After nearly 40 years, jangle pop legends The Bats are releasing their 10th studio album. No, stop. Reread that sentence. Let it really sink in. 38 years. Almost 4 decades. The same. Exact. Lineup. No quitting. No member swapping. Four people, four decades.
Think about how incredibly long 38 years is and how many changes and iterations of oneself that a person can go through in that span of time. I can barely maintain friendships for four years, I can’t even fathom 40!
Okay, now that it’s been drilled in how impressively out of the ordinary it is for a band to last nearly 40 years with the same lineup, I should likewise point out that they’re also still really good. The twinkle has not left the eyes of Robert Scott, Paul Kean, Kaye Woodward, and Malcolm Grant. Also, no small feat.
Titled Foothills, the New Zealand band’s latest offering is 15 tracks of the kind of delightfully strummy indie rock they built their name, as well as legendary label Flying Nun’s, on many moons ago. Recorded in Spring 2018 at a country retreat pop-up studio in the Canterbury foothills of the Southern Alps, Aotearoa in New Zealand, Foothills captures the warmth of its birthplace and the slow, ever-so-slight tectonic evolution of a band whose durability is unparalleled.
As longtime champions and fans, KEXP is excited to share Foothills ahead of its release on Friday, Nov. 13. Listen to it exclusively below and read KEXP’s interview with Scott, Kean, and Woodward before a Bats band practice where the three delve into the making of the new record, New Zealand’s expert handling of the pandemic, and advice for bands that are trying to make it the long haul.
KEXP: You're releasing your new album, Foothills, next week. After almost 40 years as a band, does the release of a new record get any less exciting?
Robert Scott: No, it's still as exciting for me. Each time it's a new journey and a new process, even though it's the same process. But it's still really exciting.
Paul Kean: Me too, although because I'm doing a lot of the mixing and that side of it, sometimes it becomes a wee bit like a job when I'm doing it because I listen to it through so many times. And I think, "Ah look, it's sounding as good as I think it's going to get." And I just leave it for a couple of weeks and then go back to it and think, "Yes! I like it!" Which is cool.
Yeah, you kind of have another experience with it afterward, with the mixing and everything.
Paul Kean: Yeah. It's like you're overdosing on one food. You're having far too much brown rice. I'm not going to eat brown rice for a couple of weeks. Then you go back to it and you're, "You know, this is not too bad!"
Do you guys have any pre- or post-release rituals?
Robert Scott: Not that I could think of.
Paul Kean: Not really, no.
Are you the types to read reviews instantly, or do you kind of ignore them?
Robert Scott: Well, no, we read them. I don't really ignore them, but I don't go out of my way to find them. I just let them appear on the, whatever, format; on the news feed or whatever, or someone sends me them and read them and yeah, if they're good, that's really good. And if they're not, you just ignore them.
Paul Kean: I ritualistically burn them. [laughs]
[laughs] Even the ones on the Internet.
Paul Kean: Oh, the phone's in the fire now [laughs]. No, it is cool to see what other people think of it. And there are some people out there that we know are good fans and supporters so it feels like, well, they're gonna say good stuff anyway. So when someone new comes along and says their bit, it's great.
So it's your 10th record which, while 10 records is a substantial amount for a band to get to, when you've been together for almost forty years, it's not that many. You said a number of times that it's helpful for the band to have the time and space to record without pressure. But what's that conversation like, between the band, when you are ready to get back at it?
Robert Scott: Oh, it's pretty informal. It's like we've done some work or we've all been busy with other things, and then suddenly there's a bit of a clear time and it's like, "Oh, we should we get on to the next record." And then it takes another year to get organized [laughs], to find the time to do it, and then go from there. And it's been different each time; the situation is different each time in terms of what our workload is, or what we're doing with the other parts of our lives, apart from music. And then it's a case of, "Oh okay, I think we can do something now." And then just go from there.
It sounds like this record came together pretty quickly though, in just a matter of days. Can you tell me about that process?
Paul Kean: We actually took a wee bit longer. Robert sends us some songs, demos, sometimes embellishments and that. And other times it's just him on acoustic or something on guitar. And we listen through and get inspired to do our bits to them, and sometimes, most times, we'll do demos. It's always, I think, "Oh God, the demos sound great! But these usually come with a few mistakes and things because you're just flying with it and just finding places as you go. So that's quite a fun process to do. So we did that, and it was probably about six months before we recorded.
Robert Scott: Yeah, yeah. And then we found the space, this house in the middle of nowhere. We just went and set up and went through the songs pretty quickly, and they came together really well and we just carried on working during that time, like four or five days, and got a heck of a lot done. So it was great.
That's awesome. When you look at bands like Oh Sees, who have released 22 records in 17 years, which is obviously an extreme example, do you ever feel any pressure like, "Oh, damn, we've got to get back in the studio?"
Robert Scott: [laughs] A wee bit, because sometimes I think, oh, we've done 10, but it's been nearly 40 years. So to people out there, it looks like we're not working very hard. But it feels like we're working reasonably hard at it. But as for pressure to do it – not really pressure, it's more, maybe pride is not a good word, but a sense of we need to get out there and show the public what we're up to, what we're doing, next batch of stuff. But, yeah, not really pressure.
Paul Kean: Yeah. And there are a lot of other projects going on as well. So Robert's constantly playing, and Kay and I and Malcolm have got another side project and have recently been playing with other friends. So we don't actually live full-time as musicians because we're living here in New Zealand, and it's a little bit hard to sustain a life with that. So we've all got day jobs to help, I'd say, subsidize our creative careers.
Well, that's probably for the best, especially in this current time with the pandemic and everything where you already have kind of laid the groundwork that you weren't solely relying on music for money. Which, I've gotta ask, what's it like in New Zealand? I hear you guys have been handling the pandemic much better than the U.S. and pretty much the rest of the world. So what's going on with live music right now?
Paul Kean: Well, gigs are on again!
Robert Scott: Yeah, lots of gigs. Lots of gigs.
Robert Scott: Yeah, and we're playing next week. We're doing a show at the Isaac Theatre Royal along with another band, Phoenix Foundation. I'm not sure if you've heard of them, but they're a great band that just put out another record out as well. So, yeah, we're special guests [laughs].
That is incredible! We are so far away from doing live shows, it's depressing.
Paul Kean: So it's been probably a few months now that people have been back on the circuit. And various parts of New Zealand have been, like Auckland, got stuck into a bit more of a lockdown situation because they had community COVID, but was only a matter of...
Robert Scott: ...a few cases. So they went into lockdown a bit longer than we did down here in the South. And then that was all tidied up, so the whole country's sort of at an open level, really.
Paul Kean: And we're very thankful for our lovely government, who've just got back in the gain after the elections. We had elections here, too. So Jacinda Ardern is back in with a good majority. We have a thing over here called MMP over here, so you sometimes have to share the leadership with another party. And Greens were one of them in the past, and they've got a good relationship.
Paul Kean: The only thing is our Labor Party, or what we think of as the People's Party, which we think [of] as Democrats for the States, we use red as our color [laughs]. It's the other way around!
Interesting! So I guess the downside is that you can't really plan a tour, though, outside of New Zealand at the moment.
Robert Scott: Correct. We do hope to do a live gig that we can stream around the world, somewhere along the line.
Paul Kean: We haven't got that underway yet, but we do have the vinyl! We've got the vinyl.
Yay! I mean, that really does suck because you guys are known for having incredible live performances. Did you have any hesitations about releasing Foothills during the pandemic without being able to tour immediately after it?
Robert Scott: No, because nothing was certain. So you never know what's around the corner, so basically, you put it out and then go from there. 'Cause if you're waiting to second guess things like that, then you could be waiting forever. So just put it out.
Paul Kean: Yeah. I suppose we've had to step up our ways of communicating with people around the world. Flying Nun have been helping us out, and also Planetary Group over in the States; Nik Soelter is helping us.
Robert, you're an incredible storyteller with your songs. Were there any particular kinds of stories you were trying to tell with Foothills or did you just kind of let whatever came to you unfold?
Robert Scott: Yeah, the latter, really. I wasn't trying to get over a particular message, overall, with the group of songs. It was much more a group of songs that I've been working on for the last couple of years before the recording. And they more[so] tell their own little stories within each song, as opposed to working as a whole, I'd say. So they're more observations on people and relationships, and how things are working with that. Also, some of them are kind of made up stories about situations, or just about made-up things, really. Such there's a mixture of that on the record.
Right. You only can tell so many stories about your own life.
Robert Scott: Yeah, exactly.
I'm curious about the title, especially since there isn't a title track on this record. Why Foothills?
Robert Scott: It's where it was recorded.
Paul Kean: You've got the Southern Alps, which are like the spine of the South Island here in New Zealand, and it's right on a tectonic plate. So these mountains have thrust up a bit like the west coast of the States, actually; something very similar. In fact, we're on the same Ring of Fire as you guys.
Robert Scott: Mmmm, Pacific Ring of Fire. So that's the main Alpine fault that runs through the South Island. So where we were was just at the start of those mountains. So that was the foothills of the Southern Alps, hence the name.
That makes perfect sense. Very literal.
Paul Kean: Kaye's actually arrived back. I'm going to sign off and get her to come in and say hello.
Kaye Woodward: Hi, how's it going? Sorry, I've got the giggles now.
[laughs] No worries. I hear you went out and got bread, which is important.
Kaye Woodward: I did, I got heaps.
Great, fantastic. So yeah, we were just talking about the album. I'd love to know how you feel about it a week before it comes out.
Kaye Woodward: Well, I really like it. We always like the most recent one.
Robert Scott: Yeah.
Kaye Woodward: It's always the favorite and everything. So I'm really looking forward to it coming out and, hopefully, playing some shows next year. We've got one coming up next week, which is the nearest thing we'll get to a tour show. But yeah, so I'm really looking forward to that, as well, and playing some of the new songs off it.
Yeah! What kind of setlist are you guys building, Is it primarily Foothills tracks?
Robert Scott: No. At the moment, for the next show, it's four tracks off Foothills and then a mixture from the other albums. We've got a lot of songs to choose from, so each time it's quite interesting putting the live sets together because everyone's always wanting to hear different things and you can't please everyone. So we've just got to please ourselves and choose what we want to play.
Kaye Woodward: Yeah, we try to play some songs, at least one song, off each album, and we usually make it.
So Hamish Kilgour, out of The Clean, wrote a very sweet, glowing sort of review to go alongside the release of the lead single "Warwick." So it sounds like the relationship is still super-strong. Is there anything currently happening or on the horizon for The Clean?
Robert Scott: No. Hamish and David are sort of operating in different spheres from each other at the moment. Hamish is up here in Christchurch, so that's good. So Kaye and Paul see him quite a lot, and I see David quite a bit in Dunedin. But nothing on The Clean on the horizon at the moment, apart from the back catalog will be coming out quite soon.
That's great. Kaye, we were talking a little bit about the pandemic and shows and everything. How have you guys been feeling during quarantine, back when it was a little more lockdown, were you feeling creative and inspired?
Kaye Woodward: Yeah, well, Paul and I were at home together for quite a long time. So, yeah, we did play a bit of music and we were still working on Foothills; I think there was still a little bit of final mixing and mastering going on then. So, yeah, we took the opportunity to play a lot of music and write some new stuff, too.
How do you feel about live streams?
Kaye Woodward: Oh, pretty good!
Robert Scott: Yeah, we haven't... have we actually done any?
Kaye Woodward: Paul and I did one.
Robert Scott: Oh, yeah, that's right.
Kaye Woodward: Paul and I did one and we really enjoyed that. It wasn't actually live, though. It was for Better Living and the stipulation was that it had to be all done in one take and done at night time.
Robert Scott: Oh, yeah, I did one for that, too.
Kaye Woodward: Yeah, yeah. We've both had experiences with that and, yeah, it was fine. It's quite comfortable playing at home. It feels quite relaxed to me.
Robert Scott: Yeah, I did an Instagram live concert during [the] lockdown, as well. That was quite fun, we just held the phone up. My partner held the phone up and I just performed to that. That was quite fun, so I'm going to do another one of those soon, I think.
Kaye Woodward: And I've enjoyed watching them as well. It's really fun just seeing what people come up within the lockdown when everyone had lots of time on their hands. There were some quite elaborate sets that people worked out, and saw everyone's different take on the whole thing and how they thought it would be good when there's no precedent. So, yeah, it was really cool to watch.
Oh, absolutely. So, being one of the longest-running bands that still hold the same lineup, I'm curious about whether this is just luck that you may have managed to stay together, where it's just like the perfect melding of different personalities, or if it has taken strategic work to make that happen.
Kaye Woodward: Oh, this is really strategic work! [laughs] No, there's nothing too strategic.
Robert Scott: We're all pretty laid back, so it's pretty easy for us to get along. There's no big egos like I think you might get in some bands, so we've found it pretty easy to carry on working together, you know, really easily.
Kaye Woodward: Yeah, we all like what each other does, in a sense. It's just kind of our musical personalities, we like each others' musical personalities. We don't ever hate anything, so yeah, it works well.
What advice do you have for bands that want to stick together for the long haul?
Robert Scott: Good luck! [laughs]
Kaye Woodward: Don't tell each other what to play.
Robert Scott: If you do, word it really, really nicely.
Kaye Woodward: So they don't notice.
Robert Scott: Yeah. "I really like what you're doing with that B minor..."
Kaye Woodward: "...but."
Are there different personalities within the band, like the "band dad?" Kaye, it sounds like you're the food runner.
Kaye Woodward: Pretty much. Yeah, I'm the food controller, Paul is probably the dad.
Robert Scott: Yeah, Paul would be closest to the dad. Paul's really good at organizing things. And I'm pretty lazy, I just concentrate on the songs.
Kaye Woodward: And Malcolm just does as little as possible...
[laughs] Typical drummer!
Kaye Woodward: He just does what he's told to do.
There are so many bands that have said to be influenced by The Bats over the past few decades. I'm curious about what that actually feels like to be an "influential band." And, knowing that, is it something you can really wrap your mind around?
Robert Scott: Not to a great degree. I mean, I hear that mentioned in media in various ways. But I haven't heard any bands really hear our influence in their work.
Kaye Woodward: Maybe it's a bit like when people say that your kids look like you and you can't really see it. That would be a similar feeling to me. It's obvious to other people but it's hard to peg. I'm interested to hear you say that, Bob, because I find the same thing; it doesn't jump out to me.
So you more feel like journalists are kind of saying like, "I can hear The Bats sound in this band" but the band themselves have never said like, "The Bats are what inspired me"?
Kaye Woodward: I'm not sure if the bands that sound like us are the bands that say they are inspired by us because some bands do say that. But I'm not sure how big the overlap would be there. It could be a research project for someone!
I'll delve in! So 20, or even 30 years, from now, do you think The Bats will still be going strong?
Robert Scott: Well, that's a long time!
Kaye Woodward: You know, Malcolm's 67. Paul's 66.
Robert Scott: I'm 60.
Kaye Woodward: I'm the baby, I'm 57. So I'm thinking 20 years, no.
Robert Scott: We don't look that far ahead.
You never know. Modern medicine is rapidly changing!
Robert Scott: True! You never know.
So, one last question. Since KEXP is the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?
Robert Scott: Music matters to me because it's a very strong emotional force that you can get a lot of pleasure from and give other people a lot of pleasure in sharing it with them.
Kaye Woodward: Yeah, I was going to say it's a huge source of pleasure, as well. Yeah, it's an easy way to enjoy yourself.
Fantastic. That's great. Do we want to get Paul in here to say his piece on why music matters to him?
Kaye Woodward: You want to say why music matters to you, Paul? Here we go.
Paul Kean: Music matters to me...yeah, it takes me to just another level that most of my life doesn't really take me. And when I pick up an instrument and share some music with people, I just love that. There's a kind of an empathy that goes on; there's a feedback from an audience that helps drive you, as well. Yeah, it's almost spiritual for me.
Foothills is out Friday, November 13 via Flying Nun. Watch The Bats' KEXP in-studio performance from 2013 below.
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