Grant Smithies and the art of noise

IMPASSIONED: Skeptics’ music was more about a feeling than the song.
IMPASSIONED: Skeptics’ music was more about a feeling than the song.

Hurtful noise coexists with great beauty; dreadful power with tender fragility. Punishing volume is regularly deployed amid interludes of contemplative silence. There's a steely exterior that's off-putting to some, but stick around long enough and bright flashes of humour shine through.

Yes, indeed, I'm a study in contrasts, but it struck me recently that many of my personal qualities are shared by Palmerston North band Skeptics. Formed in 1979 by Palmy high school students David D'Ath, Robin Gauld, Nick Roughan and Don White, with John Halvorsen and Brent McLaughlin of The Gordons/Bailter Space replacing Gauld in 1985, the band split up after D'Ath died of leukemia in 1990, aged just 26. Between those poles, they made some of the most intense and original music ever to issue from these shores.

Listening to it today, you'll find none of the amiably shambling indie pop many associate with Flying Nun bands of the era. D'Ath's stentorian wail is framed by digitally enhanced drum beats that snap like broken bones. Synthesisers squeeze out gigantic blocks of cold, glistening sounds that float past like icebergs, half-submerged in a sea of turbulent guitar feedback. A masterpiece of lop-sided mechanical grooves and scraping guitars, Sheen of Gold even finds a place for that classic threat you do not want to hear from a knife-wielding Scotsman outside a Glasgow pub: "Hey, Jimmy, can your mother sew? Get her to stitch this up for you."

Stuart Page's infamous 1987 clip for their song Affco shows sheep being slaughtered in a South Auckland freezing works, intercut with footage of D'Ath writhing around in blood-soaked cling film in a Freeman's Bay flat. In certain sections of our society, one cannot quote the chorus line, "We pack meat!", without anyone else within earshot looking traumatised.

But this band also had emotional range. And We Bake sports lovely understated vocals, and is there any local song that better captures our seemingly interminable cold season than Agitator, with the immortal line: "June, June, June, June, June, June . . . July . . . August - the winter months!"?

Fascinated by this music, director Simon Ogston spent two years making Sheen of Gold, a Skeptics doco which is showing nationwide during this year's NZ International Film Festival (all screening times at

Ogston uncovered a wealth of archive material, interviewed surviving members and captured many golden moments: Chris Knox draws a cartoon of D'Ath then dances around his house to one of their songs, John Halvorsen coaxes alarming sounds from his guitar with an electric razor; Shihad's Jon Toogood sums up their sound as "Motorhead played on lots of mushrooms and acid by a Flying Nun band". There's poignant footage of the band's final live performance at Auckland's Gluepot, with the audience looking pulverised and grateful.

My own fleeting encounter with this band was a good deal less challenging. Many years ago, I found myself in the home of Skeptics bassist Nick Roughan for dinner. While I sat drinking wine, he was in a tiny kitchen where you couldn't swing a kitten, let alone a cat, hunkered over the stove. I can neither confirm nor deny that he was wearing an apron.

Appalled that I'd never tried the famous Mexican dish chiles rellenos, Roughan took a handful of fresh chillies, split them open, filled them with cheese, dredged them in egg and flour then shallow-fried them. They scorched the tastebuds like a flamethrower; to eat them was to die a fiery death and ascend to some sort of Day of the Dead-themed heaven.

Then there was steak and salad, with Roughan wandering about dishing up tucker, shepherding kids into their PJs, slapping music on the stereo, opening more wine; he was the perfect host, with a winningly twisted sense of humour.

We didn't even discuss his former band but now, with the Skeptics doco about to screen and Flying Nun gearing up to reissue their back catalogue, the time seemed right. So I phoned him up. How did such a nice guy end up making music full of log-splitter drums, psych-ward synths and cheese-grater guitars?

"It's hard to say. We were pretty happy-go-lucky guys, but we loved wrapping sweet melodies in a dark and threatening shell to make people think and feel certain things against their will. It's lots of fun making your audience go ‘Aaaah! No! F...! What?'. People might not be able to tell you what a Skeptics song's called, but they'll remember the feeling it gave them. Unease is a very powerful emotion, and not one you usually associate with entertainment, but we never really aspired to make pop music."

Sunday Star Times