Stairway to Sweden

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
Catching up with the Datsuns a decade after the British press proclaimed them rock ‘n’ roll’s saviours.

Total rock energy overload, in the best way. But also very tidy. Tidy tidy tidy rock ‘n’ roll band. One of the best—and last!—moshes I’ve had,” The Phoenix Foundation’s Luke Buda tells me about The Datsuns. “And let’s not forget Dolf’s howl which he wields much like mighty Zeus wields the lightning bolt, with Impunity and Disdain for Puny Mortals!”

You know the story about the Cambridge garage rockers. In 2002 they borrowed money from a friend and made a crack impression at Austin’s South by Southwest. Later that year, the British music press bigged ‘em up big time: NME’s front cover proclaimed the Datsuns as the best live band on the planet. However in June 2004, Outta Sight, Outta Mind—their John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin bassist) produced second album—got gang dissed. This brings to mind Hunter S. Thompson’s observation: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.  There’s also a negative side.”

From London, guitarist Christian Livingstone tells me he doesn’t agree with Hunter S: “It is not as bad as that. Thieves and pimps are attracted to ventures in which they can make a lot of money. Sadly, it is incredibly hard to make money in the music business these days. I would say that Hunter S Thompson’s quote would apply pretty accurately to the banking sector though.”

Sweden-based vocalist/guitarist Dolf De Borst, however, concurs: “Bang on. Haha.”

Though there’s not much money in music these days—“more of a hobby,” Auckland guitarist Phil Somervell says—music’s original charm still keeps Livingstone in the game: “I was keen on mime initially, but I was never going to impress any girls with my trapped in a box performance.”

I thank the boys for their great (in the genuine, classical sense) gig at Victoria University’s 2004 Orientation, and one at Oakura beach (with Shihad) in January 2007. “My pleasure,” Livingstone replies. Though he declines to reminisce about a favourite gig at home or overseas, the boisterous guitarist says he and the band still really enjoy performing. His pitch on the magic of a Datsuns live gig over downloading? “A big dose of awesome sensory overloading reality. Looking or listening to anything on a laptop pales in comparison to experiencing something for real in the flesh. Gig going tip: when at a gig, put the phone away and experience it for real.”

De Borst adds in the same vein: “A lot of music is best experienced live, the presence of the band, the showmanship. The feeling of a crowd participating in the event. The volume. It’s just as much a visual experience on a good night, we like to put on a show.”

Reviewing the Datsuns in 2004, NME snidely said calling a band great live was like telling a chick she’s got a great personality. “What does that even mean?” Livingstone ripostes. De Borst is sharper: “I’d rather hang out with people with great personalities. Wouldn’t you?”

Death Rattle Boogie was recorded at De Borst’s Gutterview studio in Sweden. “Sweden is a socialist utopia where public transport is a dream to behold and the government raises your children and keeps you healthy too. All you have to do is pay taxes. Their self serve candy is also great,” he enthuses about how Sweden inspired the album. “I suppose there are a lot more like minded bands living in Sweden so we could call in friends and colleagues to record with us, help with backing vocals and such. Having my own recording space is pretty amazing and gives a certain amount of freedom to try different things during the whole process.” Livingstone chimes in: “What’s not cool about Sweden? Seriously!”

Speaking of personalities, Nicke Andersson, best known as frontman for Swedish garage rock band The Hellacopters, co-produced the new album. “He’s super passionate about music in a real light hearted fun way, so to have that energy around us when we’re recording was really essential because you can get so self-involved in what you’re doing,” Somervell says. Livingstone adds Death Rattle Boogie develops The Datsuns’ sound. “Death Rattle Boogie is the sound of the Datsuns accepting who we are, embracing it and enjoying the result. As for my favourite song, too tricky to call. I wouldn’t want to hurt the other songs feelings by picking one out as a favourite song.”

Waikato press have responded favourably. “Here is a band who have—by their own words—rediscovered the ferocious energy they are famous for in their live shows and, in doing so, have produced what time will show is a classic. Nothing is held back from the opener ‘Gods Are Bored’, a stuttering boogie that explodes with trashing guitar riffs,” Hamilton News enthused.

Livingstone’s Death Rattle Fuzzbox is used voluptuously on Death Rattle Boogie. In his London lab he produces boutique and custom effects pedals under the moniker ‘Magnetic Effects’. “It adds a wall of hairy, sweaty fuzz. Every show needs a bit of dirty distortion and the Death Rattle Fuzzbox has more dirt than All Blacks shorts after a match.”

Led Zeppelin and Albert and Costello were formative inspirations. “Apparently I used to watch Albert and Costello films, and roll around the floor laughing. As for Led Zeppelin, well I picked up the guitar because of them.”

And pumped out tracks like ‘Harmonic Generator’, ‘MF From Hell’, and ‘In Love’. “Harmonic Generator was written in my Cambridge bedroom circa 1999. The song was written on a drum machine with a vocoder supplying the backing vocals. The title of the song was inspired by the Paul Crowther guitar pedal Prunes and Custard, which is subtittled Harmonic Generator Intermodulator. Thanks Paul.”

Despite living in London, Livingstone isn’t familiar with Little Britain, where the characters Lou and Andy memorably mock Reed and Warhol. “I have seen Little Britain a couple of times but am not overly familiar with the show. Little Britain used to be on TV when I literally lived on the road. There is a period of several years form the last decade where I missed all the movies and TV shows that were popular as I was too busy burning up the miles in a tour bus.”

De Borst points out there were colourful characters on the road. “We met this guy called NNNNN once. A Scandanavian guy living in the South Island in New Zealand. He stuck his finger in Christian’s nose about a minute after meeting him.”

For a schedule of The Datsuns’ imminent gigs—including Wellington, Auckland and France-wide—visit thedatsuns.com.
Filed under: ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music

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Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.