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Time Has Told Me: Peter Jefferies

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Interview with Peter Jefferies.

 “But yes, it’s nice to think the album still resonates with certain people today. Now more than ever, perhaps.”

—Peter Jefferies

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry, Photographs & Captions courtesy Peter Jefferies


New Zealand’s Peter Jefferies released his exceptional solo debut album, ‘The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World’ on cassette via the Xpressway label of Port Chalmers, New Zealand, in 1990. The deeply affecting batch of songs range from heart-rending piano ballads to desolate rock gems that shines an everlasting light on the torments of pain and despair. What is immediately striking about the debut record is the immediacy and honesty of Jefferies’ songs, where an artist’s soul is laid to bare before the listener’s very eyes and ears. I feel the spirit of Mark Linkous and Daniel Johnston float amidst the swirling guitar chords and tender piano tones. To think of ‘The Last Great Challenge’ today, an image comes to my mind of a bird in flight and a man standing alone at the shoreline. The lyrics of ‘On An Unknown Beach’ paints a vivid and touching portrait of internal struggle and endless searching: “There’s a man on the shoreline / With a white parakeet / Trying to make his / Bird go home.”

‘The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World’ and the accompanying 7″, ‘The Fate Of The Human Carbine’ (that would be later covered by Chan Marshall on Cat Power’s 1996 record ‘What Would The Community Think’) soon appeared on LP and CD, through the Ajax label of Chicago. Despite critical acclaim from various sources at the time, the album gradually fell into obscurity and would never attain its much-deserved recognition. Fortunately, some twenty-two years after the debut album’s original release, U.S. independent label De Stijl Records was responsible for the vinyl-reissue of this stellar document of towering song-writing master-class. The album includes the songs from the attendant single and the original album’s track-list with no amount of remastering done; remaining as pure and powerfully true as the moment the songs emanated to vital life at the turn of the 90’s.

The New Zealand music scene of the early nineties consisted of The Clean, The Dead C — amongst many others — unleashing their soaring rock anthems from deep beneath the underground. The recording sessions of ‘The Last Great Challenge’ features much of the New Zealand independent music scene: all three members of The Dead C (Bruce Russell, Michael Morley, Robbie Yeats), guitarist David Mitchell (3Ds), Alastair Galbraith, Kathy Bull (Look Blue Go Purple, Cyclops), Nigel Taylor and Robbie Muir (who’s co-billed on the single). The batch of songs were recorded on a 4-track in the studio where a striking intimacy and rawness is magnificently captured. The multi-instrumentalist, Jefferies provides vocals, piano, drums/percussion, and occasional guitar parts (mainly towards the album’s final section). The majority of the recording sessions took place at Grey Street, Port Chalmers between September — October 1989. Later, the album was mixed at Studio 13 by Peter Jefferies, Nigel Taylor and Alastair Galbraith.

The album’s title-track is a tour-de-force with immaculate instrumentation of piano, drums and guitar conjuring up the sound and eerie feel of early Tindersticks, Bill Callahan’s Smog output and Cave’s ‘Murder Ballads’. The undying spark lies in Jefferies’ peerless baritone that melts effortlessly into the mix. On the hypnotic and brooding ‘The Fate Of The Human Carbine’, Jefferies sings of a life drifting slowly by, beneath delicate guitar notes: “Watches a film about the evening sky / And lives someone else’s dream.” A meditative feel permeates throughout ‘While I’ve Been Waiting’ that releases a cathartic energy, before the sublime piano ballad ‘Neither Do I’ heightens all that surrounds you. Jefferies sings beneath fragile piano notes, “Tell me it’s too late to repent” on a verse that could belong on any number of Daniel Johnston’s sonic creations.

The soaring piano notes of ‘Likewise’ closes part A. On ‘Domestica’, Jefferies sings “I don’t want to be the victim of my own mistake” while cleaning the dishes. The eclectic range of sounds from raging punk and lo-fi indie/rock cuts to intimate ballads casts a spectrum of emotion as moments of tenderness and bitter-sweet beauty are closely interwoven with feelings of alienation, fear and pain. The album’s centerpiece is the piano ballad ‘On An Unknown Beach’. The lyrics are sheer poetry. The piano melody is steeped in stunning beauty. A tenderness comes to the surface as Jefferies describes himself as a “pale intruder on an unknown beach” on the opening verse. The defining moments of ‘The Last Great Challenge’ comes into focus some bars later as Jefferies sings “My back to the water / My feet in the sand / Finding no recognition / As each sign of life / Invades the precision of this / Aging land.” A deeply personal journey is created by Jefferies here — and throughout this remarkable debut solo record — that remains as vividly engaging and vital today as it has ever been.


‘The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World’ is available now on De Stijl Records.


Evans Street 1988

‘Evans Street 1988’

Chain or Reaction, Unknown Beach, Carbine, Listening In and the title track were all written here. The painting behind me is by Sally Lonie, who designed the cover for “At Swim 2 Birds”.


Interview with Peter Jefferies.

It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions in relation to your music and particularly your solo 1990 album ‘The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World’, which was re-released this year on De-Stijl Records. First of all, it must have been a wonderful feeling to have your music introduced to new audiences and have a sense of (richly- deserved) recognition shown towards a record that remains as timeless today as it did 22 years ago?

PJ: It was a surprise more than anything else. It meant I had to listen to it, which I hadn’t done for at least 10 years. And that was a surprise too. But yes, it’s nice to think the album still resonates with certain people today. Now more than ever, perhaps ( at least that’s what it feels like at the moment).


Can you please take me back to the recording of ‘The Last Great Challenge’. The most striking aspect to the songs for me is how deeply personal and affecting the collection of songs are. Also, the range of sounds and styles – from the sparse piano-led melodies and achingly beautiful ballads to the more post-punk creations – that results in a resolutely unique journey. You have a great ensemble of musicians with you, from the New Zealand underground. How long did these sessions take? Were the songs pretty much fully formed prior to the recording sessions?

PJ: Sessions took about 5 weeks. Chain or Reaction, Unknown Beach, Carbine, Listening In, and the title track were written coming in. So there was a kind of framework there. The rest was written during the sessions.


My favourite song from the album is ‘On An Unknown Beach’. There is a tenderness inherent in this ballad that never ceases to amaze me. I would love to gain an insight into this song please and the magical moment when you saw the song unfold before your eyes? The lyrics are sheer poetry that invites you to an entire new world of significance.

PJ: Unknown Beach had the lyrics written first. Well, sort of. I thought I had a tune for those words, but it turned out they didn’t really work together, so the words sat around for a while. But when I was writing Chain or Reaction, I accidentally pushed the play button on the tape I was using, and this little fragment of a tune I’d done at some other time came on, and I just knew that was gonna work for Unknown Beach. So I stopped in the middle of what I’d been doing, and worked out the rest of the tune based on the little fragment from the tape. So then it sorted itself out pretty quick. Then I went back to Chain or Reaction and finished that too. I can still picture the moment in my mind, and yes, it did feel kind of special, or significant, at the time. Sometimes you just seem to get a bit of help with these things, and if you do something good almost always comes from it. And that was definitely one of those times.


Cat Power covered your song ‘Fate’ which was released on her 1996 record ‘What Would The Community Think’. The song works beautifully on this record that serves a fitting testament to your songwriting prowess. Can you remember when you found out about this? I imagine you must have been a big fan of Chan Marshall’s similarly beguiling songs?

PJ: Well, it should be remembered that Robbie Muir helped write Carbine. Have you heard the recording that I sent De Stijl of us actually writing it? It’s easy to find. Kind of amazing that I still had it. That was another one where the words had been done first. And I could just kind of hear Robbie playing it in my head, so one evening he came over, and we did our first writing session together, and that was the result. Chan covering it was really special. We had actually been corresponding for a few years before that, so we knew each others stuff anyway. But her album was very popular, and it gave the song a profile that I hadn’t been able to give it. So thank you Chan. Lots love. As to when I found out about it, I think Matador told me she was planning to do it. Probably a few months prior to recording. They were always such an easy label to deal with, so it wouldn’t have been a problem.


Can you reminisce on the New Zealand music scene of the early 90’s for me please? You were involved on a whole host of musical projects throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Looking back on the hugely diverse body of work, do you have particular favourites that today you feel most proud of?

PJ: The music scene of the 90’s. Such a long time ago. For me it was working on Xpressway with Bruce Russell, and being in Dunedin with all these incredibly talented people, and having that develop into the deal with Ajax, and that leading to a lot of other labels and people getting involved. It was life changing, and probably the defining time of my existence. As for the various songs, and releases. Yeah, I do have some that I like more than others, but I don’t really think the opinion of the artist has much to do with what the public perceive as your best or your worst work, so I’d really rather not say. If I do, then I’m stuck with that opinion forever.


I can imagine you and your brother Graeme (who comprised of two bands from the 80’s: Nocturnal Projections and This Kind of Punishment) must have been immersed in music from a very young age? What were the records that inspired you the most to take up music? What instruments were lying around your home?

PJ: Yes, we were both into music from very early on in life. Instruments were drums and guitars, and a microphone. Even at that age we had an old reel to reel recorder. It was an old half track. Started playing real instruments as teenagers. Stuff that made a difference to me early on were things like The Velvet Underground (plus Reed and Cale solo), Syd Barrett, Mott the Hoople (plus Ian Hunter solo), Bowie, Queen. Later on it became Wire (esp. 154), Joy Division, Swell Maps, The Fall. Colin Newman’s first solo album ‘A To Z’ had a big influence on me as far as lyric writing went. The album I was playing all the time during Last Great Challenge was Daniel Johnston’s ‘Hi, How Are You’.


How do you feel the music industry is like today? Are there bands and artists you admire from these past few years?

PJ: Well, the music industry today, for me, is De Stijl Records. That’s as much involvement as I have really. And as far as that goes it’s great. I think the vinyl pressing they gave LGC is the best I’ve ever heard it sound. Definitely my favourite version of the album. As for the rest of the industry, I’m not really involved, so I can’t really say. Artists from the last few years that I listen to: Kurt Vile, Amanda Palmer, Salvi Stone, Jack White, Rival State, Strange Boys, Darkwater.


In 2002 you retired from professional music. I was very interested to read that you currently teach high school music (drums, composition, recording). This must be a fulfilling practice to carry out on a daily basis, and a different perspective to music-making and releasing records?

PJ: Teaching at school has allowed me to keep music as the centre of my life, without having to watch it all get old and tired. The feeling I get when I help a student work on that very first song, has so much more life in it for me, these days, than writing yet another Peter Jefferies song. I think rock music has an inbuilt life span, and if you ain’t got it done by the time you’re between 40—45, then you ain’t gonna get it done at all. I don’t want to be someone who just dribbles on because they haven’t figured out how to quit. Maybe that’s just me. Other people seem to be able to do it, and be ok with it. But I ask you: how many musicians ever made their defining work beyond the ages of 40—45? I can only think of maybe one or two. And I don’t see myself as being one of them. You have to know when to get out of the water, and make way for the younger people coming through. Otherwise what’s the point? I finished writing my last album 9 days before my 40th birthday. Just got it in under the wire. I knew it was going to be my last album. Since then I’ve only written one new song that I think adds anything else to the story. The rest have just been more of the same (and more of the same isn’t new). Ouch!


PJ: P.S.
On New Year’s eve I went to a gig at the Mayfair, and saw (for the first time) my (as from now on), favourite New Zealand band.
They’re called Little Moon. So if you want to know what is REALLY HOT from New Zealand right now, then that’s the one that gets my vote.
Little Moon! Look out for them.


Port Chalmers 1989

‘Grey Street 1989’

With Robbie Muir, on the roof at Grey St. where most of LGC was written and recorded. Part of the photo shoot for the Catapult/Carbine 7”, 1989.


Grey Street

‘Port Chalmers 1989’

Robbie and me with Port Chalmers in the background. Also taken at Grey St. (where I was living with Bruce Russell and artist Jane Davidson), 1989.


‘The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World’ is available now on De Stijl Records.


Written by admin

January 13, 2014 at 9:43 am

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