According to old rock ‘n’ roll custom, a band or a group of bands does great
things for a few years, then fades away or sells out. By the late 1980’s
in New Zealand, members of the punk generation were getting older,
anti-socialist reaction had curbed the generosity of the dole, and Flying
Nun had become a healthy cottage industry with international connections
and marketing agreements. The phenomenon of the early 80’s appeared to be
winding down. But at this point there was a resurgence of activity down on
the South Island, a renewed commitment to the original impulses of the
Dunedin bands. Peter Jefferies, a gaunt, black-haired native of the
northern farm town of Stratford, formed a new label that cantakerously
disavowed commercial values. His signature band in the early 80’s had been
This Kind of Punishment, formed with (stay with me) his brother
Graeme–distinguished by Peter’s cadaverous, wake-the-dead bass voice and
Graeme’s magisterial guitar. Flying Nun dragged its feet getting their
highly idiosyncratic records out; Jefferies moved south to Port Chalmers
(near Dunedin) and formed Xpressway Records. New bands appeared out of
nowhere, bringing with them a tougher and more tangled sound.

Two summers ago, Peter Jefferies embarked with his friend and sometime
bandmate Alastair Galbraith on a threadbare American tour, playing for
small crowds of aficianados at obscure indie clubs. These days he usually
performs solo, singing threadbare ballads with the accompaniment of a
synthesizer piano. At the Betapunk club in Washington, D. C., a converted
warehouse, he told me that he’s appreciative but also skeptical of the very
modest and scattered following that Xpressway has found in the U.S. and
elsewhere: “I’m probably going to shut the label down, actually, because
it’s getting too popular.” His own songs sometimes run the danger of
extreme self-absorption, but The Last Great Challenge of a Dull World has a
kind of glowering prophetic tone that typifies Jefferies’ esoteric appeal.
Galbraith is another loner musician and classical apostate (he studied
violin); he draws a cavernous roar from his solo guitar, favoring melodies
with a proud Gaelic lilt.

The Xpressway sound, generously summarized on the compilations Xpressway
Pile Up and Killing Capitalism With Kindness, fills out Jefferies’ ideals.
In place of Flying Nun’s mournful melodiousness, Xpressway bands move
instinctively toward dissonance and home-based experimental tinkering. The
Velvet Underground are still a paramount influence, but scattered echoes of
60’s and 70’s pop and punk give way to a heavy injection of late 70’s and
80’s Anglo-American post-punk–most notably, the noise-sculptures of early
Pere Ubu and Sonic Youth. The sound itself is always raw, casual, echoing
the rough but realistic sound of Chris Knox’s early Dunedin tapes.
Jefferies advertises this anti-technology proudly in the record notes:
“Most of the songs were recorded at homes or warehouses in what are meant
to be ‘sub-standard’ conditions on ‘sub-standard’ equipment. None of this
was recorded on more than eight tracks, and most of it was recorded on
less.” The same “low-fi” aesthetic, as it happens, is now standard
practice among American indie bands, even those who can afford a $250,000
studio; for Xpressway bands, it’s the reality of what’s available.

American underground-rock scenesters have lavished attention on one
particular Xpressway-associated band, the Dead C. Bruce Russell,
co-founder of Xpressway with Peter Jefferies, started up the Dead C. with
Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats, formerly of the Verlaines, but this band
is about as far from the Verlaines as you can get. In place of artful
melody, there is the proverbial wall of noise, and in this case it really
is a wall of noise. The songs go on five, ten, fifteen, even twenty
minutes, with no organizing landmarks along the way. But this band
achieves something other than industrial-noise squalor; with big, sprawling
chords plucked out note by note on clangorous guitars, songs like “Helen
Said This” are more melancholy than manic, sometimes shockingly beautiful.
Of about a dozen records on labels spread out over several continents, the
ones to get are the manageably noisy DR 503 (Feel Good All Over); the
marginally coherent Eusa Kills (Flying Nun); and the ear-splitting Harsh
70’s Reality (Siltbreeze).

Another Dunedin band has ties to both Flying Nun pop and Xpressway noise.
Hailing from such lusciously tuneful mid-80’s bands as the Bird Nest Roys
and the all-female Look Blue Go Purple, the four members of the 3D’s nailed
down an aggressive, distinctive sound after only a couple of years
together: propulsive, syncopated rhythms, angular and dissonant melodic
lines, thrashing guitar solos, and a tendency to swerve unexpectedly into
lyrical sweetness. Then they made a stab at an international renown; the
somewhat disreputable and short-lived American label First Warning and its
parent behemoth BMG sent them out unawares into the American alternative
scene, where they ran into a brick wall of apathy and soon found themselves
stranded. “I’ve never seen so many greedy little wankers running around,”
lead singer David Mitchell told Butt Rag fanzine after attending the
notoriously hype-swamped New Music Seminar. “In New Zealand there’s no
reason for a band to think about money, because you just can’t make it.”