Bill Direen has worked with musicians, writers and actors since the late ’70s. To the list of his songs, theatre-music collaborations and records, one might add a bibliography of printed stories and poetry. But it is for his music that Bill is best known.
Beginning as a folk singer in Christchurch, Bill listened to older musicians such as Phil Garland before turning his hand to the Blues, and moving to coffee houses. He began writing his own songs after shifting up a gear and going electric. He met Steve Cogle (bass, vocals) and Peter Stapleton (drums) and together they cut their teeth on rock, generating their own special kind of anti-rock that contained elements of acid rock, country, improvisation, freak-out and pre-punk. The band Vacuum recorded but was never released.
Flying Nun was formed too late for Vacuum, but the band’s material was later released by the two parts of the split. Direen had a backlog of about fifty songs that found form after working with Allen Meek (guitar, keyboards) and Malcolm Grant (drums). They released a string of 7 inch EPs, never leaving Christchurch.
Direen‘s first album was recorded for Flying Nun in Auckland after another of his bands won the Christchurch Battle of the Bands contest. That album Beatin Hearts, was re-released by Grapefruit last year, and is regarded as a kiwi garage classic. It was also the first Flying Nun studio album, with guest appearances by Chris Knox and Mike Dooley.
The following year Direen formed South Indies and released Split Seconds, an album regarded by some as the quintessential album of his early period, spanning recordings made when Direen was a Radio Announcer in Blenheim (1978) through to a collaboration with Alex Bathgate (Tall Dwarfs) in 1984.
A new lineup took in Stuart Page, then an arts student at Ilam (Christchurch) and Greig Bainbridge, who would both become recurring members of New Zealand lineups. The third album, titled CoNCH3 (simply called Conch by word of mouth) again broke new ground by showing itself unafraid of a certain commercial pop sound which it did not fail to subvert for its own purposes. Again, some Builders fans regard Conch as the key album of the discography.
Album after album followed, until the collapse of local vinyl pressing in New Zealand, in 1989. This also meant that South Indies went into abeyance. Its final album for some years, Bill Direen and the HAT, recorded with Hamish Kilgour, Lisa Siegel, Allen Meek and Steve Cournane in New York City’s PPI Studio, was released on cassette (later re-released by UNWUCHT of Germany).
Following the collapse of the New Zealand vinyl industry, Direen turned his hand to music-theatre shows, drawing upon his musical skill and his experience in the theatre (eg: he had met Alec Bathgate while both men were working at Christchurch’s professional Court Theatre). Four cabaret music-theatre pieces followed, along with adaptations of works by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and collaborations with the poet Alan Brunton.
Now in Wellington, Direen was playing regularly with drummer Derek Champion, and their teaming produced a CD album in 1994, engineered by Brendan Hoffman at Volt Studio in Dunedin. Direen slept in the studio during the week of recordings. At that time, he also liked to sleep in small theatres just before staging a performance! A tour across the USA made many friends and Champion returned to NZ. Direen went further, to Europe, and apart from regular returns to New Zealand, he would be based there for many years.
During his time in Berlin and Paris, Direen formed new collaborations, working ever at the coalface, playing small venues, with the accent on regular practice.
But it was during two of his frequent returns to New Zealand that he toured nationally in 2007 and 2008, and recorded with what would become the Chrysanthemum Storm band.
The album was recorded in a home studio, called affectionately Gravel Road. Equipment was begged, borrowed or hired, and all the tracks were laid down in a few days, with engineer Brett Cross and Direen sleeping on the floor of the studio. Andrew McCully, a music graduate with a keen pop sensibility added keyboard lines. Cross provided solid bass, and Andrew Maitai offered hypnotic looping drumming. The album was quickly mixed to make a tour merchandise CD released by Powertool Records, but it would take some years for it to be mastered to level of perfection Direen requires for all vinyl releases.
Currently, Zelle Records is preparing the release of that augmented version of Chrysanthemum Storm.