Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Dave Dobbyn's poppy new twist

Dave Dobbyn talks to Russell Baillie about the pop, personal and experimental urges that went into in his first album in years.
Dave Dobbyn lives a few metres away from his workplace. But he still has his standards about office attire. Photo / Supplied
Dave Dobbyn lives a few metres away from his workplace. But he still has his standards about office attire. Photo / Supplied

Dave Dobbyn lives a few metres away from his workplace. But he still has his standards about office attire.

"I do have a rule - no slippers or pyjamas," he cackles sitting at a courtyard bench table midway between his Grey Lynn family home and his recording studio, and almost drowned out by a cicada chorus. "I go to work and go stare at a screen like everyone else."

His Red Trolley studio itself is rooms of brick walls, varnished timber of many grains, glass and recording gear. His extensive guitar collection is everywhere. A newly purchased turntable sits near the door awaiting the arrival of a vinyl pressing of Harmony House, Dobbyn's ninth solo studio album and his first since 2008's Anotherland.

Yes, the album has been a long time coming. "I am in desperate agony, as in feeling like an over-pregnant woman, waiting for this record to come."

The reasons for the long gap are many: "A lot of just living really."

He's still been playing up and down the country and annual gigs in Britain. He parted with Sony BMG which put out his previous five albums - "it just fell over and died" he says of the relationship.

And after 2008's lacklustre Anotherland - "I don't think there were enough standout songs. Had there been one or two, it might have had some legs" - he spent a lot of time wondering what his next move, album-wise, should be. "I think I snapped one day and said 'I am just going to fill it with pop songs'."

His other idea? Get the Phoenix Foundation's Samuel Flynn Scott and Luke Buda to help him do it.

"I always have to have someone to collaborate with to finish things. I had heard a lot of Phoenix stuff. I loved their sound, the sonic playfulness they had. I just thought it would be a good idea.

So did the Wellingtonians.

"We'd met Dave a bunch of times at awards shows and we always just got on great. Mind you, he seems to get on great with everyone, he's that kind of guy," says Scott. "There's that thing musicians do where they always say 'Let's make a record together!' and it never actually happens. But our managers got in on that concept and they plotted away, and they should take the credit for making it come together. It was exciting and slightly daunting but we knew we could make a cool sounding record together."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

It was, on the face of it, an unlikely pairing. National treasure heart-on-sleeve God-bothering singer-songwriter of Grey Lynn being produced by sardonic psychedelic pop boffins of Wellywood.

Dobbyn: "I guess in terms of philosophies outside music, we differ. But that didn't matter. It didn't get in the way of being able to deliver overtly Christian poetry," he laughs. "That was never an issue."

Their beliefs did align on a few things, as Dobbyn found when he arrived at the PF's Wellington recording space, The Car Club. "It kind of helped I walked in with an [Brian] Eno T-shirt on. We all workshop at the altar of Eno," says Dobbyn.

The PF blokes were intimidated by their producer roles at first. Their client wasn't exactly inexperienced.

Scott: "It's daunting telling one of the finest songwriters that maybe this line doesn't work or there is one too many verses.We had no idea how Dave would take criticism from us. But as the album went on we realised he was very open to our ideas, almost too open. Then what we had to be careful of was not drowning out Dave's identity."

Dave Dobbyn performs at Tauranga Christmas in the Park. Photo / Andrew Warner
Dave Dobbyn performs at Tauranga Christmas in the Park. Photo / Andrew Warner

Dobbyn remembers one of the early sessions at his own studio where he was full tilt on a vocal take, eyes closed only to open them to find the pair beside him, looking sheepish; "All of a sudden they are in front of me pointing out the lyric going 'about these lines here ... I'm not sure they are working'. Sam was red-faced and Luke was red faced and I just said 'I'll just change it then. It's obviously been at the back of the fridge for too long'. And that broke the ice."

The result of the collaboration is an album of 11 songs (12 on the vinyl version) with Scott and Buda sharing credits on half the tracks for their arrangements of Dobbyn's ideas. And it's not just a pop album.

"There is an esoteric element to what makes Dave great," says Scott. "I not only wanted to help him make the best record he could I also needed to tap into that magic thing that defines all his music."

"It was obvious with things like Angelina or Ball of Light that we needed to be true to the songs and keep that pop element, but some of the material Dave brought us was deep and dark and strange. It's a very diverse album. There are big Phil Spector moments and then atmospheric spacious moments."

Dave Dobbyn joined forces with the Phoenix Foundation's Samuel Flynn Scott (left) and Luke Buda on his new album. Photo / Richard Robinson
Dave Dobbyn joined forces with the Phoenix Foundation's Samuel Flynn Scott (left) and Luke Buda on his new album. Photo / Richard Robinson

There are also some personal moments. Some are obviously heart-on-sleeve love songs like Tell The World and Burning Love. The most overtly Christian it gets is the the rousing opening track Waiting for a Voice, which sounds slightly Nick Cave-meets-Johnny Cash at the beach.

But though the title track may be named after a long-gone inner city second-hand shop and sound like the most Phoenix-esque cut, the song was inspired by a tough time in Dobbyn's family life.

"The joy of that song is last year my wife [Anneliesje] had breast cancer. Chemo and everything. It was just the worst year. There is a lot of that wrapped up in it. The wonderful thing is my daughter Grace sang on it with me ... so it's really good, that marks that year.

"In the family we always think of that song as that year. But it's something about it that is really good. It's the grooviest groove - that's the lads doing their thing and it just made sense."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Son Eli also played drums on You Get So Lonely, though his main musical interest, says his 59 year-old father, lies in avant garde DJ-ing.

The mix of melody and experimentation on Harmony House might recall the Neil Finn-produced Twist from 1994 but will Dobbyn's local, er, Loyal, following get it?

"They will get some of it. As long as they get some of it, it was worth doing. So long as they get one song, that is the way I look at it.

"I tend to agree with Neil Finn, though it can sound blase, it's a body of work. Look at everything you do as adding to that body of work. But I like to think this is a pretty realised record and it was a conscious move to have some songs on there to sing along to, so I didn't want to write them in awkward keys or get gymnastic on the vocals or over-sing or get too musician-y.

"I think people ultimately grab songs for their simplicity, and there is quite a craft to get to that."

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Who: Dave Dobbyn
What: New album Harmony House
When: Out tomorrow

- Additional reporting Lydia Jenkin

- TimeOut

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