Distorted dreams by the sea

THE DEAD C: 'That’s why, over 25 years later, we're playing at the Sydney Opera House, still peddling the same unappealing mix of noise and disorganisation.'
THE DEAD C: 'That’s why, over 25 years later, we're playing at the Sydney Opera House, still peddling the same unappealing mix of noise and disorganisation.'

"Don't go," says Bruce Russell, founding member of the Dead C, of the band's gig in Lyttelton this week.

Since forming in Dunedin in 1987, the pivotal, genre-dissolving improvisational trio have blurred the boundaries between rock music and sonic art noise with low-fidelity guitars and disfigured tape manipulations.

They are respected internationally but, irritatingly, remain relatively unknown at home.

There are no luxurious coffee table-sized books about the significant sounds created by Russell, Michael Morley and Robbie Yeats, and the various other musical outlets they've spawned - Gate, Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos, A Handful of Dust - or the contribution to the wider scene made by Russell's label Xpressway. But there should be.

Dead C fans include Yo La Tengo, Pavement and Sonic Youth - Thurston Moore invited them to play the opening night of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival he curated in 2006. The bill also included Gang of Four and the Sun City Girls.

"If people come along to hear us it's at their own risk," Russell declares with a grin. "I call it the way I see it. The last thing I want to do is suddenly be confronted with a large audience of people who are really outraged. I'm a couple of decades past putting up with that."

The Dead C perform a free gig, presented by the Christchurch Art Gallery, at the Naval Point Yacht Club, Lyttelton, tonight with a stripped-back version of the Terminals before heading to Australia, to perform at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday as part of a showcase for the label RIP Society at the Vivid Festival.

"Suddenly we have two shows, at the Naval Point Yacht Club and the Sydney Opera House. Both are by the sea. It will be an interesting contrast. You can't see the sea from inside the Opera House. In Sydney we're performing downstairs while the Pixies perform upstairs."

Russell calmly describes life as "reasonably quiet", before detailing a schedule and a raft of projects which would make most people sweat buckets.

The man often described as a "thinker" - "I get a few laughs out of that" - is working on a 20,000-30,000 exegesis as part of his PhD in fine art at RMIT in Melbourne.

Among half a dozen projects, a documentary, On An Unknown Beach, featuring insights into Russell's creative process, is in the works thanks to a couple of Berlin-based New Zealanders.

"For years people have approached me to do documentaries. This is the first one to actually happen."

His high school-age daughter, Olive, made an excellent documentary on him, 27 Minutes with Mr Noisy, last year.

"All the time I had been trying to assist adults to make a documentary and then I realised I'd been raising a documentary maker."

There are also multiple music releases in multiple formats to deal with.

"The Dead C hasn't done a great deal since we were in France around this time last year," he says casually. "Michael has been preparing four live albums for simultaneous release."

Yes, four.

The opportunity arose via their American label, Ba Da Bing, who required material to fill four matching covers for a project that was suddenly not going to happen.

"Ben [Goldberg] emailed us and said ‘I don't suppose you could give me four live albums?' The answer was yes.

"They go back to about 2002 so, by our standards, it's fairly recent. They are in manufacture now, there are test pressings. It will be out at some point. We were debating what to release next but the four live albums trumped everything else. We'll put those out and let the dust settle."

The live music on these albums are largely from international shows - two different shows in France, one from New York in 2008, another from London.

"The oldest one is from a show we did in Los Angeles in a club charmingly called The Smell. We are Live at The Smell in 2002.

"Michael Morley has sequenced them. I'm sure he has made sensible choices; 20 minute slabs each side of undigested spew."

Russell has also done a live solo guitar on cassette which is coming out in Scotland and two split albums including one based on an installation he did in New Regent Street for the Audacious Festival in March.

"I also played a session in the Lyttelton Coffee Company building with Peter Wright, we used the recordings from that for one of the two albums. Those will come out in the next three or four months."

The album with Wright is to be released under the name The Escalation.

"Ronnie van Hout pointed out he'd been reading Barefoot in the Head. Apparently in that book there is a band called The Escalation who change their name to The Dead Sea Sound. That's why we're called The Escalation. It's a sci fi in-joke."


"Cassettes are back, definitely. It's a remarkably unkillable format.

"I've released some new material on cassette, a solo guitar cassette called 1968 on a Brooklyn label called Imminent Frequencies. That led to the reissue of Handful of Dust cassette from 1995.

"Another Handful of Dust cassette that I did in the mid 1990s called Topology of a Phantom City is going to come out on Ba Da Bing shortly."

Another big project for American label VHF Records is also on Russell's mind. He's been working with David Pearce as VHF want to reissue a live Flying Saucer Attack CD as a double album.

"Luckily I have a cassette of the original mix. That was in 1996. All of the original recordings make up three sides and, for the fourth side, Jim O'Rourke, in Japan, is doing a remix of the material."

The Dead C's first show was at the end of January 1987 at Chippendale House in Dunedin. The unadvertised event saw them perform a live soundtrack to movies.

"I do remember that we played briefly and then the stage was taken over by George Henderson from the Puddle and a couple of his mates. They proceeded to play across the top of us, so we went ‘OK, that's it, that's our debut'.

"We did shows every two months and people kept asking us ‘why do you play so seldom?'

"In retrospect it's hilarious because we've never played so frequently ever again. But that's become our modus operandi, I guess: less is definitely more."

He recalls, "after the first decade or so", that they took a long term view of their future.

"I look at bands that were contemporaries. Snapper were starting to do shows around the same time, the 3Ds a bit later, they just gigged their backsides off. You can't keep that up, and they couldn't.

"That's why, over 25 years later, we're playing at the Sydney Opera House, still peddling the same unappealing mix of noise and disorganisation."

Russell works quickly. He doesn't compose or rehearse - "that's the joy of improvisation".

"Some people have to spend vast amounts of time doing that donkey work.

"If I was to do a huge amount of gigs I'd lose my edge, I'll either bore myself or repeat things that are easy to do."

In the world of the Dead C, yesterday is a dream; today and tomorrow have been shattered like mirrors reflecting endless distorted visions.

Anything might be possible.


The Dead C and Terminals at the Naval Point Yacht Club tonight, free. The Dead C at the Sydney Opera House, Saturday night, as part of the Vivid Festival, vividsydney.com

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