Date3 Nov 2019
The Single Object: The back country record cutter putting New Zealand music on plastic
The Single Object is a series exploring our material culture, examining the meaning and influence of the objects that surround us in everyday life.
In a shed at the foothills of the Southern Alps, Peter King has made special lathe cuts of recordings by an eclectic array of musicians. Kiran Dass writes here about her favourite, a 1996 live recording by Pumice, from King’s vast catalogue currently on display at Objectspace.
There’s an urban legend that EMI dumped their vinyl pressing and cassette duplicating equipment, the last of its kind in New Zealand, into the Wellington harbour in the 1980s to make way for the thrilling new infallible technology of CDs. While this makes for a jaw-dropping and juicy story, it’s not actually true. The gear was more prosaically re-homed somewhere in Australia.
But it is true that since 1987, Peter King of King Worldwide, based in the small town of Mount Somers, Canterbury, has been one of the sole domestic record manufacturers in New Zealand, famous for his unique lathe cuts. I’ve been told the reason he operates from a shed on wheels is so he can alter the view while he cuts records all day.
But what really makes him extraordinary is his materials. The records are made from clear polycarbonate plastic imported from the United States in sheets. It’s an impact-resistant industrial engineering material which is so robust it is used for riot gear and when laminated, bullet-proof glass. These lathe cuts are also produced differently to a standard vinyl record. Instead of being “stamped”, each record is produced individually, with sound cut directly into the record in real time by a handcrafted steel needle – and a new needle for every new run of records – instead of the commercial diamond needle.
King’s records last longer and are cheaper than vinyl. Care, craft and time are poured into each record, and each is its own work of beauty: sometimes, each cut from the same run will have a subtly unique sound. And King has cut lathes in different shapes – squares, triangles, hearts and even a gnarly-looking circular saw blade shape. Some releases come with publications and handmade zines, and Whangārei’ musician Witcyst’s releases feature sleeves with complex and beguiling cover art, often using found objects.
Lathe cuts make releasing music doable for DIY and experimental artists. The economy King creates by producing short runs – as few as 20 copies – means that while not everyone will shift rockstar mega units, virtually anyone can make a record. And having cut everything from country and western, marching bands and spoken word, to heavy metal, rock & roll, lo-fi and experimental music, he doesn’t discriminate against any kind of genre. He’s produced records for acts from Detroit, California, Spain, France, and, he said in an interview once, “every country but China and Fiji”.
One of his biggest orders was for 1500 units for the Beastie Boys’ Aglio E Olio 7” which took King six months to complete. And due to the precarious nature of his equipment, some of it handmade, only around 1420 were actually made. A famous rumour grew from the order (fuelled partly by Peter’s love for the myth), that as partial payment the Beastie Boys surprised King with a mustard-yellow Ford Mustang which arrived at the Port of Timaru simply addressed to “P. King”. The truth is the deal allowed King to buy his own Mustang.
King’s work caught on with American indie “rock stars” who have long been influenced by New Zealand’s underground. Sonic Youth’s Lee Renaldo used King’s services for his 1994 cut Spoken for Geraldine 7” on New Zealand’s sonic explorers Dead C’s Michael Morley’s tape label Precious Metal.
And legend has it that there’s a crackup Surface of the Earth oddity, a rejected version of the drone group’s 4.02/4.55 release which sees New Order’s synthpop banger ‘Blue Monday’ playing at the same time due to a mastering error. While I haven’t physically seen the disc, I know this legend is true because I’ve heard the track. It kind of works! I can imagine King, accustomed to the weird outsider and experimental music often sent his way, hearing it and thinking it was supposed to sound like that – “ahh whatever, these crazy sound kids!”
Dunedin’s the Ho Dogs sent off to have a split 7” made with them on one side and the then-fledgeling Spice Girls on the other. It didn’t get made due to legality nerves, but this just shows how accessible King’s services felt. Like you could just do anything and put it on a record.
As a teenager, King was an apprentice engineer and worked as a fitter and welder. He was a session musician and engineer, recording commercials for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. In 1984, King bought two decommissioned Neumann lathe cutters, constructed at the BBC then shipped to New Zealand for use at the state broadcaster. King handmade two more of these machines himself.
The Peter King lathe cut has been critical for New Zealand’s underground, lo-fi and experimental music and an important example of the classic DIY Kiwi inventor tradition. A dizzying 222 titles were researched and curated by Luke Wood, senior lecturer in graphic design at the University of Canterbury’s Ilam School of Fine Arts for Objectspace’s A Short Run: A Selection of New Zealand Lathe-Cut Records. The exhibition is a galvanising look at how lo-fi music-making practices in New Zealand and singular cover art intersect. I saw so many gems in there that I could write about: The Aesthetics, Armpit, Witcyst, Omit, Maltese Falcons, Stella Corkery, Surface of the Earth… but I broke out into a cold sweat when I was told I had to narrow my focus to just one object.
I’ve written about the music of Auckland one-man-band Pumice (Stefan Neville) before, and remember saying to my friends that I can’t just keep writing about Pumice for the rest of my life. And yet, no matter how much I tried for this piece, gravitational forces kept hauling me back there. One cut in particular. The simply titled 19.4.96 (Stabbies and the Rocket, 1996). It’s an 8” live recording of a Pumice show at the Crown in Dunedin, and it’s special because it’s a document of the first live outing of Pumice as a solo act.
The cover art is a striking lino print by Neville, Twink-y white ink on black paper, depicting that show’s setup which included kick drum and hi-hat, his iconic small silver guitar, heavy metal pedal, and the small guitar amp which he used in addition to vocals and a kazoo. Neville’s approach was inspired by American multi-instrumentalist Hasil Adkins who showed that being a one-man-band didn’t just have to be a zany busking thing.
“It was the first and probably the only time I was gonna do a solo Pumice gig so I made sure to record it,” says Neville. “But the real reason I released it was that the night afterwards I DJ’d at a teenage rave in Ōamaru and got paid $100. It was rare to have that kind of money so I used it wisely and made some 8”’s.”
Those 20 copies mostly went to friends and family (though King would usually send artists a few extra copies free). But sometimes, Neville meets someone who against all odds has a copy.
He isn’t sure how many lathes he has since made under various outfits with King, but estimates it to somewhere between 20 and 50. The first was in 1993, a split 10” with Armice Pumb Pit and Morrinsville group SCUD. But before that, Neville’s friends Gfrenzy and CJA surprised him with a box full of Crawdads Live and Armpit Sex Machines 8”’s also cut by King.
“I couldn’t believe my friends and their wonderful stupid bands had made real records! I didn’t know it was possible and it fried my tiny brain.”
The track ‘King Korny Remains’ is a Pumice fan favourite (well, it’s one of mine) and is a precious song to Neville. It’s one of the first songs where he wrote the words and music entirely by himself. It’s about some of his earliest memories – being terrified in the supermarket while living in Murupara, a small town between the Kaingaroa Forest and Te Urewera National Park.
The title for the sprawling, exquisite racket of ‘Where You Helmet Laddd’ came from a comic about stair fighting by Matthew Ugly Dog Davies from Hamilton.
Neville remembers the process for getting 19.4.96 made as being smooth. King was quick. Sometimes the records would come back just a week later.
“It was less than a month between playing that gig and releasing the 8” of it. That was a big part of doing it. Just an absurd, enjoyable quick thing to do,” he says.
“I love how simple and approachable Peter made it, too. He would never judge or reject your master tape fidelity. There was never any music industry standards or intimidating tech-speak to wade through. Send him a tape and he will put it on a record.”
Neville never plays the whole batch to check the sound for quirks and reckons that each listening experience is unique, anyway. And it’s not as if anyone else has heard the quality of your master tape to compare against the sound quality of the lathe.
“I know the odd one won’t play very well but that’s part of the charm, too,” he says.
“Peter’s service gave us a way to set up a tiny, hopeful little platform to present ourselves to the world. These timid, weedy, wonderful gestures that trickled out into the world and made life-enhancing friends and connections on our behalf. The relationships led to tours and gigs and ‘real’ pressed records and a sense of meaningful self-worth. It’s a bit magical and mysterious and ridiculously easy.”
It’s true about these special lathe cuts being instrumental in forging friendships, connections and communities. So many of the lathe cuts in my own collection have come from friends who make music, and each has been definitive in shaping the way my musical ears are tuned. Looking at and listening to each painstakingly crafted object takes me back to a specific time and place where I first met a friend or heard their music. And listening to 19.4.96 almost tricks my mind into thinking I was at that gig at the Crown.
Kiran Dass lives in Auckland and works for Unity Books. She has covered music and books for the Listener, NZ Herald, Sunday magazine, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, The Wire (UK), Radio New Zealand and 95bFM.