Sensible Nonsense is a new column from Robert Ham taking us into the less-explored terrain of experimental music, giving us either a lay of the land or a map back home.
The career path of The Dead C isn’t an original one. The independent music world is cluttered with acts cranking out new material and playing shows to only a small faction of enthusiasts. But few groups have made these steps and sounds with the same reactionary fervor that this trio from New Zealand has done for nearly three decades.
“I think our career is a political activity,” says guitarist Bruce Russell. “We are trying to show how to do something differently from the way the industry wants us to operate, but this is implicit most of the time. We also don’t agree on everything, so there’s no ‘band platform’ other than the value of artistic freedom and independence.”
Again, this is a modus operandi that has been shouted from the rooftops here in the States since the ‘80s. Swap out Russell’s name for Ian MacKaye’s, and you wouldn’t bat an eyelash. The key difference is that Fugazi could very easily sell out a 10,000-seat venue in a large city in the US or Europe. For The Dead C, the best they could ever manage would be packing a small DIY space.
This has everything to do with the elegantly fucked music that Russell, guitarist/vocalist Michael Morley, and drummer Robbie Yeats create together. Sometimes it takes on structure, like on the detuned songs that make up some of their earliest work on their 1989 album Eusa Kills or moments from their monstrous LP Trapdoor Fucking Exit, released two years later. And at The Dead C’s core is the heart of a rock band, albeit one that plays, as Morley puts it, “a version of rock music that is slightly not as comfortable.”
The rest of the band’s output has been perfectly formless, with Morley and Russell forcing all manner of screeches, moans, rumblings, and crackles out of their guitars on the fly. For his part, Yeats plays rhythms that lean towards the straightforward, but it often feels like he’s trying to keep up with his bandmates — and make sure he can be heard above the din — rather than force them in a particular direction.
“It’s kind of like searching for those bits in rock music that are interesting and quirky, just trying to figure out ways to play music that aren’t repetitive,” says Morley. “I don’t know if we ever get there, but it’s fun trying.”
There are so many great examples of this approach throughout The Dead C’s vast discography, but the past 10 years have sounded like the band crystallizing their aesthetic. Last year’s Armed Courage was a startling statement: two long, unrelenting epics of Russell’s liquefied chaos, Morley’s bluesier squirms, and Yeats prodding himself along in fits and starts.
Even more heated is The Twelfth Spectacle, a recently released four-LP box set of live recordings taken from the past 12 years of the band’s sporadic concert calendar. The hallmarks of their sounds are there, but they shift and adapt within each location.
The set captured last year in the South of France takes its power from the name of the festival the trio was playing: Sonic Protest. Outside of small moments of quiet, the volume remains furious and tortured, as if the instruments and amplifiers were being eaten away from the inside and wailing in agony. The disc taken from a 2002 show at The Smell unfolds more slowly, with the guitars burbling and seething until all three players lock into a noise-punk groove that gets surprisingly close to the work of the venue’s unofficial house band, No Age. The New York performance from six years later, on the other hand, only picks up steam near the end of its nearly 42-minute running time. Everything leading up to that point builds off of Yeats’ tumbling drum rolls and a guitar tone that sounds like a small woodland creature being sexually violated (this disc is titled “Year of the Rat,” after all).
What may or may not surprise you about the live recordings is that none of them were captured in the band’s home country. Besides the fact that the three men don’t get a chance to tour much due to the financial strain it would put on them, they don’t play much at home because they’ve never really been accepted by the larger music community in New Zealand.
“We do get the respect of the minority who ‘get what we do,’” says Russell. “I’d say since about the turn of the century, we’ve been ‘established’ here in our niche. There are however still prominent naysayers in the tiny stagnant pool that passes for music criticism in this country. If we’re going to get dissed, it will happen here. The upside is that we don’t have to appear on stupid TV shows or participate in the bouts of public self-congratulation that small countries are prone to.”
The real tragedy of that disinterest is the fact that the members of The Dead C have some pretty strong roots in the New Zealand independent music scene. Yeats was a member of the beloved pop band The Verlaines for a number of years, and Russell had a job early on writing copy for the pioneering label Flying Nun Records. He was even able to convince its founder, Roger Shepherd, to release the first two Dead C LPs (Eusa Kills and 1987’s DR503).
“It also bugs me when commentators purport to be reflecting a complete picture of musical culture and totally omit us; I feel they should at least acknowledge that they are deliberately excluding us from consideration,” Russell insists. “The New Zealand government, for instance, has an agency charged with promoting the best of [the country’s] music. This body maintains an online database of NZ recording artists. It is very large, and we do not feature.”
So, although they’ve maintained a steady output of recordings, they’ve tended to find support on US imprints like Siltbreeze, Forced Exposure, and current home Ba Da Bing Records, all while releasing small runs of 7-inch singles and cassettes of their own work and other like-minded artists via their own labels, Xpressway, Corpus Hermeticum, and Language Recordings.
“I think we’ve always had the kind of idea that we’ll just engage with the music industry as it is,” says Morley. “And sometimes that doesn’t include what happens here because they don’t acknowledge what we do anyway, and then it always just seems simpler to bypass.”
The beauty of staying off the radar of the larger music world at home and, for the most part, around the world means that The Dead C can pretty much continue to do whatever they want. None of the three men can make an honest living from their art (all three support their efforts with day jobs), but that leaves them completely free of any outside input.
“We couldn’t hope to replicate our career if we were starting this side of the year 2000,” says Russell. “We were very lucky with our timing. It is so easy to disseminate recordings now, and so hard to get heard. We have a kind of tacit ‘no presence’ policy, where we do not maintain any official online status at all. We don’t try to shut anyone down, but we do tend to abstain from participating. It keeps our mystique slightly alive.”
Robert Ham is a freelance arts & culture writer based out of Portland, Oregon. He contributes to Alternative Press, Paste Magazine, eMusic, Tiny Mix Tapes, Portland Mercury, and others. Follow him on Twitter.