NORMIL HAWAIIANS – THE LONG LOST RECORDING OF ‘RETURN OF THE RANTERS’
Back in the bleak early 80’s in Brixton, London, the Normil Hawaiians were gaining traction for their subversive approach to the post punk scene around them, getting thrown off stage in Camden for being too weird gained them their first single deal and a John Peel session. By 1985 the band had left behind them a string of singles, more John Peel sessions, two studio albums and an unreleased third album before drifting apart.
We talk to Chris Tipton, label owner at Upset The Rhythm, about how he came to find the Normil Hawaiians and the long awaited release of their last album ‘Return of the Ranters’
How and when did you stumble upon Normil Hawaiians?
About three years ago I found myself (as I often do) accumulating a thick coat of dust on my forefinger and thumb by rifling through a wooden box of 7” singles. This was at a record fair held in a church hall in Greenwich, the kind you walk past before doubling back to with unrealistic expectations. The box was christened by means of a hasty sticker on the front telling all and sundry that it contained ‘punk, post punk and weird stuff’, I was powerless to resist. After speeding through the usual suspects, Elvis Costello, The Revillos, The Stranglers, my hopes for genuine ‘weird stuff’ started to diminish with every sleeve flick until I came to a monochrome sleeve nearing the end. It was a fairly self-effacing 7” with a boy on the cover sat against a brick wall with a violin and bow propped up beside him. I was immediately intrigued as I was learning the violin at the time and have always been a fan of bands with a violinist. Above the boy’s head, as if a giant typewriter had been enlisted, were the words ‘NORMIL HAWAIIANS’. Why not ‘normal’? Hawaiians, hmmm OK? They’d roped me in now. Closer inspection of the back revealed that the record was from 1980, released by Dining Out and featured two songs, ‘The Beat Goes On’ and ‘Ventilation’. Two small photos printed along with the type gave the impression that the band consisted of three singing women and three somewhat gloomy men, backs against the wall. Without hesitation I quickly parted with £5 and took the record back home to listen to. Side A was full of scratchy guitar, limber basslines, trailing sax and a beyond catchy vocal, in short, textbook post punk. Side B proved to be a more epic affair with that anticipated violin sawing away over the track’s propulsive rhythm, a variety of vocals drift across the song in a hypnotic wave until all gives way to a piano and group-vocal rendition of ‘In Heaven’ from David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’. So this record did belong in the ‘weird stuff’ box afterall.
Looking online I found some other videos by Normil Hawaiians and was further fascinated as they seemed to have gone off down a more long-form cosmic path after their initial flurry of singles and EPs, their music touching on folk, industrial and even prog in places, some of the tracks breaking the 10 minute mark! I found this all very appealing, buoyed further by not having heard of them before, and so tracked down their two albums over the course of a month or so through Discogs inescapably. It was genuinely difficult to find their records in the UK and as a result I think I ended up buying the records from Belgium and Switzerland. Both albums proved truly compelling and I wore out a stylus listening to them. Their songs are agile and thoughtful, unafraid of genre and largely the product of improvised sessions by a flexible collective of musicians. As a result a lot of the songs on ‘More Wealth Than Money’ (1982) have an almost motoric feel to them, born of repetition, constantly reaching for the sun. By ‘What’s Going On?’ (1984), the band had begun embracing tape loops, keyboard drones and spoken word passages. I love the way its collage-like structure lends a sense of flux and fluidity to the record so that you always hear something different each time. Both albums made a huge impression on me and I spent the following two years telling everyone I could about their music, playing it to almost all the bands we had passing through London.
What made you decide to put the record out?
I’d been toying with the idea of getting in touch with Normil Hawaiians for a while as I’d recently organized a show for Eyeless In Gaza, who were active at a similar time and I’d found the experience very rewarding. In the back of my mind I suppose I kept putting it off because I had reservations about reissuing music on Upset The Rhythm per se. I’ve always considered the label as a home for new music and so the idea of unearthing some LPs from thirty years ago didn’t seem to fit that plan. Plus I felt that a plethora of labels exist nowadays that only deal with reissues and that one of them would be probably already in touch with the band, why add to their inbox.
Something wouldn’t go away though and I felt preoccupied with the idea when my friend Brett came to visit, he told me of his various plans to reissue some albums by Thee Headcoats (et al) in the USA. He also mentioned he was helping Stewart Lee get his DVDs out over there too. That’s when I realised that everything appears new if you haven’t seen or heard it before. A band like Normil Hawaiians practically sound avant-garde even now, they were so ahead of their time. I put aside all notions of becoming ‘retro’ and started taking the idea seriously, I already wanted everyone to hear their music, releasing some seemed like a logical next step. This is when I discovered through the band’s detailed website that their final recorded sessions were never properly released. That night I had Sauna Youth come over to Upset The Rhythm HQ to talk about their plans for their album ‘Distractions’, which we released earlier this year. Inevitably I played them Normil Hawaiians and they loved it as much as myself that I resolved to write the band first thing in the morning to see if they were interested in releasing the lost ‘Return Of The Ranters’ album after all these years. This was back at the start of February this year and thankfully they were as excited to work with us as we were with them. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. They sent me a rough version of the album to listen to and I was immediately bowled over, to me it’s their best, most consummate album to date and so I set about the drawn-out process of tracking down the final master tapes back from the studio where they had recorded all their albums. Not only was this an album that hardly anyone had ever heard, it hadn’t even been released the first time in 1985, for me this was the perfect road towards reissuing their back catalogue.
Although the record is 30 years old, it sounds remarkably at home within the current Upset The Rhythm label roster. Were you confident your existing supporters would enjoy the record as much as you?
Without a doubt. Our label’s only criteria is to release music we love so it felt like a very natural decision to release the album on Upset The Rhythm. Like I’ve already mentioned, the album really does sound like it could’ve been recorded yesterday so aswim it is with ideas. The other thing I like about the fit is that Normil Hawaiians wrote this album whilst they were living in Brixton, they were very much part of London’s DIY scene and I can say with all confidence that if we’d been setting up shows then, we would’ve had them play all the time. Having met up with Guy and Simon from the band I can tell we all have the same passion for music now as we ever have.
Are there any plans for live shows or dare I say it… new material?
During the resurrection of ‘Return Of The Ranters’ the Family Hawaii has been increasingly in contact, so much so that they’ve decided to regroup in live formation and are plotting a very special show on October 24th at The Lexington in celebration of the album’s long-awaited release. This will be their first show in thirty years and promises to be an extremely unique concert. They will be performing two sets I believe and will be taking a novel forward-thinking approach to their past songs (as ever was the way). The week leading up to the show they’ll be rehearsing and improvising like old times and working on new material at the same time. I don’t know what I’m most excited about now, the record or the show! It’ll be a memorable one that’s for sure!
I’m sure there are a tonne of obscure and forgotten gems you would like to re-release – do you have further reissues with other artists planned?
Releasing ‘Return Of The Ranters’ next month marks the first step in a considerable project we have in mind to reissue/reappraise Normil Hawaiians’ other two albums ‘More Wealth Than Money’ and ‘What’s Going On?’ that came out in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Both records are phenomenal and will be accompanied by abundant liner notes, bonus tracks, rehearsal takes, rarities and singles. That’ll keep us going next year, so we’ll be focusing on that before taking on anything new.
Over the years you have curated all manors of oddball events including Yes Way, Freize London and collaborations with David Shrigley. What exciting projects can we look forward to from Upset The Rhythm this year?
Well, we’ve just had Martin Newell (of Cleaners From Venus) come to London for the first time in decades to present his Golden Afternoon of songs, tales and poetry for us last weekend. That certainly was a long-term dream come true. For the rest of the year we’ve planned some exciting shows for Matana Roberts, The Space Lady, Maximum Joy, Main Attrakionz and Calvin Johnson to name but a few. We’re also releasing a new single by The Wharves and have BAMBOO’s debut album ‘Prince Pansori Priestess’ readying for December too. Where did this year go? Too much having fun and time flying. Look out 2016!