This interview was published in issue three of SSN (Space Surveillance Network, a zine published by now-defunct Wellington, NZ gallery/shop/zine library/venue Spacething). The transcript has more italics than a JD Salinger story but Jim speaks in italics so it seemed necessary. It turns out there were a couple more Ray Off releases on United Fairy Moons after "Split The Lark" (which was looking like the final UFM release at the time of writing the introduction below). These have been added to the discography at the bottom.
Since moving to New Zealand from his native Australia (where he was a member of Crabstick) in 1998, James Currin has had a firm hand in the creation and distribution of some of Dunedin’s most vibrant and affecting music: Three Forks, Ray Off, Sinking Infinities, Jo Jo ef Steve, Khomet and the United Fairy Moons label. When we met for this interview at a Wellington pub one Sunday night in April 2007, Jim was promising an imminent and violent death for United Fairy Moons. It hasn’t happened just yet – a gorgeous Ray Off triple CDR set, “Split The Lark”, was released in December 2007. Whether or not this release signals a tidying up of loose ends for UFM and/or Ray Off (problems maintaining a steady line-up have been ongoing) is not yet clear but let’s hope it is merely the start of phase two. In an attempt to nail down some of this history we started right at the beginning with stories of school band mayhem at fairs, dog shows and, er, the Sydney Opera House. Is music still about “getting really loose and actually having a fucking ball and going mad” as it was then, I asked?
JC: Uh, less and less [laughs]. It’s probably been a while since I was actually in a band with people who were regular and pretty good drinking partners or stuff like that. I mean, Ray Off’s not bad. Ray Off went through a very, very strong musical period but also a bonding period of playing every week rigorously for months and months and months and months – most of last year . And that was totally about vodka. Totally. I would go overseas, come back and have nice [duty-free] vodka. You hear the musical difference in the recordings [laughter]. So actually I’m lying because Ray Off, last year, was a hell of a lot of fun socially. Just being together a lot made the music really great.
BS: That was a steady line-up for that period?
JC: It was a steady line-up [Currin, Pamela Poppins, Katrina Thomson and Tim Cornelius] for almost an entire year, ten or eleven months. Incredible, yeah, totally.
BS: At Lines of Flight [biennial Dunedin festival curated by Peter Stapleton, last held October 2006] it was pretty clear that something … I mean, I think everyone loved it but it was clearly a different thing from, y’know, the Morley thing, the Alastair Galbraith thing, the …
JC: Yeah, Alastair’s done things that are acoustic and droney but they don’t sound anything like Ray Off, y’know? Tristan [Dingemans] from HDU does stuff that’s improvised and really pretty [as Kahu] but it’s nothing like Ray Off. Ray Off is totally a world to its own and it’s so obvious when we play on a bill with other Dunedin bands. We always get asked where we want to play in the line-up because … no-one has any fucking idea, well, one, of what we’re gonna do because I think it’s fair to say we’re, far and away … we’re just hugely changeable. I’ve got a CD of stuff that I want to release somehow that’s like the gnarliest Spontaneous Music Ensemble stuff, like “Quintessence” and stuff like that. It sounds like that. [This material comprises disc one of the “Split The Lark” triple CDR].
BS: With the same line-up?
JC: With a lot of the same people.
JC: Yeah [laughter].
BS: And, again, is that just the vodka? Different kinds of vodka? [laughter].
JC: That phase of Ray Off kind of came about because of a drummer called Lee Noyes, it’s his real name [Noise/Noyes pun], who had been overseas and had been totally involved with playing with people from that kind of lineage. He did this amazing duo CD [“A Present From The Pickpocket” by Phil Hargreaves & Lee Noyes, on Whi Music]. And he [Noyes] moved to Dunedin and started studying down there. He’s got a family so he’s not available to play very much. He just came along and just his influence on all the same players as usual kind of … it just doesn’t sound like anything else. Ray Off is totally out of the box. The last show was a duo, me and the harp player Katrina Thomson and it was back to how Ray Off was quite a long time ago, being semi-composed. I’d come with something and I’d go like, “Well it goes like this for a while and then it goes like that for a while and when you think that’s finished then probably we’ll go back to this, or maybe you could do that”. That level of composition.
BS: So things haven’t been composed recently?
JC: No. All of last year when we had the steady line-up we worked on just playing together a lot, so that we could improvise and have it … Y’know a lot of people improvise but they might play together, like, twice a year. That happens a lot. Or just not very often. You do it every week with the same people and you make it … it’s a real social occasion, you start to get to levels of psychic transference that you just can’t fake. The whole thing with that line-up of Ray Off, every single time we played, I guarantee it, after every single gig, and we probably did about seven shows, every single one, someone came up afterwards and went, “Wow, that was a lot of complex stuff to remember!”. It sounded composed! But it wasn’t!
BS: So it just got to the point where you didn’t need to compose anymore? In some ways?
JC: Yeah. The version of Ray Off that was about composition was, for me, kind of a drag because … It started off good. There’s that version of a piece that’s on a CD that I put out, “I Am Not in the Racing Sky”, and that was the first really big thing that I’d done for a group. That was really fun and really successful for what it was, and I kept on doing that sort of thing but it was kind of a drag to constantly be putting all this information in front of people, and I didn’t want to do a big piece and repeat it again so every show was a new piece. We did a show on the second of January or something like that at a pub in Port Chalmers, for a going away party, and I’d put a lot of work into this piece but … a lot of things happened. One: two of the people who were meant to be playing on it could only make one rehearsal and that was like a week beforehand, and the other thing was it was a going away party so no-one fuckin’ listened anyway!! I thought, why put myself through this sort of stress about it and not have the piece performed in the way that I’d like, and then also, y’know … I’d rather have fun, I’d rather make something that’s quite special and it appeared to me that to get people to turn up every week, the same group of people, because the line-up had been so totally fluid … so I fired people! Friends of mine! I had to say, “Sorry, you’re not in Ray Off anymore”. People who sort of expected that if there was a Ray Off show they would be called. I had to say, “Well, y’know, you’re not able to turn up very regularly, and it’s a drag, and I’m sorry”.
BS: What are you aiming for with Ray Off? You seem to have a very clear, yet quite open, vision for the project.
JC: The best thing that we achieved with Ray Off and the thing I’m most proud of is gigs where everyone was just fucking silent because they completely became involved in the music, and I used to say to people that I knew who were into improvised music and into the further reaches of music and would wonder why Ray Off was such a melodic, nice sounding kind of instrument. That’s a deliberate fucking move, man. It’s to invite people into it so you can take people places. Yeah, sure, if you’re so inclined a guitar drone, a hard driven kind of thing, you can get into the zone that only improvised music can take you to, right? But if you create this really inviting, acoustic, nice sounding ... nylon string guitars for god’s sake. Harps. Chord organs and fucking flutes man. Ray Off gigs used to be so fucking freaky because we’d have this swelling kind of acoustic thing going on and then, because of the connection that we had, all of a sudden it would go [vigorous recreation of Ray Off in noise improv mode] all together. We’d play this weird fucking shit all together. But also, more than impressing people, people got involved in listening to it and that’s the best thing about it, the best thing that we did, is that people got involved in listening to something that is really ... it’s fringe culture. It’s so amazing to actually put your hands out and go, “Come here”, and take people into that world with you and go, “Look, it’s not so fucking scary, is it?”. It’s just about thinking for yourself, about maybe thinking that there’s a way to ... I guess the difficulties I have being fuckin’ alive is that I see that there’s this whole other way of being and I think a lot of people feel that way, I really do. Maybe they haven’t thought it through about what that involves, that this type of existence that we have in this type of culture is not completely conducive to the best fucking time and the best way of dealing with people that you could do. So it’s all about that. If you can just grab people in there and go, “Hey, this is what it’s like to have this kind of mind where you’re dealing with that kind of realisation, a lot”. Or you’re kind of like, “This is what it’s like to have a world of really raw emotion around you, a lot”. Just for a little while, and hold them there. The reactions I’ve had to Ray Off have been ... even though it’s been some of the most difficult gigs and it’s been a draining fucking band to be in at times, I’ve never gotten reactions like that from any other music I’ve done. Ever.
BS: You can’t really beat that.
JC: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
BS: Just quickly, to finish up with Ray Off, did it start as a solo thing?
JC: It did, yeah.
BS: Was that still in Australia or …?
JC: Oh no, no, it started as a solo thing in Dunedin because Three Forks just weren’t jamming very much. At the time of Three Forks I was really excited about music again. I’d kind of been a little bit burnt out after being in Melbourne and had moved to New Zealand totally with this idea of this completely other life that didn’t even involve music. I came over here and worked on farms for a year in ’98 and met my then-partner on the third day I was in the country and, y’know, she ended up getting a job in Dunedin so we moved to Dunedin. So it was a complete accident [laughs]. It was good because I didn’t want to live in big cities. Dunedin is not a big city but it’s a good trade off between living in the country, which has its own difficulties, and living in a big city. So yeah, with Three Forks it was really exciting. Where the music was going, I just thought it was fantastic. It wasn’t just [us], there was Three Forks and then Eye started almost precisely the same time. And The Futurians were going and they were fucking … just legendary, and The Aesthetics were still going in Dunedin. There was basically quite a bit, not a hell of a lot, but what was happening was really good. Y’know, Dick The Phone … weird little side things cropping up here and there. It was cool, y’know?
BS: I was going to come to this later, but it’s a good point [to ask]. Was that the impetus behind starting United Fairy Moons? Had you [previously] thought about having a label?
JC: No, not at all, not at all, no. God. And I wish I hadn’t [laughs].
BS: That was one of my other questions ... I remember you saying that running a label is a “mug’s game” [laughter] and you wanted to “shoot United Fairy Moons in the head”.
JC: Yeah, and that’s gonna happen really soon. Yeah, I really don’t have what it takes to run a label, which basically is consistency. On a very basic level. The label totally came out of Donald McPherson because Donald had had that one record come out on Metonymic [“Bramble”] which, in Metonymic terms, did really well.
BS: But he’d had other records before that though hadn’t he?
JC: He did all the little lathe cuts and stuff. I don’t know how or if he distributed them. I don’t know if he ever did more than 20 of each one, yet people know about them and that’s a measure of how fucking amazing he is.
BS: So United Fairy Moons started with that Donald McPherson record [“Liquified” lathe cut LP], which sort of was the start of Three Forks in some ways?
JC: Yeah, totally. It’s got Donald playing solo, and then Donald playing with Tim [Cornelius] and then Donald playing with me and Tim and Nathan Thompson. And that was a show we did one night in Dunedin. It really knocked me sideways because the stuff Donald was doing, particularly the stuff he was doing solo, was on a whole other level from what’s on that Metonymic CD.
BS: How many copies were there of that record?
JC: 40. I just sort of bit the bullet. I had barely even used email before then, just written to a few friends, and before I knew it I had Thurston Moore writing to me saying, “Can I get a copy of the Donald McPherson album?”. That was a little freaky. It felt like this classic New Zealand story of, “Here we are at the end of the world and before we know it our little songs have touched the other side of the world”. Doing the first few lathe cut things I thought there’s probably people who will be into checking out New Zealand lathe cuts. There’s probably people who will be into checking out, say, something that’s got Peter Stapleton on it, or Alastair Galbraith on it. And I just went, well fuck it, y’know? This is happening now so we’ll put it out and it’ll be cool because at that time there was cool music in Dunedin but there was fuck all records. I think The Aesthetics had just had an album come out in the States. The Futurians hadn’t quite started their inexorable run of releases [laughs].
BS: And Metonymic was kind of on hiatus at the time.
JC: Yeah, Metonymic wasn’t doin’ nothin’ really. So I thought fuck, yeah, cool, let’s do that. But then when I did the first Ray Off thing ... did like three lathe cuts and then I did the first Ray Off CDR [“Ghost Wolf of Thunder Mountain”], that was so totally for myself, to get myself going. I can’t tell you what a bad year I had had that year [laughs]. I lived on my own for the first time in my life, and settled down and made that record, and then started to do solo shows along with that. It was funny because it was actually almost the exact same day that “Ghost Wolf” came out and I played a solo show to release it, that Three Forks broke up.
BS: So Three Forks definitely don’t exist anymore?
JC: Oh, hell no. No [laughs].
BS: Very much not so?
JC: Very much not so. Ah, yep. In fact I’m quite impressed really at how two people, namely myself and Donald, can be so fucking stubborn. But there it is; we are [laughs]. Yeah, it’s really strange because I know that Donald really likes the stuff I’ve done as Ray Off and of course I love Donald’s music. We’re just not getting on.
BS: Have other people helped out along the way with United Fairy Moons? Is it all you or ... it kind of seems like it’s mostly you but there’s kind of a collective thing when necessary?
JC: Sometimes there was a little coterie of people to help get that stuff done. I find it very difficult to do on my own. It’s possibly got something to do with how I think about this stuff, even making this music. It has to come out of some kind of social interaction that you can’t fake, you can’t buy, you can’t summon it out of nothing. It has to exist, it has to be there because of the goodwill and because of the necessity that people feel for it to be there. That’s where the music comes from.
BS: So you think of the label in that same [sense], ideally?
JC: Yeah, well for me to struggle to screen print a bunch of covers, then cut them, then glue them, all this sort of thing, it’s not why I started doing the things that I do anyway. If that makes me lazy, if that makes me a fucking failure, fine. It’s been weird in the last year because distribution has dipped radically [laughs] but the things still exist.
BS: You mean in terms of ... you haven’t been sending stuff out to distributors?
JC: Yeah, hardly at all. But the thing is they still exist. There are people out there who have heard of Rory Storm’s “Fuck the Memescape” album. They haven’t got fuck all chance in hell of obtaining a copy [laughter]. But it’s out there and god bless Rory. Never a more trusting or beneficent soul have I known ... to let me be the purveyor of his extremely, extremely fine music to the world. One day he’ll get his due because he’s great ... and I was there at the beginning [laughs]. May history judge me kindly.
United Fairy Moons discography:
UFM 001 Donald McPherson & Co. “Liquified” lathe-cut LP
UFM 002 Eye/Three Forks “Jawbone”, “Arabesque”/”Baby Ives” lathe-cut split 10"
UFM 003 $100 Band/Spit “Old Chronicle”/”Keltic”, “Lament” lathe-cut split 10"
UFM 004 Ray Off “Ghost Wolf Of Thunder Mountain” CDR
UFM 005 Sinking Infinities “Forever Young” CDR
UFM 006 not released - see note at bottom
UFM 007 Eye “Black Ice” CDR
UFM 008 Ray Off “I Am Not In The Racing Sky” CDR
UFM 009 Sinking Infinities “Thousand-Year Reich” CDR
UFM 010 Rory Storm “We Are Superior Beings” CDR
UFM 011 Spit “Trash Music Spitacular” CDR
UFM 012 not released - see note at bottom
UFM 013 Three Forks “Seven Layer Ape” CD
UFM 014 Jo Jo ef Steve “A Ouiet Night In With...” CDR
UFM 015 Ray Off “Clean & Dry Area Before Application” CDR
UFM 016 Rory Storm “Fuck The Memescape”' CDR
UFM 017 CJA “Ponds” CDR
UFM 018 not released - see note at bottom
UFM 019 Sinking Infinities “The Life of Riley” CDR
UFM 020 Ray Off “Split The Lark” triple CDR
UFM 022 Ray Off "My Favourite Plum 2:18" double CDR
Note on UFM 006, 012 and 018:
"Every 6th release was not released. Reasoning being that one out of every six cdr releases was superfluous rubbish. Not a literal assessment - just trying to make a point. There were things that COULD have been released... and everyone should be glad that they weren't..."
“Stud Or Houseboy?” LP (Feel Good All Over)
“Discoverooster” LP (555 Recordings)
“From Measles To Seagulls” LP (Blackbean & Placenta)
Three Forks on other labels:
“Firewood” 3” CDR (Metonymic)
Ray Off on other labels:
“Nothing Like A Ribbon Round A Parcel” CDR (Black Petal)
“'Middlemarch Hop”, track on v/a “Sound Surrounds Us 5” CDR (Music Your Mind Will Love You)
“Reveille”, track on v/a “Compact Listen” CD (CLaudia)
"Douitashimashite" CDR (Black Petal)
Bogan Dust (Jim Currin, Jon Chapman, Eamon Sprod, with members of Castings):
“Tonight I Present My Back To The Future” Cassette (Spanish Magic)
“Live at None 29 06 07” CDR (no label)