Mat Anderson and John Bollen of two-piece Dunedin heavy band TRIUMPHS on making music, channeling Sir Edmund Hillary, and what they listen to on the road.
To those in the know, Dunedin’s long-dormant Monkey Killer Records has quietly been the source of not just some of Dunedin’s loudest guitar bands—Mountaineater, Operation Rolling Thunder, and Idiot Prayer, as well as the jauntier Onanon—but also the best. So the announcement of their revival for a new band—TRIUMPHS—came with a reasonable expectation that their debut album, Beekeeper/Bastardknocker, would be good.
Expectations were foiled: it’s great. Out of nowhere, this Dunedin instrumental guitar/drums duo demonstrated an effortless mastery of the genre alternately known as post-metal, psychedelic, or instrumental post-rock. Let’s just call it heavy guitar music. If you’ve ever heard Pelican, Russian Circles, or Red Sparowes, you’ll know the ballpark: moments of grace and beauty ebbing with the inevitability of the sea into monstrously heavy riffs, shifting with precision into something more contemplative only to dive deeper into a noisy sludge. It’s not hard-edged prog-core; rather, it resonates with the assured but relaxed sound of musicians for whom playing together comes naturally as breathing. Meanwhile, the artwork and titles offer up a deeper mythology—a series of songs dedicated to Sir Edmund Hillary, with ‘Everest was the First Pyramid’ setting the tone for a journey into myth, legend, conspiracy theory, and—of course—triumph.
I caught up with TRIUMPHS over e-mail in the run-up to their upcoming North Island tour.
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DOUG DILLAMAN: To steal a question from my colleague Brannavan: why music?
JOHN BOLLEN: I’ve been playing music since preschool, when puberty hit the electric guitar seemed to have more appeal and the rest is history. Loud guitar music has empowered weird nerds in high school for the last 60 years, which is definitely the story for me.
MAT ANDERSON: I kind of fell into playing the drums during high school, would have been about 12. Everyone in music class had to play something, may as well hit things. My parents fostered that, despite the atrocious volume that learning the drums entailed. As far as why I keep playing, because it’s fun and helps me recover after the work week.
DD: What songs did you first learn when you learned how to play your instruments?
JB: I started playing piano, so I’d played classic and boring learner stuff for years before picking up guitar. I think the first song I played on guitar was ‘Seven Nation Army’ or ‘Heart Shaped Box’. It could have been worse!
MA: When I was in primary school, I was learning the chanter (in prep for the bagpipes), so probably ‘Scotland the Brave’ or something like that. But the first song on the drums was ‘Seven Nation Army’, in the same Music class as John but not the same group.
DD: How did you meet, and how quickly after that did you start playing music?
JB: Mat and I met at high school, and started playing in music class pretty soon after. I think we decided to start a band in the back of a fifth form English class actually.
MA: Yeah, to add to John, we teamed up for a song or two for Group performances in NCEA Level 1. Specifically, ‘Fade to Black’ by Metallica!
DD: As a musician, I’m always curious how other bands “do it.” What’s your practice regimen? Where do you practice? Do you write songs together by jamming, or write outside the space individually, or something in the middle?
JB: We aim to practice once or twice a week, and we’ve got a jam room in town that we leave all our stuff at. Because we’ve been playing together for so long we’ve tried it all, at the moment we’re interested in writing music by jamming and then distilling it down for the recording process—which is essentially how the album was produced. TRIUMPHS has been based around improvisation much more than our previous projects.
MA: In all honesty, because our gear is located at a storage space rather than readily available at home, most of my practice is band practice rather than any individually focused stuff. But I’d love to have an easier time practicing at home etc. As John said though, TRIUMPHS definitely uses a jam style to write songs, with some harsh culling by us to cut them down from all being 10 minute monsters.
DD: Do you feel more at home onstage or in the studio?
JB: This is a hard question! We definitely have a weird stage presence, so you might be fooled into thinking that the studio is a good place for us to hide away, but I’m personally more ok with the live scenario at the moment.
MA: I suppose straight stage vs. studio would definitely be stage. Even in the studio we try to replicate that live sound, hopefully channel some of that intensity. But that could also be because we have only really been in the studio 2-3 times in our various different projects. With any luck, we’ll have more opportunities and get more comfortable in the studio though.
DD: What is life as Triumphs like? That is to say: do you hang out outside of the practice room? Watch the same movies? Go to the same bars?
JB: We definitely hang out, we’re still friends with the same friend group from school so that helps. We even took a bunch of them up to Christchurch with us as ‘honorary road dogs’. Being in Triumphs definitely involves being really silly most of the time.
MA: Definitely, John and I are lads’ lads, road dogs through and through. Hardest part is finding enough time to socialise outside of band, working full time, being an adult etc. I mean, John was one of the Groomsmen at my wedding, where we played a cover of ‘The Bit’ by the Melvins. As you do…
DD: At what point did the Hillary concept enter into the songs that became Beekeeper/Bastardknocker? In other words, did you write to the concept? And is a mountain-climbing concept record an obscure tribute to fellow Dunedin practitioners of heavy music Mountaineater? (I’m stretching, aren’t I?)
JB: I definitely love Mountaineater, but they didn’t really factor into the concept sadly! I floated the idea to Mat after I’d spent the day putting up posters for that Sir Ed doco that came out in 2014; I was working for Phantom Billstickers at the time. I thought it’d be a funny contrast with heavy music, and somehow we followed through! We thought the only way to do the idea justice was to do zero research and fill in the blanks with conspiracy theories and weird stuff—and somehow we actually got something out there with the help of David at Monkey Killer records!
MA: Yeah, John is king of thinking up bonkers ideas and bringing them along to our space. The music was mostly finished before we’d ironed the concept out, but it was quite organic. So, we’d listen to songs and try to think of a story that they told to fit into that concept. Like, the track ‘Bastardknocker’ was always going to be some sort of epic reference to that line of Sir Ed’s once we’d thought of the concept.
DD: I’m writing this just before your first gig in Christchurch. What’s your road music when travelling? And what records or bands are deep in your musical DNA that haven’t been name-dropped by reviewers yet as influences? (I can’t help but hear ‘Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More’ by Mudhoney tucked away on ‘Everest Was The First Pyramid’.)
JB: Had to look that song up embarrassingly—sort of missed out on Mudhoney, eh. I definitely see what you mean, and I’m definitely a fan of their contemporaries, e.g. Soundgarden, Melvins, Butthole Surfers, Faith No More et al. My road music (and what we definitely listened to on the road this weekend) is Queens of the Stone Age and Kyuss (especially because of the road trip we took when we were 16 to see QOTSA in Christchurch). In terms of influences on music that I don’t feel gets the nod it deserves: The Fucking Champs, definitely my favourite instrumental band and a big influence on my playing over the years, although you might not hear it.
MA: Yeah, QOTSA and Kyuss are great bands for the road. Think we had some Truckfighters as well this time round. When I get a bit tired doing the driving, I’m a big fan of the Hotline Miami game soundtracks too. In fact, I can look at my phone and see our recently played: we have some Doomriders, O’Brother, and Royal Thunder as well. All good stuff! As far as our musical DNA, probably a lot of Russian Circles and Pelican. Huge instrumental influences for us. We’re pretty into Neurosis as well.