The Headless Chickens had bent and twisted beginnings, became 90s pop sensations and then it all fell apart. On the eve of their Auckland reunion show Scott Kara talks to founding members Chris Matthews and Michael Lawry about the band's first and last gigs
During lunch at a Newmarket cafe, Headless Chickens' front man Chris Matthews pulls a springy strand of steel wool out of his mouth - a rogue addition to his squid and prawn pasta.
He's unfazed by it, calls the waitress over, and relishes the prospect of getting more prawns when his replacement meal turns up. He also thinks himself lucky he didn't find something more vile on his plate like a recent high profile case in Australia of which he delights in sharing the details.
This sort of response is typical of Matthews - a fun-loving rogue, often gleeful, and slightly menacing.
And these qualities come through in the Headless Chickens music. There's the unnerving and paranoid Donka from 1987, the maniacal early 90s tracks Railway Surfing and Gaskrankinstation, and then the chart-topping pop of Cruise Control and Juice.
The band finally split up in 1998 - or thereabouts - but they're back together for some reunion shows in Auckland tomorrow night and at next year's Big Day Out.
Today we're here to talk about the Headless Chickens first gig, way back in 1985, and the band's last show 10 years later at the Big Day Out 1995, when original member Michael Lawry and singer Fiona McDonald flew the coop.
THE FIRST SHOW
Nitpickers Picnic, Maidment Theatre, Auckland University, 1985
MATTHEWS: It was a big multi-media event and Chris Knox performed, us, and Stalker - the stilt theatre group - and Te Kani Kani o Te Rangatahi, who became Taiao, the Maori dance troop. Did we get any money from the Arts Council for that?
LAWRY: We might've got $500 or something but we ended up owing $400.
MATTHEWS: Johnny [Pierce, an original Chickens member who committed suicide in 1986] wanted to organise a big gig because he was working for People In Parks, it was like a social welfare scheme to get artists doing stuff, and they used to put on a whole lot of events around the city.
LAWRY: It was the last gig for This Kind Of Punishment as well [a band both Matthews and Pierce were also in].
MATTHEWS: So that was officially the first one [for the Headless Chickens] and I think we only played about five songs. I don't know if we had any actual songs at the time did we?
LAWRY: I think we might have done Slice.
MATTHEWS: It was pretty loose in terms of songs.
LAWRY: It all sounds quite arty now doesn't it? Not really punk rock. We had no drummer. We had a tape recorder.
MATTHEWS: They're much easier to work with. We had no drummer for the first two years. We didn't really want one at first because we were happy f****** around using a drum machine and tape decks and stuff.
LAWRY: We had this really strange cassette loop device. You record the sound on it - like marbles falling into a jar or something, or someone slamming a door - and loop it. It never worked that well but it was a bit like a melotron. It was the Chris Knox and Foetus Productions school of music. It was good when samplers came along but God they were expensive.
MATTHEWS: I brought along the Doncamataic drum machine [which the band named a song after]. I don't think we ever used it live because it only had a about five settings.
TIMEOUT: Speaking of Donka, there was a stink kicked up when you guys won the Rheineck Rock Award in 1987 because of the style of music you played.
MATTHEWS: We were villified by the media. Metro magazine was the worst offender. They wrote a three page article about us saying we were basically two-chord, anarch-punk, kitten-strangling blah blah blah. The funniest thing of the whole article was that whenever we played at bars nobody ever bought drinks at the bar because all of our fans were on drugs. We had the bar record at the Gluepot for a while.
THE FINAL SHOW
Big Day Out, Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland, 1995
MATTHEWS: I don't really remember it that well. But I had this little camera and was taking photographs on stage. I got some of Fiona going [he makes a face] from the other side of the stage. I had an old guitar I smashed up on stage that night. I was feeling kind of rock'n'roll. We didn't say we were breaking up. We just said Michael and Fiona were leaving. Why did you leave anyway?
LAWRY: I suppose I was going a little bit more electronic and you were going a bit more rock weren't you?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, Greedy turned out to be a lot more guitary. So that was part of it. And Fiona wanted to do a solo album or something. I don't know, I just thought it was a bit limp actually. I like a lot of ambient electronica myself but I didn't really want to play it at that point. For me, we'd done Juice and Cruise Control and we'd done all these songs that were nice and I wanted to get a little bit noisy again and I don't think anybody else did. It was creative differences and nervous exhaustion. People say it all the time, "Suffering from nervous exhaustion". Britney suffered from nervous exhaustion which basically means you're either crazy or have a terrible drug habit.
TIMEOUT: So things had changed?
MATTHEWS: There was a good 10 years gone by. We had a shitload more technology. We had three samplers - yours, Anthony's and we also had the other Akai which Fiona used to play. It had got to that point where we were doing songs like Million Dollar Dream where we needed three keyboard players to do the song because that was how it was written. It had progressed but I was getting a bit fed up. After we went with Mushroom [Records] we got on the treadmill a wee bit really. We did three tours in Australia one year.
LAWRY: We did five ...
MATTHEWS: ... five, okay, I'll go with that. There was a lot more pressure from the record company to start being more commercial and make another album like Body Blow because it did quite well. I don't know. Things just reached the end of their natural life.
LAWRY: Then you dig it up a few years later.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, yeah. It was all a cunning plan. Wait for the old vinyl albums to start going for $100 on Trade Me and then get back in there. Slay them.
Who: Headless Chickens
What: Reunion of band's classic line-up from Body Blow album era
Playing: The Powerstation, Auckland, tomorrow night. Plus, the Big Day Out, January 16
Albums: Stunt Clown (1988); Body Blow (1991); Greedy (1997)EVOLUTION: The Headless Chickens are reforming for two gigs. (Below) They've come a long way since their 90s heyday.
Tickets for the Headless Chickens' Powerstation gig available from www.ticketmaster.co.nz