When the Bats formed in Christchurch in 1982, it may have marked the end (at least, at the time) of leading lights the Clean, the ground-zero New Zealand outfit in which Bats leader Robert Scott played bass, but it also coincided nicely with the renaissance of Kiwi rock. Acts like the Chills, Tall Dwarfs and the Verlaines were all releasing records on preeminent label Flying Nun, which had begun with a 7-inch release by the Clean. With former Toy Love bassist Paul Kean, guitarist Kaye Woodward and drummer Malcolm Grant (both formerly of Lyndon and the Liars), Scott and company quickly created a nimble, buoyant jangle that perhaps more so than any other music being created by their contemporaries embodied this new sound emanating from their small corner of the world. Over the next four years, they released a series of EPs, By Night, And Here Is “Music for the Fireside” and Made Up in Blue, each one better than the next (and compiled on Compiletely Bats).
In the intervening years, while the vast majority of the Bats’ contemporaries dispersed and Flying Nun was sold off as a Warner Bros. subsidiary, the Bats have continued to make records brimming with the same wonderstuff, though more sporadically the past decade or so (due in part to the Clean reconvening in 1988). They released their seventh album, The Guilty Office (Hidden Agenda), last month, and while it shows that they have mellowed some with age, Scott’s songwriting hasn’t faltered in the slightest.
As such, it seemed as good a time as any to stay up late (there’s a 16-hour time difference between the U.S. and New Zealand) and chat with Scott.
To those of us living here, New Zealand seems a world away. Does it feel that isolated living there?
Robert Scott: Yeah, it does feel a long way away, especially when it takes a day on a plane to get anywhere else in the world to play. It does feel very different. In some ways, it’s similar, until you have to get some place to play.
How do you think that plays into making music in New Zealand?
RS: Some people talk about that in terms of because we are so far away and isolated, it helps to make our music different to listeners. The fact that we are stuck away at the bottom of the world could be an advantage because we’re less influenced by other things. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know
David (Kilgour) has said that the Clean was influenced by the punk sound. Were there specific things that influenced the Bats starting out?
RS: We had similar influences, especially punk bands like the Buzzcocks, Wire, the Stranglers. Also bands like Television, Suicide and quite a few German bands that we had been listening to when we were starting, like Can, Kraftwerk and Neu, as well as obvious bands like the Velvet Underground and Love. Most of the writers and people playing are real music nuts and have huge records collections and listen to a heck of a lot of music. And that’s the one thing in common across the board with people still making music down here: they listen to a lot of stuff. That affects your songwriting. If you have a broad base of songwriters that you listen to, it means you may have more tools at your disposal and possibly more ideas. Also, I think people are very conscious of not wanting to sound like anyone and wanting to sound as original as possible. The fact that the things that came out of here at the start of the ’80s were so different, they’re keen to keep that going and not end up sounding like someone else.
Did you very consciously want the Bats to sound different than the Clean?
RS: Well, yeah. They’re obviously will be similarities, because I’m in both bands, but it’s easy coming up with songs for the Bats, whereas when it comes time for writing with the Clean, I have to get into quite a different mode and make sure I’m not coming up with stuff that sounds like it could be done with the Bats. The good thing is that Hamish (Kilgour) and David are very quick to point out if I do come up with something that could end up on a Bats album. And a lot of the Clean writing, we jam together when we’re writing, so that’s different, the way we do that.
Would you characterize the stuff that you do for the Bats as being more personal?
RS: Not especially, though, it might be true only because I’m writing more songs so there’s more of a chance that there are some that are personal just because there’s more of them. With the Clean, it’s slightly sillier, a little more playful and idiosyncratic. With the Bats, I tend to cover more bases.
It sounds like when the Bats were starting out, you all weren’t living in the same place and there was some back and forth. Is that still the case?
RS: It’s sort of the case. When we started, we all actually were living in Christchurch. That was ’82, because the Clean moved up there then. The Clean stopped, and the Bats started at the end of ’82 and so we worked up there in the same town, Then, mid-84, I moved down here to Dunedin and since then I’ve been a five-hour drive from the rest of the band. We’ve gotten used to living a fair distance apart, and it hasn’t really been a big problem.
Being the principal songwriter for the Bats, does the band largely adhere to your vision of the band?
RS: Yeah, but it varies song to song. There’s some songs that I come up with where I’ve written the chords and melody and the words and put it on disc or tape, and they’ve written their parts around what I’ve done. Then there will be other times where we’ll go through the same process, but the band will have a lot more input, and the song will change quite a bit. They don’t have qualms about coming forward and making suggestions, and sometimes I take them on board and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes my original idea is the one I feel strongly about and I’ll stick to my guns on that, while other times I’ll be quite happy to change it around. And then there’s other songs that come together in the studio, like the way the Clean does things, where we sort of jam. There’s a few songs on each Bats album that are like that. But most of the time, it’s me starting off with a guitar part or a keyboard part and singing over it and giving it to the others and seeing if they like it.
Can they veto something all together?
RS: Oh yeah, for sure. Usually for each album, as a staring point, I’ll give them 10 or 20 songs to pick over, and they’ll say they like five or eight or whatever and don’t like the other ones. So yeah, that’s fine by me. I go for writing quite a few things and knowing that some won’t be good rather than laboring over a couple songs over a long time in the hope that they’ll come out right. I tend to write knowing that some won’t stick.
This record came out in New Zealand at the end of the year, but I read an interview from 2007 where you were talking about working on it. Did it take a while to put this one together?
RS: It did take a wee while. We started recording in ’07, and then through ’08, we were doing overdubs and mixing it. It did take quite awhile and part of the reason it did is because I’m down here and the rest of the band is up there, and partly because Paul was mixing it at home on his computer, and Malcolm and Kaye were doing overdubs at their leisure. Ideally it would have come out sooner.
Was that longer than a typical Bats album takes to make?
RS: No, about the same as the last few, but each album’s been different. Daddy’s Highway, we started the recording in Scotland and finished it off in New Zealand. The Law of Things, that was quite nice and quick. We did that in a couple weeks in Wellington, New Zealand, then we had a break for a few months and came back and mixed it quickly. Fear of God, Nicholas Sansano came over from the States, and we recorded at a big studio in New Zealand over a couple weeks. We ran out of time mixing it with him, so he had to finish mixing it in New York and was constantly sending cassettes over of mixes. That was really difficult. Silverbeet was a lot quicker. We tracked that over about a week and a half with Lou Giordana in Massachusetts and mixed in Stamford, Connecticut in about a week. But those ones are quite focused, in that you do it in a shorter period of time. These last two have taken a year to finish. I’d like to do something more concise, but it’s when you have a bigger budget to spend that you can go into the studio, take a break, and go in another studio and mix it. We’re doing it on the cheap so we don’t loose too much money in the recording process. We’re mixing and overdubbing on the computer at Paul’s house.
Do you feel like the record is less focused as a listen then?
RS: It’s very hard to say. I find it very hard to be objective about it. Because it comes out the way it does and it’s the only experience you have of the album, it’s very hard to imagine it any other way. I can’t envision what it might have been like if we did it over a couple weeks.
The one criticism that seems to be leveled against you is that a lot of the material sounds the same. First, I wonder how you react to that...
RS: I think it’s quite understandable because quite a few of the songs I write are in a similar vein, and the way we’ve been approaching them lately is in a similar way, with rhythm chords from me, lead stuff from Kaye, and then bass and drums. We haven’t really challenged ourselves or changed things around too much for the last three albums and that does result in things sounding pretty similar. It’s not like we’re second-guessing ourselves or changing things around that much. And when I write... well, every writer has an inherent style of what they like doing. For instance, I would never write anything with a ska or reggae feel to it. I just wouldn’t be able to do it; it just wouldn’t sound good to me. I tend to write in similar time signatures, like 4/4, so I don’t mess around with timing too much. I like it when it flows along. And I guess melodically, I tend to sing the same kind of melodic passages and lines. So yeah, it’s definitely true. But on the other side of that, you have bands that try too hard to go somewhere different with their music and end up not playing to their strengths and making a bad album. So there’s two sides to every coin.
Of course, you do something drastically different and then you get criticized for that.
RS: It’s a fair criticism, but I don’t get too worried about it, put it that way.
I actually feel like this one is a bit more languid than the last couple. Would you agree with that?
RS: Yeah, I would. It’s interesting to know whether it’s the lyrical content or the melodies or the playing. It’s something that comes out in different reviews and people talking, feedback from people as to what they make of it. But yeah, that’s a fair comment.
I was wondering if there was an overriding concept behind The Guilty Office. As a title, it’s kind of a morbid idea.
RS: The phrase popped into my head while I was writing that song. I guess it’s a place that you go if you’re naughty or if you’re guilty. Maybe there was a sense of guilt at the time I was writing it. And that’s how songs come about: you have a feeling inside you and that comes out and defines the song. In some ways that mood encapsulates the album, and that’s why we decided it to make the title track as well.
I feel like with that song in particular, there’s some greater story behind it. Did you have a narrative?
RS: There wasn’t a huge story. Usually when I’m writing, I have pictures inside my head, images. With that one, I was sort of floating above this cityscape and there were people going in and out of buildings, and their moods were changing as they were going in and out of the buildings.
I’ve felt like that about your songs before, going back to “Neighbors.”
RS: Yeah, that’s kind of similar. There are common things that pop up on the albums. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to find new things to write about. I mean, it would be easy to write about new things, but it would be pretty jarring if I suddenly tried to write a strong sounding song about leaving the Middle East alone. I could easily write a song like that, but it wouldn’t sit well with me to write that literally.
And you painted the cover for this album. Is that something you do regularly?
RS: Yeah, I paint a lot. I have an exhibition that I’m working towards at the moment. I sell quite a bit here, and when we go overseas, I take paintings with me. It’s something I find enjoyable.
Do you see similarities between painting and making music or is there something you get from painting that you don’t get from music?
RS: There are obviously differences, but with the processes, there’s a lot of similarities. Some songs come out easily and kind of write themselves, and it’s the same with painting. Some are very easy to do and you finish in a couple nights and some are a real struggle. The start of a painting and a song are the same: you basically have a blank canvas and an idea of which direction to head off in. It’s kind of a journey. Obviously, you can make changes all the way through, but you keep having to make decisions.
It seems a real rarity that both a Bats album and a Clean record (Mister Pop, out September 8) are coming out so close to each other. Were you feeling particularly productive?
RS: It’s more just an element of chance that they are coming out within such close proximity. Ideally, with each band having an album every four or five years, there would be a two-year gap between the two. It would make touring and promoting easier. It’s not a case of being anymore productive; it’s more circumstance. We started the Bats album when we did, and it took a certain amount of time to finish. We started the Clean album awhile ago as well, and it took awhile to finish too. I’m actually working on a solo album at the moment as well. I sort of maintain a certain amount of songwriting continuity so I’m never short on material. It’s more being short of opportunities to release stuff. I like to be as busy as work and family life will allow. It’s not really the writing process—it’s bands getting organized and finding the time to do an album.