Friday, July 23, 2010

My Mates Are Awesome 01 - Chris Sproutt

Every now and then you hear a band and you realise that there has been a great gaping hole in music, just waiting to be filled. As if all music were a jigsaw puzzle, and right below your nose there was this gap, just this size, just this shape, and here, before you even knew it existed, is the exact band to fill it.

The Sproutts are one of those bands. The signature sound is so simple, so immediately familiar, and so obvious that it's a shock to realise you've never heard anything like it. How silly of you not to have thought of it. Their press releases described the music as 'what people in the sixties thought music would sound like in the future', and it's this element of retro-futurism that makes their appeal so instant. The guts of these songs are pure sixties sunshine pop, the guitar tones and the whirly organ sounds are straight out of Brian Wilson's California, but then - the electric violin, the optical theremin, the casiomanic synth glitches; someone somehow has slipped Brian Wilson into the space programme.

I first heard the Sproutts at a gig at the Southern Cross a few years ago. I was playing in Dangerpin at the time, and we had rather rudely shoehorned ourselves onto the bill more-or-less uninvited. It was of vital importance that we not suck, given that we weren't supposed to be playing, really, and it was only our second gig or so, so the entire thing was kind of nerve-wracking. And then The Sproutts played, and I fell in love.

I danced like a goon, with a dumb indie grin plastered all over my face, in one of those three-person moshpits which are the bread and butter of New Zealand Live Music. Here at last was the antidote to the late-90s' winky-nudgy record-store ironism, and the early 00s' obsession with po-facedly reproducing New Wave and No Wave and 70s Rock note for pedantic note. Sci-Fi singalongs. Philosophy you can dance to. So what if there's nothing new under the sun? There is still sun. There are still endless ways of combining and recombining the sounds of the past to create the sound of the future, without slavishly carbon-copying your musical forebears, or cheapening their work with your tongue in your cheek and nothing of your own to add.

There and then The Sproutts became my favourite New Zealand band, ever. Five years on, Flying Out of the Washing Machine is still as fresh and crisp as if it had just popped out of the dryer. "Short skinny men/Make the cruelest leaders", Sproutt sings on If I Were A Mothman, but it's all just so damned charming that you're willing to take your chances.

So when, a couple of years later, The Sproutts were short of a Bassplaying Keyboardist, and asked me to join, it was like being asked to join The Pixies. I got to add a few bits to Plutons, and did Bass, Organ, and Accordion on Woman, Man, and Machine, and so joined a select group of people who have played on their favourite albums.

Working with Chris Sproutt was a pleasure and an education. The band was so devoid of the usual band tensions and dramas as to be nearly unnerving, which I put down to the unswerving good nature of the man and his tunes. He is a storehouse of classic guitar licks, a closet shredder, a scholar both of Pop Music and Pop Culture, and an almost-annoyingly, genuinely nice guy.

Which is, I guess, why I plumped for Chris as the subject of the first My Mates Are Awesome post. The standard rock-journalist schtick holds that to be a genius, you have to be tortured, or mad, or on drugs, or a complete arsehole, or preferably, all of the above. From Phil Spector through John Lennon to that tiresome Brian Jonestown twatacre, the conventional narrative doesn't seem to have room for the idea that incredibly bright people are often bright enough not to act like wankers. Which just makes it all the more satisfying to work with someone who is living proof that geniuses are people too.