Puddle deep, mountain high
Hailed as a flawed genius, indie songwriter George Henderson is enjoying the most productive phase of a faltering 30-year career. He talks to Chris Chilton.
In the murky annals of New Zealand underground pop, The Puddle enjoy a semi-mythical status.
This is entirely due to the talents of the Dunedin band's articulate frontman and founding father George D Henderson, the one constant light source in an ever-shifting lineup.
His canny knack for the well-turned pop hook and devastatingly witty lyric has helped him rise from the mire of a decade lost to ill health to a second wind of creative energy that is commanding renewed interest in his work.
Formed in 1983, The Puddle started with a hiss and a roar, with Henderson's melodic psychedelic surf guitar stylings threatening to knock the major names of Flying Nun off their pedestals. Then, after the release of the promising but primitive Into The Moon in 1992 and another Flying Nun single in 1993, nothing.
Henderson popped up playing guitar in Bryan Spittle's electro-pop project Mink, but The Puddle dried up as Henderson battled to conquer hepatitis C and chronic drug addiction. Sporadic live appearances and recording sessions ensued, but led nowhere.
Now, since 2005, there's been a flurry of four Puddle albums, with more music on the way.
After what could be described as a slow start, Henderson admits he is hitting fifth gear in terms of creative output. Refreshingly, it's coming easier to him now.
"I don't think we need another gear. I think if it gets too much easier we'll be freewheeling."
Not predisposed to linear processes, Henderson has released three albums in the past four years, not in chronological order but, he says, in order of complexity.
The basic tracks for Playboys In The Bush were recorded in 2005, with the previous lineup, which included Ross Jackson on bass and Heath Te Au on drums.
Former Puddle alumnus Richard Steele had been playing around with the Playboys tracks in his studio for years before it was released on Henderson's younger brother Ian's Fishrider Records label late last year.
In the meantime, The Puddle recorded the urgent, lower-tech No Love – No Hate (2007) and The Shakespeare Monkey (2009) and released them without delay.
Such vagaries aren't uncommon in The Puddle's colourful past.
Their great "lost album", Songs For Emily Valentine, was recorded in 1993 but it never saw the light of day until 2005, when it was released by Powertool Records.
Henderson's songwriting appears to have changed tangents between the time the backing tracks for Playboys were recorded and when No Love – No Hate was released. He puts this down to different headspaces and not wanting to repeat himself musically.
Playboys could be regarded as a distillation of The Puddle's back catalogue and with the higher-spec production it's definitely the album with the widest appeal so far. It sounds jauntily optimistic in patches, more riff oriented, shades of heavy rock even. So what changed?
"I took control of my health," Henderson says. "I had hep C for all those years. I still do, but I don't really notice it now."
He also hooked up with a lady in Auckland and moved to the Queen City, where he still lives. The change in scenery has had a profound effect on Henderson's outlook.
"That definitely helped ... getting out of Dunedin, getting out of the habits of a lifetime."
It's no secret those habits involved dabbling in the opiates, with a side-order of lysergide and whatever else was handy. Henderson is on the record saying heroin was a romantic lifestyle choice.
Be advised, children. His drug addiction led to crime.
In 1990, he snuck into the science department of the University of Otago to steal ether. Though he wore a white lab coat to blend in, he got busted.
As he was already on probation for burgling a chemist, Henderson returned to Invercargill for three months in 1991 as a guest of Her Majesty's Prison.
He says he's clean now and the recent burst in compelling musical output can't be a coincidence.
"Just having the energy to play again. I felt like writing songs and had things to write about.
"Playboys in The Bush was recorded when all of that was happening, which is why it's got this energy.
"I got this feeling that this was a very important thing to do."In between sporadic literary references in his songs – Rimbaud, Samuel Butler, Norse mythology – Henderson likes to write about sex. Lusty maidens and feverish liaisons feature unashamedly. Is there some personal laundry being aired?
"Well, they say write about what you know," Henderson says. "But that could be really boring, like writing about your shopping list. You've got to write about stuff you know that's interesting to other people and corresponds to their own lives."
He cites philosopher Colin Wilson, who has written many books about sex.
"It's actually a really important thing – it's the evolutionary driving force ...
"It is fascinating. And it's funny too. Half of our humour's about sex. I'm certainly not going to sing songs about toilet humour."
Henderson reiterates that the literary references in his songs are few and clearly signalled, but he admits "I really do dig the Restoration poetry" – Butler, Rochester, Dryden: "I think it's a really rich vein of poetry. It's like song. It's very easy to understand. There's nothing deep or complex in it. They're very witty. They're getting in digs at each other, just like rappers do today."The current Puddle lineup of George and Ian Henderson, Gavin Shaw and Alan Starrett is recording again.
They've done two sessions already with Bob Frisbee (Arch Hill) in Auckland, recording Victory Blues/Secret Holiday.
"It's going to be like a double EP," Henderson says. There's two distinct works on it. Each one's like a body of songs, so you don't have to listen to the whole CD at once."
Henderson finds himself sitting at the piano to write more often than not these days.
"It changes. My whole life, my preferred writing method has altered regularly.
"I don't find myself writing the same song twice, although I do use parts of one song in the next one just to see how far it can be developed in a different direction."
The piano has liberated him from the typical chord format of the guitar, he says.
For instance, he wrote the memorable Hudibras, off No Love - No Hate, on the piano, using a "really nice" minor chord progression in flat keys. He liked the sound so much he says he's used those same piano chords in different order for several completely different songs, "because it's a breakout of the rut of the guitar, the A, E and D thing that you get".
He doesn't find himself particularly inspired by other bands or songwriters, although he does like 80s Irish band Microdisney. (Hudibras is a rare homage to Microdisney's bitingly satirical lyrical style).
While he doesn't consciously attempt to mimic other bands' sounds, there are momentary flashes of familiarity in his songs. I can imagine Shivver, off The Shakespeare Monkey, could have been a Who song. Wise Dolls, off Playboys, could have been by The Monochrome Set. The Sunday Times of London likened The Puddle to American alt rock band Pavement.
Pure coincidence, Henderson says.
"Often it's way off the beam, and they're talking about bands I've never heard of. They assume that I've heard all these cool indie bands that probably do sound like me, but I've never listened to Pavement, or anything like that."The Henderson family migrated to Invercargill from Scotland in the mid-60s, when George was 8.
He and brother Ian went to Southland Boys' High School, where they formed a bedroom band with the late Lindsay Maitland, called Crazy Ole and The Panthers.
His family wasn't musical or artistic, George says. Music was the only form of rebellion he was interested in. The punk-garage aesthetic appealed.
"It was what you did in those days. You grew your hair long, got a guitar and made a loud noise that your elders hated.
"It struck me as a way to make a name for myself, and I wasn't good at other things."
Henderson wrote a blog a few years ago in which he lovingly recalled seeing Invercargill glam covers band Watchdog playing at the YMCA in the mid-1970s. All that Ziggy-era Bowie, Genesis and Jethro Tull prog-rock seems incongruous with the comparatively sparse and uncomplicated sound of The Puddle, but Henderson felt something in the heavy music of that era that left a lasting impression.
"I never got over the power," he says.
"That's what converted me to the idea that music could be a form of self-expression, the sheer brute power that they wielded, and with quite a bit of artistry.
"As a growing boy, it was definitely, `this is what I can do, this is how I can make a mark'."
In different forms through his recordings Henderson has strived to emulate that kind of power. Playboys In The Bush is, arguably, the closest he has got.
Two tracks are positively majestic in their scope and sound: What I Believe and Valhalla, loosely based on Richard Wagner's epic opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
"My parents had a single of The Ride of The Valkyries, and that was my favourite piece of music when I was growing up. It's very much structured like a good piece of heavy metal. It's got the pumping rhythm, the simple but uplifting phrases over the top and the fiddly bits."Henderson is back working with brother Ian again, which is helping keep the latest Puddle train a-rollin'.
"(Ian) is organised, and I'm at a stage in my life where I do appreciate organisation. He's adaptable enough to catch whatever needs to be caught."
The diligent and possibly exasperated Ian once said of George he didn't know of anyone who was that stubborn or stupid as to take 25 years to deliver on their potential.
George Henderson chuckles.
"Well, you've only got to look at people like Darwin. He took longer, didn't he.
"I guess you see music as a young man's game but, really, if anyone's developing their art they should be producing their best stuff by the time they've got experience under their belt.
"And what happens if you do get it all out early, you tend to burn out.
"It's not usual for somebody to manage to maintain at that level, so it's probably better to have it come out at a period in your life when you can manage it properly – tend the flame a bit better than you can when you're young."
The Puddle play tomorrow in the Long Room of the Taramea Bay Soundshell, at Riverton. It will be the band's first gig in Southland since 1993. Their new album Playboys In The Bush will be available on CD and LP. There will be a Soundshell fundraiser barbecue. BYO. Support band Opposite Sex starts at 8.30pm. The Puddle are on at 9.30pm. Entry $10.
Pop Lib, 12-inch mini-album, Flying Nun (1986)
Christmas in the Country appeared on a 1987 Bnet compilation Weird Culture Weird Custom Live in the palm of your hand, cassette, Infinite Regress (1989)
Friends (live) appeared on a split Onset/Offset label 7-inch around 1987
Live at the Teddy Bear Club, LP, Flying Nun (1991)
Into the Moon, CD Flying Nun (1992) (includes Pop Lib EP)
Thursday/Too Hot To Be Cool, 7-inch, Flying Nun (1993)
The Power of Love/Mamelons damadou, 7-inch Acetone (France) (1995)
Songs for Emily Valentine, CD, Powertool (2005, recorded 1993)
No Love – No Hate, CD, Fishrider (2007)
The Shakespeare Monkey, CD, Fishrider( 2009)
Playboys in the Bush, CD/LP, Fishrider (2010)
Average Sensual Man, on split 7-inch single with Robert Scott/Adalita Srsen (2010)
Other George D Henderson discography
And Band/Perfect Strangers, split 7-inch, self-released (1981)
Mink: Mink CD, Infinite Regress (1994)
Mink: For My Mink, CD, Infinite Regress (1996)
The Southland Times