It’s lucky I like my tea black because Bill Lattimer, known to most as Bungalow Bill, doesn’t keep milk in his fridge. He chuckles in his Geordie way, Radio bFM mug in hand, as he explains this, along with an anecdote about a cockney mate who’d tell his mother he wanted a bucket of black tea and loaf of bread for breakfast. Bill has lots of entertaining anecdotes.
We’re in the office of his remarkable emporium at the top of Auckland’s Khyber Pass, a musical instrument shop full of tempting treasure. Bill is well known on the local scene and no stranger to AudioCulture, where his story of arriving from Newcastle in 1970 and setting up The Lab Recording Studio in 1981 has been well documented. Now in the expert day-to-day hands of Ollie Harmer, The Lab has been in its fourth location under Mt. Eden’s historic Crystal Palace Theatre for over 25 years. Having outlasted most of the competition, it remains at the forefront of New Zealand music.
It's still very much Bill’s baby. He and Ollie meet weekly, and Bill has “the book”. Two, actually. He shows me the current one, detailing every session at the studio. Hundreds and hundreds of them, all neatly itemised. At a glance the latest page includes some well-known names.
I ask how he describes his role these days. Bill pauses. “Well let’s see, I do the books and Ollie runs it ... I suppose I see myself as having my hand firmly on the rudder. I’m very proud of it.” And so he should be.
We’re here so Bill can take us through 10 Kiwi songs recorded at The Lab over the last four decades. Tracks he thinks merit particular mention. He’s written a list with notes and collected together vinyl or CDs for each. So, mugs of tea in hand, off we go ...
1. The Dunedin Trifecta
‘Pink Frost’ – The Chills; ‘Death And The Maiden’ – The Verlaines; ‘Be My Friend’ – Sneaky Feelings
Bill starts by listing not one but three songs. It’s a fair call though, as they were recorded together over one weekend in 1982 by Doug Hood on four-track at the Lab’s first Fanshawe Street location.
“When I started the journey with the studio, I thought I had the ethos of what was going down, but what came through musically led to some incredible surprises. Because you’re only informed on the life you’re living, and there’s a whole life out there that never gets to the mainstream. ‘Pink Frost’ [by The Chills] had a magical sound that had an effect, it was so different. It was one of them moments.
The next group was The Verlaines cutting ‘Death And The Maiden’. Wow. And then on top of that there’s young Matthew Bannister coming in with Sneaky Feelings’ ‘Be My Friend’. That was all on one weekend. I call it the Dunedin bus trip. I got on with the guys great and I’ve got nothing but praise. So that was an early influence.”
“It was just a great song, the etherealness of what it projected into your mind ... dark, that’s a great descriptor for it. It’s not like ‘Go Now’ by the Moody Blues, but it evoked that kind of sound in my head ... that 60s backdrop, that type of emotion. It’s like trying to describe the indescribable.
The studio was in a basement and had been an old ship’s store. We had a cavern that used to hold explosives, with a curved roof, metal door and a small, pivoted window. I put a microphone in the cavern, opened the window and put the drums towards it so the sound would bang around in there, and then fed it back on another channel as a reverb.
Marty’s guitar as well, a lovely ethereal sound. And we had a [reverb] plate made by a guy in Auckland. If I wanted a big sound you left it in the open. If I wanted it slightly dampened I put a tea towel over it. If you wanted a gated sound I’d put a heavy draped towel over it. That was my technology, I think that had a little bit to do with it. But it was just a great song. Great words, and the sound, it’s nearly Spectorish but it’s not.”
‘Death And The Maiden’
“That was another revelation. It was like, 'What the? Hang on, these aren’t my reference points ... but I like it.' It just knocked out the thing that you think you know what’s going on. To this day people still come in and present you with fantastic stuff, and it’s like, where did they get this? Or I get that influence, it’s not obvious but it’s great. The Verlaines’ thing was like that. And the organ in the middle with the 3/4 time which conjures up a [Being For the Benefit of] ‘Mr Kite’ kind of thing, circus-like, and then back into it ... all of that, fantastic. It just captured something in its style and arrangement that I thought was great.”
‘Be My Friend’
“Matt and Sneaky Feelings were great too. I remember nothing but nice things. ‘Be My Friend’ was a lovely melodic song, with good harmonies in there. Matt’s possibly a bigger Beatles nut than me but it didn’t sound obvious. If there was an influence it was very subtle. It just had flavour with a little bit of extra spice, a very good song.”
2. ‘Isabelle’ – Greg Johnson
“We did a lot of work with Greg Johnson, two or three albums, and he became a great friend of the studio. Then he did ‘Isabelle’ as a single produced by Mark Tierney. This was in the third Lab out the back of my old shop up on Symonds Street. I thought that was a great song. I loved that whirly thing at the end where the snares come in. A couple of my friends were playing with him, Trevor Reekie on guitar, and it had a great video.
“Greg was really hitting his stride as a writer then. And again, capturing a sound in a moment. The context of it too, Zagreb in the war and Dubrovnik. Because of the instrumentation, in my head it conjured up the Scots back in the ten or twelve hundreds, charging into war with the drums. Or that French Revolution thing with the flag. It’s like a story. Again, it’s just one of them magic things. And I wasn’t on drugs, I was only on black tea, ha. It did really, really well, getting up the charts, whatever that means [‘Isabelle’ reached No.4].”
3. ‘Torch’ – Marie & the Atom
“This is interesting, off the EP Spit it Out [by Marie & the Atom]. Again, it’s me revisiting that thing about you think you know what’s going on. The shock value of wow, where did this music come from? It was done at Lab two, a temporary one in a big room above the Jansen factory in Akepiro Street in Mt Eden with Terry Moore [ex-Chills/recording engineer who Bill met on the Dunedin trifecta weekend].
“It was out there, man. I had a refresh to check my memory and I get the same feelings. Its emotion, the images it evoked. There are cellos, violas, violins and synths on there. That sound, like noir, black and white, sepia, weird 30s-40s French artistic movies. It gave me a really uneasy feeling, maybe evoking childhood stuff ... ‘exterminate’ ha, the sound of terror, but I mean that in a complimentary way. It’s one of the ones I liked but felt a bit uncomfortable listening to. So that had an influence too.”
4. ‘Circumspect Penelope’ – Look Blue Go Purple
“It’s just a lovely album, I really liked it. It was done at Akepiro Street as well. It was on the banks of the railway line, and we had to record around the train timetable. Look Blue Go Purple were lovely people. Again, coming from Dunedin their band had its own sound and it was exposing me to something that was happening a year or two later. I loved ‘Penelope’. Penelope happens to be the name of my granddaughter, she’s only four, and I was playing it to her only the other day. So that song’s going to be forever in my life. That sound could happen in Dunedin, I think Auckland was going through the new romantic shit at the time. They were just doing their thing, playing their music and singing their songs the way it came out. The way I read it, there wasn’t any preconception about what they were trying to portray.”
5. ‘She Speeds’ – Straitjacket Fits
“One of my favourite tracks if I had to choose one. I’ve already said a lot about this. It was a big job, the biggest piece of Flying Nun work we’d had. At this time we were synching two 16-track desks together. There was a lot of preparation, with Terry’s immaculate attention to detail. It was incredible, Shayne Carter’s writing. I loved the guitar, and the dynamics and colouration of it, beautiful. It had that rock aggression, but it also had that softer side and that haunting cello in the middle. Danny [Mañetto, of The Mad Scene, Steam and Voom] playing the three most famous cello notes in Flying Nun’s history, they just stick in my head. And again, that reverb thing that keeps creeping into my life, which reminds me of ‘things’. Beautifully recorded, played, and sung, and so well mixed.”
6. ‘Barlow’s House’ – Dead Famous People
“This is Dead Famous People with Donna [now Dons] Savage. It was recorded at the Symonds Street studio. [Dons] is a lovely person and again, it’s just a great song. It seemed quite Englishy to me. Not that it was like Billy Bragg or The Smiths or anything like that, but it had a certain feel. And it’s sort of stripped down. The people know their instruments but it’s not to the point of virtuoso stuff spewing out. It’s got great lyrics written about life, about someone, I think it’s her, going to visit a house they used to live in and describing it. You could maybe say it’s a Bruegel of songs, as in the painter, you know, he used lots of detail, like little people at the mill or having food and stuff. And this song’s got lots of everyday details that make it really interesting.”
7. ‘One Good Reason’ – Strawpeople
“This is another observational thing. Mark Tierney was engineering and producing at The Lab. He was working with Strawpeople. They had some incredible singers, Fiona McDonald, Stephanie Tauevihi, Teremoana Rapley, Victoria Kelly, Karen Dennis and Merenia, to name a few. I’m working in the shop in Symonds Street and always popping next door to make a cup of tea in the kitchen and say hello. One night I’m finishing up and Mark and Paul Casserly had been working on ‘One Good Reason’ (originally by The Swingers) with Merenia on vocals. They’d left so I hit play and pushed some faders up, and bloody hell I thought, what’s going on there. Is that how he's doing it?
It was another revelation because they were using loops and samples. Again, it was about your reference points when you hadn’t been exposed to that sort of stuff. It was very exciting. I just thought Mark’s on it, he’s got it. I was so fortunate to have those guys, Mark, Chris van de Geer and Terry Moore. They all just had that something in common, something about them I couldn’t put my finger on.”
8. ‘Not Given Lightly’ – Chris Knox
“This is another great one done at Symonds Street. Glen [Eisenhut] from The Exploding Budgies had become a friend and was working with me. He’d been learning by mucking around on four-tracks. The Exploding Budgies would be on this list if there was more room, by the way. Anyway, Chris Knox was coming in to do this song at a time when I was still trying to ease back and spend more time with Pam and our young family. Glen and Chris had made a start at the end of the day, and I said to Glen ‘why don’t you look after this one’ and went home leaving them to it. Well, the next morning ... again, it was another shift in my reference points. I loved it. The word content, Chris singing so openly and lovingly about his partner and children. It wasn’t something I associated with men in rock’n’roll then. He sang it so well and the way it was recorded with all the percussive clicks and buzzes. As we know, the rest is history ... ”
9. ‘Young Blood’ – The Naked and Famous
“This takes us to the current studio in Mt Eden with Ollie engineering and producing, and it was obviously a very big song. He won the 2011 MAINZ Best Engineer and Best Producer Awards for it, and it did very well both here and overseas*. This was yet another shift in reference points moment for me. It was quite different production-wise. There’s this immense white noise sitting under the track, like he's really pushing the desk deliberately, distorting it like buggery. I have to say the sound puzzled me initially, but it caught me. I often get a buzz out of not knowing how things are done and I just love the way it sounds. It’s a great vocal with the big ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ hook too. Deep down it has a subconscious connection for me right back to ‘She loves you yeah yeah yeah.’”
*Young Blood by The Naked and Famous debuted at No.1 on the New Zealand singles chart in June 2010, the first local artist to do so in three years and spent 18 weeks on the chart. It reached No.26 in Australia, charted in Europe, went silver in the UK and twice platinum in the USA.
10. ‘Fingerpops’ – Garageland
“I’d known these guys since they were kids at school, they’d come into Fanshawe Street and do stuff. They always had good harmonies and I really liked them, they were great people. This was done in our third studio in Symonds Street. [Garageland] were working bit by bit for over a year on their first album, paying for it themselves. And they were exciting live. ‘Fingerpops’ is just such a good song. I always liked the poppy band with Pixies overtones thing, the dynamics and the sound. With great delivery and musicianship. They weren’t virtuosos but there was such great craft and wonderful vocals. An excellent record.”
And with that we were done, tea mugs empty. Talking with Bill is like opening his big Lab book. There are so many stories about bands and songs that chart the history of certain genres of New Zealand music since the early 1980s. Many classics among them. He’d had trouble trying to stick to just 10 for this conversation. There are many more ...