In Praise of Miscompetence: Noise Icons the Dead C Remain Mysterious as Ever

The Dead C

The Dead C.

There’s obscurity and then there’s The Dead C.

For just shy of 30 years, the proudly marginal New Zealand noise institution has been lurking well below the underground, taking DIY to its most liberating extremes. These three hermetic adventurers specialize less in writing songs than in assembling turbulent feedback collages and excerpting choice moments from piles of improvised sludge.

Recorded live, in real time, and free from the confines of a professional studio, Robbie Yeats’ lumbering but emphatic drumming expertly frames Michael Morley and Bruce Russell’s scouring guitars, which often flatline into an extended, gray drone permeated by glints of stealthy beauty. Now and again, a sad, bleary-eyed voice surfaces from the murk to evoke some fragile soul sleepwalking his way through hell.

Despite or perhaps because of the music’s relative inaccessibility, the Dead C’s vast discography of albums, cassette-only releases, and seven-inch singles has attracted a rabid cult of international devotees. On the heels of the thick and heady Trouble, its current double LP for NYC’s Ba Da Bing label, the band will sate admirers with a rare U.S. tour that includes a September 20 stop at Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Congregational Society. Yes, you read that correctly: The trio’s decidedly unholy squall will resonate out of the halls of a church.

From his abode in the Southern Hemisphere, the Observer spoke to Russell prior to his departure for our fair shores to discuss what it’s like to be one of the most mysterious, challenging bands of the last three decades.

The Dead C occupies a complicated place within rock music. On one hand, you’ve been an outspoken champion of improvised playing and a critic of traditional technique. On the other, Robbie is a backbeat-oriented drummer, and a lot of your fans are into more structured sounds. Plus, the new album has more drive and more shape than some of your recent material. Please explain this seemingly love-hate relationship with rock aesthetics.

Actually, I don’t think it’s our job! I think that critics should be able to engage with these ideas and come up with some theories to explain them. We don’t have a theoretical rationale, we just do [it]. This dialectic is hard-wired into the trio. It is a product of our characters and our capabilities. Without that tension, there is no Dead C.

When did the band stop writing structured songs? 

Probably around 1995.

Why?  

I suspect Michael decided he didn’t need to do it anymore—a tribute to our ability to collectively compose. He may have a different story, of course.

It’s been ages since you recorded anything as linear as “Scarey Nest” from 1989’s Eusa Kills or “Truth” from 2003’s The Damned.

If you say that, chances are we’ll come up with a catchy little number to surprise you. Actually, have you heard “Palisades,” our recent Swedish single?

Yeah. That’s a great seven-inch. It’s certainly concise but “catchy little number” might be a stretch. In the standard sense, have you ever learned to play guitar? 

No.

So you’re not capable of figuring out rudimentary Zeppelin or Sabbath riffs?

No.

You’re famous for using an array of toys to abuse your instrument. For a while, you employed chopsticks and a screwdriver, I think. What’s in your arsenal nowadays?

Currently, I work mainly with a heavy steel slide. This is often used percussively. I use bottles as well. I gave up using picks back in the ’90s. I have gotten less extravagant over time. At one point, I used the broken end of a fencing foil, which was about 10 inches long. That had nice square edges that could really activate the strings. Sadly, I lost it at a show.

So do you even tune your guitar?

Sometimes. Or, to put it another way, everything is a tuning.

You have a really wonderful approach to playing, usually based around texture, feedback, and feel. 

Thanks.

Please offer some insight into the band’s use of technique or anti-technique. 

I have just finished elaborating my theory of “miscompetence” in my doctoral dissertation. I don’t have time to go into it here but, essentially, it is a way of doing something deliberately wrongly—a cultivated contrariety. I would argue that the Dead C do this as a group. We have often chosen to do things deliberately wrongly.

Grammar included, obviously. In the early days, the Dead C frequently recorded on a four-track tape machine or on a cassette Walkman. Your way of capturing the music is decidedly more modern and hi-fi now, presumably using computers. Has that change impacted the music?

The real irony here is that when we started, non-studio recordings were seen as madness. Now everyone records at home.

Right. But you typically record live. And the results are so much less polished and produced than most other bands. 

I don’t think we will ever polish a recording. We listen to it back over and we pick the good bits; the rest we discard. But we want you to hear the joins. The process remains the same: We bottle the lightening as it strikes. You can’t plan that; you can only prepare.

The new record has a uniformly heavy feel. Where do you suppose that comes from?

Gravity.

The band has been together for nearly 30 years. What’s the secret to your longevity? 

We don’t spend much time together. I think that’s the key to our ongoing success.

Why do you perform and tour so infrequently?

I can’t help it but I’m going to refer you back to the last answer.

You have a reputation for being reclusive. But suddenly, you’re selling Dead C coffee mugs and Sharpies for this tour. Please explain.

Two things: Our reputation is an utter myth. For a band whose members live on the edge of the world, we are very remarkably available. Second thing: Our label is run by a guy who thinks inappropriate merchandise is the best thing ever. What are we going to do, spoil his year?

You operated the DIY label Xpressway during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Dead C also self-released its records again in the early 2000s. For about a decade now, though, you’ve been signed to the American label Ba Da Bing. Why go back to working with someone else? Besides label boss Ben Goldberg’s rugged good looks.

Rugged good looks, willingness to indulge all our whims, and spare capital. That’ll do it.

The Dead C.

The Dead C.

The Dead C is loud. How’s your hearing?

My hearing is supernaturally good. For a while, I worked in public radio and all staff there were hearing tested. I had the best hearing of anyone in my age bracket within the whole network. Later, my wife thought I was going deaf, so she also had me tested. Same result. I’m just a bad listener. She hasn’t tried again. We are loud when we play proper shows with PAs in foreign countries. Quite often, though, we play through tiny club PAs [in New Zealand]; no danger to our hearing there, really. My biggest amp is only 15 watts. We sound loud at any volume. What can I say? It’s a skill.

Do pot and alcohol still play any role in the creative process?

Surprisingly, they do and they don’t. We still do them but, to be honest, we don’t need them like we used to. We have learned how to interact in a Dead C way without being utterly fucked up. Once upon a time, we needed help to get to that space but, in a sort of meditational practice, we can get there unaided now. When I play solo, I am always pretty well straight; it doesn’t make my playing any straighter.

Early on, rock and indie audiences were startled by the harsh, free-form nature of the Dead C’s music. What was the most memorable reaction from an unsuspecting crowd?

Disappointingly, I can’t recall a specific example. As a rule, New Zealand audiences are unwilling to speak out. My favorite reaction—albeit an informed one, not an uninformed one—was when Peter Gutteridge [the late cofounder of the Clean and Snapper] yelled, “You wouldn’t play like that if you didn’t know what you were doing!” Still the best heckle ever.

The Dead C

The Dead C.

Any other surreal moments stick out?

A couple of years back, Robbie and I played with our friend [Into the Void guitarist] Jason Greig at a proper metal show, supporting Beastwars, a clever-metal band.

Clever metal? Is that a legitimate genre name down there or is it just your pet term for weird, arty stuff like Khanate or Sunn O)))

Yeah, I made that up. You know what I mean, clearly. Most metal is retarded. Even metal-heads admit that, don’t they? The main support was a young band who were contributing the backline. Not what I call “clever metal” by any stretch, and clearly unbriefed as to who we were. One of them, after witnessing our chaotic and baffling improvised black-metal pastiche, asked Robbie if we’d been together long. “Thirty-five years,” he deadpanned, to a visibly startled reaction. “Do you have a Bandcamp?” was the rejoinder. “No,” Robbie replied. That pretty much ended the evening, as I recall.

You and Robbie have actually been playing together for 29 years.

New Zealand humor. The number was deliberately wrong. I’m pretty sure he said “35 years.” In fact, it was our second ever show with Jason, so the correct answer was “one year.” He was fucking with the kid.

What’s the story behind the Dead C’s infamous performance of “Sky” on New Zealand national television? 

That was a short-lived live show called Ground Zero. We were on there in 1999, to coincide with the release of a compilation [of our old material, DR 503C] on [the famed New Zealand indie label] Flying Nun. We had licensed that to raise money to self-release our double CD, the self-titled one that everyone hates.

Guilty as charged.

Graeme [Humphreys], the lead presenter, used to play with the Able Tasmans. Robbie had drummed with that band; he’s played with everyone. That’s how it happened. We baffled them and, in the end, I think we freaked them out a little. The show had smoke-free sponsorship, and I blew a massive cigar on set. Pretty gangster.

Indeed. What are your stogies of choice? 

Anything Cuban. My all time favorite Havana is El Rey del Mundo; I’ll have a pirámide, thanks. Actually, the Philippines make some fine cigars, which are hard to get down here: Conde de Guells and Tabacaleras are spiffy.

You’ll be playing a Unitarian church in Brooklyn. Has the Dead C ever performed in a venue like that before?

I’ve played a church with [my side project] A Handful of Dust but never with the Dead C.

How do you intend to take advantage of the acoustics?

We always take advantage of the acoustics. That’s possibly the most accurate description ever offered of our approach to performance.

Thanks. I try. Anything specific you’re going to do?

To be very clear, you’re asking the Dead C if we have any plans? Really? That’s not exactly how we operate, you know. Not planning while taking advantage of the acoustics pretty well sums up the band.

Will the Dead C be unearthing any older songs like you did on your first American tour in 1995? Or will the material be new and improvised?

If I say “we don’t do old stuff,” I bet we’d wind up doing “Power” or “Helen Said This.” So I’ll just say “you’ll find out.”

A few years ago, your daughter, Olive, made a short documentary film about your music. Did she grow up going to Dead C shows? 

She doesn’t go to a lot of our shows; it’s not really her thing. Not that we play that often.

What did she think of the music when she was a kid? What does she think of it now that she’s 18?

I don’t think she was aware of what I did when she was young; it’s not that obvious. I do think she derives vicarious thrills from my very minor celebrity. Her older brothers call her “the littlest hipster.” Sort of in a nice way.

The Dead C has made a few veiled and not so veiled political statements in its music. Songs like “Power” subtly reference military interventions in Panama and Iraq. What’s your take on the upcoming American election?

I can hardly bear to think about this. Honestly, how do you think it looks to the rest of the world? American politics look retarded at the best of times and this, as you’ve probably already realized, is not the best of times. Are you familiar with [the London, Ontario, improv-noise collective] the Nihilist Spasm Band? They had a policy of never playing in the USA for the first few decades of their 50-year career, even though they all lived about 60 miles from the [U.S.] border with Canada. Some days, I can see why.

Why do you suppose the Dead C attracts more attention in the U.S. than at home?

Some would see that as a scathing critique of the American national character. Not me. It’s not more attention, it’s just the attention of more people. Per capita, it’s possibly less people but more media. [In New Zealand], we have a national shortage of media, to be honest.

How long do you see the Dead C continuing?

God has forbidden His chosen people to look forwards, to try to foretell the future. I’m with the Jews on that one.

The Dead C play The First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn on September 20 with Susan Alcorn.