Ryan: What inspired the Axemen to record Three Rooms: An Elton John Tribute Album (1992).
Stu: I remember that time period. Although it was released in 1992 we actually recorded it in 1984 or 1985. Nevertheless I can’t recall why in the hell we decided to do that record. I was living in Christchurch. Steve and Bob were sharing a flat that we called Peterborough Studios; we had done up the whole upstairs of their place and dedicated it to playing music. Steve was brewing coffee wine. We were all probably a bit wasted on his coffee wine. I remember singing “Rocket Man.” I think we only intended to do one song. As a joke we carried on with a whole pile of Elton John songs. It was one of those nutty things that we would do. I don’t think we had an organized plan to do Elton John covers.
Ryan: Organized and the Axemen are not synonymous.
Ryan: I lost track of you after 1992. What were you doing after The Axemen wound down? Were you pursuing film and photography?
Stu: In 1992 I hooked up with a couple of dudes and tried to set up a film company. We had two names. One was Eclipse Films. I was making music videos under that name. The other name was Māori: Te Aō Mārama Productions. Under that name we made a documentary about an old Māori woman, Ana Tia, who ran an inner-city marae (communal place). She would help out kids who moved to the city from the country and got into trouble. She would visit them in the jails and teach them traditional Māori waiata (songs) and haka— Māori war dance. That film, Te Whaea: Mother Of Change, ended up going to Leipzig, Germany and won an award. I was responsible for doing these advertising slides for a couple of cinemas in town as well. That was just to bring in cash for the business. I did that for a few years. The business didn’t pan out in the end. It wasn’t very lucrative. After the business ended I decided I wanted to learn more about film lighting. I ended up doing film lighting for ten years or so. I worked on commercials and feature films.
Ryan:Shustak (2009) was a big undertaking for you. I know Shustak died before you completed the film. How long had you been working on the film when he passed?
Stu: Shustak had a heart attack. I was in Europe when it happened. Someone had written to me and told me that he wasn’t well. I thought, “Oh shit. Don’t go yet, old man.” I came back to New Zealand and borrowed a camera from someone. I went down to Christchurch and asked Shustak to do some filming. He wasn’t very keen. I was there for two weeks and I only filmed him once. I went back down a few months later and managed to do one more session with him. I had enough footage to apply for some funding by that point. I wanted to do a small film. I applied for about $16,000. I was actually carrying Shustak’s coffin in Christchurch when the letter was delivered in Auckland saying that I had gotten the funding. Shustak was convinced that I’d never get it. He’d say to me, “No one will give you funding to make a film about me.” I was just focusing on making a small film on Shustak. But then this guy, Elliot Landy—who was the primary photographer at Woodstock—found out that I was doing this film on Shustak. He lives out in New York. Landy said, “Oh, man, you’ve got to come out and film us. We’ve got much more interesting things to say about Shustak than what he told you.” I realized at that point that Landy was right and that the project had suddenly become enormous.
Ryan: Shustak comes across as a very divisive figure in the film. Were you expecting that?
Stu: Shustak was a very important person in my life. I wanted to make something celebrating all of his great photography; I didn’t want his life to go unnoticed. There wasn’t much information on Shustak out there. A few mentions in magazines.
Ryan: There still isn’t much out there on him. You did a great service for him.
Stu: There’s a book coming out with some of his photographs of Ethiopian Jews in it but there’s nothing solid out there on him, focusing exclusively on his work. I doubt I’ll do it. I spent seven years of my life on the film. Someone should pick up the baton and charge with that one. It’d be a big job but someone could put together an incredible book of Shustak’s work. There’s so much material. I’ve scanned thousands of things that he created: photographs, writings and film scripts.
I was going to Europe with this Māori music group a lot between 2002 and 2006. I’d get my return travel to NZ rerouted through USA rather than back through Asia. It cost me another five hundred dollars but it allowed me to stop off in New York and film people like Harvey Zucker from A Photographers Place bookstore and Elliot Landy up in Woodstock. I also filmed Shustak’s family, friends and ex-wives. Some of them were hard to find, living right on the border of Mexico. Shustak was a guy you either loved or hated. His kids all had good and bad things to say about him. His ex-wives didn’t speak too kindly of him. He did some really great photography. For its time and place it was pretty groundbreaking. Nowadays it isn’t but back then it was. He was photographing graffiti and black Jews so long ago.
Ryan: And taking all those great photos of jazz musicians.
Stu: Right. Who knows where all the rest of those jazz photos are? He had a habit of losing stuff. He was a difficult guy to make a film about.
Ryan: An important person in The Axemen story is Tom Lax. How did you meet him?
Stu: Tom visited New Zealand back in 1992. He collected a whole bunch of albums and cassettes—including Axemen LPs and stuff on Bruce Russell’s Xpressway label. Tom had really select taste. Tom came at a time when you could buy rare New Zealand vinyl for quite cheap. He picked up a whole pile of records—albums you pay one hundred dollars for today he was picking up for a couple of bucks. Tom told me how he got interested in New Zealand music. Some record distributor had been stiffing him on some orders he had been putting in for Australian records. Tom got pissed off at this guy. The distributor said, “Hey, I just got a bunch of records in from New Zealand from this label Flying Nun. Do you want those instead?” Tom said, “Okay. Send me two copies of everything that’s good and one copy of everything else.” Of course the distributor sent him two copies of everything. The records all arrived on a Friday. Tom went to see a band play that night with some friends. They got a bit drunk and decided to go back to the record store to listen to this New Zealand crap. They ended up staying at the record store the whole night. Tom played The Axemen’s Three Virgins over and over again that night. It was by chance that he found out about us. When Tom moved from Columbus, Ohio to Philadelphia all of the kids from Columbus would visit him at the Philadelphia Record Exchange and he’d play them The Axemen. I think Jared from Times New Viking was pretty taken by it. Jared told him, “Oh, you’ve got to release something by these guys.” Eventually Tom did.
Ryan: And then you ended up touring with Times New Viking.
Stu: That was an awesome tour. We did about twenty-six shows. Some were great, others were not. The show in Philadelphia was a complete disaster in my opinion, due to someone drinking a whole lot of alcohol. But then a friend of mine in Auckland told me his friend in Baltimore—who had gone out to the Philadelphia show—said that it changed his life. I thought it was the worst show of the tour. Those Times New Viking guys were great. It was a gift to tour with them.
Ryan: You toured Australia in 2011 and released a single with the late Brendon Annesley.
Stu: Yeah, Brendon was a darling. A guy called Samuel Miers and his friend Daniel Oakman have a band called School Girl Report. They had planned to do a music festival at Batemans Bay which is about four hours south of Sydney on the coast. Sam rang me up one day and said, “We’ve only got the budget for one overseas band and we want it to be The Axemen.” I thought that was exciting. Everyone wanted to do it. Bob (Brannigan) had left the band after the American tour. Dragan had been playing with us for years and we added William Daymond on bass—a young guy from Wellington. This whole festival they had planned turned into a nightmare; just the bureaucracy of fire laws and city inspectors, etc. Sam, without missing a beat, organized a tour of Australia for us. He got all of these other bands interested who knew and liked The Axemen. We started in Brisbane. We played with Satanic Rockers, Mad Nanna, Meat Thump, Blank Realm, Cock Safari, xNoBBQx, Circle Pit, School Girl Report and others…
Ryan: We (Spacecase Records) wrote you to release a single but you had so many good songs we went ahead with an LP.
Stu: Yeah. We were trying to squeeze eight songs onto a 7”. It wouldn’t work. Not unless we played them at 16 RPM. We’re still trying to get a tour together. We’re playing it by ear. I’m pretty busy with my current film project.
Ryan: The OMC documentary?
Stu: Yeah. It’s probably the biggest thing I’ve ever taken on. I’m directing and editing it. I’ve also been talking with Mike McGonigal at Yeti. In the last issue of Yeti he included some reproductions of the posters I did back in the ’80s. It was his first full-color issue. He also included a 7” containing a Great Unwashed song “Space Bikie” that was recorded at my old place back in Christchurch. I’ve been talking with Mike for a while about doing a book of old posters from Christchurch from that time period. It wasn’t just me. Lesley MacLean, who’s an old girlfriend of mine, she was a very good screen printer and designer. Ronnie van Hout was another great screen printer. He did posters for The Clean. I reckon it’d be a great project. I’ve got at least fifty Axemen posters at my house alone.
Stu Kawowski (AKA Stuart Page) of The Axemen Interview, Part One
Stu Kawowski (AKA Stuart Page) is a New Zealand-based filmmaker, drummer, photographer and screen printer, best known for his work in The Axemen.
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 AK79compilation 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.
Ryan: The Axemen’s membership was always fluctuating.
Steve: We had a good range of Christchurch and Dunedin musicians in the band. If you’ve seen our Wikipedia page, you can see all the people who’ve been in or performed with the band.
Ryan: On Three Virgins there’s a recording of you talking with an American about Beverly Hills and Mardi Gras. Do you recall who you were talking with?
Steve: No. I don’t remember.
(Stu: That’s actually me talking to a Taxi driver in LA and recording it on my Sony walkman, 1982.)
Ryan: There’s also another conversation on Derry Legend (1987) where you’re being interviewed but replying with unrelated answers—about how the New Zealand dollar is weak. It’s pretty funny.
Steve: We had a lot of abstract ideas. It had to do with stream-of-consciousness. Three Virgins is a good example of that mindset. Everything just sort of flowed out without any hesitation.
Ryan: What kind of reaction did The Axemen get from people in the middle ’80s? I imagine your sound was a hard sell to some people.
Steve: The variety of genres was probably a good thing. We had a lot of jokes in our songs. If people could understand the lyrics and pickup on the jokes, I reckon that was a good thing as well; people like jokes. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously.
Ryan: The Axemen recorded just about everything they did.
Steve: Yeah. I still have all of the cassettes. There are about three hundred of them.
Ryan: Unbelievable! Are these tapes mostly of live shows or home recordings?
Steve: A bit of both. I always preferred recording to playing live. I got a four-track recorder in 1986. We did a lot of recordings on that. We used to record our practices and do overdubs on them later. We released a lot of cassette tapes that didn’t show up on Flying Nun. They’re not available at the moment. We used to screen print covers for them.
Ryan: What was The Axemen’s relationship with Flying Nun like? I imagine the financial loss of Three Virgins might have caused a bit of strain.
Steve: Flying Nun did eventually sell all of the pressings of Three Virgins and Derry Legend. It did take them a while to sell them though. Tom Lax just rereleased Three Virgins on Siltbreeze. He was pleased with it and did two more of our records. I don’t know if Flying Nun lost interest or what but there was a demand for those albums.
Ryan: They haven’t done a great job rereleasing their back catalog. If you want a vinyl pressing of (The Clean’s) Boodle, Boodle, Boodle you’d better have ninety bucks on hand.
Steve: They haven’t. I’ve seen original copies of Three Virgins go for good money too.
Ryan:Derry Legend hasn’t been rereleased yet. That record goes for fifty bucks.
Steve: Yeah. Derry Legend is being rereleased soon. Dustin Travis White, who did live sound for us on The Axemen and Times New Viking tour, is going to rerelease it on his new label, Luxury Products. Stu remastered it all on analog for the reissue. It’ll come out after Sac Tap Nut Jam. Sac Tap Nut Jam is completely digital. Hearing those two records back to back will be interesting.
Ryan: You released your solo LP Sweat It Out (1986) around the time of Derry Legend.
Steve: I released a whole lot of solo cassette stuff too. The EMI record pressing plant in New Zealand closed down around that time. It was the only plant in New Zealand. I did release one single after Sweat It Out. Then I did about four or five cassettes on Sleek Bott.
Ryan: Did it become cost prohibitive to release records after the New Zealand EMI plant closed down?
Steve: It did. New Zealand record companies would go through Mushroom (large Australian independent label). It became more difficult for them to press up records. For individuals it really became too difficult.
Ryan: One of my favorite Axemen records is Scary Part III which Tom (Lax) at Siltbreeze reissued recently. Did Flying Nun not want to take you up on that record when you originally recorded it?
Steve: I think it had to do with Flying Nun being sold to Mushroom. It messed up our relationship with the label. Mushroom was more interested in getting Flying Nun’s back catalog than releasing new stuff.
Ryan: That’s right. With some exceptions—like King Loser—quality control at Flying Nun started going downhill after they partnered with Mushroom.
Steve: Yeah. Things started getting a bit poppy.
Ryan:Scary is the record where The Axemen got really into sampling.
Steve: That’s true. Although there’s a tiny bit on Derry Legend. Stu and I had these SK-1 samplers. They’re a Casio sampler. It had a little microphone on it and you could create one-and-a-half second loops of samples.
Ryan: What motivated The Axemen to do an Elton John tribute record (1992’s Three Rooms)?
Steve: It seemed like a good idea at the time. There’s a good range of songs in Elton John’s catalog. Good chords and things.
Ryan: The Axemen sort of wound down after the Elton John record, correct?
Steve: No. Stu and Bob moved to Auckland in about ‘87. I was playing in Christchurch from 1987 to 1990. Bob had formed the band Shaft. My wife and I got married in Las Vegas in 1990. We toured around America for our honeymoon. When we came back to New Zealand we moved to Auckland in 1992. Bob, Stu and I were all in the same town again so we did those two records on Sleek Bott—Recliner Rocker and Dirty Den Sessions. After that we didn’t do anything together for a while. Bob was busy with Shaft and I started a screen printing business with my wife. I started a band called CFCs in 1995. We played with Shaft for a little while. I released a solo CD called Generations (1998).
Ryan:Generations is great.
Steve: I like it too. I can’t get any copies of it. The guy who released it has heaps of them—about four hundred of the five hundred pressed. They’re sitting in his garage somewhere. I try to get them off of him. He keeps saying he’ll get them for me but it never happens. It’s really annoying. People are interested in it.
Ryan: A number of your songs have a lounge feel to them—going back to “Effectively My Baby” on Three Virgins. That aspect of your songwriting comes to the forefront on Generations.
Steve: Yeah. It was great being able to do those arrangements on the computer—get the big orchestration. I always wanted to do what Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle did with big orchestras. I was really pleased with it.
Ryan: Over the last four years there has been a resurgence with The Axemen. Obviously that has a lot to do with Tom Lax reissuing a number of your records on Siltbreeze. How did you guys come in contact with Tom?
Steve: When I moved up to Auckland, Tom sought me out. He bought everything I had—all the old Sleek Bott cassettes. That was in about 1992. I didn’t hear from Tom for quite a while after that. E-mail wasn’t around. Tom did a couple of reviews of our albums. Later on he bought the remaining copies I had of Sweat It Out. He sold all of those. That was more recently. The Axemen had been on hiatus for a while. When Tom decided to rerelease Cheap Motel, Three Virgins and Scary, we talked with him about doing a US tour. He lined us up with Times New Viking; we did the US tour with them in 2009. Tom came to quite a few of the gigs. Tom apparently was always playing Three Virgins to people, long before he reissued it. They’d ask him if it was available; eventually he decided to put it out.
Ryan: You did a tour of Australia a couple of years later. You hooked up with Brendon Annesley and did a great single with Negative Guest List.
Steve: That was cool. Brendon died shortly after that. He was a talented guy. A good writer.
Ryan: Bob Brannigan is no longer in the band.
Steve: On the last tour he was partying too much. It sort of got on my nerves. We had a bit of fight and he decided he didn’t want to play with us anymore.
Ryan: You’ve got the young gun in the band now.
Ryan: William Daymond. He’s younger than me.
Steve: Oh, yeah. He’s not a replacement for Bob or anything. William is a songwriter—although we haven’t written any songs with him yet—but it’s good having someone else in the band who can contribute songs. He seems to be fitting in well.
Ryan: We (Spacecase Records) wrote you about doing a single. But you had so many good tracks we asked you for a record instead (Sac Tap Nut Jam).
Steve: Yeah. We were keen on the single but doing a full length was so much nicer. I just bought a sixteen-track digital recorder. It’s about the size of a laptop. Dragan has a whole lot of mics. When you came up with your offer we all decided to go down to Wellington; Dragan has a practice space there with a lot of nice mics and William lives there too. We decided to record a number of songs and pick the best two for a single. We ended up with so many extra tracks doing an album came naturally. I was really pleased with the results. I really like the sixteen track recorder.
Ryan: I was surprised by how high the fidelity is.
Steve: Dragan is a really good audio guy.
Ryan: Is this the first vinyl record you’ve released of new material since Derry Legend?
Steve: Yeah. Not counting the reissues.
Ryan: Is there any chance Sweat It Out is going to be reissued?
Steve: There’s a possibility but not on LP. It might be reissued through Dusty who’s doing the Derry Legend reissue.
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.
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.