Reprinted from: http://boredout305.tumblr.com/day/2013/09/06
Stu Kawowski (AKA Stuart Page) of The Axemen Interview, Part One
In 1983 Stu met up with Bob Brannigan and Steve McCabe and formed the venerable Axemen (1983-present). Brannigan and McCabe proved to be prolific songwriters—in the early days coming up with entirely new material for each successive Axemen gig. The Axemen recorded nearly every practice and show, resulting in countless cassette-only releases on McCabe’s Sleek Bott imprint.
Through the insistence of Axemen supporter Hamish Kilgour, Flying Nun released The Axemen’s (and the label’s) first double LP, Three Virgins (1986). Recorded by Shustak over a weekend, the record bore little resemblance to the Dunedin sound. The group tackled a number of genres on the album—punk, lounge, country and garage—that were all processed through The Axemen’s shambolic filter. Flying Nun released one more Axemen album, Derry Legend, in 1987. The Axemen went on hiatus in the early ’90s.
Although trained by Shustak as a photographer, Stu (under his given name Stuart Page) began making music videos in the mid ’80s. Stu made an early video for fellow Axemen Steve McCabe (“Sweat It Out”); in 1988 Stu directed the amazing “Buddy” video for Snapper. Stu’s also worked with the Skeptics and Superette.
Throughout the ’90s and early ’00s Stu continued making music videos. After toiling for a number of years, Stu released the well-received Shustak (2009)—a documentary chronicling the life of his late mentor (and Three Virgins producer) Larence Shustak.
In 2009 Tom Lax at Siltbreeze reissued Big Cheap Motel and Scary! Pt. III. The reissues prompted The Axemen to reform, resulting in a tour of America with label mates Times New Viking. In 2011 The Axemen toured Australia for the first time. Spacecase Records hit up McCabe and Stu for a new Axemen full-length, Sac Tap Nut Jam (2013). The Axemen (present lineup: Stu Kawowski, Steve McCabe, Dragan Stojanovic and William Daymond) are planning a tour of New Zealand in support of the record. Stu is currently working on a documentary on late OMC founder Pauly Fuemana.
Interview by Ryan Leach
Photos by Stuart Page
Ryan: Were you born in Christchurch?
Stu: I was born in Christchurch. I lived there until I was seven. My father then moved us up to Marlborough—Blenheim, which seemed like a nowhere town. I came home from school and asked my father if he had enrolled me in the IHC—the Intellectually Handicapped Society. After Christchurch, Blenheim seemed like a slide on the IQ level. I got used to it after a while. I met some cool kids at school and some hippies out in the country. I learned how to smoke dope. I had a really good art teacher in Blenheim, an English guy named Keith Reed. I spent most of my time in the art room. I went back to Christchurch when I was eighteen and went to art school. I went there between ‘76 and ‘79. I went to art school to do painting but then I encountered (Larence) Shustak and got into photography.
Ryan: You went on to make a documentary about Shustak decades later. Needless to say he left a huge impression on you.
Stu: Most people in New Zealand at that age were aiming to do their OE (overseas experience) in England. I always wanted to go to America. Shustak had arrived to New Zealand from New York only three years prior. He was sort of a conduit to the American experience. He was a Jewish New York photographer. It was great being around him. He was always surrounded by books. He subscribed to a ton of magazines; there was always new stuff arriving. Shustak had a lot of knowledge and information.
Ryan: When did you start playing drums?
Stu: I joined the school brass band when I was fourteen. They had a sign up: “Wanted: drummer.” I thought, “That sounds cool.” I started out on a snare drum. I used to learn from a guy who was in the air force. We used to practice every Tuesday night—drum rolls and paradiddles. I did that for two or three years at school. I joined the marching band and we’d play before rugby games. About a year after art school, I worked on this project with a guy called John Perrone who was a psychology student. We did an exhibition of 3D photography. John had a drum set in his garage that he gave to me. I had a studio in Mollet Street where I did screen printing. It used to be Christchurch’s first punk club and still had a stage. I brought the drum set over to the studio and started bashing on it. I wasn’t even in a band.
Ryan: You were at university when punk rock happened. Did the AK79 compilation interest you?
Stu: That AK79 scene was happening up in Auckland. Christchurch was typically very suspicious of anything happening up in Auckland. The Auckland bands seemed a little too glam to us. A few Auckland bands did come through Christchurch and they were all right. Truthfully I can’t really recall who they were. I remember the bands that I did like—Proud Scum—never even made it down to Christchurch. Christchurch had a different scene. Even Christchurch and Dunedin were different. We were quite proud of our bands in Christchurch.
Ryan: What early Christchurch punk bands were you interested in?
Stu: When the punk thing hit, bands like The Enemy would come to Christchurch. They’d play a club on Mollet Street that was run by a guy called Al Park who is still around, playing music and promoting. Bill Direen’s band Vacuum would be playing. Scorched Earth Policy and The Gordons as well. Two really important bands to The Axemen were Perfect Strangers and The And Band.
Ryan: The Christchurch Rotunda gig.
Stu: That gig and the Art Centre gig. They were both pivotal shows to quite a few people—certainly to me and Steve (McCabe) and Pat Faigan from The Picnic Boys and Say Yes to Apes. We went, “Holy shit! We can do that!”
Ryan: To my knowledge the first band you were in was Above Ground with Bill Direen.
Stu: I got hoodwinked into joining that band. David Kilgour was visiting, down in Sydenham. I was riding my bike over to where he was staying with a bottle of tequila in my bag. I remembered that Bill Direen had said that he had moved into the Sydenham fire station. I decided to stop by and see what Bill’s place looked like. He had this big social room in the old fire station. Bill had set it up with amps and a drum kit. Bill asked me what was in my bag; I told him I had a bottle of tequila and that I was going to visit David Kilgour. David and I had a mutual respect for tequila. Bill asked for a little sip before I took off. We ended up drinking the whole bottle. After we were finished he asked me if I wanted to play drums. We just jammed some songs out. I don’t recall how long I was there for. At the time I was living with Maryrose Wilkinson (Crook) who is now in The Renderers. She came home one day with an Eko bass guitar. I asked her what the bass was for; she replied, “Well, Bill said I was in a band with you and him.” That was news to me.
Ryan: The UK and United States had a big boom in independent labels in the late ’70s. New Zealand had some vinyl labels—Propeller and Flying Nun later—but it seemed like cassette tapes thrived there in the ’80s. I know there was only one vinyl pressing plant (owned by EMI) in all of New Zealand that eventually closed down. Was it cost prohibitive to release vinyl?
Stu: That pressing plant was in Lower Hutt—just outside of Wellington. We did release a lot of cassettes. It was so much easier. As a rule I would record every rehearsal and live gig. I did this largely to learn songs. It was a reference thing for me.
Gone Aiwa was recorded on a cassette recorder I bought off of an Asian student at university. It was a really good cassette recorder. Some of the recordings I got on that Aiwa sounded great. I wasn’t really aware of a scene (for cassette tapes). Once I recorded the tracks (for Gone Aiwa) I sold a few cassette copies through Rip It Up and the local record stores. That’s how I bumped into Steve McCabe. He was hawking some of his cassettes there.
Ryan: You told me that Steve (McCabe) would rename his bands after every cassette so the store would buy his new tapes.
Stu: Yeah. He made up ten band names because the record store would only buy one cassette tape by any band.
Ryan: Did you run into Steve at the EMI record store that Roger Shepherd and Roy Montgomery worked at?
Stu: I can’t remember if it was EMI or Record Factory. All of the record shops were located on Colombo Street which is the main drag in Christchurch. There were two EMI stores on Cathedral Square—the main one was on the north side of Cathedral Square and the small one on the south side. Roger (Shepherd) worked at the small one. Roy Montgomery worked at the main one on the north side. I used to go in and talk to Rog because he was a cool dude. He played me The Birthday Party for the first time. It was worth going into the EMI shop just to see Rog.
Ryan: Tell me about meeting Bob (Brannigan) and Steve (McCabe).
Stu: I remember seeing Steve early on riding his bicycle. He was wearing a bright yellow plastic raincoat. It was after school. He was drunk and it was only four in the afternoon. I thought, “That’s pretty wild.” I found out later on that he was quite an expert at home brewing. Steve knew that I was in Above Ground. We swapped tapes. Above Ground went down to Dunedin to play at the Empire with The Cartilage Family (Peter Gutteridge and Christine Voice). I think Steve and Bob played that show as well. It gets a bit hazy. They didn’t have a drummer so I filled in for them. It was so much fun playing with Steve and Bob. Early on we covered “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones and “Love Is the Drug” by Roxy Music. There were no rehearsals; we’d just go straight into the songs. I taped that show with my Sony Walkman. I listened back to it and thought it sounded awesome. It was a hell of a lot fun. It was fun playing in Above Ground too, but it was a more serious band. You could do whatever you wanted in The Axemen.
Bob and Steve both played guitar. Bob had a fuzzy sounding guitar—really dirty. Steve had a guitar that sounded great for lead. It screamed. It was me on drums and that was it. We didn’t have a bass player initially.
Ryan: In the early days The Axemen didn’t play the same songs twice, right?
Stu: Every show was different. Steve and Bob were so prolific that there was never a chance to do anything twice. They’d be onstage, telling each other how the song went. We’d just go from there. It was pretty awesome.
Ryan: You guys were all proficient screen printers which helped with flyers and cassette tapes.
Stu: Right. We created a lot of our own posters. We’d screen print our own album covers. We used to screen print LP covers and put cassette tapes in them. That way we could put cassettes in the LP racks. We did six or so Axemen releases like that.
Ryan: Hamish Kilgour was a big Axemen supporter.
Stu: Hamish was an Axemen supporter. He used to mix us live quite a bit. Hamish got us on Flying Nun. A lot of people couldn’t understand what in the hell we were going on about. A few key people got into the Axemen. Hamish was one of them. Buck (Peter Stapleton) from Scorched Earth Policy was another. I remember after every song Buck would start laughing. I wasn’t sure if it was good or not. But then he asked us to open up for Scorched Earth Policy so it must have been a good thing. Hamish wrote a lovely letter of support for The Axemen that he sent to Flying Nun. He wrote it on Flying Nun letterhead. It was weird: a letter on Flying Nun letterhead sent to Flying Nun. Hamish was responsible for Three Virgins being released on Flying Nun really.
Ryan: Speaking of Hamish, you took over Peter Gutteridge’s place in The Great Unwashed for the “Neck of the Woods” video.
Stu: That was a bit of a laugh. Peter was probably in Dunedin. David and Hamish were in Christchurch. We filmed the video on the Miss New Zealand set. The little platforms we’re standing on are for the first, second and third place winners. Greg Rood directed the video. By the time we finished filming it, the video was pretty much complete. It took about an hour. Ronnie Van Hout, who’s quite a good artist—he did a lot of posters and record covers for bands back then—he made a mask that resembled Peter Gutteridge’s face that I had to wear. I also thought I’d advertise the Axemen by wearing one of our T-shirts. I didn’t know the bass line at all to the song.
Ryan: How did you pull a double album (Three Virgins) out of Flying Nun?
Stu: I don’t know how we did that. It was so unlikely. It was probably Hamish’s insistence. We had no connection to the Dunedin sound. Most of those bands were playing jangly pop. That album took a little while. We did some mixing up in Auckland with Jed Town. The record was clearly four sides. There was nothing to do about it and no way to shorten it. We did the artwork for the cover. Flying Nun freaked out; it was a full-color gatefold. Most people were putting out black and white album covers. The cover art was so fucked up that they had to spend some extra money to get some guy to re-cut the stuff for the plates. I remember Roger (Shepherd) saying, “We’re not going to make any money off of this record because of that bloody cover.” Somehow Flying Nun did it. They pressed 667 copies. We were all amazed.
Ryan: You worked with your mentor Shustak on Three Virgins.
Stu: That’s right. Shustak took a trip back to America. I think he was in New York and bought a four-track TEAC reel-to-reel. He built a wooden panel that the four-track dropped into with a couple of mixers. He was into making stuff out of wood. He designed the panel for the four-track to be portable. I asked him what he was going to do with it. He told me he was looking for a project to record. I played him some of the Axemen’s music and he was quite excited by it. He told me, “You guys have a lot of energy.” I asked him if he’d like to do some recording; he said, “Yeah, sure.” At the time there was a place called the State Trinity Centre. It was a church-like building. You could hire it for thirty-five dollars a day. We hired it for the whole Easter Weekend of ‘85. That gave us access to this beautiful room—all carpeted with a piano and pipe organ—for very little money.
Ryan: I really like all the Axemen-related videos that were coming out around this time. There’s the Axemen’s guide to screen printing you and Lawrence Lens came up with. You directed the Steve McCabe video for “Sweat it Out.”
Stu: Lawrence Lens was in a band called Nux Vomica. He was a big fan of Fassbinder. Lawrence used to go around at night and smash the glass protecting these movie theater posters so he could take them. He bought a super 8 camera for twenty bucks. A really shitty one. It was Lawrence pushing to go out filming that got those shorts made. Lawrence said he wanted to do something with the Axemen. I ended up directing the screen printing one with him. He did another video with Steve that was very much in Steve’s style called “Drink For the Heart…” That was interesting because it shows Steve going through his home brewing process. He makes it out to be very glamorous. I think those are the only two films we did with Lawrence. After Three Virgins came out—Radio With Pictures was on the television. With a little bit of luck you could get a music video on there. There was a place in Christchurch called Alternative Cinema. You could rent a 16mm Bolex and lights for twenty bucks a week. I had met a guy who worked as a TV news cameraman. They were shooting reversal 16mm color film. He said, “Look, we always have these short ends. We’ll shoot a couple hundred feet of film and have a couple hundred left that we never use; we always open a new tin. Come by and I’ll give you some film.” I dropped by and he gave me a whole stack of film. We went nuts shooting it. That’s how I got into filmmaking.
Ryan: So you’re largely a self-taught filmmaker?
Ryan: That’s really impressive.
Stu: I did work for a woman who ran a film-training program in Christchurch in 1986. That’s the year the video with Steve (McCabe) came out. I didn’t do it as a student; I helped her set the program up. Nevertheless I probably learned some things from doing that.
Ryan: What do you recall about recording Derry Legend (1987)?
Stu: I had made a video for The Skeptics (“A.F.F.C.O.” video). After doing The Axemen video, I realized I enjoyed making these things. We had the opportunity to record at The Skeptics’ Writhe studio in Wellington. They had brand new gear—a sixteen-track recorder and a nice Soundcraft mixing desk. Brent (McLachlan) from The Gordons had his nice Ludwig drum kit in there. It seemed like a really good place to record. I think we paid them to record and then traded out the video I directed for the cost of mixing Derry Legend. It was a really good deal. It was a brand new studio. It was a completely different setup to recording Three Virgins with Shustak. The Gordons had been bought out of a building they were at earlier; a finance company gave them something like 100,000 dollars to move out. So that’s how they had all of that money to buy this nice gear. We turned up at the right time.
Ryan: One of my favorite Steve McCabe tracks is on there, “The Wharf With No Name.” It’s the first Axemen song I ever heard. The video is on the Flying Nun music video compilation, Very Short Films.
Stu: Occasionally we appear on Flying Nun compilations. It isn’t very often. That might be the only one.
Ryan: I really like the video you filmed for Snapper’s song “Buddy.” It’s one of those instances where the video is as compelling as the song.
Stu: Thanks. Peter (Gutteridge) and Christine (Voice) were largely behind the ideas for the video. They said they wanted motorbikes in the video. They met up with this motorcycle club called BRONZ—Bikers Rights Organisation of New Zealand. They were dudes who wanted the right to ride around without a helmet. They had all of these cool bikes. I went down to Dunedin to film the video in the middle of winter. It was bloody freezing cold. Christine had a really cool studio space where she used to make all kinds of things out of colored plastic, like bags. We set up the studio space in there—filming the band playing their instruments. We had a smoke machine and some lights. The rest of it was filmed outdoors. We had a truck with a generator on the back so we could shine some light on the bikers riding around at night. It was a lot of fun. I remember it being incredibly cold.
Ryan: Are you still in touch with Peter?
Stu: Yeah. I actually saw him last week. I was in Dunedin and stayed at David Kilgour’s place. Peter has a new Snapper lineup. It’s him and some young dudes. I saw them play once and it was really enjoyable. Peter has been putting together the masters for that Pure cassette he released. Timmy from Chaos In Tejas is putting it out. It’s going to be a double album. I heard the masters and they sound great. Peter got someone to help him out with it. I’m excited about it because I lost my Pure cassette years ago. It’s a great album. It has an early version of “Hang On” on it. The Snapper EP is amazing.
Ryan: Shotgun Blossom is one of my favorite records to come out of New Zealand.
Stu: Yeah. Peter has all these theories on rhythm and sound. He’s still totally into that. We did a bit of filming while I was down there. We’ll see what happens with that.
(Part Two coming soon…)