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‘I definitely had a chip on my shoulder’: Matthew Bannister on the return of Sneaky Feelings

Thirteen years after she would walk past him every morning on the way to work, Kiran Dass talks to Matthew Bannister of Sneaky Feelings about the band’s return and its place in Flying Nun folk lore.

With their bright ringing guitars, melodies, and soul-kissed pop songs, Dunedin’s Sneaky Feelings seemed to be outsiders among the diverse Flying Nun canon in the 1980s. It was very cool to like them. Aspirational, and looking more to the psychedelic West Coast than post-punk Manchester or Leeds, their songs weren’t edgy or spiky. But man, they wrote some top songs. ‘Not to Take Sides’ for example, and the brilliant ‘Throwing Stones’ which I saw as a kind of companion piece to The Doublehappys’ snotty-nosed anthem ‘I Don’t Wanna See You Again’. With its coldly spat out and not sung chorus and wobbly backing vocals, ‘Throwing Stones’ is a bloody blinder of a song.

In 1999, guitarist/vocalist Matthew Bannister wrote Positively George Street: A Personal History of Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound, an honest, juicy, vivid – and sometimes miserable, bitter-edged and overly revealing – account of his time in the band. Now, over two decades since their last show at Auckland’s Gluepot, Sneaky Feelings return with a new album Progress Junction, and shows in Hamilton and Auckland.

The cover shot of both the Sneaky Feelings compilation album ‘Positively George Street’ and the Matthew Bannister book of the same name.

The Spinoff: These shows Sneaky Feelings are playing this week in Hamilton at the Nivara Lounge and in Auckland at the Others Way Festival must be your first together in about 25 years. How did the band coming back together come about? Why now?

Matthew Bannister: There was never any rancour when we broke up, it was just circumstance. David [Pine, guitar/vocals] came back from overseas in 2014 and was keen to do something. John [Kelcher, bass] had built a home studio. So we had the means and the will to do it. Four heads are better than one.

How does it feel the four of you making music and hanging out together again?

It’s fun to play together. We could hang out together a bit more, but people have families and jobs. Maybe we should have played a few shows before we recorded because we were pretty out of practice.

What happened to Kat Tyrie, long departed original Sneaky Feelings bass player?

She was replaced by John Kelcher. I don’t know where she is now.

What do you remember about your last show in Auckland 25 years ago? What do you remember the band feeling like at that time?

It was hard work. It was the Gluepot. I played support [in Dribbling Darts] as well and, by the end, I was buggered. “I must be getting old,” I thought.

On your new album Progress Junction the band members have contributed equally, writing three songs each as well as the song ‘Don’t Come Around’, co-written by David Pine and yourself. What does each member bring to the band with their different songwriting styles?

Everyone is contributing equally now. That’s what makes the band unique. Most other bands are dictatorships, basically. Martin [Durrant, drums] has always provided a bit of soul, his songs are quite emotional. David is good with narrative. He’d been recording at home and that changed his approach, has made him more experimental. Ironically, I feel like my stuff is a bit more rock and roll, whereas in the past that was more David’s role. I guess that must be from [me] living in Hamilton. John’s developed a lot as a songwriter. He also engineered the album while playing bass, which was no mean feat.

How have you found it working together again? Has the dynamic/ease of work changed since when you were first playing together?

Good in general. Democracy means sometimes you have to compromise your own interests for the good of the group. I think playing live is more stressful for us than recording.

Tell me about the album title Progress Junction. I understand it’s a real place. What is the significance of this place to the title and to the album?

John lived near there when he was a kid. He wrote a song about the mines there, and how they wrecked the environment. “You can’t stop progress!”

With the recording and production of the record, did you approach it differently to how you used to record? What benefit of hindsight/experience did you have?

We had more time. On the other hand, we needed time to remember how to play together as a group. My feeling is that playing music is an end in itself. I’m not so hung up on making a great record. If it’s not fun, why bother? Plus, recordings don’t really have the same value now.

All four of your are fairly well spread out along the country with you living in Hamilton, Christchurch and Wellington. What were the pros and cons of this in terms of working on this new album and preparing for the shows?

It just meant me and Martin had to take a few trips to Christchurch. I just treated it like a holiday. We spent about ten days practicing in June, so we’re in reasonable shape.

I really love your now sadly out-of-print memoir Positively George Street. I read it something like seven times! (Remember, it was one of the rare books around at the time that offered an insight into that corner of music). It’s so honest, revealing and even bitter. And also sad and funny. You don’t hold back and it’s quite an immersive read. Did you get flak for it when it was published? How did people respond?

People liked it in general. They thought it was truthful and authentic even if they didn’t agree with the sentiments. I tried to make a clear distinction between facts and opinions. A few people hated it, mostly for fairly personal reasons.

In hindsight, if you were to write something like that in 2017, would you be so honest?

Probably not. I don’t feel the same now.

But I do remember being annoyed about how you dismissed Snapper, saying “if you have heard one keyboard distortion band you’ve heard them all.”

I like them more now than I did at the time. I did a lot of listening for my PhD and got into alternative music more. But I’m still basically a pop guy.

Sneaky Feelings were unfairly almost written out of or excluded from Flying Nun history. It seems like there was a kind of snobbery towards Sneaky Feelings. And it’s fair to say that you were outsiders, even though early on you were included on the Dunedin Double which showcased the label. You were different in that you sounded more American/West Cost, emotive and poppy than influenced by cool, spiky British post-punk. How did that feel at the time?

Well that was what Positively George Street was about. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder at the time. I don’t know if Positively George Street really changed anything, but it took a weight off me. And it fed into my PhD thesis, which helped me change careers.

Having said that, despite not really fitting in sonically with the other bands, who I stress to add were all diverse sound-wise, you did play with them a lot. Did it feel like an inclusive community to you?

Most people were pretty friendly. We played a lot with the Verlaines. Other musos are generally fairly non-judgemental – it was the hipsters and hangers-on that could be vicious.

I know much is made of the comparison of Sneaky Feelings to The Beatles, The Byrds, Love and soul music, but I also wondered if you were ever into Postcard Records and Orange Juice. I’m thinking of the Scottish connection [Bannister was born in Scotland and emigrated with his family to Dunedin when he was 17] and there seems to be a kinship there with Sneaky Feelings, that bright soul inflected guitar pop. I guess other bands from your ‘scene’ were probably into the other end of the Postcard scale like the noisier Josef K.

That’s true, though at the time I didn’t really see the connection. In retrospect, it seems quite obvious. I don’t know if New Zealand was ready for a Postcard band. The whole tendency was towards US and away from UK music.

In 2004 I worked at the Sunday Star-Times and every morning on my walk to work, at the same time and same spot I’d pass you on the Symonds Street overbridge and it was always a signal whether I was running late to work or not. That’s not really a question but there you go!

I must’ve been working at the University of Auckland. Was I on my bike?

Sneaky Feelings play Nirvana Lounge in Hamilton tonight (30 August) and The Others Way festival in Auckland on Friday 1 September.


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