By GRAHAM REID
On Thursday night when Muse Records' mainman Mark Roach got up at the Odeon Lounge to introduce the set by singer-songwriter Damien Binder and his band, he allowed himself a wide smile.
Binder's new album, Til Now, he said, had already sold-in its initial pressing of 1000 copies and they were having to press more.
That means record shops had taken every copy, a show of faith in the album sometimes not accorded big international names. Given this gig was only the album launch, that had to be good news indeed.
Over the following 45 minutes Binder - with drummer Steve Garden and bassist Bob Shepheard (who produced Til Now together), and guitarist Brett Adams - played a taut set of songs from the album which shifted easily from open-hearted pop to downbeat songs with a slight country inflection. At times there was even a bristling rock attitude - explored by former-Mocker Adams' coiling guitar figures - which brought to mind Binder's previous band, Second Child, in which he played alongside Chris van de Geer who has done some additional production and engineered the album.
A glance around the room confirmed Binder has a lot of people in his corner for this album - now all that need happen is people hear it and then it will start shifting off shelves.
Binder is one of this country's best but as yet unrecognised songwriting talents and with Til Now his voice and writing have taken a great leap forward.
Even so, after his self-titled debut of three years ago critics were putting Binder in the same league as the senior squad of Kiwi singer-songwriters (Dobbyn, a couple of Finns and so on), and saying he could sculpt a pop song with memorable and durable choruses.
After his support slot with Marianne Faithfull, the reviewer in this paper said he proved why he should soon be bigger than Bic Runga.
That tour, and opening for David Gray playing to 4000 people a night, certainly upped his profile. And over the next month with television appearances on The Last Word (Tuesday) and Space (Friday) plus live shots at the Temple (Thursday as part of a large line-up which includes Karen Hunter and Mahinarangi Tocker) and Real Groovy (Saturday 26) Binder's name and album should start to become more familiar. And that's got to be good.
"Oh yeah," he laughs. "A lot of people still think I'm Carly's brother. On the David Gray tour I had 'Damien Binding' on one dressing room door."
At 33 ("I hope the photos will tell a different story") Binder feels he is really hitting his straps musically: his songwriting is more considered and mature; the opening slots, solo shows and a trip to Texas for the South by South West festival have given him greater confidence on stage; and his voice is more flexible.
"I've gone from being a real screamer in Second Child and I've honed that into a more relaxed style. Over the years I've been singing quieter and quieter. I'm actually making all the notes now.
"The singer-songwriters I love write on acoustic guitar and I guess I'm part of that thing. Having said that though, I'm still a huge rock pig and went to Audioslave which was a nostalgic thing for me because I loved Soundgarden. And [former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell] was just amazing, so explosive. He could sing this beautiful plaintive thing, then push a button and the gravel came on. I admire people who have a lot of control like that."
Audioslave may not be a reference point for what Binder is doing on Til Now but the name checks he will happily endure make for flattering comparisons. You can bet Neil Finn, David Gray, Evan Dando and Ron Sexsmith are among the references. He'll accept them all and is a big fan of Sexsmith's literate and intimate style.
"I'm a little more pop than he is," he says, before noting that he was burgled and lost his electric guitar and 160 CDs, among them all Sexsmith's albums. "I miss Ron," he says with a plaintive laugh.
"Actually I'm closer to someone like Evan Dando than Ron Sexsmith and am more diverse in terms of styles. Stylistically though I don't know where I fit, but I know that even though I'm working in a genre that's been done to death I think I have an individual voice and when people try to explain who I sound like they'll mention four or five different people.
"In fact I don't sound like any of them exactly, but I do sound like me."
Binder is sounding more confident these days, some of that attributable to his experience in Texas which validated his work. As part of a Kiwi contingent in Austin he played a sell-out gig in a small venue called The Hideaway.
"It literally was - I don't know how people found it, it was at the back of a cafe with theatre seating and it was very, very quiet. But after the first song there was rapturous applause."
Getting that buzz off an audience who knew nothing about him other than his songs gave him great encouragement, but has also alerted him to the possibilities of taking his music further afield than a North Island tour.
"That was the strongest thing that came out, that you can have faith in your songs. When you play gigs here there's a ripple of feedback but we're quite reserved. If you play anywhere else you get a far more enthusiastic reaction. It makes you get out of your own head and think, 'Yeah, this is good stuff - and people could buy it on a mass scale'.
"I played to a full house and people were rapt, and I was playing solo when I'd rather have been playing with a band to flesh out my songs. But I got a great reception and was overwhelmed. Because I could play at the Temple here tomorrow and get four punters and wouldn't get the feedback I had over there. People whooped it up through the set and I played a good show and thought, 'I've just got to get out of town more often'."
Already there have been invitations to other festivals - notably one in Boston which he had to turn down for financial reasons and because he had to stay here to promote Til Now.
But he and Roach, who drove from LA to Austin - "We thought driving would cost us less but it cost us way more, petrol went up while we there during the Iraq war" - have made contacts and are keen to explore them after working Til Now here for the next few months.
"Next year I'll definitely fire off overseas and I'll certainly tour Australia. I'd love to even live there, I've never done anything over there. In a sense I have done this place to death although I've never, even back in Second Child days, toured the South Island.
"So I'd like to pursue possibilities here, but will go somewhere fresh and ply my trade. I think in terms of songwriting I'm just starting to hit my stride.
"Having said that I don't rate myself as a great guitar player or singer, but I can do okay. Writing is what I put first. I need to put my head down and work and I've done that since the last album on my singing and playing. I've got good at what I do in its limited form and I'd like to spread it out more and get more diverse."
Til Now confirms Binder's musical progress and some of the songs sound deceptively simple yet are shot through with subtle hooks and memorable lyrics.
"I think there's a lot of humour, and more light and shade, than the last one, it's more up and open."
And those other songs where it sounds like you've just lost your girlfriend?
"It's always going to be that with me," he laughs. "I tap into that stuff and I don't know where it comes from - although I've had a few ups and downs. There's nothing like that to get you writing again."
He laughs again about that drive to Texas where the scenery barely changed - the album sleeve has the photos - and how different audiences have been for him recently. Quiet and appreciative at Marianne Faithfull, supportive at David Gray, small at the Temple, and hooting at the Hideaway. Not that he could feed off that Texas enthusiasm.
"The stage was about to give way, it had this big bow in it, and if I got slightly excited the thing would shake. And it's a whole performance for me, I talk to the audience and if the vibe is good we have a few jokes and its fun.
"Your first couple of songs you are just relaxing and they are listening and feeling you out and you're doing the same with them. If it's really relaxed it'll be a really good show, and if it's not it'll be a good show. But it'll never be a lousy one if I can have anything to do with it."
* Til Now is out on Tuesday.
By GRAHAM REID