Mer­maid­ens dive deep

Welling­ton trio Mer­maid­ens is the lat­est sign­ing to renowned New Zea­land indie la­bel, Fly­ing Nun. Grant Smithies has a chat to them.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The wa­ter looks like pale green soup, flecked with float­ing leaves and sea­weed. But what’s this? Up through the murk swim two young women and a tall skinny bloke. The lat­est sign­ing to the es­teemed Fly­ing Nun record la­bel, the trio are wear­ing bright op-shop gowns over their togs, plas­tic flow­ers in their hair, wide smiles and un­rea­son­able sun­glasses.

Pop! They crack open a bot­tle of cham­pagne and perch on a clus­ter of rocks, half-sub­merged in Cook Strait and flanked by in­flat­able croc­o­diles.

‘‘Hi!’’ they say to the cam­era, as a wild churn of elec­tric gui­tars strafes the sound­track. ‘‘Wel­come to the cham­pagne rock pools!’’

I wanted to raise a glass my­self, so wel­come was their mix of fool­ish­ness, noise and charm.

My first in­tro­duc­tion to Welling­ton band Mer­maid­ens was via a par­tic­u­larly damp video clip made by RNZ’s dig­i­tal plat­form, The Wire­less.

Be­tween aquatic in­ter­view seg­ments, there were clips of gui­tarist Gussie Larkin, bassist Lily West and drum­mer Abe Hollingsworth play­ing at a street party and in their Newtown prac­tise room.

The short video cap­tured both their play­ful­ness and their skill, their goofi­ness and their abil­ity to rock out with power and pur­pose.

They told an in­vented band ori­gin story in which they were ‘‘out swim­ming with our dol­phin friends and de­cided we wanted to make mu­sic to­gether’’. The real story is a bit more pro­saic.

‘‘We’ve all known each other for­ever,’’ Larkin tells me by phone.

‘‘I’ve been friends with Abe since I was about 14. We went through some of our ado­les­cent years to­gether, dis­cov­ered bands to­gether, and went to see gigs.

‘‘Same with Lily. We just mu­tu­ally ad­mired each other at Welling­ton Girls’ Col­lege. I knew she was amaz­ing at art, and we just be­came friends. We had a mu­tual re­spect and sim­i­lar ear for sounds. We would timidly show each other these lit­tle songs we were writ­ing, and then we started to write to­gether in about the sev­enth form.’’

This was six or seven years ago. Since then there’s been an EP and a cou­ple of sin­gles, last year’s sel­f­re­leased Un­der­growth de­but al­bum, a bunch of gigs, a na­tional tour.

One of their songs fea­tures in Mi­randa Har­court and Stu­art McKenzie’s su­per­nat­u­rally spooky fea­ture film, The Changeover, re­leased this week. They even played a show along­side Welling­ton cham­ber choir, Nota Bene, in which Larkin’s mum is a singer.

Some­where along the way, Fly­ing Nun came call­ing, and new al­bum Per­fect Body is their first for the la­bel.

In short, it’s a ripper. You hear the rest­less art-school en­ergy of 1980s post-punk in it, though the songs some­times tog­gle be­tween brit­tle and bru­tal, drop­ping down into sludgy gloom-rock riffs that might raise a smile from Black Sab­bath.

De­spite the band’s aquatic lean­ings, there’s a dusty, sun­baked vibe too, re­call­ing the sprawl­ing, mesca­lin­ead­dled ‘‘desert rock’’ ex­per­i­ments of one of Larkin’s favourite bands, Queens of the Stone Age.

‘‘It’s re­ally dy­namic, right? There are lots of lay­ers of gui­tars and, um… big choirs of Lily and me! I’ve grown up singing in choirs so I love putting in all these high-con­trast lay­ers of lush vo­cal har­monies that you might not ex­pect in rock mu­sic.

‘‘But I’m also ob­sessed with how many tex­tures you can get from an elec­tric gui­tar. I have an­other band where I in­dulge that a lit­tle more and re­ally let loose on the fuzz. We’re called Earth Tongue – it’s a two-piece psych-doom-fuzz band.’’

Mer­maid­ens have pro­gressed a lot since their early record­ings, she says.

‘‘Per­fect Body feels more so­phis­ti­cated in both the song­writ­ing and the sound. It was cool to fo­cus on the gui­tar sound a lot more in­tently this time around, and Lily and I share the vo­cals. We’ve al­ways wanted our roles to be equal be­cause I re­ally love bands like Warpaint, where their mem­bers all write songs and swap in­stru­ments and so on.’’

Lis­ten­ing to it loud, you might think this was a record all about the gui­tar. Not so, says Larkin.

‘‘Lily’s bass is re­ally im­por­tant. Usu­ally my gui­tar and her bass are on dif­fer­ent jour­neys in our songs, rather than play­ing the ex­act same melody. She plays a heap of re­ally groovy bass riffs while I do some­thing very dif­fer­ent. Again, it’s about hav­ing no leader.

‘‘And Abe has such cool and unique beats, which is par­tially down to the fact that he’s never had a drum les­son in his life. He’s a very orig­i­nal, self­taught player and comes up with the weird­est things that add a re­ally dis­tinct voice to the record – he re­ally makes it sparkle.’’

Per­fect Body was recorded over a few months, and mixed by James Gold­smith.

‘‘Like a lot of bands, your first al­bum tends to be songs you’ve played live for years, but we wrote this al­bum with the stu­dio in mind, rather than just try­ing to cap­ture our live sound. We love bands like Warpaint, and peo­ple like PJ Har­vey, where women aren’t just sweetly strum­ming away, they’re chal­leng­ing, good gui­tarists in their own right, mak­ing risky mu­sic.

‘‘I would love to have seen more women do­ing that in bands when I was younger. I re­mem­ber see­ing [Faz­er­daze band­leader] Amelia Mur­ray in her own teenage band, The Tan­gle, in high school. They were all women and it was prob­a­bly the first time I saw girls close to my own age play­ing rock mu­sic. On some level, that prob­a­bly changed my life.’’

The band mem­bers are now all in their early 20s.

‘‘We all thought ‘if we’re gonna do the band thing, we bet­ter do it now, be­fore we all scat­ter around the place or have ba­bies or what­ever’.’’

It’s a ‘‘tran­si­tional time’’, she says, and that’s re­flected in the lyrics.

‘‘All our ma­te­rial be­fore was about the ocean and metaphors con­cerned with na­ture. There were some fairly gothic im­ages, I guess. Liv­ing in Welling­ton, the sea has al­ways been a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion, but this new record is a bit more di­rect and per­sonal. There’s a lot of talk about skin and bodies and phys­i­cal­ity, too. A lot of the songs deal with grow­ing up, both phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally. That thing of find­ing your place in the world.’’

Be­tween gigs, Larkin works for Ra­dio NZ and Welling­ton stu­dent sta­tion Ra­dio Ac­tive. She loves her day jobs, but on stage is where the magic hap­pens, when she plugs in, pow­ers up, and starts mak­ing a vivid ruckus along­side her two best mates.

‘‘Just get­ting the gui­tar tones sound­ing great and singing with some­one else over the top of that there’s noth­ing like it! It’s hugely ex­cit­ing and ad­dic­tive. I also love the fact that we’re a power trio. It’s a real chal­lenge get­ting that right, be­cause there’s no one else to hide be­hind. I’m the only gui­tarist, so I can’t just coast along while some­one else takes up the slack.

‘‘Per­fect Body gives a re­ally strong idea of what Mer­maid­ens is all about. I hope peo­ple love the big riffs and the va­ri­ety of gui­tar tones, and that they re­ally lis­ten closely to it, turned way up, rather than just put it on in the back­ground. It should be played loud so you can hear how dy­namic it is. It’s not an apolo­getic record; it’s com­mand­ing. I love that.’’

Welling­ton rock trio, Mer­maid­ens.

‘‘Our new al­bum’s not an apolo­getic record - it’s com­mand­ing.’’

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