Friday, December 24, 2010

Bic and Kody interview

Photo: Sunday magazine/Fairfax

Last weekend, the Sunday Star Times 'Sunday' weekend magazine published a great story by Duncan Greive on Bic Runga and Kody Neilson collaborating on their new duo, Kody and Bic. Kody has produced Bic's new solo album, and now they're working on this new project - but Bic is unable to write any songs for it, as she's still under contract to Sony.

"The room is a mess. Kody Nielson and Bic Runga, respectively the most critically and commercially successful New Zealand artists of the last 15 years, have been putting in long hours. In a small, windowless room below Newmarket’s Nuffield Street, Nielson perches on an office chair that’s duct-taped to the floor, while Runga teeters precariously on an amplifier. The makeshift studio has been the pair’s workplace for months now, and they’ve made themselves at home. 

Initially, the visual cacophony is overwhelming. To your left a pair of vintage Hammond organs; straight ahead, past eight different effects pedals, lies a pared-down drum kit. In another corner is an eight-track recorder, and amps, bass guitars, microphones, keyboards and leads are strewn wherever they fall. This space, which began the year as the home of Sony Music’s archives, with Betamax tapes and promotional CDs lining the walls, has been entirely taken over by this oddest of musical pairings...."

Read the rest of it here

UPDATED have added rest of the interview below...

"...Despite Brooke Fraser overtly channeling Feist and Rick Rubin producing Neil Diamond, few could have predicted that these two would cross paths, let alone thrive to this extent. Runga is one of New Zealand music’s biggest stars – her three albums have averaged sales of over 100,000 copies each; she’s played sold-out tours with Dave Dobbyn and Tim Finn and had her music featured in smash films like American Pie. She’s collaborated with members of REM and participated in Neil Finn’s 7 Worlds Collide charity project alongside members of Wilco and Radiohead. She’s the epitome of our musical establishment.

Nielson is anything but. He’s the erstwhile singer of The Mint Chicks, an art-punk band that found a cult following and critical acclaim by fusing the aggression and energy of American independent music to melodic pop structures. But even within those notorious outsiders he was always the prickliest. His own brother, Mint Chicks guitarist Ruban, admits that “his unpredictable side has become the most predictable – I’m always more surprised when he does something normal”.

A brief sampling of some of Nielson’s more eccentric behaviour: kidnapping a journalist for music magazine Rip It Up in advance of their interview, open-mouth kissing his own brother in that magazine, failing to show up to a Mint Chicks gig, thus forcing the band to play without him while he watched from the audience in disguise. In the band’s final New Zealand show before an extended hiatus, Nielson took exception to their drummer starting a song before he was ready and destroyed much of the band’s equipment before having a fist fight with his brother backstage.

But here they are, sitting alongside one another, and it doesn’t seem outlandish at all. The pair has a striking physical resemblance – Runga’s ancestry is Chinese-Malay and Maori, while Nielson’s is European and Hawaiian.

They share skin tones, lean frames and jet black hair. More than that, their mannerisms match: they both have a fidgety inability to sit still and are a strange combination of being very single-minded yet not wanting to be in any way obstructive. This leads to some amusing back-and-forth when I arrive. Runga leaps from her seat to introduce herself before saying, “Wanna hear us play?” Nielson begs off, but he doesn’t want to dismiss Runga’s enthusiasm
out of hand – they circle the idea for a spell before coming to an agreement: talk first, play later.

This compromise, a tiny speck of a larger collaboration that grows by the day, is something of a new experience for each of them. Nielson’s band built a career on being inscrutable and following their instincts unerringly.

Runga has a legendary capacity to spend years obsessing alone over an album. Here they’re forced to loosen up and experiment beyond where they’d grown comfortable, and they’re both finding it tremendously liberating.

“Having a solo career, you really paint yourself into a corner,” says Runga. “I think even just being in – would you call yourself a punk band? – you start pigeon-holing yourself.”

Nielson nods a slightly reticent assent to the question about whether the Mint Chicks are or were a punk band, a process that will become familiar as the day wears on. The pair flits between answering questions and interrogating one another. Despite their having worked together for months now, there clearly remains a lot for them to learn about each other.

As much as they have found in common, the worlds they’ve inhabited up till now are very different. This point is made obvious from time to time, such as in the contrast between Runga’s glowing report of their time recording at California’s legendary Ocean Way studio (“We did a great session there recently – we needed it”) versus Nielson’s more cynical take on their time in the room where “Good Vibrations” and countless other classics were recorded.

“It was quite fun to have them on it,” he says, referring to the session musicians they worked with. “I don’t actually think it was essential, but it was good to get a different perspective, and have somewhere different to work.

But it was kind of more an old-school way of working, and it did seem more of a dying way of doing things.

“It was a weird atmosphere in there, really. There were all these pictures on the wall of all these legends working in there and studios full of people, but there was only this ghostly skeleton staff left. Seemed a little bit hollow.”

Despite these occasional differences, it’s clear that their partnership has a real strength to it. The process began after Runga had spent a profoundly depressing period of time in LA meeting professional songwriters, “where you meet at 11 o’clock and you’re supposed to have a song by one”. She figured there was so much talent back in New Zealand that perhaps there was a more natural method awaiting her here.

She contacted her publisher, Mushroom Music’s Paul McLaney (himself a talented writer) about approaching potential collaborators, and he assembled a long list of local songwriters. Right at the top were the Nielson brothers. “I think that, fundamentally, they strive for the same classicism within their writing,” McLaney explains. “The difference is in the manner of presentation.”

Towards the end of 2009 the Nielson brothers and Runga got together, resulting in “Tiny Little Piece of My Heart”, a girl-group homage that will appear on Runga’s forthcoming album, tentatively titled Everything is Beautiful and New. After that session the Mint Chicks toured and released the Bad Buzz EP, before that thrillingly chaotic final show.

When Nielson returned to New Zealand from the band’s base in Portland, Oregon, he had no real fixed aim. There was talk of reuniting with band-mate Michael Logie for a new project, or perhaps getting the charmingly named Pussy Glitch back together. But when Runga called to suggest he produce her next album, he couldn’t refuse.

The resulting album is less of a departure from her earlier work than you might expect. The songs still have the trademark melodicism of “Drive” and “Sway”, along with the melancholic air that’s never too far from her sound. Nielson’s production is sympathetic to the material, with huge tracts of space and very minimal arrangements making it perhaps her sparsest record yet.

It’s a significant work for both of them, but in some ways it was merely the entrée for what flowed from it. Having completed the album, neither seemed content to walk away. For Runga in particular – who split in 2009 from her longtime partner Darryl Ward and is now nearing the end of her contract with Sony Music – the experience had been revelatory.

“I’m just happy to have a collaborator,” she says, “because I can spend years on a record, and disappear into a vacuum with it. Sometimes having too much time is more a hindrance than anything else. It was great to find someone to make my own record with, but then do all this other stuff that I’ve always wanted to do. Because my music’s so controlled.”

The “other stuff” is a band called Kody & Bic, and to spend any time with the pair is to realise that its potential is what most excites them right now. “I’ve wanted to be in a band for years,” says Runga. While Nielson has been in a band for years it’s always felt like his big brother’s creation, a ship which, s lead singer, he was the focal point of, but never quite steering. This time, they’re building it from the ground up.

Their first scheduled show as Kody & Bic is the Big Day Out in January, at the behest of Runga’s brother-in-law and ex-manager Campbell Smith.

The chance for two very established artists to shuck off their cloaks and assume a new identity has clearly had a huge impact on them, but Runga in particular seems to have been electrified by the situation. “What I like about Kody is he’s in my ear a lot of the time to not care too much. Which is quite good. Because you’re a punk, you know?” she says to him, laughing. “And all my favourite artists were actually punks in spirit. Like John Lennon, Yoko Ono, people like that. They’re non-conformists.

“It’s too easy to conform. It’s too easy to react out of fear. It’s quite good to have someone, especially your producer, just telling you to be bolder and bolder.”

After an hour or so, Runga’s wish to play is granted. She positions herself behind the drum kit, with Nielson on keyboard, and they play the first of a pair of striking, heavily psychedelic pop songs that feature Runga’s voice filtered and delayed until it’s entirely unrecognisable. During both songs her eyes are locked on Nielson, who just stares intently at the ground, plucking out strange, gripping melodies on the keys, then a bass guitar. The songs are very, very good.

With the Big Day Out gig a month away they’ve committed themselves to spending the summer locked in this room together in preparation for the event. While many artists might baulk at the prospect, they appear to relish it.

A clue as to why emerges as they wander the grounds of Newmarket’s Highwic House for the photo shoot. Runga lays her head on Nielson’s shoulder, while he stretches his arm around her. It doesn’t feel remotely posed, more unconscious, and while Runga will only admit that she “totally fancies” Nielson, it’s abundantly clear that their partnership, which began with writing before evolving into production and a band, has taken on another, more personal dimension too.

After the shoot we retreat to a café. Runga sips a glass of water in her airy summer dress while, despite the humidity, Nielson’s rugged up in a heavy wool coat. But neither seems to be feeling anything but immense anticipation about where this partnership might lead.

The only barrier still in place is Runga’s contract with Sony, which prevents her from writing for Kody & Bic just now – though it’s not stopping her from being as tickled as a teenager that their first song, the chilling psychedelic nugget “Darkness All Around Us”, has just made Auckland student radio’s top 10.

Once Runga’s album is out and toured it seems likely the pair will throw themselves into Kody & Bic with abandon, relishing both the freedom to construct a new identity and the consuming nature of this partnership.

“It’s really rare to find a collaborator, I think. In a lifetime,” says Runga wistfully.

“It’s quite free,” adds Nielson, attempting to decode what it is they love about making music together. “It seems completely open to do whatever we want.”

- Sunday Magazine

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