Avalanche City: Flower-stealing, sea-plane loving sailor man.
Words by Richard Gifford - Published on July 23, 2011
Eleanor Houghton sits down with Avalanche City for a chat about music, farm animals, and love, love, love.
A man who dreams of sailing the seas, writes love songs that rival those of the Beatles, and will go to borderline illegal lengths to get a bouquet for his wife sounds like a work of fiction, but Dave Baxter, aka Avalanche City is as real as they come. Dressed in a hat, a flannelette shirt, and an ear stretcher and beard combo that would put any hipster to shame, you don’t really know to what to expect when you first see Dave Baxter, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is one of the nicest people to come out of New Zealand. And New Zealanders are already pretty friendly.
While Avalanche City is predominantly a solo project, when heading out on the touring trail Dave employs a trusty band to help bring the full sound to the stage, but not having to simultaneously play guitar, bass, keyboard and drums is only one of the benefits. “It’s just exciting to be able to play the songs that I’ve got on the album, and hear the way that they play it, because they’re such good musicians. It’s really exciting to hear other people’s interpretations of what you write.” Does this ever result in conflicts, if an interpretation goes a little too left of field? The ever-chill Dave reassures me, “For the live tour they’re just playing the stuff that is already written, so it’s not like I have to get riffs signed off by them or anything like that.” Lucky – I can’t imagine this man angry, and don’t want that to change.
I can, however, imagine him sad, thanks to his emotion packed song writing and tunes that sound like they could only be fuelled by a well exercised heart. So are his tracks a method of coping with the ups and downs of love? “Maybe… I think less of the whole therapeutic thing and it’s more that I just like telling stories and stuff like that. Stories aren’t always happy, and love stories aren’t always sad either. I kind of just love a good story, and that’s kind of what my song writing is.” With such raw emotion coming through in the tracks, listeners can’t help but wonder, are these ‘stories’ based on Baxter’s own experiences? “Some of them are. They’re more like overall feelings, or sometimes I’ll write a song and I’ll be thinking about someone else, and what they’ve experienced.” So which are his favourite to write about, the happy or the sad side of love? “I like the happy ones, I love singing the happy ones but there are some sad songs that I just love, and I always feel like such a… what’s the word?” With a laugh he continues, “Whenever I write a sad song, it’s like oh come on it’s not that bad, you know, don’t be sad all the time!”
Another point of inspiration, as evident in even so obvious a place as the title of the band, is nature and the weather. Avalanches, streams, oceans and storms all feature, and with an enviro-hotpot such as New Zealand as your backyard, there’s no wonder. “I just love it. I think one of the themes that’s all through the album is the ocean and sailing and stuff. I have this massive urge to become a sailor I guess, and I’m not really a sailor or anything like that, but it’s kind of something that I’ve had right from when I was a kid. I used to go sailing with my dad every now and then – we had a little yacht and I’ve always kind of dreamed of sailing around the world or sailing to the islands or something. It’s kind of like some of the songs are my frustration of not being able to do it, and some of them are just longing to, so I always have themes of that sort of stuff in there.”
The video for the single ‘Love, Love, Love’ is best described as an overdose of the adorables, with a nautical theme and some animated penguins. “Yeah I did choose that, I’m not sure how I came to that idea. At the time I was trying to come up with something that was kind of iconic, and I came up with the idea of penguins and then I thought hey maybe the video for ‘Love, Love, Love’ could be them wanting to go on a sailing adventure. The cardboard cut-out animation thing is just something like I like, again, I have no idea how I came to the idea of it, I just thought it would be a really cool look for a video, and my friend is a really talented animator so he did it.”
It can’t be scientifically proven that there is a proverbial something in the proverbial water in New Zealand (apart from adventure-seeking penguins), but with the amount of musical talent flying out of the long white cloud from all angles, it’s safe to say there is. Not that Kiwi-musos should be pigeon-holed for their sound, as Dave explains. “I don’t know whether there is a particular New Zealand sound, but there is a particular New Zealand way of doing things; that’s kind of what we’ve done. You know, you don’t ever expect to make any money out of music, so you always try and do it as cheaply as possible and all your friends are involved. I recorded the album myself and didn’t spend much money on it. I think that’s kind of the New Zealand way of doing things, especially this style of music. If you’re not a big band you just try and cut as many costs as possible and lots of people are starting to record things themselves or get their friends to do it.” Without the need to pander to a commercialised industry, the resulting New Zealand sounds have, if only one thing in common, a sense of honesty and passion. “Definitely, you approach things from a different perspective because you’re just thinking about it like what’s interesting to me? Or what do I really want out of this album? And you’re playing shows to like 40 people at a time and you’re like what do they want to hear? Rather than if you’re a big band and you have a label behind you and you’re like what does everyone want?”
This organic approach to music recording is not half-hearted by any means for Dave, who holed himself up in a country hall to record Our New Life Above the Ground. “It was like a community hall where the farmers hang out, it was really cool actually. Because I have my own studio that’s kind of what I do every day, so if I get up and go to my studio to record my album it’s like recording everyone else’s stuff, so I always try and make it as fun and adventurous as I can. I thought that hiring a hall, going out into the country side and doing it by myself would be a really unique kind of experience and would maybe put me in a different head space rather than just being at home.” In comparison to band mates and music managers, I wondered if cows and milk trucks were good company? “They’re loud company,” he laughs. “It was [an issue], there were many a perfect take ruined by a milk truck or a tractor going past.”
While Avalanche City have played literally overflowing gigs in locations as far away as the Big Apple, it is playing to a small home crowd really leaves an impression. “We played in the South Island in New Zealand – that was pretty amazing. We did a small tour at the start of the year and did Dunedin and Christchurch, and I love New Zealand’s south island… I think it’s probably just the mountains and the epic scenery, and the people are just more relaxed down there it seems. Yeah, I just love it down there… We played in New York a little while ago, it was really, really cool, it was this tiny little venue that was completely packed, spilling out onto the street, it was lots of fun.”
One of the striking things about Dave Baxter is his balanced approach to music. While he could never be accused of big-noting himself, he has a confidence in what he is doing that hasn’t really ever faltered. “Whenever I write a song that I think is good, it’s like it’s just the best thing that’s happened. It’s funny yeah, I’ve never been one to be like ahh is this the right thing for me!? I’ve always felt pretty sure of myself, I don’t know why. I guess because I’ve only ever done music, I’d never do any other career.” Naturally, I can’t help but ask now, what would Dave Baxter do if not music? “Someone asked me this a while ago and I had real trouble answering it… Did you ever watch Tailspin? Tailspin was a cartoon, with this bear that flew sea planes.” His excitement now is probably more than at any other point in the interview, as we seem to get a glimpse of the cartoon watching kid himself. “Alright so from watching that as a kid I always sort of wanted to be a sea plane pilot, and I think it sort of carried on to adult life because I still kind of do want to be a sea plane pilot, so maybe that!”
One of Avalanche City’s songs, ‘You and I’, looks at the different lengths he would go to for a girl. Now happily married, did he have to do anything particularly embarrassing to win her over? His initial response was underwhelming, “Ooh. I don’t know, that’s a really hard question. I don’t know how to answer that question…” but a few minutes later he returned with an answer that is likely to melt the coldest of hearts. “I just thought of a good answer for your other one! When I was flatting, and me and my wife were going out, I didn’t have lots of money. So because I was really poor, I used to go to the local park and steal flowers for her.”
‘Love, Love, Love’ was the track that really pushed Avalanche City into the well-deserved spotlight, after it was heard in a store by television executive, who quickly snapped it up for a station promotion. Regardless of its commercial use, it is its themes of love (love, love) that gives it that certain something that appeals to the masses, and a theme that has been visited by many musicians in the past. Does Dave Baxter find inspiration in the bowl-cut dogma of The Beatles? “Of love love love? My inspiration for that [track] was that I was feeling quite trapped and bad at that moment… It’s a love song, but it’s also a song about wanting to get out and explore the world and adventure and stuff like that.” So does Avalanche City think The Beatles were right when they said that love is all you need, or is there more to life than that? “I think that they were pretty much bang on… I do kind of reckon that love is kind of all you need.”
– Eleanor Houghton