In Placid Darkness
Critic Magazine 28/05/17
The tank emits a soft, violet glow. The room’s lights are off and the door locked. I undress, shower and step inside.
I pull the lid down behind me and press a large button on the inside wall of the tank. The pinkish hue fades to darkness.
I slowly lie down in the tank’s warm, salty water. The water lifts me to the surface. I stretch out my arms and legs, imagining myself as Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I push gently off one wall and drift to the centre of the tank. The rocking of the water gently echoes off of the walls inside.
I open my eyes and close them again, the darkness remaining constant.
As I relax into the float, gazing into the blackness, I begin to hear small, light steps. They seemed to be coming from the hallway. I listen more carefully and realise the sound is the beat of my heart, amplified by the silence in the tank. I re-divert my attention to my breath.
For the next 45 minutes, I drift in and out of deep meditative states. My body leaves me, dissolving away in the water.
I imagined floating would be like going back to the womb, or maybe space… But for a while, I found myself imagined as a small piece of driftwood drifting aimlessly through a calm, tepid abyss under a black night sky.
And then, the hallucinations began. Spots of light danced before me. I hadn’t anticipated them, nor expected them. For me, the light seemed to signal total peace.
Time ebbs and flows in the float tank. Some floats feel like minutes, while others feel like eternities. In complete awe of the experience, my perception of time in the tank left me...
Soft rainforest ambience began to play, signalling the end of my float. I climbed out, showered, and wandered into the reception at Floatfix. “You look totally zen’d out”, the receptionist told me.
She was right. I was almost incapable of speech. I emerged in the cool, spitting rain on Hanover street, wide eyed and dopey. I felt like a child, meandering along in a beautiful stupor of awe.
In a way, floating is like looking to the cosmos and experiencing that feeling of perpetual vastness and that realization of infinity. The weight of the world vanishes, giving way to a sense of ease and understanding that in a way, nothing really matters.
It was a feeling I carried away from my float. I drifted slowly to my car, smiling at everything.
“In our experiments, the subject is suspended in a tank containing slowly flowing water at 34.5°C, wears a blacked-out headmask for breathing and wears nothing else”, John C. Lilly writes in his 1956 paper, ‘Effects of Physical Restraint and of Reduction of Ordinary Levels of Physical Stimuli on Intact’.
“The water temperature is such that the subject feels neither hot nor cold: the experience is such that one tactually feels the supports and the mask, but not much else”.
Lilly, an American neuropsychiatrist pioneered the construction of float tanks. The genesis of the sensory deprivation tank lay in Lilly’s pursuit of isolating the brain from external stimulation.
To do so, Lilly figured he would have to find a way of stripping a person of all outside stimuli. His first float tank was rudimentary. It was essentially a small pool where Lilly and his volunteers, floated, facedown in warm, salt-water, breathing through a blacked-out face mask.
It was a time of free-thinking and psychedelia. Lilly was one among many to explore the unknown realms of the human mind.
Lilly describes a psychological state reached in the tank often after two hours of floating where “the mind turns inwards and projects outward its own contents and processes; the brain not only stays active despite the lowered levels of inputs and outputs, but accumulates surplus energy to extreme degrees”.
Lilly essentially discovered that sensory deprivation did not put the brain to sleep, but conversely, it inspired the mind into some kind of dream-like, illusionary state.
Devoid of external stimuli, the brain creates it’s own. This idea is often argued to be the cause of dreaming. Hallucinations range from mild hallucinations resembling dancing dots and lines of light to full on, psychedelic-esque out of body experiences.
Lily went on to spend hours in his float tanks, tripping on LSD and communicating with extra-terrestrial beings. He spent years attempting intra-species communication with dolphins, exploring psychedelics and seeking cosmic enlightenment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lily was outcasted by the scientific community.
While his ongoing experimentation with the float tank didn’t attract mainstream, scientific or corporate interest, he remained fascinated by the gateway sensory deprivation provides to understanding human consciousness.
Over the next decade or so, float tanks remained more or less shrouded in alternative obscurity. Perhaps it was their association with Lilly’s psychedelic tendencies.
In the ‘70s, float tanks did experience brief popularity alongside the rise of meditation and Eastern philosophy. The float tank began to take modern shape. They became completely lightless, soundless, heated to body temperature and loaded with enough dissolved salt to allow cork-like buoyancy, resembling a coffin like chamber. The industry began to grow. Float centres opened and float tanks found their way into many celebrity homes.
The popularity of float tanks however, was short lived. In the ‘80s, their use began to fade away. The discovery and rise of HIV created widespread anxieties surrounding hygiene and close human contact. It created a climate of fear and paranoia. Bathhouses and other shared communal spaces closed down.
Float tank’s disappeared for another three decades only to re-emerge in the 2010s. The world has taken a renewed interest in float tanks and their popularity continues to soar. Their use nowadays is no longer perceived as a wacky, mysterious practice championed by free-thinking, psychedelic scientists. They are sleek, accessible, and praised for an array of health benefits.
OKLAHOMA, UNITED STATES - the Golden State Warriors are squaring up against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The score is 118-118.
With just 2.8 seconds on the clock, the Warrior’s Steph Curry, pulls up and stops somewhere between the halfway line and the Thunder’s 3 point line- well beyond 30 feet of the hoop.
Heralded one of the greatest players in the NBA, the Thunder’s defence leave Curry space, perhaps wary of the way he has waltzed around them earlier in the game.
Standing still and low, in calm meditative poise, Curry springs, leaping upwards and releases the ball. As Curry shoots, the Thunder slow and watch as the ball sails above. With just over a second on the clock there isn’t much they can do.
Curry lands the shot with 0.6 seconds on the clock. The game is won for the Golden State Warriors.
Days before the game, back in San Francisco, Steph Curry strolls along a wide open street in the Marina district. Nestled between tall narrow buildings on the street lies Reboot Float Spa. Curry slips into the building and passes through the reception and into small, neat room, softly lit by pink neon lighting.
In the centre of the room, there is a futuristic, glowing, egg-shaped bath. Curry enters the pod, closes the lid behind him and lies atop the pod’s tepid waters.
In the placid darkness, Curry slowly lets himself go. He watches thoughts travel through his mind. He ruminates upon a decision in life he might need to make, or a missed shot from a previous game.
Amidst the busy NBA schedule, floating is an opportunity for Curry to escape the world.
“It’s kind of Russian roulette with where my mind goes”, Curry told ESPN before one of his regular float appointments.
In space-like weightlessness Curry’s spine decompresses and the tension in his muscles relax. For Curry’s body, each float is like one great sigh of relief.
“I have a very clear head when it's done, and it shows in the days after floating. It gives me a nice boost of focus and perspective. The more I do it, the more I get from it.”
Joe Rogan is perhaps the world’s most avid supporter of floats. He is self described on his Instagram page as a “Stand up comic/mixed martial arts fanatic/psychedelic adventurer”. You’ll probably know him best as the host of Fear Factor in the early 2000s.
On many of his popular Joe Rogan Experience podcasts, Rogan has introduced float tanks to hundreds of thousands of listeners.
Karl Bloxham, a strength and conditioning coach at Otago Rugby was one of them. Inspired by the seemingly innumerable benefits of floating and Rogan’s passionate ramblings about them, Bloxham set out to try floating. His first was on the Gold Coast, Australia.
“My first float was mind blowing really, a pretty awesome experience…. You lose sensation of where your body is and it’s just you and your mind basically, you and your thoughts, in tune with your breathing and your heart beat”.
Bloxham sat before me, perched on a bench, next to a float tank at Floatfix on Hanover Street in Dunedin. Inspired by his first float, Bloxham set about to bring a float tank to Dunedin.
After years of hard knocks on the rugby field, major hamstring surgery and lingering back pain, Bloxham’s first float seemed to bring almost instantaneous relief to his worn body. He experienced first-hand what it could do for recovering athletes and remained attracted to the holistic benefits of floating.
He joined forces with Ash Stiven, a physio at Eclipse Health Clinic, and opened Floatfix in March, 2016. Since opening, Floatfix has had everyone from pregnant mothers, sufferers of chronic pain to Highlander and All Black Malakai Fekitoa come through their doors.
Bloxham’s psyche is one of calm. He speaks with great ardour in thoughtful, passionate spiels of the experiences of those who float at Floatfix.
“If you come in and just let go and see where it takes you, that’s where it can unwind. Some people might have some traumatic or mental, anxiety, some people might have pain or fatigue or they might struggle with sleep. Other people might have a combination. So floats affect people differently depending on where they’re struggling. That is the beauty of it.”
A quick scan of academic search engines will reveal a surprising lack of scientific study on float tanks. While they were initially incepted as a tool of science, few scientists since John C. Lilly have dedicated large-scale studies to float tanks and sensory deprivation.
In a blog post for Discovery Magazine, science journalist Shelly Fan describes the research conducted on float tanks as “imperfect”.
Fan then goes on to explain why.
“For one, studies are generally small. For another, it's not obvious what counts as an adequate experimental control for flotation: Relaxing in a dark room? Going about daily activities? The mysticism and recreational drug use that surround flotation have also slowed research on the technique by the broader scientific community”.
The proclaimed benefits of floating by float centres does at times come across as mystic and far-fetched. They talk of “super-creativity” or “brain-synchronisation”. It is often touted as an ‘alternative therapy’ and it’s claimed benefits seem to echo those of other naturopathic practices.
Nonetheless, a small range of studies does paint a scientific picture of the varying benefits of floating. A study in 2006 concluded that floating can help to relieve stress-related pain. Researchers noticed that the positive effects of pain relief lasted months after the float. Other studies have identified the relief of anxiety, muscle tension, insomnia and headaches after floating.
Anecdotal evidence seems to fill the void left by scientific study. Just because there are few scientific studies on float tanks, it doesn’t imply there are few benefits. Science is not all seeing, nor all knowing. And as Shelly Fan points out, there are some troubling methodological difficulties associated with studying the effects of floating.
People who have floated often describe a deep sense of calm and self-awareness after exiting the tank. It is described as a break away from all of the incessant chatter of modern life, a break away from the relentless interruptions provided by an increasingly digitalised world.
The effect is often compared to that of meditation. Floaters frequently experience a profound sense of self-awareness after finishing a float.
From sports recovery to revisiting traumatic experiences, the benefits of float tanks are well documented by the floaters themselves. Float centres are opening rapidly worldwide. Steph Curry,
widely considered to be the best shooter in the NBA, endorses them along with a host of other professional athletes. Knowledge of their benefits only continues to grow.
At this point, it doesn’t seem like floating will die as a modern-day fad. So let go, leave the world for a little while, and see where your mind takes you.
Their Sea or Ours?
Critic Magazine 05/03/17
Bottlenose dolphins, grey nurse sharks and green turtles were among the dead hauled out of shark nets around Sydney in 2015.
The New South Wales government’s most recent performance report details the marine life captured by the Shark Meshing programme.
2015 recorded 748 “marine life interactions” with the nets, up from 189 in 2014. Of the animals caught by the nets, 86% were threatened, protected, or non-target species, while the other 14% of animals caught were target shark species.
To many, the results of the report are horrific. Environmentalists who excoriate the state’s meshing program will likely describe the results as an abysmal, archaic, atrocious failure.
Unfortunately for all marine life, shark nets are blind and indiscriminate. The mesh size is designed to entangle sharks, which is also well suited to catching dolphins, rays and turtles.
Since 1937, shark nets have been deployed seasonally at 51 beaches around Sydney. In theory, shark nets reduce the risk of humans and sharks encountering one another, by lowering the number of sharks in close vicinity to popular beaches. However, 2015 saw a huge surge in marine life being entangled in the nets.
The report describes two performance indicators; the first being to reduce the risk of shark attacks in the meshing programme region. Just one water-user was bitten at a beach while nets were set in the Sydney meshing region. The second performance indicator is to “minimise the impact on non-target and threatened species”.
The report doesn’t explicitly state whether the performance indicators were achieved. While the NSW Department of Primary Industries might argue that the programme was a success in protecting the beaches around Sydney, their aim of minimising ecological harm seems to be a hopeless failure. The vast majority of marine life caught was non-target.
Given the spike in marine life caught by the programme, it seems surprising that the report hasn’t initiated meaningful discussion about how the risk of shark attacks can be better managed in Sydney.
In contrast, West Australia’s 2014 Imminent Threat Policy, dubbed the ‘shark cull’ by media, was hugely controversial. Following an unprecedented string of seven fatalities between 2010 and 2013 in WA waters, Premier Colin Barnett announced the state’s Imminent Threat Policy. The policy saw the deployment of 72 baited drum lines near popular WA beaches.
The programme was simple - if a shark was hooked, alive and over three metres in length, it would be shot in the head. The premise of the policy was that, by lowering the population of large sharks, the likelihood of humans and dangerous sharks encountering one another would be reduced.
The announcement of the policy saw instantaneous public outcry. Scientists excoriated the programme as an immoral, unscientific witch-hunt. Protests saw thousands turning out to condemn the cull at localities like Cottesloe Beach in Perth (which experienced a fatality in 2011), Manly NSW (where, perhaps ironically, a shark net was set a few hundred metres off shore behind the protestors) and even internationally in New Zealand and South Africa.
The shark cull was depicted worldwide as an environmental catastrophe, an unjust calamity driven by irrational, emotional fear. Over 100 shark experts signed an open letter decrying the cull. It even saw the vandalisation of WA Premier Collin Barnett’s office by a protester, who took to his office windows with a hammer, before spraying the words ‘EGO MANIAC’ in fluorescent, splattered all caps.
On 26 January, the programme’s first victim, a tiger shark, was hauled up, shot in the head four times with a 22. calibre rifle, dragged out to sea and dumped. Media documented the execution-style death and pandemonium ensued. Social media erupted into a furore of frenzied protest.
Images of the tiger shark being shot in the head offered a potent narrative for those who opposed the cull. It flipped the criminalised media portrayal of sharks as worthy of prosecution. It depicted sharks as vulnerable and man as dangerous.
Barnett’s catch-and-kill dictatorship in the waters around WA was in full swing. As sharks continued to be hauled up, shot and dumped, the torrents of criticism directed at the WA government only intensified. The popular media, who have for so long offered sensationalised and damaging reports of sharks as man-eaters, had a field day tearing into the government’s drum lining policy.
The drum lining trial ended in April, and in September Colin Barnett announced the discontinuation of the programme. During the ten-week drum lining trial, 172 sharks were caught. Fifty of the sharks caught were tiger sharks measuring over 3 meters, which were subsequently shot and dumped. No great whites were caught.
While no shark attacks were recorded in WA waters during the drum line trial, any statistician would be hesitant to attribute success to the policy. Correlation does not mean causation. Shark attack statistics are patchy and variable, meaning that making sense of a miniscule sample size over such a small amount of time is inadvertently flawed and wildly inaccurate.
When drum lining had kicked off in February, WA fisheries minister Ken Baston was asked by the media for a response to the protest in Manly against the shark cull. Baston rightly pointed out that shark nets had been used around Sydney for years.
Baston’s answer insinuated hypocrisy - how could the NSW public protest the shark cull, when sharks were also being killed in NSW for the same purpose of protecting water-users?
Of all marine life caught by the WA drum line programme, only 4.6 percent was non-target. The statistic provides a stark contrast with the NSW Shark Meshing programme, whose non-target marine life comprised 86 percent of 2015’s total catch.
So why, then, does a programme that did seem to manage to successfully “minimise the impact on non-target and threatened species” come under intense public scrutiny, while a programme that kills a huge amount of non-target and endangered marine life is largely ignored? The answer may lie in the historical longevity of the meshing programme.
The Shark Meshing programme dates back to the mid 1930s. Between 1927 and 1930, NSW recorded nine fatal shark attacks. The string of fatalities installed a new breed of post-war paranoia in the NSW public.
The harbinger for NSW’s war on sharks was Victor Coppleson, a doctor and advisor to the Surf Lifesaving Association of Australia. Coppleson believed the public were being misled by research stating that sharks do not intentionally bite people. Coppleson believed sharks were responsible for attacking humans and set out to change the rhetoric that explained shark attacks.
In 1933, Coppleson published “Shark Attacks in Australian Waters” in the Australian Medical Journal. “The evidence that sharks will attack man,” he argued, “is complete”.
Sharks were no longer benign and mysterious creatures of the deep, but prowling monsters waiting for man to enter the ocean. Coppleson ignited an all out war on sharks, a battle of man against beast. In 1937 the NSW government introduced the Shark Meshing programme.
Ever since, shark nets have been deployed every summer in Sydney. They’re out of sight and out of mind. Their success in reducing fatal shark attacks has been trumpeted by the NSW government and the public rarely questions their deployment each summer. They were installed at a time when sharks were believed to intentionally hunt man.
Nowadays the prevailing scientific rhetoric is that shark attacks are commonly a case of mistaken identity. If sharks did want to hunt humans, many more would die by shark attack every year. Science has taught us that the ocean’s eco-systems badly need sharks.
Our modern understanding of sharks means that the implementation of any new policy that involves killing sharks is often met with fierce opposition. But at the same time, we rarely question the continuation of old policies that have killed sharks for decades.
After the WA shark cull in January 2015, the then NSW Premier Mike Baird announced, “One thing we will not be doing in NSW is culling sharks”. Baird continued to offer this sentiment of not “culling sharks” throughout 2015.
His tactful choice of the word “cull” instead of “kill” suggested to the public that his government would never do 0a thing as barbaric as the WA government, while ignoring the fact that his government does indeed kill many sharks, as well as dolphins, turtles and rays, each year.
Considering the vast array of non-target marine life caught by the Shark Meshing programme it seems bizarre that the issue is swept under the rug in NSW. Why are we so critical of new policies that involve killing sharks, but comparatively complacent when it comes to criticising old ones?
An image of a shark entangled in net doesn’t seem to elicit the same panicked emotional response that an image of a shark with a hook in its mouth and a gun to its head does. Hooking and shooting a shark seems barbaric. Entangling and drowning a shark doesn’t.
Reporting of the WA shark executions created a simple narrative for the public: sharks bit people in WA, so the government, led by a myopic tyrant on a violent vendetta, tasked his fisheries goons with the simple mission of hunting and executing all large sharks, guilt or innocence irrelevant. The policy was understandably controversial.
In December last year, the NSW government announced the forthcoming trial of five shark nets on the North Coast. The announcement came in the wake of an unprecedented spate of attacks around Ballina. While the deployment of the nets has been controversial for many environmentalists living in the area, the Baird government has managed to avoid significant criticism by the NSW public and media.
The narrative surrounding this deployment of nets on the North Coast was significantly different from the narrative in WA: sharks bit people on the North Coast and Mike Baird, the good-guy surfing premier, who didn’t want to “cull” sharks, employed scientists to research and study them, so water-users could better learn to co-exist with them. But, when tensions heightened, he had to protect the people, so he deployed shark nets fitted with whale and dolphin pingers, to be rigorously checked by fisheries staff.
The six-month trial of the shark nets on the North Coast ends in May this year. At that point, the NSW government will decide whether the seasonal deployments of nets on the North Coast will carry on in unison with the Shark Meshing programme. The decision is likely to be marred in controversy.
Removing shark nets from any beach would be a high-risk political move. If someone were to be attacked at that beach, the government would be in the firing line and, in the public eye, responsible for the attack.
If the nets are discontinued, North Coast surfers will undoubtedly ask why beaches are protected around Sydney, but not around Ballina. If someone is attacked there next summer, the NSW government will be in the firing line. It’s a risk the NSW Government may not want to take.
So, for now, it’s likely that shark nets are here to stay.
Damaged Goods Magazine 07/16
On a street just off K’ Road, above a Mercedes car dealer, in a seedy office turned living space lies the Mercedes Studio. The makeshift studio is the creative den of Smokestank Girls, a rather mysterious Auckland duo. Amongst the clothes, cd’s and books strewn on the floor of the bedroom studio, there is an old-school 6 track tape recorder, 3 or 4guitars, a dusty drum kit, a few amps and a string of mics running through an interface and then into an early 2000’s Windows monitor. The humble and unassuming studio appears rudimentary at best.
Digital recording technologies and the genesis of the internet has seen music as we know it explode and develop in every direction possible, breeding all sorts of musical clusterfucks- some good, some bad. Anyone with access to a cracked version of FL Studio or Ableton can make music nowadays, giving birth to the term ‘bedroom producer’. The term commonly refers to young electronic producers, those making the kind of music your mum and dad loves to hate. So it’s refreshing to hear Smokestank Girl’s self titled debut EP. It carries none of the traits of new school self produced tunes, but rather a grittier, re-contextualised, lo-fi sound, nostalgic of 70’s alternative rock music.
Smokestank Girls are – Me (Dillon) and my boy Toby. I am the senior member of the band at 22 years of age and Toby is 20… I think. Both mainly raised in North shore, Auckland but other places here and there. Im pretty much your run of the mill musician, you know, guitar, bit of bass, bit of drums. Toby mainly drums (very well I might add) with Smokestank but his main instrument is keys. He’s also proper good at guitar and bass…. And vocals. Bastard.
I suppose any art that has an organic kind of quality to it. For lack of a better word. Not really thought through, stream of consciousness type stuff. If that makes any sense. And comedy. Everyone loves comedy.
Writing the EP
Yea, so the songs probably span like a year or maybe a bit longer. Started with little ideas or melodies that were built onto. There’s no specific way I write a song but usually it comes from playing with melodies and chords on guitar or piano and words come after. But sometimes vice versa. I then basically had a bunch of songs I wanted to record so I brought an interface and a few mics, set it all up in my bedroom and went from there. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we both love it, so naturally you get into the swing of things. Much love to Morgan who mixed and mastered the EP. Cheers mate! x
I would say Smokestank Girls is a blend of a long stream of influences filtered through mine and Toby’s freak lens. It does have a nostalgic flavour to it that people pick up on for sure, which would make sense cause I suppose most of the music I have grown up with that really agrees with me is from that 60s-70s era. In a broad sense. I was listening to a lot of music that was basically one guy recording everything, all coming from one mind. People from like, Skip Spence through to Pavement and ending with KV and Ariel Pink. All stages of the lo-fi sound which kinda motivated me to do my own thing. There definitely isn’t a hugely consistent sound which is something I like about my music. Like, I never went into this EP going, ‘I want to make an EP and I want it to sound this way’ you know? They were just songs I wrote that I thought sounded good and piled them together.
I was really apprehensive about releasing the EP actually because I knew it would involve that kinda thing. I’m not hugely apposed to it but it’s just something that I’m not comfortable with. I actually made the Bandcamp page but didn’t really tell anyone for about a week until some friends got there hands on it and shared it. Bless them. So then I made a fb page and stuff but I’m totally useless at all of that to be honest. It does kinda interest me that someone can form an opinion on a band just by looking at how many likes they have on facebook and what other bands the people who like your page like. What can ya do though man? These are the cards we have been delt, you gotta play I guess.
You Always Brought Me Water
That song was written purely for guitar, drums and vocals actually. Its just a sped up, freak, honky tonk style song that I wrote while playing around with drop d guitar tuning. Kind of an old school picking pattern that I twisted, that drones for the whole song. Its actually deceptively simple. One chord the whole way, basically with little inversions. All the parts were written in pretty close proximity and it’s super fun to jam with Toby. That’s when it comes to life. I cant remember where I was when I wrote it, but I remember wanting to write a song with a girls name in it. Not a specific girl but just like those 60’s psych pop songs that were so epic. You know, like ‘Carrie Anne’ by The Hollies or ‘Elenore’ by The Turtles. The songs aren’t similar to mine at all but I just liked the idea of doing that, so I did it haha.
Yea religion slips into my lyrics every now and then. I suppose its just something I think about often. Not in like a, ‘I need to find my place in this world’ sense, but more of an interesting look into the human brain. Like in an anthropological sense. Like more of a ‘wow, this is strange, humans really need this thing’. And in like, every aspect of our lives as well. Veeerryy interesting. My Lyrics do mostly come from melodies for me though. Or maybe one line that I would build on. I would never try think too much about what I’m writing at the time cause you might loose it. You can think about that stuff later.
A truly great piece of work. So damn seminal for me and for the world really. What better way to kickstart the 21st century than with that gothic, sexy, dystopian masterpiece. Probably more of a prophecy than a film. That, along with latex and boom! You have a box office hit. What more can I say.
The Future for Smokestank
Well, hopefully put some gigs on soon. Ive just got a band started up so there is a few shows on the way up in Auckland and fingers crossed Dunedin soon. Other then that just continue to write and record is the plan. Everything else it out of my hands my friend.
Damaged Goods 03/17
Kane Strang popped up on DGZ’s radar early last year with the release of his first ‘official’ album Blue Cheese. Blue Cheese is that kind of record that grows and grows on you, before devouring you completely. It ages very well.
After a gap year in Germany, Kane settled back home at his parents house in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. Armed with one microphone, a small arsenal of instruments and an empty house while his parents were away, he began writing and recording the songs that would make up the album Blue Cheese.
While Kane admits that the whole album involved a lot of “trial and error”, the final product- a punky, sometimes psychedelic, often angsty, indie record is a beautifully constructed collection of pop songs.
With Blue Cheese’s release in February 2015, the somewhat innocuous musician seemed to appear out of no where. Strang maintains a pretty low-key presence on social media and in the album’s opener, ‘The Web’, the song ends abruptly as he sings ‘I’m never on the internet’.
In a internet obsessed age of self-promotion, Strang’s music stands testament to the fact that if the art is good, the kids will share it.
His first release, A Pebble and a Paper Crane offered glimpses of his song-writing finesse. Recorded in a bunker in Germany in 2013, the album is more so a compilation of nostalgic and scratchy demos, rather than a polished and completed album. Months after it’s release, Kane opted to take the album of the internet, leaving it in scattered fan uploaded pieces across the web.
Any artist knows that all too often sinking, despairing feeling of self-criticism upon reviewing past works. It sucks, but it’s the reality of any artistic endeavour. If you’re not cringing at your older works, you’re probably not improving. In discontent with his first release, perhaps Strang envisioned the sound of Blue Cheese.
From the clutches of Dunedin’s small, tight-knit scene to the vanguard of indie music in NZ, the release of Blue Cheese rose Strang to prominence. The indie pop record is not one of rosey guitars or pearly melodies. It carries the feeling of a somber, cold and at times bleak Dunedin winter’s day. Strang is an honest song-writer graced with the ability of channeling blue feelings of angst into alluring and catchy tunes.
Kane seemed to departed as quickly as he arrived following the release of Blue Cheese. He gave a handful of interviews, played a small tour before laying low for a while. While Kane gigged irregularly throughout 2016, he stayed relatively quiet following the success of Blue Cheese.
DGZ tried a few times to get words from Strang. I first asked him after a packed Dunedin, Kane Strang gig in May last year. While then, he was enthusiastic about giving an interview, he later messaged back explaining that he was feeling “detached from Blue Cheese” and was beginning work on a new record.
We’ve been waiting for new music ever since and in February this year, he released the first track from the album, ‘Oh So You’re Off I See’. Offical word is finally out for the release of his new album on US label Dead Oceans, accompanied with the announcement of an American tour.
Following the release DGZ managed to have a brief catch up with Kane to talk Blue Cheese, songwriting and recording the new album.
Have you always lived in Dunedin?
Yeah. I lived by the beach in St Clair when I was younger and then moved over to Tainui for high school. My parents are actually selling our family home there at the moment so I’m feeling all sentimental. It’s definitely been a nice place to grow up.
What did you grow up listening to?
As a kid I was obsessed with pop music. Michael Jackson, the Backstreet Boys, that sort of thing. My dad played bass in a bunch of bands and that’s how I wound up getting into guitar-driven music too.
When did you start writing music?
I didn’t start writing my own music until the end of high school. After giving up on the clarinet and playing guitar for a couple years I got determined to try singing and playing solo shows. Songwriting became a big part of my day-to-day life pretty quickly after that and I slowly started finding my own sound.
You’ve said before that you didn’t have massive expectations for the release of Blue Cheese early 2016. How was the album written and recorded?
Blue Cheese feels so old to me now, I can barely remember recording the songs let alone writing them. The whole thing definitely involved a lot of trial and error.
How was it recording the album at home? I’ve worked from home a bit and it can start to get weird, you kind of get cabin fever, drink too much coffee and go a little crazy.
I’ve probably said in the past that I went a bit crazy too but most of the time it was actually really nice. I had a well stocked pantry and walked my dog a lot. It definitely could have been worse.
Why did you name the record Blue Cheese?
Because it was a bit sad and cheesy.
Your music seems to carry a fair bit of angst, even the song names outwardly wear it- ‘Things Are Never Simple’, ‘Never Kissed A Blonde’, ‘It’s Fine’. Is song writing an outlet for you, a way of expressing yourself or a hyperbolic depiction of experience?
Only writing music when I’m feeling angsty has kind of been a bad habit of mine but I think I’m coming out the other side of it. I’m glad about that because I found myself expressing myself less and exaggerating more and more.
You’ve recorded in some pretty weird places- A Pebble and a Paper Crane in a bomb shelter in Germany and then Blue Cheese in your parents house in Tainui, where have you been re-cording lately?
My next album was done with Steven John Marr [founding member of NZ band Doprah] in Tom Bell’s new studio at Chick’s Hotel.
In a way the closure of Chicks Hotel as a venue was this sad ending to such a strong bastion of Dunedin music. How did you find recording there after attending and playing so many live gigs there?
Tom’s done such a good job setting the place up that it wasn’t as sad being back there as I thought it would be. It’s also pretty easy to forget that it was ever a venue because he’s got so many crazy instruments now that you can barely see where the stage was.
Was there anything in particular you didn’t like about Blue Cheese? If so, was it something you consciously thought about while you’ve been recording?
I feel like the lyrics weren’t relatable for a lot of people and I really didn’t want this next record to be like that. I just wanted it to sound better in general too. I’m not trained in music technology or anything and would always struggle to get things to sound how I wanted them to sound before I was sick of the song. With Steven I could just explain what I was thinking and most of the time he could get it there almost instantly.
You’ve said that some of Blue Cheese was just messing around with a chord or a bass line. It sounds like there was a bit of spontaneity in the song writing and recording process. Has the song writing and recording process differed with a producer and a recording studio?
Everything was just a lot more fun and happened a lot quicker because other people were contributing. I wasn't by myself doing a thousand unnecessary takes and over-thinking everything.
When can we expect another album from Kane Strang?
Definitely this year.
What It's Like to Survive an Avalanche
The Wireless 11/08/16
'As told to' styled interview.
I enjoy walking by myself. I find it very meditative, calming, just putting one foot after the other. It was just the most amazing area I’ve ever been to in the world, in all of my life. It was really incredible. I didn’t see human footprints for four or five days, only deer paths.
Up in that terrain there were other smaller avalanches occurring. The snow was soft, so it made it hard to walk on and I was aware that avalanches were occurring. Wherever I walked, I tried to walk in the shade where it wasn’t close to the sun line because the snow and ice is more solid to walk on.
I was walking up this shaded ice gully and up above was Mt Montgomery, which was fully exposed to the sunlight. That obviously melted the ice and made a big crack. It was about 12pm.
It was so loud. It was like a crack of lightning and then thunder as it rolled down the hill. I looked up and saw this huge wave of snow and ice coming for me. It was probably 500m above me, so I had about four or five seconds to move.
You don’t think, you just get as high as possible. I was hoping to avoid it, but it filled up the valley I was in.
It swept me off my feet. It was quite steep, so it was moving really fast. I went down in it and the gully actually turned on an angle; the avalanche was funnelling in on itself. As I was on the side, in the funnelling area, I hit this rock and my legs succumbed underneath me.
They got crushed and my body was twisting around and at the moment I’m thinking, “shit, this is it”… and you’re just hoping for the best. There was nothing I could do. And then I popped out and cut my face and hit my head.
I was looking up the mountain, spinning around like I was in a river.
I think it was instinct to stay on top of it. I was on top of it and I knew I had to get off it, so I got to my feet and stood up and got a hold of a rock on the side of a gully. I held on to the rock for about one second and then the rock dislodged and I fell straight back onto the avalanche.
I went back along for another 20 or so metres before I could get to my feet again. The avalanche was so high on the gully that I could jump off the side, onto a ridge line where I just sat dripping in my blood. It’s such vivid imagery in my head, it’s just nuts.
It was still moving for another 10 or 15 seconds when I was on the ridge and I’m just staring at it, thinking “What happened?”
It just roars as it goes down. It’s quite a ferocious sound.
I was sitting there, and pretty much did a damage check. I was covered in blood. I felt my legs and I was feeling my bones. I knew I was in some pretty serious pain. I was checking to see if there were any bones sticking out or if my teeth and jaw were still in. I knew my legs couldn’t really work, so I just sat on my camp mat.
First thing I thought was, “OK this is probably a good time to press the SOS button on my locator beacon”. I’ve never talked to anybody who has had to use it before so I was hoping it would work.
I pressed it and I put my clothes on, got warm and sat in the sun and ate some chocolate and dipped carrots in peanut butter.
My thoughts were racing, in my mind I was writing a survival novel - first of all I’ve got to get off this avalanche prone slope and down to a safe area, try and make camp for the night, and then figure a way to walk out of here, which was not going to be that easy.
The avalanche was so high on the gully that I could jump off the side, onto a ridge line where I just sat dripping in my blood.
It took me about two hours of sitting there to think, “Alright, I’ve actually got to make a move” and for about half-an-hour I was very, very gingerly crawling or sliding my way down the slope because I was so injured.
I didn’t get far at all. In the avalanche, I probably descended 150m. But in half-an-hour of crawling, I descended 50m.
I had an ice axe I could lean on. One leg was sort of OK, but the slopes were really unstable, so I would fall and then there would be a lot of pain. Sometimes I was in too much pain to stand back up, so I just sat there for most of it.
It was nearly 4pm and I probably would have been 500m or 1km from the bottom of the slope before a helicopter came round the corner and then I thought, “Oh, that’s right I called a helicopter”.
The experience definitely reiterated the main points of what you hear and read about when you go off in the hills - 80 percent of success happens before you even go out there, it happens with a good plan. Without a locater beacon, I would have been stuck. So that’s important, having a backup plan and being observant of trigger signs and receptive to the way nature changes.
I’m so lucky. I only got a fractured ankle and potentially a ruptured ACL, but other than that it’s just cuts and bruises from head to toe. It could have been so much worse.
The Life of Riley Elliot AKA Shark Man: Part 1
Has the ocean always been an important part of your life?
I was born in Vancouver Canada, but moved to New Zealand at age 5. I grew up as inland as you can get, in Hamilton. But being a skinny island in the middle of the South Pacific, I was still only 40 minutes away from the sea – Raglan in fact, one of the world’s best left hand point breaks for surfing. Surfing was the catalyst to my interest in marine animals, and ironically the source of fear that resulted in sharks becoming my life passion.
What sparked your interest in sharks?
I surfed every day in Dunedin between studies on dolphins in Fiordland as part of my Honors and Masters at Otago University. Surfing in the deep south and diving in Fiordland, which is quite a 'you’re a very small person in a big natural world kind of place', meant sharks were always in the back of my mind in both of those environments. One day when I finally saw a shark while diving in Fiordland, I broke all the rules of scuba-diving and boosted to the surface. I turned around and it was a one-foot long School shark – totally harmless.
Did that encounter cause you to question popular human perceptions of sharks?
Yeah. I kind of laughed and then somewhat felt ashamed. I questioned why I had reacted like that because clearly in the situation it was totally unjustified. This was a harmless animal, but everything I knew about sharks up to that point was purely based on the movie Jaws and whatever we see in the media. So I basically asked myself, ‘what is a shark and is their reputation justified?’
How did you get into studying sharks?
I went to South Africa and I worked with the Oceans Research internship program which teaches people about how to study sharks. It changed my life. Every morning I would get up at dawn and I’d drive out to Seal Island and we would observe and study the predatory strategies of Great Whites on seals. And then in the afternoons, I would come home and surf the awesome point breaks that was like a kilometre away from this island I was just watching these apex predators hunt at. And then in the evenings I would go back to this island and see them nail seals again.
So you still surfed after watching Great Whites hunting seals?
Surfing is the most beautiful thing in the world. It is a huge addiction. And even if you’re standing on shore and the surf is pumping and you know there’s sharks, you’ll most likely still go out. At the end of the day it's a personal choice, the shark is like the ground is to a sky diver or the cold is to a mountaineer. It’s the harsh reality that makes the wild environment thrilling.
Did your experiences in South Africa inspire your studies on Blue sharks in New Zealand?
Yes 100%. I came back from South Africa with all this knowledge and passion and I said to myself, “I want to do a PHD”. I saw the film Sharkwater which is the catalyst for global awareness of shark finning. I started reading up about New Zealand and it was actually one of the top 10 exporters of shark fins in the world. We were one of the most blind nations when it came to shark sustainability and there was no scientific data to back up the amount of sharks that they were killing, which was in the hundreds of thousands a year purely for their fins.
So basically I decided I was obliged to use the skills I had acquired along with my scientific background and do my PHD in New Zealand. So I focused my study on Blue sharks which are the most exploited shark in the world for shark fins.