I N T E R V I E W
The Return of Beat Rhythm Fashion
with Ian Duggan
‘Beat Rhythm Fashion’ were active in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, releasing three excellent singles in '81 and '82 before disbanding. Later, in 2007, ‘Bring Real Freedom’ was released – an album containing the singles, their b-sides, as well as a series of live recordings. In 2018 the band are back again, with a soon to be released album of new recordings. We talked to Nino Birch and Rob Mayes about Beat Rhythm Fashion being back together, albeit with members in different counties, and the new album.
HUP: Firstly, you have a new album due out soon. What is it called, and when is it set to be released?
Nino: The album is called ‘Tenterhook’ and we aim to release in the next couple of months…
HUP: What has been your motivation for recording again as Beat Rhythm Fashion?
Nino: I had intended to do this with [my brother] Dan, but sadly he ran out of resilience, so it was a natural development that took shape when I set up my home studio. The other motivation of course is to speak to these challenging and interesting times and that is what this material does. Even though there are few of the early BRF songs reactivated, these songs have retained their relevance I feel. This re-emergence has been wholeheartedly encouraged and supported by Rob Mayes.
Rob: We talked about new material after the ‘Bring Real Freedom’ album landed in 2007, and the impact it had. People all over the world and people in New Zealand rediscovering and recognising the bands work. For me personally, I wanted that album to be the album the band would have made after the singles, with those fantastic live tracks fully realised, but of course we only had my live recordings to represent them. I always wanted to hear where the band would have gone next from that start point of majestic, beautiful, yet intelligently political and socio-political, songs. The band were peaceful anarchists at the time and they didn't sell songs about girlfriends, etc. The songs were always more poetic and deeper than that. This new album started out of some new songs Nino sent me. They had the same seeds as the BRF sound but with 30 years of travel in them. So as producer I tried to take Nino back to the leaving point of BRF, which was 1982-3, when they left for Australia and did different things. We picked a handful of songs from the live material that didn't get a proper studio outing and rebuilt them, then took them forward production-wise to what we can do now. Layered guitars and vocals. etc. The way we've done it has been very organic, in that we've let the songs grow naturally from the starting point of where BRF left off. It's like a time machine took the band forward to the present day and the music continued.
HUP: Nino, your brother Dan, who was the other central, constant figure in the band, died in 2011 (since the release of 2007s ‘Bring Real Freedom’). How has being without him affected what you are doing with Beat Rhythm Fashion now? Was it a difficult decision to record again under this name because of his passing?
Nino: This is Dan’s legacy. He is constantly in my thoughts throughout the creative process. I miss him each day. Dan and I remained extremely close ‘til he passed. His plan was to call our new band ‘Tenterhook’. I like the word and its meaning, in so far as the common consideration that our current global situation is well and truly on ‘tenterhooks’. I have done what I think he would have done had he been here and called the album ‘Tenterhook’.
HUP: The music you released in the early ‘80s had an atmospheric and somewhat haunting quality to it, particularly the magnificent singles ‘Turn of the Century’ and ‘Beings Rest Finally’. Your sound has been likened to Gang of Four, Joy Division and early The Cure, among others, though these are comparisons that I personally don’t think describe your sound particularly well. Are the new recordings of older songs revisited, or new compositions altogether? And does the material sound similar in style to your ‘80s songs, or is this a departure from what we might expect?
Nino: So yes, we have revisited four old BRF tunes: Optimism, Hard as Hell, Freezing Mr Precedent and Property. These have been fully rebuilt while by default BRF. You will hear a marked leap from the old tunes you can hear on the live disk, ‘Bring Real Freedom’. We have intentionally produced a ‘90s kinda sound here… [we] wanted plenty of edge and bite in beautiful clothes. The new material is all very BRF because it is me…. can’t do much else. [continued below]
HUP: Your videos and lyrics in ‘Turn of the Century’ and ‘Beings Rest Finally’ featured apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic imagery, perhaps as a result of being written during the Cold War. What are some themes that run through the new recordings? Is your outlook brighter today?
Nino: This new work is a natural thematic progression from early BRF. I am still writing about the same stuff though my style has evolved perhaps. I am still hammering people to question the landscape we are presented with and right now I feel there is an urgency for us all to step up and get activated with something that is contributing to bringing down the current model because it is fully broken. It is obscenely unjust and resistance to this is almost a duty now in my view. This is what BRF is about today.… more so than before. My future material will be shouting out to this current focus of our time. I wouldn’t say my material is brighter. However, I have grown up a little, as one would hope, so I am addressing the dialogue a little differently now. I still like to tell stories so each song I hope also does this in a way.
HUP: I know the recordings feature Caroline Easther on drums, who was the bands drummer before the bands break up. Who else are you working with now, and what are their roles? Are the songs written by you, or written with the other members?
Nino: All songs are written by me. And Dan of course, re: earlier songs and one of the new songs, Nothing Damaged, which is Dan’s lyric. Rob Mayes has stepped up to play bass and this is a major boon. Rob has become BRF family and has for me been like a patron saint… ha ha. I love Rob’s bass style and he has slotted in sweet. I have placed some grand piano, as I know Dan would have, and a few of the tunes have string sections in them. Core line-up: me, Rob and Caroline. The plan is to bring in a keyboardist for the gigs.
HUP: What has Failsafe Records Rob Mayes’ role been in this?
Nino: Rob has been integral and a driving force throughout the last few years. It was Rob who suggested the project when I started to send him some tunes just over two years ago. Now Rob is in truth core BRF; bass, production, creative shaping, and by default sharing my musical zone. I feel damn blessed to have struck this solid creative partnership.
Rob: My role in the project was as producer to channel the soul of the BRF sound and to keep the recordings focused on that sound, or what I perceived that sound to be. It is inherently what Nino, Dan and Caroline did and do. But from an outside perspective, it has a certain colour and shape to it that Nino says he can't always see as he is part of it.
Nino and Caroline have been involved in quite a few different styles of music. Nino is presently working with Salmonella Dub as vocalist, and has done all sorts of music in the 35 years since the last BRF recordings, and Caroline has been in some of the most iconic bands in New Zealand; The Chills, Verlaines, Spines, Let's Planet, Circus Block 4, Hobnail, and Barry Saunders Band.
When you're playing and loving all different kinds of music it's difficult to keep them separate, so that was part of my job; to filter and focus the sound and keep it true to the original intent of the band. Not that there was necessarily a conscious concept at the time, but there was an aesthetic. And artistic approach, a vibe in the political climate then, and earnestness and honesty to the delivery, and a world-weary cynicism and distrust, the anarchist post-punk of the time. It wasn't as simple as “make it sound '80s”, although I don't think BRF did sound '80s exactly. That wasn't it, and I don't think they were limited to that decades production styles. Their song writing was much, much more than just post-punk, or proto-shogazer/dream pop. There was something timeless about their music and it does stand up well to listen to today.
With the new songs I helped take some folk and bouncy pop elements out, and with the refocusing through working on those four original songs we managed to get right back in the zone and deliver a consistent sound across the album. I consciously stayed out of the song-writing process as much as I could and instead tried to set it up for Nino to be BRF; help him get in touch with that direction of music and channel those ideas down to tape. Nino really ran with that, and over the two years we've been recording it he's been sculpting and refining the ideas and delivering heartfelt performances. It's been great to see the songs develop and morph beyond their original three-piece bones into textured melodic works of beauty.
Bass-wise, although I would have been honoured to lay the bass parts down, I was trying to not take on too much alongside all the other projects I'm presently working on (25 albums scheduled for releases this year on Failsafe Records). We were initially working with guide tracks from Nino, and we wanted to stay true to Dan's original style as he was an integral part of the sound. The difficulty for us there is that Dan was a really good bass player with a definite style. It was fluid, punctuated, rolling. We started on the songs from the original set so we knew what Dan was playing already off the live recordings. It was a bit above our individual levels of playing so I contacted the most versatile bass player I knew who could do Dan's style; Greig Bainbridge, who was with Bill Direen's Builders. He was building his own home studio, so that was going to work with our writing and recording method for this project. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to get his studio up and running, so that slowed things. The songs took off and got quite demanding, so we needed to redo the bass lines and then new songs came into the set.
I originally wanted to keep my role to ‘Producer’, but I ended up biting the bullet and learning Dan's parts and his style, and since I was working on it every day with Nino. We kind of became a unit, and all the bass is now me. I've really upped my playing with the challenge of staying true to Dan's style, which funnily enough was a big influence on me and my own musical output in my bands Dolphin, Throw, Springloader, and Kimo. I even found an old cassette recording in my recent archive to digital dubbing of me playing the bass line to ‘Beings Rest Finally’ as a teenager. It's quite the honour to be able to play and make music with your music favourites, and participate in the music you love and that shaped your own taste.
Eventually I've become part of the process, and from the standing of “what would Dan do”, I've brought in what would Dan do next, which coincides with my own style in some ways. Melodic bass chords on the song 'Whatever', lead melodic lines, etc - all stuff Dan did in the original line up, which influenced my personal style as a youth, and I could bring back into the process. With that said I keep it in support of what Nino's laying down, keeping it focused on channelling his creative process. [continued below]
HUP: Caroline, Rob and yourself are all in different countries. How are you going about recording the songs under these circumstances?
Nino: We have recorded the album by sending stems between my studio, Rob's in Japan and Caroline at Surgery Studios with Andrew Downes. This has taken a little time of course but it has been a lot of fun and a fairly simple process. I have recorded most of my work in single takes. It is the way I like to work rather than dropping in. In truth, it’s all I had the recording smarts for!
Rob: Nino records in whole takes, partly because he works in the studio by himself and drop-ins and editing are difficult, but also because his deliveries are emotively driven and he gets himself into a zone that is contextual with the song, channels what the song is about and lays that down in a whole take start to finish. It's help get some really moving performances for the album, especially on songs like Dan, about losing his brother, and songs about the state of the world which Nino dedicates a large part of his life to working for. The honesty in the recording process and the content of the songs is very apparent in the material he's captured, which he sends to me and I mix into the sessions. That happens most days of the week. New parts come through and I blend them into what we've got and give suggestions on what we need and feedback on what we've got.
Nino: Rob whacked down bass and templates were sent to Caroline in Wellington. Once this core structure was strong I put ‘a little more clothes’ on the songs, and that’s where we are at now - just about to master and finalise artwork etc.
Rob: We've been working on it for a little over two years. Nino in his home studio in Bellingen [Australia] and me in my studio in Tokyo [Japan]. We are in contact every day, and talk about the songs, and do work on them almost every day. We would have loved to have recorded it all in one place together, but this is the next best thing on offer and helped three people in different cities combine musical forces to make one whole work.
HUP: How is the album being released?
Nino: The album will be released on all the standard media portals and the disc will be available online through Failsafe Records.
HUP: I understand you are going to play a limited number of shows. Where and when will these be?
Nino: We have no confirmed dates for New Zealand shows yet. It will happen later in the year and we will keep you posted…. we’ll do our best to sound the horn about it. I look forward New Zealand BRF live a great deal…it’s gonna be a blast. We would aim to do a handful of shows between both islands…
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