You can’t kill them

Pub date October 15, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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They’re on the fringe, and they don’t plan to leave it. Though mostly overlooked in their home country of New Zealand during the last two decades, the free-rockers in the Dead C will be the first to tell you that they’re not terribly bothered.

"We are not seen as plausible cultural ambassadors," stated guitarist Bruce Russell by e-mail from his home Down Under, citing the failure of the "laughable New Zealand media" to cover what’s artistically adventurous as one of the reasons his three-piece rarely can make it abroad to play shows. One would hope that Russell, Michael Morley, and Robbie Yeats would be more seriously considered for Kiwi government arts grants: indie rockers of yesteryear and the narcoleptic noisemongers of today repeatedly cite the Dead C as an influence on what they do. Just look who’s opening for them on their upcoming US gigs: Thurston Moore (who hosted them at All Tomorrow’s Parties’ "Nightmare Before Christmas" in England two years ago), Blues Control, Wolf Eyes, Six Organs of Admittance — all serious contenders on the experimental circuit, and all projects that garnered something, aesthetic or emotional, from the Dead C’s history of desperate clatter.

The Dead C got its start in Dunedin — members are located in Port Chalmers and Lyttelton today, about 225 miles apart — when the self-designated "AMM of Punk Rock" released its 1988 full-length debut, DR503, on Flying Nun, the infamous home to pop bands like the Clean, the Chills, Tall Dwarfs, and the Verlaines, for whom Yeats once drummed. A pop group the Dead C are not, but for an ensemble so ardently free-form and unmarketable, they’ve done nicely.

"The irony is, we’ve done very well in commercial terms by being ‘uncommercial,’" Russell explained. "I don’t know many of our contemporaries in New Zealand who are in better career positions than us. We make money. We can make any kind of record we like."

Much of their international clout was forged in their ’90s relationship with the Siltbreeze label, run and recently revived by Tom Lax of Philadelphia, with whom they released some of their most acclaimed discs, including 1992’s Harsh ’70s Reality, 1995’s White House, and 1997’s Tusk. This period saw them create what many consider to be their most vital material, flirting with darkly catchy riffs while always doggedly blazing space for noisy, alien buzz and scrape. Secret Earth is their brand new release, shortly following last year’s Future Artists (both Ba Da Bing) and recorded over two days, six months apart. Morley’s eerie exhale oversees a stupor-inducing slow grind that renders track titles a useless roadmap for proceedings: after a few minutes with the Dead C, one won’t notice such trifling details as the stops, starts, and riffs anymore. They are, after all, masters of mood. Morley and Russell’s guitars-at-odds and Yeats’ distantly mic’d drums consistently scare up an unsettling, deconstructed blues-groove that makes clear the precedent for Sebadoh’s stoned angst cassettes.

Regardless of influence, the upcoming US dates mark only their third outing to the States since getting together — damn! What do they do on the rare occasion they’re on a stage? "We approach live shows quietly, without undue fuss, so we can take ’em by surprise and wring their necks before they can fight back," Russell wrote, pointing out that there’s nothing static about a Dead C track — other than that staticky sound.

Any fan with the whoops and feedback screeches of "Driver U.F.O." committed to memory will hear something that sounds rather otherwise if that song shows up in the set. "We are ‘fully improvised,’ though every now and then we’ll attempt an item from our back catalog," Russell continued. "But we never, ever practice them."

This back catalog is becoming more available thanks to Ba Da Bing, their US label for the past few years, which will be reissuing DR503 and 1989’s Eusa Kills (Flying Nun) on vinyl. The band is, according to Russell, also hoping to reissue its pre-1990 work next year (working title: Complete ’80s Reality). Immediately available, however, is the tour-only 12-inch, which includes recent live recordings, and gives an added incentive to check ’em out this week.

Why not? It’s hard not to be charmed by their passive-aggressive, cavalier mode of operation. "We just do what we do and dare people to ignore it," Russell offered. "Which they duly do, and we could not care less."


With Six Organs of Admittance

Thurs/16, 8 p.m., $20

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(415) 885-0750