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