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BLUE BELL AND DEAD FLOWERS BLOOM AGAIN

Dead Flowers were once considered a hard rock band. But now with two members gone and a stripped back four-piece, they chart their way through the realms of guitar pop space. In an interview with singer Bryan Bell, ANNE-MARIE DE BRUIN attempts to find just what makes Bell the songwriter tick. In the process she discovers just how his band created the classic slices of Kiwi pop that grace their latest album, within the climate of a changing music industry.
 

Bryan Bell (foreground) and the other Dead Flowers in his garden.
Bryan Bellis late for his interview at BMGís Auckland headquarters. When he finally breezes in some fifteen minutes later, we are led through a maze of corridors to the office where the interview will take place.

Sitting himself down behind the big desk, today Bell is dressed in black from head to toe, save for the grey sunglasses perched atop his hat. Black clothes on musicians usually conjure up images of dark music played by shoe-gazing rockers. Today, however, Bell is here to talk about the upbeat guitar pop styling on his bandís self titled third album, Dead Flowers.

NEW DIRECTION FOR BLUE-EYED BOY

"People probably perceived us as more of a hard rock band, which was not something I really wanted to do so much as guitar pop."

The most striking thing you notice about the young singer seems to be his blue eyes. These striking blue eyes light up when you get him talking about the new direction his band is taking. He reckons Dead Flowers were pop all along- it just took a bit of time to work out. "People probably perceived us as more of a sort of hard rock band, which was not something I really wanted to do so much as guitar pop. And because of that it was a sort of natural progression that we ended up that way."

This progression was something that began with the bandís formation in the early nineties. Their repertoire then was mostly hard rock, though a few pop songs such as their early hit Plastic did surface. Bell elaborates on the bandís early history:
"The band didnít form till I was 21 or 20. I was in bands before but they tended to pan out. Then I was doing the varsity thing and I didnít really consider it a viable or serious option until I went about forming the Dead Flowers with the first record deal. I saw it as more of a hobby thing up and till then."

Hobby or otherwise, the band have always been praised for their songs and this is something that has carried through from their first albums, Skin of a Stone and Sweetfish. Says Bell: "I think songwriting is a craft that you get better at because you learn things all the time and I think my songwriting has improved since the last few albums."

PRUNING TIME

"I felt more responsibility to write a wicked album"

While Bellís songwriting has evolved greatly, the departure of two original band members has also had an effect on the group, with guitarist Riqi Hadfield and bass player David James making their exits. It is Hadfieldís departure that would seem to have had the most impact on the way Bell crafts his songs. "Because one of the major songwriters had left I just sort of felt more responsibility to write a wicked album and it was something that I tried to concentrate on."

 With two key players gone, the band became a four-piece with new bass player Darryn Harkness joining Bell and fellow original band members Rob Dollars on drums and Damon Newton on guitar. What then, does Bell think makes the old Dead Flowers different from the new? "We had the original line-up which was somewhat different to the one we have now as two members have gone to do their own thing. But the first time round probably had more hard edged pop to it or something."

MELLOWING OUT ACROSS THE TASMAN

"It was a kind of stressful environment really, whereas this oneís real mellow."

After the changes, a revitalised Dead Flowers headed to Australia to test out their new line-up at Sydneyís Darling Harbour Studios, under the direction of producer Robbie Rowlands. Still, they would find that making the new album would not be as easy as they first thought. While the atmosphere for the recording sessions may have been more harmonious than before, the delay the band experienced was frustrating. "It was hard because we initially recorded at the end of í96 in Sydney and we mixed the first single which was You Drink the water, Iíll Drink the Wine. But then it wasnít till August í97 that we finished the mixes and did the vocals," says Bell.

Though recording was problematic, Bell experienced it as less of a trial than the bandís previous two efforts. "Basically we produced our albums ourselves before so it was one big bitch session about how it was meant to sound, who got to play on what and other crap. So it was a kind of stressful environment really, whereas this oneís real mellow."

RAYN(er) GIVES LIFE TO DEAD FLOWERS

"He was really frank- if he thought something sucked heíd tell you."

Bell would also find that an important factor in helping the band achieve their new sound would be a man with impeccable pop credentials - Eddie Rayner, the former keyboardist for Split Enz and Crowded House. As a result, the band would continue their recording efforts with Rayner in Aucklandís Revolver Studios.
"You canít beat around the bush or waste time with peopleís egos in an expensive studio youíre paying $150 an hour for."

You often read horror stories of bands and producers in the studio as egos clash over the inability to get Ďthat perfect sound.í This was never going to happen with Rayner, whose straightforward studio manner cut to the chase with Bell and the band. "He was cool. I liked him because he was really frank- if he thought something sucked heíd tell you. He could take it as well if I thought something he did sucked, as Iíd tell him and weíd move on. Its good because you canít beat around the bush or waste time with peopleís egos in an expensive studio when youíre paying $150 an hour for it."

Bell and Rayner also discovered a mutual respect for one another during the sessions, which smoothed the way for an easier journey through the recording process. "Iíve got a lot of respect for Eddie for obvious reasons. He just taught me so much about dynamics, colour and songs and just basically how to accentuate the positive and unmake the negative!" laughs Bell.

Although Rayner contributed a few keyboard tracks to the album, the majority of the work was done by Bell - a competent, albeit initially reluctant pianist. "I probably enjoy playing the guitar more than the keys, it was like something that my parents made me do when I was 8 years old (they made me have piano lessons for ten years.) It was something that I regretted at the time but Iím thankful for now, whereas guitar was something I wanted to learn and my motivation was there."

BELL UP THERE WITH THE BEST

Rayner has gone on record with his praise of Bellís songs - ranking him with the likes of top New Zealand talents such as Neil Finn, Jordan Luck of the Exponents and Dave Dobbyn. And like his fellow countrymen strong pop melodies are something that comes naturally for Bell. So, was it deliberate when he came up with a catchy song like I Wanna Know for the album? "Yeah. For this album I analysed why I like music and itís strong, hooky melodic songs that turn me on and thatís what I set out to do. Whereas before it was just sort of writing music and I think I was trying to be clever even."

"Ö its about taking a punt rather than playing it safe"

Donít be fooled though by all this talk of guitar pop and catchy songs, as the serious side of Bryan Bell does make an appearance on the record, such as in the song You Drink The Water, Iíll Drink The Wine. "Thatís about lifestyle choices, its about taking a punt rather than playing it safe- they both have their pros and cons. Drinking wine you get drunk and drinking water you donít get a hangover. Comparing that and
I Wanna Know there is sort of a stretch there, but I still enjoy both sides of it you know."

Bell may enjoy both the meaningful and the lighter facets of his writing, but his current favourite is a plaintive ballad. "It does change a bit, but I like Might As Well Get Used To It, which is quite an un-Dead Flowers song. Thatís probably my favourite at the moment, probably because thereís no guitars in it and itís got some nice loops and guitars in it, its kind of mellow."

 Songs, songs and more songs. But for the musically uninitiated, how does Bell actually go about writing that potential hit single? "Maybe watching telly with my guitar in my hand and Iíd just be strumming in some weird subconscious zone somewhere and Iíd hear something I like. Then Iíd repeat that and go over it and add things to it. It seems to snowball into something thatís really good or something thatís really shite. Thatís the way it usually happens for me, just sort of jamming on it, not trying to write a song and something will just come out."

TRIPPING THE LIVE (UK) FANATASTIC

"Its good when youíve got money and places to go."

Having such a wealth of talent, it would seem only natural that Bell would want to take his songs to an overseas audience. On a recent tour of London with Greg Johnson, the Exponents and Australians, Mental As Anything, he got to do just that. While the audience was comprised mostly of an expat Antipodean crowd, such details donít matter when youíre playing to packed houses and its your first trip to London. "It was a blast! Iíd never been there before, so we just got away and checked the place out and we were over there for ten days. I wouldnít want to live there, but its good when youíve got money and places to go- thatís cool."

Nevertheless, it was not all plain sailing for the band in the UK, with guitarist Damon Newton deported as quickly as he had arrived. "We had to train up the Exponentsí guitar player. He knew our stuff pretty well and heís like a good session player, so we were playing with this strange guitar player, but everything was fine."

EXPONENTIAL FUN

"ÖWe stay in really fancy hotels and all the alcoholís free"

Yet this trip is not the first time the band have toured with the Exponents, having clocked up several miles with them round New Zealand last summer. Bell has only praise for the Kiwi music veterans, (whose latest album was also produced by Eddie Rayner.) "Theyíre wicked, they know how to tour as theyíve been doing it for ages. When we tour with them we stay in really fancy hotels and all the alcoholís free and everythingís taken care of, as opposed to our tours when we were staying in backpackerís and eating really f**ked food! When you tour with them its the next level up, so hopefully weíll be able to start headlining our own shows."

Tours with the Exponents are notorious for their length, so you have to wonder whether the repetitive grind ever takes its toll on Bell and as a songwriter he longs to get back into the studio to create music. "It goes in cycles: when you go in the studio you love it but by the end of four, five, six weeks you get really f**king sick of it and youíre just hanging out to go on the road. Then you go out on the road and you really enjoy it, but near the end of that you start getting sick of it and usually by the end of six weeks, your health starts deteriorating and you need to sleep for five days straight. I love both of them and its great to have both extremes. Iím glad Iím not just in a studio or a live band because it would get pretty boring."

RADIO PLAY

"The songs have been produced to a high standard and they are being thrashed on radio."

For a band radio play is as equally important to you as live shows. When Dead Flowers were first starting out, they found it difficult to achieve airplay and exposure. "On our first two albums we had a hard time. But now because a lot of money has spent been on the album, I think the songs have been produced to a high standard and they are being thrashed on radio, which is great. Weíve never had the support that weíve had for these first few singles, which is paying off. Probably before our fanbase would be mainly based on our live shows, but now we have a lot of people that have been getting into our songs because theyíve heard them on the radio all the time."

 TROUBLE IN GODZONE

If Bell feel things are going well for the Dead Flowers, it is clear he does not feel the same about the rest of the Kiwi music industry. "I think its really tough for bands starting out when they donít have the mediums to get their name or their songs across. People need to appreciate the talent thatís in the country and the wealth of good music coming out and support it."

It is vital for support to come from television as well radio, but with the recent music channel closures the outlook on that front is not looking so fine and Bell agrees. "Youíve got really good things in the industry that were championing local music but they seem to be falling apart around us. Like you had MAX TV which was a huge champion of local music and which I thought was a great station- you got that going down and now thereís MTV going down. They donít play local music anywhere as much as MAX did, but its still something you know."

KITSCH KIWI MUSIC AWARDS

"I think theyíre bastards really, probably because Iíve never been in them!"

There always seems to be some kind of contentious issue plaguing the music business, and the present debate surrounding the recent New Zealand Music Awards appears to be the current hot topic. Many within the industry even question their credibility and Bell is such a person. "I donít take them seriously at all. I think theyíre too narrow, I think theyíre too mainstream. I think theyíre bastards really, probably because Iíve never been in them," he says jokingly.

It is not just the validity of the awards that is in question, however, it is the manner in which they are presented. The ceremonies become more kitsch each year, Bell says. "Most musicians kind of think that way. It is cheesy when youíve got the majority of the presenters being actors or TV celebs rather than actual musicians or something. You know thereís f**k all actual people to do with music, which I think is really strange!"

It is perhaps precisely this sentiment that moved Auckland student radio station bFM to announce that they will be having their own Music Awards, (with significantly more publicly voted categories) later this year. Bell supports this move. "I think itís a great idea. It should have happened ages ago. There shouldíve been more peopleís choice awards in the main music awards. I mean the only award weíve ever won was back in í93 when we won peopleís choice award for best band. I mean ever since then we havenít been nominated, never had a show in."

 ĎYOUTHí VS ĎWISDOMí?

Some saw the idea as being put forward by older members of the music scene like Neil Finn, who were out of touch with Ďthe youth market.í

Some critics of student radio may view bFMís move to initiate their own music awards, as just another shot in what they perceive as the ongoing battle between student radio and the Ďmusic industry establishment.í Even the proposal for a youth radio network that was turned down by the government for funding last year may be viewed as part of this fight. Some from the student radio camp saw the idea as being put forward by older members of the music scene like Neil Finn, who were out of touch with what Ďthe youth marketíwanted.

 For Bryan Bell, though, just who instigates such plans is irrelevant. "I think that any vehicle thatís going to support local music has to be a good thing, whatever it maybe, put together by whoever.  Like I was saying before, we need as much exposure as we get and with things closing like MTV or MAX TV itís a ridiculous situation."

COMPULSORY QUOTA?

"I canít figure out if weíre trying to build an industry or destroy it."

Another possible method of boosting local content on our airwaves, is an oft-suggested compulsory quota. Bell is convinced that such a plan could work here. "Itís strange to me- I canít figure out if weíre trying to build an industry or destroy it.  I mean when youíve got places like Australia that have compulsory 20% local music on their radios and its the law- its not the law here. Iíve heard figures that New Zealand radioís as low as 3%, though I do think its improving. There have to be guidelines like that put into place for all mediums, then it can only be positive for local musicians."

LIVE VENUES

Bell bemoans the lack of venues for novice bands.. but Dead Flowers pack them in

The lack of smaller live venues in Auckland for novice bands is also an issue for Bell.  "I think itís a shame that a lot have closed. Like Luna  was a really good venue for the up and coming bands, so itís a shame that it closed. Hopefully someone will open something soon- but who knows."

The future of some live venues may be uncertain, but what is clear is that Dead Flowers have no problems filling venues such as the relatively large Powerstation - which just happens to be Bellís favourite place to play. "Itís a nice big venue and has a nice big stage for things. It seems like youíre putting on a real show there."

Playing to packed houses and with ample exposure on the airwaves, Dead Flowers are well on their way to success. The catchy songs, fun lyrics and upbeat melodies on their latest album are all part of a new winning formula. With Bryan Bellís seemingly uncanny ability to create that perfect pop hook, the band can surely do no wrong.  Add to this configuration Bellís distinctive blue eyes and it can only be win-win for Dead Flowers.