It's been over 30 years since Roy Montgomery's recorded debut -- the Pin Group's "Ambivalence" 45, issued as the first single on Flying Nun Records in 1981 -- and he remains as intriguing and understated a player as ever in New Zealand's subterranean avant-rock culture. With PG and subsequent outfits, like the Shallows and Dadamah, his guttural baritone and basic sturm-and-drang strum helped shape the inimitable post-punk of "the NZ sound," as popularized by Flying Nun and those associated with it. In the years since, he's collaborated with or released songs alongside noteworthy musicians and projects such as Bardo Pond (under the name Hash Jar Tempo), Flying Saucer Attack and Grouper. Montgomery has also single-handedly fashioned a wide discography of meditative instrumentals -- beautifully landscaped compositions that combine the loping, churning whorl of Krautrock with the fundamentals of minimal composition to yield a remarkably personal and cinematic hum. The Christchurch-based musician took a moment to answer a round of questions by e-mail last month.
Eric Cecil/WFMU: Can you describe the formation of Pin Group?
Roy Montgomery: The band evolved over the period of a year or so, starting with a four-piece known as Compulsory Fun which featured Ross Humphries on vocals, Tony Green on drums, Dave McKenzie on bass and myself on guitar. Dave departed after our first and only performance. We then regrouped as Murder Strikes Pink with Ross shifting to bass and a friend called Paul Champion taking on vocals. I think we may have performed three times. This was during 1980. When Paul left we went into recess, so to speak. Throughout this period I had been conferring regularly with a poet friend called Desmond Brice, who half-seriously went by the name Jim Despondent at the time. He produced screeds of rather dark and gloomy verse (think Doors meets lapsed Catholic) and passed them generously around to people including myself. When my band activities stopped I set about trying to write music to his lyrics with him playing bass. While we found our instrument-playing styles incompatible the songwriting seemed to work so I asked Ross Humphries to take up the basslines and we persuaded former Vacuum Band drummer Peter Stapleton to moonlight while he was still doing the odd Victor Dimisich Band show. Desmond agreed to keep feeding lyrics as and when required. The first two Pin Group singles have lyrics by Desmond on all tracks. Gradually more and more lyrics came from the band members.
EC: Who did you consider influences?
RM: Usual suspects... Stooges. Velvet Underground. Doors. Roxy Music (up to 1974). Joy Division. A Certain Ratio (pre-funk). Mekons. Gang of Four. The Saints. 13th Floor Elevators. Red Crayola. The types of bands that featured on Nuggets and Pebbles. English bands of the punk DIY era such as the Desperate Bicycles, early Monochrome Set, Swell Maps, the Fall.
EC: Many have noted the similarities between the band and Joy Division. Did you consider yourselves similar to them or any other bands from post-punk's formative years?
RM: The "Roy Division" jibe didn't bother me too much. I thought we had more range than our first couple of singles suggested but we were also part of that wave.
EC: How did you feel about music in NZ at the time?
RM: In general I didn't feel much to be honest. Based on what I had seen when bands from different parts of the country visited Christchurch I had learned to expect style over substance from Auckland, politics and/or art over great hooks from Wellington bands and while I thought highly of many Dunedin bands I was concerned that they would get their rough edges knocked off them when they came to record (which by and large turned out to be the case). Predictably, I guess, I preferred the understated approach and sounds of Christchurch bands. Songs first, stage packaging second.
EC: So did the band look to the US or UK for kindred sounds?
RM: I think it was pretty evenly split.
EC: Can you comment on the dissolution of Pin Group and the subsequent formation of Dadamah?
RM: The Pin Group went into recess, in principle, rather than dissolution in early 1982. I was pre-booked for overseas travel and wasn't sure how long I'd be away. In the end I was away for a year by which time the other band members had new projects. I moved more into theatre work for the next five years or so and only dabbled with the Shallows in the mid-1980s. An early Dadamah incarnation emerged around 1990 or so I think with Kim Pieters (bass, vocals, keyboards), Peter Stapleton (drums) and David Theobald (guitar - his akas would take up the rest of this interview but Mick Elborabo is a notable one vis-a-vis the Terminals). They accumulated many songs and when David wanted some time out from playing and when I could not come up with a good excuse when asked a second time in 1991 I agreed to come in to rework the songlines and structure things a little more.
EC: I've read that the band played out only a handful of times.
RM: The Pin Group racked up about a dozen appearances in all and Dadamah around three, I think.
EC: What were those shows like?
RM: The Dadamah shows were rare and not in Christchurch. From my point of view intense and not particularly satisfying.
EC: Why did the band play so infrequently?
RM: I don't much like live sound is the short answer.
EC: How did the band write and record?
RM: Most of the lyrics came from Peter and I either reworked earlier riffs or fitted new patterns to new lyrics.
EC: I ask because the recordings sound somewhat extemporaneous or improvised.
RM: As I said the demos were more freeform prior to my involvement but I think we overlapped well in our mutual likings of bands such as Can and Pere Ubu.
EC: How did Dadamah fit into the schema of NZ at the time?
RM: I don't really recall a musical schema as such. It was more like picking up where things left off from earlier years.
EC: What prompted your trip around the world that would ultimately yield some of your solo recordings?
RM: Without wanting to go into detail it was a decision to put some time and space between myself and events of a couple years prior. That plus an urge to see the most and least peopled parts of the US by road in an aging Buick Station Wagon.
EC: How did you go about recording Temple IV and Scenes from the South Island?
RM: More or less by chance the opportunity came up to apartment-sit for several weeks for a friend of a friend in New York. The modest domestic set-up included a four-track plus a few effects boxes. I knew only two or three people in the city. No distractions. All I had to do was buy some chrome tapes and apply myself with what I had absorbed over the preceding months.
EC: Can you talk a bit about the formation and existence of Dissolve?
RM: Two guitarists more interested in film soundtracks than being in bands at the time. Chris Heaphy, a painter by training, had a nice loopy, rhythmic understated playing style. We enjoyed making mood pieces with the occasional conventional song thrown in. Interrupted firstly by me going overseas again and then Chris moving to the North Island. I see connections between Dissolve and the Torlesse Supergroup. Both Chris and Nick Guy prefer the Fender Jaguar sound and they both use the less is more principle.
EC: How did you come to collaborate with Flying Saucer Attack?
RM: I think I saw a twin review of Dadamah and FSA in an American zine which prompted me to listen to the band. Through correspondence with Dave Pearce prior to my travel to the UK I said that I would head to Bristol at some point and I would bring guitar.
EC: What was the experience like?
RM: Dave is by his own admission somewhat shy and introverted and he warned me that he was not a casual kind of collaborator. He was not aware that Christchurch is full of Dave Pearces which meant that getting along was not difficult. I didn't expect a recording to result from our brief meeting.
EC: How did you come to collaborate with Bardo Pond for the Hash Jar Tempo recordings?
RM: Darren Mock, proprieter of Drunken Fish, said "You guys have to meet." We did.
EC: Are you working on any recordings at the moment?
RM: I hope to have an album entitled Music from the Film "Hey Badfinger" out before mid-year courtesy of Liz Harris of Grouper fame. Twenty-three instrumental pieces averaging two minutes of electric guitar recorded on one channel of the 4-track, no overdubs. Songs that might have been, so to speak, or my go at the Erik Satie aesthetic.
EC: When working on solo recordings, do you see them as cinematic pieces?
RM: Absolutely. YouTube is interesting from that point of view. I'd like to see more people putting moving images to my music.
EC: Would you say there's a common thread running through all of your recorded output?
RM: A degree of melancholy. Always some kind of rhythmic pattern. Less is more.
EC: What else are you up to these days?
RM: Putting up with earthquake aftershocks. Waiting for those to stop so house can get repaired. Enjoying my kids. Volunteer firefighting. Teaching urban planning at college. Writing Civil Defence plans for local communities. Dreaming of the day when I get to do some work on the '68 Barracuda.
EC: Thanks, Roy.