In an exclusive interview commissioned by Phantom Billstickers, John Halvorsen talks to Richard Langston. Enjoy.
John Halvorsen founded the Christchurch band, The Gordons, and immediately co-opted fellow musicians Alister Parker and Brent McLachlan. This was in 1980 when the trio were barely out of their teens. They made an EP Future Shock and a debut album that have sounded through the ages. They went on to further their international reputation with Bailterspace, and John also became a key member of The Skeptics. He has a new band called Vorsen. He talked to Richard Langston about the willingness of The Gordons to tour again, a book on The Gordons, the release of live recordings and the wealth of the songs he has for Vorsen. And when he first started making music.
When did you first pick up a guitar?
That was early. Maybe about 1968, I wanted a guitar first, but I ended up with a ukulele (laughs) then I talked my father into buying me an acoustic guitar. I had lessons in Ashburton. Then I got an electric guitar.
How old were you?
I was ten and I had a band called The Diplomats which was myself and David Armstrong, we both played guitar, neither of us really knew what a bass was, and Paul McNab – he was the drummer, an incredible drummer. Paul was maybe 8 years old or something. He would pummel those things, we were kind of a surf band playing ‘Wipeout’ and things and a few originals, maybe Kinks, just a few current songs of the time.
As you developed what sort of music were you attracted by?
At that time the garage sound was big in New Zealand. I really liked Larry Morris and the Rebels and the La De Da’s. My father had motels and every year the Joe Brown show would come through and you’d get the whole of C’mon 68 and C’mon 69 which later turned in Happen Inn staying in our motel, and I’d get all their signatures, The Chicks and Mr Lee Grant, Ray Woolf, Ray Columbus.
I would set up my electric guitar, my amp and my microphone on the veranda of the old homestead that we lived in which was facing the motels and do a little solo thing so that they knew there was a musician around, and then I’d go and knock on the door and get their signatures and introduce myself (laughs). I guess I started off as a real fan. I liked pop and the other side of it if it sounded good.
It’s a hell of a leap to get to the first Gordons record…which was from another space…alien…out of its time…ahead of its time…
That’s one thing people don’t necessarily understand, musicians aren’t necessarily influenced by what they listen to, in fact I’ve always tried not to be. These days I’m careful not to listen to too much music because it does go in, things get mixed up in your own thoughts.
The Gordons did come from nowhere, we weren’t like anything else that was around although at the time I was listening to a lot of Iggy Pop, there was a certain amount of Raw Power in the original Gordons, later it turned into a more melodic thing. Punk had happened a few years early, going back it had happened a lot earlier in America 1973/75 and in the UK in 1977, and in New Zealand it slowly filtered through, and it was in my art school days and I’d buy all the records.
I think of the intensity of that Gordons’ record and the fierce metallic sound and think of bands like Wire and Gang of Four…were you listening to them?
I love both those bands, but I didn’t get to hear Gang of Four until after the Gordons had started when we were on our first tour. That was more of a parallel universe sort of thing. I related to them immediately.
They were challenging bands as The Gordons were, but you all had something that was immediately appealing…
Especially Wire, and they remain appealing to this day.
The Gordons always seemed to have lots of ideas, were you a big reader?
I like to be but as soon as The Gordons started we ended up on tour, we left everything behind, our records our books, sold all my books straight away. I used to have a beautiful collection of books. It was mainly art books because I’d just come out of art school. In terms of what would be related to The Gordons I guess Brave New World…
Maybe George Orwell…
Yeah, I think I was influenced by that whole future dystopian thing. A lot of it is very relevant to today, and it was relevant to the first period of The Gordons when we were playing live, songs like ‘Quality Control’…which is speaking about that kind of thing…’we are quality controlled…we watch every move’. Our live set then was completely different to that first album, most people don’t realise that.
We attempted to record some of those early songs at Sausage studio in Wellington. I think it was a four track, maybe eight track. I think due probably to a lack of communication and understanding on our part we didn’t know how long a reel of tape was. We just went in played our set and of course he didn’t manage to capture our whole set. It was a real shame because we thought we’d recorded a great album.
How many songs were there?
We played about 8 or 10 songs. A few of the songs were recorded but they don’t exist anymore. We came home with a cassette of maybe 3 songs, and I don’t know where that is.
Whereas a lot of songs on that second Gordons’ album were an attempt to recapture what was missed but unfortunately that album didn’t work out so great because for one Brent used electronic drums instead of his Ludwigs, so it didn’t have the feel that he’d normally have, and I think we played it a bit too fast. Unfortunately, it didn’t become as classic as what it could have been.
There’s talk amongst us and 1972 Records of putting out a live Gordons tape as an album. Brent sent me a tape which he was excited about, but I didn’t think it was quite up to it and they’re waiting on me – I have a box of Gordons’ cassettes right from our first shows and our first practices. The first show was recorded on a Neumman binaural recording set invented in the early ‘50s I think – it’s 3D – on a reel to reel. The actual microphones are in a skull right where the eardrums would be, the sound moves around the same way it would a human head and goes into ears the same way it would go into human ears. We hear in 3-D so when you hear a binaural recording your brain puts it together as 3-D. Throbbing Gristle might have had a binaural recording or two.
That’s one of the potential ones I could dig out. They’re dying to get it off me; I need to transfer these things carefully, they’re very old cassettes now. So that’s a possibility, there maybe one of the potential things…a live Gordons’ album of the original material as we were in that first 18 months of playing live not the later studio version which was really quite a leap in a different direction.
What was the difference between those two incarnations?
The early Gordons was a lot harder, more dystopian, the vocal delivery, the intention…everything about it was different.
Who was doing the most singing at that point?
Initially I was the singer, but Alister more and more sang and after a few months it was probably about 50/50 and the same with guitar. I would generally start the first half of the set and then Alister would do the second half.
How did you write your songs?
At the very beginning I was writing the songs before Alister and Brent were there because Jim Wilson (promoter) had given me a booking when I didn’t have a band (laughs). That day I wrote ‘Quality Control’, ‘Identity’, ‘Photo Eye’, ‘Adults and Children’ and about three or four other songs. The next day I was at a practice room and my flatmate Dave had a band and he was running around looking for some equipment and he came to the studio with Brent because Brent had a drum kit. Wow, there he was.
Initially Rob Mayes from Failsafe Records came along with his bass and it was us three and that was pretty good. It would’ve been interesting to know how that would’ve turned out but then two hours later when I was about to head home an old friend Dave Peterson who became my soundman arrived with Alister and his gear. I was looking for a bass player and he had guitar gear. He played some guitar and like wow! pretty good, and he really liked what I was doing. It was exciting: that was The Gordons right there.
We had a few days practising together which I would say was more like songwriting together and we immediately had rapport. We all listened to each other carefully and created as a three piece. It just worked. You don’t want to mess with that. We seldom had to discuss anything; it was all done with our ears. It was like an organic monster all on its own.
Do you read and write music?
When I had lessons I did, I learnt to play the piano a bit and read and write music, but I didn’t really want to carry on in that way. One thing we never really did was practice, we would just write songs. We would write them once and only half-write them and then we’d play them live. We weren’t big on jamming; it was often just something as simple as two chords to start with that would suggest a rhythm or the other way around if you have a couple of lyrics and one line will give you four lines and before you know it a song just unfolds. We believed practising killed so many bands where they over practised, by the time they got on stage all the rough corners and edges had been knocked off and it wasn’t exciting anymore whereas The Gordons were flying by the seat of our pants.
I just wanted something that was new and fresh. I had a lot of confidence as an artist as a painter, a designer… an aesthetic. I hadn’t played music for a long time…I hadn’t had a band…oh there was a band I was playing around with just before The Gordons which was an art school band, but we never really played live. We had a jamming thing at an art gallery, and we were called The Perfect Strangers which was me, Bill Vosburgh and Richard Uti. That was just for a week or two. I hadn’t really been playing I’d just been concentrating as a painter and graphic designer. I’d just bought a 1964 Telecaster and I’d say that was very influential. That guitar wrote songs for me. I’d pick it up and it had a certain kind of sound. Unfortunately, it was stolen from me back in 1983. I’ve got a hollow-bodied Tele lying around somewhere, one that I’ve built.
You’ve made a lot of guitars haven’t you?
Yes, it’s often when I make a guitar as soon as I put it together and I’ll just be plucking the strings a few times just to see how it’s going and it will suddenly give me a sound that I’ve never heard, a simple chord and it suddenly works and it will immediately suggest the next chord, before you know it I’ve got four lines and there’s a chorus and they come complete. Sometimes songs just drop from the sky. I made a guitar in the first week of The Gordons, an aluminium-necked guitar which had a neck that went all the way through the body. A lot of the guitars in this room are handmade.
You also created that Gordons’ image of the figure in a diving or radiation suit with the diver’s bell helmet and the guitar…what were you thinking when you created it?
In a sci-fi way, a futurist vision. I knew I wanted it to be black and white. I did the artwork quickly; I think it was the day of our first practice when David came around with Brent and Alister and we were a band. We needed to put some posters up, so they came around to my place and I did the artwork right before their eyes. I did it about the size of a cigarette packet, it was partly collage partly a thumb print. You could tell by the time it got blown up large it was quite organic looking. Half an hour after I made it we were at the bromide bureau where I blew it up extremely large and there it was. It was printed that day.
It’s a striking image…marrying that diver in the bell jar to a guitar…
It was part-man part-machine, a machine whose arm is a guitar and the other arm sits on top of that guitar, a steel arm and only has the limited action of being able…it’s an impossible looking image, it’s very awkward looking, I don’t know… is it an underwater diver? is it a space diver? It’s hard to say. I wanted an ominous black and white image.
It looks how The Gordons sound….
Yes, very much especially the early live Gordons.
A few years I was driving in the Mackenzie Country looking at those huge pivot irrigators that are there and ‘Machine Song’ came on my car stereo and I thought how perfectly it mirrored what I was looking at … human intrusion into the landscape on an industrial scale…
That makes sense to me. Industrial steel things like pylons that you see out in the countryside has always struck me, and all the early Gordons’ songs have a machine theme about them. That was one of the earliest songs, Alister came along with that guitar tuning, about our third practice or something, just new immediately that it was a great song. The three of us started playing it and it was right in there, it cemented Alister as being a serious songwriter. At that point it was sharing duties.
When the first album was re-released by 1972 Records two years ago…did you give yourself a moment to think…wow, we did that…I mean it’s mentioned by the likes of Sonic Youth…it’s taken its place in history…and you were how old?
I was 20, I think Alister was maybe 19 and Brent was 18 or 17. I know that the bass player in Sonic Youth Kim Gordon bought a bunch of Future Shock a year later when they were in New Zealand, and she took them back and gave us our first review in America and mentioned that it was a great record to do the vacuuming to. That really helped us in America. When I first heard Sonic Youth I thought there’s something on the other side of the world…they had a similar thing to what we were like as a live band. There was something familiar about it. We weren’t trying to be like other things at the time, it hasn’t dated because it didn’t belong to that time, it belonged to any other time in a way. It still seems fresh.
How supportive was Christchurch at that time?
It seemed perfect for us to start out as a band at the time. There is an Ashburton element to us, but we were fully a Christchurch band. It was fortunate to know Jim Wilson who I was working for at the time doing a few music newspaper ads as an art school student. He gave me the booking for the Hillsborough opening for the Whizz Kids which was fantastic because it was a huge venue, and they came down to Christchurch from Auckland and we got to play to their audience. That put us on the map because people were immediately talking about it, the posters had already got peoples’ interest. Some people assumed we were an international band because they were very different posters and we drove around and covered Christchurch with them and little Gordons stickers and big Gordons stickers everywhere.
The Whizz Kids liked us and asked us to play our set twice because they missed the first half of our set …it was a short set. I think with them travelling around and going back to Auckland they helped put the word out about us. We were known in Auckland straight away.
I think the myth was you needed to play the songs twice as you didn’t have many…
No, we only had intended to do a half hour set and we had more than ample for that. We only had to play them twice because the wanted to hear us. They said please can you play again, and I guess they weren’t ready to go on.
I was contacted by Michael Canning a few years back who’s writing a book on the Gordons…
All I know is he’s been writing it for some ten years now and it is coming out. I have no idea what it will be like, I’m terrified. I don’t know if we warrant a book, but I think it’s not only about The Gordons, but there’s also a certain amount about Bailterspace as well. He’s interviewed me a lot over the years.
Have you ever considered playing together again as The Gordons?
In 1980 when we made Future Shock a guy from the ACME t-shirt company in Australia bought a bunch of our singles and distributed them in Australia and printed a great t-shirt as well and that put us on the map in Australia. He did quite well out of his company and two years ago he decided he wanted to hear The Gordons play, and he was going to put forward quite a nice amount of money. We thought we can do that, and we were going to do it but unfortunately it didn’t work out in the end but that was going to be an Australian and New Zealand tour. We were all happy to do and it was all go.
Then three months ago Brent called me up and he was keen to give it another shot at a Gordons’ tour of New Zealand and I said, ‘ok count me in’, and if that didn’t happen maybe a Bailterspace tour could happen. In the end neither of them could make It over here.
Your new band Vorsen is a three-piece, what is it about a trio that appeals to you?
Three is just enough and one more might be one too many although it would be great to have another guitar at times. As a vocalist I’m trying to play rhythm and lead at the same time which keeps me busy. But I like three-piece bands, I always have, there’s enough space and it’s so much easier to tour. With three you can just get up and go. The Skeptics was more and that was fun but I prefer the three piece format.
How did your band come together, the drummer Steve Cochrane and bass player Hayden Ellis?
I’ve had a lot of these songs a long time, I was writing and recording them in my private recording studio in Williamsburg, New York since about ’91. As an experiment in song writing, I would write and record two songs a day if I could, not every day but most days. I never really knew what I would do with them, I thought I’d make a record. Some of the songs I did give to Bailterspace but not the ones I’m using. There was a lot of down time when I wasn’t recording or touring with Bailterspace and I thought I could become a better recording technician and a better songwriter.
I’ve got at least 50 songs or 80 songs from that period, and a whole lot of new songs since I came back to New Zealand in 2003. I’d say that since I started Vorsen there’s probably another eight or so songs that I’ve written. I already have recordings of the songs, but I just wanted to play them live, and I had written them for a three piece. I bumped into Steve at the Island Bay fishing and chip shop, and he was practising with his new band at the time, The Uncools. I told him I was going to do something, and I had him in mind as a drummer. It was only two and a half years ago, and I thought, ‘I’d better do this’. We found Hayden four or five days before we went on tour. He was keen and I gave him a copy of a bunch of the recordings, and he came to my studio to I showed him the songs and he basically learned something like 18 songs. I was impressed. He’s got a good memory and I loved his openness and his keenness. They’re great guys I’m playing with and we’re going to carry on because they’re committed and that’s very rare these days.
Vorsen sounds like it could be the title of a Bailterspace song or album…
Well good. It is the second half of my surname so it’s unmistakable, my full name is too long. I wanted people to know this thing is mine. I know I need to release something for this tour but I’m not sure I’m ready to release an album, it might be an EP I’d say halfway through the year. I just want to get the music out there.
I guess working with the others bands over the years The Gordons, Skeptics and Bailterspace I invested a lot of myself in those bands so it’s inevitable there’ll be certain bits where you’ll be able to pick all three of those bands but really it’s nothing like any of them but there’s a certain intensity that’s the same perhaps as The Gordons, there’s a certain amount of melody and drone that’s similar to Bailterspace…it’s not my intention to be like any of them, it’s actually brand new. Most of the songs we play live are more recent. It’s coming along, I’m happy. There’s plenty of room for us to grow and explore and we’re a new band and it’s quite exciting.
I think a lot of the material I’ve written prior to these difficult times we live in prior to covid and the war going on somehow my material does seem to cover all that even though I wrote it earlier. I’m always writing about social issues and the human condition.
You’ve called your tour ‘War on Fire’ tour certainly sounds of the moment…
Exactly. I’m inclined to have double or triple entendre going on there, I’m speaking on the one hand environmentally also with the threat of a world literally being on fire, the danger we’re all in, in terms of a nuclear war. But also, the idea of setting the world on fire with maybe excitement, just igniting with sound, that song started out as a more a spiritual…it was called ‘Walking on Fire’ initially. It was a song of faith, not religious faith, but getting up every day is an act of faith and walking and every day is a new day. But the current state the world is, it became the zeitgeist and a world on fire. I do write happy songs. I have a new one called ‘Faster Than Light’ and it’s a song about the one-ness of all things, the feeling of being part of that oneness, and to me it’s a beautiful song. It’s a celebration of life, it’s not all dystopian.