There is an argument, popular among some, that a career in music is just too easy these days. Whether that’s true or not is impossible to quantify – too easy compared to what, exactly? – but it’s safe to say that if you choose to make records like Big Cheap Motel then you’re always going to be on the very far our fringes of popular culture whatever time you happen to exist in.
Formed in South Church and Dunedin in 1981, The Axemen’s initial inspiration was to protest against the aparthied-era South African rugby team playing in New Zealand. Their chosen medium was, by the sounds of it, terrifyingly primitive sax noodling lain atop cardboard box drums and one-chord detuned stumble-thrash. All of which makes Axemen sound awful when in fact they’re all kinds of amazing. Listen to Stoopid Symbol Of Woman Hate or Can’t Stand Up For 40-Inch Busts (both songs were inspired by a hatred of sexist advertising) and you can hear Amon Duul and Hawkwind scaring the living shit out of Devo and Clock DVA. I suppose if you starved kraut gods Faust at gunpoint for a month then made them jump down a well tied to an appalling, ham-fisted Sham 69 tribute group you might – might! – come up with something like this hellishly raw and poorly recorded album, but only if you were very, very lucky.
This is a brilliant artefact as it’s so amazingly free, like a gloriously inebriated idea come to shocking life, Big Cheap Motel is a series of truly bloody terrible noises slung together to make something altogether wonderful. It is insane and angry and funny and informed by a thirst for cheap beer, sonic outrage and dangerous thrills and you really need to hear it now. Which, in this day and age, is a gloriously easy task.
Title: Scary! Part III
Long known underground stars from New Zealand, The Axemen are now gaining some well-deserved notoriety here in the States thanks to one of our finest labels, Siltbreeze. Tom Lax has again exhibited sterling musical sense in [repressing – sic.] – re-pressing “Scary! Part III” and “Big Cheap Motel.”
And while it’s not an easy task trying to pin down their sound, especially considering the variety of their entire discography (much less the territorial span of music on this release), I’ll give it a shot.
On my first listening, I immediately drew a comparison to Royal Trux, but that was basically drawn from the majority of vocals on the record, featuring some of the coolest, junked-out vox either before or after the Trux hit the scene.
From the get-go, the song “Heart Bullet” features some insanely fucked up vocals and word play. Unlike a lot of New Zealand music, the vocals are uncharacteristically mixed up and not buried in the instrumentation. It kind of paradoxically makes the voice seem like another instrument—I’m at a loss finding (other than Herrema) anyone to compare the vocals to while maintaining any real dignity. Suffice it to say that they’re easily in the upper echelon of all rock vox, and it’s continued across both wunnerfuly screwed tracks on the double LP set.
Though the music is varied, you never get the feeling that the album was thrown together as pieces. As incoherent and absurd as it is, the record has a marvelous cohesion, at times overtly a downer, such as the track “10 Miles (as the crow flies)” and other points like the near-sinister, hardcore influenced “Join the R.A.F.”
It’s near-put impossible to fix these fellers into any genre, and that’s a damn good thing. Not only that, it’s a fucking difficult thing to pull off convincingly, yet the Axemen do so with, well what’s the write word, grace? How about ‘instinct?’ That seems more apropos. It’s an instinct which speaks more to an overall aesthetic than does it any attempt to play this or that style of music.
This one of the strangest records ever sludged to wax, and it’s caused that compulsive collector in my to try and track down any and all of their recordings, which, from what I’ve read, is going to be a formidable task. This is no surprise since they formed around 1981 and have recorded pretty consistently since, and even through the broad spectrum of music the venerable Flying Nun label have pressed over the years, The Axemen stand totally on their own. Flying Nun wasn’t their only label over the years—there have been several, but as an American touchstone, it’s appropriate to mention them as one of the better-known imprints to bring up.
All I can tell you is that, even on this one double LP, influences include American hardcore and DIY, Beefheart (though nothing obvious springs to mind at the outset), a sort of Zappaesque sense of humor, bizarre synth music, employ of loops and on and on.
The Axemen are their own entity. The only downside to this is that it took so long for an American pressing to go down. I’ve heard that they’ve met with largely great critical press on their recent tour of the U.S. One can only hope that it continues and that we see them again very soon.
So the Axemen finally make it to the United States to tour, and one of the local weeklies lists them as “Axeman.”
Nobody who’s in a position to know has influence enough to care. Tom Lax coulda bought a very decent used car with the ca$hola he’s sunken into this beyond-insane reissue program for New Zealand’s most divisive band – even so far as to have dug up two never-heard-‘em cassettes for the introductory offers, guaranteed to chase away even seasoned listeners.
Lifting up out of the muck that was Big Cheap Motel, this four-sider thankfully doesn’t give way to clarity, though some would claim it’d give birth to Blankdoggin’, as few of the ‘90s lo-fi oligarchy would have touched a synth or a sampler, let alone subjected them to the levels of abuse that Stevie McCabe offers up all over here.
Approximately 150 people will hear a serious Dirty Faces connection to the flotsam here; more will liken it to Royal Trux in their scum/disassociative phase, and that’s fine.
Here was – and is – a band that is continually in protest mode, against common sense if not a social or political cause … fuck, one of their auxiliary members drove his ride into the glass doors of the Kiwi tax office, and from all accounts, he’s free to walk on American soil as I write this. Does anyone in New Zealand want to swap places with me?
I’ve heard too many good things and am ready to throw away my life in the USA. This 1989 release is nothing but endless ur-jammin’ on some rudimentary melody, jive talkin’ monologue, screechin’ and sneerin’, occasionally stumbling onto a higher truth and really just content to slag off anyone that comes near it.
You don’t have to like it, or even respect it, because it was made to chase you and everybody else away. I respect that Lax puts out a pop record the likes of the Mantles or Eat Skull, but isn’t afraid to keep truckin’ in the weirdness like this charcoal nug. Still waiting on Three Virgins, and more eloquent thoughts from Wood Beez. (http://www.siltbreeze.com)
Tuesday, November 24th, 3pm – 6pm on Brian Turner’s show, http://www.wfmu.org (streaming/archiving)
91.1 fm (NYC metro NJ) 90.1 fm (Catskills/Hudson Valley/PA/WNJ)
One of the big touring surprises for 2009 has to be the visit of New Zealand’s legendary Axemen to U.S. shores. The band began in Christchurch in 1981 and stood somewhat aside of the pop path exhibited by much of the the Flying Nun label roster, but are without doubt one of the more fascinating Kiwi exports. Various live shows and releases displayed a loose but virulent amalgamation of avant-garage, Half Japanese style sax primitivism, confusion, and general air of maladjusted greatness.
AXEMEN, HAIRDOS, NOBBQ – WHAMMY BAR, AUCKLAND NZ, NOVEMBER 16 2009
The AXEMEN, or in keeping with their ‘Fair Trade’ and Consumer Guarantees Act commitments more correctly adopting the AXEMIN moniker due to the last minute substitution of teen heartthrob Liz Hairdo on drums in Stu’s place for these gigs while Stu down in the South Island hustling his film and other projects.
For the two-nite Auckland stand featuring two of their stalwart Silt Breeze sidekicks on different nites – xNOBBQx from Brisbane on Wednesday nite at the Whammy bar to a tiny but enthusiastic crowd (think next time they should bring the BBQ – their attempts to show their disdain for the grill so loved by kiwis and aussies alike did nothing to endear them to those in the crowd hungry for prawns, shrimp, hot-dogs, tofu burgers and rock’n’roll).
“Even a sausage sizzle would have been nice” one veteran punter (who looked as if he’d seen more than a few sausage sizzles up close and personally in his time) lamented later.
Fortunately for Auckland, the erstwhile and awesome HAIRDOS and ageing (but still with all their faculties since getting their fillings removed and not using aluminium cooking pots) Axemin emerged as crowd favourites to redeem the evening – It should be noted since playing gigs with the Hairdos in recent times, the Axemin have appeared to be getting noticeably and palpably younger at each gig, following the infusion of post-teen spirit exuded by that band and their followers, in an alarmingly, almost Dorian Gray kind of way.
Sandwiched around xNOBBQx like so much white on rye, the Hairdos played first. Switching their Stranglers / B52s sound mix across to ‘more Stranglers’ setting for the evening (fuzzier and dirtier) the Hairdos played a punchy, poppy, plucky set in their inimitable enthusiastic style, going almost the entire set without a fight – I think that is a record, I know people who go to Hairdos gigs just for the fights, and occasionally run a book on them.
Energetic and snappy as always, the Hairdos style contrasted vividly with xNOBBQx‘s ethereal meandering soundscapes. Conjuring images of aborigines standing on one foot on the outback, tossing a boomerang, blowing a digeridoo and watching re-runs of Evonne Goolagong at the French Open in 1971, these straight-edge ‘stralians evoked images of an eery gum-tree-lined outback road, a camel your only friend.
Next the Axemin. Fresh from being on the door in the early part of the evening Steve and Bob virtually bounded to the stage. the role of Stu for the evening was taken by the gal Auckland society is calling ‘the New Stu’, the Hairdos own Liz Hairdo. After just one practice ‘Stu-do’ and the lads went out and effortlessly knocked it to the pint-sized crowd, and Liz H did perhaps the best impression of Stu I’ve seen since I copped an eyeful of him practicing under his fisheye ceiling mirror (the “objects may be larger than they appear” sticker remaining proudly intact).
AXEMEN, PUMICE, PINK REASON – THE HIGH SEAS, AUCKLAND, NZ NOVEMBER 19 2009
The Axemen feat ‘The New Stu’ (Liz Hairdo):
filling in for Stu Kawowski for 2 Auckland engagements:
This Video from THE HIGH SEAS, Beresford Street, Auckland, 19 Sept 2009
The AXEMEN, chafing at the bit to meet up with and play for their Silt Breeze stablemates The Pink Reason sidled up first for the High Seas gig in Beresford Streed, Newton Auckland. Just a stones throw from the infamous toilets and a brisk walk to K Rd, the surroundings as well as the gig really gave those cornfed Colombus boys something to write home about. Bristling from their successful (artistically if not commercially) Wednesday nite gig Bob and Stu once again gave it their all and Liz NewStu literally never missed a beat.
Once again another noteperfect evening of axemen rockola, if anything enhanced by the injection of some new drumming blood, like stem cells called in to mend a hole.
PUMICE next came on playing a bunch of songs on ‘treated’ guitar with white noise, radio frequencies and memorable lines such as ‘half price for half a chicken’, obviously calling on the audience to metaphorically extend their minds and go outside their aural comfort zones, yet coming back full circle, maybe to bite you on the bum, maybe to serenade you. Mesmeric.
PINK REASON played an immaculate spooky and at times delicate set, sounding quite at home in the intimate venue of the High Seas, the venue tonite showcasing its flexibility as a band venue for artistes playing a wide range of different musical styles. These guys represent the cutting edge of indie rock in America at the moment and they are good buddies with our touring partners on our US tour, Times New Viking. Columbus, Ohio has produced some fine musicians, along with the strapping muscular farmboys [with six-pack abs and rivulets of sweat rolling down the bulging veins and following the smooth curve of their oversized triceps before evaporating away to nothing – are we keepng this in?] it is famous for!
A much better turnout on Friday at the High Seas than the Whammy Bar on a rainy Wednesday I must say…
“…this is the sort of action that more artists should fight for…”
First of three reissues by this forgotten New Zealand punk trio out on Siltbreeze this year, opening up the world to their scarcely-heard ‘80s material.
The record of theirs I have, Derry Legend, is just as irreverent, but still sounds far more refined than the cassette release Big Cheap Motel. It’s chaos, pretty much, of the Fall or Country Teasers variety; some guys who’d gotten their way into a big public concert, sponsored by the Big M dairy conglomerate, chomp on the corporate hand with a set of ten songs, all written the day of the show, condemning the company and its use of scantily-clad women to advertise its wares (“Can’t Stand Up For 40-Inch Busts,” “Our Sponsor Today,” “The Pornographic Milk Drink”).
Tinny, handheld recording paints a lack of means, but a surplus of defiant attitude by those who would kick sand in the face of big business looking to increase its profile on the backs of the downtrodden.
In a modern era where several prominent countercultural press outlets have their own fucking record labels, where bands fight for the right to shill for Scion or Pepsi or RJ Reynolds, this is the sort of action that more artists should fight for.
Their reasons could have been purely political, or just done for a laugh; both evoke satisfying reactions. (www.siltbreeze.com)
“…Built around a thick guitar line that is distorted until it becomes a fluid conveyer belt of sound… ”
“…hermetic tribes… ”
“… The Pornographic Milk Drink contains rotating metal spoke on a ferris wheel guitar… ”
“…Pleasantly skewed junkyard Buddy Holly rhythm lines played atop walls of distorted uber-rock riffs that contain the weight and force of a Flipper-like death dirge and the occasional saxophone blurt frame the basic vehicle for the band’s Brautiganian lyrical worldview... ”
Outside of a few ardent music fans, hipsters and record collectors, how many Americans ever heard of the Axemen before the Siltbreeze reissue campaign? I’m guessing not many of us had the pleasure and, yet, the band steadily released albums throughout the last two-and-a-half decades. At face value, it seems like the band just wishes to entertain themselves and devotees by performing and recording their take on the music they enjoy. These hermetic tribes usually end up being the most effective musical acts because their mission really cannot fail. If the mind’s creation gears continually turn and you possess the unique ability to, at once, channel and transform the music that inspires you, not much could go wrong. Such is the case with the Axemen.
So, TJ Lax provides the public with a vital service and a history lesson by releasing not one but two Axemen reissues in 2009. The first installment, 1984’s Big Cheap Motel, proves why this band deserves the reissue treatment and the attention it will likely receive by bearing the Siltbreeze tag. Like a more cohesive version of their UK brothers from other mothers on the Street Level Records roster, the Axemen kick grimy, postmodern, crooked punk-jazz sermons filtered through a boombox haze and serious subject matter that is littered with in-jokes. Milk, sexism and breasts all factor into a biting take on UK anarcho-punk lyrics soundtracked by a serious defacto homage to the aforementioned Street Level sounds.
In fact, the second tune on the album—billed as a rehash of album-opener “Big Fat ‘M’”— sounds like a looser a Good Missionaries outtake tracked on top of a Danny and the Dressmakers tune. A dense, plodding rhythm line lays the grounds for a strange, possible anti-sexism rant wherein the singer exhibits the same off-kilter, slurred sing-speak vocals as Mark Perry. Interrupted by chatter and greasy guitar-driven sound experimentation, the song detours into a shapeless pile of intersecting ideas before briefly rising back into its initial structure. The results of the expedition on the second rendition of “Big Fat ‘M’” could be disastrous and annoying if its slant on song construction continued for an entire album.
But the Axemen duck this possible pitfall and keep Big Cheap Motel fresh and exciting by providing a home base of sound to which they can return after their journey into a foreign territory commences. Songs like the title track and “The Pornographic Milk Drink” showcase this sound without sacrificing the variety of execution techniques that runs through the album. Pleasantly skewed junkyard Buddy Holly rhythm lines played atop walls of distorted uber-rock riffs that contain the weight and force of a Flipper-like death dirge and the occasional saxophone blurt frame the basic vehicle for the band’s Brautiganian lyrical worldview. “The Pornographic Milk Drink” contains rotating metal spoke on a ferris wheel guitar leading into a sludgy sewage drain of a riff. Lead guitar lays the groundwork for a boogie-infused take on the band’s sound, as big ‘70s hard rock sounds collide with the band’s surrealist take on Crass Records political sloganeering.
Built around a thick guitar line that is distorted until it becomes a fluid conveyer belt of sound, the title track reaps the benefits of its relative simplicity. The mantra of “Big cheap motel/ Big Tamla motel” pairs with the lava guitar flow to form a song that would work fine with guitar and vocals. But each time the Axemen run through things, a slight variation on the initial theme seems to arise on the next go-round—an off-rhythm guitar line, extra guitar fractures, a more minimal drum beat. The initial riff melts into small, blurry guitar bridges. A faux-Dick Dale guitar construction spackled in the cracks of “Big Cheap Motel” wanders to whatever rhythmic variation that the guitarist feels best compliments the tune. All the slight variations keep the sense of adventure that Big Cheap Motel showcases intact.
Big Cheap Motel is one of those records where you can imagine the band’s thought process as they delve into any musical alleyway that pleases them. Though the names and age range of the band members are hard to discern from the liner notes (the insert contains poorly Xeroxed photos of the band and each band member’s name printed in black magic marker with an arrow pointed to his place in the photo), Big Cheap Motel contains the wide-eyed looseness of a bunch of kids in a garage trying to mimic the music they enjoy. Let’s do a hardcore tune. Let’s try inserting a drill sound on this one. The refreshing results vary wildly from the artists’ that may or may not have inspired the Axemen but the band’s affinity for the challenge and reward of artistic creation shines through.
It’s understandable that Australia and New Zealand have a contentious relationship. I used to live in Cleveland, don’t anymore, but still cringe whenever I see a Stealers logo anywhere. The fact, though, that the Aussies recently claimed that New Zealanders are hermits, or some such, seems a bit beyond me. Anyway, New Zealand, as much Australia, has a pretty rich and important musical history. The Tall Dwarfs (sic) and Chris Knox have impacted current indie musical trends in a pretty noticeable way. You’d be able to hear it even if Jay Reatard didn’t tell us straight out.
But a less lauded band – the Axemen – in the early ‘80s mined similar territory to Knox. They were a bit more noisey. Ok. A lot more noisey. The trio comprised some scene veterans and when Bob Brannigan, Little Stevie McCabe and Stu Kawowski came together, a more twisted vision of what pop should be was spat from speakers. Perhaps their most enduring – and time specific – document comes in the form of Big Cheap Motel (it’s there, but you gotta look for it).
At a time when British punk bands wrote songs about Maggie being some body part and American punkers criticized Reagan on a daily basis, the Axemen took a more localized view of politics. Being slated to perform at a festival early in 1984 at a public park, the band was prepared to run through a set of their previously written material, but sponsorship of a milk company – Big M – prompted the trio to compose eleven new songs to comment upon the perceived problem.
Supposedly, the band took issue with the sexist imagery displayed at the festival. Although, there aren’t any specifics to be found in the interwebs as to what, exactly, the problem was. Either way, it inspired some stripped down, rock thudding. Most frequently, the Flying Nun label and its stable of acts are in some way checked in relationship to the sound found on this disc. But the Axemen sound way more furious than anything else that I’ve come across on that label.
The occasional inclusion of a sax, as on the anthemic “Stupid Symbol of Woman Hate,” points to the breadth of work that these folks were listening to. It isn’t quite Funhouse from the Stooges, but that track does ratchet up repetitive punk tropes along with the bleated chorus. And for some reason, this track sounds a bit better recorded than a few others.
A few other tracks leap out of the pile, which, for a great deal of the long player suffers from less than desirable sound. But even if you can’t understand the words to “Pornographic Milk Drink,” you can sense the band’s dedication to what they have to say as the disheveled punk track plays out. The inclusion of an extended Stones cover – “We Love You” – is a bit confusing since this performance, in part, was meant to defy corporate shenanigans. But if you’ve heard the Cock Sparrer version, you may have already heard the best rendition of the track.
If the historic and political perspective of this work was removed, I don’t know that we’d still be talking about this disc twenty some years after it was recorded. But it’s an artifact. And it’s one that fits into the linear narrative of rock history.
Fantastic vinyl issue of what was originally a cassette from a group that were an anomaly even within the relatively eclectic environs of the original Flying Nun catalogue. This New Zealand group released a bunch of vinyl and cassettes, all of which took the basic Kiwi-pop blueprint and exploded it with classic UK art/damage moves, crude free jazz skronk, radical prole violence and punk primitive avant garde smarts. Big Cheap Motel was recorded live at Hagley Park Ritual and Peterboro Studios and was conceived as an anti-corporate/sexist action aimed at the sponsorship of a Christchurch Summer Rock festival by a milk company: “Stoopid Symbol Of Women Hate/The Pornographic Milk Drink”. Still, the sonics are nowhere near the kinda ‘worthy’ protest music that have sunk so many student duds, this kinda rallying owes more to the blunt, subversive style of the early Fall or the art-punk aggression of the Swell Maps/Steve Treatment cultus, referencing classic rock/roll yucks like Steve Mackay’s signature saxophone sound or the tantrums of Half Japanese while maintaining the kinda dazed topographical haze that defines alla the best NZ/FN action. This sits perfectly on the Siltbreeze label, joining the dots between early avant garage moves and the label’s own deeply-embedded crude-fi aesthetic and if you’re into classic outsider modes in the hands of musical Neanderthals but dig ’songs’ more than ‘noise’ then this is the white stuff: highly recommended.