Older, deeper Feel­ings

Af­ter decades apart, early Dunedin band Sneaky Feel­ings has re­formed, writes Grant Smithies.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

Cer­tain words should never be used in mu­sic jour­nal­ism. One of them is ‘‘in­cen­di­ary’’, as rou­tinely ap­plied to flashy gui­tar so­los. An­other is ‘‘sopho­more’’ for a band’s sec­ond al­bum, a term only Amer­i­cans un­der­stand from their sopho­more year in high school.

And who­ever it was who first de­cided it was OK to call a fe­male singer a ‘‘songstress’’ should be taken out into a field and shot.

Here in New Zealand, we need a mora­to­rium on the word ‘‘jan­gling’’, as ap­plied to the plan­gent, ring­ing gui­tars of early Fly­ing Nun bands, par­tic­u­larly those who shiv­ered into life in 1980s Dunedin.

A press re­lease ar­rived re­cently an­nounc­ing that Dunedin band Sneaky Feel­ings had re­formed and was to play its first live gig in a quar­ter cen­tury at an up­com­ing mu­sic fes­ti­val in Auck­land.

‘‘A clas­sic from the Fly­ing Nun sta­ble, Sneaky Feel­ings will bring their melodic charm to the stage at The Others Way,’’ it read.

‘‘Formed in the early 1980s, the band’s multi-voiced har­monies, jan­gling rhythms and shared song­writ­ing made them many fans over the years, draw­ing com­par­isons with 60s folk­ers The Byrds and Elvis Costello.’’

Jan­gling! In truth, Sneaky Feel­ings jan­gled a good deal less than many of their con­tem­po­raries. They made agree­ably spindly gui­tar pop that was el­e­gant and thought­ful and sad, and they didn’t really get their due the first time around as a host of stranger, louder, cooler bands hogged the lime­light.

How un­ex­pected and mar­vel­lous to see them back to­gether.

‘‘Yes, and it’s the orig­i­nal 80s line-up too,’’ says singer/gui­tarist Matthew Ban­nis­ter from his Hamil­ton home. ‘‘Me, Martin, David and John. What can I say? We’re back.’’

Now a cul­tural stud­ies lec­turer at Waikato In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Dr Ban­nis­ter moved to New Zealand from his na­tive Scot­land at 17.

A few years later, his fledgling band ap­peared along­side The Ver­laines, The Chills and The Stones on Fly­ing Nun’s feted Dunedin Dou­ble EP, and soon after­wards pro­duced one of the la­bel’s great­est early LPs: their 1983 de­but al­bum Send You, a mi­nor clas­sic largely built around Dave Pine’s be­trayed lover bal­lads and Ban­nis­ter’s chim­ing gui­tar.

The band played a heap of gigs, made other fine records, toured Europe twice, then split in 1989.

Ban­nis­ter played in other bands while pur­su­ing his aca­demic ca­reer. David Pine went on to be­come New Zealand High Com­mis­sioner in Malaysia, and bassist John Kelcher stood as a Greens can­di­date in Christchurch dur­ing the last gen­eral elec­tion.

They got back to­gether briefly in the early 90s to pro­mote the reis­sue of their de­but al­bum.

‘‘These days, David and John live in Christchurch, Martin [Dur­rant]’s in Welling­ton and I’m in Hamil­ton. But we’ve been get­ting to­gether spo­rad­i­cally at John’s home stu­dio to record an al­bum, which should be out in the next few weeks.’’

Sched­uled for re­lease on the band’s old la­bel Fly­ing Nun, the al­bum is en­ti­tled Progress Junc­tion. Im­ages arise of a cru­cial cross­roads, for the band, for New Zealand, for the whole freakin’ world.

‘‘Ac­tu­ally, Progress Junc­tion is a real place in the South Is­land, near where John grew up in Reefton. There’s a gold mine there, I think. But yes, we thought it was a nice, ironic sort of name.’’

Just like the old days, each band mem­ber con­trib­utes a few songs. And it’s been pretty easy to work to­gether again, says Ban­nis­ter. Sneaky Feel­ings never ex­ploded in a hot flash of an­i­mos­ity like so many other bands.

‘‘We all parted at the end of the 80s to go to uni, get jobs or what­ever. It was a rea­son­ably am­i­ca­ble split, so we’re happy to get back to­gether again. We can still con­trib­ute ideas to one an­other’s songs be­cause we still value one an­other’s opin­ions. And I like the fact that this band is so demo­cratic. We were al­ways four peo­ple work­ing to­gether, rather than a leader-and­fol­low­ers sort of model, which cre­ates a lot of stress within bands. When you’re the leader, ev­ery­one’s al­ways wait­ing for you to write them some more songs. In a democ­racy, you can al­ways lean on some­one else to take the lime­light for a while, which takes some pres­sure off.’’

The sound of the new record is not hugely dif­fer­ent to the mu­sic they were mak­ing in the 80s, says Ban­nis­ter.

‘‘It’s still gui­tar pop-rock. Martin still writes soul-based pop songs, David’s still good at writ­ing at­mo­spheric lyrics and telling sto­ries, and John’s song­writ­ing has de­vel­oped a lot, which gives a strong new voice to the group. And my songs are vaguely con­tem­po­rary, I guess. I talk about liv­ing in New Zealand in these times we’re in, and, you know… re­tire­ment homes.’’

Re­tire­ment homes? Do Sneaky Feel­ings con­sider them­selves the geri­atrics of the lo­cal in­die pop scene?

‘‘Well, yes, I guess, you could say that, but we aren’t the only ones. There’s a lot of us around. There’s clearly a big mar­ket out there for geri­atric rock.’’

Too true. Nos­tal­gia is a ma­jor driv­ing force in the mu­sic in­dus­try these days. Wit­ness the end­less stream of ‘‘clas­sic al­bum’’ reis­sues and re­union tours. That’s un­der­stand­able. The mu­sic you once loved has a pow­er­ful con­nec­tion with the per­son you once were. It’s a strong emo­tional short-cut for peo­ple, back to more care­free times that were of­ten among the hap­pi­est of their lives.

A lot of those squeez­ing up the front when Sneaky Feel­ings takes the stage at The Others Way fes­ti­val will be wist­ful cit­i­zens who thrashed their early records in stu­dent flats 30-odd years ago.

‘‘That’s prob­a­bly true. But at the same time, we’ll be show­cas­ing an al­bum of new songs among older songs peo­ple al­ready know. It will be strange be­ing on stage again. It’ll be our first Auck­land gig since 1992, so that’s 25 years. We were just gonna re­lease the al­bum, then Fly­ing Nun of­fered us this gig. The mu­sic mar­ket’s changed now. Peo­ple don’t just buy records any more; they want to see you live as well.’’

Sneaky Feel­ings will be what Amer­i­can con­cert pro­mot­ers call a ‘‘legacy act’’ at this in­ner-city fes­ti­val.

Now in its third year, The Others Way of­fers a looser, cheaper, less fi­nan­cially risky al­ter­na­tive to all those thou­sands-of-peo­ple-in-a-noisy-field fes­ti­vals with ma­jor in­fra­struc­ture is­sues and ex­pen­sive over­seas head­lin­ers.

It’s more ur­ban and in­ti­mate, with dozens of bands spread among a host of smaller venues up and down Auck­land’s Karanga­hape Road, in­clud­ing Bic Runga, Lawrence Ara­bia, ris­ing star Kane Strang, Welling­ton synth-pop mae­stro Disas­tera­dio, vis­it­ing Van­cou­ver garage band The Court­neys and Toko­roa-born techno pro­ducer turned Hare Krishna monk Den­ver ‘‘Mi­cro­nism’’ McCarthy, who is fly­ing back from Bris­bane to play his first live show in a cou­ple of decades.

And, of course, there’s Sneaky Feel­ings. They are very dif­fer­ent men from the cal­low youths who put out the Sen­ti­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion al­bum in 1986, the songs mar­i­nated in re­gret as they pon­dered dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships from the per­spec­tive of ro­man­tic novices in their early 20s.

Now they’re all grown up, in re­la­tion­ships, with kids. The ac­cu­mu­lated wis­dom and pain of the in­ter­ven­ing decades must have in­formed their new sound, surely?

‘‘Well, yes. These new songs have a lot more top­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal con­tent. Over time, you live in places and be­come con­cerned with those places, and also more con­cerned with how the wider world might af­fect the lives of your kids. So there are songs about Christchurch and the earthquakes, be­cause two of our mem­bers are liv­ing there, and there are songs specif­i­cally deal­ing with what it means to live here in New Zealand... And then there’s that re­tire­ment vil­lage song, of course, which seems ap­pro­pri­ate, given our ad­vanc­ing years.’’ ❚

The Others Way Fes­ti­val 2017 takes place across mul­ti­ple venues along Auck­land’s K Rd this Fri­day.

PHO­TOS: JEREMY FREE­MAN

Sneaky Feel­ings - from left, Martin Dur­rant, John Kelcher, David Pine and Matthew Ban­nis­ter - is re­leas­ing a new al­bum and will play bou­tique Auck­land fes­ti­val, The Others Way.

Dunedin band Sneaky Feel­ings the first time around in the 1980s.

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