Friday, May 2, 2014

Disjecta Membra

During the 1990s, Disjecta Membra built an enduring reputation as New Zealand’s flagship of gothic rock. Following an extended hiatus, in 2013 the band marked their 20th Anniversary with a triumphant return to the stage, and are currently preparing for the release of a veritable flood of new and unreleased material.

Mark I: 1993-1997

Hailing from the rural backwaters of Hamilton, New Zealand, since the earliest demo sessions in 1993, Disjecta Membra has remained the songwriting and recording entity of founder and mainstay, Michel. A three-piece live band was formed in 1995, revolving around the nucleus of Michel, bassist Ben Cauchi and a drum machine dubbed Deus ex Machina, and quickly built a local following. Paul Kennedy and Scott Barnett both came and went on joint keyboard and guitar duties, before Tamlyn Martinovich settled into the role in mid ‘96.

Meanwhile, the band’s ‘Theta Sessions’ demo had been recorded between December 1995 and February 1996 with producer Dave Lowndes of local audio production company Theta Productions. Self-released and distributed in very small numbers on cassette and CD-R, the ‘Theta Sessions’ came to the attention of Heartland Records in Melbourne, Australia, who promptly offered the band an album contract. By the end of ‘96, the début single ‘Cauldron of Cerridwen’ was proving a hit with specialist clubs in Australia, the UK and Europe, and is now regarded by many as a classic of gothic rock’s ‘Third Wave’.

The full-length album ‘Achromaticia was recorded during December, again with Lowndes at the controls, and released on Heartland in July 1997. Distributed internationally by Nightbreed UK and Resurrection Records, among others, the album also featured ‘Skin Trade’, which proved an even bigger hit with the UK club circuit, including London’s notorious Slimelight

Having relocated to the nation’s capital of Wellington, Ben Cauchi and Tamlyn Martinovich eventually left the group during 1997. Tamlyn would later reappear as a member of Auckland bands Avotor and The Shithawks, while Ben has gone on to considerable acclaim for his surreal, otherworldly photography, and now resides in Berlin. Jacob Sullivan (then frontman for Wellington gothic rock trio Reserved For Emily, now bassist with Berlin punk-rock’n’roll band The V’s) filled Cauchi’s shoes long enough for Disjecta Membra to tour New Zealand as a duo and record the compilation track ‘Antoinette Marionette’ before the end of the year.

Mark II: 1998-2000

1998 saw the band expanded to a five-piece, as recording for the follow-up album ‘Sibylline Leaves’ commenced. The group’s touring soundman, Mark ‘HideebeastHamill of Head Like A Hole (HLAH), became Disjecta Membra’s first live drummer, also doubling as producer for the new recording sessions. Classically trained pianist Petra Škorić replaced her Croatian kinsman Martinovich behind the keyboard stand, while bassist Jason (Jaz) Murphy and guitarist Barnaby Dromgool were both co-opted from Jordan Reyne’s group Dr. Kevorkian & The Suicide Machine. Live highlights included playing support for Death In June’s only New Zealand show, while the appearance of tracks from ‘Achromaticia on compilations from both Heartland and Nightbreed continued to reach new fans.

Recording, however, was plagued with internal personnel issues; after just three gigs Dromgool was replaced on guitar with Vivian Stewart, who was even more swiftly traded in for Alex Mein Smith. The apparent ‘revolving door policy’ on membership prompted Australia’s Aether Sanctum to ask, “Is Michel New Zealand’s answer to Andrew Eldritch?” while renowned UK journalist and gothic rock historian Mick Mercer even reported that one band member had been sacked “because he smelt funny”. By 2000 A.D., the volatile interpersonal dynamics were well and truly overshadowing the band’s music, the near-mythical ‘Sibylline Leaves’ had been abandoned, and Disjecta Membra effectively went into stasis.

Exile and return: 2000AD-2013

Over the next few years, Michel focused on coordinating a small label and artist collective, Mediatrix, co-founded in 1999 with musician, designer, author and multimedia artist Jason Just of post-punk/coldwave-influenced band Burnt Weeping Eyes, dark-ambient/industrial project Lightslastfading, and occult neofolk outfit Shemsu Hor. Time and resources were further diverted into live event production, including running the annual Darkness Gathering, an international dark music and performance festival held in Wellington from 2000-2005, and the largest event of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.
Notwithstanding, from time-to-time Disjecta Membra was invoked as the moniker beneath which Michel and friends would perform live, or contribute one-off tracks to compilation projects. Between 2000 and 2003, Russell Dench (piano, keyboard, programming), Louise (Lou) Juventin (bass, acoustic guitar, vocals) and Matthew Tāmati Scott (guitar, treatments) all became regular live fixtures, while a raft of new songs including ‘…and Close Your Eyes’ and ‘Call of Cernunnos’ began to explore neofolk and ethereal influences.

Recorded output during this time was minimal, with an early demo of ‘…and Close Your Eyes’ released on a free Mediatrix label sampler CDR in 2001, and the somewhat anomalous ‘Antoinette Marionette’ appearing on the ‘Eternal Chapters’ 2CD compilation released by the long-running Sacrament Radio show on Sydney’s 2RRR FM. Produced by Mark Hamill back in 1997, this version of ‘Antoinette…’ had been recorded exclusively for the compilation while Disjecta Membra still consisted of Michel, Jacob Sullivan and the drum-machine, with guest string players. Featuring many of the leading gothic rock/third wave and ethereal bands of the era, including Corpus Delicti, Clan of Xymox, Subterfuge, Eden, This Ascension, Jerusalem Syndrome, Inkubus Sukkubus and Shinjuku Thief among others, ‘Eternal Chapters’ remains a fantastic snapshot of both the Australasian and international scene c. 1997, marred only by the fact that the collection didn't see the light of day until 2003.  

From 2004-2005, Michel served as bassist for glam/punk/goth/rock band Rose Petals And Confetti, while also collaborating with Auckland-based artists Paul Blanchard (of Hog Haul Valentine, Canis and Hieronymus Bosch) and Justine Sharp (Pulchritude, DiS, Flinch) on a series of experimental and largely improvised recordings under the banner of Black Virgin Milk. More an excuse for a whiskey-soaked sing-song with friends than anything else, work with Blanchard and Sharp nevertheless inspired the direction of several new Disjecta Membra songs, first performed with a short-lived Hamilton-based lineup featuring local stalwarts Stan Jagger (guitar), Paul Oakley (bass) and Paul Tregilgas (drums). This version of Disjecta Membra existed for a handful of shows in 2005, before Michel returned to work with Wellington-based musicians including Matthew, Russell and Jaz, among others.

The period between 2007 and 2009 saw Disjecta Membra begin to consolidate what has become the current line-up of the group: Michel (vocals, guitar, misc.), Matthew Scott (guitars, keyboards), Kane Davey (lead guitars), Isobel (Izzy) White (bass guitar) and Dan Smart (drums, samples). In the twenty-year history of the band, this has become the most stable and enduring of all incarnations to date, but ironically, came together from a decision to abandon any notion of a unified ‘band’, and instead draw on a vast, sprawling collective of floating members. As such, Russell Dench, Vivian Stewart, Jaz Murphy and Jason Just all continued to make appearances during this time, while several others drifted in and out of the frame. Typically fluctuating between a 5 to 7-piece live group, one Wellington show in 2007 on a double bill with Distorture (Jason Just and Kane Davey) featured no less than ten performing members.

Despite such an extensive cast of players, it was a comparatively streamlined Disjecta Membra, comprised of Michel, Matthew and the erstwhile Deus ex Machina, which made the band’s recorded contribution to the ‘She’s Lost’ digital compilation album. Billed as “an underground New Zealand music recovery expedition”, ‘She’s Lost’ was in effect a tribute album, released as a free download for New Zealand Music Month in May 2007. Coordinated by The Mercy Cage’s Josh Wood and Michel for Mediatrix, the album brought together ‘dark’ underground New Zealand artists to record cover versions of their favourite New Zealand songs. Disjecta Membra’s offering – their first new recording in many years – was an epic re-imagining of Th’ Dudes new wave classic ‘Walking In Light’, from 1979.

Although the band gigged around New Zealand from 2007-2009, in another life as a tribal historian, Michel’s cultural, personal and professional commitments to his great-grandmother’s iwi (Māori tribe), Ngāti Tai (alias Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki), meant that all and any personal endeavours outside of those responsibilities were on hold from 2010-2013. Michel also became father to a son, Eden, in July 2013.

Current activities: 2013-2014:

2013 saw the ‘expanded digital edition’ of the much sought-after ‘Achromaticia album made available online, which was met with glowing reviews and universally positive response. Out of print for more than a decade, copies of the original Heartland Records CD release have been known to sell on eBay for in excess of $US100. As of May 2014, talks are currently underway with potential labels for the re-issue of a special CD edition of the album.

Disjecta Membra ended the year on a celebratory note by supporting legendary Bauhaus front man Peter Murphy on the New Zealand leg of his Mr. Moonlight World Tour, culminating in a jubilant final show at notorious Wellington venue Bodega. Heralding their return to the stage amidst a flurry of media attention, and to mark the 20th Anniversary of Disjecta Membra’s formation, in December 2013 a special ‘single edit’ preview version of ‘Death by Discothèque’ was released as a free internet single, backed with an exclusive remix from world renowned electro-industrial synth-pop giants, Leæther Strip. Engineered by one-time guitarist Vivian Stewart, and Troy Kelly of Wellington’s STL Audio, the single was mixed and produced by Raymond Ross, the prime mover behind South African gothic rock band Ankst and Auckland-based electronic side-project Sine Division. The exclusive Ankst remix of ‘Death by Discothèque’ also features on the forthcoming (July 2014) ‘This Is Gothic Rock’ compilation from Finland’s Gothic Music Records, while a Sine Division spin on the track is also slated for a compilation release.

Since December 2013, the band has been reunited with Dave Lowndes, original producer of the ‘Theta Sessions’ and ‘Achromaticia, with whom they are currently working on new material. The full-length ‘extended version’ of the Death by Discothèquesingle, this time mixed and produced by Lowndes, along with new remixes from New Zealand’s The Mercy Cage, Attrition UK, and Non Op Trans (the side-project of North American Goth DJ, Kitty Lectro) will appear as a 12” vinyl EP to coincide with the release of ‘This Is Gothic Rock’.

In March 2014 the band re-entered the recording studio to resume work on a larger body of new material, and the following month, Michel confirmed a deal with Gothic Music Records that will see the launch of the retrospective compilation, ‘Through the Years: scattered fragments 1995-2014’ (GMR 012) in October/November 2014.

Taking its title from a line in the song ‘Danse Macabre’, ‘Through the Years’ is a 51-track collection spanning three volumes, combining both CD and download formats. ‘Volume I’ represents a ‘Best of’ CD, compiling highlights from Disjecta Membra’s studio recordings from 1995-present. The CD includes tracks from the ‘Theta Sessions’, ‘Achromaticia’, out-takes from the unreleased ‘Sibylline Leaves’ album, promotional singles and compilation tracks, and brand new studio recordings from 2014. ‘Through the Years’ Volumes II and III will appear as bonus digital albums, bringing together an array of previously unreleased demos, live performances, cover versions and other rarities from the same period.

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