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A Secret Less Well-Kept: The L.e.d.s At The Dux, Plus An Interview

by Dr Creon Upton

Contributors to this site seem to be having some kind of public love affair with the L.e.d.s, so I thought it would behove me to contribute to the collective embrace. David Haywood made the first move, eulogising here over the band's first album, We are the L.e.d.s, and then Russell Brown snuck in a plug for them during this interview, describing them as "the summer's best-kept musical secret, the L.e.d.s." That soundbite now appears at the beginning of the band's forthcoming album, tentatively titled, yes, We are Still the L.e.d.s.

Now, maybe Public Address writers are a bunch of old crusties (y'know, just hypothetically), but the kids bopping along to the L.e.d.s' magic at the Dux recently were barely out of high school. Surely such young hipsters can be regarded as reliable arbiters of musical cool, even if Haywood and Brown are -- let's be brutally honest -- more likely to perform the inverse function.

I'm sure the youthful Dux audience was unimpressed by, if they noticed at all, Brown's pre-recorded line opening the gig, and they were no doubt equally nonplussed by the ever-laconic Blair Parkes's contradictory greeting: "Hi, we're The Fall." In fact, despite the band's getting a fair amount of airplay on RDU, I'd guess this audience barely knew what they were in for at all.

But then the music started.

'Infectious' has got to be the most over-used word in writing on pop music, but seriously folks, this stuff is just made to get you moving. It's uncanny.

If you're familiar with the Dux, and with the essential Reuben-Thorne-icity of all things Christchurch, you'll know that the mandatory stance at this venue is old-school leather-jacket posing -- statue-like, preferably against the bar, holding grimly to that protective pairing for the critically uncertain: a beer and a look of studied seriousness.

So it was a real revelation to see, firstly, the undergraduate contingent dancing through the entire set; and then, even more astonishing, the hard-core punters at least twitching a shoulder or two. This band is so undeniably cool, and they are so clearly having such a good time, that it's impossible for even the most hardened dickhead to sneer.

We are the L.e.d.s.

Who are the L.e.d.s? What do they want? And what are they going to do now that they've got our attention?

In a nutshell, they are Blair Parkes, Marcus Thomas, Helen Greenfield and Dan Batkin-Smith.

And they're creators of funky, poppy, synthy beats, as well as catchy, unpretentious, grunty pop, and witty, clever, cruisey tunes. To prove my solid grounding on New Zealand soil, I'd say their music has more than just snap, crackle and pop; it has that X-factor; like Andre Adams on an unrolled green-top, it makes things happen; it's a high-performance, fuel-injected, mallow-puffing musical manifesto.

And what they're going to do is make more of it. Rock on.

The band really began life as a duo: Thomas and Parkes, who both come from a background of jangly guitar-pop. This was Thomas:Parkes, with Marcus Thomas on bass, voice and percussion duties, while Blair Parkes controlled the synth, vocals and guitar. Finding that this was not quite enough for what they wanted to achieve, they invited the lusciously-voiced Greenfield to join them. She now sings, plays cello and does her share of synth work. Batkin-Smith on electronic drums is the latest addition to the band. Parkes, Greenfield and Batkin-Smith live in or around Christchurch, while Thomas lives in Wellington, meaning rehearsals are more conceptual than actual affairs, while the composition process owes a lot to the efficiency of NZ Post -- still living in the Cretaceous period of dial-up, Parkes explained to me, snail-mail remains his preferred method of sharing material.

I've been following Blair's music since the early nineties, when he was part of Christchurch band Creeley, and he's always written great pop tunes. But this recent move away from guitars, with increasing emphasis on computers, synths and pre-recorded backing tracks for the live shows, has been a major watershed for him. He is thriving on a new kind of creativity that is all about the production process, collaborative composition and testing the possibilities of electronic media within a musical aesthetic that successfully combines the kinds of sounds and attitudes we'd associate with a less drum-heavy New Order, a more relaxed and approachable Kraftwerk, Gary Newman with a healthy dose of valium, all inflected with a DIY Flying-Nunishness that's quite happy about not being high art.

And, it would seem, everyone just loves it.

For God's sake, those children at the Dux yelled for an encore. At the Dux. The band was so taken aback they had to admit apologetically that they'd used all their backing tracks and it'd have to be a repeat. No worries. They swung into 'What I See,' a definite hit-pick from the forthcoming album, and it got us all back on our feet, savouring this moment of unselfconscious good-times.

So I made a trip out to New Brighton to chat with Parkes and find out what he and the band think they're doing. He ushered me out of a perfectly warm lounge, into a freezing studio-shed, sat me on the floor, and thoroughly impressed me with his total inability to articulate what he's doing with his music.

Nonetheless, among the ramblings of a man who clearly thinks far too much about everything, there were some real gems of insight and passion.

I started out asking him about the composition process in this band that is only occasionally in the same room, let alone city:

"Well, realistically I'm writing the same kind of songs I've been writing for 25 years.... I start a rough song, with melody, rhythm, voice; then I send it to Marcus to do whatever he wants to do. Then Helen comes along and does some bits; then I edit, arrange, mix etc. I try to leave a song open enough for the others to approach it and add their take on it.... You're trying to get to the essence of the idea."

This seems like a big thing for Parkes, a certain tension between the idea of a song and the freedom of the song itself:

"The aesthetic of the music is really important; it's like picking your palette of sound without letting that dictate your creative path too much. Having an aesthetic idea is really interesting. You don't want to be trying to do what you're wanting to do; it's like automatic playing within a defined area, you set parameters but try not to dictate what you do.... You might write five similar songs, but there'll be one that you can't have written without the other five.... It's a fuck of a lot of grunt work, so there's a lot of unpleasant work to do to achieve your goal."

I suspect that the L.e.d.s' lyrics are integral to the aura of cool that surrounds their songs. Parkes is one of those writers whose ear is ever-attuned to the nuances of colloquial conversation, and his songs are like collections of phrases that are arbitrarily yet brilliantly pieced together, signifying without meaning, evoking without telling. I asked him about this:

"Lyrically, there are quite a few things that I try not to do. Narrative stuff is what I try not to do, or relationship stuff."

I moved the conversation on to the shift away from guitars and the embracing of synths. I'd been wanting to ask Parkes about this for a while, because it'd come as such a shock to me originally, and because it seemed to me such an outrageous success. The response was candid:

"If you play guitar music for 19 or 20 years, there wasn't much new for me personally. I ended up writing so many songs, I was making music that I wouldn't buy and wouldn't go out to see.... It was getting away from having a rhythm guitar in a song, that was the key thing, because I was repeating myself -- ultimately I was pretty bored by it. Marcus and I tried to set about changing it....We'd been using computers for a couple of years, and realizing some of the things we could do....You don't have to have it terribly worked out beforehand, the recording is part of the compositional process, but the editing is also.... I've got a 48 track studio on my laptop, which is just cool. It's about spontaneity of recording; I can sing straight into the laptop.... Like I might be running [baby son] Nico's bath and I get an idea -- I can just go out to the shed, record it, and then go back to the bath. Yeah, it suits my lifestyle."

Making this kind of music has completely altered the approach to playing live for someone who cut his teeth on the typical guitars and drums bash-it-out technique. The band now plays live with two synths, a bass guitar, Batkin-Smith's electronic drums and the indispensable pre-recorded backing tracks. This latter, particularly, struck me as a major change in direction, and I wanted to know Parkes's take on it:

"When the band was just Marcus and I it was a way of making the recorded sound live. There are definitely pluses and minuses: technically it's more difficult than just playing guitar -- you need to be able to actually hear what you're doing. It's a more disciplined way of playing.... We just made it up as we went along. We didn't really know how we would do it, just bumbled a process as we worked out how to sound okay live."

And why does he think the band is working so well? Why do the kids like it? What are they doing right?

"I've got no idea why the kids like it. It's pop music, we're trying to make songs people like.... We're pretty pleased with it. [Laughs] I'm a New Zealander and don't admit to things being good. I guess it works because we've thought about what we're trying to do.... It's also about having the right people. Bands are totally about that. Marcus is amazingly good. Helen is great. And Dan's a top guy: we wanted to get a drummer. It's an aural and a visual thing. Drummers add a lot to the visual aspect of the group and add heaps to the dynamic aspect of the group."

Finally, I wanted to ask about the band's branding, the distinctive candy-like design that appears on their CD cover, on badges, on cushions, and on the t-shirts they were all wearing at the Dux. Is this a major marketing exercise, or just a laugh? Apparently, it's a bit of both:

"Marcus does the art. It's about having a strong visual identity -- thinking about what things look like ties in with how they sound. Yeah, it's about having a brand, a strong sense of what we're doing and making people want to hear what we're doing, making the art match the music. And wearing the t-shirts on stage is fun."

And fun, friends and neighbours, is what this band is all about.


In celebration of the Public Address/L.e.d.s love-fest, the L.e.d.s have graciously allowed us to debut 'Wheel', a song from their forthcoming album.

You can listen to this track by clicking on the 'Play the audio for this post' link at the top of this page or the 'Audio' button at the bottom of this page.

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