In times of uncertainty and change, there is nothing more constant and reassuring than a new album from New Zealand’s legendary The Bats. Like a guiding star in the firmament, The Bats have a steady and consistent hold in the musical pantheon – giving direction and a steady path. ‘Foothills’ is simply brilliant – it is, in other words, what you would expect from The Bats album. It is a delicate, melodic album filled with beautiful observations on life delivered in The Bats’ trademark jingle-jangle, sparkling style with grace and poise.
There is a bucolic, pastoral sheen to the songs – reflective of the landscape from which it was born. They are songs of innocence and experience: erudite, poetic and infused with a sense of wonder and joy.
The band – consisting of the same members for 38 years – convened in a remote location near Christchurch to record this album and the remoteness bleeds into the warm enveloping sound: creating a safe enclave that comforts like a hot cup of chocolate.
Central figure Robert Scott says of making the album:
Time marches on… finally, we found a gap in our busy lives and chose a week to convene. We found a house that is usually inhabited by ski field workers — Kowai Bush, near Springfield about an hour west of Christchurch and of course nestled in the foothills of the mighty Southern Alps. The songs had been written, demo’d and arranged for some time, but still with a little room for trying things out in the studio. Many carloads arrived at the house, full of amps guitars and recording gear, we set up camp and soon made it feel like home; coloured lights, a log fire, and home cooked meals in the kitchen. We worked fast, and within a few days had all the basic backing tracks done, live together in one room, the way we like to do it – it’s all about ‘the feel’ for songs like ours.
First single off the album, ‘Warwick’, is a warm enveloping return with the hallmark jangling wall of chiming guitars and the bitter-sweet melodies and jugular-targeting rhythms
‘Another Door’, another single off the album, is brilliant.
There is a gentle lilt to this track that encapsulates all that I love about this band: an ambience, a shimmer, a sense of poetry and an elegance. The crystalline unadulterated guitars sparkle and shine under singer Robert Scott’s melancholic and expressive vocals with beautiful harmonies that mesmerise and uplift. Scott says of the song:
This song is wee ditty about opportunities both missed and taken. It came together really quickly with the band.
The accompanying video was shot near where the forthcoming album ‘Foothills’ was recorded: there is a bucolic, pastoral air with constant movement of trains, cars and camera contrasted with the band playing in a small room – the band that has played together for 38 years with the same lineup. Perhaps this represents the band as a symbol of constancy in changing times or a desire to travel and escape after being isolated for so long:
The track ‘Gone To Ground’ is the most delightful, gentle and immersive track: guitars jangle, harmonies flow like molten butter.
The addition of a haunting e-bow adds another dimension. Songwriter and singer for the band, Robert Scott, says of the track:
Hide and seek, do we want to be found…. maybe not. Many people have gone to ground in these tricky times. A slight sense of unease pervades the song with the spooky strains of an E bow filtering through the trees. You could walk the marshes and go far. It’s funny how you can draw connections between fictitious tales and present day life.
The accompanying video is sweet and simple and very enigmatic (like the band itself). Scenes of spinning objects, spilling objects and splitting wood are all topped and tailed by a burning guitar:
There is a sense of playfulness and innocence in tracks like ‘Red Car’ and ‘Beneath the Visor’ – all sharing the same gorgeously delicate melodies and shimmering instrumentation.
‘Foothills is pure The Bats, it’s pure Flying Nun, it’s pure indie pop, it is quintessentially New Zealand. And above all it is a brilliant album that fills one with unadulterated joy at the immersive enveloping cloak of exceptional songs played brilliantly.
I was honoured to be able to ask a few question of Robert Scott:
First of all, congratulations on ‘Foothills’. It’s fantastic to see creativity has no use-by date. Is there added pressure on you to continue to innovate and create after so many years and after breaks?
I don’t feel any pressure as a writer as such. I like to think I am progressing in my work, so maybe a little pressure but not from the outside at all.
Can you give us a sense of what it was like in the early days – the Dunedin scene and Flying Nun and the musical explosion at that time?
It was a very exciting time. New bands playing a lot, several bands per weekend, a great sense of fun and adventure floated over the scene. You would come up with a new song then go and see another band and they would have just written an even better one.
Where are you all based now?
I am in Roseneath, just outside Port Chalmers, about 15 minutes from Dunedin, the rest are in Christchurch. I lived in Christchurch from 1982 to 84, then moved back south.
Is there a sense of achievement that you are an institution now – in the sense you are a known entity internationally?
A slight sense of pride that we have been able to hang in there and make lots of music, you can’t get too big for your boots in this little place, you get cut down pretty quickly.
How did ‘Foothills’ become a reality – from writing the songs to recording?
The songs were mostly written quite a while ago, most of them are 3 or 4 years old now, so we chose which ones we wanted to do , rehearsed and arranged them, then finally found time to go and record in the foothills of the southern alps, about an hour inland from Christchurch, it took about a week for the main part and then quite a while to finish it up.
Did the apparently bucolic surroundings of the studio add to the tones?
Not really although that may be something that the listener may hear for themselves, I think the songs themselves dictated how they should sound, the surroundings were very nice that’s for sure but for me it doesn’t come through in the songs.
Do you and bands like The Chills, Straight Jacket Fits, The Verlaines, The Jean Paul Sartre Experience and The Clean hang around together on weekends at the local pub?
No not really, everyone is very spread out around the country and busy doing their own things, I see David Kilgour every now and then and some of the guys from the Dead C, I see Shayne Carter and Martin Philipps sometimes, everyone still gets along which is good, and sadly quite a few have passed away.
‘Foothills’ is out now and can be bought below.