The Bats were reputedly the main reason Roger Shepherd started the Flying Nun label, although they didn’t play their first gig until New Year’s Eve in Dunedin in 1982, and their first EP, By Night, didn’t emerge until 1984. Robert Scott was already playing bass in the Clean, and while living in Christchurch started he playing with Kaye Woodward and Paul Kean, who had been in Chris Knox’s Toy Love on their rather disastrous sojourn in Australia. They then recruited Malcolm Grant, who had played with Bill Direen’s Christchurch band the Bilders, and the four members have stayed together ever since, making them New Zealand’s most long-standing band. Scott moved to Port Chalmers, just outside Dunedin, also known colloquially as ‘Dogtown’, as his T shirt proclaims. (Grant sported a Toy Love T shirt, just to confuse things. )The Bats’ sound has remained relatively stable also, with Woodward’s lead guitar loops and Kean’s springy bass giving the band a buoyant, chugging, jangling, up tempo poppy rhythm which epitomises the ‘Flying Nun Sound’, and which they have never really deviated from. This is despite the addition at times of violin by Alastair Galbraith, and more recently, a string section comprising Mikey Summerfield and John Chrisstoffels, members of the Terminals and Bats offshoot Minisnap, who joined the Bats on their brief Australian tour of Melbourne and Sydney at the end of January. (In response to a coda from the duo, Woodward commented, ‘That’s about as arty as we get, at least deliberately!)
Their ninth album, The Deep Set, was recorded in the Sitting Room – a NZ term for loungeroom – a studio cum sleepout garage next to music producer Ben Edwards’ house in Lyttelton, a port town just outside Christchurch which was severely affected by the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.
The Sitting Room, which has been destroyed twice by earthquakes, has previously been used by the golden-voiced Marlon Williams, his partner Aldous Harding, and New Zealand singer Nadia Reid, as well as band the Eastern, among others, all with a Lyttelton-based alt-country style. As Edwards has said, “After the quakes I realised that, okay, you don’t need to be in a commercial building, or a fancy studio, there’s a lot of stuff you can get away with using classic Kiwi ingenuity and cheeky indie-punk mentality.” The Deep Set is the Bats’ first album since Free All the Monsters, which they finished recording in 2012 at Seacliff, a former mental asylum outside Dunedin where famous NZ writer Janet Frame was an inmate in the mid-1940s, and a suitably hauntological venue for that album. They toured it to Australia in 2012, playing at Notes in Newtown in Sydney. The album was released on Flying Nun, a label the Bats gratefully returned to after a long hiatus.
The Sydney Festival gig was something special as they were celebrating 20 years of their first album, Daddy’s Highway, recorded in Glasgow in 1986 and finished in Christchurch in 1987. “North By North” has always been their most popular track, but they also played tracks they hadn’t played for some 20 years (and Scott commented that they probably wouldn’t play them again, given the state of the times), such as “Tragedy”, “Round and Down”, “Miss These Things”, and another crowd-pleaser, ‘Block of Wood”, for which Woodward and Kean exchanged instruments. They interspersed songs from the new album, along with tracks from Free All the Monsters, The Guilty Office, The Law of Things and other albums. The Bats are particularly popular in the USA, having toured there four times, and had the experience of supporting Radiohead there in 1993. In 1995 they took a 10 year break, focusing on child-rearing as well as other music projects, and one of the keys to their longevity is that they never spend too much time together, as other projects tend to intervene. In 2010 they played at a special benefit in Hagley Park with other musicians for 140,000 people in Christchurch after the earthquake, and were joined on bass by Christchurch mayor Bob Parker.
The Deep Set is possibly their strongest album yet, with a maturity in Scott’s songwriting and the band’s playing which gives it a sense of comfortable authority. Beginning with ‘Rooftops’, there is a melodic quality typical of the group, which suffuses Scott’s rather opaque lyrics. There is a rather cute video involving kids playing hide and seek and miming a band for ‘No Trace’, the second single from the album – the first being ‘Antlers’, but every track on the album is strong. The Bats are back, and the gig was attended by mostly expatriate New Zealanders in Sydney, grateful to see them once again, as their appearances are all too rare.