Paul Kean is enjoying the frosty mornings and sunny days of Christchurch in the early days of spring, a relaxed man so good-humoured that he seems always on the verge of busting out a giggle.
Of course he’s relaxed. He’s not just a New Zealander, but a South Islander. He’s not just a musician but a bassplayer, the most naturally chilled member of any band. (Don’t bother arguing: it’s a fact.)
He’s also one quarter of The Bats, a band that has existed with the same lineup for nearly 40 years, making music when it suits them, touring (when it was allowed) when it suited them, and retaining a reputation built as one of the original Flying Nun label bands – along with The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, Straightjacket Fits, and others - who in the 1980s created a template for the next 40 years of low-fi, tune-heavy, thoughtful indie guitar music.
Oh yes, and another of that Bats quartet is his partner of several decades, guitarist and jangler supreme, Kaye Woodward. They’ve got kids. And a house in the foothills. Together. Still.
(Worth noting too that the band’s twitter bio describes them as “legends of original indie pop still making waves, not riding them”.)
So yeah, relaxed and good humoured, with not even the release today of a new Bats single (Another Door) and then in November a tenth album (Foothills) – both on Flying Nun Records, of course - to stress him out. Stress just wouldn’t fit. Not down south, where the band have pretty much stayed since songwriter and singer Robert Scott invited drummer Malcolm Grant to fill out the group he and his flatmate, Woodward, had formed.
To some, for whom bigger - and bigger over there - is the only mark of a successful career, this seems weird. To Kean and his bandmates, it just was sensible to be where the wellspring of their imagination, emotional connections and common sense was found rather than some designated cultural/creative centre.
“Hamish Kilgour [co-founder of The Clean] has been staying with us and he’s been living in New York for some time. He absolutely loves that, the vibe that goes on in New York and the grittiness, and he’s been missing that stuck here in lockdown,” says Kean. “But I think he is slowly seeing the good side to a provincial town in the South Island of New Zealand.”
It’s not like they didn’t care at all about the rest of the world. The Bats spent three months based in London in 1986, and on and off across the early years they would spend 2 to 3 months at a time on the road in Europe or the USA, but as Kean explains “ we always retreated back here for the comforts of home, family and friends, and a re-group before recording, which was always comfortable and cheap and easy to do in familiar surroundings.”
If it sounds as if I’m making Kean justify their decisions, the opposite is the truth. Having made consistently good, consistently “Bats” music for 38 years, and survived with the same lineup and an unbroken friendship, there is no need to justify anything.
“We didn’t make it big, but I often say to people we’re nearly famous,” he chuckles. “That’s enough for me because I don’t particularly like what being famous does to a lot of people.”
Remember too that you can be nearly famous for 30 or 40 years, while you might only be famous for five. If you’re lucky. So, yeah, that’s meant they’ve all had jobs – still have jobs – that mostly are connected to music, while still playing music. Woodward teaches music, Grant is a carer for the handicapped, Robert Scott was a teacher and now runs a gallery, while Kean is an events manager.
“We survived with day jobs and it hasn’t really compromised the music at all. And we haven’t overplayed either, which I think is a thing. We haven’t overdone it [for fans] or got bored [ourselves].”
And they have remained certain about who they are and what they do, providing a confidence that allows the resistance to the siren call of London or New York, or Sydney, to flourish.
“It’s never been all that forced with writing songs or deciding what direction we are going to go because we’ve always had an unspoken rapport and things just flowed out. And having Robert as a great songwriter has been so good for us. And I don’t think there are many bands that have had the same lineup for this bloody long, so something must be working,” Kean says. “A lot of people are critical and say, oh they always sound the same [but] on the other hand we always sound like The Bats, which I think is quite important.”
It’s not that they sound the same song by song so much as the principles are the same. And there are not many bands who know that about themselves, let alone knowing how to maintain it. Not to mention having the right balance of seriousness and levity, as a quick look at the video for the first single from this album, Warwick, would show.
There is no doubt that Scott’s songwriting is the central plank of The Bats’ long appeal, its mix of dolorous melodicism and wry observation defining them. However, as anyone who has spent any time with their records knows, Kean’s bassplaying, his way with melody aligned with a rhythmic sense that brought an unlikely low key groove to indie rock, might be their subtle point of difference.
How does he see himself fitting into the creation of the Bats sound?
“I think, for me, when I first started playing bass, when I selected bass as an instrument, I did it because I used to really enjoy going out and dancing to bands. I used to be always up on the dancefloor, and I was often the first one up jumping around, and I was probably following the rhythm,” Kean says, a tad reluctantly as he would prefer avoiding talking about himself.
“I found myself sometimes just making funny, weird harmonic sounds while I was dancing, almost like joining in the band, and I thought maybe I should play something. And I thought I don’t really want to be a normal bass player so I thought I would develop my own sound and uniqueness.”
Any other hints for those playing at home?
“I don’t really think about it too much in the band, but sometimes I like to know what the lyrics are, because I’m not very good at focusing on lyrics, so don’t do something that’s counter to what the theme or the feel of the song is. But unfortunately,” and here he begins to laugh. “Sometimes I’ve done a terrible job at that: making something quite bouncy and danceable to a sad song.”
There are worse sins. In truth, of course, that combination can elevate a fine song to a very good one. But then, in typical Kean fashion, he adds that while his bassplaying is important he sees his other job, handling the management of the band as just as valuable. “The music is something that just happens.”
Pressed a bit further, Kean reveals a bit more of the musician side, telling me he still has the tea chest bass that he started out with, that one-string favourite of your (very) basic roots bands, and confessing that not that long before we speak, he had been playing it “because it’s just so instinctive and fun”.
He plays some down the line for me, making it sound more like a slapped funk bass than a folk one and then says that he is now thinking about using it on a future recording, having recently added some to new track for Kilgore.
The tea chest might be the past and future of rock ‘n’ roll.
“In some stages when we’re been a bit freaked out by things like the earthquake here, and even back when the twin towers were hit and it was like ‘oh my god it’s the end of the world’, and we lose our electricity and our ability to move at least we’ve still got our acoustic instruments and I could play the tea chest,” Kean says. “So the apocalypse will be fun.”
Forget cockroaches, The Bats have survived 38 years and will survive the apocalypse. No one will be surprised.
Another Door is out now. Foothills is out on November 13, on Flying Nun Records.