40 years of Flying Nun by Sam Hollis
By the late 1970s, Christchurch record store employee Roger Shepherd was tired of the “dull stuff” pulsing over the radio waves. He’d heard Rod Stewart’s Sailing cover one too many times, so instead, he submerged himself in the post-punk scene bubbling up around him. In 1981, he founded Flying Nun Records, an independent label that would give legitimacy to that grimy, bloody, beautiful underground scene. 40 years on, names like The Clean, The Chills, Tall Dwarfs, The Phoenix Foundation, Mermaidens, Reb Fountain, and Aldous Harding not only ring bells, they define innovation and inventiveness in Kiwi music. Somehow, against all odds, Shepherd found an audience.
In keeping with tradition, Flying Nun celebrated their 40th with anniversary gigs in Auckland and Wellington. I caught up with Shepherd to reflect on his life with Flying Nun, the moments and figures that defined it, and the global impact it has had.
You’ve never pursued a career as a musician, so how did you find yourself so entrenched in that scene?
I had sort of fallen out of university, and I’d had this part-time job at a record shop in Christchurch. I washed up back there full time in the late 70s, and it was a real time of change musically, internationally and in New Zealand. Punk had shaken everything up, but it was what came out of the whole punk thing, which was brief and furious – I guess now we’d identify it as post-punk. It was a really exciting time. People were buying New Zealand singles, Propellor Records in Auckland had a lot of success with bands like Blam Blam Blam and Screaming Meemees. I was a regular at the Gladstone Hotel, which was at the centre of the original music scene in Christchurch, and I just got to thinking that there’s a whole lot of really interesting stuff happening that’s never going to be released. A major record company wasn’t going to be interested because they weren’t interested in anything, hardly from New Zealand, and an Auckland record label wasn’t necessarily going to have the ability to release something South Island-based either. So it would have been a drunken ‘I’m going to start a record label!’ kind of conversation, just before closing time probably.
It suited me; I wasn’t in a band, I wasn’t musical as such, but I had some music retail experience. There were aspects of how it all worked that I did understand, that I’d had first-hand experience with, and I loved the music, so I sort of jumped in the deep end.
Early on, it was the success of releases like The Clean’s Tally Ho! and the Dunedin Double EP that really put the label on the map. Can you describe what the Flying Nun machine was like back then?
Machine, hmm [laughs].
I guess we had a telephone, that’s a machine. It was pretty basic. I worked from a spare room in my home for a small amount of time, including the Tally Ho! period. Then we got an office in town – not great for records. Everything was covered in this fine dust because the plaster was disintegrating out front. It was a really old building, holes in the floorboards and everything. We had a second-hand desk and a phone.
Was there a defining moment when you realised Flying Nun wasn’t just a small local outfit, it was growing into a globally recognised and respected label?
I could see it was a thing when the overseas aspect of what we were doing started to deliver results. We were selling records in New Zealand, but I always knew that wasn’t enough to sustain a business. We had to bridge that gap to overseas markets. And when that started to happen, I thought, well, there’s enough of the world interested that we can actually manage this. Perhaps it was around 83. We were looking at the Tuatara compilation, and it was the fact that we really struggled, not to come up with tracks to put on it, but what to leave off it. We’d built up a catalogue.
Chris Knox has called you the ‘Godfather of the Dunedin Sound’, but you’ve argued that he is more deserving of that title. Can you tell me about Chris’ significance?
In the Flying Nun story he’s really key and inspirational as a singer and frontman. The Enemy, they were phenomenal. One of the great rock ‘n’ roll experiences for me. They presented themselves in such an outrageous way that it made me think that New Zealand music could be as good as anything from anywhere. I saw them at a gig in Dunedin in 78, and The Clean were supporting them playing their first-ever show. Chris was quite inspirational, and he’s a smart guy. He was ferocious on stage, but The Beatles were a thing for him; thinking about songwriting and how you make a record. He would sort of mentor bands. And with Tall Dwarfs, which is when we got involved with him and Alec [Bathgate] from Toy Love, all through the 80s they made incredibly interesting, creative, quirky records; records that were picked up by people overseas.
There was a 10-year period where you left the music industry before buying back the label. What did your focus shift to during that time?
I went overseas in 94, I think, to set up an office in London. By that stage, Mushroom Records owned a chunk of Flying Nun and I was piggybacking on them to set up an office. That went well for a while until they sold out to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. I could see the writing on the wall, so I left. I became a house dad. We had a daughter and I stayed home with her, I did a bit of record company consultancy work, but I resisted getting sucked back into that world.
We came back to live in New Zealand in 2005 when we had a six-year-old and a one-year-old. I had the opportunity to buy the company back. Charlotte Ryan – she was at Warners at the time and hosts Radio New Zealand’s Music 101 now – she approached me about doing a boxset [for the label’s 25th anniversary]. It took me ages, but that got me reconnecting with a lot of the music. Obviously, there’s things that I’ll never forget. I’ll always be familiar with certain records and songs, but this just got me reconnecting with all of it. I thought, there’s a huge proportion of this music that really stands out, and it’s certainly relevant to so many people’s lives, I should see if I can get this back, just to keep it alive. I could see that it was slowly meshing in with everything else, it was losing its identity. So that was the start of quite a long and involved process.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the label. Looking forward, what do you feel will define Flying Nun’s legacy?
It should be, and it has to be, the music. It’s not always the most obvious ones. It’s not always Pink Frost [by The Chills] or Tally Ho! or Death and the Maiden [by The Verlaines], sometimes it’s just the way an EP or an LP might sound as a collection of songs. It’s all about the song.
What is one underrated Flying Nun project that people should go listen to right now?
Anything by The Subliminals.