From busking in Christchurch's Cashel Mall to four number-one albums, James Reid and Hamish Gee from The Feelers reflect on 25 years as one of New Zealand's most successful bands.
The band begin their 25th Anniversay Tour in Timaru on Saturday, June 30. Skip to full tour details.
Hamish: There were a bunch of friends from my school Christchurch Boys High and from James’ school Christ’s College and that’s how we met, friends of friends.
James: “We ended up busking down on Cashel Mall in Christchurch. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, a whole bunch of adult-friendly stuff, because that was what I'd grown up with. A bit of Aussie Crawl, Cat Stevens, lots of Bob Marley.”
Hamish: “You were just targeting people’s wallets, really,” (laughing).
And The Feelers were born – a band that would go on to dominate radio airwaves for much of the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
Hamish: “Over the course of time, things whittled down to those of us who were taking it perhaps more seriously than others and we ended up getting a residency at a venue called Warner’s Hotel in Christchurch.
“That was a huge milestone for us because we revered all the bands that had played there.”
The group – who were already calling themselves The Feelers – added bass player Matt Thomas and were still playing a lot of covers at this point.
As time went on, they gradually started introducing originals.
A homemade demo of ‘Space Cadet’ found its way on to student radio playlists and attracted the attention of Warner Music, who signed them in 1997.
Between 1998 and 2008 the band produced four number-one albums, toured all over the world and won more awards than they can even remember themselves.
But from the beginning, they were wary of just how real it all was.
Hamish: “I remember our first album (Supersystem) going to number one and everyone thinking that was a big milestone but I remember being almost pessimistic just thinking 'Yeah, well how long is that going to last for?' I didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves.
“But my mother has put all these plaques and posters and awards on the wall at home. The one that I’m most proud of is a RIANZ chart showing that Supersystem spent 54 weeks in the Top 50. I thought to myself at the time, there is validation that people might actually like our music if it spent that long in the charts.”
Helping its success in the charts was the slick production of Malcolm Welsford which meshed well with the current international music being heard on radio.
Hamish: “I didn’t mind that the production of the album was very high-quality, I was happy with all of that. Not to sound arrogant, but I think after us a lot of other record companies signed bands that they thought might be able to make them money.
“I mean, I love the Flying Nun scene and all of that underground part of Kiwi culture, but I think there was something lacking. I think we did need up-and-coming musicians to see that there could be a career in music, too. You can sound international and you can make money from it.”
James: “We tuned our guitars. We could tune our guitars, that was the difference.”
Supersystem was the second biggest selling album of 1998 (it was bested by The BeeGees' One Night Stand) and the year after won Album of the Year, Song Writer of the Year (James Reid), Band of the Year, and Producer of the Year (The Feelers and Malcolm Welsford) at the New Zealand Music Awards.
They were also awarded the Most Played Song on New Zealand Radio two years running, with 'Supersystem' in 1998 and 'Venus' in 1999.
It was a big breakthrough at a time when New Zealand music was only just gaining traction on radio.
The Feelers were everywhere.
But such omnipresence in a small country like New Zealand can lead to overexposure.
You’re either part of the counterculture or you’re part of the mainstream, which in some people’s eyes makes you deeply uncool.
James: “We did notice it a little bit due to the fact that some radio stations stopped playing us.”
Hamish: “We weren’t cool anymore, we were in the mainstream. When we started I think we thought we were quite alternative. We really thought we were.”
James: “It’s like the Pixies, for example. They’re still cool even though they’ve become popular, but they’ve still got that [credibility]. It was [the movie] Fight Club that revived them again. Things like that I think are interesting.”
Hamish: “Luckily for them, they didn’t go platinum until 21 years after beginning to release music. They had 20 years of being cool.”
25 years on and things have come full circle for The Feelers. They began busking songs from their parents' collection and now every year they play Wellington’s Homegrown Festival their audience get younger and younger but still know all the words.
Hamish: There’s a second generation coming through who know the songs because their parents listened to them.
James: I suppose that’s just like we were busking down in Cashel Mall singing songs our parents liked.
To celebrate their 25th anniversary The Feelers are heading off on an extensive nationwide tour.
With so many road miles already under their belts, stories of their rock and roll behaviour, party lifestyle and excess precede them. This is something they are keen to downplay.
James: “Mostly rumour. A lot of it is inflated because people want to inflate it. Hamish describes it as not being able to let the truth get in the way of a good story. And people tend to exaggerate a lot of things.”
Hamish: “It’s an interesting one. If you have a bad day sound engineer-wise or if there’s problems with the gear people immediately assume that it’s the band, that the band are having an off day.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of shows we’ve done where perhaps we may have been lacklustre.
“It’s weird, we were talking about this recently – it’s always been very acceptable in the music industry to drink and do your job and … that’s actually quite odd. I teach music and I don’t usually drink and do that job. That would be unacceptable. We’re a bit more mature in respect to things like that these days.”
- Saturday, 30th June - Catherine Bay Hall Timaru
- Sunday, 1st July - Blue Pub Methven
- Wednesday, 4th July - Bullock Bar Wanaka
- Thursday, 5th July - Tillermans Invercargill
- Friday, 6th July - Cossie Club Oamaru
- Saturday, 7th July - The Foundry Christchurch
- Thursday, 12th July - Cossie Club Upper Hutt
- Friday, 13th July - The Royal Palmerston North
- Saturday, 14th July - The Mayfair New Plymouth
- Thursday, 19th July - The Cossie Club Manurewa
- Friday, 20th July - The Butter Factory Whangarei
- Saturday, 21st July - Totara St Mt Maunganui
- Friday, 27th July - Howick Club Howick
- Saturday, 28th July - The Brownzy Browns Bay
- Friday, 3rd Aug - Bev Ridges on York Napier
- Saturday, 4th Aug - Tokoroa Club Tokoroa
- Saturday 11th Aug, Jac’s Bar Whangaparoa