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.
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.’’