The enduring influence of rock band Straitjacket Fits is finally being acknowledged at next week's music awards, Scott Kara traces their rollercoaster ride
Straitjacket Fits were a band apart. Original, powerful, tuneful and ambitious, they were a group whose music still stands up as the epitome of New Zealand independent rock more than a decade since their demise.
The esteem in which they are still held makes them, yes, fitting winners of this year's New Zealand Herald Legacy Award - and inductees into the NZ Music Hall of Fame following Johnny Devlin, Jordan Luck and the Topp Twins - at next week's Vodafone NZ Music Awards.
In the following pages, the key players in the Straitjacket Fits story - singer-guitarist Shayne Carter, drummer John Collie, bassist David Wood, manager Debbi Gibbs, and Flying Nun record label founder Roger Shepherd- talk about the band's life and times.
One voice absent from the discussion, however, is Andrew Brough, the singer-guitarist who delivered some of the group's most ravishing, crystalline pop songs. He has refused to revisit anything to do with the group since he left in the wake of second album Melt and he's now resident in Dunedin where in 1986 the band made its first moves ...
SHAYNE CARTER: I started out in high school in Bored Games and Wayne Elsey was in that band. He lived two or three houses down from John [Collie, Straitjackets Fits' drummer]. Wayne and I formed the Double Happys in 1983 and we started out with a drum machine [called Herbie F***face] and John had been drafted into the band because Herbie F***face was useless. Then, of course, Wayne was killed when we were on tour with the Double Happys and it was totally horrible.
JOHN COLLIE: Wayne died, and I had known him since preschool, he was a really, really old friend of mine, and at that stage Shayne and I decided we'd carry on and the Straitjacket Fits were born out of that.
DAVID WOOD: Very occasionally I worked at the EMI Record Shop down in George St in Dunedin and David Pine [Sneaky Feelings] said, "You should go and play with Shayne Carter and John Collie." I don't know why he said that but I thought, "Oh yeah", and I'd always been into the Stooges so I just went up and banged on his door and said, "I hear you're looking for a bass player, I'm looking for a band". We had a jam and it clicked and we were doing Grate and Dialling A Prayer pretty much straight away.
The first gig
COLLIE: It was Otago University at this little lunchtime gig supporting the Sneaky Feelings. We had a guy called Richard Steele playing saxophone on one or two tracks. No Andrew [Brough] in the band at that stage. David was playing this crazy, fretless Ovation guitar. My biggest memory of it was getting pissed off because I had to use this drumkit that kept falling over.
WOOD: John gets on the drumkit and kicks [Sneaky Feelings'] Martin Durrant's drum kit off the stage. F***** hilarious.
Andrew Brough joins, 1987
CARTER: David insisted he was a singer in his previous band and that he could handle the backing vocals. But I could never actually hear the backing vocals in the practice room but then we did this gig - and no disrespect to David - but I heard this strange noise coming back through the monitors and thought, 'What the f*** is that?' It was David. So we really needed someone who could sing and Bruce Russell who was running [record label] Xpressway recommended Andrew.
WOOD: Andrew can sing like a f***** choir boy and my girlfriend at the time went to Logan Park High School with him and he was the kid who sung all the musical leads. So he just came along one day and when he starts singing you go, "Well, I will tolerate anything for that". He was a pretty good guitar player too.
COLLIE: I remember having band practise and working up guitar parts with Andrew and the whole thing was just a bit more luscious and of course his voice added a whole different dimension to the band - two guitars and the vocal harmonies brought things to life a bit more.
WOOD: With the Shayne songs he'd come along with a riff or a sketch of a chord sequence, play something like this, and we'd jam and bugger about with it. With Andrew he'd come along with a bit of paper with chords and words written out and go, "Here, play this". And if you tried to deviate from it he'd just stop you. But I like his songs.
The Flying Nun connection
ROGER SHEPHERD: In the late 80s they were the flagship Flying Nun New Zealand band. They got Debbi [Gibbs, manager] involved pretty early on so there were some unusually rigorous negotiations which was a first for Flying Nun. In a good way. Everyone was getting a bit more organised at that stage but the Straitjackets had definitely staked out the range of their ambition which was a good thing. They always felt they had a shot at doing well and they had a good crack at it.
Debut EP Life In One Chord, 1987
CARTER: We just took the songs that worked best live and that was the first set we wrote. I still think it's a pretty ambitious record for a bunch of dudes who were in their early 20s.
SHEPHERD: They fit into that Dunedin guitar band tradition but they stretched that and were definitely doing their own thing. And the She Speeds EP [Life In One Chord] was pretty impressive. They followed the tradition of doing an EP first and moved on quickly to making an ambitious album which always hinged around show-stopper songs.
COLLIE: I listened to the live recording [from the reunion tour the band did in 2005] and the best songs are still She Speeds and Dialling A Prayer after all that time. Life In One Chord was recorded in Auckland at the Lab studios in Symonds St. I remember not being a particularly great drummer, I had this terrible habit of speeding up and slowing down, which I grew out of.
WOOD: It still bugs me because you can hear Dialling A Prayer slowing down, in the quiet bit it just slows down, and everytime I hear I'm like, "F***** hell", but that's part of the band, that's what happened.
Straitjacket Fits, She Speeds video
The Carter-Brough relationship
WOOD: There was no relationship between those guys. People make a lot of the tension between the two as if they were writing songs in each other's bedrooms. They weren't. It was almost like there were two different Straitjacket Fits. The songs we'd play with Andrew and the songs that were Shayne's.
CARTER: A lot's been made of "Andrew brought the sweetness and Carter brought the blah blah blah". But Andrew certainly did bring that extra dollop of melody to the thing and made the sound broader, and sweetened it up. A lot was made of the differences between us but at the same time there was common ground there because we stayed in the same band for four or five years. A bit of tension is good, you know, it made both songwriters raise their game.
DEBBI GIBBS: They are both very talented artistic, creative people who, when they felt strongly about what they were doing musically, found it very difficult to compromise. Andrew didn't bring as many songs to the band as Shayne did. It was never a matter of "we don't want more of Andrew's songs", Andrew was a slower writer.
The first overseas jaunt, 1989
COLLIE: We started out in Dunedin, and came up to Auckland and had some OK gigs, and then we made quite a conscious decision to not follow the beaten track to Australia and then to England, which a lot of bands had been doing and not getting very far with. We were going to try America, and our manager Debbi helped that along I think.
GIBBS: The first time we toured overseas [through America and Europe] was in '89 with [British indie label] Rough Trade who released Life In One Chord. [At the time] Flying Nun had a lot of goodwill and I think anybody was pleased to be working with any of the Flying Nun bands that could actually get themselves organised enough to get over there and do what they said they were going to do. But once the Straitjackets started touring in 1989 a buzz started that was unique to them rather than Flying Nun-derived. [But] there was nowhere to go with the Rough Trade deal. To this day we've never had a statement from Rough Trade saying how many records were sold.
SHEPHERD: The band were out there trying to crack it and a lot of people in America who know about Flying Nun and a whole lot of New Zealand music is because of Straitjacket Fits.
Signing to US label Arista ...
WOOD: We were there on the back of Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You money - that's pretty much what it comes down to. And the Smashing Pumpkins were starting to get big and alternative rock had become mainstream rock. The Chills were having some success and everyone was looking to New Zealand and we just happened to be there. We liked Arista [but] we didn't fit in, man. We didn't know who they were. They didn't know who we were. People thought we were rock stars but we weren't, we were getting $20 a day.
GIBBS: The Arista deal [signed at the end of 1989] seemed to have some comfort zones built into it because they were happy to do it through Flying Nun and Mushroom and for us to be able to have [these] as a buffer zone between us and the major label. And we'd still end up with the same amount of money and the same deal points as if we were selling directly to an independent label in America. That felt like it gave us the best of both worlds and it made us feel secure and ensure we weren't feeling the brunt of any Arista weirdness.
... And why it didn't work out
CARTER: We got overwhelmed by the whole grunge thing. We weren't grungey enough. And then we had the classic being on a record label thing where we would sit across the table from each other and look at each other and not compute. The New Zealand indie mentality versus the Whitney Houston-why-won't-you-do-anything-to-be-famous mentality.
SHEPHERD: There's always a big chance aspect to the whole thing and they were hit by a swing in music tastes when the whole grunge thing hit, and we kind of forget now, but that was like a tidal wave. They really did put the work in and unfortunately something else out of their control happened.
WOOD: They just didn't need a band from New Zealand. They've got the Stone Roses. They've got the Smashing Pumpkins.
Touring and Brough's departure
CARTER: It was 50 per cent fantastic and 50 per cent really horrible. Of course there is tension. But you ask any band, it is stressful, you're tired, you're a long way from home, and you have your completely dispiriting gigs where all you can think about is how nice your own bed feels. On the other hand you get to tour the world, play rock'n'roll and go to a lot of places you wouldn't normally see.
WOOD: It came to a head in Toronto. We toured a lot - every shithole in New Zealand, Australia, America and Europe - and some of the gigs Andrew just wouldn't play his guitar or sing back-up vocals. He just petered out and then just left. I didn't really want him to because of that f****** voice he's got.
CARTER: I remember Andrew saying at one point he didn't like touring, he didn't like practising and he didn't like recording. I thought, "Well, why are you in a band then?" And there were creative tensions as well and if I was honest the record company was pushing for Andrew's more commercial stuff and it wasn't really the kind of stuff I was into, even though I appreciate his tunes and what he brought to the band.
The band post-Brough
WOOD: We buggered around as a three piece for a while and recorded the demo for Done. Then someone said My Bloody Valentine are coming to Australia do you guys want to support them? So we needed another guitarist and we all knew Mark [Petersen], he came along and a bit like me he learnt the songs and never went away.
CARTER: I don't like the last album [Blow]. It felt like we had to prove we could rock but it took away a lot of space from the music which was actually a really good weapon for us. There's still a couple of good tunes on it, but I would concur that, and no disrespect to Mark, around Melt and the shows we played around that time was definitely the band at its peak.
The end, 1994
WOOD: It was Shayne's decision. We were in New York and he just said, "I don't want to do it anymore". That was it really. We were 29, living on $20 a day, and I didn't own a double bed.
COLLIE: There were a few personal issues going on. We never really had that breakthrough in America, which we needed, and they were saying to us "you've got to come over here and live here". And it was getting to the mid-90s and the music was becoming a little less relevant, and I realise that now when I see what Shayne has gone on and done with Dimmer - taking it to a different level which he couldn't have done with the form the [Straitjackets] were in.
CARTER: I've never seen it as a sad and bad thing because I think bands run their course. I was sick of it. I just wanted to try something different. Personally, I felt a little sullied by the whole experience, too, because the Arista thing made me feel quite dirty. It took me a while to get over it and I didn't actually know if I wanted to do music any more. But that was my own personal trip and one I had to get over really. Eventually I came out the other side.
CARTER: We always had a pop sensibility but we wanted to be inventive with our song structures and guitar sounds. I've never liked music that ticks all the boxes and a tune should feel like it's making its own journey. I think that's why we had trouble in the studio, there was no real template for producing that kind of music. That's why our records often didn't capture what we did live. Live was where we were free, and recording was stressful and anal. We got some good tunes down but live was a lot more in your face.
COLLIE: It's a strange one because we didn't have top 10 hits or sell millions of records but ultimately we were a kick-arse live band, whether it was playing to nine people in New Jersey - true story - or thousands at the Big Day Out. And that was spearheaded by Shayne's charisma and talent on the guitar.
WOOD: I wouldn't have a clue [laughs]. I just always thought I was the bass player in a band that really sparked your endorphins and got your neurons connecting with a bit of adrenalin, and that's what that band was like. We were playing these songs and it sounded incredibly unbelievable.
Where are they now?
Founder and frontman of Dimmer lives in Auckland. Currently working on fourth Dimmer album.
Photographer and photographic technician at Manukau School of Visual Arts in Auckland.
Auckland boat builder of gin palaces and superyachts.
Guitarist in the band from 1991-94 is now a live-sound engineer living in Auckland.
Since the release of his band Bike's 1997 album Take In the Sun, little has been heard from Brough who lives in Dunedin.