Steve McCabe of The Axemen, Part One
by Ryan Leach, Spacecase Records
Steve McCabe is best known for his membership in The Axemen. Formed in Christchurch, New Zealand, when Steve was still a teenager (along with Stu Kawowski and Bob Brannigan) in 1981, The Axemen were one of the most stylistically adventurous groups on Flying Nun. Their records spanned the genre gamut—shambolic punk rock, country, sampling and girl group-inspired songs could all be found on the same album. The Axemen released two records on Flying Nun (1986’s Three Virgins and 1987’s Derry Legend) and innumerable cassette tapes on McCabe’s Sleek Bott label before going on hiatus in the early 1990s after the release of their Elton John tribute record, Three Rooms (1992).
McCabe’s released several solo records, notably the underground classic Sweat It Out (1986) and Generations (1998), Steve’s lounge record that he cut entirely himself with orchestration composed on a computer synth program.
In 2009 Tom Lax at Siltbreeze reissued Big Cheap Motel, The Axemen’s memorable response to the Big M milk corporation buying out the Christchurch City Council for a summer music festival in 1984. Further reissues by Siltbreeze (including The Axemen’s long out-of-print classic Three Virgins) galvanized the group to reform. The Axemen toured the United States for the first time with Times New Viking in 2009. Two years later The Axemen hooked up with the late Brendon Annesley and released a single on Negative Guest List and toured Australia. Spacecase Records hit up The Axemen for a single at the beginning of 2013. The recording session for the single yielded enough tracks for a full length, Sac Tap Nut Jam. The Axemen (Steve McCabe, Stu Kawowski, Dragan Stojanovic and William Daymond) are currently preparing a tour of New Zealand in support of the record. (Note: Stu Kawowski added some helpful clarifications and insights to the original transcription. His notes have been added.)
Interview by Ryan Leach
Photos courtesy of Steve McCabe and Stu Kawowski
Special thanks to Andrew Tolley for the Axel Grinders cassette
Ryan: You’re from Christchurch, correct?
Ryan: You played in a band called The Gorillas before you formed The Axemen. I know you’re a lot younger than Stu (Kawowski).
Steve: That’s true. Stu’s almost ten years older than me. My first band was an a cappella group, The Gasping Raspers, that formed when I was in primary school. In high school I was in a two-piece band called The Tandem Unicycles with Tim Green. Tim’s brother Tony Green played in a group called Mainly Spaniards that released a single on Flying Nun (“That’s What Friends Are For”, 1982). Tony worked at a record store called The Record Factory in Christchurch. He had a really good record collection. Tony used to import LPs into New Zealand. Tim and I did a bit of recording. The Gorillas (with Peter Rees) was the first band I had that actually released material. We put out a few cassettes.
Ryan: Did you have Sleek Bott going yet?
Steve: Not yet. I started Sleek Bott in 1983.
Ryan: You were self-releasing The Gorillas tapes?
Steve: Yeah. I still have some of the master cassettes.
Ryan: Were you guys inspired by groups like The Scavengers and The Spelling Mistakes?
Steve: The Gorillas were more pop. We had the occasional punk song but we were more eclectic. Pete (Rees) was actually a good guitarist. He was classically trained. The Gorillas released about four cassettes. I’d take the tapes Pete and I were making with The Gorillas into town to the EMI record shop. It was run by Roy Montgomery (Pin Group) and Roger Shepherd (head of Flying Nun). Roy would always buy one. Pete and I were too young to gig. The EMI shop was right in the middle of town. It’s not there anymore. It’s a souvenir shop now.
Steve’s Room, Peterborough St, 1984 ©STU
Ryan: How did The Axemen get together? Stu (Kawowski) was playing with Bill Direen before the Axemen formed, correct?
Steve: Stu was playing with Bill Direen. While I was playing in The Gorillas I met up with Bob (Brannigan) in Dunedin through a guy who was in The Gasping Raspers—the first band I had in primary school. The Gorillas were still going when Bob and I started doing remote recordings. The internet wasn’t around then so we’d collaborate by sending cassette tapes off in the post to each other. Bob and I really hit it off. We started writing songs together and recording heaps of stuff. I’d go down to Dunedin for a weekend and then Bob would come up to Christchurch for a weekend. We’d visit each other two or three times a year. We didn’t have a multi-track so we’d overdub through cassette recorders. Bob and I recorded a bunch of stuff on cassette that ended up in the EMI record shop as well.
I met Stu in Christchurch. He was doing screen printing. I ended up doing screen printing as a job as well for quite some time. Stu was doing posters for The Gordons and the university. The core of The Axemen became me, Bob and Stu.
What really changed my life musically was the And Band and The Perfect Strangers gig (1980). I have a story about it on the Axemen’s blog. It was a seminal outdoor gig, held in a band rotunda in Christchurch. The guys in the And Band and The Perfect Strangers were art students. Stu was there and took a few photos of them. The And Band was George Henderson’s band—this was way before he formed The Puddle. The Perfect Strangers and the And Band were the most amazing things I had heard in my life.
Ryan: The Apartheid Government in South Africa has been gone for some time now, so it’s easy to forget how massive protests like the ones held against the South African rugby team’s tour of New Zealand were. I’ve read that The Axemen’s gig protesting the Springbok Tour more or less led to your formation.
Steve: Yeah. That was in 1981. Although I knew Stu he wasn’t in The Axemen yet. Stu took part in the protest against the Springbok Tour as well. Bob and I played in the Christchurch Cathedral.
Ryan: The earliest Axemen recording I have is Big Cheap Motel—which Tom Lax at Siltbreeze reissued in 2009. You guys had written all the material for that album in a single night, huh?
Steve: That’s right. We had a lot of different songs ready for the gig (Christchurch’s Summertime Festival, January 1984). Stu had gone to Hagley Park earlier and had seen all the Big M banners around—women sucking on straws—just before the festival. We wrote a heap of songs in reaction to that in one night.
Ryan: All of The Axemen were living in Christchurch at that time, right?
Steve: Yeah. That would’ve been around 1984.
Ryan: Christchurch bands like The Connoisseurs and The Axel Grinders were in your circle. Both groups didn’t record much—as far as I know The Axel Grinders only released a single on Dionysus (1990).
Steve: The Axel Grinders came a little bit later. I did a lot of busking with The Connoisseurs. I didn’t really go out on tour with them. Do you know about the PEP Scheme (Project Employment Programme)?
Steve: There used to be a program where if you were unemployed for six months or more you had to do a PEP Scheme. You either proposed one yourself or the government would provide you with one. It was like community service. The Connoisseurs did their community service by playing around in places like prisons. They were a pretty good band. All of the guys in The Connoisseurs played on the Three Virgins album. Johnny Segovia is about the best guitarist in New Zealand. Don’t tell Dragan (Stojanonovic) that!
Ryan: Rent Hamilton was in The Connoisseurs and played on Three Virgins.
Steve: That was Johnny.
Ryan: Really? All along I thought they were two different people.
Steve: Same guy. Johnny has been around for ages. He was playing in bands in the ’60s. Johnny used the name Rent Hamilton. The Connoisseurs were supposed to be brothers: Rent Hamilton, Doug Hamilton and Shorty Hamilton.
Ryan: Very Carter Family influenced.
Ryan: The Axel Grinders were around in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What are your memories of them?
Steve: The Axel Grinders started out by doing covers. They even covered “We Care A Lot” (Faith No More). They played hard-charging skate punk. They pretended they were shit hot skateboarders but none of them could actually skate. (laughs) They took action shots of themselves skating. It was pretty funny. (Axel Grinder) Pat (Faigin) used to play with us whenever Stu wasn’t in town. We might have even done a gig with two drummers—Pat and Stu. Pat played with us quite a bit and I formed some bands with him. We shared a place together. I was living with some of the Axel Grinders in 1987. Celia (Mancini) joined the band later on. They started writing their own songs then. I have some recordings of them; I used to record bands quite a lot. The Axel Grinders did some good gigs and some really trashy gigs. It all depended on how drunk they were. I think The Axemen might have inspired Pat to start writing some songs. He was a pretty good songwriter.
Ryan: Three Virgins (1986) was the first double album Flying Nun released, right?
Steve: I think it was. They might have lost a little bit of money on it.
Ryan: You mentioned meeting Roger Shepherd at the EMI record store in Christchurch. How did you guys end of releasing material on Flying Nun?
Steve: Stu was the one who set that up. Stu was good mates with Doug Hood. Stu talked Flying Nun into it.
(Stu Kawowski: It was actually through Hamish Kilgour—who worked at Flying Nun and loved The Axemen. He backed our proposal to do the double LP with Flying Nun. He used to do live mixing for us at gigs a lot. He mixed us at the Big Cheap Motel live concert.)
Ryan: Three Virgins was recorded over a long period of time, correct?
Steve: No. It was recorded mostly at the State Trinity Centre in Christchurch. We hired it for the recording. Three Virgins did take a while to get mixed. Have you seen Stu’s movie Shustak?
Ryan: No. I know a little about Larence Shustak though. He was born in the 1920s in New York and shot photos of jazz musicians (Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, etc.) before moving to Christchurch.
Steve: That’s right. He was Stu’s art teacher. Shustak brought his four-track to the State Trinity Centre to record us. He had a nice four-track reel-to-reel. We hired the centre for the Easter weekend. We played with The Connoisseurs and did some overdubs later.
Ryan: Three Virgins is a lot to take in. Stylistically, you guys were all over the map: country music, shambolic punk rock—even snippets of conversation show up on the album.
Steve: Some of that was attributable to the busking we were doing with The Connoisseurs. We played a lot of different styles busking, depending on who was around.
Ryan: There’s a song about Hare Krishna on the album.
Steve: I hung out with the Hare Krishnas in Christchurch for a little bit. They used to have free vegetarian dinners on Sunday nights. The music was pretty cool. There was sort of a Beatles connection with Hare Krishna. Stu was really into John Lennon. We were all Beatles fans.
Bob & Mystics Graff, Christchurch, 1985 ©STU