Graeme Downes: 'My record collection's a little more splayed than most...'

Mahler academic and rock musician Graeme Downes talks about PhDs and going solo
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The Independent Culture

In the mid-1980s, when Graeme Downes was studying music at New Zealand's Otago University, he added a little extra to his end of term paper on composition. It was an album called Hallelujah all the Way Home.

The record, the debut album by Downes's band the Verlaines, was part of the reason he got an A-grade on his course. It's also probably the only time forming a rock band has advanced someone's academic career instead of hindering it: Downes is now a Doctor of Music, a world-renowned expert on the works of Gustav Mahler and a professor at Otago University, teaching a rock music and songwriting degree to budding rock'n'roll stars.

"When I got round to writing my PhD thesis," he says, "I realised I'd been tinkering with a lot of the course's concepts on the songs I'd been writing. The band was my lab – I went to the classroom to get the theory, but the only way to learn it was to come home and put it into practice."

The effect of Hallelujah all the Way Home – and the band's 1982 single "Death & the Maiden" before it – was felt far beyond the confines of Downes's hometown, Dunedin. The Verlaines have been cited as an influence by Yo La Tengo, Calexico, Stereolab, Fugazi and Boston rockers Buffalo Tom. Their records are full of sonorously jangling guitars, melody-defying chord changes and intense, accusatory lyrics. Alongside bands such as the Clean, the Chills, the Bats and Sneaky Feelings on New Zealand's tiny Flying Nun label, they made Dunedin one of the epicentres of Eighties independent music.

Now, some four years after the Verlaines went into extended hibernation, Graeme Downes is releasing his first solo album, Hammers and Anvils. It certainly rivals some of the Verlaines' finer moments, and also shows Downes's songwriting structures to be significantly out of step with almost everything in contemporary music. "Cole Porter" and "Mastercontrol" sound like out-takes from a Bertolt Brecht musical, "Cattle, Cars and Chainsaws" is an ecological warning amid an almost industrial racket, and "Rock N Roll Hero" is a mix of dramatic strings, woodwinds and driving, discordant guitars.

"Somebody once said that it doesn't take a German genius to work out that a rock band is only as good as its record collection," Downes says of his genre-splicing. "My record collection's a little more splayed than most. I took up the oboe when I went to high school and played in youth orchestras through school – I wasn't interested in rock music, I hated most of it. Classical music was really huge for me when I was in my teenage years, I listened to nothing else. The Clean were the first rock band I'd ever seen play live. They blew me away, but what it also presented to me on a plate was that, yes, it was loud and exciting, but you could also write your own stuff, as opposed to sitting in the back of a youth orchestra tootling away on a Haydn symphony."

Downes seems to have tapped into that teenage motivation once again after a decade signed to majors and making compromises with his music. But recording Hammers and Anvils wasn't without its traumas. Halfway through recording, Downes went on holiday, and when he returned it was to find that the computer hard-drive had failed with most of the album on it. "We had some stuff backed up on CD, but most of it was gone forever. But that was good in hindsight – we ended up doing the tracks much better second time round."

At one point, the plan was to release the album over the internet and set up a "front-room record label", but US indie label Matador has taken the album, mostly because its president is a Verlaines fan from the band's first release 20 years ago.

Downes hopes to squeeze in some UK gigs soon, but admits he still has a string quartet piece to finish, and, of course, students to teach till the end of the academic year. "The job I've been doing for the last six years teaching rock and songwriting has almost been like a second PhD," he says. "I didn't actually know what made a good rock song work, so trying to teach other people how to do it has been interesting." He laughs. "I've been highlighting my own foibles. I relish the opportunity to occasionally put on a Verlaines record and go 'Hear that? Idiot! Don't do it'."

'Hammers and Anvils' is released by Matador on Tuesday