Monday, December 7, 2015

Golden Curtain and Hell Is Other People

A few months ago I sat down with Andrew Mckenzie of Golden Curtain for a chat about the band and music in general. The conversation formed the core of an article published in the October/November issue of NZ Musician magazine. I thought I’d put the unedited version online here (the magazine version had a few changes):

It’s the province that gave us Pixie Williams, Johnny Cooper, and Phil Judd. More recently, it’s where Connan Mockasin and Lee Prebble learned their formative music chops. And it is home to the 2015 Taite Music Prize winners, Jakob. I’m talking about that bastion of sun, surf, and vineyard, Hawke’s Bay.

Right now it’s also home base for Andrew Mckenzie, Andrew Gladstone, and Brad Gamble, who collectively go by the name of Golden Curtain. If those names seem familiar it’s because you’ll recognise them from past lives with Grand Prix (Mckenzie), Garageland (Gladstone), and A Twin Moon (Gamble).
I’m sitting down to chat with vocalist/guitarist Mckenzie primarily because Golden Curtain has a new album out, the trio’s third full-length effort. It’s called Hell Is Other People, but despite some previous form as a philosophy student in Wellington, Mckenzie is quick to deny any connection the album title might have with one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most famous lines.

“I’m sure people will listen to the title song and know I’m not being super heavy or dark. It’s a light-hearted chorus, and I wasn’t getting into existential philosophy or anything when I wrote that one.”

Gladstone was initially set to join us, in the immediate wake of a well-received Garageland reunion gig in Auckland. But he was forced to pull the plug after becoming consumed by his very own personal version of hell; the same brutal seven-day cold that clogged up GP waiting rooms right across the land this winter.  

Mckenzie and drummer Gladstone share a couple of different musical projects, and it’s clear the collaboration is as much about embracing a much coveted work/life balance as it is about a mutual love of playing music. Mckenzie explains:

“More and more as time goes on, you start wondering what the game plan is with this whole thing. By the time you get to our incredible old age you start asking yourself about the things you enjoy doing. The most enjoyable thing at the moment is just coming up with new stuff and recording it.

“As a band we’re just trying to go forward and come to terms with the fact that people don’t buy albums anymore.  I think it’s really important to keep on making music, but to also understand that at the same time you’ve got to keep your day job. This is where I grew up. I’m working on the orchard, and I’m doing music.

“Since I came back here and started playing music with Andrew, I decided I needed to pull back on the Americana. There are one or two songs on (the second album) Dream City which have a country flavour, but I had this reinvigoration in terms of English rock and pop music. That’s actually where the title of (debut release) English Tuning came from. We went back to that classic English style.”
 L to R: Mckenzie, Gladstone, and Gamble
Hell Is Other People might just about be the band’s most pop-geared effort thus far, yet for all of its hooks – and there are a few – Mckenzie was not shy about keeping things experimental and fresh.

“On this latest album, I came up with this idea that involved re-stringing the guitar as well as re-tuning it. All of those songs are on a guitar where two of the thickest strings are taken off and replaced by thin strings, like you’d find on the other side of the neck. So instead of going across two octaves, there’s one octave, but there’s a lot more notes, and once you realise that, you can hear it in the music. Because we’re a three-piece I can’t be doing anything too involved on the guitar while I’m singing so I was trying to come up with a way I could try to play some more interesting chords, but in an easy way.”

Mckenzie is also keen to assert that the album was very much a team effort, giving recognition to the role played by others.

“Brad is a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter. He’s about 20 years younger than Andrew and I. His first instrument is the bass, but because he can play everything, he can listen to it from the perspective of a songwriter, a drummer, and a guitarist.

“Andrew had the idea to add some brass and wind to a couple of songs, and there’s a ‘Girl from Ipanema’ feel to some of it. So a friend of ours, Anton Wuts, who is a guitarist, but also an accomplished wind instrument player, came in and helped us out. As did Matt Mear, who originally came in to play trumpet, but helped out on French Horns.

“We had access to some really great gear, great mics and a lot of really old German equipment owned by sound engineer Brett Stanton, another friend of ours. We set things up at my home in a way that gave us a much better sound quality than we’d been used to. I came up with a rough mix and tracking, but Brett tidied up the mix and mastered it.”

Plans are already in place for another album, and it’s likely to feature a song-writing collaboration with San Francisco-based writer Alex Green, who edits and writes for a website called Stereo Embers.

Bit on the side: there'll be a load of compromisin' ...
“Alex put out a book called Emergency Anthems, a collection of his prose. I did an interview with him about a year ago, and learned of some stuff culled from his book that the publishers didn’t want to use. He sent some through, and I read it and saw how it could be turned into songs. So he gave me free rein to do what I like (with the words). We’re actually seven songs into it; he’s sending through lyrics and we’re coming up with the music.”

Although it’s not quite a return to the halcyon heyday of yester-year, the live scene in the Bay has flourished since the return of the storied Cabana venue in Napier in 2008. More recently there has been the emergence of a venue called the Common Room (in Hastings). It hosts regular jazz nights, and generally acts as a hub for all manner of creative revelry. In addition to playing live with Golden Curtain, Mckenzie and Gladstone partner up as country “side-project” Michael Rhinestone Cowboy.

“It’s really just guitar, drums, and unrecorded old Grand Prix country songs. Andrew’s got this really old drum kit, older than us, and I play acoustic guitar. It’s really good for parties and we’ve done a few gigs at the Cabana as well. It’s light-hearted and fun.

“The beauty of this is that none of us need Golden Curtain to be any sort of money-making thing. I know some musicians who have gone down the road where they want their career in music to be their living so they get into all sorts of stuff, including chasing government funding, and playing gigs that most of the time you wouldn’t really want to do. If you don’t need music for your income then you’re free to play the music you want to play.”

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