"It seemed the only thing we could be, it was like a psychic eruption of something long building up"
Jon Dale on Surface of the Earth - The history (and discography) of one of the most enigmatic groups to emerge from New Zealand's 1990's free noise movement.
All schematics excerpted from My Friend is a Tape Recorder, 2nd Edition, Moscow USSR 1973
The debut, self-titled album by New Zealand trio Surface of the Earth has long been celebrated as one of the cornerstones of ‘nineties NZ free noise’. Originally self-released in 1995 in very limited lathe-cut double LP and cassette editions, reissued two years later on CD by Bruce Russell’s Corpus Hermeticum label, then again in 2011 by Utech, its current manifestation – as an extended, lushly produced double LP on Thin Wrist – is testament to the album’s continuing resonance and relevance.
The most striking thing about Surface of the Earth, listening back, is both its intensive focus, and that this focus doesn’t lead to homogeneity; it’s a full-bodied, gripping listen. It’s relatively easy, I guess, to glibly summarize what the Surface of the Earth trio of Paul Toohey, Donald Smith and Tony McGurk did – loosely put: tar-thick, slow-moving, grey and charcoal guitar/synth drone – but that doesn’t really capture either the seductiveness or the sensuousness of their sound. It has brute physicality, in the way you can hear the noises chafing against each other, but it also has a tender core, in the patient unfurling of its heavy blocks of sound.
For some time, I’d harbored several incorrect impressions about Surface of the Earth – firstly, that they no longer existed; secondly, that they were reticent to discuss their music. This says more about the ways that mystique is constructed by fans, collectors, and writers, than it does the openness and kindness of artists themselves. To that end, I’ve actually been in touch with Paul Toohey for a number of years, and while a few prior plans to pull together the story of Surface of the Earth amounted to nought – which was entirely my fault – this interview, conducted to accompany the latest reissue of Surface of the Earth, was a pleasure.
The interview took place over April and May 2022, via email. I’ve removed my interview questions – which were more like vague prompts, anyway – the better to focus on the story of Surface of the Earth. I started by asking the group where they grew up, and what effect their immediate surroundings had on their development…
(The group’s interview responses have been lightly edited and rearranged, for narrative purposes.)
Tony McGurk (TM): I grew up in Hastings on the east coast of the North Island. It’s an average small town so probably didn’t affect what happened later on. I do remember the radio at home was always on and being fascinated by a lot of 1970s pop songs. There were some lovely tunes and I remember thinking they sounded so pleasant and thought how skillful whoever’s made those sounds must be, tunes that I still like now.
Donald Smith (DS): I grew up in Matamata, a small town two hours south of Auckland. Good place to grow up, as long as you were white and middle class, but by the time I was 17 I was ready to leave and I only returned to visit my parents. I don’t know what effect that town had on my creative interests but it probably had more effect than I’m conscious of. We lived on the edge of the town near the railway line. I remember lying in bed listening to trains coming and going across the plains. The town had a small music shop that sold records and musical instruments and it had a library. It wasn’t all bad.
Paul Toohey (PT): I was born in Palmerston North and we moved to Taradale, near Napier when I was five. Napier is a small coastal city and quite isolated. There was nothing in particular about the place that sparked any creativity in me, but we always had books, magazines and records around the house.
TM: My mother used to say, ‘everyone should learn an instrument’. My brother had piano accordion lessons because there was a piano accordion teacher who lived across the road, and my sister had piano lessons because there was a nun at school who taught the piano. I wanted to learn to play the drums but I wasn’t allowed to because they were too loud. When I was about 7 or 8 my brother and I were given a new ukulele each. It wasn’t long before the strings were off and the machine heads were in pieces. A friend’s brother gave me his old electric guitar strings so they went on the ukulele which gave it a sound I thought was like no other. That was my introduction to a fretboard. The steel-stringed ukulele possibly got me interested in guitars but I didn’t get one until much later.
I used to go to Sutcliffe’s music shop on the main street after school to admire the shiny new and unobtainable electric guitars. I had a friend whose whole family played in orchestras and there seemed to be instruments in every room of the house. He showed me some guitar chords upside down because I’m left-handed. I’d ask him to teach me the easiest ones first and I learned four upside down chords from him.
DS: I did piano lessons for a while as a kid. By the age of 14 I was playing the guitar quite a lot and trying to imitate rock guitarists like Neil Young, Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix. The gramophone in the lounge could play records at half the speed of 33rpm, whatever that is... an octave down. Then we got a cheap stereo and I could plug my acoustic guitar-with-pick-up-in-sound-hole into it and get a nice fuzz tone. There were two pop music programmes on TV - Ready to Roll had the pop songs. Radio with Pictures had bands like Joy Division and The Clash. After high school I went to university in Hamilton and discovered a local music scene. My favourite overseas bands were Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth but I loved all the Flying Nun bands, bought all their records and saw them live when they were in town. I played bass guitar in a bunch of local bands. It was a good scene. Around the time I moved to Wellington in 1990 we were listening to Xpressway label bands and starting to realize we could record and release music ourselves.
PT: My earliest recollection of music is probably Booker T and the MGs – “Time is Tight”. At church I used to quite enjoy hearing the pipe organ, and my brothers and I would listen out for mistakes, which were quite frequent. I got a red plastic toy guitar when I was seven, and besides the record player we always listened to pop music on the radio and watched the music shows. Around 1977 my older brother started bringing more and more LPs and magazines like NME home and I got deeper into music too. While I was still in school, we went to Palmerston North to see Echo & the Bunnymen and Auckland to see New Order. We walked in on New Order’s soundcheck and their haunted sound fascinated me. Neither did encores nor talked to the audience which was an eye-opener. By then I was mucking around on my brother’s cheap electric guitar, trying to learn basic riffs from a book, but I didn’t get anywhere.
TM: I met Paul at high school in 1978. We used to talk about music a lot, especially the punk rock bands we’d see on Radio with Pictures (RWP). I wasn’t allowed to watch RWP because it was on too late but I’d sneak out after everyone was in bed to watch it on a black and white tv with the volume down.
PT: [Tony and I] were in the same class for the next couple of years. He was good fun – a bit mischievous – and we became friends. We were both into the first Cheap Trick LP and intrigued by Tom Petersson’s 12-string bass. Our English teacher said there was no such thing, so we brought along the insert from ‘Heaven Tonight’ to prove him wrong. Tony brought [the Ramones’] ‘It’s Alive’ to school too, and we spent ages trying to work out the lyrics to “Commando” and “Havana Affair”. We also played football and cricket together with our school friends and had a lot of laughs.
TM: We would often say we’d be in a band together one day but I didn’t really believe it because neither of us could play an instrument.
PT: In the mid-1980s when I moved to Wellington, Tony and I started playing and recording on a cassette deck in his bedroom – guitar, bass and drum machine.
TM: We probably had three or four little songs but didn’t venture further than my bedroom.
PT: We were always talking about equipment and looking at guitars and amplifiers in the shops, as well as checking out the touring Flying Nun bands. Then I took off to London where I saw lots of shows, played with a couple of English friends and learned a bit more about effects pedals and recording. One thing I realized pretty quickly was NZ had a lot of good groups compared to the UK. Eventually I got my own very basic home recording setup and started experimenting with loops, drones and guitars without quite being able to finish anything.
TM: Donald and I met in 1987 at an orientation gig at Waikato University. Donald was in a band called Frybrain. I saw them a couple of times and thought they were pretty good. We didn’t play music together at Hamilton. I was in awe of a lot of the Hamilton bands. They all seemed to be real players. I kind of tried to hang around some of them a bit but they realized pretty quickly I wasn’t much use to them. I moved back to Wellington in 1990. By that time Donald was in Wellington, too. We started mucking around with drums and guitar in my flat on Cuba Street.
DS: I ended up living on the same block just around the corner from him. Tony’s a natural on the guitar (though he won’t admit it) and he’s the best drummer I’ve played with. But his approach or practice was more artistic, more experimental with no thought for entertaining an audience. His place was packed with guitars, basses, drums and keyboards and leads and cassette recorders. He had a Casio SK1 and a high-speed cassette recorder and mixer. We didn’t have much money and the neighborhood we lived in was especially depressed as it had been earmarked for an inner-city bypass. Tony had pinned on his wall photocopied pictures of the right-wing politicians currently in government and we used to curse them and throw darts at them.
TM: [Donald] had some lovely pop songs I’d try to tap away on the drums to. Later on we played live a few times at Bar Bodega and Cuba Cuba, just guitar and drums. We called ourselves Ring. Donald’s guitar sounded like 100 guitars and 10 bass guitars. It felt special experiencing those songs up close like that.
PT: I met Donald in 1992 through Tony, in Wellington.
TM: [Paul] jumped on the bass. By that time we were playing upstairs at Donald’s house on Arthur Street. We were a bit rough but I always felt there was something happening with the three of us. To me there was a freshness about the sound even if we weren’t entirely happy with it. We recorded most things.
PT: Around that time, I borrowed a synthesizer from a friend and recorded a few hours of drones at home. I then bought my own synthesizer, and the setup I would use for the initial Surface of the Earth recordings came together – synth drone – which I would try and layer with a drone or feedback from my guitar, along with some overdrive and reverb.
TM: At some stage we began playing across the road at Thistle Hall. Donald knew the person who took the bookings and she’d let us have it for nothing, often for three or four days at a time. Donald and I used to sleep there at night. We realized pretty quickly that Thistle Hall was no place for drums, not our drums, anyway. They sounded horrible. From that point on it was three guitars only. This was probably the beginning of Surface of the Earth.
DS: I did some research on the hall as part of my history degree. It’s a two-story brick building built in 1907, initially used as commercial premises with the top floor being a wholesale storage area. The top floor is the hall and it’s the beautiful wooden floor acting as a soundboard that has made it such a warm venue for social events, dances and live music. It’s not a big space but it was perfect for us. Here’s their website -- www.thistlehall.org.nz -- with lots of photographs and other content.
TM: We had a couple of old Gunn 100-watt valve amps that sounded otherworldly in [that] old wooden hall. We played at high volume and recorded everything. When listening to the tapes we discovered sounds were being recorded we didn’t know were there. Listening back to the tapes was like a lucky dip. To me that was exciting. Getting rid of the drums helped shift our focus towards texture and capturing interesting and sometimes unconventional note changes. Looking back, I think high volume and the wooden hall sent us in a particular direction. We began experimenting with different instruments and various effects. Paul had an old Yamaha hollow body guitar we decided had a life of its own. Then we got a synth so we added some drones. Donald’s guitar was just lovely.
Sometimes I used an old classical guitar with an internal pick-up plugged straight into the Gunn which was almost impossible to control, and an old unearthed and untuned electric guitar with just 3 bottom E strings. Sometimes I’d put it on the floor and try to control the sound by pressing my foot against the tension of the neck. It was so sensitive just holding the guitar would send things through the amp. Just giving the headstock a tiny tap would create an almighty din. The trick almost always involved finding a groove and then refusing to let the precariousness of the situation take over. Sometimes the objective was simply holding a guitar as still as possible to prevent things collapsing into something unusable. We used to joke about how the ideal process was to plug your guitar in, lean it against the amp, turn the volume to full, push the record button then head off to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
DS: Tony and I still loved to play rock music. We’d play the same riff or chord progression for hours on end, just guitar and drums or guitar and bass. But we were also experimenting with different approaches to guitars and amplifiers. The amplifier became my instrument. I liked the label “noise” after reading Bruce Russell's Free Noise manifesto but I interpreted it at least partly ironically, that is, music free of the predictable structures of rock and pop but still tonally beautiful. I liked the sound of violins and violas etc and of my friend’s tenor horn with its rich mid-range frequencies. The sound coming out of Tony’s 100-watt valve Gunn Classic amplifier sounded the best though. I think he helped me out with some cash and we ended up with one each.
When Paul turned up on the scene, returning from the UK, he threw us a lifeline so to speak in the form of the drone, around which we were able to weave the more random and episodic noises of our amplifiers. You could say Paul provided the form for Tony’s content. Paul did a lot of noise too, and though it sounds very serious a lot of the time it was not so at all. They’re both pretty entertaining characters and took turns making sure I was rolling around on the floor laughing. We always recorded ourselves and developed a recording technique using two dynamic mics straight into a glass head tape deck. The space in which we recorded became very important. Paul did almost all of the post recording work, editing down a literal mountain of tape and producing the artwork for our first releases.
PT: We didn’t really practice, we just recorded. Donald and Tony had the Gunn amplifiers and would conjure up fantastic sounds with their guitars. I had my setup and we each found our way quite quickly. I think we all had an idea of what we wanted to do and didn’t need to talk about it, although I do recall a conversation about trying to avoid ‘trivia’. Sometimes I would look up and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What a racket -- It was loud, but everyone seemed to find a place to occupy within the sound. But things could be on a bit of a knife edge, as the recording could easily be wrecked by an unwanted sound, like some sudden ear-piercing feedback.
TM: For a long time I’ve been interested in trying to work out what it is that makes a particular sound, and changes in sound, music, or pleasant to the ear. Hearing some of the early recordings from Thistle Hall was pretty important. Things progressed after realizing what we had stumbled across, even if what we liked was a mere fraction of what was recorded. I think we were lucky to accept early on that we needed to be very fussy about what ended up being released.
DS: [Surface of the Earth] seemed the only thing we could be. Perhaps it was like a psychic eruption of something long building up. We had a lot of pretensions and it took a while for us to find ourselves, so to speak. We are all quite critical and especially self-critical so often debates were avoided. It was more an intuitive process.
PT: Listening back to the recordings helped us figure things out. If something was good, it stuck out and probably just needed to be edited down. Once we got a 7” and a name we were away. We made good use of the time we had at Thistle Hall and although we discarded a lot of recordings, the good ones started to accumulate. At some point, we started talking about a double LP, as though we were the Eagles or something, while at the same time, defeating the purpose of such a grand statement by doing it as a lathe cut in an edition of 20.
TM: The idea of releasing a double album started out kind of as a joke at the time, which is why it ended up happening. We had the material, but the notion of a double album seemed so absurd we found ourselves with very little choice but to do it. We’d already made a couple of 7” singles. When it came to the thought of [a] double album things went from ‘that’s ridiculous’ to ‘why not?’ fairly quickly.
PT: I have memories of all the tracks because one of my jobs was making the masters. A few things stick out: Tony, perhaps not knowing (or caring) the record button was down during “4.02” and suggesting to Donald and me that we ‘check this out’ before rattling around in a plastic bag and pulling out and activating two walkie talkies he had found at a charity shop; Donald using my little five-watt Goldring amplifier as a pre-amp into his Gunn during “Castle” and getting some wonderful, controlled feedback; taking a long time to splice different sections of “Voyager” together, first of all with a splicing block and then later, re-doing it using hard edits and a DAT recorder. It was a nightmare.
Listening back, I think about all the work that went into making the album. In some ways, we had all been struggling, and getting Surface of the Earth going helped us all along and brought us some joy. I learned a lot from Donald and Tony. It was a wonderful time, and for me, a relief to finally make something good. Everyone does their bit to contribute, it sounds really good, and I hope that people can stick it out and enjoy it.
The image for the cover was from a 70s Soviet book on tape recording and we got some metallic gunmetal paper at the art shop. The cover was a nod to Peter Saville, a stolen image, no titles, no names on the jacket. We wanted to do a good job for World Resources’ first big release, so after photocopying the image, I tipped the paper onto some recycled sleeves with PVA. We decided to do cassettes too, as we weren’t sure how the LPs would turn out and like any good label we wanted it available on LP and MC.
DS: [World Resources] was just a means of releasing our own stuff.
TM: It was easy to do lathe cut records. 7”s were $3 each so you could do a run of twenty for 60 bucks. We didn’t give much thought to whether people would buy them and started out just giving them away to friends. Being able to get records made through Peter King is where things started, and we were well aware that a “label” can be created by simply saying so. Once we’d come up with a name it was just a matter of sticking it on the record, which is what we did. The label was really a vehicle to release our own projects.