Kane Strang: The 13th Floor Interview

Thoughtful, intelligent and with a wry sense of humour, there seems to be little that separates Kane Strang the person from Kane Strang the artist. Off the back of his critically acclaimed second album Two Hearts And No Brain released on Dead Oceans and extensive international touring, Kane performs at the Others Way Festival this Friday. Ahead of his set, Kate Powell sat down over a few beers on a balmy Tuesday afternoon to discuss amongst other things the perfect indie pop song, the sadboy label, New Zealand Gothic and authenticity.

What have you been up to since the 13th Floor last spoke to you?
I’ve sort of been lying low in Dunedin demoing a little bit, doing a lot of boring admin stuff because I’m currently managing myself which is almost a 9-5 job, which is weird, there a lot of people around the world now that I work with and yeah, just been organising future tours and putting together the NZ tour I’m on at the moment, it’s been a good learning curve for me, figuring out how all this stuff works.

Yeah of course, because with Two Hearts that was your first release on (international label) Dead Oceans, that must’ve been quite the transition?
Yeah definitely, and I think it took me a long time to comphrehend the whole Dead Oceans thing and being on a label like that, but now, yeah I’ve been really trying to process all that and I’m finally at the stage where I can accept what’s happening and try and make the most of it, because for a while I was just freaking out to be honest like it was pretty intense.

Why was that?
I was just used to recording albums, putting them on Bandcamp and maybe 1000 people hearing it if I was lucky, but with this one I knew it was going to be distributed internationally and it was a lot to think about really. It was also the first time I’ve done an album in a studio and things like that. I wasn’t sure how it’s been received but it seems to have gone down alright.

I really want to talk about your song writing because in my review I liken you to who I consider to be really good singer-songwriters- Morrissey, Elliott Smith and the like
Oh thank you

No, no it’s fine, I’m just wondering, prior to your debut release you were studying visual culture in Dunedin and I’d like to know if that informed your songwriting at all?

I guess I’ve always been kind of an observant person and interested in things like film and advertising and art but never knew too much about any of it, so that’s how I started studying visual culture. Yeah I dunno, I don’t know how much it informed me to be honest, I wasn’t like the best student to be honest (laughs)

It’s often the worst students that make the best artists though

Yeah, no that’s totally right, but I don’t know, visual culture that whole thing’s a total blur to me (laughs) I didn’t even finish my degree I was about a year and a half into it and it’s something I’m still really interested in and I’d like to go back and do, but at the time I was just consumed with making Blue Cheese. But I like to make artwork that paints a picture in someones mind and yeah I enjoy double meanings and I think that’s something that comes into visual culture.  But I don’t know how much it influenced me. I’m just so stuck in my ways when it comes to writing songs. I don’t really have a process or a routine when I write a song it kind of just….falls out (laughs)

I studied Art History, Media Studies and Philosophy and what fascinated me about them was the often conflicting signs and signals and how that shapes a moment, a sense of being and place in the world.

Yeah totally. I love contrasts for me some of the most powerful songs have really happy chords with really dark lyrics. I love things like that That’s something I’ve tried to do in reverse in some ways. There’s a song on Two Hearts called It’s Not That Bad and that’s like the opposite. It’s a dark song with positive lyrics. I mean it when I say it’s not that bad I’m not being sarcastic when I say you’ll get through it’s OK. The visual side of things is really important to me as well. My girlfriend and I do press pics together and we really think about locations and how they work with that.

I noticed that. Your videos all have a really strong aesthetic-I mean that with no sense of irony.
No totally I like things to be cohesive I guess, like I want this whole thing whatever it is to make sense as a whole thing. I want the artwork and press pics and videos and music to all tie together and be of equal importance. A video can make a song twice as good or a press pic can help someone get to know you and get a sense of who you are the way a song can.

Are you striving for authenticity?
It’s my goal I want it to feel genuine and sincere and yeah, back to the cohesive thing it lets you have a card up your sleeve because it makes it easier to shock people when you feel like it you know? You can catch people off guard. Because everything’s been cohesive for me up until this point it could be quite interesting if I did something really different out of nowhere-for better or worse it would be interesting.

Within the lyrics throughout Two Hearts I noticed you used gender neutral pronouns- why did you do that? Was it a statement around modern gender politics?
It was  just me working on some things that had bothered me about my last albums. A lot of my songs it was “she” and her throughout and I just wanted this one to be easier for people to relate to. I didn’t want people to pretend. That’s all really, I just wanted it to be easier for people to relate to. I wasn’t trying to save the world or anything like that  you know? (laughs) I just wanted to try something different and see how people received that. And I think it’s worked. People have been telling me at shows that they find this album easy to relate to or fit to their own lives and it may not be because of that, but you know if it helped a few people in a small way then that’s enough for me.

How have you transitioned as an artist between Blue Cheese and Two Hearts?
A lot of  my songs in the past have been about me projecting my side of the story or my experience but I think Two Hearts is more self reflective, particularly towards the end. Like  Don’t Follow Me I’m Lost. It’s sort of me looking inwardly like why am I projecting these things?

Why am I like this?

Yeah (both laugh) as far as themes go I didn’t really think about it at the time but a lot of the songs are conversational, theres a lot of questions and answers but it’s never quite clear whose asking what and whoses answering what and hopefully that’s another thing that makes the songs easier to relate to because they feel like they could be either character if that makes sense?

It makes total sense, lots of good pop songs have narratives and characters.

Yeah excactly! It’s just as simple as I like songs that have call and response I’m quite into that, I don’t know why. There’s something haunting about them, there’s a song Summertime in Your Lounge and even though I do both backing and main vocals it makes it sound more whole I guess.

What makes the perfect indie pop song?
Pwoar- I think it’s the sutblities the hidden layers those are the bits that I love. It’s that little guitar hook or backing vocal you don’t hear till the fourth time through, it’s those things that you’re almost hearing subconsciously  and that brings you back for more. You know when you hear a song and you don’t know why you like it? It’s those hidden layers that you don’t hear until you’ve listened to it the fourth or fifth time. Just as a songwriter one of my favourite things to do is to sit there and work out the harmonies and the extra guitar bits.

I noticed having seen you perform, there was a confidence that surprised me, given that the media have been quick to label you a Sad Boy. Do you relate to that label at all?

I kind of expected it and I’m kind of used to it now. I let that get to me for a long time and it started effecting my performance. I think that confidence you saw is a recent thing for me and it’s because I realised I was letting what people were saying about me shape me. I was becoming the sad boy and I realised that’s not me. I love playing music more than anything, all sides to it but especially jumping onstage and putting on a show and I lost that for a while. I got stuck in my head and way too concerned about what people thought of me. But I think recently I’ve realised what I do with my face and body it’s an important part of the show. It’s not all about me playing as good as I can or as tight as I can.

It’s about the cohesion we were talking about earlier?
Yeah exactly, that’s totally right. It’s about the full package, that’s what I’ve been working on. It’s silly for me to talk about cohesion with press pics and videos and then not have that same balance when it comes to performing live.

I’m glad to hear that. When I first heard My Smile Is Extinct I was standing on the corner of Queen St and K Rd and I cracked up, it was so nice to see some of that humour and joy coming though in your performance.

(laughs) that’s awesome. The reality is I’m not a sadboy I’ve got it so good I’ve got a great life. I mean yeah I’ve had some intense relationships in the past that I’ve used my art to process and also almost got in the habit of only writing songs when I was low, but I think there’s more humour to it than a lot of people realise. I think that there are always going to be people who listen to it once and think “ugh he’s a sadboy” and I’ve accepted that, but I think more people are beginning to realise there’s more to it than that.

Labels are a weird thing
Yeah and I’ve got to be something I mean that’s how the media works right? You have to be something, you can’t just be a person making music. For me it was predictable I was going to be the Sadboy and at the end of the day it’s fine, I don’t really care I’m just going to keep making music. I’m confident now in my ability as a songwriter and I just have to ignore it otherwise it will affect my music and I don’t want it to change because of that.

I’ve got a question from a fan- Do you prefer Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith?
Oh definitely Elliott Smith. Although I was very into Jeff Buckley when I was a young man. Especially that song So Real. I was super into that song.

What’s your favourite Elliott Smith song?

Everything means nothing to me. I love how he plays guitar I love his voice. I love his production as well. I got into him as a teenager and have rediscovered him recently.

You were a teenager in Dunedin, that would have been a good place to grow up as a budding musician?
Yeah it was. For a long time I was quite removed from the music scene I lived out by the beach and I didn’t realise there were people my age actually playing gigs. But as soon as I found that out, I realised it was something I wanted to be a part of.  I think its like this in a lot of places in New Zealand, but no one wants to sound like their friends they want to all sound unique I just feel like there’s a lot of people doing cool creative stuff there and it’s inspiring.

Dunedin has made a real mark on New Zealand’s creative landscape. Some academics have linked Dunedin to a a New Zealand Gothic style because of the landscape and isolation there.
That makes sense. You don’t need to go far to find intense landscapes. The weather is quite intense a lot of the time too, it’s very cold. If you’ve got to spend so much time inside what else are you going to do? You might as well write some indie pop (both laugh).

To be honest I feel like most major cities in New Zealand have a sound they’re most noted for. Dunedin obviously has the Dunedin Sound, Wellington-well it’s sort of a bit of everything but probably the roots reggae thing, Hamilton has it’s hardcore/punk scene and I’m still figuring out Auckland.

Yeah there’s a lot of good stuff going on here and being created and it set the bar very high for me overseas and to be honest I didn’t see a lot of bands I thought could stand up to things that I see here. I think the quality is very high here- there seems to be an endless supply of good bands. It’s great.

You’ve had a whirlwind year. How do you process it all?

For me it’s having time to myself. I like having my own space. I don’t think theres any specific way other than time and space. But I also talk to my band a lot. Us four are the only four who have experienced what we’ve experienced, so just a conversation or a laugh with them makes it feel real.I’m just so distracted and wanting to move onto the next thing all the time.

Yeah I read that you find it almost cleansing.
I do. I like to keep moving that’s what keeps me sane. I have to keep writing and keep recording because if I sit around and think about the last thing I’ve done it would drive me completely bonkers probably.

I’d hate to bring down the tone of this chat by mentioning star signs, but are you a Sagittarius? Because I totally relate to that
(laughs) no I’m a classic sadboy scorpio.

Let’s talk about Hypercondria which made it onto the 100 Days Anti Trump
Yeah I felt it was an amazing project that would help a lot of people being affected in various negative ways by Trump and all his fucked up policies and it was something I wanted to be a part of. When they asked me to be involved I didn’t think I had anything but then I remembered Hypercondria which Steven and I thought wasn’t going to work on Two Hearts so I recorded it quickly one afternoon and gave it to them and they were happy with it.

What does the song mean to you?
I think I have a habit of personifying my anxiety a lot of the time. Like I make songs about people even though actually anxious about something completely different. Just because that’s what people want to hear about. They want to hear about people. I’m really glad that song made it out there in one form or another. I felt like there wasn’t that many songs about it either. Hypercondria is being scared of getting sick and dying but it’s something that’s always affected me and I haven’t been able to shake. Writing that song helped me process it a bit. Hopefully other people relate to it.

Is it going to be rereleased?
I’ll probably just leave it to lie there, we might do a live version at some point.

Speaking of live, you’re playing the Others Way Festival. How are New Zealand audiences different to those around the world?
I dunno-most of my oldest fans come from here, so I just feel that extra level of support they’ve been there from the very start which is super cool. Aside from that they’re quite similar you know that’s the strange thing about touring there aren’t that many differences. Our crowds have been filled with very supportive lovely people. I feel really lucky to have played so many shows and met so  many great people from all over the world. We book our accomodation before we go, but most of the time someone offers a place at their house or something. It’s cool to realise that isn’t just a New Zealand thing. It’s hard for me to comphrend that we’re making music and playing overseas and people are even showing up.

Well, you’re making good sincere songs
Oh thank you, that’s all I want. I put the same amount of effort into every song. I work hard. I do that because I want people to enjoy it and make people feel better. I think that’s what gets me the most about the sad boy label. Because with that comes these negative connotations that you make music to make people feel like shit. But I want people to feel better and happy, regardless of the song I want them to feel better at the end of the three minute long track.

Many people can get a sense of comfort out of sad songs
Yeah that makes sense! Maybe feeling less alone because there’s someone who is sad like you are sad at that point in time  maybe that’s a big part of why people enjoy my music. I hope so- maybe it makes them feel less alone or see a more humourous side to their sadness. Because often when I’m sad there’s a little part of me that’s like “It’s funny you’re sad because you’ve got it so fucking good.”

Who are you looking forward to seeing at Others Way Festival?
Well I was looking forward to seeing Bic Runga, but we’re clashing so that’s a bit shit. I love Mermaidens, they’re really good friends of ours. I don’t know the whole line up looks great actually.  I’m excited to see Street Chant as well.


Watch this 13th Floor interview with Kane Strang: