Heading for the Foothills:
The Bats are Finished Logging Tour Miles, but Aren’t Done Making Music
We’ve all heard our fill of tales about how Zoom has overwhelmed our lives in recent months. I was recently reminded of its benefits, however, when I connected with frontman Robert Scott and bassist Paul Kean of New Zealand indie pop institution The Bats, some 8,500 miles away.
It’s a far cry from the late 1980s when The Bats (L-R in the photo: Scott, Malcolm Grant, Kaye Woodward, Kean) were emerging from a fertile and diverse scene centered in the university town of Dunedin, yet their early records remained hard-to-obtain treasures. I recall banding together with a friend to place a mail order to New Zealand, then waiting over three months for their brilliant full-length debut Daddy’s Highway along with a batch of releases by the likes of The Clean, Verlaines and Tall Dwarfs to make their slow boat journey. Connecting live with these young artists? Forget it.
These days it’s probably a bigger challenge for Kean and Scott to get together in person. Three-quarters of the band reside in or near the mid-sized city of Christchurch, while Scott lives in the small town of Port Chalmers, near Dunedin. “It’s a long and winding road, about a five-hour drive,” Kean explains. “There’s not much motorway in New Zealand.”
Kean was sitting in his home studio, while Scott was putting in a shift at the gallery he and his partner opened two years ago. “I’m on duty this morning because I haven’t got schoolwork,” he says, referring to his part-time gig as a teacher’s aide doing music education. Our conversation was occasionally punctuated by what sounded like large canisters tumbling down the stairs. “It’s a big port town so a huge number of logging trucks go past all the time,” Scott explains.
When we spoke, The Bats were gearing up for the release of Foothills, their tenth album. The pandemic had scuttled some traditional rollout to-dos, but not to the extent it might for other bands. The quartet had not planned to tour internationally (they last visited Europe in 2017, the States in 2013) and their isolated island nation’s relative success in controlling the virus has enabled them to schedule a few low-key performances.
The new record fits tidily into The Bats’ oeuvre of melodic jangle that some classify as folk-rock (I tend to differ) and pairs nicely with American counterparts like The Feelies or Real Estate. This one feels even a bit more homespun, as the core foursome – unchanged in 38 years! – decided to close ranks and work without an outside producer for the first time since Daddy’s Highway. They also dialed back the violin that figured prominently on 2017’s The Deep Set.
Foothills has been completed for nearly two years, give or take a bit of ongoing tinkering in Kean’s home studio. “When it was ready things weren’t working too well here, though, which threw us all into a state of mourning.” Kean’s referring to the March 2019 mass shooting that brought unwelcome international attention to the normally subdued city of Christchurch.
It wasn’t the first time outside tragedies had upended a Bats release. Free All the Monsters was set to go in 2010 when the Canterbury earthquake hit Christchurch’s outer reaches. Although the damage was relatively moderate, the resulting outpouring of support led to a benefit concert that drew 140,000 (“which is huge for Christchurch”) and a surreal interaction with Mayor Bob Parker, who played guitar with them on stage – “to a very mixed response,” Kean laughs. “Like a lot of local politicians, he came out of being a media star, a TV talk show host. He was a Bats fan from way back – at one point while working at an ad agency he talked them into using ‘North by North’ for a Citroen ad. The rumor was floating around, ‘Bob wants to play with you,’ so we invited him up to do that one, which was his favorite of our songs.”
Ironically, it was a second quake a few months after that hit closer to Christchurch and killed 185 people – “a cooker that blew the place apart. We’re called The Shaky Isles; we’re on the Ring of Fire, you can easily see the fault lines from aerial shots on Google Maps.”
The fault lines aren’t the only similarities between New Zealand and the state of California – both also experienced gold rushes in the mid 1800s, and enjoy a mix of mountainous ski runs and sunny beaches. “One time on tour in San Francisco we thought, ‘ah, we can smell the Pacific Air. We’re not far from home now,’” Kean recalls.
The Bats were relative regulars on the US indie rock touring circuit in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but the travails of waging a musical career from a distant outpost like New Zealand – especially in the pre-internet era – have been well documented by contemporaries like The Chills’ Martin Phillipps. Once children entered the equation, some reassessment was in order.
“We didn’t want to take our daughter out on another tour, after having her out with us a few times, and Robert’s daughter on the last tour, with Radiohead and Belly, which was quite a struggle once they were reaching school age,” Kean recalls.
These circumstances gave rise to 1995’s Couchmaster, something of an outlier in The Bats’ catalog and for my money, an underappreciated standout. “The recording was pretty relaxed, we took a few more chances, and I was in a bit of a different songwriting space, Scott recalls. As Kean puts it, “After Fear of God and Silverbeet where we had American producers working with us, this was our first time back. We weren’t even aware it had been released in the states – when we played there in 2006 people started bring CDs to the shows to sign. We never saw any sales reports or anything like that. It’s notoriously difficult to get royalties out of the US.”
“It was almost a reaction against the high production of those other albums, in a way,” Scott concurs. At the time neither thought of it as their last album for a protracted period. They’re adamant The Bats never broke up, however; but with Scott re-engaging with The Clean, daughters to be raised and day jobs to attend to, the silence extended to a decade. “It just sort of stretched out, between kids and work commitments,” Kean shrugs.
In the interim, guitarist Kaye Woodward enlisted Kean and drummer Malcolm Grant to form Minisnap as a vehicle for her own compositions. Minisnap continues to this day, occasionally sharing a bill with The Bats.
Paul and Kaye’s daughters (the bassist and guitarist are a married couple, though they see little reason for that to be part of the band narrative) have grown and moved overseas, as has Scott’s oldest daughter (he still has another in the house). Perhaps the early touring made an imprint, as all three are involved in music – Scott’s daughter in the UK band Superorganism, where she goes simply by B. Trivia hounds may note this is the same Brydie Scott who sang on The Clean’s “Ginger Ale” that closed Modern Rock.
Speaking of The Clean and trivia, The Bats enjoy the odd distinction of boasting two inductees in the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame – neither for their work in the band. Scott was honored along with the Kilgour brothers for his role in The Clean, while Kean got the nod for Toy Love, the proto-punk band he helmed along with future Tall Dwarfs Chris Knox and Alec Bathgate.
“It’s a virtual hall,” Kean laughs. “I used to joke about opening the back door to let in Malcolm and Kaye as well.” Like its US counterpart, the NZ Hall’s selections aren’t without their sturm und drang – before being inducted in 2017 The Clean twice declined the honor, with Scott stating in the past that the band felt dismissed by the industry for much of its lifespan and wasn’t interested in rapprochement.
With Foothills’ release the Bats catalog is now evenly balanced between pre- and post- hiatus albums. After a two-LP break for 2005’s At the National Grid and 2008’s The Guilty Office, the band is again firmly ensconced on Flying Nun, its original New Zealand label that spearheaded the late ’80s Dunedin sound.
“I can’t remember why we ended up not doing some others with them, actually,” Scott muses.
“We couldn’t get them to reply to our messages,” Kean quips.
Kean expanded on the sequence of mergers and acquisitions that caused the once scrappy label to lose its identity. “It became ten percent of someone’s time to look after it, which was barely enough to manage the archives. Our intervening albums are harder to find” (and well worth the search, by the way).
The Bats’ return to Flying Nun came soon after its 2009 “repatriation” by founder Roger Shepherd and a cadre of business partners including Neil Finn, another of New Zealand’s musical leading lights dating back to his band Split Enz.
The new formula seems to be working – Foothills debuted at number 13, its highest home country chart position ever – one slot ahead of Dua Lipa and ironically four in front of Rumors, the 1977 classic by Fleetwood Mac, with whom Finn is now playing as Lindsey Buckingham’s replacement.
The four Bats still get together a couple times a year even when they’re not rehearsing or recording, just as they did during their ten-year hiatus. Scott has family in Christchurch, so he has reasons beyond band business to make the journey. Material has never been a gating factor. “We’ve always got enough songs to use,” according to Scott. “It’s more a matter of when it feels right to do it, more a case of finalizing some time when we’re free. I’m pretty much writing all the time.” A scan of Scott’s insanely prolific Bandcamp page proves his point.
Scott’s solo work spans lo-fi takes on Bats-reminiscent pop through more avant-garde soundscapes. Some aspects of the latter occasionally bleed into Bats songs, such as the more tense and atmospheric “Electric Sea View,” a personal favorite that closes Foothills. “We weren’t even sure we’d put it on the album because it’s so different, but I liked it. It’s a weird one, hard to put together – odd tuning, weird chords. I sort of had to re-learn it to do the overdubs.” The band has certainly never shied away from the e-bow.
The Bats seem refreshingly free of the hindsight that sometimes accompanies a “right place/wrong time” brush with greater acclaim. “You go with your instinct at the time,” Scott counters. “We did a good amount of touring but you have to balance it with your home life. It’s a constant juggling act.”
Kean adds, “I got to a stage where I gave up on any idea of ever making a living out of music.” During his Toy Love days Kean largely relocated to Australia, perhaps the closest any of the foursome came to a break with their homeland. “But I think we all made the choice that we wanted to live in New Zealand, and get jobs to subsidize the creative side.”
Scott sums it up nicely: “Some bands might have jumped on the overseas interest and relocated, but that rarely works out.”