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June 5th, 2013 ROBERT HAM | Music Stories
 

Darker Nights

Thirty years on, Kiwi cult legends the Bats are a ghost of themselves—and they’ve never sounded better.

music_the_bats_3931The Bats - Photo Credit: Minisnap
When New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records first came to the attention of the international music scene in the 1980s, it was hard to believe such a wealth of talent could exist on one tiny island nation, let alone one label. Seemingly every record it put out at the time scratched some heretofore-unrecognized itch in the souls of the world’s music obsessives, from psych rock to experimental noise to rugged post-punk. 

Of all the genres Flying Nun trucked in, the one with the vastest, most lasting influence was the so-called “Dunedin Sound.” Named after the hometown of many of its proponents, the style is as easily recognizable as the equally jangly sprouts born in Olympia, Wash., and Glasgow, Scotland, around the same period—glowing, ’60s-influenced guitar tones, unhurried beats, lyrical sincerity—and can still be heard today in the music of younger, critically lauded artists such as Kurt Vile and Real Estate. So timeless is the sound that its creators, too, continue to carry its torch—including one of New Zealand’s most beloved groups, the Bats.  


The quartet, formed over 30 years ago from the ashes of guitarist-vocalist Robert Scott’s then-defunct (and since resurrected) outfit the Clean, is something of an anomaly in the music world: Its lineup—Scott, bassist Paul Kean, guitarist Kaye Woodward and drummer Malcolm Grant—has remained the same, and its temperate pop sound has shifted only a hair’s breadth over the course of eight albums, seven EPs and a handful of singles. 

While the actual tone of the band’s songs may not have changed, the way it has recorded certainly has. The Bats have recently had to own up to the sonic quality—or lack thereof—of their earlier work, with the recent reissue of the band’s first EP, 1984’s By Night.

“The sound on those isn’t too good,” writes Scott via email. “It’s nice to have the older stuff available, but it sounds very different. But that’s where we were at the time, so that’s OK.” 

The Bats sound much clearer on their last album, 2011’s Free All the Monsters. Along with the clarity, a haunted quality has crept into the band’s music. Even Monsters’ punchiest material, such as “In the Subway” and “Spacejunk,” is imbued with ghostliness. It could have something to do with the band members looking back on nearly 60 years of life—or it could be that recording sessions were held in Seacliff Asylum, a former psychiatric hospital now being used as a stop for backpackers.


“The history of the asylum definitely seeped into the music,” writes Kean. “Some of the songs like the title track, written before we knew we were recording there, took on new meaning. We did a few late-night jams that took us to some weird places.” 

One other aspect of the Bats’ career that has shifted over the years is how their music has been received. The band has always done fairly well in its native New Zealand, and had a stretch in the early ’90s where college- and indie-radio stations in the U.S. kept its albums Silverbeet and Couchmaster in heavy rotation. But like most Flying Nun bands, the Bats have had to resign themselves to having “more of a cult following,” as Kean writes.

“We’re not doing too badly at home,” he continues, “and we gain a lot of respect from the media, but we never cut through to the mainstream. Translate that percentage of fans from [New Zealand’s] small population of 4.4 million to that of the U.S. or France and you can see a similarity of support.”

What is it, then, that has kept the Bats continuing as a group? 

“Enjoying the music we create has a lot to do with it,” Kean writes. “Bob continues to write great songs, and something special sparks up when we play together.” Scott echoes that sentiment: “We get on well and know each other pretty well, and being older and mature, we work things out. And we have a good laugh together. That always helps.” 


SEE IT: The Bats play Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., with Eat Skull, on Tuesday, June 11. 9 pm. $12. 21+. 

 
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