Pop’s rocky road is strewn with innumerable tattered gig flyers and dented band buttons. What would an alien traveler think if he picked up a scrap of debris bearing the words “Jean Paul Sartre Experience”? “So poetic, so perfectly evocative…but of what?” his musings would no doubt begin. Upon hearing the actual music, he might even fire off a missive to the late French existentialist’s estate and chide them for forcing the New Zealand quartet to switch to the ineffectual “JPS Experience” — or, in a fashion similar to that sardonic Pink Floyd lyric, he might simply wonder, “Which one’s Sartre?”
Prodded by the anxieties of teen boredom and inspired by the financial comfort of the dole, JPSE formed in the suburbs of Christchurch in late ’84 (the name was inspired by a member’s housemate who consumed magic mushrooms to excess and earned the nickname “The Existential Experience”). In ’85, the band’s reputation brought it a slot at the Flying Nun Records Christmas bash, and by next summer the label was ready to commit the JPSE demo tape to vinyl. The quartet — early releases also list their soundman as a fifth member — would relocate to Auckland on the northern island in ’89, but not before issuing three proper JPSE recordings.
The self-titled debut is a rare, mysterious gem. Neither as saccharine as the Chills nor as moody as the Verlaines (two other Flying Nun bands of the time to whom JPSE was often compared), the record twitches and shudders unselfconsciously between the gaps opened by Quicksilver, the Velvets and R.E.M. without ever committing to any one style. The chiming/modal guitars, exotic rhythm section murmurs, meditative vocals and guest trumpet (!) of “Walking Wild in Your Firetime” are sufficient to earn the five-song 12-inch “classic” status.
Love Songs was completed under stress; one member had temporarily defected, mid-sessions, to England. Still, the album — while more mannered and therefore less immediate than its predecessor — is a remarkably mature recording that showcases quite a breadth of styles. Notable are the piano/guitar noir blues of “Jabberwocky,” the insanely funky “Let That Good Thing Grow” and the hypnotic love ballad “Grey Parade.” Communion brought JPSE to the attention of Stateside listeners via its own version (totally different artwork) of Love Songs, which combines four album tracks with the entire first EP (wise move); the CD version adds two more cuts from the New Zealand edition of Love Songs. Just to confuse fans everywhere, Communion would see fit in 1990 to release a five-song CD EP, Elemental/Flex, containing three more Love Songs tunes not originally found on the American issue, plus (again) “Flex” from the Jean Paul Sartre Experience EP and “Elemental” from The Size of Food. In early ’95, Flying Nun issued the first EP and the first album together as Jean Paul Sartre Experience, tagging on an early 45 (“I Like Rain” b/w “Bo Diddley”) for good measure.
With the band roster back to normal, JPSE released The Size of Food simultaneously in New Zealand and America. Critical opinions tend to diverge regarding the album. While it has its share of Kiwi brilliance — the serpentine wallop of “Slip” is pure Velvets, while “Thrills” is a wailing slab of cracked pop-psych worthy of Robyn Hitchcock — -it also contains some distracting experiments that find the band flirting needlessly with art-rock and dance motifs. Meanwhile, other songs (the lush, Church-like “Elemental” and “Inside & Out”) seem to point in yet another direction.
Sure enough, the Precious and Breathe EPs continue in that vein; the former’s title track is a catchy, groove-oriented number, while “Breathe” would fool a blindfold test subject into thinking a new Steve Kilbey track had surfaced. The tune’s glamorous ennui helps sets the mood for Bleeding Star, where it also appears. An immaculate big-budget production, the album (credited to JPS Experience) unveils a new commercial face for the band. “Modus Vivendi” is all Jesus and Mary Chain feedback’n’buzz; the multiple guitar overdubs and simple melody of “Into You” define the term “pop anthem”; the fat drum sound, thick reverbed axes and yearning vocal harmonies that course through “Ray of Shine” create a towering wall of modern psychedelia.
Access to technology was long overdue for JPSE, as Bleeding Star was both the band’s sonic tour de force and its swan song. JPSE broke up in 1994, leaving behind some of the finest New Zealand records ever. And one of the greatest band names, period.