Henry Oliver talks to Denver McCarthy, who made perhaps New Zealand’s best techno album nearly 20 years ago.
In 1998, a 20-year-old Denver McCarthy released perhaps New Zealand’s best techno album, Inside a Quiet Mind, on Kog Transmissions. It was a more-than-promising debut for a young producer, combining dancefloor-ready four-to-the-floor bass drums with ethereal, introverted synths. Recorded over two years in makeshift studios on gear bought and borrowed from the music store he worked at, the album is the sound of McCarthy’s spiritual journey, his search for a quiet mind.
Soon after the album was released, McCarthy’s burgeoning interest in the Hare Krishna movement was crystallised and he sold his gear and gave away his records, devoting himself to the movement which has taken him around the world before settling in Brisbane.
Unbenown to him, in the 19 years since his only album was released his music had gained a cult following and in 2015 Dutch label Delsin Records re-released a 12” EP of four songs off the album. And today Loop Recordings is re-releasing the album in full digitally and on double-LP.
I Skyped McCarthy at his home in Brisbane to ask how the record was made, how it came to be re-discovered, and what he’s up to now.
How does it feel to have this album you made so long ago back in the world?
It’s strange. I’m just trying to process it all. I thought it was destined to live in the sale bins at record stores across New Zealand. But I guess there’s this retro thing going on where people are re-releasing music from a long time ago and I fall into that category – ancient New Zealand techno music.
How did the reissue come about?
Mikee [Tucker, Loop Recordings head honcho] messaged me on Facebook saying “I’m in Brisbane, we should hook up.” I didn’t get that message till a few weeks later. I’d meet Mikee a few times but it’s been a long time since we’ve connected so I had no idea why he was wanting to communicate with me after so many years. So I didn’t answer his message – I’m a little bit of a hermit. Then he starts messaging my wife saying “I’m trying to get in touch with your husband because we want to re-release his CD.” So we spoke and I asked him “is anyone going to be actually interested in listening to this ancient New Zealand techno record?” It took a little bit of assurance but he said he thought he could do it right. I was just hoping he could cover his costs but there seems to be some interest.
I’m still processing it. But it’s been a great experience.
Are you feeling nostalgic?
I see a lot of Facebook posts that I haven’t responded to yet and I will hopefully. I really want to catch up with my friends from New Zealand in person, but it’s sparked a lot of memories for a lot of people from that time. It was a very interesting time for all of us and electronic music in general. There was a real excitement about electronic music at that time, in New Zealand and around the world. The album has transported people back to that time, all the memories and friends from that time.
What was the scene like, that this record comes out of?
There was lots of music coming from overseas. We’d all gather round when a new shipment of vinyl would come in from overseas, eagerly awaiting the new fresh sounds from Germany or Detroit. There was a real buzz happening.
It was before you could buy tracks off the internet so you had to wait for the vinyl to actually be shipped from the other side of the world. We’d play it out at clubs and parties and it was exciting.
How’d you get into making music?
I’d always been interested. I learnt the guitar when I was at school and just became interested in all kinds of instruments. I played in a metal band with some friends.
In Auckland, Sample G and Sam Hill ran a record shop in the city and they would organise a lot of rave parties and I was about 16 at the time – not old enough to get into clubs but we’d sneak in anyway. The whole scene erupted in Auckland.
I left school and I was working at a musical instrument shop, Kingsley-Smith’s Music. My boss was such an influence. So I had access to all the equipment. I would tinker away on the synthesizers there and my interest just pulled me more and more into working out how to use them and trying to express my ideas through them. And slowly, I learnt more. I was quite driven actually.
What was the recording process? I’ve seen a photo of what looks to be your bedroom filled with synths and drum machines.
That photo is interesting. It propelled Micronism into this mythological person. It’s a shot from above and that is the whole room. There’s nothing more – just the table with all the keyboards and then there’s my bed next to it. That’s it. And there’s a curtain. That’s where I lived for a few weeks. It was at a place called the Red Shed in Mount Eden. It was like an old warehouse.
I did write some of the tracks there, but after I got into a more stable position economically and rented another room with more space, my studio expanded a little more. But that photo does say something about what was important at the time – it was just music.
Techno was a largely singles-based genre. What made you want to sit down and make a concept album with a narrative, rather than just a collection of your tracks?
Musically, that’s influenced by my metal past. The metal concept album. Y’know, Pink Floyd and bands like that, I’d be into that thing, the concept album.
Were you going out and playing these tracks in clubs?
Some of them are more club material than others, but yeah, I played them a few places.
Did you start getting booked in the chillout rooms?
Well, because my Mechanism stuff was really hard techno, gabba rave stuff, then you have Micronism which is more chilled out so I could vary what I played according to the audience.
What was the concept of Inside a Quiet Mind?
I was messaging with a friend who did one of the drum programming on one of the tracks, Will Stairmand, he used to be a drummer in a metal band so he also got into doing a bit of electronic music. He had this Akai sampler, and we connected one day and got together to do some music. We were reminiscing about this the other day. He says that I said we should smoke a joint before we make this song. I don’t remember that, maybe I was stoned I don’t remember recording it at all. His memory of it is that he’d just bought his Akai MPC so he was finding it difficult being intoxicated to operate it. Because he was just working out how to use the thing. But somehow or other, we recorded the track ‘Disillusion’.
So at that time I was obviously still involved in the scene in the sense that everything that comes with the music scene – and especially the techno scene which is fueled by intoxication and drugs – but somewhere along the line it sort of lost its taste. Whether I was growing older or growing out of it, something changed for me. Meeting the Krishnas seemed to come at the right time for me. It seemed like it was arranged in a sense. I was becoming less fulfilled with this drive for doing music and being involved with this type of scene. And the Krishna thing, everything about it just started to become more attractive.
This whole idea about self-realisation, really understanding yourself and your inner motivations. It’s a really interesting thing to think about – what drives you, what are your real motivations. Because you have so many unconscious motivations – you don’t know why you do certain things. So I don’t know why I became attracted to Krishna at the time and some people were probably thinking the same – that I seemed to be heading in a good direction with my music, why on Earth would I decide not to take it further? And I don’t know! This Krishna thing just became more and more attractive to me and I had a whole collection of records that I would DJ and I had this one record of Hare Krishna chanting and I used to listen to that record and it became more and more attractive and in a very short amount of time I had no taste for listening to any other record. It was a strange experience and I don’t know how it came about, it just happened. And reading more and more into the philosophy of Krishna and associating more with the Krishna devotees it just fit more and more with the direction I was heading.
What do you hear when you listen to the album now?
It certainly takes me back to that time. Some of the tracks I don’t remember where I was or what studio I wrote them in, but ‘Quiet Mind’, I particularly remember. I was living in Kingsland, not far from the Kog studio. I feel like wow. Like, this track chose me to write it and I feel blessed in a sense. It’s got this deep feeling to it. When you’re listening to it you go, “This is just the sounds of some synthesizers made in Japan, but it evokes such a deep emotion, it’s a strange phenomenon.” And, for me, I was surprised that that could happen just tinkering with these little machines.
What’s your relationship to music now?
Obviously the Krishna chanting is a big part of my musical expression now. Because of all the interest in Quiet Mind, I have delved a little bit into DJing and a little bit of electronic music because I understand that there may be some interest to get me to play again. Mikee has sent me a couple of parties or events that are interested in having me play there this year, so I’m preparing myself for that. I have a whole lot of music – released and unreleased – and I would love the opportunity to play that out. It would just be wonderful to catch up with all my friends who are either still connected that the scene or from the era. It would lovely to catch up with all of them again.
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