Guest Blog: Ben Howe of Arch Hill

A Short History of Arch Hill Recordings and So On

The cusp of the new millennium was a dark day for the guitar. Aside from dance music, there wasn't much going on. Good bands were few and far between. Not many people thought local music was any good.

Shortly after starting Arch Hill I did an interview on 95bFM where the DJ asked me why I bothered. No one listened to guitar-based pop. The belief was that "guitar music" was dead. Dance music was the future. Another day I went to meet a potential label distributor where I had good reason to think we already had a done deal. Instead, the meeting opened with the owner telling me
"I don't like New Zealand music!" 

Not that it was always like that. Prior to starting Arch Hill in the mid-1990s I played in a band called Superette. We were one among a number of new-ish bands on Flying Nun. Our peers were Garageland (the most popular), King Loser (the biggest troublemakers), Loves Ugly Children (junior troublemakers) and a few others. Bands like The 3ds and Bailter Space were still around but by this stage they had been going for some time. I guess we were the last wave of bands (the third? fourth?) on that label. After that there were still some good individual bands (The Subliminals) but never a collection. 

After Superette fizzled we were left with not much to do. I got on with finishing my university degree and then managing a record store. There was a dance music label across the gully called Kog Transmissions that seemed to have a lot going for it. I was envious of their sense of community. It seemed to be a very positive hive of creative activity. But musically, mostly, I didn't relate to it.

So really, if we wanted to hear some music we liked, we had no option but to get on with it ourselves. 

Arch Hill didn't start with a bang. We had nothing to do with saving the guitar. We definitely didn't save New Zealand music. It was just a bunch of people working most evenings in a studio on Great North Rd called Arch Hill Studios. There was David Mulcahy, Ben & Greta (all from Superette/JPSE) and my other band Fang with Sonya Waters and Andrea Holmes. Ed Case (not Cake), Lanky (from Cakekitchen), who is still a shareholder in Arch Hill, was the studio founder and enthusiast behind the controls. Sometimes the bands played gigs. Sometimes there was an audience. Sometimes people were somewhere else - probably at a rave in Takaka or something. 

But mostly we didn't care. We were just pleased to be able to record our music, release it and pretty much do what we liked. The first album - David Mulcahy's Oddy Knocky - was distributed by Flying In (Flying Nun's distribution arm) and then we were distributed by Global Routes

People in the industry say a demo in fancy packaging won't impress a record label. One of the first demos we ever received had great packaging and artwork. I was impressed. Luckily, the music was also good. It was by a band called Pine. They were a Christchurch group and the first act on the label who weren't already mates. Plus, in a modest way, they seemed to be garnering some interest: the funding gods were smiling on them, they were getting good airplay on the new C4, and they had some fans.

At about this time I was getting interested in the political side of the music business.

I had just finished my MA thesis on "the invention of tradition" and Independent Music. I got a high enough mark to get a good scholarship. I was supposed to use this allowance to write my PhD thesis - which was to be on New Zealand Music and National Identity. But somehow I got a bit too caught up in my "research"; specifically research that involved running a record label, sitting on the board of the Music Commission and other things.

Although I got a good way through, that thesis remains unfinished (and if I do finish it so much has changed I'll have to start from scratch). 

But there were other achievements at that time.  A bunch of indies and stragglers - including Murray Cammick (Wildside), Bernie Griffen (Global) Chris Chetland (Kog) and others - managed to organise ourselves to meet up. We formed an organisation called Independent Music New Zealand (IMNZ). Cath Andersen (from the Music Commission) and I also wrote a proposal to the Government. It said there should be funding for local bands to tour overseas. After a conference and a report called "Creating Heat", a bunch of government money was made available for this purpose. It was split between NZ on Air and the Music Commission for "Outward Sound".

In 2004 I got the chance to release an album David Kilgour had recorded in Nashville with the band Lambchop. I couldn't believe my luck. His first two solo albums were so thrashed they'd permanently etched themselves into my brain. His band The Clean were/are probably one of the most influential bands to come from New Zealand. Since then we've released three albums by David Kilgour and two by the Clean, all of which are real gems. Although they came along later, we were also fortunate enough to release albums from The Bats and Jay Clarkson.

As the decade progressed the label seemed to be collecting a lot of bands from Wellington. Ghostplane, Grand Prix and Luke Buda. Wellington (and Christchurch & Dunedin for that matter) is more isolated from the music industry centre of Auckland. It seems to have a more accepted culture of pushing musical boundaries and experimenting. Musicians seemed to talk about music more and encourage each other to try things. Fans seemed to dig this. The downside is that as the music industry/media is based in Auckland it is always a lot harder to get attention for these bands. Still, because we liked this music, we released it anyway - even if sometimes it was a bit harder to get it noticed.

One day in 2005 I bumped into Don McGlashan walking down Auckland's Hobson St. He mentioned he had just finished recording an album. I asked if I could have a listen as I was sure I'd want to release it. Years earlier, Don was the person who inspired me (and Greta Anderson from Superette) to start bands at high school. Even though he was still a youngster, he was our music teacher. We knew he was a cool guy who played in Blam Blam Blam and The Front Lawn. He would hang out with us kids and teach us how to rock - all the students found him inspirational. He taught me how to play the Take Me to the River bassline which at the time I thought was a Talking Heads song

The new album he gave me (in 2005) to listen to was Warm Hand, which went on to be Arch Hill's best-selling album. It was great to see the enthusiastic response to it. Don had been away from music for quite some time (since The Mutton Birds) so was unsure what people would think - or if anyone would remember him.

In the last few years Arch Hill has expanded into other areas like Mystery Girl Presents, which was originally started by Xan Hamilton. During the last four years we have been lucky enough to bring out some of my all-time favourite bands: Pavement, Sonic Youth, Cat Power, The Handsome Family, Yo La Tengo, Fleet Foxes and dozens of others. 

One disappointment of the last couple of years was Roger Shepherd in relation to the Flying Nun deal. A partial version of the story is here. It should be noted, however, that despite his saying in this article he would pay back money I invested in the project, this still hasn't happened.

However, the upside of the Flying Nun situation is it has given me the chance to rethink Arch Hill. For the last couple of years I have been running things assuming that I would be a partner in the new Flying Nun. It had been discussed that Arch Hill would become a more domestically focused label for more established artists like Don McGlashan, David Kilgour and others. Flying Nun could focus on reviving the back catalogue as well as emerging artists with international potential. It would be complementary.

This was by no means a fixed thing, but for the two years of Flying Nun negotiations I had been thinking along these lines.

So, more recently, it's been good to rethink that game plan. It means I can also start working with more "up and coming" bands like Surf City, Street Chant and Family Cactus.

Family Cactus is actually on Sony in NZ, but Arch Hill released their album in the US where its debut was 179 in the CMJ top 200 last week, which is a pretty wicked start. Surf City are one of the most talked-about indie bands in the US and we have just finished their second tour over there. Street Chant is destined for big things, having already toured NZ and Australia with The Dead Weather at the request of Jack White

It's great to have been going for 10 years. The next 10 are going to be extremely interesting for music. No one has any idea where things are headed. Exciting times. The free download sampler we are doing - aside from being a thanks to people for backing us over the last 10 years - is also an experiment. People seem to like free stuff so we thought we'd try it and see where it leads to...

So, thanks everyone for a great 10 years. Let's see what happens next. 

Ben Howe

Download the Free 18 Track 10th Anniversary Arch Hill Sampler from www.archhill.co.nz