Feature: The Verlaines - Stop Messing Around
Author: Richard Thorne
Their 10 album catalogue certainly includes other oddies (1989's 'Some Disenchanted Evening'; Way Out Where' from '93) - but let's start with where this particularly out of sorts name came from.
"A sense of irony I guess," deadpans Downes. "'Pot boiler' - dictionary definition: something created purely for monetary gain'. I don't think a Verlaines' album has ever been that, but anyway..."
Indeed, while not, by dictionary definition, a quintessential Dunedin band, The Verlaines are nonetheless pivotal in the city's musical history and their influence remains active.
Since this millennium began Dr Graeme Downes has been senior lecturer in music at the University of Otago, having returned to the band's hometown to establish a rock music degree course there. While clearly a product of previous Verlaines' work, he says this album is also a result of studying and teaching songwriting for over a decade - of having to come up with answers as to why a student's song is worth a B and not an A.
"That just sharpens the critical machinery, to the point where you can look at your old stuff and go, 'Yeah well, brave attempt but it farts like a dog ultimately - and that's why it didn't make it onto the Best Of'. You learn from that and after a while, the song with the flaw, the smelly rat, it's real hard to find where it is, but with years of experience you get better at it. And that's what you help train your senior students to do. 'I wrote this song - it's pissing me off and I don't know why...'"
The album recording was finished in February 2007. Ever philosophical and pragmatic, he is unconcerned that the album's release through Flying Nun/Warner Music NZ came in December, about the worst time of year for non-blockbuster attention grabbing.
"I don't necessarily buy into that. People who are interested will track it down and there's not much competition from other releases. We're not in a position to call the shots as it were, we are a dysfunctional band. We were organised enough to be able to function the studio but can't really play live at the moment. "
Indeed Verlaines fans shouldn't hold out any hope of seeing a 'Pot Boiler' album gig as current lifestyles preclude the possibility. But rather than any kind of handicap Downes sees the limitations of an older band as a great freedom.
"We are all middle aged with jobs and dogs and kids and mortgages, so we can't do the things we used to do, but by the same token we don't need to care about them either.
"In a way it's come full circle, before we even made any records. Just a bunch of people interested in the music and wanting to make music and have fun doing it. We all draw incomes from elsewhere so there is nothing riding on it financially. So that's what we are doing, and enjoying it."
The other Verlaines responsible for boiling this particular pot are drummer Darren Stedman, bassist Russel Fleming and guitarist/vocalist Paul Winders - the same band responsible for 1996's album 'Over The Moon'. Fleming teaches in Balclutha, Winders is a school principal in Riverton (west of Invercargill), while Stedman owns a specialist wine outlet in Dunedin. With three of four in the education system The Verlaines' get togethers are tied to the school term, or rather holiday, cycle. To compensate Downes' contribution extends beyond being the songwriter and singer to being MD as well.
"It's part of the dysfunction, we're pretty much becoming slaves to the score. Which is fine, you still need to play it through and adjust it. But in lieu of the hours and hours we used to spend in the practice room when we lived in the same city (which we don't), if I break the back of it in virtual land, then when we get together we have got a starting point."
Rehearsals for 'Pot Boiler' happened over a couple of weekends prior to Christmas 2006, just enough to get the rhythm section knocked into some shape. The recording "pretty casual, a couple of tracks a day" was handled by Stu Harwood at Albany St Studios, Dunedin during January, with Dale Cotton later mixing and Jon Cooper mastering up in Auckland.
"I gave pretty much the bare bones to Darren, just the basic grooves so he could flesh it out with fills. So the recording session was just throwing the rhythm section down, then me with a guitar and a score, and phrase by phrase doing the guitars and keyboards, vocals. Get the strings and horns in, and just hope it would all work - it sounded okay on computer software [Sibelius] so should sound okay with real instruments."
No surprise that it does - in classic Verlaines' style. Structures that somehow no one else could have contemplated in a song, casually biting lyrics, skipped chords yet smooth-as melodies, symphonic in places and simplistically Kiwi in others.