Q&A: Ben Howe, Flying Nun and Mike Sniper, Captured Tracks
By Andy Malt | Published on Wednesday 13 February 2013
New Zealand indie label Flying Nun launched in the early 80s to give a few local bands the chance to release their music. Bands like The Clean, The Chills, Tall Dwarfs and The Verlaines soon found their music being picked up by indie fans abroad too, with bands such as Pavement and Yo La Tengo citing The Clean in particular as a major influence.
In 1990, the company sold a 50% stake to Australian label Festival Records, which a decade later merged with Mushroom Records, forming the Festival Mushroom Records company. When, in 2006, FMR was bought by Warner Music, Flying Nun became 100% owned by the major as part of that deal. However, in 2009, founder Roger Shepherd bought the company back for “more than what I sold it for”, with Crowded House’s Neil Finn and his wife Sharon putting up some of the money required to bring the label back to New Zealand.
In January this year, Flying Nun announced a new partnership with New York label Captured Tracks to reissue some key releases from the company’s vast back catalogue. First up in that series will be a compilation of music by Toy Love, who were early and instrumental in the development of what became known as ‘the Dunedin sound’.
As they prepare for that and the other forthcoming re-releases, CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to Flying Nun label manager Ben Howe and Captured Tracks founder Mike Sniper.
AM: First of all, Ben, give us a quick history of Flying Nun for any readers who aren’t aware of the label.
BH: Flying Nun was founded in 1981 in Christchurch – a city in the South Island of New Zealand. The label was started by Roger Shepherd, who is still involved in today.
Flying Nun’s first releases were by The Pin Group and The Clean – and the latter’s single ‘Tally Ho’ surprised everyone by going to number nineteen on the New Zealand charts. After that there was the ‘Dunedin Double’ compilation and a string of releases by bands like The Verlaines, The Sneaky Feelings, The Bats, The Chills, Tall Dwarfs and numerous others. Many (though definitely not all) of these bands came from Dunedin, which is a small college town in the far south of the country… next stop Antarctica. Flying Nun was particularly prolific throughout the 1980s and 1990s – though it has continued to release albums though the 2000s even after it was bought out by Festival, Mushroom and then Warners.
Initially the label was set up as a way of capturing the music of all these great bands from the South Island. I don’t think there was really any idea that it would become a record company in the conventional sense of the word – I’m not sure how many people even really knew what that was! I also sense there was quite a lot of input from some of the bands themselves, especially people like Chris Knox (Toy Love, Tall Dwarfs) and Hamish Kilgour (The Clean)
I’m often really surprised at how the label’s music has travelled and that people have heard of it outside New Zealand. I guess in some ways the music is quite unique. It was mostly made somewhere cold, sparsely populated with lots of big open spaces, and a long way from anywhere else. It was also made by people who assumed no one other than a small group of their friends would ever hear it.
AM: When did you become involved with Flying Nun?
BH: Indirectly I’ve been involved with the label a while. Firstly, some guys from the Jean Paul Sartre Experience and myself started a band called Superette. Both bands were on Flying Nun. This was in the 1990s. After that, in 2000, I started my own label called Arch Hill and we started releasing albums by artists previously on Flying Nun who no longer had a home there after it was purchased by Festival/Mushroom. These included David Kilgour, The Clean, The Bats, Bailterspace and others. So I got to know the artists pretty well, even if I wasn’t directly involved in the label. Roger Shepherd and myself then both worked on the subsequent re-acquisition of Flying Nun from Warners, but I’ve only recently taken up my current position as Managing Director of the label.
AM: How did the deal between Flying Nun and Captured Tracks come about?
MS: We had an intern here at Captured Tracks, Josh Burgess, who was from New Zealand and knew some people at Flying Nun, and he’s since become the project manager for these releases. I’d been a fan of the label for as long as I was buying records, but they were always difficult to find in America, especially in the suburbs where I’m from. I was trying to figure out how to do part and parcel reissues of some of the Flying Nun catalogue when it struck me that we should hit them up directly now that they’d bought the rights back from Warners. And it just so happened Ben was coming to New York for CMJ, so that was serendipitous.
BH: I knew and really liked Capture Track and its roster, and obviously it is important to be associated with great music. Also, the fact that Mike knows and loves the Flying Nun catalogue is pretty important. Being from New Zealand it is pretty necessary to have good people on the ground in other territories helping out rather that trying to do everything from the opposite side of the world.
AM: So, Mike, as a fan, was Flying Nun an influence for you when setting up Captured Tracks?
MS: Definitely. I mean, everything about it. The crazy DIY artwork everything had, the videos. It was almost impenetrably mysterious to me, and made all the more exotic it being from New Zealand.
AM: Why do you think there is still such interest in the Flying Nun back catalogue?
MS: It’s not surprising to me at all that people are still interested. I mean, you have a wealth of material. People don’t lose interest in things of quality.
BH: Also, as I said, I think many of the label’s artists had a unique sound that seems to have influenced a lot of bands that are around today. I think what happens is that fans of those bands have traced the line of influence back and in some cases it has ended with bands that were on Flying Nun.
AM: How closely have you worked together in putting together the re-issues?
BH: We are working very closely indeed. We also have to work closely with the artists, and as most of them are in New Zealand, that is mostly down to us. Also, the masters, artwork etc are all down here. But Captured Tracks have a better idea as to what people are interested in over there, so we are guided by them in that department, and they also know and understand those markets a lot better than we can from down here.
AM: How did you select which releases to reissue?
MS: We’re still selecting. There’s a lot of factors. We want to do as much as possible, from the well known to the hopelessly obscure. We’ve also been investigating the second hand retail value of the original product, some of which is astoundingly expensive. That helps, of course. When a twelve-inch or LP is going for $200 over and over again, clearly there are people who’d be happy to spend $17 on a reissue.
AM: Do either of you have a specific records you’re particularly excited about seeing reissued?
BH: It’s hard to single one or two out. I’m definitely enjoying working on a Tall Dwarfs project because there is such a massive amount of interesting material. I’m trying to find a spare team of archivists just to sort through it all! Chris Knox (from Tall Dwarfs and Toy Love) is an extremely artistic person and also very prolific.
MS: I really don’t have a sole favourite, to be honest. And I’m not just saying that to be democratic. It’s such a deep and vast catalogue with tons of unreleased material, I won’t really know what are my favourites until we get really into the thick of it and re-discover some treasures. That will be a real thrill for me. I consider myself an archivist at heart when it comes to reissues.
AM: What’s the New Zealand music scene like today, Ben?
BH: The rest of the world doesn’t know it, but New Zealand has always had a really interesting and vibrant indie music scene. It comes and goes, but there are lots of great and exciting new bands all the time. Many of them, no one outside New Zealand has heard of. Mostly we exist in our own insular little music bubble – which can be both a good and a bad thing. Many of the bands are still very influenced by the sound of the original Flying Nun bands.
Ghost Wave, Street Chant, Surf City, Transistors, Beach Pigs and Family Cactus are all current bands on my other label Arch Hill – so obviously I dig them. Flying Nun also has recent signing such as Sharpie Crows, Surf Friends, Badd Energy and T54. But there are also plenty of others – Popstrangers, Rackets, The Eversons, Princess Chelsea, The Wilberforces and Deer Park are really good… and I am sure there are others I’ve forgotten to mention.
AM: Finally, Mike, are there any other labels you’d like to work with on similar projects?
MS: Maybe. I mean, I defy someone to bring us a label with a catalogue I’m as excited about! So probably nothing on this massive a scale – this is a huge undertaking and required the hiring of a new full-time staff member. But something like doing all the Dangerhouse singles and LPs would be fun and not too much of a pain. And there’s lots of little labels like that.