The Drab Doo-Riffs: Fix up, look drab

By Joe Nunweek

As well having a tight sound, the Drab Doo Riffs are a tightly functioning group of people. Photo / Milana Radojcic
As well having a tight sound, the Drab Doo Riffs are a tightly functioning group of people. Photo / Milana Radojcic

If F. Scott Fitzgerald once glumly declared that there are no second acts in American lives, Karl Steven appears to be onto his third. Plus an encore or two. The rule, I think as I watch him devour Malaysian tofu and noodles with great gusto, is obviously not universal.

The most recent act, Auckland's Drab Doo-Riffs, has just finished a nationwide tour in its own right with Liam Finn. Exuding a sort of frazzled but chatty energy, Steven is the first to admit to being "knackered".

"Once upon a time it felt like I was able to do it every night. Now, it's like my body protracts every late night and every hangover out into the next week and beyond. Like it's telling me: what are you doing?"

That said, he's aglow - the tour went well. Frazzled but chatty.

It wasn't always like this. Steven's best-known project, Supergroove, succumbed to touring. A death by a thousand cuts - "the Australian pub and sports club circuit killed us."

Even then, he was escaping from an environment "that had just got too f**ked to continue, had stopped being fun."

The antidote was to throw himself into books - loads of deep thought, lots of theory.

"I figured it made sense for someone looking to figure out some sort of system to understand it all with. And you can either go down the route of philosophy, where you're given the right questions you need to be asking, or religion, where you can be given all the answers."

Not someone to do things by halves, he threw himself into academia and renounced music.

He made it to Cambridge, bearing out gloomy winters and musty libraries to emerge with his doctorate in philosophy.

It is not, we agree, the most lucrative path of study ever.

"But I hate that sort of thing, the idea that the value of study is connected to its dollar earning value. That's not why I went into it at all."

And it was in the exhausting home stretches of that study that the pendulum swung back the other way. ("I guess that's what I do. I kind of get obsessed with a thing until I burn out on it.")

By his own admission, he avoided listening to music for years. And then he started making it again.

There's something refreshing about the Drab Doo-Riffs, even after some two years of raucous performances in and around Auckland. Between Marcus Joyce and Mikey Sperring, they have one of the best rhythm sections in the North Island.

Caoimhe Macfehin forms a gentler foil to Steven's kinetic yelp. Their sound flaunts the nascent sounds of surf, rhythm'n'blues, electric blues. It's rock before it fattened on extended suites and tape loops and tritones.

By his own admission, Steven isn't too big on these digressions. "I don't think I'll ever do my big psychedelic opus. I'm too much of a pop guy for that."

It's a palate cleanser - what better way for a jaded soul to return to music?

The first Drab Doo-Riffs songs got written and laid down by dictaphone over in England, but the ease with which a band coalesced around them is striking. Steven speaks affectionately of "a particular time when all the players have this extraordinary feel and care about the songs, and it's almost intangible.

The songs are hot. Even if there's a couple of flubbed notes, it feels better than something which is played perfectly but where you can hear how sick everyone is of the whole thing."

Accordingly, the band have blasted out quarter-hour EPs rather than let these songs stagnate for an album. The latest, A Fist Full Of Doo Riffs, is out this week.

The band itself is tight - sonically, but as a functioning unit of people as well.

"We turn each others weaknesses into strengths. Mikey loses shit all the time, but he likes to drive and be in control, so he'll drive the van around. Whereas Marcus is a bit more OCD about stuff. So now he keeps the keys so that Mikey can find them when he needs to drive."

Their poster art is all Joyce's lurid grimaces, the production and arrangements their own. "The industry's a very different place. Now, we can keep all of those things in-house."

And Auckland?

"Auckland," Steven says, "is a different place. I mean, my fondest memories of Supergroove are when it was small - it was just playing house parties at friends' places. There wasn't really anywhere else to go - it was the '90s, and people didn't go to see rock'n'roll shows. They all went to nightclubs, you listened to music out of PAs."

Sometimes, it's not the same when you come back - it's better.

What's In A Name?

A Drab Doo-Riffs interview in Rip It Up last year gave the game away - asked for the origin of his latest group's moniker, Karl simply said: "What do Dune, the second Lord Of The Rings movie, Star Trek: Voyager, Deadwood and Dune have in common?"

With all due respect to that venerated publication, it wasn't the irreconcilable riddle they made it out to be. 'Drab Doo-Riffs' comes from cult horror and fantasy actor Brad Dourif - he of the pallid complexion, soft tone, and chilling gaze.

Wormtongue in LOTR, Doc Cochran in Deadwood, the voice of Chucky in Child's Play. A creep for the ages.

Why Dourif? Karl picks up: "We were at this comedy gig, years ago, and we were watching this guy up on stage who was specialising in impersonations. Just a pretty stock-standard repertoire of imitating voices and tics and stuff, then a heckler yelled out 'Do Brad Dourif!' And we were just... What? He's a character actor. How do you begin to do an imitation of a character actor?" Faced with that uphill battle, the poor comic's 'drab Dourif' set the scene for the group.

In-jokeyness aside, the flippant, fun name rolls off the tongue. Steven is a fan of Nuggets, the seminal '60s compilation of garage-punk obscurities, and 'Drab Doo-Riffs' feels like a good fit alongside inscrutable titles like The Shadows Of Knight, Zakary Thaks, and The Cryan Shames. It's got to be better than just calling yourself 'Tool'.

The Drab Doo-Riffs' A Fist Full Of Doo Riffs EP is out this Friday on Liberation Music.

- Volume

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