flying nun

It’s often said that isolation leads to innovative music. That’s certainly true for a country like New Zealand, 2,500 miles over the Tasman Sea away from its closest neighbor, Australia. The country is famous for producing a pioneering brand of guitar music that has influenced artists from Sonic Youth to Pavement, to the late Memphis punk legend Jay Reatard. Since the 1980s, the “Dunedin sound,” as it’s become known, has been used as a touchstone to define a group of bands with jangly guitars, lo-fi production, and a deadpan Kiwi approach to writing and recording music; it was really just a fancy name for a localized subculture related to punk rock. At the heart of the “Dunedin sound” were groups like The Clean, Sneaky Feelings, and The Chills,

Much of the fanfare centered around the workings of Flying Nun Records, an independent label founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd, who at the time was a relative novice with no prior experience in the business. Shepherd’s approach was fiercely DIY. In the early days, he maintained his job at a Christchurch record store (he eventually quit in 1986) and ran the label on the side. His philosophy was simple: if he liked it, he’d find a way to release it. The financials would be arranged later, sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse. It depends on who you talk to. But as the label’s popularity grew, record industry figures came knocking, and in 1990, with Flying Nun close to bankruptcy, Shepherd signed a deal to incorporate the label with Festival Records (later known as Festival Mushroom Records). A further transaction in 2006 between FMR and Warner Music Group effectively turned Flying Nun into a legacy label.

Today, that heritage is well documented. A film titled Heavenly Pop Hits – The Flying Nun Story premiered in 2002; last year, Shepherd released a book, In Love With These Times: My Life With Flying Nun Recordsand in 2013, New York record label Captured Tracks started reissuing records from the Flying Nun back catalog.

In 2009, Flying Nun was purchased from WMG by a consortium of New Zealand music professionals (including Shepherd), and in recent years has started signing and releasing music by contemporary artists such as Fazerdaze, The Courtneys, and Mermaidens. Those artists undoubtedly benefit from the past and present versions of the label. Many other New Zealand artists benefit, too, simply by sharing a home base. But the association by proxy hasn’t always been welcomed. As Flying Nun has been mythologized in New Zealand music folklore, many contemporary artists have come to view the label as having an overbearing presence.

Referencing Flying Nun has become somewhat of a tokenistic gesture, a way of pigeonholing every New Zealand guitar band without really saying anything unique about them.

No matter how you slice it, in a small market like New Zealand, a label with a history like Flying Nun’s is going to cast a long shadow. On one side you’ve got the label’s legacy, which helps to draw attention to music being made in the shaky isles, while on the other side, it’s easy for music fans to flick through the Flying Nun catalog but bypass the artists sitting right next to it.

Today, much like in the past, there’s plenty of independent record labels operating in the margins. Many have cemented their own histories amongst a dedicated community of fans, but few have found the type of global infamy that is bestowed on New Zealand’s most recognizable label.

Fishrider Records

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Ian Henderson started Fishrider Records in 2006 to release an album by The Dark Beaks. He says he had no intention of making it a permanent gig. “Enthusiastic feedback from customers, radio hosts, and reviewers around the world [and here in] Dunedin inspired me to continue,” he says. Early releases such as The Puddle’s No Love – No Hate and The Shakespeare Monkey resemble the famed “Dunedin sound” (the band has also released music with Flying Nun), but in recent years a swath of bands with new wave and post-punk tendencies have dominated the label’s roster.

“Today, there is even less of a ‘Dunedin sound’ or even a scene,” says Henderson. “Music and art have always overlapped here, and that overlap is where the interesting people and sounds are, and it’s always changing… I’ve always believed Fishrider releases the artists and albums no other label would release, and also that the label is more music arts and crafts than music industry.”

Henderson runs the label from his home in Dunedin, but partners with U.K.’s Occultation Recordings for European and U.K. distribution. It helps him save on the cost of shipping and allows him to run the label with “an art-before-commerce” approach. “The bands organize their own art and decide how they want to present themselves and their music. What I do is mostly project management and coordination, plus PR, administration, and bookkeeping. And lots of packaging and mailing,” he says.

Remaining partial to the creative process also allows him to enjoy music as a fan. “Everything released on Fishrider is something I really like and want to have in my own record collection and play,” he says. Henderson’s curation is central to the label’s success, and also helps the label maintain a certain aesthetic and sound. His love of tempered melodies and earnest storytelling define the first six years of Fishrider, which were dominated by The Puddle, Dark Beaks, and art-pop band Opposite Sex. Psychedelia started to become a theme with the first Shifting Sands record in 2012, and you can start to hear the influence of British shoegaze and American indie rock.

Melted Ice Cream

Christchurch label Melted Ice Cream is responsible for releasing some of New Zealand’s most defiant punk music. The label was started by Salad Boys guitarist/vocalist Joe Sampson in 2011 as a digital bootleg label, and later evolved into an original cassette label based out of his apartment. Brian Feary, who was living with Sampson when the label began, is now its custodian. Addressing the label’s origins, Feary recalls, “In the early days we were dubbing cassettes by hand on whatever tape recorders we could get our mitts on. We actually devised a method where we were playing all of the tracks into a four-track and recording both sides of a tape at once… In 2012 I managed to find a cassette duplicator being sold for $24 by a studio that was closing down. That was a watershed moment for the label—we could then dub a whole run of 50 tapes in about three hours!”

Feary highlights the release of a compilation called Sickest Smashes from Arson City, which features artists from the local Christchurch punk scene, as a pivotal moment in the label’s evolution. “It probably could be viewed as the initial launch of Melted Ice Cream as it is today,” he says. It included early singles by Salad Boys, as well music by dance-rockers The Dance Asthmatics and thrash punk band Transistors.

Like a lot of small independent record labels, Melted Ice Cream relies on the local music scene to keep the label upright. The label’s roster reflects this volunteer-run spirit. Feary says, “It’s a pretty casual thing, generally we know members of the bands or are even good friends with them, and of course we release music that we are involved with.” Feary is a member of X-Ray Charles and plays in The Dance Asthmatics alongside Sampson, who also plays in Salad Boys and T54. Both their fingerprints are scattered across the back catalog.

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trace / untrace

Julie Dunn cites Melted Ice Cream and Fishrider Records, as well as Auckland’s Prison Tapes and Australia’s Flightless Records, as the inspiration for her label, trace / untrace. Dunn and Richard Ley-Hamilton started the label in 2017 and have released cassettes by four of their favorite Dunedin bands: The Rothmans, Koizilla, asta rangu, and Bediquette.

The label is headquartered in Dunn’s kitchen, which is where her tape machine is located. “Tapes are such an incredible format,” she says. “I had a tape player in my car for years and some of my favorite albums are ones I’ve listened to way too many times while driving. I also really like the compressed sound that tape lends to music, which acts as a kind of lo-fi gloss for anything. Design-wise, I love making up J-cards and think you can be so creative with the artwork for a tape case.”

Dunn says before starting her own record label, she had no prior experience in the music business—“other than going to a lot of my friends’ shows and helping them as their roadie and driver”—but she has big plans. Dunn wants to use her position to promote more inclusivity in the Dunedin music scene, which for decades has been heavily dominated by male artists. “I’m really interested in exploring ways to remove barriers to making music, especially for women, non-binary, and young people, Another big aim for me is to start a platform for sharing knowledge on really solid DIY practices for musicians, like how to make good quality merch cheaply, how to host a successful DIY show,how to record inexpensively—anything that makes it easier for people to make music and get it out into the world.”

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The highlight of the trace / untrace catalog thus far is Asta Rangu’s excellent debut EP, PlasticineIt’s the work of label co-founder Ley-Hamilton, and is a fluid rock ‘n’ roll record full of tightly wound guitars and soaring vocal melodies. In the post-grunge era of the late ’90s it would have slotted in nicely beside some of the greats, but in a contemporary setting it still sounds fresh.

Lil’ Chief Records

Scott Mannion cites the lack of New Zealand record labels interested in pop music as one of the reasons for his decision to start Lil’ Chief Records with Jonathan Bree in 2002. While working together at a record store, the pair noticed a shift in the musical landscape—particularly in Auckland—towards a more aggressive style of rock music that emerged during what could be described as the post-Flying Nun era. “If Flying Nun had been around to sign The Brunettes and The Tokey Tones in the early days, we probably wouldn’t have started Lil’ Chief,” Mannion says. But given the circumstances, starting a label to release their own bands’ brand of pure-of-heart pop music made the most logical sense.

The first two releases on Lil’ Chief were of Bree’s band The Brunettes, a duo characterized by Bree and Heather Mansfield’s deadpan romanticism. Their love of ‘60s pop was endearing to fans, who saw them as a bedroom version of bands like The Beach Boys or Shangri-Las. The success of the first two Brunettes records was great for business. It cemented them as Lil’ Chief’s flagship band and helped to create the framework for a functioning, albeit very DIY, record label.

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Those early releases proved the need for a DIY pop-friendly label to exist, and the Lil’ Chief roster expanded to include The Reduction Agents, Voom, and The Ruby Suns, who along with The Brunettes went on to sign with U.S. label Sub Pop.

thanks Bandcamp –Nick Fulton

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