Surf City: Riding the wave

By Lydia Jenkin

Although the making of Surf City's second release was scattered across three continents, the result is true to their acclaimed earlier form, writes Lydia Jenkin.

Surf City, from left, Davin Stoddard, Jamie Kennedy, Logan Collins and Mike Ellis.
Surf City, from left, Davin Stoddard, Jamie Kennedy, Logan Collins and Mike Ellis.

Surf City might sound like they should be a band from California making sunny, 60s-inspired surf rock, but in fact they're a quartet from Mt Roskill, inspired by various Flying Nun acts and originally called Kill Surf City, after a Jesus and Mary Chain B-side.

"We just knew each other from round the ways," singer and guitarist Davin Stoddard explains, sitting in Verona Cafe on K Rd with bassist Jamie Kennedy.

"I think the Clean was the one band we all agreed upon, and maybe the Ramones. And this is going to sound so cliche, but we all thought, 'Hey yeah, we can start a rock' n' roll band, we'll learn three chords, we could actually do that.' I was terrible at guitar when we started."

They seemed to have something of a dream run at first; they were quickly asked to play support for acts like Dinosaur Jr. and MGMT, signed up to Arch Hill Records and invited to film, interactive and music festival SXSW. They had to change their name when it turned out a band from England had a matching moniker, but that did nothing to dim the attention their early singles and EP Records of a Flagpole Skater were getting from blogs like Pitchfork and Stereogum, as well as being local student radio favourites.

Six years on, with two EPs, tours to SXSW and CMJ and a record deal with Fire Records in the US (also the American home for Kiwi acts like the Chills and Opossom), tomorrow they release their second album We Knew It Was Not Going to Be Like This. Though it's a more hooky, layered album, it's still very much in the vein of woozy, noisy, low-fi pop.

The interesting fact is that despite all the comparisons to and inspiration from bands of old, they recorded it in a modern fashion, adding new segments, instruments and vocals bit by bit across cyberspace via email.

They began recording it in New Zealand with bandmates drummer Logan Collins and guitarist Josh Kennedy (Jamie's brother, who has now left to be a family man, replaced by Ghost Wave's Mike Ellis). Then Stoddard and Kennedy decided to head to New York for a while and did a whole lot of writing and recording in a basement studio in Chinatown.

"We actually got a lot of ideas from recording in New York. That's where the album really started," Kennedy explains. "It was pretty dingy, quite dark underneath all these apartment buildings and there were a couple of other bands sharing it, but it was cool because there was quite a bit of equipment we could jam around with it - cool old organs and lots of different microphones. We've never really been able to get access to that stuff before."

"We had a bit of an idea that New York could be the place we got it all done," Stoddard adds, "but it didn't really happen like that."

Eventually, they had to return to New Zealand without a finished album, and then Stoddard went off to South Korea to teach English, so they continued to email back and forth, with Stoddard recording in his little apartment by night and the rest of the band doing bits and pieces in Auckland.

In some ways, Stoddard sees that time away as an advantage.

"Your identity is kind of wrapped up with being in this band and all your friends are in bands, but then I was in Korea and I just wasn't that person. It gave me a chance to step back a bit. Sometimes it gets a bit boring - not the songwriting, but all the other stuff: the hard slog of always being broke and trying to figure out how you can tour with no money, so it was good to have a job and not be worrying about those things for a while."

Those experiences of being away, being isolated and spending time alone listening to the likes of Scott Walker do trickle through but it isn't a downer album - though Stoddard would rather not analyse the lyrics. "It's kind of like showing your journal to someone. You know as soon as you see them written down they're going to look like sixth-form poetry. You need to be Morrissey or Lou Reed or something before you can write your lyrics down and discuss them."

Despite the change in recording and writing circumstances, the album still sounds like the Surf City fans have always been excited about - often quite minimalist at its core, trance-like even, but shot through with strong pop melodies.

"I think that's sort of out of necessity, because it's just how we've learned to write songs. I sometimes compare writing a song to playing a video game - you want to get to the end of the level so you can move on to the next level, not so you can play a different game.

"And that kind of hypnotic trance thing is sort of similar; you get lost in it for hours, nodding your head along, seeing where it will lead."

Who: Surf City
What: We Knew It Was Not Going to Be Like This, out tomorrow
Where and when: Performing at Lucha Lounge in Newmarket, August 31

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