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Not All Who Wander Are Lost – The Puddle’s “Secret Holiday and Victory Blues” (w/interview)

The Puddle
Secret Holiday and Victory Blues

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Among the underground-slash-indie cognoscenti, it is exceedingly rare for a band to be both legend and a secret.  Yet this is precisely the status New Zealand’s The Puddle have had conferred upon them. Well-known to Kiwi-bred aficionadi and long-standingly as well – the band have been hanging ‘round the heathlands and banging out hooks off and on for over twenty years now – they’ve nonetheless remained as relatively unknown outside the broken borders of their homeland as, say, the mayor of Auckland (cheers, right honorable Len Brown, hope you don’t mind).

This was not, I would suggest, a case of flying under our radar but more due to the fact that said radar, as it was calibrated for that tiny island kingdom, wasn’t oriented to pick up on the likes of The Puddle. Byrdsian jangle with a rural VU vibe? Yeah, sure, any of the many lower antipodean groups that would fit inside that rather broad swath, from the masterful pop featherings of The Verlaines through the tripping nuggetry of The Chills and The Bats and The Clean to the power-drone fringe of Bailter Space, our radar not only found those bands but once it had we marveled at them and lay garlands at their feet in the form of end-of-year Top 10 lists. (Not that there weren’t those that found and loved The Puddle over here. Both KFJC and KUSF in the Bay Area were hip enough to fête them in their own ways, the latter even giving 2009 LP The Shakespeare Monkey album-of-the-year honors in, umm, 2008)

Yet The Puddle, despite their longevity, their status among their countrymen, remain at best an underknown quantity. If one didn’t know better, one would suspect it’s willful, as if the band – which is to say George D. Henderson, the one constant over the years; he is, in essence, the band – have intentionally been the flagbearers for the type of fate any of us would have bestowed upon a New Zealand music scene – remote as it is, sequestered and necessarily incestuous – had we pondered its prospect back in the mid-‘70s or so, before the now-famous Kiwipop earthquake, epicenters Dunedin and Christchurch, shook us by our roots.

Rubbish, of course, and this album, released earlier this year on Fishrider, would, in a just world, reverse all that. Because regardless of it sending out a decidedly different signal than the records of their peers, for this album to not receive an amount of attention commensurate with, say, The Bats fine LP from last year, would be a mystery worthy of The Moehau (the Maori Bigfoot for all you crypto-zoologists following along). A more appropriate beast of native mythology, however, would surely be the South Island Panther, residing as it allegedly does in the Canterbury region of the South Island. For I’ll be deuced if The Puddle doesn’t bring to mind, as often as not, the practiced whimsy, the sometimes carnivalesque fatalism, of England’s Canterbury scene, specifically Kevin Ayers.

Though you’ll hear strands and fleeting motifs to support that comparison throughout, nowhere is it more striking than on opener “Decline To Fall,” a song that appears, superficially at least, to be a kiss-off toast to a boastful wannabe rock star. It’s there lyrically (opening gambit: “Never let them tell you that/it’s later than you think/Just take the final straw/and use it in your drink”), it’s there sonically, not least when the drum-popping bridge leads mid-song to a crying little violin solo that turns around and suggests, with some persuasive equanimity, that you go ahead and jump right off it. Somehow both tightly drawn and a bit of a wanderer – and, yes, you’re right, there’s another Canterburian trademark – it boasts a contender for killer quatrain of the year (if that opener doesn’t beat it out): “There but for the grace of God/I’d follow you some more/Good angels stopped me/that’s what I pay them for.”

As much as anything it’s that sly, almost sanguine tossed-off wit (OK, that and the kind of loamy airiness that pervades the music throughout) that points toward The Puddle’s Kentish forebears, as on “Victory,” a chiming, odic little charmer to the vagaries of the Muse, where the first verse line, rhetorically asked, “Who needs the rest?” is recast in the last stanza as “He needs the rest,” the sort of subtle twist that bypasses the distracted listener while rewarding the attentive one with a wide satisfying grin. It’s also the kind of winking trickery that one doesn’t need a degree in rock history in order to be reminded of, say, Robert Wyatt.

All that said, it’s the poppier Canterbury side of the realm that SH/VB inhabits, not fixed on jazz-rigged complexity but instead focused on relentlessly hook-stuffed melodic structures. Were we to continue along that same thread of stylistic comparison we’d invoke, however precariously, Wyatt’s later solo work, such as Shleep. Were we wiser than that, though, we’d be led back to The Puddle’s native environs, led to recall the musical neighborhood they hail from, because, despite not always sharing the tics and trademarks of their better known cousins – though “The Vitalist” does carry itself forth with a somewhat Verlaines-esque progression – they do resemble them in at least one, umm, vital way: sheer tunefulness.

On shared title track “Secret Holiday,” we get, on the one hand, the sneaky irresistibility of bands associated with the Object Music label, such as Grow-Up and Spherical Objects (talkin’ early days of the Indie Wars here, kids, 1980-81), wherein bittersweet sentiment is married to buoyant, rather radiant arrangement, the bass chasing down the beat, all spright and catchy, a rhythm acoustic bouncing along in a bright skip. There’s a bongo, some vibey action and sun that, despite the singer’s age, soak the song with the chime of youthful optimism. There’s also a ringing electric guitar solo that both anchors the track midway and, soaringly, takes us out and all of a sudden the Isley Brothers cover of “Summer Breeze” makes more dizzy sense than it ever has. And that’s the other gift we’re given here, an early ‘70s jukebox hit that never was. Needless to say the song’s a corker, worthy of endless rotation on every road trip playlist you’ll ever make from now on.

It’s also, in an oddly wonderful way, problematic, putting on full display as it does The Puddle’s almost promiscuous sense of casual adventurism. In those first two album tracks alone we’ve traipsed from a cynical English fayre to an indie seashore where irrepressibly sunny textures of Philly soul rise above the mist.  Later, on “Little Red Coat,” a slow burner that somehow manages to be both a threat and a lament, we get a mostly ghostly rumination on a messed-up, or at least mildly twisted love affair that, due to its dual tones on menace and vulnerability, would not have sounded out of place on Factory Star’s magnificently dark song cycle from last year, Enter Castle Perilous. Consider now that this comes on the heels of “Oh Hayley (You’re Right),” the rompiest outing on the VB side of things (the 10-track album is essentially two 5-track EPs glued together) that lurches along agreeably in a jaunty stomp, comparing the song’s dedicatee to history’s most notorious shrimp of a dictator, and just before finale “Walrus Arabia,” wordless and quietly epic with its dreamy xylophone and sleepy beat. The Puddle, indeed, do a neat trade in the fluidly panoramic. And they do so with such a shrugging confidence. As misguided as it always is to use no matter what medium of art one’s reviewing, the word “effortless” can’t help but come to mind.

“Didn’t Even Know You Were Gone,” another bona fide jukebox gem, is wry, fiddley Americana – think The Mekons operating on artful restraint – and boasts some of the sing-a-longiest wo-wo-wo’s you’ll ever shake your spurs to. Tucked in the center of the album, ending Secret Holiday and starting Victory Blues, in this record’s heart, you could say, are a couple of slower, more reflective love songs, even though one of them, well, isn’t exactly. “Hydrogen 6,” however much it’s meant as a rune of sorts to the cosmic pull of the heavens, expresses itself like an inadvertent sonnet, and in that way comes across as a love song that in its tone might remind one, via its languorous pace, its so-low-it’s-almost-guttural Farfisa solo and aching violin, of The Move’s “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart.” “Tender Validation,” bumping along on a keyboard set to ‘vibe,’ with much thumping of bass drum and tom tom, has what at first appears to be a bit of a bumpkin’s romantic confessional to it (and indeed it was a Valentine’s Day gift to George’s girlfriend), the singer more or less sighing out the words in stuporous exhalation. Unsurprisingly, however, the character being sung here soon enough bumbles his way into an unfussy, homespun wisdom, taking a soft control of the situation and telling his love to “close your eyes and just let go.”

That’s twice now in this review the phrase appears to be or something much like it has shown up, a fact that, to the astute reader, invariably suggests ‘subtext,’ or its more suggestive cousin ‘backstory.’ Though The Puddle wouldn’t be The Puddle without its supporting players (relentlessly ace rhythm section of bassist Gavin Shaw and George’s brother Ian on drums, Alan Starret and Graeme Humphreys bringing expert keyboard), the story here is George’s, and that being the case, it bears at least the briefest explication.

Even though The Puddle have been steadily recording since, well, pretty much forever (Puddle LPs have been known to eclipse previous releases and there’s at least one ‘lost album’ buried somewhere in a shoebox of cassettes under someone’s bed), it is nonetheless possible to look at SH/VB as a comeback album, George having finally, fully, come back from the places artists often find themselves coming back from. We’ll leave off the lurid detail for now (some hint of it in accompanying interview) and settle for the understanding that the distance between that place and the here and now is a fair sight longer than your standard miracle mile. With that knowledge one goes back to the material, not least “Decline To Fall” and “The Vitalist” (first line: “Oh I suppose the stuff flew up your nose”) and hears it in a clarified light. It would be a mistake, however, to cast this as simply a redemption record and leave it at that.

Secret Holiday/Victory Blues is an adroit album that’s also, thanks to the band’s faculty for blending and bending all those varied, playful stylistic strands into the shape of a thoroughly modern-sounding pop sound, a timeless one. How this album, this band, actually manages to meld those disparate parts into a seamless whole is an intrigue that only seems to deepen the more one listens to it.

In the end, intuitively, what this album presents itself as is a songcrafted collage built around the idea of freedom, hack as that may sound and to whatever extent it was, by design, unintended. SH/VB is not a manifesto, of course, nor is it a document per se and there’s certainly no ostensible credo put forward. But taken altogether, this record is a testament to the lack of strictures inside of which Henderson feels free to operate. There’s a charming courage in how the man eschews the need for a central operating premise and instead goes frolicking about their own chosen playground of style and influence, doing so blithely and assuredly, which is the opposite of shyness. From this one derives a healthy sense of George D. Henderson, not just surviving but surpassing, outlasting, the traps and adversities he set in his own path back in the wilderness years. He has said in recent interviews that moving to Auckland, where, for the most part, no one knows him nor he anyone, has left him feeling liberated, lost – in the best way – amid the tide of others similarly displaced. And here, lucky for us, we have the fruits of that anonymity.

Rather oddly, what all this brings to mind is a new-agey bumper sticker common in the United States (or at least up here in the yoga granola forests of the Pacific Northwest), which puts forward the notion that ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost.’ My reflexive response to this has always been some degree of an internal sneer, but now, having delved into this record, it’s gained a different slant, as it seems not only wholly suited to one Mr. Henderson but it would also, almost certainly, not be lost on the Ayerses and Wyatts of this world. Nor, for that matter, on the South Island Panther.

Stereo Embers speaks to George D. Henderson:

SE: There’s a popular mythos: The artist gets dragged through addiction, is at some point incarcerated, basically scraping bottom before finding his way back and, well, his art is all the better for it. Call it the Johnny Cash model, or Gil Scott-Heron, or fill-in-the-blank. Given that SH/VB is considered by the NZ press and others to be, arguably, the best work of The Puddle’s career thus far, how much, if at all, has that model played a part?

GDH: I am not sure how much my addiction had to do with my music. Was it rock and roll? More like a substitute for rock and roll excess/success? My pre-jail work suffers from a minimal budget and lack of time and focus. That is completely due to the undue priority I gave to drugs. But later work, when I was still “on” something, had an easy creative flow, whereas now I am always worried I’ve run out of things to say. I’m a better person, at least in some ways, for being straight, and a better live performer without doubt.  But there’s a kamikaze lack of concern with consequences and perceptions that I miss sorely when I’m trying to write a song now. I cared a lot less once, about who knew I was ripping off such-and-such a band, who I offended, who thought I was a fool or a wanker or worse. And that indifference to societal norms or whatever (which was never total, just relative) is something I miss now.  But I’ve only been clean for a year, so I may not be back to “normal” yet, so look out…Anyway I have always been averse to writing the same song twice. I mean, I’d love to write another “Hudibras” or “I’ve Lost My Way In This World” or “Valhallah”–I’d love a whole concept album on any one of those themes and styles, but I just can’t pick up again an idea which has worked once. Even though common sense says those are exactly the ideas I should reiterate. So I guess I’m meant to wander into some fresh territories next and develop and exploit something new. Synth-pop, or ukulele dubstep, perhaps.

I came out of the gutter, as it were, without feeling I had already done anything I wanted to be remembered for. I’m kinder to my juvenalia now, more accepting; but there isn’t an obvious parallel with, say, Johnny Cash, who actually had many fine hits before he crashed.

I was never together to begin the Puddle story, and I was never successful before I went through the rails. This has been my first lucid interval. I’ve been, like, a bunch of different people in my time. I can’t speak for all of them. Honestly, since giving up the dope, in the middle of writing a song, on one or two occasions, has been absolutely the only time I have missed being high on the old crank-smack. Personally, it holds no appeal for me. Artistically, there is still a small sense of loss. But I soon get over it.

SE: Hadn’t planned on asking after influences (and still don’t, actually), as it ends up being either so obvious as to be dull or just plain confusing (What? Sun Ra and The Raspberries?), but must confess to being a little perplexed. In a piece from the Otago Daily Times it’s said that “Henderson doesn’t listen to a lot of music” and cites a Bobby Darin album circa 1968 as “the last album played at length.” But here there’s the sentence where you talk about worrying “about who knew I was ripping off such-and-such a band.” I only ask this because, though I’d never look at it as ‘ripping off’ (it’s an accumulative medium, this pop lark) I like to think I’ve detected some glimmers of past artists in SH/VB whom I greatly admire, so the question can’t help but present itself. In the end though, I truly am not asking about specific influences, but rather what drives your songwriting.

GDH: Yes, when I was a youngster I was much more aware of what was going on (there was less of it, and it was better) so I would happily quote lyrics and/or riffs from The Fall, The Smiths, Joy Division, Microdisney; to an obvious degree, in a somewhat ironic, post-modern way, and be indifferent to criticism because of the drug haze (perhaps). Or because of the ironic post-modern delusions current at that time. I have changed my listening habits since and anyway there is now too much indie and not enough of it is great and influential. But I have also moved beyond the need for easy influence by learning my so-called craft.

The more some artist sounds like The Puddle, the less likely they are to influence my songwriting. I’m influenced by things I can’t hope to imitate, but am driven to try. In failure lies originality. Sometimes I find myself expressing my version of the mood of an artist I admire; “Hudibras” sounded like a Microdisney song so I went with that vibe. It’s an homage/pastiche, and that exercise allowed me to develop my style in new directions, so that “Victory” on SH/VB grew out of “Hudibras”.

A song often starts with a chord, or an interval, or a phrase that for some reason sounds strikingly promising to me. I’m sure they’d sound ordinary enough to anyone else, or to me at any other time, but for some reason they evoke echoes from my subconscious and I’m off. In fits and starts. It might take years. Or it might happen in a day with very little excavation; “Didn’t Even Notice” came from a jam, “Tender Validation” was written on Valentine’s day, “Little Red Coat” was conjured up in a few minutes to throw the bad vibes from an assortment of crazies that beset us back upon their own heads. The songwriting is driven in part by the need to comment obliquely, cleverly, and with plausible deniability on events in my personal life. In part by some sort of Nietzschean, “striving upwards” towards a magical intensity of sonic expression worthy of Scriabin. And in part by a pure 1970’s pop sensibility, the idea that I can write the hits that others miss.

SE: So, any significance to the equally-divided, split mini-LP nature of the album, using two titles and all that? I could speculate but thought it best to ask.

GDH: The EPs; we recorded 2 sessions of 5 songs each, about a year apart. The players on each were slightly different; Graeme Humphries was the guest keyboardist on Victory Blues, Al Starrett was the fourth band member by Secret Holiday. When the songs were mixed, I realised that each set sounded distinct; it was easier to program them separately and treat them like 2 works of art, rather than force them together. And I liked the idea of imposing an inconvenient concept on the press and the public. They would have to fall in line with my whim in order to address my work. It’s my experience that concept albums and works that make unusual demands gain an extra layer of curiosity thereby. Also I think it is more enjoyable if you can listen to a work in sections without missing its flow by doing so. And thematically they are distinct; Victory Blues is my most personal, Secret Holiday my most esoteric set of songs.

The title Victory Blues combines the song “Victory,” the Bob Dylan bootleg “V.D. Blues,” and my lifelong readings in military history to evoke an imaginary Woody Guthrie tune about the end of WW2 and the hardships of the winning side.

SE: I agree that thematically they are distinct, and would add as well that even musically the VB side is the more intimate, seeming to take its entire cue from its first title’s first word: Tender, whereas the SH side is a bit springier, with more of the earmarks of the classic pop song in use. Despite that though, despite the slash in the record’s title, the album as a whole has a seamless quality to it and the songs fairly ooze with effortlessness, which in practice I realize is almost never the case. Did a lot of shuffling and tinkering and pulling of hair go into the arrangements and production or was the process something closer to how smooth the end result sounds?

GDH: To my mind, much of the album was recorded very shambolically and only pulled together by Bob Frisbee’s fine production skills. In particular, some of my worst lead playing is on display, but it hardly shows in the final cut. I should have gone over many things but was in a hurry to get to the next song before I ran out of puff. We really had to more or less complete 2 or 3 tracks a day, because of the budget and the fact that the band was touring in Auckland and had jobs to go to elsewhere. On the other hand, we were recording on tour so we were good at playing together. Not much time for shuffling and tinkering, only a little trichotillomania. I usually know how a song should sound; “Victory” was arranged to the nearest note, for example, but I also know when it’s OK to let the band contribute. And when they need to stop. It’s like a democracy convincingly dominated by one person; Churchill’s war cabinet, for example. Sometimes even Churchill had to listen.

Effortlessness –  a “cruisey” vibe, as we say in NZ – was the feel I was after. Alternative easy listening. There’s no point struggling for it, but we did seem to hit the mark more often than not. And not worrying too much about the fudged details only sound engineers can hear might be the secret. That and a soft touch. My mantra in places was “James Last’s second guitar”– consequently my best ever rhythm playing is on display…

SE: Another factor that should work against SH/VB’s flow and continuity but doesn’t is the relative lack of an anchoring style. There’s a wink of honky-tonk here, little gleam of Philly soul there and, as you’ve already mentioned, a delicious trawl through a ‘70s pop aesthetic. Notably absent, save a hint of it (to my ears, anyway) on “The Vitalist,” is anything resembling what many folks might classify as the classic Kiwi-pop sound, a phrase that I don’t think I even need to attach any descriptors to–everyone knows what I mean by it. Is that at all conscious on your part, or is it just an outgrowth of that creative restlessness you spoke of earlier?

GDH: It’s funny you’d say that about “The Vitalist,” because when I wrote that song I was consciously trying to go out of any musical “comfort zone”– pardon the expression.

I was, as usual, out of ideas and feeling guilty about not playing or writing. A friend had bought a new Gibson guitar–they produce a tone I never use–and I thought something new might come out of that. I was thinking it would be nice to imitate Soft Machine and their off-balance jazzadelic pop. Of course “The Vitalist” shows none of that now, but it’s still a bit different.

The thing about the Dunedin Sound is that I’ve usually been too close to it to identify it well in The Puddle sound. I’ve rebelled against aspects of it that oppressed me and embraced others over the years. I’ve never read an inclusive account by a musician of their relationship with the “scene” others consider them part of. Except for Bad Vibes: Brit-Pop, My Part In Its Downfall by Luke Haines; Q.E.D. Kiwi-Pop, if not in fact the “Flying Nun” sound, you would in fact have to define more closely (Flight of the Conchords? Bailter Space? Crowded House?). Locally, at least, my accent hopefully sets me apart where my pretensions fail to do so.

As for the lack of a unifying style, there’s nothing worse than variety or eclecticism for its own sake, but I think on SH/VB it comes from a desire to serve the song. The song is the ultimate arranger and it will usually tell you, from quite early on in its existence, what feel it prefers. Sometimes the preferred arrangement doesn’t quite work, or you find a cool old Korg in the studio that makes its own claims for self-expression, or Ian or Gavin, Al or Bob get a brainwave, too good to ignore, for the salvation of a dubious passage.

SE: Both the ‘Secret Holiday’ video and the SH/VB cover art seem to trade in a brand of psychedelic innocence, or perhaps more accurately an ‘appearance of innocence,’ seeing as both video and cover feature girls on the cusp of womanhood exuding that sense of innate, preternatural wisdom that that age group often can inhabit. Whatever the case, I’m reminded, especially in the video, of Daevid Allen. So, am I far off there, or…? And even if I am, there’s clearly a thematic constant going on and my curiosity is piqued.

GDH: I would say the SH/VB art is more intentionally “innocent” than Tanya Hoar’s “Sirens” (after “Water Nymphs” by Norman Lindsay) on the Playboys cover. Any malice in “Secret Holiday” is still the playful malice of children; any wisdom is children’s wisdom. Only the outdoors setting and the nature spirit theme is carried over. (It may be worth mentioning that 6 or 7 years separated the actual recording of “Playboys in the Bush” from the filming of the Secret Holiday video.) The Gong comparison is illuminating but my idea was, if Marc Bolan could have made a theatrical video for the acoustic wizard-rock of Tyrannosaurus Rex, what then?

We already had the cover pictures from a series that Hayley Theyers had shot; we wanted to incorporate that look into our video, and that suggested the Bolan-world, Middle Earth as an underground club in late ‘60s, early ‘70s London. Hayley was able to costume and wrangle the kids, who are all friends or family. And our friend Dan Wagner, the director, has an interesting backstory, starting as a fan making early vids for Chrome, later working on Van Halen and Neil Young shoots. We also managed to incorporate some 1966 Super 8 footage shot by Ian’s and my Dad on our way to N.Z.  So there are a few layers there. Footage of holidays literal, imaginative, and historical. The final shot is from the Rena disaster (our pathetic little local equivalent of the Exxon Valdez). We chose – well, I insisted – the most “commercial” track, and not necessarily the “best”. I still stand by that choice. It works when record companies do it.

Further Reading: