I N T E R V I E W
Michel Rowland of Disjecta Membra
by Ian Duggan
(Photograph by Alexander Hallag)
One of the major aims of Hamilton Underground Press is to enable musical and artistic happenings in Hamilton. One way of facilitating this is if new and current bands can gain insights from bands that have had success in the past, on how they went about promoting themselves and how they found their success.
In this interview I am talking to Michel Rowland from Disjecta Membra, who have been described as New Zealand's leading gothic band. Michel formed Disjecta Membra in Hamilton in 1993, and since 1997 has been primarily based in Wellington, broken by a short stint back in Hamilton in the mid-2000s. An obvious measure of the band’s success is that they have had their music played in clubs and on the radio overseas, particularly in the UK, Germany and Australia, and their songs have been released on both international and New Zealand compilations.
HUP: Michel, what do you consider the greatest achievement of Disjecta Membra?
Michel: Terms like ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ mean different things to different people, which makes that very difficult to quantify. The prospect of fame and fortune, for example, has never directly influenced or determined what we were trying to achieve. Otherwise I’d be obliged to deem the entire venture an unmitigated failure. But perhaps where Disjecta Membra has achieved the most would be in terms of attaining certain creative goals that were important for personal reasons – just being able to do what we do well, and take pride in that. It follows naturally that eventually, a certain level of recognition or respect also comes hand-in-hand with achieving those objectives.
In terms of the kinds of measurable achievements that I imagine the question was probably driving at, though, I think we’re generally regarded as the first New Zealand ‘goth’ band to achieve an international audience of any particular note. We’ve been released and distributed by international labels; we’ve had a few underground ‘hits’ with specialist clubs and radio; and we’ve played with some of our favourite international artists when they've toured New Zealand.
But like I say, according to my own criteria, Disjecta Membra's greatest achievements have more to do with remaining committed to personal ideals, without compromising for the sake of more immediately gratifying or easily quantified measures of success, and as a result, eventually earning respect and recognition on those terms.
HUP: Who were some of the international artists that you have played with?
Michel: Probably the most notable examples would be Death in June, Peter Murphy, Peter Hook & The Light and just recently, Mick Harvey & the Intoxicated Men. Growing up I was very strongly influenced by 'dark' post-punk bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division and The Birthday Party, so naturally the opportunity to play shows with Messrs Murphy (Bauhaus), Hooky (Joy Division/New Order) and Harvey (Birthday Party/Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) over the last eighteen months or so has been very gratifying.
Obviously it's also an effective way of getting heard by a larger audience who appreciate what we're doing. The more of those shows we play and get a good response for, the more I suppose it reinforces our reputation as a good choice for promoters to book when they're touring similar acts in the future.
But I think it's important to only play shows opening for bands that you're genuinely a fan of, or that your music is at least going to be compatible with. I've seen some truly awful mismatched supports over the years; some tour promoters will just fill the spot with whoever they've got on their books, and plenty of bands seem happy enough to get up in front of a big room full of people who are just destined to hate them, all for the sake of the ‘exposure’. My advice to bands would be not to just jump at every opportunity that comes your way, but to instead think carefully about how you place yourselves in the bigger picture, so to speak.
I think that's part of why people respond well to Disjecta Membra when we do play support to visiting bands. We're only ever there because we genuinely admire and respect the main act. We get their fans and they get us, because we're part of that community ourselves, and we're committed to having some part to play in putting on a show that means as much to us as it does to everyone else in the room. I think that all makes a difference.
It's also important to think not just about opportunities to get better exposure for your own band, but also how you and your band can contribute to growth in your own music community, by helping other people out. We've played support for a lot of lesser-known underground bands from overseas doing DIY tours on a shoestring budget; bands who didn't really have any kind of pre-existing audience in New Zealand before they came out here. People like Eve of Destiny from Japan or Masses from Melbourne stand out as a couple of my favourite examples, but I'm always talking to friends in Australia whose bands I'd like to help get over here. I'm excited about a lot of new and emerging groups and 'scenes' that folks here in New Zealand haven't been exposed to yet, and I like to get involved in some way or another just for the sake of helping to make more cool shit happen here. Doing gigs like that is good for everyone involved, because it helps to build your scene, so I strongly recommend that too; not just the stuff that raises your own profile in an immediately obvious kind of way.
HUP: Has your success been greatest in New Zealand, or do you think you have you been appreciated more greatly overseas?
Michel: Without question, we’ve always had a larger audience overseas than at home. That mainly comes down to logistics, though. New Zealand has a small population, so the potential audience here for a band that already has a fairly specialised target market is pretty minuscule. It’s only logical that the audience for what we do would be bigger in more populous regions.
Another factor is that we’ve never had domestic distribution from a New Zealand label, or any kind of backing or support at all from within the commercial New Zealand music industry, where the market for what we do is generally not well understood. But we were fortunate early on to get a good deal with a boutique Australian label who had distributors in the UK, Europe and US, so obviously that was incredibly important. It’s difficult to gauge how many people here at home might have also bought our discs had they been more readily available outside of our live shows, without having to import them from offshore distributors.
We’ve never toured overseas, though, so it would be a mistake to overstate our international following. Being able to sell more discs or downloads in the UK or Australia than we can plausibly shift in New Zealand is one thing, but that's entirely different from achieving the sort of fanbase that a good touring band can build up. And while our potential audience is inevitably going to be bigger in bigger territories, if you're looking at touring large continents like North America or Europe, for instance, then fans of underground bands operating within niche genres are also going to be spread out across some vast distances. Per city, the concentration of Disjecta Membra followers is therefore generally lower overseas than it is in the main centres here, where we've been able to build up those local live audiences. If we were to head off next month on a tour of Europe as a headlining act, then with a few notable exceptions I think it’s unlikely that we’d pull the sorts of crowds from town-to-town that we might normally play to in Auckland or Wellington on a good night.
So, lack of local industry support aside, I'd have to say that I’m very grateful for the 'grass roots' level of support Disjecta Membra has managed to build up and maintain at home over the years. In Wellington especially, there are faces I've seen at nearly every show we've ever played. Some of those people have been coming to see us for around twenty years. Auckland audiences are likewise great to play to, but we don't get up there as often as I'd like these days. I don't know that we've always deserved that level of loyalty from our fans either. I've exercised some very poor judgment in my past that definitely affected my ability to deliver as a musician and performer, as well as polarising the people around me on a personal level, so the fact that we've been lucky to come out the other side of that with an audience intact isn't something I would take for granted. We still enjoy being able to reach new crowds too, which is where opening for touring international bands has been beneficial. It's sometimes been a bit too easy to assume that our 'success' at home has been more-or-less proportionate to our potential local audience, and to become quite complacent with that, but then I’m often pleasantly surprised by how many opportunities there still are for us to keep expanding on that following.
HUP: Looking back, were there any key things you did, intentionally or inadvertently, that led to this success? In particular, what led to the opportunities that allowed you to have your songs included on internationally released compilations?
Michel: At the risk of stating the obvious, I think being good at what you do probably helps your chances at getting noticed more than anything else.
As far as compilations go, in the ‘90s we were signed to an independent Australian label, Heartland Records in Melbourne, who specialised in goth, darkwave and that sort of thing. Paul Cook who ran Heartland put us on a couple of the label’s own compilations, and licensed us to appear on other comps from some of his international distribution partners. I didn’t really do anything at all, aside from giving Paul the okay to do that for us, and of course I was very happy to.
Since then, most other compilations we’ve appeared on have just resulted from people contacting me and asking if we’d like to be involved. I can think of a couple of cases where I heard about a comp someone was putting out and felt like we should get in touch and submit something for it, but again there wasn't a lot of effort involved. We'd just send them the track and they'd put it out. There have also been a couple of local compilations that I was involved in some way with putting together, so again, there wasn’t exactly a great deal of trouble getting onto those.
Compilation appearances that came out in the mid-late ‘90s through people like Heartland in Australia or Nightbreed Recordings in the UK really helped us to draw in a wider audience for our material at the time. At that time, compilations were also one of the main ways we were able to hear new music from underground bands overseas that were doing something similar to us. That’s how we kept reasonably up-to-date with what was going on in the international gothic music community.
But as much as it was an important part of building that audience and establishing some kind of connection with the outside world early on, I definitely don’t see being on compilations as some kind of career-defining achievement for us. It's just a promotional tool, like any other.
It’s also important to point out that specialist compilations like that really don’t have the same reach or impact now that they had back then. Everybody has their music streaming online now, so you can easily sample as many bands as you like in any style or genre, without having to first send away to some little underground specialist label in Europe for a CD. Digital download compilations are probably slightly more effective, but they also need to provide a unique selling point – a theme, concept or exclusive content that will generate interest – otherwise they're every bit as obsolete as CDs have become. We do still contribute tracks to compilations, both digital and CD, but these days I very rarely hear from people who say they first heard of us from a compilation, whereas ten to twenty years ago, that was probably one of the main ‘entry points’ to our music for new fans. Ian Duggan