Finally, there’s a complete box set of New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs, the musical partnership of Flying Nun Records rockers and lo-fi indie proginators Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox! Merge Records has released Unravelled 1981-2002, a 55-track collection spanning the band’s gloriously ramshackle discography. But why did it take so long to honor their glory in this way? There are, like, box sets of the Beatles’ bathroom breaks clogging the record plants.
Regardless, kiwi-pop aficionados and newbies alike should do everything in their human power to plunk down for this godlike genius. You only need one kidney, just sayin’. (Funnily enough, the Beatles have been an oft-used comparison to Bathgate and Knox’s sound world. It’s a treasure trove of indelible hooks and cosmic melodies, but if you took the “Tomorrow Never Knows” demo alt-takes and immerse them in a fuzzified soup of Venusian atmosphere, and found-at-home effects, well… the Beatles bathroom breaks might be justified here. But oh, it sounds so much better.)
Bathgate’s and Knox’s sound evolved from their deep roots in the New Zealand punk world: formerly members of both the Enemy and Toy Love, those Kiwi groups burned down the pubs in the late ’70s, the latter garnering some high ranking as antipodean punk ambassadors. Then the duo pulled away, and engaged with the sounds of merely sitting in a room and making something completely different. Tall Dwarfs was born in 1981.
You only need one kidney, just sayin’
By the mid-90s, Knox grew to increasing prominence as a solo artist (amplified by the fact the two never were fully local to each other, slowing the duo’s evolution.) Sadly, Knox suffered a stroke in 2009, which severed the pipeline of his great creations for the most part. Bathgate, meanwhile, has created some stellar solo releases of his own.
My first Tall Dwarfs illumination came via a Flying Nun Records VHS compilation. Crammed with heavenly pop hits, I popped it in and suddenly on the screen appeared “Turning Brown and Torn In Two,” from their 1983 release Canned Music. And good lord! It was a flickering, otherworldly melange of primitive 8mm supercuts, one weird scenario after another, with scrawl written directly on the film. I was grabbed by the sound of a cheap amp emanating thoughtfully sparse vibrato guitar, courtesy of Bathgate. Then, with equal dominance in the mix: Knox’s intimate croon intoned over what sounded like a gobbling, growling Snuffleupagus stuck in a loop, whirring around.
It became immediately evident that the band’s thing was a diplomatic cohabitation of two parts, songsmithery and what-the-fuck noise offerings. Rather than a delicate “studio” mix of a song’s disparate parts, here, the viewer was made to dwell on a piece of art, square in the middle of the room, with all the individual insanity circling the track of your head like a Nurse With Wound/T-Rex experiment gone haywire (and Top 40 bound). It was representative of what could crudely be recorded on a simple TEAC 4-track machine, its infinite possibilities, and I was hooked.
It was representative of what could crudely be recorded on a simple TEAC 4-track machine, its infinite possibilities, and I was hooked
In 1987, Homestead Records released Hello Cruel World, and gave Yank consumers a taste of Tall Dwarfs: it was a collection of the band’s four EPs, a rough but glorious presence that exposed many to not only this incredible music, but the deep, dark, hopeful, and (sometimes just plain dark) humor within Knox’s unparalleled songcraft. Not to mention, the release showcased the often grotesque graphic art leanings that ran alongside the DIY scratch aesthetic of the video mentioned. Euros and Americans who had been bitten by the Flying Nun bug instantly recognized them to be an anomaly of the indie rock “scene,” yet, they understood the band was very much aligned with the lysergic psychedelia of troopers like the Clean and Axemen.
Future albums, like 1990’s Weeville and 1991’s Fork Songs crystallized Tall Dwarfs’ vision with a somewhat even poppier-leaning hand, rolling our anthemic singalongs. Tracks like “Sign the Dotted Line,” and “Life Is Strange” boasted of rudimentary, well-placed sound manipulation. At one point, the duo even opened the doors for fans to contribute loops (with a clever “new” band name, “International Tall Dwarfs,” on 1996’s Stumpy). In the whole of their discography, there is barely a second not bursting with ideas. (Consider the rise of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Pavement, and you’ll notice Tall Dwarfs gave those bands a lot to gristle to chew on for their own eventual climbs.)
The arrival of Merge’s ambitious and visually delightful box couldn’t be more justified. To learn more, CREEM spoke with Bathgate over email (while he was on holiday in Fiji—sorry about that, Alec!). An abridged version of that conversation follows.
CREEM: Let’s go back to the beginning. At what point did you and Chris Knox determine it was time to do something a bit more “experimental” compared to the Enemy and Toy Love?
ALEC BATHGATE: We got worn out by our schedule in Australia. The management company was working us hard—up to nine gigs a week. That’s how they did it over there in 1980, and maybe even now: slog it out in the pubs and build up a following. Like a lot of NZ bands before us, we went from being very successful at home, to anonymity and starvation in Sydney.
Throughout our first band, the Enemy, and [in] the early months of Toy Love, there had been momentum with songwriting. It felt like we were evolving and changing, getting better and more interesting. After a year of heavy touring in NZ in ’79, followed by the Australian experience, we were exhausted. We didn’t enjoy recording the Toy Love album in Sydney. We felt we had no control over the process. On the rare day off, no one wanted to work on new material. Chris and I started working on ideas together, sitting in a bedroom with a cassette recorder and taping snippets of things that might become songs, so we were edging towards that approach for making music.
What was your writing process? Did a Tall Dwarfs recording start from a germ of a song? Or was there environment tinkering involved in coming up with your unusual sounds and loops?
We got back to Auckland after Toy Love split up [in 1980] and Chris bought his 4-track, so we started tinkering with that. We had “Nothing’s Going To Happen” from the cassette stuff we’d done in Sydney, so that got recorded. We knew there was absolutely no commercial potential in what we were recording and had no expectation we’d be heard by more than a few locals.
Chris recorded a snippet of sound in his house, a door banging and some muffled conversation, and made a tape loop of it. We both loved it. There’s something hypnotic and slightly unsettling about a sound repeating indefinitely that we liked. [It] makes me think of [Napoleon XIV’s] They’re Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!, a key TD reference point.
[That] reminds me of a time Chris and I were record shopping and I picked up a copy of the Roy Wood album Boulders and Chris said I should buy it because “Tall Dwarfs are heavily influenced by it!” And while I’m mentioning influences, the Troggs were another band we mutually loved. Chris even got to sing “When Will The Rain Come” backstage with Reg Presley when he was interviewing him before a New Zealand Troggs show in ’82.
What were the Tall Dwarfs live shows like? How did they differ from, say, firing up one of your rock groups? Was there more freedom? More complexity?
We never intended to play live. I left Auckland and moved to Christchurch shortly after we recorded the first EP, which was just going to be a one-off. Chris came down with his 4-track in March ‘82 to record [the legendary Flying Nun Records compilation EP] the Dunedin Double and stayed with me. We recorded [Tall Dwarf EP] Louis Likes His Daily Dip, [our first Flying Nun release.] I started traveling to Chris’s to record additional EPs over the next few years. Playing a show was a way to cover airfares and some of our recording costs.
It was challenging being a duo. You can’t stop playing! There’s little room for nuance. You gotta keep making sound or everything just stops.
It was challenging being a duo. You can’t stop playing! There’s little room for nuance. You gotta keep making sound or everything just stops. We only played intermittently, often without much preparation. It was a bit scary but neither of us wanted it to be too comfortable, on the basis that something great could happen if there was an element of uncertainty. And it often did. Not always, there were some disasters. But if you got us on a good night it could be magic.
How is Chris doing these days?
I haven’t seen Chris since March 2021 [due to COVID-19 lockdowns]. I’m visiting him in a few weeks. I think he’s good.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the Merge Records box set, and what fans can expect from it?
All of our albums are out of print, and our back catalog is complicated. Some things are only on vinyl; some only on CD. Hopefully the boxset works as an easy way in. We recorded over 200 songs, which is probably too much for most people. At 55 songs, Unravelled is more manageable. It’s part retrospective, part “best of”—although, in having to cull down to four albums, I had to leave out some good stuff. It’s roughly chronological, though not strictly.
Chris had kept all our master tapes and everything was sourced from those. All tracks have been remastered, keeping in mind Chris’s mastering instructions on an old tape box [which read] “master flat. no eq.” I had acetates, then test pressings to check. So lots of care [was] taken—same with the packaging, which I worked on for over a year sourcing photos, posters, old artwork, etc. The printing is superb. The Merge folks did a great job coordinating it all.