The 3Ds David Saunders: ?I?m No Jack Johnson
What’s a Flying Nun tribute night without some alumni? To rectify this, David Saunders of the legendary 3Ds has been flown in for a rare solo performance in Melbourne tonight. He talks to REN? SCHAEFER about the band’s 2009 reunion, a new album and a possible Australian tour.
Formed in Dunedin in 1988, 3Ds were part of the second wave of Flying Nun bands, which built on the legacy of classic acts such as The Pin Group, The Clean, The Verlaines and Sneaky Feelings. Guitarist and songwriter David Saunders initially started jamming with ex-Look Blue Go Purple bassist Denise Roughan and Bird Nest Roys drummer Dominic Stones. Naming themselves after the fact that all three members? names started with the same initial, it was a fortuitous coincidence when guitarist David Mitchell (Goblin Mix, Exploding Budgies) became the 4th D.
Apart from Straightjacket Fits and Bailterspace, 3Ds became the most visible and internationally feted bands of all the Flying Nun-associated bands in the 1990s. They [supported Nirvana](/articles/4335423) on the NZ leg of their 1992 tour, were talked up by the UK music press, appeared at the Big Day Out in 1995, and played with the likes of Guided By Voices, Pavement and Superchunk across America. Hell, they were even invited to play with U2 when they brought their bombastic ?Zoo TV? spectacle to NZ.
In their initial nine years of existence, they released a swag of classic singles, EPs, compilations and three albums that showcased their often startlingly incongruous mix of sweet pop, menacing guitar noise and surreal lyricism. David Mitchell’s intricately apocalyptic cover illustrations, which recall Albrecht Durer and Breughel, completed the package, emphasising a peculiar unease and wrongness that lies at the heart of 3Ds? aesthetic.
Despite being loved and acclaimed, 3Ds decided to call it quits in 1997, following the release of the album Strange News From The Angels. Mitchell and Roughan moved to the UK and formed a new band, Ghost Club. And this was where the story seemingly ended until 2009, when 3Ds were coaxed out of retirement to take part in the 20th anniversary celebrations of Merge Records, the label which released their second album The Venus Trail (1993) in America. Further encouragement to continue playing together came from their old mates Pavement, who insisted the band perform at the 2010 All Tomorrows Parties festival in the UK, which they were curating.
A short warm-up tour of NZ proved that 3Ds had lost none of their manic energy and pop smarts. Having nothing to prove, they rediscovered the joy of being a unit again. Not soon after, Flying Nun re-released the band’s back catalogue, including their debut album Hellzapoppin? (1992) and a fine collection of early demos and songs that appeared on long-out-of-print EPs.
While it looks like 3Ds are open to further live appearances, at least in theory, Saunders? lightning visit will be the closest Australians will come to hearing any of their songs performed for the time being, as the he explained when M+N caught up with him via email a few days ago.
Your inclusion on the bill of the Flying Nun 30th anniversary tribute show at Melbourne’s Workers Club came as quite a surprise. How did that come about?
Ever since we got back together we have been offered tours and shows in Australia. But sadly, for one reason or another we couldn’t quite get there. Living all over the place, life kinda got in the way. So as the 3Ds don’t have any plans, and because I was asked, I decided the right thing to do was to come to the show in Melbourne and play a few songs. It was surprisingly easy to set up to be honest, such nice people. Adam Yee and Nicci Reid have been really helpful. Touring in Australia is always a joy. I’m really looking forward to it.
Even though you will be just 1D, will you be performing mostly 3Ds songs, or have you got a separate repertoire of solo material?
I’m going to play a number of 3Ds songs, a few of my songs, and several really choice Flying Nun covers. I’ve only played unaccompanied once before, and at that show a guy just walked up on stage after a few songs and started playing drums. It was perfect! So, I’ve decided to get some friends to help this time. I’m still working it out, but there will be some great players on board and you know, it’s a party right? I’ll be playing several songs that didn’t ever get played live. There will be a few surprises. It’s not going to be 3Ds-by-numbers at all.
One of the most striking things about 3Ds is the juxtaposition of melodic pop songs and wildly out of control guitar noise. How did you first work out that both these elements could be combined?
Well, I guess a lot of that comes from having two guitars. And David Mitchell! What David and I play on guitar often seems almost unrelated. When we record and we can play the guitar tracks separately, they often sound like different songs, but when you lay them together they work, they fit. We always set out to write pop songs but they had to be damaged in some way. Maybe even deliberately wrong in some cases; wrong but catchy.
It seems like each member of the group is completely indispensable to its sound. You also have three songwriters with very distinctive styles – just like The Beatles. Does that make for a happy band environment, or are there sometimes artistic tensions?
Its been ages since we really spent a lot of time together, but we get along very well. Like a lot of bands, there were times when we tried to do too much. We were friends before we started the band, so we were happy most of the time. Playing together recently was a lot of fun. I think we are all a bit past spending 12 hours a day in a van though.
The 1990s must have been a heady time for the band. Still, you decided to call it quits in 1997. What prompted the band’s dissolution?
Yeah it was [heady]. We had a pretty charmed life for a while, but by 1997 I guess we had done all we really set out to do. We never imagined we would go as far as we did. For me, playing CBGB’s [in New York] was about the pinnacle of my aspirations and it started to feel like we were going to imitate ourselves. So we just stopped, there were no ?words? or a big argument, we just ended a tour and didn’t book any more shows. I mean, if its not fun, why do it? We had worked pretty hard and we needed a break. That’s all it really was. It wasn’t a great time to be in a rock band then either. Then Dave M and Denise moved to London, so it was time to do other stuff.
The 3Ds reformed in 2009, after a hiatus of 12 years, to take part in Merge Records? 20th anniversary celebrations. What was it about this occasion that made the four of you decide that you would like to play together again?
Well, we had a close relationship with Superchunk right from the early days. We did a lot with them. Merge was Mac and Laura’s tiny wee label, back when we signed with them. So it was almost like a family celebration, sort of. A bit like Pavement’s ATP too. I think in fact our long time booking agent in the States, Jim Romeo, was the one who set it all up for us. He really made it happen. Organisation was never one of our strong points. It’s the same people we worked with in the ?90s who we work with now, so it was really nice to see everyone again. Especially as they are all doing so well. It was the best time ever.
I was [lucky enough to see 3Ds play last year in Christchurch](/articles/3895070), as a warm-up for your ATP appearance. It certainly sounded like the band had lost none of its drive and energy. Did it feel good to be making a racket together again?
Really? Oh man, I thought that was a pretty bumpy show. It was a bloody racket though. We played pretty well at all the shows, I think. I know we all had a grand time playing that night. I don’t think we had many bad shows ever. Maybe one or two, but that was usually due to being ripped off by a promoter, never because we weren’t enjoying playing.
Do you ever crack up laughing on stage when you look over to see David Mitchell crawling around on the floor, making love to his wah wah pedal?
I’m constantly astonished by what David M does with his guitar. He is a force! Except in the practice room. He’s almost banned from making any extraneous noises there. He can reduce you to tears and we’ve listened to those riffs for years. There is no one quite like him, right? He really does a lot more than just pluck, that’s for sure. He is probably my favourite guitarist ever. He was certainly my biggest influence as a youngster.
There has been a general resurgence of interest in Flying Nun Records with Roger Shepherd back at the helm. With your back catalogue being re-issued, will you be writing and recording new songs for the label?
I’m actually about to start recording an album. I’ve been writing stuff for about the last year and think I’ve got enough to make something worthwhile. Hopefully it will come out on Flying Nun. It’s an exciting time, and you know, I come from the slackest generation of all time, so it has taken me a long time to get it done. It is underway now, so next year you can expect a new band from me. We will tour, that’s a definite.
Of all the 3Ds songs, do you have any particular favourites?
This week it’s ?Spooky?, ?The Golden Grove? and ?The Young & The Restless?. I will always love ?Beautiful Things?. There are a number of cover versions on YouTube. Thee Quasi did an amazing cover of it, which I really like.
There are quite a lot of younger musicians in Australia, who have been inspired by the sounds that were associated with Flying Nun and the Xpressway label. Is this also the case in New Zealand? Is there much of a dialogue between old and new scenes?
Absolutely. I was really stunned by how young some of our fans were. I mean there are 15 year olds who like us. They weren’t living when we were playing these songs. It’s awesome that they are into it. I go and see lots of bands here. I saw a high school band play a Gun Club song a few weeks ago. There is a really healthy scene here; a lot of shows sell out. One of the young bands we had on tour with us, Street Chant, is now on tour in the US with the Lemonheads, so we do keep in touch and do what we can to help.
At the Workers Club I’m playing with some guys in a Melbourne band, ZOND. They are going to help me play some songs I need a bit of help on. It’s great to play with people from different scenes and I hate playing solo. I’m no Jack Johnson. And I have some surprise guest guitarists that should make for a really great show. It’ll probably be a bit rough, but that is a large part of the 3Ds philosophy. Mistakes add character.
A lot of NZ musicians who emerged in the 1980s are still very active in creating music now. Have you got any theories why this is the case in your country?
I guess nearly all of us started playing music for our own enjoyment. That’s why we did it. It’s why we still do it now. No matter how hard I try to stop playing, it never feels right unless I’m working on something.
Finally, the question that everybody is dying to know – when are 3Ds going to tour Australia?
I wish I could be very un-3D-like and give you a date, but really I have no idea. I hope sooner rather than later, but it’s unlikely going to be 2012. I didn’t think we would do any shows again at all, so who knows what might happen. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know for sure. Really, this is why I’m coming to Melbourne. 1D is better than 0D right?
####The 3Ds David Saunders plays the Workers Club in Melbourne tonight (November 18) as part of a Flying Nun tribute. Details [here](/news/4354621).