Sneaky Feelings: The 13th Floor Interview

Those Feelings are back again.  After what seems like an eternity.  The positively George St. Boys are back with a new album, finally, and the promise of a tour.  Tim Gruar talks to founding member Matthew Bannister.

Here’s a memory many of us still have.  It’s early 1980’s, in a cold damp flat, in the deep winter, in the Deep South.  You and your mates are skulling Ward’s Canterbury Draft and bouncing around the living room to strummy, jangling guitars influenced by the Byrds and psychedelia which is blasting out of a tiny set on the kitchen bench.  The tunes are courtesy of Radio One.  Back at the studio radio station founders, students Graham Cockcroft and David Pine are talking up the latest platter by Pine’s band Sneaky Feelings.  The air in the flat is laden with the reek of Mary Jane and mildew but the music’s soothing and groovy.  You have a duvet and a 1 bar heater.  All is right in the world.

There’s no doubt that Sneaky Feelings (named after an Elvis Costello song) are one of the original Flying Nun Bands.  They were one of the first to record on Chris Knox’s four track and laid down the tracks that made up one side of the infamous Dunedin Double (1982), alongside The Verlaines, The Chills and The Stones.  Two of those bands went on to become legendary icons.  The Stones pretty much dissolved not long after.  Sneaky Feelings, made three albums, toured Europe, split up in 1989 and haven’t played publically in their classic line-up since 1995.  Nearly everyone from that era has a copy of the compilation Positively George St. (1999), which features the infinitely catchy Husband House, about a home for unmarried women.

In some ways Sneaky Feelings were ahead of their time, and their equipment, being drawn to a wider variety of styles than the rest of the Flying Nun Stable,  Chris Knox famously criticised the band’s directions and their propensity to experiment in the studio, whilst at the same time not being afraid to write slightly more commercial sounds.  How would he feel about the band’s new material?  “Chris would probably agree,” Bannister reckon’s, “But then his very alternative stuff now sells bread and such.  A good song is a good song, isn’t it?”

Yes, you heard.  the Sneaky’s are back, having recently re-united to release a new, all-original CD Progress Junction.  “We actually got together for a gig 10 year’s ago,” Bannister reminds me, “We did a gig in 2006 in Dunedin, but David (Pine) wasn’t available.”

Pine had been overseas, pursuing his career as High Commisioner in Malaysia.  When he returned he took up consultancy work.  He’d had a few dalliances with music over the years including a band called Death Ray Café.  But when he settled back in Christchurch he was keen to take up music again and to make an album.   So he hooked up with another founding member of the original band John Kelcher, who’d built his own home studio and together they started working on some material.

“I’ve been busy, too.” Bannister says, “I’m now in Hamilton, at Weltec teaching Media.  I had a number of bands including the Dribbling Darts of Love (and he was in The Mutton Birds for a while).  I had one called the Weather.  There was The Changing Same and recently I did One Man Bannister.  I released an album last year called Evolver, a reworking of the Beatles’ famous disc.”

Elsewhere, drummer Martin Durrant joined the Chill’s Caroline Esther in Let’s Planet and later the Dunstan Rangers and then John in the South Tonight, a Christchurch band.

And now a lot of time has passed, and David’s back.  Initially it was just two guys mucking around in a home studio.  But like all good things, Bannister says, the lure of playing again was appealing.  “We we always fairly democratic, so this time we all contributed three songs each to the project.  I had plenty.  David had a few, so did John.  Martin writes great material but maybe at a slower pace – just a few over the years.  More like quality than quantity.  In the past David and I did most of the writing There’s more Martin and John.”

How much has the classic Sneaky Feelings sound changed?  Their 60’s jangly guitars, thoughtful words, memorable tunes like Throwing Stones, Not To Take Sides, Strangers Again, Walk to the Square?  There might be a more equal split of songwriting now.  David’s learned a few more chords. It’s still basically the same though, Bannister says.

Progress Junction was mainly recorded in Christchurch over the last two years.  Pine and Kelcher mixed most of the tracks but Bannister mixed his own contributions in Hamilton with Jason Long at Wintec.

The album starts with a ‘Haere Mai” from a patronising British voice dubbed from a vintage radio recording followed by an invitation from the owner of a junk shop (Do You Like That Style).  The title track, Bannister says, was Kelcher’s song.  It refers to a place where he grew up near a West Coast gold mine.  The cover photo feature four hard living local miner-types, circa 1940’s, staring defiantly at the camera.  “The song is about the decaying environment.  It’s kind of relevant right now.  It’s even an election thing again.

Actually the album’s full of common themes – lots of things about living in New Zealand, then and now – earthquakes, floods, retirement homes.”.  Better still, there’s a few classic Kiwi soundbites from radio and film archives, courtesy of Kelcher’s connections at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, to add a bit of atmosphere.  The material varies from decisions about retirement villages (Castle of Dreams), warmer climates (Summer Song) to unnecessary entanglements (Other People’s Lives) and a bit of a plea for academics to stay true to their calling (Don’t Come Down).

Ok, not the usual rock’n’roll subjects.  But then Sneaky Feelings never were that kind of band.  They’re all the new preoccupations of middle age life.  Going with the territory is the many references to resurgence of nostalgia for the early 1980’s, with alternative music and bands being discovered again.  “It’s great that these bands are finding new audiences.  Everyone’s reforming, so we won’t feel too out of place, I guess.”

Luckily the Sneakies are starting slow playing a local gig at Nivara in Hamilton (30 August) before hitting Galatos (September 1) as part of the Flying Nun festival The Other’s Way, and hopes to do more gigs before end of year.  Helping them out will be Nick Braae, known for his PH.D. On Queen, who’s playing some keyboards live to fill out the sound.

The CD Is expected out on 1 September via Flying Nun.