In the early 1980s, New Zealand cities Dunedin and Christchurch were hotbeds of exciting music released by labels like Flying Nun. Heavily influenced by both the Velvet Underground and the Byrds, bands like the Clean, the Chills, and the Verlaines came to represent what critics dubbed the "Dunedin sound" — combining the energy of punk with jangly, psychedelic guitar pop and a heavy dose of experimentation. The kiwi bands of this era seem to have a unique ability to combine melody and noise, somehow sounding harsh and beautiful at the same time. As the decade wore on, some bands went into a happy sunshine pop direction, while others went into a noisier direction — but the most interesting continued to mix the noise and melody.
Enter the Renderers, New Zealand's premier psychedelic noisy country band. When many people think of New Zealand, a lonesome cowboy singing of desperation and failure may not come to mind. But peel back the sunshine and there is a darkness lurking underneath, which Renderers founders Maryrose and Brian Crook have been exploring for almost 30 years. Since starting the band in Australia and then spending many years in Christchurch, the duo are now living in California's Yucca Valley, just outside Joshua Tree — coincidentally the place where the Byrds' Gram Parsons met his untimely end. With a new record called In the Sodium Light, they are embarking on a U.S. tour and making a rare Detroit appearance on Friday, Sept. 16 at El Club. We spoke with Maryrose recently in advance of the show.
Metro Times: How did you first get started playing music? It seems like you and Brian were both in a lot of other projects.
Maryrose Crook: We coincidentally started playing in bands in the same year in Christchurch, although we didn't know each other. I had been promoting music, touring a few bands, the highlight of which was the Fall coming in 1982.
Brian's first band was Scorched Earth Policy with Peter Stapleton, who had previously been in the Vacuum With Bill Direen, and weirdly I joined Above Ground, Direen's new band, in 1981.
Then in 1986, I moved into a flat where Brian was living, still not really knowing him, and he was getting a band together, Scorched Earth Policy having split up. He heard a rumor that I could play keyboard and asked me to sit in one night, and it was fun playing with the group, so I joined. We were called the Max Block. All of this early music has recently been reissued on Siltbreeze.
MT: How did the Renderers project first come together? What was it like in the first incarnation?
Crook: The Renderers were born of homesickness when Brian and I were living in Australia! [Editor's note: They had moved to Australia with the Max Block, which promptly disbanded.] We found ourselves listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and one drunken night [Brian] played me one of his country songs, and I was struck by how immediate it was, and how applicable it was to the way we were feeling.
The first material was an attempt at traditional country, and when we went home to New Zealand to get married, we realized we loved the music scene there too much to be away from it. The rawer influences of the New Zealand music scene instantly permeated our material and pushed us left of field from where we'd started.
In the space of time between the first album and [second album] That Dog's Head in the Gutter Gives Off Vibrations, Brian consciously worked to bring a lot more influences into our music: feedback, less obviously strict country sounds and structure, psychedelia (the flip of the first single was a feedback drenched psychedelic fry-up, "Primitive Country," and the two following singles continued in this vein, blurring the edges still more), and looser structure. I was writing darker lyrics that were far more personal to me, and this took my music in a similar direction to Brian, needing something more intense than the straight country structure to express the way I was feeling. Our first Dunedin band included Robbie Yeats of the Dead C on drums and Denise Roughan of the 3-Ds on bass, and this was the establishment of the current Renderers sound from which we have kind of dove further into the murk.
MT: What were you influenced by when you started playing with the Renderers, and how has that changed over the years?
Crook: The Fall's rockabilly, Alan Vega's rockabilly, the Meat Puppets' take on country, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen, 1970s Neil Young, Alex Chilton, the Birthday Party. In New Zealand: Look Blue Go Purple, the Clean, 3-Ds, Toy Love. Originally, the early Flying Nun sound and Bill Direen were hugely influential on the NZ underground scene.
Later on, the Siltbreeze scene, Strapping Field Hands and Charalambides, and the Chicago scene, Ajax Records — who put out That Dog's Head in the Gutter Gives Off Vibrations — Drag City, and especially Will Oldham, who we toured in NZ with in 1998, and who subsequently released his own recording of [Renderers' song] "A Dream of the Sea." Incidentally, Will's album with that song on has been reissued on vinyl this year, and A Dream of the Sea will be reissued on vinyl as well, by Ba Da Bing later this year.
Brian Turner, of WFMU in New York, said we described ourselves as a country band, but when we arrived, we were a sonic wash of noise. This was our first U.S. tour in 1996, when we played a live-to-air on WFMU.
MT: What are some memories of the Christchurch music scene that really made an impression on you and inspired you to play music?
Crook: I do remember vividly being in the audience for a Look Blue Go Purple show in the 1980s, and loving the feeling of all those girls onstage. I think a friend of mine and I vowed to start a band that night! [Laughs.]
For Brian, the Pin Group were pivotal in inspiring him to take the musical track he took. Pin Group was Peter Stapleton and Roy Montgomery's first group, which was also reissued on Siltbreeze, who have mined the Christchurch end of the New Zealand underground scene.
MT: What is the songwriting process like for this band, and how has it changed over the years?
Crook: It is mutating a bit. We used to write together more; we mostly write separately these days, lyrics and melodies. But we don't bring completed songs to rehearsal. We bring something we can work on with the musicians. In the case of the more recent album In the Sodium Light, we were composing a soundtrack for the New Zealand feature documentary Notes to Eternity, which has been described as an "impressionistic meditation on the Israel-Palestine conflict centering on the lives and ideas of four renowned critics of Israel: Noam Chomsky, Sara Roy, Norman Finkelstein, and Robert Fisk."
We didn't have a band and were on tour as a two-piece, and Simon Joyner had the great idea of inviting us to play with his band, the Ghosts, and to record in Omaha. The two musicians we ended up working with were incredible: Megan Siebe (viola, cello, vibes) and Kevin Donohue (drums). We recorded in a studio with a pump organ and piano, no vocals to begin with, and some of the recordings didn't work as songs in the end, but this was the situation that informed the current album.
MT: What prompted your move to the U.S., and how has the band changed since relocating?
Crook: We've been in the U.S., on and off, for nearly five years. We had always wished that in those early years we had toured here more. We came over in 1996, 1998, and then not again till 2009. We actually thought it was too late for us to make such a big change in our lives, but the Christchurch earthquake in 2010, and especially the ongoing aftershocks in 2011, gave us a shove. It seemed like a message: "Don't get too comfortable," and that was the push we needed. We'd played the Sunday before the huge February earthquake and our amplifiers were buried in the rubble of the bar. The gallery I'd been exhibiting in since 2001 was also surrounded by rubble. We were part of the diaspora following these events.
We've played with a lot of people here, trying to establish out a format that works for us creatively. There are so many fantastic musicians floating around that it's exciting. We changed the concept of the band in our own minds, and tried to make a creative asset out of people moving through rather than trying to hang onto a single lineup. This has worked really well for us in terms of constantly revitalizing our creativity.
The Renderers perform with Pigeons at El Club on Friday, Sept. 16; Starts at 8 p.m.; 4114 W. Vernor Hwy., Detroit; elclubdetroit.com; $10.