21 Apr 2023

The Blue Highways of Roy Montgomery 

21 Apr 2023

This is an excerpt from Richard Langston’s new book, Pull Down The Shades published by Hozac Books of Chicago and available on pre-order through Flying Nun. 

Christchurch’s Roy Montgomery has earned an international reputation in the underground rock world since his early days with The Pin Group and his nearly 30 years of making solo records, from the lo-fi, to the cinematic, and to the experimental. In recent years he’s been prolific, releasing albums at a dizzying rate on Grapefruit Records in the USA. He’s about to tour Europe with the Dead C. He spoke to Richard Langston.

I got a surprise listening to the opening track on one of your recent albums…the song ”Audioramble” on Audiotherapy (2022)…the surprising levity of it…you seem to be sending yourself up…or some character who might resemble you?

I have wanted to do something like this from the first time I heard the third Velvet Underground LP. Something kind of light but still deliberate.  

It’s a great vocal too by the way…I know you can be critical of your singing…the song’s almost got a pop feel to it…those backing singers and their line of …’bah bup bah bah ‘..like something off Loaded

Loaded or the 3rd LP…

The song’s a reminder  that there was often a dark humour in the Christchurch scene from its earliest days…

There was a lot of black humour around in those days which some people missed. I think there was a seriousness but also a sense of perspective. Pipe dreams and big-headedness belonged to other music scenes.

I recently discovered on the inside of the fly cover of my Pin Group single… someone had written ’Pin Group This is Shit’ – which I believe was Ronnie van Hout ..showing his sense of humour …as he was screen printing those 300 covers…or whatever number it was…

I am pretty sure it was Ross Humphries who added that liner note and others. The screen printing was a collective effort but still quite tedious, so it was bound to lead to such waggish behaviour. 

It’s insane the money those first two singles sell for these days second hand…a minimum of a $1000…and up to $4000… I guess Ronnie’s artful covers has added lustre and attraction…what are your thoughts about that?

I was taken aback when I first started seeing some high sales prices or was told about them but now I think such objects become totems at a certain point. Plus, as you allude to, these are handmade pieces in terms of sleeve art. There was a sense  of making collector’s editions of posters and sleeve art at the time. That was the Warhol influence I think. Not just visually but in terms of the commodity that is never an exact reproduction.

It’s good the singles were reissued on vinyl by US label Superior Viaduct so  people could afford them…I thought that album of songs Flying Nun reissued in 2011 was particularly good as it contains a CD of live stuff…performances by a band many have heard of but few saw live…or as Bruce Russell says in the liner notes about the band…”their genius had existed right beneath our noses – and we’d missed them”…

I’m too close to that material to pass judgement on how good the Pin Group stuff is intrinsically but I think it’s good that people can experience what we were trying to do in the studio and on stage. We barely had time to evolve.

Matt Goody’s meticulously researched book, Needles & Plastic, where he’s teased out so many stories behind the records and little-known facts…is a great achievement …and no doubt also jogging a few memories…and it opens the music up to a new generation of listeners…

As everyone is remarking this was the book about Flying Nun that needed to be written. It steers a very straight course through the period where the label really mattered.

I remember 1981 as politically a dark time…the Springbok tour…on the flip side it was an extremely exciting time for music…the Gladstone …performances by The Clean, The Pin Group and many others…how do you remember it?

Dark, edgy and sometimes physically dangerous because there was still a lot of hostility towards the short-haired punk/post-punk generation. By the same token I think we felt very connected to outsiders everywhere and to the garage band scene of the 1960s. The Nuggets and Pebbles comps were hugely influential in Christchurch, for example, and it gave things a certain edge to think that you could be making comparable things together in an otherwise very conservative and knee-jerk environment.   

How supportive of each other were you in that Christchurch  community?  I know in Dunedin there was real support among the bands but also a sense of competition to write the best or better songs…

I think it was very much the same and just as incestuous. I think it has to be that way with young people going through rites of passage. Most commentaries, including the recent one by Matt Goody, steer clear of the more visceral and complicated nature of personal relationships in, say, Dunedin and Christchurch.

You worked in the EMI shop near Cathedral Square – it had  import records – at a time when it was hard to source a lot of records. That must have been a real boon for you as a songwriter to be exposed to all that post punk music coming out of England…

EMI NZ was conservative when it came to importing what was available on its own label and other imports. We had to lobby hard for any label to bring things in from the UK or Europe. The University Bookshop at Ilam was the oracle in terms of imports because they had their own import license and (manager) Tony Peake took full advantage of it. And even then this only covered LPs. I got most of my exposure to post-punk music through ordering 45s directly from the UK at great expense via a label and mail order outlet called Small Wonder, and later Rough Trade. Tony Green and other friends did the same and we coordinated our orders so that we didn’t double up unnecessarily. 

Who were some of the bands at that time you took a liking to and who possibly opened you up to the more experimental side of music and song-writing?

The Fall, Pere Ubu, Swell Maps, The Mekons, Gang of Four, early Scritti Politti, Rema Rema, Alternative TV, The Raincoats, Comsat Angels, A Certain Ration, The Durutti Column, The Residents, Tuxedomoon, Throbbing Gristle, various artists on Mute Records and other more electronic labels. 

I think you went to England in early 80s…your mother is English so was that a combination of OE and connecting with your English roots…or going to see the bands?

I had little family left in the UK so it wasn’t that. I just wanted to see bands in their natural habitat, buy records, see films, see art and buy books that I could not access in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was a kind of anti-sabbatical for someone who had dropped out of university.

Didn’t you spend some time with Mark E Smith of The Fall?

Yes, my good friend Chris Owens had helped host the Fall in Christchurch in 1982 while I was overseas. When Chris came over to Liverpool, where I was staying, he said “I have Kay (Carroll) and Mark’s phone number. They said to call if I was over their way.” So we did. After working out that our Chris was not Chris Knox Mark said come and visit. We took the train from Liverpool to Manchester and went and hung out with Mark and Kay in Prestwich for a couple of days. They were very hospitable. Even when I told MES that his favourite brew tasted like used sump oil from a Morris Minor.

Your father is German and I wonder how that’s influenced your work? 

I think it did indirectly. I spent the first four years of my life in Cologne, home of Can.

There’re German references in your work…whether it be their philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hildegard von Bingen) or their musicians (Florian Fricke of Popul Vah)…

And Kafka. I guess I come from that intellectual tradition but whether it is genetic or learned I don’t know. When I was at high school Camus made a bigger impact on me than the German writers, but I found my way there in a fumbling working class manner later on, sometime through reading the impossibly esoteric articles in NME in the late 1970s. 

You’ve also written a song to another famous German, Nico. Did anything in particular inspire that?

Again, she had a connection with Cologne and when I wrote the song was still being written off as a talent. I was very pissed off that Desertshore was so unknown to most people even in the mid 1990s. I also share her preference for minor keys.

America too is obviously a place with imagery and art that appeals to you – from their classic cars …to the wide open spaces…and writers (Sam Shepard)…

Yes, that kind of speaks for itself. Sam Neill makes a comment in the documentary Cinema of Unease about how influential Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop was on filmmakers (along with some other film I have forgotten). I saw that film on the big screen in 1972 when I was 13. Game changing. Also, I grew up on Westerns on TV. The Virginian and Gunsmoke coloured my world as a kid. When I got my driver’s license at 15 I proceeded to find out just how empty the back country of the South Island was. 

I suppose the album that most obvious says you are from New Zealand is one of my favourites…Scenes from the South Island ….which you recorded mostly in New York…I guess I being thousands of miles away from what you were imaging and writing about must’ve given you a new perspective…

Yes, the privilege, rather than the tyranny, of distance.

You are obviously interested in many artforms but was music the form of expression you were always going to create in? I am working class so yes. There was no alternative. The other stuff came as I defected from my class roots.

What are your earliest memories of music? Did you have lessons?

British Forces Network radio station in Cologne. My mother was secretary at the station. She brought home 45s and we listened to that station at home. Basically, all UK and American R and B, jazz and pop music. I have never had lessons and it shows.

Who are some of the songwriters/guitarists who continue to inspire you?

Sandy Bull. Kevin Fellows. Nico. John Cale. Adrian Franklin. Adrian Borland. Colin Newman. Alex Chilton. Steven R Smith. Liz Harris. Hound Dog Taylor. Veronique Chalot. Nick Drake. Bruce Langhorne. Tom Verlaine. Richard Lloyd. James Williamson. Sarah Davachi. Birds of Passage. Martha Skye Murphy. Sterling Morrison. Jack Rose. Mary Lattimore. Meg Baird. Phil Judd. Ed Kuepper. Alec Bathgate. 

You’ve been particularly productive in recent years…it’s hard to keep up with the number of albums you’ve recorded or issued since 2016…what do you put that down to?

Lack of quality control. Fear of imminent death.

We are now at an age where we are losing friends or contemporaries we’ve known or admired …you recorded  ‘Six Guitar Salute to Peter Gutteridge’….did you know Peter or was that inspired by his music?

I knew Peter as someone with whom I often had the following conversation on the intermittent occasions when we met: 

Peter: “Roy!”

Roy: “Peter!”

Peter: “Do you want to jam?”

Roy: “What? Now?”

Peter: “Yeah. Why not?”

And I always found an excuse to demur, mainly because he was too out of it for me to see anything coming of it right then. My bad. He was very gifted; I liked his sound and ideas and I should not have been so sceptical…

Sadly your latest double album Camera Melancholia  is a tribute to the life of your partner, Kerry McCarthy (1967-2021)…I imagine that was such a natural response for you to write music to and for her … was it a difficult record to write and record?

No. Living without her and watching her children having to live without their mother is difficult.

Did you have a set idea or did it evolve as you recorded it?

Kerry’s work as a curator of the pictorial collection at Canterbury Museum involved more work with photographs than prints or art works because museums have tended to accumulate photographs from people of all walks of life. She was particularly interested in them as objects in themselves, not as representations of reality or historical curiosities, and we used to discuss the status of photography as an art form a lot. Kerry used the theorising about photographs by Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida for her PhD on Antarctic photography. Barthes appears to have interpreted the meaning of photographs, much like W.G. Sebald, in a subjectively melancholy way. When Kerry died I thought that rather than select actual photographs of her spread across her life it would be better to imagine such photographs in my mind and then match them with music. I hope the pieces and titles allow people to make their own mental photographs in whatever forms come to them. But I knew it would be a melancholy exercise – hence the title.

I like that you’ve responded to different stages of Kerry’s life – the titles give the listener a foothold into the pieces – and the later songs are elegiac but also suggest the great mystery…the unknowable element that follows death…

I needed to respond while things were still raw rather than wait years which is what happened when my partner Jo died in 1992. This album is more direct. Kerry was present in the world for twice the length of time that Jo was present so there were more stages of life for me to know about and experience with her. I wanted the album to conjure something of Kerry for those that knew her and for those that did not and to allow a little intimacy without becoming too sentimental. The aura pieces happened all at once without my really knowing they would. I was testing out a second hand Tascam DP24 I had just bought and I plugged in a Roland RS-50 I had borrowed off my son because I thought there might be some effects I could use on pieces for an album about Kerry. Through trial and error I found some settings that became the pieces themselves not embellishments. I felt transported to somewhere between this world and another and it was still a way of channelling grief, albeit quietly.

And again, Ronnie van Hout, has collaborated with you by producing the cover art…

He loved Kerry very much and knew her independently of me so it took little or no deliberation.

It’s being released by the USA label Grapefruit records…how did your relationship with that label come about?

I think Bruce Russell had a lot to do with it.

Like so many of the musicians who released material on Flying Nun during those early days, you are a ‘lifer’ …and I imagine you’ll make music for as long as you are able to…

Yes and no. Maybe. If you look at my discography there are long periods of no output. At those times I haven’t thought about music that much. That said, while the brain and the hands keep functioning I consider myself a lucky man.

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