A Liminal Interview – Rock from the bottom of the world: An interview with Michael Morley (September 19th, 2012)

For over 20 years, New Zealand’s Michael Morley has forged a distinctive style on both vocals and guitar, with legendary avant-rock trio The Dead C and his solo project Gate. After a silence of nearly ten years, Morley released A Republic of Sadness to great acclaim, whilst 2012 has seen seminal Gate album The Dew Line (1993) lavishly reissued on MIE Music, complete with never-heard-before bonus tracks. With two more of his legendary albums –The Monolake and The Wisher Table – set to follow suite, and with Morley travelling to the UK to appear at the upcoming TUSK festival in October, The Liminal caught up with him to discuss his musical background, the impact of The Dead C and Gate on modern rock, and how he plans to perform at TUSK.

Could you please give me a bit of background on how you got into music? How did you come to form The Dead C, and later Gate? 

I have been listening to music for as long as I can remember. There would be songs that I would hear on the radio and I would become obsessed with their melodies and the words. When I was 9 years old I started using a cassette tape machine to make sound collages, very basic sound on sound stuff, no internal inputs, just microphones and speakers and timing. In 1980 I met Richard Ram at High School, and we had a shared passion for punk rock, so we started Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos as a response to our interest in the music of Robert Rental and The Normal, Toy Love, The Builders, Eyeless in Gaza, Cabaret Voltaire, Josef K, The Fire Engines, Throbbing Gristle, The Residents, Talking Heads, Pop Group, The Stooges, The Ramones, etc. We made cassette tapes of our sound-making, which are really rudimentary and primitive. At the time they seemed completely alien to anything that we were listening to, and our natural incompetence helped. The Dead C was formed in 1987 as a result of me not playing with anybody at the time and not being interested in pop music as a genre, having extended my listening to John Cage, Tony Conrad, Faust, J.S. Bach, Douglas Lilburn, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, Big Black, The Swans, Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, etc. Gate was started when I was living in Auckland and working as a librarian in 1988. It’s a convenient moniker under which I can play, record and perform either solo or with a group of people that doesn’t have to be a band, but a co-operative.

Bruce Russell has just written a book about the small but vibrant New Zealand scene that The Dead C evolved out of – it must have been a very exciting time… 

Bruce Russell, Richard Francis, and Zoe Drayton have edited the recently published book “Erewhon Calling: Experimental Sound in New Zealand “, but there are many contributing writers examining diverse sound practices across New Zealand. I remember playing as always being exciting but don’t remember the period as being particularly exciting. I remember it as grim and brutal. It seems to be very similar to the current period.

The Dead C were often compared to Sonic Youth, but to my mind are both more experimental and more psychedelic than Sonic Youth, with acts like Les Rallizes Denudes and Tony Conrad seeming more of an influence than punk. Would you agree? 

I first heard Les Rallizes Denudes in 2010. Tony Conrad I heard in 1982 when I found a copy of the LP Outside the Dream Syndicate by Tony Conrad and Faust. Late 1960s psychedelic music is something that I grew up with and was inspired by. It would seem that it is something that I refer to in my own music making in an oblique fashion. I was also heavily influenced by punk rock as a teenager and still listen to variants of the genre.

Was the decision to form Gate a reaction to what you were doing with The Dead C? Did you feel there were things you could do solo that you couldn’t do in the band? 

I started Gate as a project because I wasn’t living in Dunedin from 1988-1990, so I was only playing with Robbie and Bruce on rare occasions. Gate allows me to record, play and perform in an ongoing capacity. I spend a lot of time either painting or playing the guitar. When I play the guitar I tend to record and I use these recordings as material for an experimental audio studio practice. A lot of this material is for my own listening and is not intended for release, it forms the basis of my experiments in sound.

How do you go about creating a Gate album? Is the music mostly improvised, or do you compose each track? 

Most Gate recordings are improvised and then built around particular themes. The continuous recording practice allows for an archive that can be assessed for compositional purposes. I would say that the most recent LP A Republic of Sadness was a very different approach for me: as with The Lavender Head series, it examines dance music troupes which I developed from commercially available music software. The initial period of making the music for A Republic of Sadness was short, maybe a month at the most, and then two years of listening and making decisions about the compositions.

Your vocal style is pretty much unique in the rock world. How did you develop it? In most cases, it is subsumed in the mix – do you treat vocals as just another instrument, with the lyrics being a secondary concern to how the voice fits with the guitar and other instruments?

I have no idea about my vocal style, I don’t hear it as being unique. Some people have made disparaging remarks about my voice, which I don’t understand. Maybe it’s my accent… Vocals to me are another aspect of the soundscape. I am not particularly interested in telling stories so the vocal has to have another reason for being, and I think that it is as another instrument. Of course the words are very important to me and I will spend a lot of time getting that right, for me. When I have attempted to make the vocals more prominent in the mix I tend to attract rude comments concerning my voice from people I don’t know, and who perhaps don’t appreciate the context.

How do you come up with your lyrics? Do you work to a specific theme or concept when writing lyrics for an album?

I write a lot when I feel inclined to create lyrics, so there are files and folders of words generated over several years, and I use these if I need them. Or sometimes I am able to write as I am listening to the recordings. Sometimes the words come really easily, sometimes it’s an ordeal. Sometimes indeed there is an overarching concept that may capture me. The lyrics for the tracks for the new Gate LP The Numbers, were all written within the week that I made the recordings – it was a concentrated and focused effort.

2010’s A Republic of Sadness was the first Gate album in nine years. What made you decide to return to the project? 

I hadn’t released anything as Gate for 10 years, and it seemed impossible that I had ignored Gate releases for a decade, but I hadn’t been interested in releasing anything. I had been recording a lot, and had not been convinced by any of it and so ditched various projects in favour of nothing. A Republic of Sadness took me two years to finish, and I spent that time listening to the tracks and rearranging them and essentially having a really good time playing with the material. I didn’t play the material to anybody, as I thought it was very strange stuff, and that nobody would like it, so the whole project just sat in my studio. After a year, I began playing it to a number of people to start testing the results. I was surprised by the positive comments and as I allowed more people to hear it I thought that maybe I could release it. Ben Goldberg was very kind in agreeing to release it on Ba Da Bing. I then spent another year remixing the material in a fastidious fashion, trying out arrangements, time lengths and track sequences. It also took about a year to make the cover art. It was the most intense recording project I have ever made in that it was focused on a particular aesthetic, sustained over such a long period of time, with many interruptions, and I almost threw the whole thing away.

You will be appearing at Tusk Festival in October. How have you prepared for this concert?

Replacing the electronics in the guitar so that it works, and a new set of strings maybe? I recently purchased a lap steel, so have been playing that a lot, although I don’t think I am ready to present that material in a public forum.

Do you approach a live Gate performance differently to when you perform with The Dead C? Do you find it more difficult to perform solo, or when you have to interact with other people?

There is more to think about when I approach a Gate performance. With the Dead C, I know the other two can take up the slack should I lose my way. Solo can be more of a challenge in some ways. The frequency of playing and performing as both means there are a lot of risks in the activity. If I played more I guess I might get better, but then I don’t know what that would mean.

Finally, are you working on new material? Can we expect to see a new Gate or Dead C album in the near future?

I have just finished a new Gate LP The Numbers, recorded in August this year, the final mixes and the cover art were completed in the last week, and I’m happy with the results. I have allowed three people to hear it so far, and had positive responses to my efforts. I know Ben is happy with the recordings and the cover art so I think it will be released on Ba Da Bing sometime in the near future. I have other Gate projects coming out this month/next month: an LP, Damned Revolutions, will be released by Ultramarine Records (Italy), and another Gate LP, Moths, recorded with Nina Canal (from Ut) and Sara Stephenson (from Doramaar) in Rotterdam with be released by Dilletante Curiosite (France). There are some Dead C recordings ongoing at present, plus some recordings with Pete Swanson made in August of this year, and some recordings made with Kim Gordon and Bill Nace from last year.

You can also read this interview, complete with videos, here

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