The Dead C are longtime musical heroes of mine. The trio formed in Dunedin, New Zealand way back in 1986. Next to Harry Pussy, no band was as important to me when I was developing a taste for noise. Not just the Dead C as an entity, but the other bands/solo projects Michael Morley, Bruce Russell, and Robbie Yeats spawned — Gate, Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos, A Handful of Dust, etc. As I rambled about around the time of the release of Vain, Erudite, and Stupid: Selected Works 1987-2005, the band’s ramshackle, half-speed, and scary racket externalized what was teeming inside my teenage head, that since then “I’ve probably mentioned the band in more reviews than any other band, excepting the Sun City Girls.”
So all said, it’s good to have Michael Morley and Bruce Russell over for Quit Your Day Job this week: Russell works as a usability consultant and information architect and is Programme Leader in Information Design Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of technology. Morley, who works steadily as a practicing painter, is an Academic Leader in drawing at Otago Polytech. It’s also good to have a new Dead C album, Secret Earth. Additionally, Ba Da Bing teamed with Jagjaguwar to reissue two essential (and I mean that) ’80s Flying Nun albums Eusa Kills and DR503, both with additional material. For now, take a listen to Secret Earth’s “Mansions” after our discussion.
Michael Morley: vocals, guitar, laptop, etc.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been employed at Otago Polytech? And how long at your current position as Senior Lecturer/Academic Head of Drawing Dept.?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I have been here since 2000. I’ve been in my current position for one year.
STEREOGUM: Your research expertise is listed as “Contemporary Art. Drawing, painting, video, sound.” Do your students know about Dead C? The band’s included on your staff page under “performance,” so maybe?
MICHAEL MORLEY: Most of the students here have no idea what I do. They don’t read staff profiles, generally, and I am sure they are not impressed by any of it if they hear about it. There would be a small number of students who do know what I do — they understand the culture that we work and exist within and they want to contribute to that.
STEREOGUM: Curious: Do you view the band as an art project or a rock ‘n’ roll/noise band?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I’m not sure if we are a rock ‘n’ roll/noise band. I think we might be an art project that refers to rock ‘n’ roll and noise and sound. I think it is difficult for us to position ourselves within this whole genre game, though. It seems we are forever doomed to be in some intermediary space: We are not Americans, we aren’t part of that continuum. We are not Europeans, we are not part of that continuum. We are situated at the furthest point from anywhere else if you look at us from there. Excluded from both discussions by distance and time.
STEREOGUM: What’s your current course load? Or, what are some of the courses you teach? How many students on average?
MICHAEL MORLEY: The course load fluctuates over the year — 2-3 days of teaching, a day of research and a day of administration! I mostly teach drawing, helping senior students initiate drawing projects that might/hopefully may support and inform their studio papers. I also teach in Painting (I have been exhibiting drawing, prints, paintings for more than 20 years) and Electronic Arts (video, gaming, sound, and culture) from 60-10 people in the classes
STEREOGUM: Can you discuss some of the specifics of the courses?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I plan and deliver project drawing classes in the undergraduate program. This involves presenting the students with what I would call “open projects” in which they can develop a sense of what research is, and how drawing is an important part of that research, either through drawing out ideas as sketches etc, or having them develop themes through drawing and experimentation. At present i am developing a new course that examines our responses to the work of our distant ancestors, particularly “rock art drawings” in Te Wai Pounamu (the south island of New Zealand). There are a huge number of sites here and they are largely hidden to the casual observer. [We’re] trying to unravel potential meanings for the images: Are they drawings? Are they art? Are they examples of practical magic? The students research the importance of a visual language compared to a written language. We do not visit the sites because of their importance, but we can view images.
STEREOGUM: What can generally be found on your syllabus?
MICHAEL MORLEY: The syllabus is wide and varied, as interesting as we can hope to make it considering that there appear to be many restrictions upon us at present, mostly financial. We present information about current trends in practice and also offer an historical overview, highlighting the major events as we see it.
STEREOGUM: Have you noticed any particular trends amongst your current students?
MICHAEL MORLEY: Grumpiness, intolerance, lack of self reliance, and open hostility.
STEREOGUM: What sort of administration are you doing?
MICHAEL MORLEY: Running the Department, the assessments…
STEREOGUM: You have links to journal articles at your staff page. Two from 2004 and one, 2006. Have you been working on any more recent writing? What are you researching/studying these days?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I finished my MFA in 2007, that was the last bulk of writing … this was consolidated for the article in SCOPE. I have not been writing much, too sidetracked by reading, teaching, painting, music, and family. Mostly I look at paintings. I love them. Any chance I get I will wander a museum or gallery and become lost.
STEREOGUM: What are you reading?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I have been reading painting catalogs recently, too numerous to list. I don’t read fiction at present.
STEREOGUM: What painters are you currently admiring?
MICHAEL MORLEY: Ellsworth Kelly.
STEREOGUM: Longtime favorites?
MICHAEL MORLEY: Colin McCahon, Ralph Hotere, Agnes Martin, James Ensor, Rene Daniels, Francisco Goya, Eduoard Manet, Giovanni Intra … The list is huge, though.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you spend most of your time painting in the studio. Can I see some of your recent work? What’s the recent focus?
MICHAEL MORLEY: The recent focus is abstraction derived from objects that create sound. Not synaesthetic, more an intervention: Watercolours of guitar amplifiers are scanned and abstracted into crystalline shapes. These are then copied onto canvas with oil paint. This is achieved free hand, no tape, no guides, no rules, just the hand and the eye. They have a slightly wrong look about them … the photos do not do justice to their rough surfaces and incomplete sections of canvas. Sometimes they seem partial.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been talking recently to more musicians with long term jobs in higher education: For instance, Drew from Matmos or Matt Kadane from the New Year. Or, in my own experience, I studied with Tony Conrad in Buffalo. I realize some of the headier/experimentalism of say Matmos or Tony ties in well with academia, but what else? What attracted you to this path?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I was asked to come and teach at the art school. I was working at the University Of Otago, in their Design Department, teaching drawing. The art school needed a painting lecturer, and I was asked — it was a short term thing, I thought! Once here I just seemed to be offered more work, and then finally they decided I had better be full-time so they could take advantage of my research outputs for their own uses.
STEREOGUM: I remember getting Trapdoor Fucking Exit and Eusa Kills when I wasn’t old enough to legally drink. At this point, it seems your jobs/work really overlaps in good ways with your sound projects. What were some of your early jobs back when Dead C was starting?
MICHAEL MORLEY: I had no job when we started the band. I was painting, but only just. It was 1986/1987. This was a period of major unemployment in New Zealand. I was one of that great underclass. I finally did get a job, later in 1988, as a librarian and photo archivist for The New Zealand Herald — a major conservative paper in New Zealand — in Auckland, at the other end of the country from Port Chalmers. That shift was slightly disruptive to everything. It was an interesting experience.
STEREOGUM: You and Bruce were both archivists earlier on … Is that where you met?
MICHAEL MORLEY: We met at the University of Otago in 1982 or 1983. We were young students. I am not sure when exactly. I had seen him around the campus and he was always at shows that were on. The same goes for Robbie [Yeats]. It is a small town and weirdos stick out. We gravitated to the same social scene and listened to the same music. Bruce was a big supporter of my first band Wreck Small Speakers On Expensive Stereos.
You can see Michael’s art here and here. Also, as he notes, he had a new exhibition that opened at 64zero3 Gallery, Christchurch, New Zealand yesterday. He’s also in Sonic Youth, etc. : Sensational Fix, which opened at Museion in Bolzano, Italy a couple weeks ago.
Bruce Russell: guitar, tape loops, etc.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain what it means to be a “usability consultant” and an “information architect”? Maybe discuss via talking about some recent jobs? I went to your tech blog and read up on things a bit — figure it’ll be helpful to the readers to see how it works in practice rather than reading a job description, etc.
BRUCE RUSSELL: Usability or user experience refers to the process of ensuring that a product is able to be readily used by the audience for whom it is intended. In other words, in the case of a corporate website, it doesn’t only make the CEO and the marketing manager feel good, it also tells customers and shareholders what they need to know in sensible way. Surprisingly, this hardly ever happens without professional input. Part of this involves information architecture, which is grouping classes of information meaningfully as they relate to user tasks, and designing headings and menus that support them. So it’s ‘taxonomic’ usability.
STEREOGUM: I asked our tech guy Jim about what he knew re: Usability and he said, among other things: “I think it involves not just figuring out if a user interface makes sense/is intuitive but also making sure it works for people with bad eyesight/no eyesight/etc.” Is he right?
BRUCE RUSSELL: Sure, accessibility is important to people with disabilities, and its part of what we do, but there are set standards for that, which means that web designers can be made to do this themselves. User advocacy doesn’t have standards or rules that are set, its more an art form … that’s where the money is!
STEREOGUM: As far as common music sites — can you point out some websites you think are designed successfully? Which ones suck?
BRUCE RUSSELL: You know, I don’t use music sites much, and I have little opinion about them. One site I do use that is excellent is the UK Guardian newspaper — it’s cool. One bugbear with me is home pages that scroll down for miles with new stories just nailed on the end (or the top) — Pitchfork does this and I really question the wisdom of it. I think one problem music sites have is the same one record stores have — sorting content by musical genre. It really is impossible beyond the blindingly obvious such as “Bob Marley goes in reggae.” Marley defined reggae, so he’s easy to do! Is Sean Paul reggae? Or Massive Attack? You can’t win that one.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been involved with this line of work? I imagine it sprung up with the dawn of the computer age. What did you do previously? I asked Michael about this, too — curious about what sort of work you
did during the early days of the Dead C.
BRUCE RUSSELL: I’ve been doing this since 2003. Prior to that I was an archivist for 18 years, curating collections of historical documents. I ran the NZ public radio archive for five years.
STEREOGUM: Can you talk a bit about the archival work?
BRUCE RUSSELL: I started out working for the Presbyterian Church, actually. I worked in their theological seminary, in the library basement. I was the token atheist (they were quite a liberal outfit at that time). After that I worked for our National Archives, who have a regional office in Dunedin, where I was living, that mainly involved 19th century gold rush records, which was rather cool. Otago had a rush after California, in the 1860s. The radio archive job was the best, though the organization was quite chaotic. I had six staff and lots of cool equipment, and I acquired a lot of analog tape gear which I’ve been able to use on my own stuff. They were just giving away all the analog gear.
STEREOGUM: So you’re also the Program Leader In Information Design at Christchurch Polytech. How long have you been there? What’s the school like? What sort of course are you teaching? Average class size?
BRUCE RUSSELL: I teach online only, so it’s all done in discussion groups and PDF lectures. I like it. I’ve been here for three years … the Polytech is quite big, about 25,000 part time students, but I never see them! There’s a music school, and I’m in that building. Still hope to get some time with their students at some point.
STEREOGUM: Have you ever met any students in person?
BRUCE RUSSELL: I meet about one student a year in person, basically it’s all online. I talk on the phone a bit when I’m “selling” the course to get them to enroll. And sometimes I meet them to vet them, but usually that’s not possible because they do not all live in my town.
STEREOGUM: How does your teaching differ from your consulting? I imagine there being overlaps. The idea of information architecture and pedagogy, etc., for instance — making something understandable, comprehended.
BRUCE RUSSELL: Total overlap. I teach what I do professionally, which really helps both things.
STEREOGUM: I watched that Wired clip. Do you have to do these sorts of TV clips regularly? It’s pretty surreal. Are your co-workers aware of your work with the band? If so, what do they make of it?
BRUCE RUSSELL: Surreal is the word! I do these about once a year. It was live business TV at 6am, very demanding environment! My co-workers know what I do because I am on ‘research terms’ which means that I have an academic research program in sound approved as part of my job. As part of this I’m doing a doctorate in Fine Art in a Melbourne University. Keeps me busy!
STEREOGUM: Can you discuss the Ph.D. program? What’s your focus?
BRUCE RUSSELL: It’s a practice-based degree, so I have to make work, as well as write an exegesis. I’m documenting what I do anyway, essentially. So I have a couple of sound pieces that I was commissioned to do recently for gallery shows, that are going in, and a number of collaborations I have underway with the likes of Lasse Marhaug. I did a series of performances to camera that make up a DVD which I did for the degree and hope to possibly release at some point. The exegesis is looking at the social utility of improvised sound work, asking “what is this for?,” “why do it?” … It’s got a theoretical framework derived from Guy Debord and Walter Benjamin, mainly. Because I have a Masters in political philosophy (philosophy of Marxism) I have a good grip on the critical theory end of things, which I was keen to build in. Funnily enough the degree is in the School of Fine Art at RMIT in Melbourne, so I’ll end up with a post grad degree in art, which I would never have predicted!
STEREOGUM: Does your day job feed at all into your sound composition?
BRUCE RUSSELL: Not at all.
STEREOGUM: Which Dead C album has the highest usability?
BRUCE RUSSELL: Usability is only useful when the goal is utility. Dead C. albums don’t aim at utility!
The Dead C – “Mansions” (MP3)
Secret Earth is out via Ba Da Bing. The Eusa Kills and DR503 reissues are out via Ba Da Bing/Jagjaguwar.
[Photo courtesy of Ba Da Bing; left to right: Robbie Yeats, Michael Morley, Bruce Russell beneath one of Tony Conrad’s “Yellow Movies”]