j. hex interview
(24th October 1999)
New Zealand musician Michael. J. Hex has been involved in the Christchurch music scene for a while now with his band Squirm and his solo projects. Described by some as the "home-recording God of Christchurch," Mike proves that you don't have to have the use of an expensive recording studio to create great songs. Through his label, Noseflute, he has been able to release not only his own and Squirm's albums, but also music by local musicians such as Fleur de Lis and The Dialtones. As a popular speaker at music seminars in Christchurch, Mike was able to give advice to other local musicians about the music scene and to show them that it is possible for them to produce and release their own music without the support of record companies. Mike recently moved to the city of Dunedin but he continues to release his music and support other New Zealand musicians.
Of his excellent debut solo release,"Johnny horse," which consisted of 20-odd 4-track compositions from the years 1993-1996, we said: "Mr Hex favours the scratchy, fragmented demo qualities of, say, Portastatic, with his understated tunes struggling through magnetic tape residue...it's Pavement on a greased roundabout." We were similarly enthusiastic about its later cousin, "The hiss explosion," which repeated the trick but with a cohesion that "Johnny horse" sometimes lacked: "This time the songs are drawn from a single year, 1997, and thus share a common thread, but no less hiss. They comprise a slower, more contemplative set, introspective but still experimental..."Drone" and "Loop" are self-descriptive bumbling, muddy flashes of brilliance."
Skate McLeavey is our on-the-spot reporter.
Skate: How did you get started in the music scene in Christchurch?
Mike: I started probably early 90s playing with other people and it was around that time that I formed a band with Brett Lupton called Squirm. We decided that we liked the idea of doing stuff ourselves and recording ourselves on anything that was going, and I suppose you could say not spending a lot of money on the recording side of things but liking the results that we came up with anyway so that's sort of when the whole 4 track thing started really. I had also done a whole lot of recording at home by myself and I ended up with a lot of recordings and I thought that I should do something with them, put something out or it would all go to waste. So I put out "Johnny horse" which was mainly lots of little ideas and it sort of came together by putting all those little ideas together. For me it made sense although I think some people might have found it a bit long, but every song on that album (to me) fitted with each other and it was like one long.. I suppose.. documentation of where I was at and what I was into.
SK: Early 90s New Zealand Music, Flying Nun, and the Flying Nun ethic of low fi recording. Did you ever think of going to Flying Nun or was it just a solo thing, just bringing out your own music?
M: I think with Squirm we did talk to people at Flying Nun and I suppose had a lot of people taking Squirm tapes to Flying Nun and saying "hey this is great" and "what about this band?" I think my Flying Nun connection was in the 80s when I saw a lot of their bands when the label first started. What really influenced me the most, I would say, was seeing the Kilgour brothers or the Jefferies brothers or a lot of the bands that were round the periphery of that era and I thought they had something really unique. It was only drums, bass and guitar but there was something they had captured that I really liked. It was quite honest and no-frill and there was no massive production---a lot of the stuff was recorded in bedrooms---but they just captured something that I wanted to capture as well.
What's influenced me the most in music altogether wasn't, I suppose, overseas bands, it was mainly the bands from New Zealand in that era. As the 90s rolled on and Flying Nun moved to Auckland and I suppose their focus changed a little bit, I still looked upon them as the only logical label that I could think of in New Zealand that was a major independent that my music suited. But, I don't know, I sort of feel with Flying Nun that their focus has changed a bit and I suppose that's what you get with a company that's 10, 15 years old. The bottom line is you've gotta make money in the end to keep it going so I don't have any animosity or anything about say of that period with Squirm not getting signed to Flying Nun or anything, I think in fact it made me as an independent stronger. I just do what I want to do and if someone like Flying Nun eventually picks me up then so be it but I 'm not going to change to or try and attract that kind of interest. I'm gonna just keep playing what I do and if it happens to come into flavour then great but if it doesn't then I will still be there in the background documenting what I do I suppose.
As far as how to run a label goes, the Xpressway label my bigger influence. I sort of looked upon how they did it and how they attracted overseas interest and how they ended up where they are now---quite well respected and having documented a hell of a lot of stuff. And I think that's what I would like to do, I would like to document a whole lot of stuff and I think with the CD-R now it's a lot easier to do that and get people to actually listen to it as opposed to a tape. I think I sort of followed their lead in a way as of approaching overseas labels and writing to the same sort of people that picked them up. And that's where I put a whole lot of my focus as opposed to New Zealand and how I'm doing in New Zealand.
SK: With Noseflute records you've been bringing out your own stuff but you also brought out other local musicians as well. Fleur de Lis did something on your label recently.
M: Yeah she did a lathe cut from Geraldine. There's another band Centre Will Hold that I'm working with more closely now who have got a limited edition CD-R coming out very soon. But getting back to Fleur de Lis she's still sort of.. they're in the background, she's got the Dialtones happening. I'm sort of hoping that eventually they will record a CD worth of material and want to put it out on Noseflute but it's always hard to get to that stage especially in the South Island, especially in Christchurch. You have to be committed if you're going to put something out independently, you have to come up with quite a lot of bucks and you're gonna have to commit that money and you're gonna have to stay focused until you get the thing out and I think that's were a lot of people fall short. They find it maybe too overwhelming or too much work to do.
But it's all changing now with the Internet and MP3 and CD-Rs and you don't have to spend a whole heap of money to get your music heard. Especially with MP3, which is something, I've checked out recently, I can see that growing and almost being the market for music in the future. There will always be record shops people will always want to hold the thing in their hand but you know I can see MP3 especially growing bigger and bigger and a lot of people just shopping on the net for their music. So that's an area I want to go. It's the only logical way to go unless some major label comes along and says hey we'll let you run Noseflute as some sort of umbrella label but we'll be backing you, but I can't ever see that happening unless I start selling thousands and thousands of CDs,
SK: I was wondering what the process is for bringing out a local band on your label. What do you do for that local band? Do you promote them or do you put money yourself into their recordings?
M: Well I suppose I don't really have a lot of money to offer them. The only thing I can offer them is... like with the Centre Will Hold they have been fans of Squirm and they have been fans of Hex albums and they just wanted to put something out on Noseflute so I think that's what we are really about. It's just about people who're not so fussed about getting all of the attention and just want to put their music out. I can offer them maybe my experience and fire their CDs in places I think will help them the best and that's what I plan to do with them. It comes down to what the band wants back from it and what [Centre Will Hold] want back is to just get their music heard and maybe sell a few. You know, they're not looking at trying to move thousands of copies of anything and getting on TV. Their focus is much like my focus so that's the kind of bands I think I attract: people who just want to maybe get their music out and maybe fire a few overseas to places who I found have been really receptive. I think it's just wanting to take the same avenue that I'm taking.
SK: The New Zealand music industry now is less alternative and more corporate rock like The Feelers.
M: Major labels in this country have finally woken up and thought there is a lot of really good bands out there that are playing semi-mainstream music. And if they spend hundreds of thousands on them like they did with The Feelers, they'll sell records. I mean I'm a bit cynical, but I think you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on anything and it's gonna sell a lot of records. The promotion they got was phenomenal but I think the labels are waking up and are putting these bands out and are realising that they can make money off them. But I still don't look at that as New Zealand music. I mean it's New Zealand bands making music so I suppose it is New Zealand music but I'm more interested in the cultural side. People are bringing out music that in 10 years time is still going to be interesting. I think a lot of the successful New Zealand bands at the moment are just carbon copies of something overseas. Unfortunately all our kids have watched is like the top 5% of American music, usually, and it's like we've got these carbon copies that sound like these bands and they like them. Something would be wrong if they didn't because that's all they've seen.
There's a side of New Zealand music that does very well overseas and doesn't do very well in this country and the only time they do very well in this country is because overseas have made such a big noise about them. And I think it's that sort of music that is gonna be remembered more than say the latest flavour that's come out in New Zealand. It's gonna be those recordings that have sold thousands overseas but have probably sold under a hundred here. No-one's heard of these bands and yet they're very well respected. It's like that's New Zealand music to me, it's those bands. Anything else to me is just industry puppets, just money making machines that's all they are. They are there just to sell units. The people have got to look good, they've got to dress right, they've got to do what the people say pretty much.. and it would probably be great to be in that limelight for a few months, but I just think it seems like the music industry turning into this big ugly, "let's see how much money we can make out of it" kind of thing.
There is so much ugly---god damn what do you call it---candy pop crap. It's like it's just eating itself and, I don't know, I just really dislike the music industry the side of it that makes the money. To me that's just nothing I want to really be a part of, I just want to be documenting my music and selling enough to make the next and if anything more happens above that then that's a bonus. I still haven't got to that stage where I can put out my next record funded by my last because I don't have thousands of dollars to promote that record and to sell all those copies, but you know I'll get there and doing it at my own speed and my own pace I don't think I could have it any other way.
SK: I was going to say that the Dead C got in the top 100 albums in some huge overseas music magazine. There's this big trend at the moment to support NZ music and we've got maybe this ridiculous youth radio network. It's like they say they support New Zealand music cause they listen to The Feelers, Stellar and Garageland. But although many new bands are going for that sanitised rock we've still got the underground scene. Why does New Zealand have to have an attitude where we have to mock our music, it's seen as this crappy alternative Flying Nun stuff?
M: We have to have it sounding like overseas for us to understand it. But those bands are still good in a way that they are creating interest for New Zealand music and hopefully the money and the interest they create might trickle down to the musician on the street through grants or just through the hype that those bands have made. But if history's to go by then that money will stay within the industry it was created from. I hate nothing more than people saying this is NZ music. They don't seem to look at it as cultural or unique. It's not a reflection of their surroundings, it's a reflection of what they've seen come from overseas for the last 10 years. How do we identify as New Zealanders when all we see is American sitcoms and carbon copies on our television? To get a culture... and this is what I thought we had happening in the 80s, I thought we had something really unique happening. I don't know what happened but something got lost along the way I really thought we had some really unique bands and they were taking it to the world and they were getting good feedback and then it just seemed that the plug was pulled on a lot of these acts because they weren't making the big big dollars. You know, I think you have to start somewhere and if they had cultivated that scene more then you know I think we would be a lot further as in where we are perceived from overseas. That's just my opinion.
SK: I don't know what it is about the NZ mentality. Anything artistic, cultural or unique we've just got to bag it and not bother with it.
M: It's such a dying breed in New Zealand that artistic thing, it seems like they're always fighting for more money. No matter what sort of artist it is they're always fighting for money and it just seems like NZ will never get a good cultural musical art base unless they spend a lot more money into the areas where it is getting made.
It was never about how many could we sell of this. I was really quite naive when I did "Johnny horse." I just gave away copies left right and centre and thought great I've got it out I want people to hear it. I didn't think about I better sell the right amount in this amount of time it just never crossed my mind and that's something I suppose that all independents learn because none of us are really businessmen. We're musicians and we have to learn this way of marketing ourselves that a lot of us aren't very good at. And if I look at that I think I sit with a lot of my friends who are musicians I think we all sit at the top because we're making original music that might be unusual or it might be just something a bit different and I think that we're really trying to push boundaries whereas down the ladder there are these other things that are just copying things, they just seem to be money makers that's all I look at them like. I mean I'm sure all these people in these bands are serious musicians and they want to do this that and the next thing... I don't know I just find people like that are in a totally different head space than what I'm at. There's two musicians: there are the ones that want to make it and be stars and then there are the ones who just want to just play music and realise that's all they know and that's what they want to do all the time.
SK: So what are your plans now?
M: My wife Hannah and I are moving to Dunedin for maybe a year or 18 months and then hopefully get over to Melbourne. And eventually get over to Europe and meet up with some of these people I have been writing to especially Michael Canning in London who's sort of been a big supporter. He's taken a few cds off my hands and I would really like to link up with him and do a bit of stuff over there. We are sort of... at the moment he will do a rhythm track and... sort of doing an international 4 tracking experiment where he's sending rhythm tracks to me and I finish them off and I send a rhythm track to him and finishes that off under the Canhex Limited name. So we'll see what happens with that. I'm quite happy to continue recording and to see what the future holds really especially with Dunedin I'm quite curious about just what will come of heading down there and playing in another city for a year or so but I think I will always be recording at home on the 4 track. I still find it limitless with what you can use as far as what you can make rhythm tracks with, I think I would like to get overseas, definitely meet some of these people that I email and talk to and do a few shows here and there. I'm not the man to go over and do 40 shows in 40 nights I'm more interested in probably just travelling round a bit playing here and there spreading the word.
For more information, contact Mike direct at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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