Radio Control holds Manawatu Music Memories

Old tapes roll for the record

Catching up with the man archiving the city’s musical history

One year ago a Palmerston North man began the process of archiving the city’s musical history. Jono Galuszka catches up with him to see how his ears are holding up.

DISCOVERING HISTORY: No man is happier than James Lissette at the controls of his recording desk. Photo: WARWICK SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

The numbers on the digital audio tape player slowly rise as the machine winds away in the corner of a suburban Palmerston North studio. A 20-year-old tape labelled The Livids: Live to Air rolls, feeding music into the mixing desk. Tinny guitars, drums which sound like trashcans and what has to be the worst Robert Plant impersonation ever scream out of the speakers.

At the receiving end of the cacophony is James Lissette. With eyes as wide as his open-mouth grin, his hands hover over the desk before an index finger rests on the red volume slider.

He pushes it a little higher.

“A s… Led Zeppelin cover. Yeah, that sounds like The Livids.”

For the past year, Lissette has come home from work and given his dog dinner before heading to his studio and listening to recordings by bands like The Livids – all in the name of saving Manawatu music. While archiving all the music at student station Radio Control was not really Lissette’s idea, it was partly his idea to suggest it be digitally archived. And it was his idea to volunteer to do it for the station.

As a former manager of the radio station, Lissette had an idea of how much music was stashed there. But it was not until he packed it into boxes that he realised the true extent of the material. Hundreds of cassettes, vinyls, reel-to-reel tapes and CDs now litter his studio. Some are more than 30 years old, and the yellowing of the paper inserts shows how time is taking its toll.

But they are on their way to the safety that digital formats provide. For now, rap groups and punk bands snuggle side by side in bookcases or shelter underneath the mixing desk, all waiting their turn to play.

Radio Control manager David Stevens says the former manager of the station worked with Lissette to get the project started. He is excited about what could be uncovered.

“It will be a treasure chest when we get it back.

“There will definitely be some hidden gems in there.”

The sheer size of the task is not lost on him.

“It is ridiculous how much music there is.”

Lissette says it could take him a few more years to fully get through all the material, but for now the fun part is discovering the sometimes weird and wacky world of Manawatu music.

There is one tape of a solo artist who played through home-made electronic gear, receiving multiple electric shocks in the process, before dragging it all to a nearby car park and destroying it all.

Lissette says some of his favourite discoveries are tapes of a group called Crap. “Crap were fun because they were crap. They played through radio transistors and had rubbish gear, but that was them.”

It sounds like painful listening, but Lissette is enthusiastic about the weird and wonderful discoveries.

“People have said that all that stuff isn’t music, but I’m not the music censor. And, in fact, who are they to be the chief censor?

“It is all part of a representation of what was going on at the time.”

The project has had its difficulties, mostly because of the quality of the recordings.

The live-to-air broadcasts Radio Control recorded have posed the most problems, with some instruments not recorded, others captured badly and some tapes simply not working.

Some of the music is too bad to save – all it takes is one recording engineer to not be on their game, or a few too many drops of water on a tape, for something to be unarchiveable.

The Livids tape Lissette mixes is supposed to have bass guitar, but no sound comes out of the dedicated bass channel no matter how far towards 10 he turns the knobs.

He embarks on a game of musical Cluedo. Was the bass killed before it made it to the tape? Was anyone even playing bass? Or has the tape player finally gathered too much dust and given up the ghost?

Lissette says he knows someone was playing bass. The tape player stoically rolls the tape over.

Instead, the bass guitar was recorded on to the same channel as the bass drum.

When not tracking down rogue bass guitar tracks, he has been searching for the musicians who made the recordings.

If anyone can find them, it’s Lissette. He managed Palmerston North venue and recording studio The Stomach, ran a sound production company and now works as an instrument retailer.

Finding those people has set off joyful and shamed reactions, he says.

While some are ecstatic to be given music they recorded – often a reminder of a person they had largely forgotten about – others say no.

They appreciate the gesture, but want it left in that time.

Stevens says Radio Control will put the music into its ever-growing library of Manawatu music, which is used at least every Tuesday night for the station’s New Zealand on Air Local Show.

There are no solid plans for what will happen after then, but it could become a database for people researching Manawatu music or specific bands.

The Livids’ tape sounds like a new product after an hour in Lissette’s hands. The bass guitar punches through the drums, the guitars fill out the sound and a few other annoying sounds are edited out. The vocals are not pitch perfect – Lissette is not a miracle-worker after all – but now have some depth to their tone.

The digital audio tape player will roll away for many more nights, feeding Manawatu musical history into the speakers for Lissette to hear. And because he hears it, others soon can too.

James Lissette says he is always on the lookout for any music recorded in Manawatu to add to the archive. Email if you have anything to contribute.

– © Fairfax NZ News

© Manawatu Standard 08/05/2013
This material remains © Fairfax New Zealand Limited and is only to be used for non-commercial personal or research use. Any other use requires permission of the copyright holder.

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