In the early 2000s when numerous bands were on Auckland stages recreating their parent’s record collections, one group of high school students set the standard for what was achievable.
From dragging 15-year old kids to their live shows out of a sense of school pride, to touring with Oasis, REM and The Hives, The Checks were never shy about wearing their influences on their sleeves. And in a youthful Devonport music scene, their approach was bang on.
Starting out as a group of friends from Takapuna Grammar school, The Checks first formed under the name Frank to compete in the 2003 Smokefree Rockquest, where they gained a spot in the year’s national finals. Drawn together by a mutual love of the recently released Strokes record Is This It? – and the realisation that if The Datsuns were capable of international acclaim, so was anyone from New Zealand – guitarist Sven Pettersen and vocalist Ed Knowles decided to expand their school music block jam-sessions into the band NZ now knows as The Checks.
Callum Martin (guitar), Karel Chabera (bass) and Jacob Moore (drums) joined Knowles and Pettersen to form a band with no particular ambition beyond actually being in a band, which was a sentiment that quickly changed upon being forced to write an original song for their entry to Rockquest. Early writing sessions produced a track titled ‘The Creek’ which gained The Checks entry to the Rockquest finals and appeared as a live B-side to one of the group’s early singles.
Upon realising that Rockquest was not the entirety of the New Zealand music scene, The Checks began to seek other gigs, which came predominantly in the form of shows at Edens and Paradise bars, organised by Auckland music maven Matthew Crawley. Shortly, The Checks became a symbol of school pride for the students from Takapuna Grammar who had, just months ago, called them faggots and losers for wearing tight jeans and singing in the choir. It was this ability to drag hundreds of high school students to pack out all-ages venues with their high energy, balls to the wall blues rock, that helped to gain the attention of music critics, radio presenters, and eventually fans from the other side of the world.
The tendency to sacrifice precision for energy in these live shows worked in The Checks’ favour, as they began to gain more clout with bNet radio DJs and local music figures.
“We had no plan [for the live shows],” says Sven Pettersen, reflecting on their high school days. “We didn’t know Ed was going to lose his shit on stage the way he did and we didn’t know it was going to get a reaction. We just wanted to make a band. We listened to so much music, and the next step is to do it yourself ... we were just young, and you go over to the city and it’s like a fucking brand new world.”
The tendency to sacrifice precision for energy in these live shows worked in The Checks’ favour, as they began to gain more clout with bNet radio DJs and local music figures, including bFM Breakfast host Hugh Sundae. It was at a Resonate 2005 evening showcase – presented by bFM Thursday March 3, 2005 at Auckland’s Galatos venue – that they gained the attention of NME editor Conor McNicholas, leading to The Checks being hand selected for the May 2005, “NME New Music Tour” of the UK featuring Maximo Park, The Cribs, and Towers of London.
Before heading for the UK, The Checks did Christchurch and New Plymouth shows with R.E.M in late March 2005 where Michael Stipe introduced The Checks before each performance.
The Checks picked up some high profile support slots off the back of their appearance for NME, including a Japanese jaunt with The Hives (October 2005) and opening for Oasis in Australia (Nov-Dec 2005). The Checks were also hailed as one of the two best bands in the UK (the other being Kasabian) by Noel Gallagher of Oasis, a group who influenced The Checks and their early love for music.
As young men in their late teens, the experience was beyond surreal; working in a studio with an engineer who was responsible for Hendrix and Led Zeppelin recordings.
Late in 2005, The Checks were also signed to a four-album deal with UK based label Full Time Hobby (through Sony/BMG UK), which saw the recording of their first full length record, Hunting Whales, recorded in England at Rak Studios with engineer Phil Brown. As young men in their late teens, the experience was beyond surreal; working in a studio with an engineer who was responsible for Hendrix and Led Zeppelin recordings, amongst many notable others.
Hunting Whales was produced by Ian Broudie from The Lightning Seeds and released on October 1, 2007. The album was primal Checks material with the energy well preserved by predominantly live recording with vocals and limited guitar overdubs added afterwards. As was indicative of The Checks throughout their career, the common influences shone through, including The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Free, and Led Zeppelin, points of inspiration The Checks have never sought to hide. The album charted at No.21 on the NZ Album Charts (October 8, 2007).
As well as recording in the UK, The Checks sought out shows where they could, often playing to crowds of 10-20 in out of the way dive bars, asking for absurd food and drink riders that were rarely fulfilled. Except once, according to Pettersen:
“There was this bar in Sheffield ... we asked for two bottles of Jameson, a bottle of Stolly, two bottles of red, two of white, dinner and hash. And the only bar that did it was this goth/metal bar in Sheffield, and there where literally two people that showed up! They’d put on The Ritz for us! So we got that guilty feeling, like, ‘you guys have made about nine quid out of this’.”
The shows got better for The Checks as time went on, though not enough to keep them in England following a poor sales for Hunting Whales and the cancellation of their deal with Full Time Hobby. Unfortunately for the band, the release of the album came around a time where the digital music revolution resulted in a worldwide scare for labels and distributors, hence the reason for the contract ending being, officially, lack of album sales.
Upon returning to New Zealand after touring Australia, Europe and the United States, The Checks released a single entitled ‘There is a Field’, before beginning work on a follow up to Hunting Whales, which came in the form of Alice By The Moon, recorded and released on their own label, Pie Club Records.
The recording of Alice by the Moon saw The Checks fulfil a desire for a more involved studio process, rather than just “getting into the studio and playing the live set” (Pettersen). A sudden absence of label pressure allowed them to do just that, following the tried and tested Checks formula, but taking more in the way of psychedelic influence on board, as well as a tinge of size and weight from the hip-hop records that were constantly playing in the tour van.
The band were nominated for a multitude of awards including the 2010 Taite Music Prize and Best Group and Best Rock Album at the 2010 NZ Music Awards. They won the Best Rock Album award.
“Ed listened to Jay-Z, you know, those big party tunes. I think that lead the direction for Alice by the Moon to be something big. Something bigger sounding is what we wanted,” says Pettersen. “Because when you’re on that stage doing those small gritty things, everyone really likes the energy of it, but there’s something about when you sack those big grooves, it’s just more powerful, and simpler ... That was quite big for The Checks; something simple and powerful.”
Alice by the Moon was released September 3, 2010, and although there were fewer singles released than from Hunting Whales, the follow-up album charted higher in New Zealand, peaking at No.13 in the NZ Album Charts. The band were nominated for a multitude of awards including the 2010 Taite Music Prize and Best Group and Best Rock Album at the 2010 NZ Music Awards. They won the Best Rock Album award.
Unfortunately, the success of the album was not enough to catapult The Checks back to full time musician status. Their return to New Zealand saw them back in part-time work such as dishwashing, house painting, and store room work at Auckland’s Smith & Caughey’s. The band drew on these experiences for their next full body of work, Deadly Summer Sway.
Their third album was a radical departure from the sound fostered by 15 year old teens re-creating a 60s record collection and the most mature album released by The Checks. As Pettersen states, “You do the 60s to death, and then it’s time to move on”, and nowhere was this more evident than in the lead single ‘Candyman Shimmer’, which saw Stone Roses-esque guitar licks married with a rocksteady infused rhythm section and vocals drowning in reverb.
‘Candyman Shimmer’ was selected as the first single from Deadly Summer Sway by the audience in an interesting process that saw The Checks appear on Charlotte Ryan’s 95bFM Morning Glory show, pitching three songs from the album for listeners to respond to. Instant comparisons were made to The Stone Roses’ ‘Fools Gold’, though Pettersen maintains that he didn’t hear the song until after ‘Candyman Shimmer’ had been recorded.
The album itself was recorded by “Bassy” Bob Brockman, who, at an odd crossroads in life had ended up teaching studio engineering in Invercargill, after an illustrious career working with the likes of The Notorious BIG, The Fugees and Christina Aguilera. In very stark contrast to the hard-line, precise recording techniques experienced by The Checks during their UK experience, Brockman opened up the studio to the band with lengthy recording takes and a “let’s see what happens” attitude, while still maintaining focus through telling the band to “Shut the fuck up and keep playing” according to Pettersen.
It seemed like a return to form for The Checks, taking a more original tack and shaking off the bonds of straight blues rock they had become so well known for.
The combination of open recording factors and a slight lack of material in-hand from The Checks – given they had jumped on the opportunity to work with Brockman at the last minute – saw a portion of songs finished and arranged in-studio. Songs like b-Net hit ‘Jet Plane’ were 11th hour material, having never been played through by the band before marrying a hook and a riff in the booth and committing to tape. Despite this, the record was lauded as a conscious change in direction, regardless of the band’s assertion that the transformation was natural.
Deadly Summer Sway also produced a polarising series of three videos produced by The Trophywife Collective and directed by Ian Hart, who was influenced by John Waters to create the series with a revolving cast of actors. Made from album tracks ‘Candyman Shimmer’, ‘Ready to Die’, and ‘Perfect Lover’, the opening to the first video featured a depiction of an actual event witnessed by Pettersen of a man callously throwing an entire packet of chips on the ground after leaving a rehab centre.
It seemed like a return to form for The Checks, taking a more original tack and shaking off the bonds of straight blues rock they had become so well known for. In an interview with Scott Kara (NZ Herald) in late 2011, vocalist Ed Knowles was enthusiastic, stating, "I feel like we are just about to become that great band. We're kind of like LeBron James – he's been in the game so long, but he's still so young. And he probably feels like he's just getting started as well."
Unfortunately, however, Deadly Summer Sway was to be the last Checks album, with the band announcing a split in August 2012 by way of a minimal explanation stating little more than, “Thanks for all your love and support over the last 10 years. We couldn't have asked for more from you.”
On November 1, 2012 The Checks won the Best Rock Album Award for Deadly Summer Sway at the 2012 NZ Music Awards.
Mystery has surrounded any exact reason for the break-up, though Pettersen is more candid these days, citing artistic differences and a shift in direction for individual members of the band.
“It’s hard to keep five people together. I would even say it’s apparent on that last record that we were moving in different directions. That record has got a lot of really different stuff on it. Like, Hunting Whales was really together, and then Alice was a bit more far out, according to what I’ve heard from other people. Then, in Deadly Summer Sway, I can see different directions. Everybody’s got to play their natural game. You don’t want to feel like you’re not making the music you want to make.”
Edward Knowles - guitar, vocals
Karel Chabera - bass
Jacob Moore - drums
Sven Pettersen - guitar
Callum Martin - guitar
Full Time Hobby
Pie Club Records
The Checks and Shihad opened for AC/DC at Western Springs, Auckland Thursday February 4, 2010.
Since the band’s demise, The Checks have pursued individual endeavours, some musical and some otherwise. Jacob Moore has played drums for UK based band Splashh, alongside vocalist Sasha Carlson. Karel Chabera moved to Australia and to work as a video game developer, while Callum Martin has studied in Wellington, and Pettersen and Knowles have worked on a musical project together.
In October 2011 CNN sent a camera crew to Auckland. One of the acts they spent time with was The Checks.