How Iconic Record Label Flying Nun Has Stayed Ahead Of The Curve
Joanna Mathers traces an iconic record label that has transcended the whims of fashion
Pink frosts, peaches, straitjackets, and mermaids. The universe of Flying Nun is inhabited by otherness. Consider its creation myth. A cold and unforgiving landscape, populated by rugby thugs and heavy-handed, Springbok-tour era cops. An alternative culture born of necessity.
You can hear the lunatic northeasterly in the discord of Christchurch’s Pin Group (the label’s first release); Dunedin’s loneliness seeping from Martin Phillipps’ (The Chills) aching vocals. A ragtag collection of misfits and weirdos, whose musical output captured the soul of a record store manager, and inspired him to start a label.
When Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun in 1981, New Zealand finally had a sound of its own. A number eight-wire, DIY sound that would reach across oceans and inspire generations of sonic adventurers.
The music released in this post-punk era remains vital and relevant. But in 2019, Flying Nun and the music environment it inhabits, is a very different beast.
With a backdrop of unsuccessful major label takeovers and fallow years, Flying Nun could have crumbled into insignificance. But clever management and creative agility has allowed the label to transcend the whims of fashion and stay ahead of the curve.
With the international success of Aldous Harding (her Later with Jools Holland performance has been viewed 200,000 times, and her new album Designer garnered a 4/5 review from Rolling Stone and the Guardian); the unique street-level music festival Others Way; and the vibrant record store Flying Out (plus a distribution company of the same name), Flying Nun today is a many splendoured thing.
Ben Howe, former managing director and now company co-director alongside founder Shepherd, has played a pivotal role in the reinvigoration of the label. He came on board after the label was brought back into New Zealand hands (having made its convoluted way into the Warner stable, before being purchased by a consortium of Kiwis, including Shepherd, in 2010.)
“It had really just been lying dormant for about 10 years,” says Howe, based in Wellington.
In his role as general manager, he went about creating a global infrastructure that would enable the releases to be more readily distributed, promoted and marketed internationally.
The rabid esteem in which the label is held by indie fans across the globe made the process easier. With the early incarnation of the label influencing the likes of Sonic Youth and shamble-pop act Pavement, the later flag flyers for Flying Nun already had a foot in the door when it came to developing relationships.
As Howe suggests, Flying Nun is New Zealand’s best-known music brand, and this provided a great launchpad for partnerships, such as that with the Brooklyn-based Captured Tracks.
The development of Flying Out was another key component of the Flying Nun revival. Initially an online store and distributor for a number of local and international indie labels, Flying Out’s physical store was opened in 2015. The design of the store was conceptualised by Alec Bathgate (from bands Toy Love/Tall Dwarfs et al) as was the design of the website. The talented designer had worked on many of the early Flying Nun releases; his input into the design of the later incarnation providing a visual anchor to the past.
The black and red painted street frontage reads like a Flying Nun album cover. Top and centre, the Flying Nun logo stretches its oversized arms to all comers. The store at 80 Pitt St is a haven for the precinct’s old school-alt types; an escape from the encroaching gentrification. Managed by Matthew Crawley (ex Golden Dawn) and possibly indie music’s nicest guy, you’ll regularly find 50-something music mainstays rubbing shoulders with woke 18-year-olds, perusing post-punk back catalogues and new Tyler the Creator albums.
Then there’s Other’s Way. The multi-venue festival that takes place around the K Rd precinct was launched in 2014. Howe says the inspiration came from the likes of South by Southwest, a creative cultural explosion from the heart of Austin, Texas.
Other’s Way gives Flying Nun fans the chance to see classic bands from the back catalogue (this year’s event featured The Chills and Straitjacket Fits) alongside emerging bands that otherwise may not have the exposure they deserved.
It’s proven a heady mix; the festival is always sold out and it’s a highlight of many music lover’s calendar.
The beautiful Mercury Theatre, Cross St Markets, the huge Studio, and the gloriously divey Whammy Bar throw open their doors for the occasion. It’s a chance for cross-pollination; for generations to gather at the altar of live music. As the night progresses, you’ll find punters staggering the streets idiotic grins plastered across music-intoxicated faces.
“We limit the tickets, because we don’t want to end up being like South by Southwest, where people wait in line for hours and don’t actually get to see any bands,” says Howe.
One of the label’s most recent signings, Mermaidens, kicked off proceedings at K Rd’s The Studio for this year’s festival. Ethereal, dreamy, with that slightly off-kilter Flying Nun edge, Mermaidens are a Wellington trio comprised of Lily West, Gussie Larkin and drummer Abe Hollingsworth.
Co-lead guitarist and vocalist West explains that though the band has been together for seven years, they were only signed by Flying Nun in 2017. They were brought to the attention of the label by Street Chant, another Flying Nun band who’ve earned accolades aplenty for their skew-whiff pop.
“We had lots of coffee dates with Ben [Howe] and eventually made it through the signing process,” she laughs.
West, who is a designer and illustrator, is responsible for band’s artwork and general aesthetic. This is one of the hallmarks of Flying Nun — they let their bands have almost complete creative freedom both musically and artistically.
West’s parents were keen music fans — she remembers growing up listening to The Chills’ Kaleidoscope World and to Toy Love. Chris Knox’s peculiar take on existence captured her imagination from a young age.
“I loved Toy Love, they were so discordant and creepy,” she says. “Then there was the amazing storytelling. They really resonated with me.”
This clever, slightly crazed sensibility is also evident in Mermaidens’ music, and the accompanying videos. The most recent of these, for the single Millennia, features West serenading herself in a small mirror, pouring a lonely celebratory champagne, and jogging on a treadmill in an oversized tracksuit.
She believes that the signing to Flying Nun has afforded them opportunities that would have otherwise been unattainable.
“The access to the [Flying Nun] network and the association with a brand that has such international recognition is priceless,” says West. “Even though we are still largely self-managed, this has opened so many doors for us.”
Mermaidens are certainly in possession of that thing that makes Flying Nun bands so unique. When asked to describe the Flying Nun sensibility, West says that it’s sounds “from the fringes of society”.
“Although the genres may be different, there is always an edge of darkness in the Flying Nun sound, whether you’re listening to The Chills or Purple Pilgrims.”
Flying Nun publicist Anna Loveys agrees. She’s new to the Flying Nun family, having started representing the label just over a year ago. She says though stylistically it’s hard to connect the current releases with The Clean and The Chills, what they have in common is “a slightly off-kilter ingredient”.
“All the Flying Nun bands present in a particular way, but when you get closer to them you realise things aren’t quite what they seem.”
Loveys is always amazed at the label’s ability to able to spot bands with that “Flying Nun factor”.
“They manage to always find this quirkiness. I don’t know how they pinpoint that ‘thing’ when they sign new bands, but they do. The bands on Flying Nun are still all outsiders.”
Loveys was heavily involved in the full campaign around the launch of Aldous Harding’s Designer album. The 2019 release has been met with universal acclaim – 8/10 on influential music website Pitchfork, 4/5 in the Guardian and Rolling Stone.
The experience has been transformative. She loves the music of Aldous Harding (real name Hannah Harding), and the chance to be involved on such a deep level was exhilarating.
“I actually have ‘look at all the peaches, how do they celebrate’ [lyrics from Silver Scroll winning ‘The Barrel’] tattooed on my arm,” she laughs.
Loveys describes the staff of Flying Nun and Flying Out as “a really interesting group of misfits”. She loves the DIY ethos of the label, and the lack of “corporate angry energy”.
The creative control given to the artists is part of the label’s charm. Do it yourself isn’t a posture; much of the artwork and management is handled by the musicians themselves. Flying Nun just make sure it all works.
“Matthew Davis (general manager) approaches everything with kindness. Even when things are really stressful, we just get stuff done.”
Davis took over the general manager reins from Howe last year. He has been with the company since 2009, and worked alongside Howe in the creation of Flying Out, and was label manager until his recent role change.
He believes that the ongoing success of the label lies with the people who are involved. “Everyone loves music and takes great enjoyment in what they do.”
He reveals the label is on the verge of signing a couple of new bands (their identity is currently top secret). Bands are discovered in a range of different ways — by attending gigs, through releases at the shop, via word of mouth.
Davis believes the live music scene in New Zealand is “challenging” at present, but commends the efforts of venues such as Whammy Bar that are committed to providing a stage for original new talent.
“Event guides like Under the Radar and the entertainment guide on BFM are also incredibly important,” he says.
Flying Out started out as a website with digital releases, but though it still offers some of these, streaming has changed the paradigm completely. Spotify brings some revenue for labels, but as it’s based on algorithms and playlists, it can be a fickle beast.
“The music industry is moving so fast; it’s completely different now than it was even six months ago,” he says.
Where downloads have diminished, sales of vinyl have increased. The Flying Out store specialises in this; and the vinyl renaissance shows no sign of abating.
The small scale of the Flying Nun operation makes it easier for the label to be agile and forward-thinking; but the lack of resources can be a risk. Major labels have major budgets; indie labels are often running on a shoestring Nevertheless, Flying Nun’s international focus allows them to use their connections to judge the temper of the times.
“We are always looking out for fresh ideas,” says Davis. “We have an international set-up and this allows us to understand what the industry is doing.”
He believes the music industry is in a transitional stage, and believes Flying Nun will be able to use the connections and infrastructure it already has in place to navigate changes.
But the importance of those early Flying Nun pioneers is always at the back of his mind.
“There are lots of things we want to do and the label will change. But we recognise our history and that we wouldn’t exist without those artists.”
• Mermaidens are currently on tour in support of their new album Look Me in the Eye. They will play at Auckland’s Whammy Bar this Saturday, October 19.
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