new zealand electronic poetry centre

Graeme Downes

 Capital of the minimal  


Graeme Downes, the founding member of The Verlaines, gained a doctorate on the music of Gustav Mahler before establishing the University of Otago’s degree in rock music. In 2001 his first solo album, Hammers and Anvils, was released by the American label Matador; it was distributed locally by Flying Nun. Aside from remaining active as a song writer and recording artist, Downes has delivered numerous pre-concert lectures for the NZSO and Radio New Zealand programmes on the music of Mahler and Shostakovich.

The Verlaines were among the most conscious of the iconic ‘Dunedin Sound’ outfits. Downes’ ability to use the gestural vocabulary of the stereotypical angry young man was informed by an atypical admiration for the classical tradition. Reviewing an early performance for the Otago Daily Times, Alistair Agnew wondered:

On stage the band presents a mixture of contorted agitation and passive soundmaking. This strange combination throws out an ear-aching canopy of noise that one minute blisters with punkish abandon the next climbs through slow layers of tension and then ebbs away to quietness, before surging back.

With the naturalness of a dandy Downes is a considered and considerate man. He is keen (but not anxious) to be clear. In Upside Down under: The Verlaines' Poetic License (Options, May/June 1988) Karen Schoemer approached the Flying Nun single ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1982) the way a knowing teenager approaches a prospective lover:

The A-side enchanted ears with its brisk, jangly riffing and peppy singalong chorus "Verlaine, Verlaine, Verlaine," trammeled midway by a sturdy round of cheesy carnival oompah. Coincidentally, a song in a string quartet by Schubert, also titled "Death and the Maiden," has "nothing at all to do with" Downes' incantation, and references to French Symbolist poets Arthur Rimbaud and band namesake Paul Verlaine are "tongue-in-cheek. I just found the image to be an interesting one, the image of innocence, and not knowing how to handle it, and facing some of the hairier issues that come along with maturity. The song was written a long time ago, toward the end of adolescence, really. I haven't read much Verlaine," adds Downes somewhat apologetically. "I like Baudelaire, Yeats, Eliot." 


The Verlaines:

  • 1982 Dunedin Double EP
  • 1983 Death and the Maiden single
  • 1984 Ten o'Clock in the Afternoon EP
  • 1985 Doomsday 12" single
  • 1985 Hallelujah All The Way Home (Flying Nun, 1985 & Homestead, 1989)
  • 1987 Bird Dog (Flying Nun, 1987 & Homestead, 1988)
  • 1988 Juvenilia - compilation of early singles & Eps (Homestead Records, 1988; Flying Nun, 1993)
  • 1989 Some Disenchanted Evening (Flying Nun & Homestead, 1990)
  • 1991 Ready To Fly (Slash Records, 1991)
  • 1993 Way Out Where (Slash Records, 1993)
  • 1996 Over The Moon (Sony/Columbia NZ, 1997)
  • 1993 No Alternative (The Red Hot Organization, 1993) Track 14: The Verlaines - "Heavy 33"

Solo releases:

  • 1998 Patience is Gone (cowritten/performed with Barbara Manning) on Barbara Manning in New Zealand
  • 1998 Two Fat Sisters (The Clean) on God Save the Clean, Flying Nun
  • 2001 Hammers & Anvils (Matador Records)


Bob Dylan said "a song is something that walks by itself". This is true. The proof in the pudding is not only longevity of the song but other people covering your songs (the very act of the song walking by itself). But having said that, some songs are very cool but so specific to the artist that created them that cover versions are out of the question (could you imagine a cover of Pink Frost!?). Dylan's greatness lies more in his poetry than his melodies (hence, unlike Bacharach, none of his songs have become instrumental hits. They don't stand on their own without the texts). I'm not one either by nature but that was because initially I wasn't a singer by nature either. I only did the job because no-one else would. I take a lot more care over things now, partly because I can extend myself having become a more proficient vocalist. Like Dylan however I doubt my melodies would stand too well without the text in the vast majority of cases - possibly because he was such a model in the first place.

Songwriters have to be magpies and learn to hear the possibilities in everything around them. It helps to carry a note book everywhere you go. Poetry can be a real inspiration. It oils the wheels of creation for me. If you sit down and read the complete works of Larkin for example it's almost impossible not to sit down and write a song afterwards, usually a pretty good one. The secret is to not let poetic devices take over and render the lyric too obscure (pardon the pun) or indeed poetic. This is something I've learnt more recently but I have doubtless transgressed in the past.

Some songs take me months of drafting and redrafting. I've just finished one I wrote the bulk of the music for about 22 years ago. That's brewing for a long time! I make a rod for my own back by writing the music first and the lyrics second (Usually). Songwriters have to have a work ethic and a critical mind - not settle for the first draft if it's flawed here and there. This is especially true when you come to record (live you get away with murder) because you will be found wanting if your lyrics are shoddy.

[Graeme Downes, May 2004]


How has your first musical memory influenced you?

I was an avid radio listener when I was a pre-schooler. Loved the one by the guy with the rough voice that they played quite often but not as much as the one by him they played only occasionally. I later discovered these to be Tambourine Man and Positively 4th St. Probably prior to this was my dad playing and singing songs (he was rudimentary guitarist but good enough for toddlers to be impressed) at bed time, Harry Belafonte, Kingston Town that sort of stuff. I remember the chorus of that song, in particular the ante antepenultimate chord being profoundly sad.

What got you started writing songs?

I'd been inspired by the Clean and the Same. Picked up Dad's old guitar languishing in the basement (which had passed into neglect along with his ability to play it once we all grew up) and began to teach myself. After three or four weeks a school friend committed suicide. I wrote Slow Sad Love Song. 1980?

Over the years how has your approach to songwriting developed?

I've never been guilty of an unwillingness to experiment but in some senses I've become less audacious compared to the symphonically proportioned and structured songs off Hallelujah for example. I was young and had an idea of stretching the boundaries of what a song could be. Arguably a case of hubris but I'm proud of a lot of those songs even if they are flawed in some ways. They took a lot of effort to write and there were several more of the proportion of Noryb and It was Raining that I wrote but could not complete the lyrics for. The task was too difficult, if not impossible. I'm much more mindful of an idea that is going to turn into a black hole of time to complete (and even then imperfectly), and my sensibilities as to what makes a good lyric have sharpened over the years, probably through teaching the subject so much. So in the end I suppose I still try to do new things but I'm aware of what the basics actually are now-something I was more or less ignorant of when started.

What songs are you most proud of?

For an audience of one, I was very proud of Incarceration off WOW, because it said what I wanted it to say though probably only for me personally. Jimmy Jazz still makes me smile, because it was a crazy and audacious thing to do with considerable technical difficulty (we had to hook up two 16 track machines, it took us nearly 24 hours straight to mix it. No automated desks in those days. there was about five or six of us, each with a list of about 20 things to do in the course of the mix, riding faders, punching mute buttons in and out etc.). I'm proud of Hollywood Road Movie for its concision and clarity.

How does a song develop through writing, rehearsing, performance and recording?

I usually pick up the guitar and noodle away until something strikes me as being significant or interesting. At that point I start to hear where it could lead. I try harder these days to get an idea of the lyric and the melody as early as I can (contrary to previous working methods) because messing around with chords and working up elaborate structures can be a waste of time as mentioned before. The lyrics will still take me a long time to refine but as long as I'm clear what I am attempting to write about I can get this done relatively quickly now. Recently I've started actually scoring the songs up on Sibelius so I can experiment with arrangements for horns and strings etc.



© Graeme Downes 2004


Last updated 13 August, 2004