The New Christs by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #20 in the winter of 1991
"Musicians shouldn't do interviews", says Rob Younger after spending nearly an hour answering my questions. He talks in a very quiet, reserved voice that's quite surprising if you expect the sort of rage that's present in most of the records he has made. "Apart from a few that I've read they're dull bastards. It's obvious that I'm making a typical mistake."
Well, not that I feel that way, but let's let the music do the talking for a while and do a quick encapsulation of the recorded output of the New Christs, the band that Rob has provided life support to throughout the 80s.
Waiting World / Face A New God: moody, dark intense tracks, "Waiting World" bristling with energy and power, "Face A New God" a brooding monolith
Like A Curse / Sun God: tough, cocky rock and roll with a crackling drum edge
Born Out Of Time / No Next Time: split personality...the A side a gutty brooder and the flip a brilliant raging assault
The Black Hole / Addiction: twisted mutant depression with a funk edge and a rocking chorus on side one with a smoldering rocker on the flip
Dropping Like Flies / Dead Girl / I Swear / You'll Never Catch My Wave: a double single with four unique sides...warped blues on "Flies", pumping rock on "Girl", furious lyric attack on "I Swear" (what a song!), and sarcastic mutant surf on "Wave"
Headin' South / I Saw God: grinding, psychotic, horn driven crunch on the A side and a hardcore slammer of a punch on the other
Another Sin / The Burning Of Rome: on the A side an almost jangly rocker with a vocal delivery that sounds like an accusation of murder, while the flip is more crunching rock with some Louis Tillet piano
Distemper: the lp...a massive, malevolent record; one of the angriest records in years. A hard, hard sound, cold, brutal and deadly
The New Christs are one of the major bands of the latter half of the 80s, and the fact that there aren't several lps by them at this point proves nothing other than the ignorance of everyone from fans to club owners to writers to record labels who could have made a difference. Dragging Younger's Radio Birdman heritage like a millstone, the New Christs have managed nevertheless to leave a mark of their own that equals or surpasses that earlier band.
"There's been sort of three stages of the New Christs", says Rob, "but the first incarnation was a band that never played. I was trying to start something up with a couple of people, and it never eventuated, but someone had the bright idea of going to this little place with an 8 track studio and putting down a couple of the songs, which were "Face A New God" and "Waiting World". But that band never played. That was about 1981."Clyde Bramley, who now plays in the Hoodoo Gurus but had served with Rob in the Other Side, played bass. John Hoey played keyboards, the fellow who used to play for the Thought Criminals and now plays for Died Pretty. Cab Calloway, who played for the Saints for a short time, was on guitar, and Younger, credited as Rowdy Yates, sang. According to Callaway the drummer for most of the rehearsals was a guy who used to play in a band called the Bedhogs, though he doesn't name him. They rehearsed for a while and wrote a few originals, but split up before ever playing live.
After they'd split up, it was decided that they ought to get some of the songs on tape, so they agreed to record some if they could get financing, which was subsequently provided by Green Records. Ken Doyle, former Thought Criminals drummer, filled in for the recording, which was done on an 8 track recorder in the living room of a house in the Surrey Hills suburb of Sydney.
"It sounds OK; I think it's improved. I really don't like the singing on that", Rob says. "But if it could just kill off that bullshit collectors thing, that would really help, but I wouldn't want anyone to think it's our new record. I don't really think it's up to the stuff we did on the album."Possibly true as far as performance goes, but they're brilliant songs regardless and I wouldn't be without it.
In 1983 Younger was approached through Charlie Fisher to put a band together to support Iggy Pop on a tour of Australia. The resulting band included all of the Hitmen except for singer Johnny Kannis...Chris Masuak, Mark Kingsmill and Tony Robertson, plus Celibate Rifles guitar wizard Kent Steedman.
Rob picks up the tale:
"Then it was about three years until we got another lineup going when Jim came out from England. We'd always intended to play together even as far back as 1979. Christ, that sounds like such a long time! Yeah, so anyway, the new lineup, apart from the change of drummers pretty much survived until last February."Jim is bass player Jim Dickson, who played for the Barracudas in Britain during what was probably their best phase, from late 1981 on through the next few years. Charlie Owen, who Rob has described as a professional musician interested in all sorts of things and not all of them rock and roll, played guitar and Louis Burdett was on drums. Nick Fisher came in on drums from the Wet Taxis after the "Dropping Like Flies" double single.
In February, Charlie Owen left.
"We haven't played at all since then. We've been auditioning guitar players. We found this guy the other day who's really great. I knew him a bit from before, and when he started playing it seemed like we'd been playing together for a fair while, but still in a fresh kind of way. That was good, and I'd like him to join up. But I think we have a few problems. Money's really tight and it's difficult to get the ball rolling again. I hope we've got something to offer him, because I think it would work with this guy...he's really good. I don't think there's any point mentioning his name, because it may not come off. A few of the others we've tried, everybody has something to offer, but they don't seem to have a lot of fire in their bellies."
So there have really been three very distinct versions of the New Christs (and a fourth one coming) with Younger being the only constant. There's the "Waiting World" band, the Iggy Pop tour band, and the Distemper group. Each has left a legacy of amazingly good records. But why didn't the name change with each new band?
Says Rob: "We kept the name because each time the possibility of a new lineup came up, a new band forming, one of the other guys suggested that we keep that name the New Christs. It wasn't my idea to keep doing it. But I like the name, anyway. I find it quite humorous."
"I've always been committed to the New Christs. But various lineups have kind of disintegrated. The lineup that made "Born Out Of Time" and "Like A Curse" and all that, that period must have been about 1984 or something...those guys all left me, really. I was there at the end of it, scratching my ass."
"I guess the opportunity to tour the world, at least Europe and England, has made me keener than ever to keep the band together. It's a great thing to be able to do that...I'd never save the money to travel otherwise, that's for sure. You get to play a hell of a lot and meet some pretty cool people. I really love Europe."If you're a fan, you've doubtless felt the frustration of waiting for new record releases, which seem to get doled out with a frequency exceeded by Halley's Comet. The sighting of the Distemper lp last year seemed almost miraculous. Why so little music committed to vinyl?
"The New Christs have been, well the name's been going since about 1981", says Rob, "but in all of those years I think there's only been about four years of playing, so consequently there hasn't been that much motivation to write songs. Maybe that's not true. The album Distemper, it's OK. I was playing it the other day, and I cranked it up pretty loud. I quite enjoyed it. There's a few false moments on there for me, but... You know, the way we play in the studio...they're just one version of each song. They change all the time, our songs. They're fairly open ended; I don't know if it sounds like that to you on the record itself, but they vary quite a lot anyway. It took us so long to get around to doing an album because we didn't have a lot of bread behind us, and we still don't. And we didn't really have enough songs that we liked. I guess we exhausted the available songs when we were putting out a single every now and then, so we never really had a body of work, as they say. We just had enough songs for the album, so we weren't able to pick and choose. That was just about it really. I don't know if you've heard the CD, but there's an extra song on that. Well, one other extra too, but that's a remix of "Heading South". But that other song, "Disconnected", has proven fairly popular. People abuse me for not putting it on the fucking album, but it's pretty long and you can't please everybody."There's a pile of religious references in the New Christs folder, starting with the name obviously, but also with songs like "Face A New God", "Sun God", and "Another Sin", to name a few. I wondered about this...like is there a Catholic school background there? But Rob brushes that discussion aside:
"Religious references...ah...I've been very careless in writing lyrics, and sometimes you gravitate towards some very obvious themes. I suppose the religious one sort of crept in and took a fair while to creep out, I suppose. It's no big deal. I should try to avoid it and perhaps take more care...write about something a bit more interesting. You know you can get really stuck in a rut. (long pause) I don't know who the Catholics are in this band. I'm not a Catholic!"Rob has also built quite a name for himself as a producer...there's a pile of excellent records that he's helped out with by bands from all walks. Records like the Happy Hate Me Nots great lp, Toys Went Berserk's last one, Fixed Up's Vital Hours and piles more too numerous to mention all show the effect of Rob's production ability, which is usually most noticeable in the hard, sharper, punchier sound he helps bands to get. Many people (myself included) don't really know what it is that a producer actually does to influence a band, so I asked Rob to explain the process. I also mentioned that I was surprised to see in a recent B Side interview that he said he didn't like producing much, which seems a surprise since he does so much of it. This resulted in a long discussion...
"The last couple of years I've been saying that I'm not that interested in producing", he says, "but I am. And I've got this clerical job now in an office, and it's not terribly inspiring...it's just to get money. And it makes me long for the days when I could just hang around the studio and listen to bands play and work with them. But it doesn't happen quite as often now. So I guess I was full of shit then."
"Sure, I'm happy when a record turns out well, and the examples you give of the Happys and the Toys records...I liked them, but then they're good people to work with, too. Those sessions weren't really too problematic. The Toys one was only done in four days, I think."
"It's difficult to say what influence I've had on various records. You work with the band, and your role or your input really overlaps quite a lot. It's difficult to cite actual examples. I like to sort of sit back if I can and view the record as a whole...have an overview of the project, because I think the record must reflect what the band itself projects. It's got to have atmosphere. And it's not always easy to achieve that. You can really get sucked in by little things that go on in the studio that divert your attention from the main issue. When that's happened, some of the records have been disastrous. I don't really conceptualize the way a record's going to sound before I go in and record it with the band. It's more like you go in there and set up the sound...so much is built around the drum sound, because it's such a foundation type of thing, and sort of take it from there. I'm more interested in what you can create spontaneously. And I'm willing to take that chance. I'm not big on the idea of preproduction. It's good to know that, yeah, OK, the band knows how to play the songs confidently and that the arrangements are cool and so forth, but I don't want them to be over rehearsed or anything. They should go in there pretty fresh, I think. And you take it from there. Ideas always come up, whether they're mine or somebody else's. Quite often the writer of the songs has a high input into that side of things. If the rapport is really good, then you keep coming up with stuff and you create something interesting. It all sounds a bit hit or miss, and I guess it is, but I don't generally have a great vision of what's going to be the end result."
"A record that I did that I really liked the sound of was the Eastern Dark Long Live The New Flesh. It's just five tracks. I don't know if you know it, but that had a really good atmosphere. It's proved very popular and it doesn't seem to sound dated. There's something in that record, I think, in the atmosphere, that really brings out what that band projected. You obviously didn't see them live or anything, but they were really great. It was not all my work, of course. The engineer Tony Espie did a great job, and they wrote some great tunes, those guys."
"A producer, he can hang around and do almost fuck all, or he can be right in there rearranging things up the ass...he can be doing a hell of a lot. Your role can vary quite a bit. A band can really jerk you around in the studio. I can never understand why a band will hire me or whatever, and then shackle you to some post at the back of the room and won't listen to anything you say, and go on with a lot of paranoid tripe all the time. That's a pain in the ass...I usually switch off pretty quickly with those sort of people. I think if you're going to hire somebody, you listen to them, and unless they seem utterly full of shit, you should go along with them to a certain extent. And then you don't work with them again if it sounds bad."
"I know a lot of bands where the last thing they're going to do is blame a bad record on the songs or the performance....they're going to look for the engineer or the producer. Better to blame them."
"I don't think that the production side of things has really inhibited the band that much. You know, you can't play around Sydney all the time, and there's not many other large cities to go to, so a lot of the time I'm just hanging around and I've got to make money somehow. The cost of living in Sydney's really high. But I really love playing...playing gigs comes well before production work. I find production work pretty frustrating, and my failure rate's pretty high, I consider. But in measured doses it can be a lot of fun. It's great when you make a record you really like."Rob has had a couple of projects recently that he felt were worthy of mention. The first of these was a session for five tracks with the Happy Hate Me Nots that were just recently completed at Trafalgar studios. Apparently a couple of these songs will be used for single A sides and the flips will be some acoustic things that Tim McKay and Paul Berwick put together. The first single should be cut by the time you read this. Rob thought it was pretty good stuff.
He also did some demos with Died Pretty recently.
"That turned out pretty nicely", says Rob. "There's some good songs on that. I don't know who they're going to get to produce their album, but they don't have any real problems writing good material...they're quite prolific."If you get any European fanzines, you can't help but notice the popularity the New Christs enjoy there. It seems like everyone has had a cover feature on the New Christs at one time or another, and there have also been several fanzines with New Christs giveaway singles. Rob likes Europe as well...the chance to travel and play in front of enthusiastic crowds is what makes it all worthwhile for the band.
"We've been to Europe twice, in 1988 and 1989, and we were really well received", he says. "We played well at probably 80% of the gigs, and in most places except Holland, where no one seems to give a shit, we go down pretty well. France and Germany are both pretty good for us, and the last year in Spain it was really a big improvement on before...we played a lot better and the crowds were much, much bigger. Like in Barcelona we had about 600 people; they packed this place, a club called KGB. And only a year before we had about 45 people and we didn't play all that well. God knows why they came back; maybe it was the album."The down side of the Barcelona show was that they got ripped off by the promoter.
"The fucking management there seemed like criminals. Of course, they treat you like shit anyway, they don't have to be criminals, but they'd be really exceptional. Of course compared to Australia you get treated like royalty."
"Oh, yeah, and we played in Scandinavia for the first time last year. We did a gig in Finland and one in Oslo, and a few around Sweden. But it's pretty boring to play up there in general. Sometimes we didn't have much feedback from the crowd, so we played some pretty flat gigs there. Kind of like playing in Holland. But it was still interesting to go to those places. Stockholm wasn't bad."
"People in the States...I don't know if they know much about us or give a shit. I get the odd fan letter from the States, but labels haven't been inundating us with offers or anything like that. The only ones that have expressed any interest are really small labels that want to have the world rights to five lps and all this sort of stuff and pay you really shitty royalties. I care in a way...I'd like to go there and play. I've never had a chance to play in America, and a lot of my friends like the guys in Died Pretty and the Gurus and the Hard Ons, they tell me they have a really good time. But I don't think it's gonna happen."Until Charlie Owen left the New Christs had gigged fairly regularly in Australia, but Rob doesn't have any feeling that they are an especially popular band there.
"Every few months we probably would go on a tour out of Sydney", he says. "We'd go down to Melbourne for three or four shows, or maybe up to Brisbane. Once we went on a tour to Adelaide...that was really early in this more recent lineup. Otherwise playing once or twice a fortnight perhaps was about our average. There's lots of bands around the place. Sydney's full of groups and we're not particularly popular. We're certainly not in the league the Died Pretty occupy at the moment...they draw a huge number of people. But I guess the Rifles and the Hard Ons have a pretty similar profile to us. We get a more raving following overseas. Most places we go to pull pretty good crowds and it's a lot more fun playing there, I think. Maybe we rise to the occasion or something, or it's the promise of playing in a place you've never played before and the uncertainty and all that...it kind of adds to everything. I guess people expect quite a lot of a band that's come all that way to play and you try not to disappoint them."The B Side interview also included a fairly long discussion on how much Rob hated the music business because of all the bullshit. But if I had just known about the shows Rob had played, the records he'd put out and what he had produced, I'd have guessed he liked producing best, recording his own music second best, and performing with a band least. It seems from the B Side article that this is exactly backwards. Since he'd already talked at length about production, I asked if he could discuss his attitudes toward recording and playing live.
"Well, it's just so much more exciting to play live", he began, "though you can have your moments in the studio, too. Recording my own stuff is really difficult because it's hard to know exactly which way you want the songs to go...it seems much easier to tell other people. It's like when you've got a problem, in your mind it's pretty difficult to solve yourself, but usually someone else can walk in and tell you what's going on and they'll council you with sound advice. Maybe it's like that for me. But the live playing is so much fun, I really love it, especially when it's in places I've never been before. That's why I like going to Europe so much."
"In Australia, and probably in the States, too, I'd guess, but it doesn't seem to be this way in Europe, all the gigs seem to be run by a virtual mafia. In Australia we have the big breweries and the radio and TV stations and the newspapers all sort of affiliated in some way. That's at the top, and all the way down through to the hotels where most of the gigs are and so forth, the whole thing is run by these fucking petty criminals. They treat the bands like shit, and it really takes the fun out of it. You've got to plow through so much bullshit just to do something as simple as playing a gig...it's really hard from that point of view. Other countries probably have their own problems. So many bands seem to take this shit and they keep coming back for more, and they get continually disappointed."Obviously given the current state of affairs with regard to their guitar player, the New Christs are in a period of doldrums. Younger isn't very upbeat when he talks about the future.
"It's been so long since our last record that our momentum's really dissipated now. I'd like to get a new single or something out soon, but just with auditioning people we haven't been able to put any new songs together. I've got a bunch of stuff where I think if I could get the words down it would be OK. Then we can tour. We've got two more albums on our contract, and the last one stiffed out so I don't imagine they'll push this next one, if there is one, too hard. I don't know when the next one is coming along. I've written a fair bit of music and stuff on a portastudio that I borrowed off a friend, just getting the lyrics together and stuff. Kind of working in a bit of a vacuum because we're not playing."
"Maybe we'll just wind up with this one new person on guitar, and maybe we'll add another, I dunno. But the keyboard idea really interests me. I can hear that in a lot of the new songs. I've tried it before as you probably know, but only in a small way."
"I'd really like to put out a couple of tunes that I've done on the porta studio just as instrumentals. I'm just playing guitar to a drum machine. There's some of it that I really like, but I don't know that anyone else would think it's that special, but there seems to be something in there. It would be nice to release it in a really small way...maybe get a hundred copies out or something. But I really hate cassettes, so it would be great to put it on a record player."As the interview winds to a close, Rob seems to sink into a bit of depression over the state of things. His job is wasting most of his time and the difficulty of trying to find a committed guitar player when all he has to offer is great underground credibility but no money seems to be weighing heavily on him. He's probably stunned that Distemper sold poorly rather than being received as the classic it should have been recognized to be. There's no other sound than his tired voice and the sound of an occasional car whooshing by outside his flat late at night as if the driver is hurrying to maximize his separation from Rob's depression. After more than 15 years of consistently fronting some of the world's best rock and roll bands, Rob finishes with this comment: "I'll get back to playing someday, I reckon."
It would be a criminal shame if he didn't.