I N T E R V I E W
“I can’t believe it’s gotten this far”: Bitter Defeat defeat lockdown and hit the studio
by Max Johns
Covid-19 may have ruined Bitter Defeat’s plans for recording sessions in March, but they’ve flown out of lockdown into The Porch and already released their first single, Light That Shines. With an EP in the works the five-piece band have gotten serious. They’ve set up Spotify, cleared Bandcamp of Rob’s gritty old solo recordings, joined Twitter and YouTube, and even had their first real photoshoot in front of the psychedelic-as-hell exhibition of giant inflatable mushrooms that BOON is running in Garden Place. (It’s called Shrooms and you should go see it.)
HUP is run by Rob (Bitter Defeat’s songwriter, singer and guitarist), and Ian (keyboards) is probably its most prolific writer, so this interview was soaked in conflicts of interest before it even began. All five members were invited to a socially-distanced group chat but, ominously, three of them didn’t make it. Guess which two turned up...
Rob: Hi, it’s just me and Ian!
HUP: The Big Two, amirite? So, which one's Bitter and which one's Defeat?
Rob: I’m both, Ian is Sweet and Victorious.
Ian: I just do what I'm told.
HUP: Were you told, for example, how to dress for the Shrooms photoshoot?
Ian: No, we got no direction on dressing for the photoshoot. I made an effort though. Shaved and everything. I don't even shave for work! The effort I go to for this band. Rob specifically went for an indie look.
Rob: I mean, I wore my Sonic Youth hat, but apart from that it was standard 'having your pic taken with shrooms' attire.
HUP: Rob, you went for the non-power power move of not standing front and centre in your own band's portrait. Was that deliberate, or are you naturally Just That Indy?
Rob: Did I? It was squidgy underfoot. I couldn’t be arsed to move, for fear of slipping. So it just happened and it’s totally cool with me. There are other pics, that was just a nice one!
Ian: We got some photos in front of a deflated mushroom that we thought was pretty reflective of the band. We’ve gone with the glamour shot first up though.
HUP: With new recordings coming out you've got yourselves a nice new shroomy photo or two, a Spotify presence, a Twitter account... how much of being a band is playing music and how much of it is 'all the other stuff'?
Rob: My god! The Sunday before Light That Shines came out I think Ben (guitar) spent a whole day getting shit ready… all the socials and that. But it’s all in place now so the next songs will be less hassle.
Ian: Most of it is playing music. It has taken us two years to get to this point. We have been hitting social media in the last week or so, because now we are getting into promotion mode. The social media side hasn't been so important until now, other than to promote shows.
Rob: It has taken ages! But we've had challenges along the way. Good experience though, and it’s nice to feel in control with some songs in the bag ready to go.
HUP: You're drip-feeding the music out now. Light That Shines is available now, and then I guess there'll be a two-week teaser campaign before single #2...
Rob: Weeeeell... I think it will be a bit longer. We decided to record a video for the next one. Another new experience. It will take a little while, but sometime in October, all being well.
HUP: Will you go back to Garden Place for filming, or somewhere more exotic?
Rob: No firm plans as to what it will be like, just that we will do it. We only decided about two hours ago! I’m keen to get some Kirikiriroa in it for sure. I like the idea of Fairfield Bridge in it in some way.
HUP: The greatest H-Town video ever is Trade Secrets by Dubious Brothers. So if you need a template for local sights, there you go. [Made in 2002, highlights include an elevated shot of the duo rolling over Fairfield Bridge, tyres smoking down Rostrevor Street, the whole crew hitting the river to go gambling speakeasy-style on the Waipa Delta, and a breakdancing scene that I’m 99% sure is filmed in the Gardens.]
Rob: Ooo thanks, I’ll check it now. Cool vid!
Ian: Watch the video later - rude!
HUP: Anyway, let's go back to the recording side of things.
Ian: Yeah, getting to the point of having recordings has taken a while. We were originally meant to be in the studio on what became the first weekend of lockdown.
Rob: We were going to go to The Porch with Scott Newth, then lockdown hit.
Ian: That was our original, original plan. Then [post-lockdown] we were set up to do some more lo-fi type recordings, but that fell through fairly last minute.
Rob: We’d lined up our pal Cam to demo them first before full-on recording. We were set up to record in our practice space, but circumstances got in the way.
Ian: Because we had all set our weekend aside, we checked back with Scott Newth and The Porch and they could take us. We started out as a 'lo-fi' pop group. With these recordings, it is difficult for us to carry that moniker!
Rob: It was lo-fi as when it was just me with one mic, a small amp and a Casiotone in my spare room!
HUP: How do you think the abandoned sessions would have gone?
Ian: They would have been very different recordings. They would have been great, either way... but they would have been different.
Rob: Yes, true, we would’ve learned lots and done things a bit differently in the studio, but Scott has been amazing and got us to where we want to be.
HUP: He’s a one-man institution.
Rob: He is. Legend and a gent.
HUP: You’ve gone from a solo kick-around project to a gigging line-up, now a well-recorded group with a Real Digital Presence... is there a goal in mind? Or just a track to keep travelling down?
Rob: Honestly, I don't know! I can’t believe it’s gotten this far. It’s a very good thing to have in my life - finding these people to be in a band with, who like the same things and have a similar level of ambition - not that much, but just enough. I’m lucky as.
Ian: I think the main goal is to just enjoy ourselves. I would love for the songs to get a wide audience, and for people to appreciate them. I'm not counting on being able to give up the day job.
Rob: I don't want it to end - writing songs, covering cool songs, playing neat shows, having fun. It's a hobby for sure, but it's a buzz and so much fun.
HUP: How much does playing neat shows and having fun rely on the state of the local scene?
Rob: Good question. I don’t know really. A decent venue is important for any scene, obviously, and we have that. Never, in Frankton, is coming on the scene, and there’s the Meteor too so there’s enough places. I think we need a proper music bar that’s open all the time though, for 'those people' to hang out and meet, drink, talk, form bands, listen to music etc. If I had the money...
HUP: If we're lucky this pandemic will crash inner-city property prices, drive out everyone who complains about noise, and set the scene free!
Rob: I mean, that sounds amazing! The scene I know is mostly older people who go for a beer and to listen and watch rather than much else, but that’s cool. I'm quite old now but I don’t like old person music... or do I? God, I never thought of it like that.
HUP: I have a sneaking suspicion that guitars = old person music these days, but I don't care to check. As one of our more established groups, is Bitter Defeat better-placed to have fun and find listeners no matter what, or are you more reliant on venues and ears to get what you want out of it all?
Ian: Are we well established?
HUP: By Hamilton standards, absolutely.
Rob: REALLY?! Jeepers!
HUP: Name me a non-Dunedin band that's been on the Radio One top 11 without counting as established. [The week of this interview saw Light That Shines voted #9 on the Otago student station’s weekly countdown]. I'll wait.
Rob: Haha, fair enough. Quietly stoked about that btw, good on ya, Ōtepoti. We lucked in with [opening slots for] The Bats and Hamish Kilgour. They were good to get the name out there. And Phil on the HUM has been very supportive. I reckon if we keep the filter high and release decent tunes and get better at playing live, we'll do alright.
Ian: I think the way things are playing out, online is a really important outlet for us currently. If this is any measure, our followers on Facebook are up 4600% in the last week; that has been from the release of one song, rather than the two years of gigging.
Rob: Ian is the band statistician, and not just cos it has -ian in it either. Statistic(ian)! There’s another song to write.
HUP: Some of those 4600% are going to be from ages away, like Dunedin, for example.
Statistic(ian): Interestingly, a lot of the new fans are from the UK!
HUP: You have the means to keep those fans without ever being in the same room as them. Does that appeal to you guys?
Ian: I'm stoked about the airplay on Radio One. If you had asked me a week ago what a measure of success would be for a band at this stage, charting on a student radio countdown would be it. I'm going to have to raise my expectations now.
Rob: And of course one day we will go there and play, on the great road trip we have in our heads. I’m really looking forward to releasing an EP on record, and a wee tour playing nice little shows around the place. And, of course, playing here to people who are into the music.
HUP: How many tracks will be on the EP?
Rob: 4 songs on the EP.
HUP: And when’s it coming out?
Rob: That depends on format - will we do a record or not? - and the lead-times involved. It might just be CD but it will be a financial decision really. 150 records is about $2,000 to press, which is a big chunk of change. We could record another 5-6 songs for that.
[Hi, readers. Light That Shines is available via Bandcamp as a name-your-own price download. You could, for example, name $2,000 as your price. Just an idea - Ed.]
HUP: How different was the dynamic in the studio vs practice or performance?
Ian: I think we were all genuinely a bit nervous going into the studio. We all started this band a bit out of our comfort zones: Rob not having sung before, Julian on bass rather than guitar, Ben and I not having really been in bands before. (And me not really being musical, at all!) Kathryn [on drums] was probably the most comfortable on her instrument coming in. In the practice room, we probably have more of the lo-fi ethic... that it doesn't matter if you play some bung notes. The stakes were higher in the studio.
Rob: Dynamic-wise, it was more focused, but reasonably relaxed I think, lots of excitement. It was good overall - two half days and we were all done. Really neat process. Scott was amazing. We tried to get as much as we could, live. On day one we did a couple of setup hours then live takes of Better, Long Lash and some bad Light That Shines.
HUP: Light That Shines came out brilliantly.
Rob: We couldn’t get Light That Shines on day one. Then on day two: first take, done.
HUP: What was up on day one?
Ian: My family came in on the morning of day two. Having the audience made us up the game, I think. And it gave Rob people to play up to.
Rob: We did a bit of patching up of bits where needed, and Scott tweaked some in post-production too, but overall we're stoked. All the songs are different, but I think we're really all excited about the next one because it sounds, if I can say it, grrrreat.
HUP: Rob, Light That Shines is about your Nan, yeah?
Rob: Yes, when I saw her last she was 97, asleep in an old folks’ home. She didn't know I was there, but the light was coming through the window catching her silver hair. Just a picture in my head.
HUP: That's a beautiful image.
Rob: I cried like a baby! My daughter never met her and had been looking forward to meeting her at last. But she [Nan] was out of it and not able to see or talk to her. We all cried loads.
HUP: The lyrics could be quite sombre, but you went in another direction and sang something celebratory.
Rob: Yes, Nans are really great. Mine was. So many ace memories. And even though it’s a sad image, it was lovely because my daughter and I were both super-sad together. There’s something oddly grounding about shared grief, I think.
HUP: What does your daughter think of the song?
Rob: She loves it, haha. All the bloody comments on YouTube are her and her friends - “so lit”, etc.
Ian: If you think that's meaningful, wait until you hear Long Lash.
HUP: I was about to ask you to wrap things up with a plug, but Ian's just nailed it.
Rob: There you have it!
Light That Shines is out now on Bandcamp (for those who want to flick the band a couple of bucks), Spotify (for cheapskates), and YouTube (where you can comment on how lit it is).
This interview has been heavily edited to remove a bunch of emoji, some atrocious spelling, a 15-minute detour into gnome-related facts and puns, some terrible banter about metal detection as a hobby, and a photo of the interviewer playing a tiny violin.