Interviewer: Max Olijnyk
Earlier today, I had a coffee with Roger Shepherd, the founder of Flying Nun Records, ahead of his talk at the School of Life in Melbourne this Friday.
He kicked off the label in 1981 while working at a record shop in Christchurch, and went on to release some fantastic music by The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, Chris Knox, to name a few. Part of the Flying Nun mystique has always been the fact its home was New Zealand, a world away from where ‘important’ stuff generally happens – and the label’s incredible output and impact is all the more magical because of it.
We mostly chatted about In Love With These Times – a book Shepherd’s written about running one of the most interesting and influential record labels to ever exist. We also talked about the weather, but I cut most of that out.
Why did you choose to write this book now?
I guess I’ve always been a big reader, so I kind of always thought there was a book in me. But the immediate impetus was a friend of mine put the idea out that he was keen to make a documentary about Flying Nun and it was going to be focused on my perspective. Some advice came back from Hollywood of all places, saying that if you were going to base it on one personality, you had to be very sure that person was interesting enough to carry a whole film. The thinking was I’m quiet and moderately shy, so I thought: well, I have to write the book to create the story.
So that will be what the documentary will sort of hang its coat on?
Yes, but as soon as I started writing it, I forgot about the documentary idea; I just wanted to write a good book that was true to myself and to the story of the label.
So I had the publishing deal and I probably spent a good 18 months staring out the window, wondering what exactly did happen in 1983?
Was it hard to dig all those memories up?
There was a big element of reconnecting with a lot of the music, albums I hadn’t necessarily listened to for 10 years, and listening to them again and hearing them differently. That was a really interesting process, and I sifted through the archive and made a box of notes without any order or system. It was almost a subliminal reconnection with stuff and ideas, and eventually I felt ready to write it.
There were some bits that I found really easy and a bit cathartic to write about, and other things that were quite hard to write about, but needed to be written about. I found it really interesting trying to describe the music. I’m not a trained musician; I can’t read music, but I wanted to find that way of writing and being able to describe a band in a couple of sentences – the essence of what they sound like.
You mention in the book having a subscription to the NME. That was quite amazing writing, even back when I was reading it in the early ’90s. That feeling of something being summed up so eloquently and carrying so much excitement. Was that something you were emulating in a way?
NME was good, the Melody Maker as well. Getting a subscription to it fed that desire to find out as quickly as possible, because I wasn’t willing to wait for the three months or whatever it took to come out in the newsagent.
I’m digressing a bit, but I was reading about Oasis a lot when I was at my peak NME period. I was such an Oasis fan and I’d never heard them; it was a good month or two before I could get their single. And when I heard it I was quite disappointed, because it sounded quite boring and sludgy to me, when I was ready for this electrifying experience.
There were probably some expectations built up there, too. But yeah, when we got to the point where we set up an importing company dealing with, you know, the Sub Pops and the 4ADs, which none of the major record labels were dealing with, I was adamant I was never going to ship anything – we had to fly it in. The key thing was to make it current. No one else would consider doing that, even though it might’ve only added a dollar or so to the final cost. But yes, I digress.
Back to the book – was there a feeling of relief when you finished it?
There was a sense of accomplishment, but I didn’t feel a sense of relief like I’d got that off my chest or anything like that. In many ways it made me more curious about some of the history associated with Flying Nun; I had more questions than answers. The whole idea of the Dunedin Sound – where does that actually come from? What is it? Is it actually a sound? That bit I rewrote and flip-flopped on four or five times right up until the final draft of the book. I figure there’s a bit of an opportunity to do some research there, to read what other people wrote about it. I’m not sure if they have the answer, either.
In a way, it’s almost more like an energy than an actual sound, isn’t it?
It’s a scene rather than a sound, but how did that scene come about? I don’t know.
Like you say in the book, you wanted to be more than an observer of that scene; you wanted to be part of it. And that’s what happens when something special’s going on; there’s all these different parts to it.
And that’s a key thing, too: that everything’s moving; there is a momentum that sucks people in.
It’s almost a funny exercise to look at it retrospectively, because the magic of it is so about being current. There was a roughness and a lack of polish to it as well, that felt exciting.
It was, and it was the blind optimism, and looking forward, and I guess not being too obsessed – just concentrating on the journey rather then getting stuck on any one thing.
Maybe that was part of your role as a conduit.
I always thought of myself as a facilitator. I liked to sell records but I mainly wanted to hear the new album. The idea of sustaining a record label as a business and somewhere down the road making some money... it was a distant consideration.
The main thing is to be involved in something cool and happening, and you got that. Did you feel that at the time?
Yeah, it felt special. There was just so much good music. It always felt like a real privilege to be witnessing that, being close to it.
There’s a line in the book I really liked: “I had an enthusiasm looking for something to be enthusiastic about.” That idea of latching onto something at that early stage of your life; it’s such a major part of everything that follows.
Yeah, and it could’ve been anything. Someone said to me, “Am I right in thinking that if you hadn’t been lucky enough to get a job in a record shop, the label wouldn’t have happened?” Yeah! It’s one of those silly steps. I would’ve probably become a geologist or...
Maybe you would’ve latched onto something else.
They were amazed that something could be as random as that, but so much of life is like that.
You probably would’ve been really interested in music, but working at the record shop meant you could see the steps you could take.
Yes, it helped me think I understood how it worked.
Do you think that the isolation of coming from New Zealand aided it in a way? There’s this fire in people from small places.
Yes, because my experience in London and looking at the music business there is everyone’s quite jaded and cynical. Everyone kind of knows what’s going to happen and what the road is, you know?
And you’re going to end up in the middle of everything eventually, but maybe there is something special about wanting that but being a long way away from it.
You create your own rules, individually or as a group. Like the scene in Christchurch; people just played music. Having an audience was always crucial, but then it builds itself in an idiosyncratic way. That’s a big part of what a scene is: it’s insular and self-generating, to a point. Influences seep in, but there’s a heat that’s cooking it all up.
And maybe you’re more conscious of the heat when you have to provide it all yourself, when that infrastructure isn’t there, or it’s coming from a long way away.
... Like a dim light in the distance.
Yeah, but then as Flying Nun grew, it drew people to it from all over the world.
Well, people responded to the music and it snowballed. I always knew I had to send records away to the NME or John Peel, and we sent a lot of records. Anyone that wrote expressing interest, we sent them records. So people started reviewing them, people started liking them, people started buying them, and gradually over a number of years, it just sort of grew. It was just people responding to the music. If the music was no good, then none of that would’ve happened.
How do you feel about the influence Flying Nun and the bands you worked with have on present day music? There’s been a bit of a movement of bands who are big fans of yours and you can hear that in their work.
It’s funny having someone like Wooden Shjips coming through town, and the encore being Snapper’s Buddy – you can see the whole band’s built on that, so it was nice to hear them play that one song. I guess it’s a rich seam. Graeme Downes from The Verlaines has a theory that The Clean kind of changed independent music everywhere with what they did musically. It just rippled out. That’s how I see the influence of Flying Nun-related music; there’s a bit of it everywhere, but it’s not necessarily that obvious.
What’s your involvement with the label now?
I’m a shareholder, one of two directors. It’s not too onerous; I do bits and bobs. We moved the office to Auckland because that is actually where the industry is, but I chose to remain here in Wellington.
Are you looking forward to your visit to Australia?
Very much. It’s been probably 25 years since I’ve been in Melbourne. I’m a bit worried about the weather – it’s going to be too hot. I’m not very good in the heat.
Event details: Roger Shepherd will appear at the School of Life in Melbourne Friday 17 February. Head here to book tickets.