Graeme Downes

GRAEME DOWNES presents Hammers and Anvils
Welcome to my first solo album! Its taken a while and it’s a bit of long story how it came into being but here goes.

If you don’t know my previous work with the Verlaines then here’s a quick overview.

Formed in 1981 as a three piece, the Verlaines soon began their recording career with the then-fledgling NZ label Flying Nun. This relationship continued through the 80’s, spawning several singles and albums (discography below). All the while I was studying at Otago University, doing a BMus and then embarking on a Phd in 1987. As the Ph.d was nearing completion the band got a little more full-on and signed with LA label Slash. Two albums completed with Slash before parting company. Returning to NZ we recorded what was our final album, Over the Moon (1996) which was released by Sony here in NZ though never released in the States. For all intents and purposes the band called it a day in 97 with drummer Darren Stedman leaving for the UK. The band never officially broke up and recently performed at the Otago arts festival in Dunedin, as part of a series of concerts celebrating Dunedin bands. By coincidence the band are all pretty much back in the same city but there are no plans to reform for anything more than the occasional performance.

Hammers and Anvils. (the elephantine pregnancy)

Moving along.
After recording Over the Moon I was broke and jobless. A job came up at a Rock and Roll Polytechnic in Auckland so I left Dunedin and headed north. My departure, coinciding with Darren’s, meant that the band was effectively over, but naturally this didn’t mean that the songs stopped coming. Despite the pressures of full-time employment, I kept hammering away and demoing on the trusty 4-track, piling up a backlog of material. What to do with it? Enter Peter van der Fluit and Mike O’Neil.

Who’s on this record anyway?
Well it’s my name and picture on the cover and I played and wrote everything on it (though Pete sequenced some of the drum parts) but it’s really been the result of the efforts of a 3-man team. Pete came on board as a colleague at the school in 98. He suggested recording the songs I had lying around in a little suburban digital studio co-owned by he and Mike, who helped out with engineering. The summer break saw us take the first faltering steps in what would eventually become Hammers and Anvils. It took a while longer than the summer to finish it-everyone was learning the technology as they went, experimenting with sounds, etc. and, as the studio was a semi-commercial operation, work on the album took place at off hours in between clients. From the beginning this project was both an experiment and a labor of love.

By September 99 the album was all but finished. The studio had grown to be a full-time concern and shifted premises. Disaster struck in October when the newly installed, state-of-the-art hard drive suffered a meltdown. Some, but not all, of the album was backed up (there’s a lesson here, kids). Maybe half went to the digital happy hunting ground. After a period of depression we spent much of the summer recording large chunks of the album for the second time. In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise, as we improved a lot of it in the process.

Back in Dunedin
By the beginning of 2000 I was back in Dunedin, having taken up a position as a lecturer back at Otago University (to oversee their new rock degree). Naturally this meant I was busy as hell getting things up and running and the album was left on the back burner for a while. Initially we were gong to release it ourselves but eventually put that in the too-hard basket. By mid year we started to put out some feelers . . . the fact that you’re reading this means I don’t have to explain what happened.

The Album-The Songs
So what’s the album like and how does it compare to a Verlaines album? Hopefully it doesn’t sound much like a Verlaines album (no disrespect intended). I could have got a band together and recorded it the same way the Verlaines albums were done but that would be a) time consuming b) ultimately expensive and c) I wanted to try something new anyway. There didn’t seem much point in making a Verlaines-sounding album without the rest of the band.

The drums are all sampled and sequenced, as are most of the other instruments (aside from guitars and vocals, of course). This clearly gives the record its own flavor, truly distinct from the Verlaines. Still, all through the process we tried to make a record that doesn’t sound like technology is dominating it-the songs are emotionally a bit too real to have withstood anything too clinical. So even though the record is firmly in the digital domain I guess something of the Verlaines ethos remains.

As for the songs themselves? I don’t want to give away too much, as I kinda feel that spoils it for people. But some words...

“Cole Porter” was written ages ago, around 87, on the back of some of the jazzier numbers on Some Disenchanted Evening.

“Mastercontrol” was written at the studio where we mixed Way Out Where (which is where the song takes it name from). It’s about guys in sheds or submarines or studios or all three. I guess it’s dedicated to Joe Chiccarelli (Way Out Where’s producer).

“January Song” is very much an Auckland song. Sweltering heat and traffic jams and the first days back at work after summer break (you’ll have to translate to September in the northern hemisphere I guess). It’s dedicated to Mike. He came into the studio to do some work one day in January and after a few minutes talking about everything he had to do he said “fuck it, I’m off to Piha,” one of Auckland’s beautiful west coast beaches. I sat on the couch and wrote the song in a couple of hours.

“Getting Out of It” is dedicated to Pete who had a bust-up not long after we started recording. The rest is self-explanatory.

“Cattle, Cars and Chainsaws” was a bit of an experiment- a bit tongue in cheek perhaps. There was a guy on TV one night talking about the 3 deadly C’s as far as ozone depletion is concerned. I just added a few more to the list.

“Sunday Kickaround” might need a little explanation. Both in Auckland and in Dunedin at a specific time and place there is an informal Sunday soccer match for whoever turns up (quite a lot of musicians for some reason). So on one level it’s about a bunch a football buddies sweating Saturday’s alcohol out in the late afternoon sun. But really the song came into existence under darker circumstances. My father in law was in the final stages of cancer and we’d spent about three days at his bedside. I took a break and, as it was Sunday, headed up to the park for a couple of hours. It’s hard to describe in words how surreal it was being transported from a death vigil to something as simple and carefree as a football game. Hopefully the music communicates that strange co-mingling of sadness with that wonderful calm and absence of mind that infuses you when you’re preoccupied with chasing leather round the park.

Most of the rest hopefully speak for themselves, with the exception perhaps of the title track . . . but I suppose I should leave room for the listener to explore. Have fun!

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