“My name’s Ivan. My occupation…”
There’s a distinct appeal to your biographical/confessional style of songwriting, largely due to the allure of its conversational tone. It catches your attention and it’s meant to. It would be bad manners at this point to just get up and walk away after someone has made an introduction. That technique is as good a hook for a song as any, and moreover, it’s genuine and lends an element of pathos, whether fictional or real. Suzanne Vega knows what I’m talking about, Eminem and Weezer to a lesser degree, and so too, New Zealand’s Headless Chickens.
“Gaskrankinstation” could almost be a taped conversation set to music, if it weren’t for the comedic undertones that make Ivan sound like more of a twisted caricature than a real person. I like him though. He’s friendly enough. Seems like a decent guy on the outside, the kind of guy you’d have a beer with down the pub. It’s easy to get reeled in by his tormented monologue that falls out seemingly unprovoked, and over that dramatic dun-da-dun-dun-DUN-DUN beat and mechanical groaning, you realise what an unbalanced man he is. He takes pride in his job, boasting “those cars wouldn’t go very far without me” but then as quickly as he puffs out that chest, it’s all gone seconds later when he speaks of his wife belittling him . The next time she’s mentioned he’s mimicking her with a grim (and quickly regretted) threat of violence.
As the song progresses you feel the cracks in Ivan widen and the desperation coming through. The video clip that accompanies this song is essential viewing. You watch Ivan as he goes about his job, filling up cars, wiping down windscreens and talking about his life, cackling insanely about his two friends (“They’re both called Dave and they don’t know how to behave…”) and his poor wife who just wants more than this. The lyrics are as potent as they are nightmarish and disturbing. The breakdown in the middle, where the synth and sequencer backing turns into a climactic barrage of guitars and drums becomes deafening as you feel Ivan fighting with the voices in his head. As a side note, two members of my family actually worked in petrol stations in the ’70s (but thankfully bore no resemblance to Ivan). They cranked the gas, filled the pumps, worked the nights and came home stinking of petrol. One of my early toys as a kid was a wooden, hand-made, hand-painted Shell petrol station with pumps and everything. No wonder I identified with this song on some level. I was filling my own cars at the same time I was learning how to walk.
It’s easy to find Ivan a pretty loathsome person, but you can’t help to sympathise. He‘s trapped in a consumer-driven world where for our ends rarely match our means and there’s an ever-widening gap between them. The irony isn’t lost that Ivan doesn’t drive (“When I walk home from work” — which, yes, is an assumption on my part), yet he has two televisions and the wife is pressuring him for a child. When he suggests “Maybe I’ll take up the piano again” you know he’s grasping at straws, and the heavy sarcasm of “most of the time everything is just swell around here” is funny but fools nobody, least of all Ivan. It’s already assumed, long before he relates the vision “and my head is looking down from the edge of the brink. That’s my body…” that this is the prelude to a suicide or worse. But as the song builds up to that screaming crescendo, Ivan is a near frenzy, shouting “As long as my heart keeps pumping/I guess I’ll just keep pumping gas” but pairs this with an existential moment whilst passing a church (“I wonder whether there is a god?”) and the repeated phrase “I look but I don’t see anybody in there” doesn’t bode well. The song might seem like it’s of limited relevance to most people, but it’s as interchangeable with any occupation you could think of, and part of me believes this song would be hilarious if it wasn’t bursting with moral dilemma.
Released in 1990, “Gaskrankinstation” was the last single from the Headless Chickens before the addition of vocalist Fiona McDonald. Formed in 1985, the band were signed to the highly regarded Flying Nun label, releasing their first EP in 1986, and a further 3 albums and close to a dozen singles between 1986 and 1998, culminating in a number 1 hit in New Zealand with “George” in 1994 taken from their third album Greedy. Initially sounding like a cross between Suicide and Severed Heads, Headless Chickens opted for an experimental electronic/avant rock approach to making music and used synthesizers and samples to full effect. After their debut album Stunt Clown in 1988, “Gaskrankinstation” would be seen as the mid-way point in their career before the band evolved into a more creatively and commercially successful entity in a time where the dance music/sample culture was at its peak. The core of the band at the time of “Gaskrankinstation” was Chris Matthews (Vocals/Guitar/Keyboards), Michael Lawry (Keyboards/Samples), Grant Fell (Bass) and Bevan Sweeney (Drums).
After an absence of over a decade, the Headless Chickens recently reformed for a few dates in New Zealand and Australia. Realising that this was a good time to reengage with the band, Webcuts spoke with Chris Matthews, chief-Chicken and songwriter of “Gaskrankinstation” to give some background and insight into the song and the history of the band.
Where did “Gaskrankinstation” come from? The title, Ivan, the music? What was your inspiration? I loved the fact that he spent all day pumping gas, but didn’t even drive.
The whole song, musically, evolved from the marimba line which I wrote on Michael Lawry’s sampler. It reminded me of the TV themes from wildlife shows I used to watch when I was a kid, because the marimba is an African xylophone, and they always seemed to use them in shows from the ’70s. The rest of the music was designed to just build the song up to its climax from a quietish beginning and then go back to the quiet ending.
I don’t know where the words came from. Out of my head, obviously, but I wrote them all out in one go and never changed anything afterward which was unusual for me.
There was a strange phenomena in Australia when we originally played that song live there in the early ’90s, which was for guys to come up to me after just about every gig and tell me in the most enthusiastic way that they loved that song because they themselves were Ivan and they identified so strongly with him. Which obviously, if you listen to the words, is a bit weird ‘cos Ivan’s not necessarily a very nice bloke — it always made me think of Dennis Hopper insisting to David Lynch that he had to play the sociopathic Frank Booth in Lynch’s Blue Velvet because he himself actually was Frank. Maybe Ivan’s not quite as crazy as Frank but it certainly made me wonder about the sort of Aussie guys who were coming along to our shows back then.
And how do you know Ivan didn’t drive a car? He only walked home from work.
Gaskrankinstation is the German word for a gas chamber that the Nazis used to kill the Jews in the death camps in the Second World War. Make of that what you will.
The video clip was played constantly on music TV in Australia in the early ’90s. It’s gotten to the point now where I can’t disassociate the song with the clip. What can you remember about the making of the video?
We asked some guy who owned a gas station out in South Auckland if he’d let us film it there one night, after he’d closed for the evening, and he said yes, so we rounded up a bunch of mates, organised the evening’s shoot and went to work. I think it took us about seven or eight hours to film most of the stuff at the gas station and then we shot the scenes at the end of the video, of Ivan watching TV, on a different day.
What was the general reaction to Gaskrankinstation? Did it become something of a cult song for the band in the way that I imagined it to be at the time?
Some people liked it, I guess. And, yes, it did become a cult song which is because not everybody liked it, heh heh.
Gaskrankinstation was released as a stand-alone single in 1990, but by the time it appeared on an album a year later, the band, and the sound, had changed quite significantly. What were the circumstances that lead up to Fiona joining the band? Did you see it as a natural progression or just an experiment?
Both a natural progression and an experiment; they go together, really. I’d known Fiona for a few years before she came to sing on Body Blow and then joined the band, but it just so happened that she’d come back to Auckland from a couple of years of living in Sydney and I saw her singing live with another band (N.R.A.) and was reminded again of what a great singer she was and asked her to sing on “Cruise Control”. It went from there. Initially, we just asked her to come and sing on a couple of songs but then it seemed like a good idea to ask her to join. Because of fiona, our audience demographic went from about 75% male/25% female to about 50/50 in the space of a few months, which was pretty cool.
It worked out well for the band though, didn’t it? Success and fame and all that entails?
Unfortunately in New Zealand, success and fame don’t equal getting rich or even necessarily making a living out of music, which we didn’t, but the band just kept going nonetheless. I’ve never really understood the whole wanting-to-be-famous thing, though, or male musicians who will tell you that they only started playing in a band because they wanted to meet girls: the only reason that I ever wanted to play music was because I wanted to play music. Everything else is incidental.
You were the only band in the Flying Nun roster to have a number 1 song. Is that something to still feel smug about? As a band you were quite different from the “Flying Nun sound”, almost in complete opposite of it. Did you consider yourselves a part of that scene at all?
Let’s get this straight: the “Flying Nun sound” is not just the sound of the early Dunedin jangle-pop bands, if that’s what you mean. It was a very diverse range of different-sounding bands from the day that Roger Shepherd started the label. The first single ever released by Flying Nun was by the Pin Group who were a bunch of Joy Division-ists from Christchurch, and it was the early Christchurch bands like them, the Victor Dimisich Band, Scorched Earth Policy, and The Bilders etc, who defined a lot of the original Flying Nun sound for me, which was basically the ’70s Krautrock/Punk ethos fused with ’60s Psychedelic/Garage Rock. We, initially as Children’s Hour, came out of that same early ’80s post-punk scene, even though we were from Auckland, and the Headless Chickens was a logical extension of that same fertile environment that spawned bands like Fetus Productions, N.R.A., and Skeptics, and they were the bands who were our peers (amongst quite a few others) and who were experimenting with musical genres and instruments beyond just the standard bass/drums/guitars lineup, so i don’t think we ever felt out of place at all on Flying Nun.
And, yes, of course we were part of that scene: most of the various members of the Headless Chickens over the years all came from bands who were on the Flying Nun label right from the beginning, and consequently we knew just about everybody else in all the other Flying Nun bands personally. It was a very tight little scene for about the first ten years and most of the bands during that time would often stay at each other’s places in other cities when they were touring, for example, rather than motels. I think we, as a band, grew further away from the Flying Nun ethic as we developed and began to embrace dance music more in the early ’90s, and we certainly were the most commercially successful of all the bands, but The Chills, The Clean, The Straitjacket Fits and a few others all had quite a lot of chart success in New Zealand. I don’t think we ever felt smug about having a number one single, but then we’d already had five other singles in the N.Z. top ten so it seemed like a logical conclusion at the time.
Now, you just reformed recently for shows in Australia and New Zealand. How did that go down? Enjoy playing the old stuff again? Did it feel there was life in the old Headless Chicken yet?
I think most of the people who came to see us enjoyed it, judging by the audience response. I enjoyed a lot of it and some of it I didn’t enjoy at all, but I definitely enjoyed playing the songs again, as always. We didn’t really make any money out of it, once again, and I’m not sure that the often-tenuous relationship between former bandmates can stand the strain of doing this chicken-shit thing without any fiscal reward, so I’m guessing that’s pretty much it for now.
Finally, just out of curiosity, what do you think ever happened to Ivan?
He went back to living in my head; after all, I did subconsciously name my currently seven year old cat, Ed, and it took me about a year to realise why…