Report from a Builders' site
It's a cool Saturday night as Skyler and I drive through sparse traffic into the western part of the greenbelt of Auckland. We turn off the highway down an old portage route covered in gravel, turn again onto a dirt road with an honour guard of sagging macrocarpas, and eventually find ourselves at the door of the small studio where the four sweaty men who form the latest incarnation of The Builders have spent the last forty-eight hours recording an album.
'Ten new songs, I knocked them off in a couple of weeks', an unshaven Bill Direen says, as he wriggles his way onto the couch between Builders drummer Andrew Maitai and keyboardist Andrew McCully. The band's bass player and sometime producer, Brett Cross, sits hunched over a computer screen where thin blue lines of sound flicker and surge. 'I wrote the lyrics for all ten songs first, then found some chords. I don't normally work that way' Bill says, between gulps of Southern Lager. Bill launched a book and a mini-album last Thursday night, at Karangahape Road's Alleluya Cafe; on Sunday he will fly back to Dunedin, where home repairs and teaching duties at the University of Otago both demand his attentions. Last night he slept on the floor of the little studio, waking up every hour or so to overdub a guitar solo or vocal line onto this or that track. Bill has had to work fast: the rest of The Builders live in Auckland, and he won't see them again until the band begins a national tour in November.
It's easy to get the feeling, though, that Bill Direen relishes the speedy and slightly chaotic way that Chrysanthemum Storm is coming to life. Back in the 1980s, when the first incarnations of The Builders helped define the now-patented 'Flying Nun sound', Bill and his sidekicks gained a reputation for composing and recording songs on the spot. Weird aural moments that reviewers attributed to Bill's avant-garde production values were more likely to have been caused by a guitarist tripping over his guitar cable, or a drummer dropping his sticks after burning his fingers trying to light another joint.
Bill smiles and asks Brett to play the rough mix of the tracks they've recorded together over the last couple of days. 'This', Bill says, as the first track slides out of the fuzz, like a long-awaited ship sailing out of thick fog, 'is the first Builders album in twenty years.'
Bill is not exagerrating. During his long periods of European exile in the nineties and early noughties he tended to play without a band, and his music became spare, almost self-effacing. The critically acclaimed 2006 album Human Kindness was recorded in Switzerland, and it is infused with the gnomic calm of a man who has retreated to a mountaintop solitude. But last year's successful national tour by the new-look Builders seems to have rekindled Bill's enthusiasm for the loose, rocky music he made in the 1980s, and Chrysanthemum Storm could sit nicely beside noisy classics like Conch and We Are the Coolest Cats in the World. Maitai and Cross anchor the album with their bass and drums, Bill's electric guitar solos on nearly every song, and the freewheeling, classically-trained McCully sounds like a cross between Keith Jarrett and Al Cooper.
Here's a rough guide to the rough mix of the new Builders album, which should be out by September:
A Lot of Reasons to Smile
A nice mid-tempo groove to kick things off. 'It's good to start on an optimistic note', says Bill, whose understated vocal weaves in and out of McCully's swirling organ:
It snowed last night
This morning the sky was blue...
Bill adopts a faux-German accent for this paranoid little number, which reminds me of The Fall crossed with John Wesley Harding:
Baden was industrious as any ox or mouse,
Baden was never seen again,
Baden was less than a burger of beef...
I decide not to ask Bill what the lyrics mean. Everyone sits up with a start when one of the man's rough, angular guitar solos rides in over McCully's ascending piano line near the end of the song.
A lovely fluttering melody and an organ solo that reminds me of the Able Tasmans at their finest: this has to be the first single, even if the rough mix is as rough as guts.
Maitai and Cross lay down a tight, almost claustrophobic rhythm and Bill and Andrew play slivers of chords over it, while Bill mutters a minimalist lyric. Skyler loves it, and so do I. 'I'm suprised' Bill says. 'I thought it was one of our weaker tunes'.
A gently lilting melody, soft whistling instead of a guitar solo, lines about over-pampered pets: this sounds like Bill's love song to Paris, the city where spends half his time.
You can't have a Builders album without a Big Noise Thing, and 'Rosco' is a very big noise indeed. Bill lets his guitar run wild, but Andrew McCully's huge swirling notes soften the tone, and the song ends up reminding me of Yo La Tengo.
The Stenographer and the Oceanographer
How can a song with a title like that go wrong? Bill's cryptic lyrics float gently over a series of lovely chord changes.
The Story of Le Anne
This is the sort of jaunty rocker that truckies like to listen to going over the Brynderwyn Hills in light traffic.
'This song put me in a bad mood', Bill says. 'It put everyone in a bad mood', Andrew adds. Bill's guitar squeals, and Maitai and Cross keep a fast, angry beat with metronomic regularity, before pulling the ground from under the listener by falling silent with a sickening suddeness. Undeterred, Bill goes on shrieking one of the best lyrics on the album:
When you live in a hole you're afraid of a flood
When you live in the swamp you dig in the mud
When you live in a tunnel you think like a snake...
We Are Experiencing an Influx of Unusual Calls
This song certainly won't make anybody angry. Bill has always been an Irish folk singer at heart, and as the band goes to the fridge for beers he finishes off the album by picking up an acoustic guitar and performing a whimsical little meditation on mortality and bureaucratic inefficiency. Telecom should pipe this song down the line whenever they put a caller on hold.
I need to add a note of caution to this post, because Bill Direen is a notoriously unpredictable beast. In his notes for the booklet of the CD reissue of one of The Builders' early albums, Roger Shepherd observed that 'perversity is not just Bill's middle name, it is his first name and last name as well'. Shepherd remembered that when he worked in Flying Nun's office in the '80s he would always be expecting to hear that Bill had replaced all the guitar parts on his latest album with solos on Tibetan teaspoons. It would be foolish to think that the songs I have just heard will inevitably become the album Bill releases later this year. It is quite possible that a selection of Tibetan tea spoon solos will appear under the name of The Builders. If he chooses to release the songs that I've just heard, though, Bill Direen will give the world a very fine album in September.