Speaker by Various Artists


Peter Jefferies: Time and the singular man

by Campbell Walker

Peter Jefferies released his last album in 2001. Tellingly titled Closed Circuit, and released on the Texas label Emperor Jones, it didn't make a huge impact at the time – the modest international boom for the highly distinctive underground New Zealand movements connected with the Xpressway label since the late 1980s was at something of a low ebb.

It was a pretty strong album, though. While lacking the acute, documentary sense of time and place found on his most famous solo album Last Great Challenge in a Dull World (1989), or the dense, depressive coherency of its follow-up Electricity(1994), it does channel Jefferies' familiar melancholic classicism. As always, strong correlations of meaning and emotion within the songwriting line up behind the weary but gorgeous grain of his voice (always the best access point for a neophyte), and the solitary space evoked by the artist's interaction with his recording equipment.

On Closed Circuit, the album charts a course away from Jefferies' increasingly disenchanted working life, as the musician caught between two equally depressing spheres, that of the international music business and success within New Zealand's mainstream popular culture, heading towards the end point, the gorgeous 'Ghost Writer', where Peter quietly gets off the train and goes home (accompanied on this track by the appropriately sonically train-obsessed, much-neglected Australian guitarist Chris Smith).

Shortly before that the album's climactic point was one of the best songs he ever wrote. Riding a murky and melancholic combination of rolling piano, lush synthesizer (in a pre-80s vein) and gently persistent rhythms, 'State of the Nation' is a key example of Jefferies' most characteristic mode, the introspective self-interrogation.

This is an idiom at which Peter has always been a master (and why meeting him in person can sometimes be quite alarming: it's unexpected to find such a genial and motormouthed enthusiast, when you're used to the austere soundworld). This is high-precision compaction: small flakes of embedded trauma and anxiety obsessively reworked and polished into something much more measured and elegant, but never quite removing the rawness of the original impetus. In this case, it's a song where the artist directly addresses his approaching middle-age, questioning the value and meaning of a lifetime's obsessive relationship with sound and music, and deciding to leave the question open.

I'd decided it was the last Peter Jefferies song.

Soon after, he gave away all or threw away all his gear – the electric piano and amp went to a friend, but the drumkit went into a skip. He got a job. It sounds like a decent sort of job for him: teaching high school kids music, especially writing lyrics, working at a couple of different schools around the Taranaki where he grew up, where he could be close to his mother as she got older.

It seemed he had actually managed to stop.

Peter was a significant role model for artists of my generation, who showed how to present distinctive work in an international context without having to compromise either quality or singularity, how to be driven by a solitary motivation but work to string collaborations across different roles, and how to be so deeply embedded in the materiality of your work that it effects everyone around you. Aside from his earlier work with his brother Graeme as This Kind of Punishment and before that Nocturnal Projections - all of which is of great importance in the history of underground NZ music - he remains most associated with the Port Chalmers/ Dunedin label Xpressway , which Bruce Russell founded in the late 1980s.

Bruce was the organisational and marketing guy, Peter was the engineer. The label was originally formed to pick up artists that Flying Nun had decided were not commercial enough: Jefferies himself, Russell's band the Dead C, Alastair Galbraith, Peter and Alastair's band Plagal Grind, Christchurch band the Terminals, and others.

As a list, they were all superlative live performers - some still are - and have lasted the distance much better than the more contemporary indie pop strands that F.Nun chose to follow. Key to Xpressway's legacy was the label's pioneering of home recording, and understanding of the materiality of sound, and of recording equipment as an expressive but manipulable medium, rather than a tool towards reaching an externally imposed quality standard.

When some of these ideas went relatively overground in the mid to late 90s, it was tagged as “lo-fi” and even as a celebration of “bad recording”, as a kind of trash or bad taste aesthetic. In the case of Xpressway, there were a few variants on the approach. Russell's band the Dead C , with Robbie Yeats and Michael Morley, certainly took pleasure in a gleeful trashing of what rock music was “supposed” to be, keeping for themselves space to sound like a thousand parallel potential sources of the momentum-based impulses of the form, always centralised around the impossibility and necessity of repetition – they have become an essential part of international underground music history as a result.

Alastair Galbraith, along with another Dunedin native, Nigel Bunn, developed a much more psychedelicised, controlled, eclectic expressivity in relationship to equipment less concerned with the universal primality the Dead C were channelling, in favour of finding new kinds of sounds to fill with old kinds of song and sound forms, a mixture of tradition and experimentation again channelled through noise and other distortions, as appropriate.

The key work of the label in this sense was probably Peter's 1989 album Last Great Challenge in a Dull World. In it, Peter presented a new paradigm for the scope and detail possible in an album recorded on 4-track at home. It combines extremely precise field recordings, improvisational collaboration and a sonic mix from classicism to abstraction to make up what is both a song cycle about - and a sonic document of - being a Dunedin artist in 1988.

It has always been an album with a mythology built into it, and one that draws its listeners deep inside. An obsessive approach to its assembly has been reflected in a coterie of obsessive listeners – certainly I've been one of them for twenty years. The early response was generally drawn from the international underground, but since the album has come successfully back into circulation last year, courtesy of US label De Stijl , it has somehow become more respectable – it's now being heard and appreciated for it's maturity and depth, rather than as part of the weird underground cult of South Island naysayers. For instance, a 2013 review by Graham Reid gets the album in ways that would have seemed very unlikely for the same reviewer in 1990. Is this how classics are formed? Certainly it didn't help Peter's ability to sustain a practice in New Zealand at the time.

The integrity and specificity of his approach has been borne out by history. De Stijl's tagline for the re-release is a rare one: that the album has undergone no remastering whatsoever, an inside joke about the degree to which this album remains fully in focus as a recording project, despite being home-recorded on 4-track.

Jefferies and his brother Graeme had begun their engagement with home recording after disappointment with their last EP as the Nocturnal Projections, Understanding Another Year in Darkness (1983), a fairly synthetic studio recording, that completely failed to reflect their idea of the band's sound. Their next project was the considerably more hermetic This Kind of Punishment, which stripped the recording process back to basics embedded in their own resources, to slowly rebuild from scratch at home a new methodology based around listening and patience, laterality and minimalism, that reached a remarkable early maturity in the 1984 album A Beard of Bees.   

The public reception of Last Great Challenge... often missed some of the most interesting details of this process. Jefferies' collaboration with the Dead C on 'Guided Tour of a Well Known Street'  is well noted, but misunderstood: the Dead C here are the equivalent of a field recording of the ambient sound of Port Chalmers, sourced from an improvised rehearsal, channelled into song-form about living in the real world, via assidious editing after the fact.

Similarly 'Domesticia', a song Jefferies wrote walking up up the hill from the dairy after getting a pie for lunch, features some equally carefully edited recordings of washing machines, one full and one half empty.

Part of Russell's original plan for the label – and key to its ongoing status - has been the careful exploitation of international musical networks towards licencing records internationally. After its original release on tape, Last Great Challenge... caught the ear of Chicago-based indie label Ajax who re-released it along with the earlier Xpressway 7” 'Fate of the Human Carbine' / 'Catapult'. 

Around the world, other labels picked up various other Xpressway artists, and by the time the label closed in 1993, all its records were licencing deals, rather than domestic releases.

The way Xpressway is written about now, with a kind of vaguely disengaged canonisation, doesn't really say much about how that world and these characters have shifted. Similarly, the idea of that period as a kind of belle epoque ignores the way that most of the key figures from this world are still active and vital, if in different contexts.

Take Bruce Russell, once the great catalyser and believer in this music, now gone overground as arbiter of taste on a surprisingly diverse set of corners of NZ music and audio art, ranging from archivist-in-chief at Flying Nun to editor of the “misfits and malcontents” themed sound art book recently published by the Audio Foundation, Erewhon Calling. He operates as a highly skilled and aggressive networker who has placed himself successfully into the system.

Then, at the other end of the scale there's Alastair Galbraith who lives outside Dunedin with his family, concentrating on drift-based solitary exploration in relative poverty, occasionally making his way into town to play shows anywhere but bars – some of the best recent ones have been churches, including an absolute jaw-dropper to about 8 people in a Port Chalmers church a year or two back – extending his recording process into instrument building, and living defiantly outside and in opposition to such systems, as one of our most interesting artists.

Jefferies followed a different route again, leaving Dunedin at the end of Xpressway to have a serious go at becoming an international working musician. The arrangement with Ajax had proved the launching pad Russell had intended. As Peter says, after the re-release of the 'Catapult' / 'Carbine' single, the shit started to roll downhill for him. Another Dunedin album, Electricity (1994) followed before he left for wider pastures, touring internationally a lot, reissuing the This Kind of Punishment back catalogue, being based for a while in Vancouver, and releasing 3 more solo albums, ending with Closed Circuit. During that time, he developed a new performance instrument, the piano-drum, where he played bass lines on the electric piano with his left hand, snare drum with his right, kick drum with his left foot and piano pedal with his right, and sang as well.

During this period I was living in Wellington, and he toured New Zealand a lot. I filmed all of the 1996-97 NZ tour with my partner of the time, for a project that was never completed, and Peter and I became friends. He'd sometimes stay with me in Wellington, and I took the title of my first film from one of his songs. I think the last time I saw him was when he played the final gig at the original Bar Bodega in Wellington. After that he just fell off the map.

I kept listening to the records of course – they sink in pretty deeply. An appreciation of and affinity for the work of the Jefferies brothers was a big part of how I got together with my current partner, as well as fairly fundamental to my idea of existing independently as an artist. The model of reworking the tools of artistic practice to suit a smaller, less industrial and more personal way of working, through patient attention and listening has been especially important, and a lesson I think goes beyond music. I developed a respect for his decision to stop, and to be active instead in building a new world to live in, away from the underground music one – as he once sang, “What would you like yourself to be?”..

So, I have to admit to a certain mixture of bemusement and shock when I heard he'd come out of retirement to play his first gig with Amanda Palmer. I wouldn't say I'd been a fan, or even paid much attention – as a young friend said, she'd had her share of 13 year old glass-throwing incidents when she was listening to Palmer, and that fitted my limited understanding. She seemed an artist more concerned with extroverted social activism than with the kind of introspective self-interrogation I associated with Peter, but apparently she was a big fan, and the influence is apparent in her staccato approach to the piano.

She reflects at length on the process in her Livejournal post about tracking Peter down – a process in which the editor of this publication had a critical role – and about his importance to her.  As Peter told me, she's the main reason he's playing again now, after she talked him into supporting her in Auckland last year.

Although this is his first headlining show in over a decade, it won't be his last. He's planning to play again in the U.S. over the school holidays later in the year to coincide with the re-release of Electricity on San Francisco label Superior Viaduct, and maybe even the rest of New Zealand over the coming summer.

For this Saturday's show at the King's Arms, he'll be playing in three of the four line-ups, starting with a solo acoustic guitar set, followed by the New Plymouth band Little Moon, who will also play as his backing band Substatic. A great enthusiast for new discoveries, Jefferies is characteristically ebullient about this fairly newly formed duo, admitting he's partly wanting to play solo first to make sure everyone turns up in time to see them. There'll also be a trio with old friend Shayne Carter and Peter on drums, plus one other potential illustrious third, a kind of reunion of the very early version of Carter's band Dimmer, and even the very rare opportunity of a live version of their classic 1986 single 'Randolph's Going Home'.  That'll be followed by a band set of Peter playing piano with the guys from Little Moon as Substatic. It promises to be quite the evening. 

Peter Jefferies, Shayne Carter and Little Moon play the King's Arms in Auckland on Saturday night. Tickets here.

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