New Zealand lo-fi songwriter Pumice – aka Stefan Neville – is in Australia this month as part of the Sound Summit festival, which takes place in Newcastle from the 1st of October and continues over the long weekend. Cyclic Defrost caught up with Stefan to talk Fleetwood Mac, recording with Fennesz, and why the lo-fi tag is kinda boring.
Hi Stefan. You just returned from a long US tour. How do people respond to Pumice over there?
They generally clap at the end of songs. Sometimes they don’t if it’s a highbrow po-faced show and they think I’m playing experimental music. I got told there were a couple of minds blown, lotsa folk told me I sound like this or that other band, there was the odd request yelled out, and there might have been a dancer somewhere. A few grillings about equipment and techniques. A few tourist bores just wanting to talk about NZ. A pretty normal tour.
A lot of great New Zealand bands say they are met with either ambivalence or anger in their native country. Does the same apply to Pumice?
I’ve never encountered anger but yeah, probably some ambivalence. I’m no doubt ridiculed in some circles. It’s only as it should be: I get a bit angry and ambivalent about the music here that I think is rubbish too so it’s only fair. I do get lots of encouragement and support from people here as well. Not so much from funding bodies or media but that shit is embarrassing anyway. People just like different stuff, seems to be true most places I’ve been.
Where in New Zealand did you grow up?
Living with my Dad I moved around a lot, but lived mostly in the far north – Ahipara and Omenia, as well as Matata and Awakeri in the Bay of Plenty. [They are] rugged tiny beach towns. I moved to Hamilton when i was thirteen to live with my mum and go to high school.
What was your upbringing like?
It was pretty barefoot and free range. BMX riding, rugby playing and bombing into creeks and rock pools and breaking my collar bone. In the school holidays i’d go stay with my mum in Hamilton where she ran a unemployment scheme for artists in a big old church. They were always doing street theatre and plays and other weird stuff. I remember playing with synthesizers and doing graffiti.
Are you close to any other of your New Zealand contemporaries?
Well you eventually get to meet everyone in NZ, and you generally end up playing with them too. I had a great gang of friends during my late teens in Hamilton forming bands and egging each other on – people like gfrenzy and CJA, who are still amongst my closest friends and most admired NZ musicians. These years were the beginnings of Pumice too. I currently make music with Pat Kraus as Olympus, with Antony Milton as Sunken and play drums in The Coolies, The Nothing and a little bit lately with The Renderers.
What kind of shows do you play in your home country?
Pumice shows the world over are much the same. 10 to 100 people. Bars, record shops, galleries, houses, once in a blue moon something swanky like a theatre or a car park. I usually get paid between $6 and $200.
Some of your music might attract a wider audience if it weren’ for the low fidelity recordings. I’m thinking some of the more jaunty numbers on Quo. Is the fidelity something you believe is integral to Pumice’ sound, or is it just a necessity?
I recorded an album in Vienna with state of the art microphones in Fennesz’s studio. Reviews went on about how lo-fi it was yet it captured what I sounded like in that room perfectly. When I record at home I use everything I can get my hands on which doesn’t include state of the art microphones, and I do like the sound of those recordings better. A good performance of a good song is the main thing. Debating fidelity seems pretty meaningless. I’m amazed at how many people seem to listen to my music. It makes it harder to do it knowing that.
Why does the lo-fi sound appeal to you, while it might repel others?
I dunno why but I love to hear a small speaker struggle and overload and spit. I like things to be blurry.
Is it frustrating that writers and commentators always seize upon the lo-fi aspect of your sound?
Well it’s not very interesting is it?
What were your listening habits when you were growing up?
My dad had lotsa folk and prog and comedy and 60s and London Calling. My mum had Fleetwood Mac and Joan Armatrading. I devoured it all. I fell in love with Kiss and then The Clash quite young. My complete hero uncle – who was in The Economic Wizards and did a few records in the 80s – turned me onto Toy Love and from there I found weird NZ music.
You’ve released music on some well regarded labels such as Last Visible Dog and Table of the Elements. How did you arrange that all the way from New Zealand?
I’ve been doing this stuff since the mid 90s, sending out tapes to people I liked. I tried my luck pitching records to labels I liked. Emails and perseverance. I’ve toured a lot in the last 5 years so have met a lot of these people now. There’s no secrets to it.
Are there any Australian bands or labels that you’re enjoying at the moment?
I’m a huge fan of the Kindling records stuff from Brisbane. The Deadnotes, Leighton Craig & Eugene Carchesio etc. I just got sent a xNoBBQx record but i haven’t listened to it yet. Last week I was driving around Oakland, California with this NZ duo called Newtown. We were looking for tacos and blasting one of the two tapes they had in the car which was Midnight Oil’s Diesel & Dust. My Dad used to always say “you can’t fault that record”.
Have you ever been to Newcastle?
I stopped in one afternoon for half an hour while hitchhiking from Brisbane to Sydney in 1999. I had been told to check out the Octopod so i did and met Justin Nomadness who kept in touch and we did a postal collaboration comic called Dear God and then he stopped writing back to me. Are you there Justin?
Pumice will appear at the Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle on Friday the 2nd of October with Ducktails, Rosy Parlane, Qua, Free Choice Duo, Jim Cuomo, Aoi, Guarde Compartmente and Stalker. Tickets are $15.