A Pilgrims Progress – by Kiran Dass

Real Groove Issue 154 – November 2006

Auckland’s Alleluya Noise Festival in May feautured the usual suspects of the K’ Road experimental outsider music scene; Dean Roberts, Guy Treadgold, Nigel Wright and Sam Hanilton were there, with a mix of noisy guitars, laptops and drones. Sometimes it was ‘borderline music’ but it was always potent, engaging, challenging and fun.

It seemed mildly surprising that Auckland’s Simon Comber was on the line-up. Devoid of a laptop or improvised noise, Comber is simply a performer who employs gentle guitar, voice, and, gasp, actual song-songs. You can call him a singer/songwriter.

“It actually doesn’t surprise me. Those guys are sympathetic to the abbreviated, short nature of my songs, and the fact that I’m not desperately trying to obscure my own accent or sound ‘trained,’” muses Comber. His album Pre-Pill Love is a sweet collection of stripped back songs which emphasise his vocals and lyrics. While the tone is largely wistful (lots of “we used to’s”) they also have an odd brightness. Circles is sparse but coloured with striking flourishes, and Sunday Horrors has a haunting malaise. The thing that makes Pre-Pill Love stand apart from being just another dry singer/songwriter album is Comber’s style. He has a non-singers singing voice, and his guitar playing is considered, yet sometimes fumbly, in a charming way that keeps you engaged. With its befuddling lyric “when I’m inside you I wonder if i’ll ever get there,” Carrion makes the listener realise just how immediate and to the fore Comber’s vocals are.

”I was listening to Neutral Milk Hotel when I was writing Carrion. I loved how Jeff Mangum mixes surrealism with the kind of blunt physicality that might make the listener uncomfortable. Needless to say some of my friends have a hard time listening to the line you mention,” he laughs.

A love of Flying Nun and Xpressway artists saw Comber travel to the South Island. A pilgrimage of sorts?

”I imagine David Kilgour or Alastair Galbraith finding the notion of a pilgrimage to see them laughable, or even abhorrent. But I can’t deny it was a special trip for me. I went walking around the graveyards out at Port Chalmers, I read the old inscriptions on tombstones of drowned sailors and I went to the Hocken Library and dubbed myself a copy of Galbraith’s Hurry On Down Xpressway cassette. I covered all the bases!”

Following this, Comber studied for his diploma in music at Otago University, under the watchful eye of ex-Verlaine Graeme Downes. What was initially going to be a minimal, lo-fi album recorded DIY on an 8-Track, ended up a far grander affair after Mike Chunn heard some of Comber’s tracks and liked them so much he arranged for Comber to record at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios with assistance from other musicians.

”I was planning to just play most things myself. Maybe get a drummer for one or two of the songs, or just do it myself Mo Tucker styles. But then Ed Cake came on board and he hooked me up with a drummer and suddenly I had a rhythm section.”

Comber acknowledges that recording at Roundhead lifted limitations imposed by 8-track recording and enabled him to include nord synth lines and chamberlain arrangements. The album also has a unique fidelity in that the rhythm sections were recorded with the tape running half-speed so you can occasionally hear tape hiss, making it noisier than your average Pro-Tools recording.

Clocking in at just under half an hour, Pre-Pill Love is a precise and articulate album that refreshingly says its piece and gets the hell out. The brevity of Combers songs can be partially attributed to chronic pain syndrome, making performing live difficult. Rather than worrying about what the audience thinks of his songs, Comber frets more about whether his arms will hold up for the show or what he’ll do if a string breaks.

”And it means epic instrumentals are out of the question, and epic practices too! It’s forced me to become a more concise lyricist. It’s frustrating but I’m starting to see it as a good excuse to play less orthodox. A lot of great stuff comes from limitations. I can’t tell you how inspired I was when I discovered Derek Bailey (avant-garde composer) had an album called Carpel Tunnel, where he was exploring new ways of playing with physical limitations,” says Comber.

”Not to say my next album is gonna be atonal clusters or anything, though!”