Bats out of the shadows

By GRAHAM REID

The cops have just been round to the Christchurch home of Paul Kean and his partner, Kaye Woodward. Musicians expect this from time to time, and of course Kean and Woodward would have preferred not to have had them there.

But when you have a window broken and lose a laptop and new computer, it's nice to have the constabulary dusting for prints.

The good news is the police think it's likely they'll recover the stolen gear; the bad news is if they don't the Bats - Kean, Woodward, guitarist Robert Scott and drummer Malcolm Grant - will lose some valuable musical material.

They were using the computers for overdubs and mixing some new songs, so there's precious stuff stored on five missing CDs. While they do have back-ups, they might have to go through the process of transferring files, doing compressions and reverbs and other such computer-type muso talk. The new Bats' album now looks more likely to be next year than this.

News of any new Bats' album is a surprise, however. The band which was in the vanguard of the lo-fi Flying Nun sound throughout the 80s and 90s - and one of the country's most popular live acts - has seemed moribund of late.

Even Kean admits that some think they called it a day some time after their last Auckland gig three years ago. But here they come again tomorrow night with their alter-ego Minisnap - Kean, Woodward and Grant - opening for them at the Kings Arms.

"Yeah, you get this thing that the Bats had finished or we are reforming to come up, but it was never really de-formed. But if someone hasn't played for a couple of years in Auckland, they don't exist any longer. We've played down here once or twice a year for the past few years, but we didn't want to end up in a situation where we were just gigging to promote an album. But we've got new songs and want to get out and play them."

While the Bats will be the drawcard, Minisnap should be worth catching. It's not the Bats-lite - although Kean says there are inevitably some Bats-type sounds filtering through - but grew out of Woodward's songwriting while the Bats were on hold when Scott played with the Clean and did a solo album.

"I guess the difference is Kaye is singing with Minisnap and they are her songs, and she has a focused idea of how they should sound and be structured. Rhythmically she pushes it in different directions, the songs have a slight twist to them."

Kean promises another Minisnap EP soon to follow their earlier In My Pocket EP, which should help establish the name. The Bats, however, are a long-established unit.

Their first gig was New Year's Eve 1982 at Dunedin's Empire Tavern and they have retained the same line-up since. And they reached some fairly dizzy heights in their time.

They were in Australia this year reconnecting with loyalists, although Kean is at a loss to explain why they have kept an audience in the absence of albums and touring. "I feel we've evolved over the years but haven't done any sudden left turns. There's a human touch maybe, and live there is something that happens when we play. We can't say where that buzz or little sparkle or bounce comes from. You listen to any one of us as an individual and it's probably not happening, but put the four together and something magic happens."

That magic saw them open for Radiohead in the United States as they were breaking there, tours of Europe and Australia, acclaim for the albums Daddy's Highway and Law of Things, and a real sense they were contenders.

Yet they were all but omitted in the recent Give It A Whirl doco series about New Zealand rock - which smarts a little.

"We were a little disappointed, we did a Noisyland tour [of the US in '93] with Straitjacket Fits and JPSE, and on that tour the audience was there to see us."

But all that was mentioned in the programme was Straitjackets being signed to Arista and the problems they were having being with a major label.

"There was no mention it was the Bats' tour. It wasn't designed that way but turned out that way. In the first few dates it was JPSE first, the Bats on at the middle and Straitjackets at the end. But when we finished playing the audience pretty much left. They switched it around and allowed us to play last, and in that situation people weren't coming in until we started playing."

There was a time when the Bats could have soared also, but the career trajectory was lost and they became disillusioned.

"It was a mixture of things. There was the record company deciding we needed to use American producers for our albums, and that was a retrograde step, we were doing pretty well ourselves. [The producers] took a degree of sparkle out of our records.

"We were one of the top tier of Flying Nun, and suddenly they were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than tens of thousands on recording. It was out of our control.

"We had a photo session in Australia that had a makeup artist with a caravan, and they took Kaye away for an hour. When she arrived on the set it didn't look like Kaye at all. It was the big makeover and this was totally contrary to what we related to.

"Then suddenly we were getting bills which said we owed so much and wouldn't get any royalties until they were paid. We rode along for a while thinking maybe it would work, but it didn't.

"The Noisyland tour was manipulated, and back in New Zealand, instead of trumpeting the success we had, [the label] was talking about the success of the Straitjackets. We thought, 'Bugger that'."

The tour with Radiohead the same year confirmed their fears. Here was a big-selling band on a tour bus with coffin-like bunks.

"We looked at it and their life didn't look that comfortable. We were being packaged as something we weren't and being pushed around, so we pulled back."

Kean and Woodward also had children, so it made sense to go back to Christchurch and reconsider. Their '95 album Couchmaster - which they were pleased with as a return to form and their own sound - came out with inadequate promotional push; three years ago another long-promised compilation, Thousands of Tiny Luminous Spheres, suffered the same fate. So now they are doing things their own way, much as they did two decades ago. Yet Batsmagic is something wondrous to behold. The question is: who are their audience today?

"Last time we were in Auckland we had some people in the front row singing along and I had to think, 'Were these kids even born when we started?' It was bizarre.

"We spoke to them afterwards and they said their parents had our records.

"I dunno if it made me feel old, but it did make me feel we still related to younger people. It's a diverse audience, but there's something human about it. It's the fashion set, or the bogans or the stoners. It's pretty normal people you can relate to well, which is nice."

Performance

* Who: The Bats, Minisnap, Joed Out

* Where: Kings Arms

* When: Tomorrow

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