The Dead C

The Dead C

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The other critical aspect of The Dead C is improvisation. For Russell, improvisation is critical.

In 2007 New Zealand band The Dead C released a compilation commemorating the band’s twentieth anniversary. Titled Vain, Erudite And Stupid , the compilation took its name from a lyric in Perform Max Harris , The Dead C’s first single, released originally in 1987. The song itself, Perform Max Harris , was inspired by the infamous Ern Malley literary prank in the 1940s, when James McAuley and Harold Stewart decided to expose the then nascent modernist poetry movement championed by Max Harris. The Dead C vocalist Michael Morley was a fan of the Ern Malley story and wrote the song based on the prank; Dead C guitarist Bruce Russell says the lyric says a lot about the band itself. “Dead C is all those things,” Russell figures. “And we’re prone to taking the piss out of ourselves,” he laughs.

Russell formed The Dead C with Morley and former Verlaines drummer Robbie Yeats in 1987. Russell had grown up in a small town in regional New Zealand before moving to Dunedin to study political philosophy. Despite – or maybe because of – his limited exposure to independent music while growing up, Russell quickly embraced the punk rock sounds he was exposed to as a student. He was working on the university student newspaper when Morley appeared, asking to be the paper’s record reviewer. With the position already filled, Russell declined Morley’s offer; however, the pair remained friends. Russell had met Yeats early in The Verlaines’ career, and Yeats eventually became the third, and final, member of the Dead C.

Russell says The Dead C were all about “trying to fuck things up”, a confrontational attitude that was conceived, constructed and promulgated in the context of the largely conformist artistic culture that existed in New Zealand in the 1980s. “Punk happened in New Zealand in 1977 and 1978,” Russell recalls. “After that Flying Nun happened in 1981, which was very much a reaction against the uniform and conformist society. It was certainly a very negative time for artists. There used to be rages against galleries being gifted modern artworks – New Zealand culture was very conservative,” he remembers.

Early on, The Dead C played almost exclusively to Dunedin audiences. In contrast to the psychedelic pop of The Clean, and the pristine pop melodies of The Chills and The Verlaines, The Dead C played what Russell is content to describe as (despite a suspicion of externally imposed genre descriptions) “improvised noise rock”.

With no expectation of making any money from their music, Russell, Morley and Yeats weren’t particularly interested in spending their hard earned cash on the latest recording gear. The result was The Dead C’s distinctive lo-fi aesthetic. “When we started out we were literally making things up,” Russell says. “When we recorded, we used what we had at our disposal.”

While the initial reaction of the Dunedin audience was “bemused tolerance”, The Dead C were resolute in their belief that there was an audience for their music. With Flying Nun faltering in the late 1980s, and the New Zealand vinyl manufacturing industry shutting up shop, Russell started his own label, Xpressway, to help take the music of The Dead C and other like-minded New Zealand bands to the world.

“Being in England around that time had established to me two things: that what we were doing was world class, and that there were networks out there that could be tapped into to ensure the music could reach a bigger audience,” Russell muses. “They were difficult times, but Xpressway certainly gave The Dead C a helluva leg up.”

The Dead C have found themselves described loosely as ‘noise rock’, if only because the band’s genre-challenging lo-fi, improvisational style fails to fit it into any other convenient category. “’Noise’ isn’t terminology I use,” Russell states. “I’m more interested in sound, and music is a type of sound. There’s ‘noise rock’, which is a problematic term for me. I suppose The Dead C is, um, maybe improvised noise rock. But I also regard the whole thing as an art project. I’m more interested in the relationship between the sound and other forms of art.”

Beyond any loose categorisation, there are two aspects of The Dead C modus operandi that Russell highlights as critical to their continuing existence. The first is the band’s proudly democratic ethos; with The Dead C, there is no leader.

“One of the ongoing challenges with The Dead C is agreeing to what we do next, because we all have to agree to whatever we do. But that’s also why after 23 years we haven’t had any line-up changes. We split everything three ways, regardless of who writes the songs,” Russell explains.

The other critical aspect of The Dead C is improvisation. For Russell, improvisation is critical. “I improvise all the time,” he chuckles. “Even if I have an idea of what I might want to do, if something starts happening that I quite like, then I’ll follow that.”

THE DEAD C play two shows in Melbourne this weekend, firstly as part of The Static Age festival – along with Oren Ambarchi, Blarke Bayer/Black Widow, Marco Fusinato, Breathing Shrine, Candlesnuffer, Make up Sex, Zond and more – at The Northcote Uniting Church on Saturday October 2. They then play The Northcote Social Club – with Marco Fusinato, Black Widow and Joel Stern – on Sunday October 3. Tickets from northcotesoicalclub.com, 9486 1677 or the venue.