Twelve Questions
Jennifer Dann poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Roger Shepherd

By Jennifer Dann

Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd talks about his memoir In Love With These Times at the Going West Books and Writers Festival in Auckland this weekend.
Roger Shepherd says he didn't have the patience to learn an instrument. Photo / Supplied
Roger Shepherd says he didn't have the patience to learn an instrument. Photo / Supplied

1 The history of Flying Nun and the so-called 'Dunedin Sound' has been well documented. Does your memoir contain any surprises?

Probably my bipolar diagnosis - only a few close friends knew about that. I didn't set out to write about my drinking and mental illness but it became clear it would be dishonest not to. Writing the book, I realised how much my manic depression had contributed to Flying Nun's development - my unreasonable enthusiasms and bouts of determination. The downside was periods of depression which my wife and children noticed became more pronounced in my mid-40s. It was a relief to finally know what was wrong and it made sense. The doctor put me on lithium, one of those old fashioned medications that no one knows how it works but it does. I haven't had a bad bout of depression for a few years now. Depression is easily dismissed but that last one was really hairy.

2 Was music a big part of your childhood in Christchurch?

I grew up in the working class suburb of Aranui which was a bit grim in the 1960s. I was isolated from other kids because our parents didn't want us mixing with 'riff raff'. Dad was really into classical music so the radio was only tuned to the concert programme and we weren't allowed to touch the record player. My first independent listening moment was sneakily playing my older brother's Sergeant Pepper's record while our parents were out when I was about 8 or 9. I was immediately aware of this whole world happening out there that sounded exotic and colourful and full of possibility.

3 How did you get involved in the Christchurch music scene?

I managed to bluff my way into a part-time job in a record store. On Friday nights an alternative crowd would gather and when the store closed you'd invariably get dragged along to see a local band play. There were about 20 punks in Christchurch then. Not wearing flares was the key. You had to find someone to take your trouser legs in - my sister sewed mine. I was drawn to alternative music like Television, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu and Wire. A lot of my friends went on to form bands. I didn't have the patience to learn an instrument.

4 Why did you decide to start record label?

I was really in love with the scene. I could see all this great music being made and wanted to get it recorded before the moment passed. The perception was that because I had a job in a record shop perhaps I knew something about the industry. I found a record pressing plant in Wellington and figured we could do an initial run of 300 or 500 copies and sell enough to cover costs.

5 What was the role of Chris Knox in getting Flying Nun up and running?

I met Chris Knox and Doug Hood when I followed The Clean up to Auckland after recording Tally Ho. It was my first time on a plane and probably the best money I ever spent. We recorded the phenomenally successful EP Boodle Boodle Boodle together. Professional recording studios were expensive and the people running them weren't sympathetic to new music so it seemed sensible for Chris and Doug to bring their 4-track down to Christchurch to record the bands playing in town for orientation. We made the Dunedin Double EP with four bands from Dunedin - The Chills, The Verlaines, The Stones and Sneaky Feelings.

6 Why was the 'Dunedin Sound' recorded in Christchurch by Aucklanders?

Dunedin didn't have many venues for bands to perform in. Pubs wouldn't have them, largely because of Chris's cutting-himself-on-stage routine from a few years earlier. Christchurch had the venues and an enthusiastic paying audience.

7 Did you see yourself as being at the helm of the fledgling label or was it a group effort?

It was very much co-operative. Shayne Carter was good at typing. If a 7-inch single went well, anyone that popped into the office would be set to work gluing the record sleeves. But in time I could see there was a looseness that came with that. There were bills to be paid so the onus came on me to provide some focus and direction. I needed to be more assertive.

8 How often did you fear bankruptcy?

Pretty much constantly, day by day, for a good 14 years. We had no capital and did everything on credit. I found the business side of it quite onerous. Hamish Kilgour did a basic accounting course once the invoice desk drawer began to overflow. We always had a terrible amount of money tied up in recordings. I hated the 'work in progress' figure. It was close to $100,000 at one stage which was a lot of money in the early 80s.

9 Did you ever have to be the bad guy who told musicians their ideas were unaffordable?

Sometimes. I'm never keen on conflict so I tried to avoid it. Chris would sometimes be the one who said 'no' to bands. It's a constant compromise between what you want to do and what you can afford to do and what's possible how quickly.

10 Did Flying Nun achieve much mainstream success?

Bands like The Clean definitely did in sales terms. Commercial radio stations never played them, so it was off the back of student radio, print media like Rip It Up and live gigs. But New Zealand was small and isolated. I saw that we had to sell overseas so we sent records to the UK and Germany and started getting great reviews in influential magazines like NME and Melody Maker. The Chills had a mainstream success with Heavenly Pop Hit but it took us about 10 years to figure out they really needed to be based overseas if they were to find international success. It was a real grind and they got really close but probably just missed the bus in America.

11 How did you find the experience of writing your first book?

I'm not verbally all that articulate but I really enjoyed writing it. I poked around the Flying Nun archive but there was just too much detail. I didn't want the book to become a blow by blow account of the label so I decided to approach it as my own story. A lot of bands and records that I really love aren't even mentioned and there's a lot that I don't remember. Luckily my editor Scott Forbes is a real fan of the label so he put me right on a few facts and helped me get the structure sorted. I was a bit worried about writing about music because I'm not a musician but I really enjoyed the challenge of describing what some of those bands sounded like.

12 What are you listening to at the moment?

I buy CDs quite often, the odd record, not downloads - I like something physical, a cover to look at. The Others Way was the best event I've been to lately. I'm really looking forward to seeing Black Mountain. But at 56, standing up for long periods of time is hard. I'm thinking of writing another book about music. We'll see.

• Roger Shepherd talks to John Campbell about his memoir In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Records at the Going West Books and Writers Festival this Sunday at 2.45pm. For more info go to

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 28 Oct 2016 23:54:27 Processing Time: 622ms