Ten years ago, Mint Chicks shredded the high-gloss sound that saw their sophomore LP go overground. The band tells Sam Wicks how they ripped up the rulebook on Screens.
Surprising everyone, the band formerly known as The Mint Chicks won over a mainstream audience with Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No!, scoring commercial radio play and five New Zealand Music Awards.
On the back of that album’s unlikely success, the band found themselves down a bass player. Instead of replacing founding member Michael Logie, Mint Chicks dropped the “The” and relocated to America as a trio. There, away from the gaze of their major label backers, they cobbled together new instruments and collaborators, producing a riotously colourful psych-pop record.
With a 10th-anniversary remastered edition of Screens released on vinyl for Record Store Day 2019, Mint Chicks reflect on an album made far from home, under the shadow of the Red, White or Blue.
Paul Roper (Mint Chicks, Blouse): It all started in 2007 when we were on tour in America. We had been discussing moving somewhere. We looked at Australia, but it didn’t seem far enough away. We just thought, we might as well do it big. We’d check out these cities in the States thinking, could this be the one?
Ruban Nielson (Mint Chicks, Unknown Mortal Orchestra): It was a basement show tour, which is the first time we’d done the whole thing of getting in a car and driving around. We were supporting a band called The Prayers and we were basically going from house party to house party, playing to these little punk scenes in random towns.
Paul Roper: It was a bit ghetto. We didn’t have hotel rooms most of the time, so we were crashing on people’s floors. I remember Michael [Logie] saying to me in Philadelphia, ‘Man, if it keeps going like this, I’m just going to quit’.
We played at this bar and we got paid $7. When we were leaving we were like, fuck it, let’s drive straight to Brooklyn. We got caught at a train crossing for maybe half an hour while the train went past. Kody just got fed up with things and jumped out of the car and ran off somewhere. We’d lost Kody, we just played for $7, and Michael was like, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to do something else’.
Kody Nielson (Mint Chicks, Silicon, Opossom, Unknown Mortal Orchestra): At that time Michael left he was just getting stressed out, I guess. It was probably the amount of shows we were doing – physically exhausting shows – and plus me and Ruban were at each other’s throats a little bit back then.
Ruban Nielson: I can’t remember when Mike told us, but he was like, ‘I’m going to London with my girlfriend’. We were bummed but we had our hearts set on [America]. It’s weird to lose a member of the band but the idea was just to go on limping and reinvent what the whole thing was supposed to be about.
When we dropped the ‘The’, I guess it was us micro-managing every little thing. Michael was gone so we lost a member and we lost a word. And it felt like the era of the ‘The’ bands was over too, so it was leaving that behind.
Paul Roper: I remember we really liked Philadelphia; Boston was cool as well. When we got to Portland we had just finished one of those drives you do across the northern part of the US, and it was kind of like arriving in paradise.
Kody Nielson: Me and Ruban have some family there on my mum’s side and we met up with them. Portland just seemed like a really cool place to be because it was quite mellow and it was quite similar to New Zealand, and with family being there it seemed like a good transition to the States.
Ruban Nielson: Paul, Kody and I basically took the advance that we got from the label and paid rent a year in advance on a little house with a basement in a dodgy neighbourhood. The Mint Chicks had had success in New Zealand, but we’d never made any money, so the idea of having the rent paid and the bills sorted was really amazing.
Kody Nielson: It was this four-bedroom house in the south-east. It was like we were flatting there, Ruban, Jenny his wife, Paul and me. We set up a little studio with the gear we had in the basement. That was our spot – we were pretty much jamming and rehearsing and doing stuff down there every day.
Paul Roper: It was the first time we’d all lived together. It was kind of lonely, to be honest. Most of the time we were in our own rooms. I’d go a whole day without seeing anyone even though I knew they were in the house.
Ruban Nielson: Me and Kody had lived together a bunch of times and it was a pretty predictable thing where every now and then we’d have our typical meltdown – fights, arguments and stuff – over nothing basically. It was getting harder and harder for me to be around him in general. It didn’t happen constantly, but it sucked when it did.
Paul Roper: It turns out Michael [Logie] was very good at mediating between the brothers. Either that or the presence of two other people made it harder for them to argue or something. But when it was two brothers and me, it was hard to get anything done sometimes.
We would go downstairs and start jamming, and then half an hour later there would be an argument. When it devolved into name-calling, I would just leave. I didn’t know what to do; they would get to this state where they were no longer rational.
Ruban Nielson: Paul was in that situation 24/7 so he was a real sport for putting up with it. I’ve always been amazed with his ability to maintain sanity. Looking back at it now, I admire the guts that it must have taken to stick with these two crazy people at each other’s throats all the time.
Paul Roper: And then Moebius came along, Ruban and Jenny’s firstborn. Things picked up a little bit by then because I had friends and I had a bicycle, so I could get around town. Ruban and Kody’s relatives would come over and hang out with their kids, so we had a bit of a thing going on by that point.
Ruban Nielson: Jen and I had this agreement – she had always had this idea that she wanted to have a baby before she was 30. It had gotten to that point where we were like, oh, we’re 29! So it was kind of like my time had run out and it was time to do the thing.
When the baby came I was just like, I have a baby now so I’m not going to put up with this whole silly part of my youth where I have arguments with my brother. It made me grow up, I guess.
Paul Roper: We had a lot of conversations about how we were going to make it work as a three-piece. We tried a few things – one of them was Ruban playing a bass, because we were really missing that bottom-end. We did that for a few shows with mixed success. And then Kody was like, ‘I’ll get a keyboard and I can play basslines’. We tried backing tracks, we tried sequenced basslines on an MPC – that was probably my least favourite option.
Ruban Nielson: Kody got a lot more active and played around with autotune and vocal harmonisers and vocals and synths. The idea was to come up with a new genre or something, just rip up the rulebook.
Kody Nielson: I was getting little bits and pieces of gear for real cheap on Craigslist and building up stuff. I bought a vocoder, which I’ve still got. It had a real weird robot-y, clunky sound. I used it heaps, all the way through. There’s probably some on Silicon as well.
Paul Roper: I remember thinking it would be sacrilegious to get a new bass player, like we were cheating on Michael, and I don’t know if that was the right decision. When we met Jake [Portrait], he would have been a great replacement. We should have just given him a bass guitar and have been done with it!
Ruban Nielson: It’s funny because Jake ended up working with us on Screens and he’s the bass player in UMO now, so it’s funny that we didn’t ask him to be the bass player in Mint Chicks.
Jacob Portrait (Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Blouse): I first saw Mint Chicks play at a club in Portland called Rotture. Kody was flipping out, running around, jumping off stuff. Ruban was pounding on the guitar and Paul was like a computer. The way that they were mixing punk and electronic music really stood out. That show was insane.
Paul Roper: There was a guy called Bret Vogel in a band called Crosstide who knew of us. He was married to a Kiwi girl and he was really into the Flying Nun thing. Crosstide was doing pretty well at the time – they were cusping on being a big band. Bret and Ruban got on real well because they’re both encyclopaedic about music, and Bret introduced us to Jake.
Ruban Nielson: Jake likes working with interesting musicians and he was a producer long before he met us. Since we were trying a bunch of new things, we thought, why don’t we try working with a producer and see what happens?
Jacob Portrait: I had the keys to The Dandy Warhols’ Odditorium studio because I had worked with them. We snuck in there and did ‘I Can’t Stop Being Foolish’ in the middle of the night. We put some keyboards and a bass guitar on there, and I think Kody might have done some vocals as well. That was like our trial run. It did feel kind of dangerous at the time because Courtney [Taylor-Taylor, The Dandy Warhols] is a kind of volatile dude. It revved up the session, you know what I mean.
Kody Nielson: I remember the first time we started working with Jacob he realised there was no bass, so he just grabbed a bass off the wall and started playing. I think at that point we were like, this dude’s cool because he can improvise.
Ruban Nielson: That night was pretty amazing because [The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre documentary] Dig! had only come out a few years before. I loved that doco; the whole story was pretty fascinating. I’d heard about the Odditorium through that movie.
It was really crazy being in there because, especially for me back then, it was a really fancy-looking situation. We used some of the equipment to mix part of the record. Some of The Dandy Warhols’ synths are in there, I’m pretty sure.
Jacob Portrait: I wish someone would have been there to see it because the brothers were so quiet. I’d go pick them up from the house, we’d drive to the studio, and it would be dead silence in the car. It wasn’t standoffish by any means but they’re just very quiet people. Now I know, having been [to New Zealand] so many times, it’s just the way some New Zealanders communicate. They allow space in a conversation.
Kody Nielson: At the time we didn’t want to be perceived as a ‘rock’ band. We didn’t really want to be a ‘KROQ’ band, if you know what I mean. Nothing against those bands, it’s just I think our shit’s a lot more arty. We were just into adding more experimental things because it makes it more interesting to us.
Paul Roper: In the past we’d been concerned with being a purist group where we were like, we’re a punk band and that’s just what we do. But now it was like, no! The music has to be interesting otherwise people won’t be interested.
Jacob Portrait: I felt like they were taking what they learnt on Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! and throwing it 10 years into the future. I put a bit of pressure on myself to make sure that their ‘punk’ spirit was intact and these new kind of poppier song ideas they were bringing weren’t being defaced with some cheesy layer on top of it.
Ruban Nielson: We started calling it ‘troublegum’ because it was kind of manic-sounding. Jake was a big part of how that sound came together because as a producer and mixer he gravitated towards the keyboard sounds and stuff like that.
We were changing what we were doing really radically but then it started sounding like Toy Love or something. It felt cool to be running as fast away as we could from our sound and then ending up sounding like a Flying Nun band still. In some ways I think we got more Kiwi being away from New Zealand.
Jacob Portrait: I think what we leaned on was the power of the guitars and the keyboard melodies and the power of the drumming to push the songs along. Prince used to do that a lot, right, he’d mute the bass. Deconstructing a song can leave you in a new place.
Ruban Nielson: Me and Jake often joke about ‘Hot On Your Heels’ being the first UMO song. That song has me singing in falsetto and you can hear that we were listening to Zappa and Hendrix. It’s much more psychedelic, so the punk thing starts to give way to this weirder thing.
Kody Nielson: We were always into that idea of making it more of a trading vocal band. We did that in the beginning a bit because we liked Fugazi, and we were listening to the Everly Brothers and Beach Boys and shit like that where they have a different lead singer on every song. Ruban was singing ‘Sweet Janine’ and ‘Enemies’. That was cool because that’s him starting to do UMO.
Ruban Nielson: I guess [‘Sweet Janine’] was so much about Jen that I wanted to sing it myself, and I don’t remember anyone thinking it was a bad idea. It seemed like a cool thing to have a different voice, so we asked Finn [Andrews] to add some stuff to it. I thought it would diffuse the whole thing of Kody not singing on the song. I’m a big fan of The Veils, I like what Finn does, so it was cool.
Finn Andrews (The Veils): I remember I was given my first ‘E’ at a Mint Chicks show at Galatos. I was a late bloomer into that sort of thing. I remember having a really out-of-body experience. I saw them many times after without any other influences and had similar experiences, but it was a great introduction.
I think The Veils were on tour and we hung out with them in Portland for a bit when we played there. I put them in contact with Dave Allen (ex-Gang of Four, Shriekback) who used to play with my dad [Barry Andrews – Shriekback, ex-XTC) and ran a radio station there. I remember we brought them all along to his radio show.
There were some nice gift exchanges going on. I sent them one of our records and Ruban sent me a sort of skeletal Pegasus that he drew. And then at some point he said, ‘Do you want to sing on the record?’ I didn’t even do it with them; I went out to James Duncan’s house and we recorded a few little backing vocal ideas, some ‘oohs’ and some ‘aahs’, Ruban made some comments, and we sent it back and forth.
Jacob Portrait: When I listened back to the record recently, there are some interesting things that the brothers were saying. Lyrically, there’s so much stuff that’s maybe more relevant now than it was when they wrote it. ‘Red, White or Blue’ is insane and they were writing those lyrics in 2008!
Kody Nielson: It was around the time of that big election and Obama was everywhere. There was quite a vibe there at that time. Everybody was really left, more or less. It’s really different now. [‘Red, White or Blue’] is about that whole situation, how black or white America is politically. It’s a real racist black or white place.
Ruban Nielson: The lyrics were affected by being in America quite a bit. When you first come to the States you’ll see certain things that Americans don’t see in themselves. I think a lot of the things we were writing about were little baby observations of things that were disturbing about the country.
Paul Roper: I remember the name [Screens] came from the idea that we were looking at screens all day. I got my first laptop and we had wi-fi, and that was blowing my mind. Like, I can set up my computer and I’ll have a movie on it in the morning – and it’s not even connected to anything?
Ruban Nielson: Until I moved to the States I was kind of a luddite. I didn’t have a cell phone until I started UMO. That was something that people found annoying because they could never get in touch with me. But once we got to the States we started to spend all this time online. That was the first thing that made me think, okay, this is different.
Kody Nielson: We wanted to tour through the States and stuff. If we weren’t signed with Warners it probably would have been much different. We could have just put the album out on an indie label and it would have been alright. But because it was signed for the world, they didn’t pick it up in the States because it didn’t sound like a hit. After Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! they were probably expecting to hear Nevermind or something like that.
I don’t think we toured Screens once it was released but we toured it a little bit before. I think Shihad invited us on tour. They were into the idea of us doing our new album. Those guys are cruisy dudes. And, you know Jon [Toogood], he’s into some pretty weird shit as well.
Jon Toogood (Shihad, The Adults): We always prided ourselves on choosing support bands we’d want to see ourselves. We invited them on tour in 2008 and they performed Screens each night. There were some sublime shows on that tour, breathtaking. And other times it didn’t work because they were still searching but, fuck, that search was exciting to watch.
I was totally in love with ‘Life Will Get Better Some Day’. They would drag the end out and it would be fucking spectacular. I’d just watch our audience go, what am I seeing? What is this?
Paul Roper: If I’m being honest, some of the songs on Screens start to sound the same to me. Like there’s that drum beat that’s on half of it. And there’s that arpeggiated guitar line that’s on a lot of the songs. And then there’s the vocoder effect.
If I think about the three records, it’s kind of the most polished. It’s our ‘pop’ album maybe, it’s got that sweetness. And it’s just going for it.
Ruban Nielson: Personally, I think it’s far superior to Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! It’s probably the second-best record after Fuck the Golden Youth. With Crazy? Yes! we wanted to make people really happy. Fuck the Golden Youth was really self-indulgent, and then Screens was self-indulgent again. With Screens we were aiming to go so pop that it becomes experimental music.
Kody Nielson: Screens is probably the most similar to what we’re doing now, the trajectory we went down. We never wanted to do the same thing over and over again, so we were always reacting to the last album. I think [Screens] was condensed into those little areas that we hinted at in the beginning, like the bubblegum pop sound.
Ruban Nielson: It’s definitely got the strongest set of songs out of all of them. Pound for pound, there’s nothing else we released that had the strength of songwriting. It was an extremely ambitious record in its own way. We didn’t think it was going to take over the world or anything, but I remember thinking, no one sounds like this. Like this is the most unique record that’s come out this year.
The 10th anniversary remastered Screens is available as a limited-edition Record Store Day 2019 vinyl release.
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