore Doc Martins and turned up at many gigs. I recall that core once riding their mopeds all the way across to Waihi Beach and turning up at one of our many gigs there.
The frustrating thing for us was perhaps our isolation from the main Kiwi music scene in Auckland, and I know we tried to push in up there and get support but never managed to get it going unfortunately. There wasn’t any internet of course and making connections was by phone and meeting someone at a pub for a chat. It was all very D.I.Y. We put on our own gigs and hauled around our own P.A. with our little lighting rig in our own truck. We stayed in tents and friends couches and shitty motels. Brilliant!
Dianne: We mostly played at the Hillcrest tavern and as we got better known did a few gigs as the opening act for bigger acts. A memorable gig for me was the Rockfurly Shield; three bands from Waikato verses three from Auckland. We played on the back of a semi-trailer with a big outdoor P.A. on a sport Park in Hamilton. The sound was great and I could really feel it.
Dianne: Other bands from Waikato were Bronze Spirit and Stonehenge, and from Auckland Martial Law, Peking Man and Pleasure Boys. Guest judges were Tony Edwards, who owned the local music shop, Steve Jones, [Radio with Pictures host] Karyn Hay, and Andrew Fagan. Andrew and Steve [were] from the Mockers; we did a couple of gigs with them.
HUP: Did you get played on Radio with Pictures?
Jeff: No. Karyn showed the album and talked about it but we never did an official video. We did a few things with her and Andrew Fagan when we played with the Mockers.
HUP: How would you describe your music?
Jeff: Our music was pretty hard to categorise. It was generally described as jazz, punk, cow, folk, reggae, blues, but more recently in the national archive as "Pop" – that’s not my recollection anyway. Radio with Pictures host Karyn Hay had trouble with the fact that what the band recorded didn't represent their live set, which was probably a fair comment. But then again, we felt that the studio was a place for polishing what we had already gigged and it gave us a chance to explore sonic textures and add subtlety to our live voice. That said, we only made it into the studio three times, so we weren't that much of a studio outfit. Live was generally our thing.
I was brought up in the islands in the ‘60s so had a reasonable handle of Polynesian rhythms. That, and a fascination with ‘electric’ music in my sister’s record collection made up of the likes of 10CC, The Police and Bob Marley. I was pretty much ripe for the late ‘70s when I tagged along with my sisters to New Zealand bands like Split Enz, Mi-Sex, Th’ Dudes, Hello Sailor and Dragon. My fascination with New Zealand music had begun.
Pat: Any gig involving the University was a blast, whether on Campus or at The Hillcrest Tavern.
Jeff: Gigs with the likes of Graeme Brazier were a blast. Especially meeting brilliant drummers like Lyn Buchanan; he literally blew me away. Off the back of these we were invited to enter the Waikato Battle of the Bands, and won. So, this got us into the national final in 1984 and after a few heats made it to the final with the likes of The Abel Tasmans, a brilliant Auckland Uni outfit called The Audience, and the eventual winners, You’re a Movie, a spin off from the Hip Singles minus Mr Driver. Their name actually became the title of one of our more poppy songs, penned by Pat. Well we came third equal with The Audience, which was totally unexpected. To win over a hugely partisan Auckland crowd and judges was more-or-less unheard of from a band from the swamp. We actually did a celebration gig with the Audience at [The University of Waikato’s] Oranga, which was an absolute blast, especially the after party.
Some of the more memorable gigs were playing with the Netherworld Dancing Toys at the Wailing Bongo after they released ‘For Today’. Man, they were polished and that Annie Crummer, man she had some pipes. I actually know Graeme Cockroft these days and we still chuckle about how natty we were. Touring with Midge Marsden and the Mockers was fun, especially as we had to tear around the country playing these crazy under-age afternoon gigs at places like the Founders Theatre, Baycourt in Tauranga and Mainstreet in Auckland.
Kevin started to get us in front of people who were interested in booking us for some of the bigger support gigs, such as the ones you mention.
HUP: In 1985 you released an EP called ‘Out of the Swamp’. I take it Hamilton was the inspiration for the title? How did you feel about the album when it was released, and looking back on it now?
Jeff: We had been gigging and practicing pretty solidly for three years and finally decided on six songs to record at Harlequin Studios [in Auckland]. This was an extremely sobering experience because you can’t hide from the studio’s infinite focus. We smashed out the rhythm tracks in a night as we could only afford the midnight-dawn rate of I think $35/hr. We had a great engineer Nick Morgan and a musician friend Lawrence Arps to help produce. They helped shape the songs into a more radio friendly format and give some polish to our fairly raw sound. The album met with some favourable reviews. I remember Rip it Up mentioning that we would go down a storm at the Performance Café.
Dianne: We recorded the album in Auckland [in a] midnight to dawn session as it was much cheaper. I was a bit star struck when we walked into the studio and [Hello Sailor’s] Harry Lyons was the engineer. I had been to see him play lots of gigs and thought he was a brilliant guitarist and also a nice guy. Our budget was limited, and we would have liked to have spent more time recording and mixing the album. It was our first time in a studio and at the time I was quite pleased with the results. If I listen to it now of course it's very dated, but it's nice to have something on vinyl. And it brings back lots of good memories of those days when we were all dedicated and focused on our dream to get airplay and, I guess, recognition.
Pat: The Wetbacks was a charged and driven entity. We rehearsed religiously. We wrote songs and honed all aspects of live performance. Going to Harlequin Studios to record the EP was a highlight for me, but everything was amazing really.
Jeff: Listening back to the album now I have mixed feelings. It kind of blows me away that it’s on Spotify. Di’s vocals are still stunning and as a rhythm section we held together well. The song writing seems a little naïve; we did write some great hooks, excepting some flat backing vocals and a really annoying bit in one song that was actually played backward.
Jeff: No, it was my cock up. The last chorus I actually played the kick and snare on ‘1’ rather than ‘&’ (as in 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & etc), which flipped the emphasis. One of those ‘couldn’t fix in the mix’ moments when using two-inch Ampex tape. In Protools today it would be a five-minute fix and no one would be any the wiser.
We were young, full of passion, could play, and had a growing following. But the two commercial radio stations in Hamilton flatly refused to support the album, driven by some insane desire to bore the living crap out of their audience by playing the same twenty songs rotated incessantly – well, some things really don’t change do they! So yes, the title refers to Hamilton and the feeling we had at the time that original, alternative music was not appreciated. The lyrics of ‘Entertainment’ kind of points to this.
HUP: Was the EP self-released and self-funded?
Dianne: Yes we saved everything we earned at gigs, which wasn't much. I think we spent about $2500 on the album. A friend of mine Brian James, who is an artist, did the art work on the album.
HUP: You had the song ‘Don’t Get Caught’ - not from the album - included on the 1986 ‘National Student Radio’ compilation ‘Weird Culture, Weird Custom’. That album included the likes of Jean Paul Sartre Experience, Cassandras Ears (featuring Jan Hellriegel) and Battling Strings (featuring David Saunders, later of The 3Ds). How did that opportunity come about?
Jeff: We were well supported by Radio Contact at Waikato University, which is where the Weird Custom Weird Culture connection came from.
Jeff: Not long after we released the EP, Chris took off to Auckland and left the band. We played probably our best ever gig as a three-piece, and I still have a cassette somewhere of us at the Hillcrest that sounds as fresh as the day we played it. But we had been seduced by the sonic textures of the studio and felt we needed another instrument. So, we brought Murray Hintz into the fold on keyboards, to add layers to Di’s guitar and Pat’s increasingly rich bass sound.
Dianne: We added a keyboard player to try and broaden our sound, which was very guitar driven. I felt like we needed more colour in the sound. It never really jelled with the keyboards though and we missed Chris's input and style. He and I always complemented each other on guitar.
Jeff: More gigs followed, but it started to become apparent that we just weren’t going to break into the New Zealand top echelon, as we didn’t have a record label behind us. We had self-released ‘Out of the Swamp’ and distribution was extremely difficult. We had limited resources in promoting ourselves, and as we were all holding down day jobs something had to give. I got fired from my job at a pub, Pat left Uni, Murray still had the keys to a music store and Di had the only really serious job among us. So we wrote a new batch of songs and decided that New Zealand wasn’t big enough for us. Australia held more promise, or so we thought. One of the highlights was actually our farewell gig at Oranga, where we supported Herbs in front of about 5000 people; it actually felt like WE were the headline and they were supporting us!
Jeff: It sure felt like that many!
Dianne: In 1986 I decided to move to Melbourne and the rest of the band followed.
Jeff: Arriving in Melbourne in early 1986 was a real ground breaker. This bunch of naïve kiwis coming over the ditch, full of themselves, ready to change the world, soon realised that in the music industry you need more than just raw talent to survive. Things started well enough. My girlfriend at the time was studying sound engineering and introduced us to her lecturers. It just so happened they had a full studio and they needed a house band to record for their senior students to mix. So that’s where ‘Don’t get Caught’ got captured in 48 track glory. Jayrem Records somehow got a hold of it, [and] it ended up on the [Weird Culture Weird Custom] compilation and somehow managed to make it to No 2 on the Alt charts in New Zealand, behind an Aussie band called Boom Crash Opera that we had seen in St Kilda. Gigs were hard to come by in Melbourne and management even harder. The scene in the mid-late ‘80s was more dance oriented synth-pop, sequenced so little need for live drumming and was highly controlled by the clubs. We played a few inner-city places like the Tiger Lounge in Richmond and a couple of pubs in St Kilda and South Melbourne. I went to Jazz school for a while but quit because I thought the teacher was a wanker. Strangely, I’m now playing part time in a band called the Jazz Wankers.
Dianne: It was hard starting from scratch again as we had become quite well known in New Zealand, and it was very tough here when we didn't know any bands. That was a thing we missed in New Zealand. We [bands] all knew each other from gigging together and there was a certain comradery between some of the bands we knew. Here [in Australia] it was competitive and we felt isolated. We struggled on, but the joy had gone out of the band for me. We all drifted apart.
Jeff: Probably our biggest mistake was flatting together for a year, which brought out personal tensions that we had managed to avoid by living apart in New Zealand. So it was on our way to a Shriekback gig, one of our favourite bands, that Pat told us he was heading home. I remember getting horribly pissed and chundering my guts out in the dunny there as I knew that this was the end. The bond had been broken and after five years, about fifty original songs, one album, a couple of near misses, shitloads of amazing gigs, demos, parties, loves and whisky, it was time to call it a day. As a parting gesture we recorded ‘Fighting for the Right’ at Silkwood and I think someone still has the master somewhere. It would be great to hear that once again; maybe on Spotify perhaps.
Pat: Melbourne was a truly humbling experience. So many bands and many of them really good with a range of styles; that was daunting. We were somewhat distracted with getting our lives together in this new environment, and though we practiced regularly, the older songs were getting stale and new material wasn't coming easy like it once did. I found Murray difficult to be creative with, whereas Chris had kinda sparked me. The decision to leave The Wetbacks was excruciating. We had all invested heavily in the band on every level but the new lineup was not the tight bonded unit it was with Chris Corby on guitar and Kevin Oliver on sound (and everything else). That line-up was a family. I returned to New Zealand with my bass guitar, a bag of old clothes and $10. That was late 1986.
Chris: I left Hamilton and the band after 2/3 years to live in Auckland and then across to Melbourne where I have lived for 30 years now. I work as an Audio Director for the Nine Network in Australia mixing TV, documentaries, talk shows or whatever, and continue to Produce and Engineer music for a range of artists in Australia.
Dianne: Chris I keep in touch; I am living in the country about an hour and half from Melbourne and haven't played music for many years now.
Jeff: After the break-up I played for a couple of Aussie bands of little consequence. Di and Chris and I tried to do something for a while but the magic just wasn’t there, so after recording some demos to help Di on her solo career we called it a day. From there I took up a career in wine, went to Adelaide Uni, got a degree, a proper job, a wife and fathered three sons. I still play music. Not as intensely as back then, but I still try to keep my chops sharp by playing as many genres as I can. We had a bit of fun a while back with a band called Tin Flowers, and did an amazing music/poetry thing called The Blue Moments Project. I play with a Wanaka jazz/funk outfit called Alpine Funk Line, and a grubby pub-rock outfit called Rockhopper, and do the occasional gig for the Nairobi Trio. Then there’s the Queenstown Jazz Festival where I turn into a musical whore-bag and play with anyone and everyone – even Kara Gordon. My boys all play multiple instruments and have all had their own time in bands, so the gene is alive and well in the Sinnott clan. I now live in Tarras in Central Otago with my partner and work as a viticulture and wine consultant as well as owning a part of Ostler Vineyards with my family. I haven’t spoken to the rest of the guys for a few years now; occasionally to Chris and Di on Facebook and lost touch with Pat completely.
Pat: I got back into music in late 1988 in Tauranga, which had a thriving scene back then. I have played professionally or semi-professionally since then all over New Zealand and in odd spots in the southern hemisphere. These days I write and record with 'Infinity', an instrumental rock outfit from Hawkes Bay.