Four decades in, the founder of the great New Zealand indie reflects on the music scene, then and now.
By Steve Erickson
Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, a university dropout working at a record shop, Flying Nun Records set out to document the rock scene that existed in the New Zealand cities of Dunedin and Christchurch. Starting with the Pin Group’s “Ambivalence” single, the label – whimsically named for Sally Fields’ late-‘60s sitcom – has survived for more than 40 years, with hundreds of releases to its name. The Bats, Bailter Space, the Chills, Tall Dwarfs, Straitjacket Fits and the Verlaines were among the early bands that helped put Flying Nun on the world’s indie rock radar.
The common epithet of “jangly guitar pop” rudely shortchanges Flying Nun’s fresh combinations of post-punk, psychedelic pop and garage-rock influences. (Artists like Robyn Hitchcock, the Go-Betweens, Felt and very early R.E.M. would have been good fits for the label.) The Verlaines combined punk energy with odd song structures and time signatures owing something to singer-guitarist Graeme Downes’ academic study of classical music. The Chills leaned closer to the polish of mid-‘60s Beach Boys and Beatles while retaining a sharp edge. The Tall Dwarfs recorded on a 4-track using tape loops for percussion. (Singer Chris Knox produced many early Flying Nun releases on that same tape machine.) While the label found immediate commercial success in New Zealand with the Clean, it wasn’t until 1987 that Homestead Records licensed EPs and albums by the Chills, Verlaines and Tall Dwarfs for American release. After that, major labels became interested: Slash/Warner Bros. signed the Chills and Verlaines, Arista Straitjacket Fits and BMG the 3Ds.
The Chills’ Submarine Bells was the only one of those releases that even came close to commercial success in the U.S., and the band fell apart amid lineup changes, singer-guitarist Martin Phillipps’ drug use and the failure of their second major-label album, Soft Bomb, which was recorded in Los Angeles. Shepherd moved to London and sold off the company, which eventually became a division of Warner Music New Zealand.
Then, in 2010, he bought Flying Nun back and resurrected it as an independent label. Since then, it has been reissuing its catalogue while also searching out new artists from New Zealand. The cryptic but tuneful art-folk of singer/songwriter Aldous Harding, licensed internationally to 4AD, goes in a new direction while retaining the exploratory qualities of the label’s ‘80s releases. The Tall Dwarfs’ box set Unravelled 1981-2002 may be their key release of the year, offering a 55-song summary of the band’s history.
Many indie labels have a great decade and then lose relevance or even go under. Flying Nun’s current condition is certainly less prolific than in its heyday – Harding’s Warm Chris and the Recitals’ Orbit I are 2022’s only new releases so far – but the label has transcended the rise-and-fall narrative of so many music scenes. Shepherd recounted its history in his memoir In Love With These Times, published in 2015, and each week he looks back on the history of a Flying Nun release for his blog on the company website.
I spoke with Roger Shepherd via Zoom in August 2022.
I’ve been looking up New Zealand rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s, before Flying Nun. How much of a scene was there for bands like the La De Das and Human Instinct?
Those were both great bands. There was a lot of interest in music here in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but most bands played covers of overseas material. Those two were exceptions. By the time punk rock hit, there was a lot of frustration, even among older fans, that local bands weren’t writing originals and playing their own material. For a lot of people, it was a blast of fresh air that there was an overseas phenomenon encouraging them to write their own songs.
Split Enz was really the one New Zealand band before Flying Nun to make a big impact on the rest of the world.
I absolutely love their first album, for all its quirkiness and progressive rock tendencies. I know Chris Knox does, too. I was really young when it came out, but we all know that it was an important record. The whole country got behind them.
You can hear a lot of British influences in Split Enz’s Mental Notes, like Genesis, Roxy Music and even folk music, but it came out sounding rather warped rather than imitative. Alastair Riddell’s Space Waltz came out the same year (1975), and it’s not bad, but it’s very much second-string glam: copying David Bowie and things that had gone on in Britain four years earlier.
“Out on the Street” and his appearance on TV caused quite a stir. To the older generation, it was quite a shock to see a man wearing makeup. The best thing I can say about the song is that it’s kind of fun. He struggled very hard to make a full album’s worth of decent material, when he only really had one song. He’s still out there, trying to make it work.
When punk hit big in 1977, did it arrive immediately in New Zealand, or was there a delay in the availability of singles and albums?
Those albums were available quickly, at least as imports. The Sex Pistols’ first two singles were shown on television. That made an impact. I was working in a record shop and trying to get my head around what’s going on. I had a subscription to Melody Maker. For some reason, Wire’s Pink Flag turned up quickly. That was the album that did it for me. It seemed so much important than the Damned, Clash or even the Sex Pistols after their first few singles. Buzzcocks turned up quite quickly, too. Those records pointed towards a future, leading into post-punk, instead of groups like the Vibrators and Stranglers.
I was surprised that Flying Nun was able to make music videos for releases as early as the Chills’ “Rolling Moon” and the Verlaines’ “Death and the Maiden.” They were funded by TVNZ [the country’s public broadcaster, and its sole TV station from 1980 to 1989], right?
We didn’t even have agreements or contracts in place. A lot of those videos were made by Peter Janes, who lived in Dunedin and worked for TVNZ. Dunedin is a small place, so he wouldn’t have been very busy. He had lots of down time and equipment, so he directed many music videos. The quality was quite good because he had a great camera and lighting gear. He had a lot of ideas. There was a roughness, but it suits the material. 10 or 15 years later, TVNZ decided they owned all the videos and wanted to charge us for their use. We said no, we’re gonna keep using them because we own the music rights. It was very freewheeling, like our dealings with the bands. At that time, everyone was making music and wanted to be involved. If you look at the videos, there’s a lot of other musicians in them. Chris Knox was making very basic primitive animation, with the tail ends of film, as provided by the unusable bits on a spool of tape. He had a whole lot of time to sniff around and make things.
At the beginning, were you conscious of documenting a local scene, not just New Zealand but the South Island?
When I started the label, I thought, “There’s all this interesting music happening in Christchurch. It needs to be documented before it disappears.” My worry was that a lot of bands had already disappeared. The Gordons and the Builders were the kind of bands I had in mind. I was conscious there were other things happening. There was a scene in Christchurch around a grotty dive bar hotel. I just thought, “If I can make these records and sell enough to break even, that would be fantastic.” My motive was not starting a record label to have commercial success. That seemed impossible. No one thought like that.
If you can get a gold record selling 10,000 albums in New Zealand, how many copies did you have to sell just to break even? When 10,000 is considered a great success, what did you need to recoup costs?
500 was the number where we broke even. But we did all kinds of projects without financial consideration, just because we liked the music and thought it deserved to be released. We just wanted to document what was going on, which led to a lot of decisions to make small-run releases. I went back and looked at how a lot of these releases worked financially in the ’80s. Boy, it did not look great!
Netherworld Dancing Toys stand out for their soul influences, rather than being guitar-based. They sound like nothing else I’ve heard on Flying Nun. How did they get your attention?
I just thought they were a really good live band. I got swept along with that. They do seem sort of incompatible with everything else on the label, but they were exceptionally nice people. Chris [Knox] became quite good friends with them, as well as myself. He made music videos for them after they left Flying Nun. They were on the edge of our music world, but they had winning ways as people. That compensated for their less-than-winning ways musically.
Post-punk, especially in the UK, was influenced by funk, reggae and dance music. Although the early Flying Nun bands were more or less post-punk as well, they leaned much more towards ’60s rock influences.
The late ’60s influence was huge in Dunedin, but there was a big difference between the Chills and the Doublehappys. The commonality is the importance that was placed on the song, which I think transcends genre. All the bands saw themselves as being directly influenced and motivated by punk, but it was hard to hear most of the time. It was an attitude thing. Why were the late ’60s such a big influence in Dunedin? There tended to be huge record collections in Dunedin, and I think the older brothers who owned them also smoked a lot of pot and dropped a lot of acid. It was a closed and isolated kind of environment that expressed itself in the music being produced in the late ’70s and early ’80s. There were only ever a small handful of Dunedin punk bands, and only one decent one, the Enemy, who weren’t really a musical influence but a powerful motivational one in terms of songwriting, attitude and how you did business.
The fact that Flying Nun released so many EPs was very distinctive, especially the fact that you introduced bands that way instead of jumping right to an album.
For a lot of bands, it was a really good way of managing how much material they had. A lot of these bands did not have enough songs to record a full album. It would’ve been pretty patchy. Any forward momentum would’ve been stopped. The EPs worked well on the sales end. People would buy a few EPs rather than one album. There’s a lot of emotional, not just financial, investment in an album. When we started, the singles were the main thing, and people would buy them quite enthusiastically. By the time the Clean released “Getting Older” in 1982, that record, which I think is absolutely fantastic, fell flat, even though the band and I thought it would go to number-one. I think that was simply because people had moved on to prefer a 12-inch EP. Even the Chills undersold on 7-inch. “Pink Frost” was strong and weird enough to break through, but it was a struggle. The EP helped bridge the way towards LPs without the same cost.
Was there a slow development of interest in Flying Nun around the world, leading up to licensing the Chills and Verlaines for the U.S. and UK?
We used to spend a fortune at the post office. Going to the post office was the most important event of the day. We ran a mail order company. Initially, it served people around New Zealand who couldn’t get to a record shop. Then we sent records to the NME and Melody Maker, and they reviewed them favorably. Fanzines would write to us to request albums for reviews. International mail order built up quickly. It all snowballed as the press coverage came in. More people would write to us. I was excited to build a proper catalogue, not just based on one band but have a selection of bands. We knew that when bands toured overseas, we needed to find partners overseas who would license them, give them some money and help them tour. There was an intermediate stage where we shipped finished product to Rough Trade in the UK and distributors in the U.S., so we sold them as imports. But obviously, the cost to the consumer was pricey. Those are the steps that got us to the point where we were dealing with Homestead and Rough Trade.
Then you made a jump to the point where major labels, not just indie labels, were interested in licensing your bands. When did that come about?
That was a little bit later. There was this touring problem, the cost of getting a band overseas. The reality is that we’re way down here, and it’s not cheap getting a band and their equipment to the U.S. or Europe. We could just see that no independent label was financially equipped to help with tour support to the extent we needed. We wanted wider press coverage and getting them into more stores. Whether it worked out, I have my doubts, but that was the plan.
How much control did Flying Nun have over the Chills’ Submarine Bells or the Straitjacket Fits albums on Arista? Did you still have a say in the choice of producer or studio?
The Chills signed directly to Slash, not licensed, although we retained the New Zealand rights. So we didn’t have any input on their recording. We only dealt with them for their New Zealand business. Straitjacket Fits was a license, but by that point, we were distributed by Mushroom in Australia. So we were involved with production and A&R, with Arista as partners.
Were Headless Chickens ever licensed for US release?
I don’t think they were. They were one of those bands that started as dark alternative. They sprang out of Children’s Hour, a noisy, brooding guitar band. Then they became interested in electronics and became almost industrial, then they became more danceable as time went on. We had a lot of commercial success with them in New Zealand and Australia, but they’re one of those bands that didn’t translate. No one got it in the U.S. or Europe. It was electronic music, but not the kind that was popular in that part of the world.
Do you think they might not have found an audience in the U.S. or UK because they were so different from what people expected from Flying Nun?
That was probably a factor. I remember people saying to me, “They’re a bit like Underworld.” They couldn’t appreciate the points of difference. They couldn’t connect with any label heads.
It seems like the label took a big leap into professionalism around 1988. The records sound slicker, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Was that around the time the label started distribution through Festival?
I could tell there was a drive for everything to be professional. There were thousands of photo shoots. Back in the early ’80s, we’d make do with just one photo for each band. We spent more money recording the bands.
Then, in the ’90s, you sold the label to Warner Bros.
We were in business with [Australian label] Mushroom, and they sold the company to Warner Bros. That was 1998. It all happened in a very short span of time.
Your memoir ends in 2010 with you buying back the rights to the label. How involved in it are you now?
Two of us are equal shareholders. My business partner, Ben House, is a bit more involved. I have a certain input, but I’m not so involved in the day-to-day running of the company. I write my blog, which seems to take all week for some reason. I’m involved with A&R decisions and endless conversations about all sorts of things. The catalogue is sizable, and when you’ve gone 40 years with a lot of artists, that all leads to endless things to deal with which aren’t all that productive in terms of making new music.
How do you balance promoting the label’s catalogue, like the Tall Dwarfs box set which came out recently, with new artists?
New artists are really important. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a museum. That’s great for hardcore fans, but you want to be able to sell older material to a younger audience and pick up on new things that start happening as time goes on. I don’t think there’s anything worse than a record label without any new artists. It’s all dependent on what’s out there. As a record label, you’re hopefully not creating the actual artists. You’re reliant on what you see around you. It’s not like the ’80s, where there’s a cohesive scene happening, like garage-rock in Dunedin and Wellington. People move around more. There are different styles happening. Everyone’s a bit more alert to the rest of the world. The key thing is the songs.
Does New Zealand feel less isolated, culturally or just in general, than it did in the ’70s?
Yes. Just in terms of the bands’ ability to travel overseas or people being able to move and live somewhere for a period of time. In the ’80s, you went somewhere forever or a big chunk of time. Air travel’s cheaper. Young people are more mobile. We used to wait for the English music press. I had an air-mail subscription to the NME, which turned up a week after publishing date, but news agents would get their copies six months later. That’s what most people read. That lag doesn’t happen now. Even back then, that subscription was worthless because none of the records I read about would turn up for six months. At the start of Flying Nun, there was always a delay in getting records made. It’s instantaneous now, hearing music, reading reviews and looking at photos of what that rock star looks like. You can finally buy records I’d only heard about 40 years ago. Lots of stuff wasn’t made available here in the ’70s. Getting a Can album was really exotic and wonderful. You had to pay an amazing price.
Read Roger Shepherd’s blog here.