I N T E R V I E W
An Interview with Bitter Defeat
with Greg Edwards; photos by Ngamihi Photography
Imagine if you will… a crowd has gathered from far and wide. Celebratory bunting flutters in the breeze. On a wooden platform alongside the towering steel edifice, a bottle of champagne waits. Silence falls as Rob Shirlow climbs the stairs. Mouths drop in anticipation as he lifts the bottle and sends it smashing onto the hull… “I christen thee… BITTER DEFEAT”! Whaaattttt????
Hamilton six-piece Bitter Defeat have risen over the last twelve months to take their place alongside the many, varied and fabulous acts emanating from Hamilton. Rob Shirlow (vocals and guitar) and Ian Duggan (keyboards) are instrumental in operating Hamilton Underground Press (HUP), and are active participants in and promoters of the local music scene. They are joined in Bitter Defeat by Julian White (also of The Scones, Kitchenette; bass), Sam Brockelsby (ex-Ancient Tapes; guitar), Ben Manning (guitar) and Kathryn Thompson (drums). It was my pleasure to interview the band as they gear up for Hamilton’s Future City Festival.
HUP: I really like the band name “Bitter Defeat”. It seems to me to combine so much conflicting and contrary imagery. There’s obviously a connection to Brisbane band Kitchen Floor’s song of the same name, which you’ve covered live. Can you tell us about the origin of the band-name?
Rob: It was exactly that! They played here a year or two ago and I grew to love that song. Matt Kennedy is a brilliant songwriter, but the beauty is hidden quite deep in a lot of Kitchen’s Floor stuff; not that I’ve heard it all. I think it’s important to hide the essence of songs, the beauty. At least sometimes. The truest beauty is always hidden, I think.
HUP: How would you describe the lyrical content of Bitter Defeat songs when considered along with the band’s name?
Rob: Hmmm. It’s a bit heavy actually. There’s a lot of emotion in there. Tales of love, hope and despair, however they come out. Delivered in quite a messy, half-arsed way, which is appropriate for me now I think about it.
The lyrics aren’t clever as such, but they are real, and they come from a place I’m not too comfortable with really. The guilty mundanity of a comfortable existence. Longing for newness but you’ve no idea what, exactly. The absolute madness of the world today. Rage at unfairness and incompetence by those in power. Anxiety and learning how to manage it. Toxic masculinity and bullying. Past personal experiences and those I have seen. All while trying to have a laugh and make lovely scratchy upbeat tunes!
HUP: A song such as ‘Hummer’ speaks about difficult circumstances, and about the power of human relationships to redeem suffering. Similarly, “All the Things” talks of the sun coming out, which manifests the darkness, but only as a weaker reflection of the daylight. Am I right in thinking there’s hope in “Bitter Defeat”?
Rob: Absolutely there is hope. Always. ‘Hummer’ is pretty explicit really, telling someone, maybe yourself, that there is always hope and a reason to ‘be’. ‘All The Things’ is more of a love song to no one in particular and is intended to reflect the actual sun coming up after a night with someone you care about.
HUP: I understand the band has its genesis in Rob’s one-man recording project. Rob, how have you found the process of turning over your creations to a wider group of collaborators?
Rob: It’s been ace really. I’ve been lucky to have found such an understanding bunch. The number one thing was that the creative process and the time when the band is together has to be fun and productive. So far so good. Everyone has input to the songs – I’m not super precious about them, as long as they have a certain feel to them.
Ben: But ultimately, if Rob hates it… then it's out ;)
HUP: And for the rest of the band; have there been challenges interpreting these existing songs, finding inspiration within the existing constraints?
Ian: For me, although I have always had a love for music, I'm not a musician. My previous experiences of playing in a band were in Spatula Death, where I played vacuum cleaner (not a difficult instrument), and later a toy keyboard and acoustic guitar, which were soon drowned out by the noisy electric ones. In Bitter Defeat, I mostly do what I am told.
Ben: It’s been incredible watching the songs evolve from bedroom demo stage, to early garage practice sessions, to performing them live and now (hopefully!) to recording them in the studio with a producer. Through all of these stages we have all managed to inject a little of our own personalities into the songs which makes them sound different, genuinely exciting and also a little rickety which only adds to their strength.
HUP: I enjoy seeing Bitter Defeat take the stage, there’s always a lot to enjoy. 6 band members, two microphones, 1 keyboard, 18 thin guitar strings, 4 fat ones, a swag of drums, although sadly no vacuum cleaner this time round. With three guitars plus keyboards, do you need to be wary of musically stepping on each other’s toes?
Rob: Yeah, it’s a bit of a nightmare at times; not musically, more physically. Actually stepping on toes. We’ve hardly got started really and are still working it all out, especially with three guitars. A lot of the songs start in my spare room and are quite sparse with one guitar, so incorporating three while keeping that pared-down lo-fi essence is a bit tricky. Keeping the ‘less is more’ thing when you have more…it’s a good challenge.
Kathryn: I’ve had to start drumming standing up to make more room.
Ian: The great thing is it doesn’t seem to me like there’s any competition among the instruments. When listening back to recordings, all the sounds are there. It all just combines to make one big, beautiful noise.
HUP: How do you see the characteristics of simplicity and complexity contributing to your song writing and performance?
Rob: As touched on earlier – it’s hard to keep the lo-fi feel, but having six instruments gives us heaps of options to make things different/odd/sparse/heavy, etc. The lyrics will always be simple but will often mean a lot more than just what you hear.
Julian: Half of us are doing things we've never done in a band before. I had never played bass and Ian had never played keyboards. I suspect Rob wanted us in the band at least partly because he knew we wouldn't be virtuosos on our instruments and would inevitably keep things simple, although he hasn't said as much, and equally that we would share his aesthetic sense. So in that sense, I think there is a conscious effort to keep things simple, or as simple as you can get with six instruments without everyone playing the same thing. Of course there is plenty of talent and experience in the rest of the band as well to help keep things together and interesting.
HUP: Your Bandcamp recordings have that lo-fi character about them that is so beguiling. Is this where your heart lies, or would you say it is more an indication of where you are now?
Rob: It’s exactly where my heart lies! It’s been interesting though recently, thinking about recording in March, how do we capture that sound in a proper studio? Should be interesting.
HUP: I enjoyed hearing you play “All the Goodies” live - a cover of Hamilton band Dead Pan Rangers. What do you find enjoyable when it comes to covering someone else’s song compared to creating and performing your originals?
Ian: With many new bands, covers are sometimes a necessary evil just to fill out a set. Our second gig was at the fantastic Hamilton Circle Jerk, where bands play a 20-minute set that includes two covers of other Hamilton bands songs... so having a couple of covers was a requirement. We only played The Shrugs' Pretty Dart that night, and we played 'Goodies' on only two of our three performances to date, but that one is possibly being retired now also. Which on one hand is sad, because it is an amazing song. But we are always adding new songs, so the set should be all originals pretty soon.
Rob: It has to be doable–ish, and appeal to all of us. I think it’s important to do other people’s songs justice, or at least really try to. That’s such a great song too; it was one of the first songs I heard when I moved here, from a local band. Top stuff.
Kathryn: It’s great to explore other people’s songs from the inside, see how they work and what makes them so good, especially as this is a less-familiar genre for me.
HUP: Hamilton is the nexus for so many interesting musical events, and I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a number of fantastic artists there over the last few years. With so much going on locally, are there any Hamilton based acts that have inspired you that the world needs to know about?
Ian: For me, too many to count. Through my university years, I had the philosophy "why listen to overseas music when New Zealand music is so good", and then Hamilton music was so good, it extended to "Why listen to out of town bands when Hamilton music is so good...”. But I love Hamilton bands from the early ‘90s in particular; pick pretty much any band from the Discordia Concors CD... A Crown Of Wild Myrtles, Huge Industrial Artsnob, Book of Martyrs, and later bands like Grok.
Rob: Heck, ummm The Shrugs, The Deadly Deaths, Amy Racecar – bands I found when I moved here that I really liked. Inchworm and Watershed were kind of amazing in the ‘90s too apparently – great songs. Landlords and Contenders are great bands too doing what they do. There’s never enough though. We need more bands here. Fortunately there are some neat acts coming through like Cartoon Villain, Orbjks, and Broadcast State. And *coughcough* Sora Shima are reforming for Future City Festival too; they were alright.
Thanks Bitter Defeat, it’s been fun. I hope you have a hugely successful night out at The Future City Festival – if that’s alright with you of course!