When I was asked to put together a “general blurb” about Dave Dobbyn that could be utilised at the time for the release of his album Lament For The Numb, I jumped at the chance. The prospect of distilling a few thoughts on the continued recording excellence of one of New Zealand’s major creative forces was nothing less than exciting. Might I research and explore the vagaries of the man’s inspirations … or try and analyse his new record as a paradigm of the post-modern man?
As a prelude to my constructive efforts, I sent the man a few questions in the hope that I would get a few answers. Some odd quotes to dress up the pages. It was not what I expected. The torrent of fax paper that came back at me was so strong, interesting and of such insight that I put the lid back on my pen. There was no need for me to write anything, And so, if I may be so bold as to cast Dave’s own words into the world, l would like to introduce you all to – Dave Dobbyn. In his own words.
– Mike Chunn
Cool Bananas was an album where you seemed intent on proving your musical worth. The Optimist allowed you to dabble with production and romance. Loyal was personal but didn’t overtly have an edge. A “personal, romantic” LP? Lament For The Numb contrasts massively with your previous efforts. It rises out of the speakers much as Maleficent turned into a dragon in Sleeping Beauty.
I don’t have copies of, or listen to, either Cool Bananas, The Optimist or Loyal. Though, when I do hear them on radio, it’s very much like looking at the family photo album and cringing at the look, the expression. It used to bother me because for a time I looked on my records as failures for many reasons.
In hindsight, as a body of work, it’s all developmental. What I set out to do was rather confused because I was obsessed with proving my worth through showing off my range as a writer and performer – in the process having diluted every effort – mistaking my myopic impulses for a focus, ie: It’s all been a bit of a blur!
I guess, now discovering my true passions, and you can only do that through real experience, the work becomes intuitive rather than desperate or contrived.
You’ve been confronted by some intense emotions over the last few years. Your father’s death. Losing the momentum that took you to the top with ‘Slice Of Heaven’. lan Belton’s illness. Is Lament a collection of songs that run the gamut of frustration, isolation, despair, sadness, reflections? Is it a cathartic record where you now feel at peace having put those songs down in their permanent state?
I am still amazed at the length of time between records and that has been the deepest source of frustration – but I haven’t exactly been flogging myself in the desert. The things that have happened to me have only strengthened my resolve. Life and her friend Fate have been dealing the usual combination of winning hands and/or savage body blows.
It’s weird how the most seemingly horrible experiences turn out to be the most valuable baggage (the opposite is often true too). For instance, my father’s death was a rich time for me – we parted as friends.
The success of ‘Slice of Heaven’ was my pound of flesh at the time it became a hit the old-fashioned way – public demand! – one key radio station didn’t spin it until it was number one on their own chart. It has since become something of an albatross for me in its squeaky cleanness. The image is six years old. The song will always sound fresh.
Lament For The Numb on the other hand is a cathartic record. It is a document of all that I’ve been growing through in the interim, working under the radar, crafting away. It feels like I’ve been painting something really great when I could have been printing wallpaper. Artistically very, very satisfying. Of course, I won’t feel at peace until it is heard!
There is a lyrical intensity only hinted at in the past. Was the writing process different this time round? More difficult? Easier? Slower?
Lyrically, as well as musically, I think I’ve found my stride as I have discovered an economy of ideas. It strikes me that the most enduring songs are those that leave you, as a listener, with some work to do – ie, conjuring your own images, perceiving a harmony that is hinted at and not overstated.
“Sometimes I’ll be writing on a beer coaster and the whole thing will come together right there.”
I’ve always been keen not to have the process of writing become habitual, so I like to approach it laterally – sometimes I’ll be writing on a beer coaster and the whole thing will come together right there as was the case with ‘Belltower’. Another time I’ll build a drum loop and just jam on it with a guitar or a piano or bass. Or maybe put a loop on cassette and just walk around with it, singing God knows to the frowns of other pedestrians. Then again I may just write down a whole bunch of prosy memories and later distill them – ‘Palace’ started off as two pages of waffly, detailed memories of the Civic theatre in Auckland.
Later in my quaky digs behind the Chinese theatre in Hollywood, vodka and Macintosh combined to trim the fat and it became a 12-line poem. I then decided I would sing as few notes as possible so as not to detract from the evocative nature of the lyric and presto! I would like to send the result to Janet Frame – dammit I will!
Some songs refuse to be born until they’re good and ready – ‘Belle Of The Ball’ was one. It was a big ask – I wanted something elegant and poetic but sinewy and tough – something schmaltzy but deep! It was well and truly written by the time I got to the old Steinway at Sunset Sound Factory.
The combination of songs for an album only comes together while you’re working on it – unless it is contrived – and it is a supreme buzz to write one on the spot and have it work immediately. This was the case with ‘Buried in the Backyard’. I was doodling on guitar getting a sound for another song and Mitchell was impressed by the darkness of what I was playing so we decided we’d do that one next. I took pen to paper and within a carrot juice break a new beast was born.
At the time Princess Di was being raked through the coals of tabloid TV and I thought maybe someone will shoot her. It occurred to me that people are fed bad news because they are addicted to it. Angels in armchairs!
Would you agree that you now have a maturity as a writer? One that finds you feeling better about yourself. Confident in your ability to keep songs of quality and fervour rolling out of your head.
I always put “writer” on travel documents so I guess it’s official that I am one. The thing that’s always elusive for any writer is the hook – that seductive thing which perfectly, eloquently works! It’s the same for any artist – the expression draws somebody to the work. Mitchell Froom told me that what songwriters are doing is having a conversation. I agreed and suggested that nervous breakdowns probably happen in the middle of conversations as well. Further to this, and having waited so long to record, I see writing as an exorcism of sorts.
It depends what you set out to do and then there are things you just have to write, but I love a good lyric for the picture it can paint and, meshed with the right tune, the vehicle is humming – you are to be transported.
l am a slow reader, and it bothered me until I admitted why. It’s not as if someone is looking over your shoulder when you are savouring the shapes of words and the construction of ideas – rolling over sounds in your head and imagining for example, what a certain room would smell like having explored it through the writer. I used to think this was scatter-brained and that I should be concentrating in infusing as much information as possible so as to become somehow, eventually, well-read.
“Bullshit!” I explained to myself. Surely it’s the quality of the experience that endures. As a result, I am interested in lyric poetry – eg, I love reading Pablo Neruda – it’s a combination of being inspired and wanting to throw your pen away and go “mmphph!”
I also have a passion for painting and sculpture, which is quite fresh, not having been subjected to school or uni study of such. It’s a lot like my musical training – zero! Hole in the ground! Donut! Fuck-all! Out of five children I was the only one who didn’t have piano lessons with the Sisters Of Holy Faith, hence my approach to piano playing is happily free of acquired chore-dom; similarly, not having studied the poets too early, a whole world of lyric wealth is mine for the mining. Besides, I have to hear everything twice before I hear it.
Have your plans changed over the last few years – whatever your plans may have been? Are your yardsticks for success and personal satisfaction now different?
To overquote Mr. Lennon – “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” You can plan a picnic but as far as the music bizz is concerned, unless you have a retinue of very large wealthy Italians, and if you’ve read even a paragraph of the music industry exposé Hitmen, “speculate’ would be a more realistic word than “plan”.
Of course some of my ambitions remain the same – obscene wealth for example. I would like the work to be famous. I would like to work with many of my contemporaries as I have been with one G.W. McLennan [of The Go-Betweens] who I consider a giant artist and a great friend. As far as yardsticks for success are concerned, I am striving for the facility of ongoing, frequent recording projects and a balance of live work to match.
“I have been living in exile for some years and it is important to me to remain in touch with my Kiwi roots”
I have been living in exile for some years and it is important to me to remain in touch with my Kiwi roots, God bless ’em! So my family and I are moving back to New Zealand soon to “stand in the place where you live”. There are so many songs in that good earth.
How did Mitchell Froom come to produce the album? And he brought in the Thomases? Describe your first day together.
I met Mitchell through Neil Finn. When Crowded House first recorded with him they would warm up in the studio with ‘Whaling’. He loved the song and was interested since then. It wasn’t until 91 when I was considering producers that his name topped my list anyway. I was holidaying in California then so it was easy setting up a meeting. He already had some demos and back catalogue so we talked over lousy coffee and he almost committed then and there – a few days later, after I had recorded more demos in San Diego and he’d heard them, he called to say there was no doubt in his mind that we could do it! I was dancing for days.
It was from the start that we decided on Pete and Bruce [ex-Elvis Costello’s Attractions] for the engine room – Mitchell had just had Pete Thomas on the Los Lobos album and was full of praise; he was about to have Bruce Thomas on the Suzanne Vega album, so naturally, once I had retrieved my jaw, I agreed – that was the line-up!
Come May 92 I moved into a motel room behind the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood. Babylon was still burning and National Guardsmen were routinely patrolling the Boulevard – you could taste the tension in the air after the uprising and the locals were visibly freaked. I felt perversely safe under the helicopter spotlights. Safe, I thought, as I strolled along Hollywood Boulevard for six blocks to the studio, on my way tripping on a basket of flowers which scattered under the heels of tourists – to my horror it had been placed shrine-like on the Elvis Presley star. Instinctively I scanned the immediate area for a fat, tobacco chewing, pig-farming couple with a shotgun, in a pick-up with Tennessee license plates. Clearly, I was guilty of sacrilege, the equivalent of pissing on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Presently, the coast clear, I headed, furtively whistling, towards my first day with Mitchell Froom at Sunset Sound Factory.
We decided we would pre-produce the album in a room reserved for Mitchell’s ‘chamber of horrors’ – his collection of weird keyboards. I loved it, it was like The Addams Famiły attic. I felt at home as we worked through the songs and recorded roughs onto a great sounding blaster box. We worked quickly and talked a great deal over the next two weeks.
Finally it was time for Pete and Bruce to arrive. I was so excited I hadn’t slept the night before. We struck an instant rapport as the songs presented themselves and the sounds came up easily, thanks to the expertise of Tchad Blake. I closed my eyes and could not hold back the utter glee – there I was playing with one of the world’s best rhythm sections. The great thing was that they loved the songs and I had lost my unease as a guitarist and a singer, I felt like I had arrived. Talk about luck!
The sound of the album has been remarked on from various quarters. It’s deemed to be raw, edgy and almost reckless. Was this conscious? Purposeful?
I love the sound of the album. It’s quite confrontational at first – but then that would seem to me to be the nature of this record. I didn’t want frills and bells and it made sense to keep an economy of arrangement with such a line-up of players. Directness was our purpose. Don’t double track the guitar – get one guitar sounding great and mean it when you play it. I think the sound has a natural rawness and energy. The whole process of recording was very organic. No SMPTE code, no synths. No push-button reverbs that all have the same chips in them – and hence the same rooms. We used the room a lot and made percussion tracks using tradition instruments and junk.
There is an enduring quality to the sound and the songs. So much of what I hear around has use-by dates all over it. Technology overshadowing thin ideas – wallpaper. Yes it was a conscious effort to make this record come out at you – in your face!
This interview was part of a media pack prepared by Sony Music in 1993.