"It's one thing to like a few songs you've heard on Bandcamp or Soundcloud, [but] it's another to see it live," reflects Phil Waldorf, the co-founder and director of marketing to Bloomington, Indiana's Secretly Group. Waldorf is thinking back to August 2015, when while visiting New Zealand to speak at the Going Global Music Summit and attend The Others Way Festival in Auckland, he had a clarifying moment. "I've probably seen hundreds of bands at these types of showcase events – SXSW, CMJ, The Great Escape, and more. I've never seen one as vibrant... It was an inspired, invigorating performance, and confirmed what I already loved in the recordings. We had to work with him."
Waldorf is talking about Dunedin's Kane Strang, one of the most exciting young songwriters in New Zealand. Not long after that performance, Strang signed with Secretly Group label Dead Oceans, also home to Slowdive, Mitski, and Julianna Barwick. In late June, they released his new album Two Hearts and No Brain. Riddled with earworm-level hooks, lyrical double-meanings, and cold, clear-eyed sentiment wrapped in optimistic melodies, the album is immediately accessible, with a secondary slow burn that will still have you coming to fresh realisations many listens later.
I've learned so much about the creation and recording of music and the not so glamorous admin insider things that come with releasing it.
Strang is 24, with brownish-blackish hair cut in a mop top, and sharp facial features. Simply put, he looks like a 90s grunge/alt-rock musician, but in a suit, he wouldn't be out of place in a black and white 60s psyche-pop photo shoot either. Fittingly, his music sits in a liminal zone somewhere between these two reference points, but as filtered through the lens of an insular musician who - at his own pace - learned his craft through D.I.Y recording in bedrooms, concrete bunkers and converted hotels around the globe. "I started out making music that was beyond lo-fi, and each album, I learned from my mistakes and got better," he reflects. "There's never been a pivotal moment where I had an epiphany; it's all happened slowly. I've learned so much about the creation and recording of music and the not so glamorous admin insider things that come with releasing it."
Having spent his early years in Dunedin, Strang fled New Zealand for Europe in his late teens. He found his feet in the German city of Krefeld, just northwest of Düsseldorf, where he shared a ramshackle one-bedroom apartment with his childhood friend Rassani Tolovaa. Strang spent his days riding a bicycle around the city, and playing card games with the locals. After dark, he'd record songs with his guitar and laptop inside a converted bomb shelter. Those songs became his 2013 EP, A Pebble And A Paper Crane, released after he returned home. Although it's no longer available online, its buoyant atmospheres lifted Strang's profile around New Zealand, and kicked off the conversations that led to the release of his debut album Blue Cheese through Flying Nun and Ba Da Bing! In 2015. In turn, Blue Cheese brought him onto Waldorf and Secretly Group's radar, leading to Two Hearts and No Brain. As he began playing shows around the country, his old friend Tolovaa joined him on bass and newer friends Ben Fielding and Peter McCall on drums and second guitar.
"Once I got a band, started touring, and began meeting bands I was a fan of, I realised how important a part of music playing in a band was, and how the experience would help me make the next album better," he admits. One of the bands that helped shape Strang's understanding was Wellington-based heavy psyche trio Mermaidens. "Kane [Strang] opened for us solo in 2014," remembers Mermaidens bassist/vocalist Lily West. "I was so taken with his songwriting; super catchy, but leftfield, hilariously honest and moody. It's been fantastic to see his live performance grow in confidence, and watch audiences that know all the words sing along and feel it. I listen to Blue Cheese every week at the moment, to itch every angsty itch. I can't wait for the new album."
When Strang finished Blue Cheese he was living in a strange flat located inside in Dunedin's industrial area, right next door to a bacon buttie shop. "I was desperate to move on quickly," he remembers. "I started writing the songs on Two Hearts and No Brain the next day." Around the same time, he received an unsolicited email from Waldorf, googled the email address to confirm it was real, and then jumped out of his seat. Secretly Group signed Strang up for a publishing deal, giving him the resources to record better demos. After years of looking at the international indie scene from a distance, things began to open up. "From New Zealand, it just seemed like this huge unreachable thing," Strang admits. "What I've realised is this, it's not, it's a small world, and everyone knows everyone in it."
After impressing Waldorf with his band's live show, and signing to Dead Oceans, Strang started recording Two Hearts and No Brain with Dunedin-based audio engineer and producer Steven Marr, best known for his work in trip-hop band Doprah. They worked at a studio space inside the former Chicks Hotel venue in Port Chalmers, decamping to Christchurch to record drums along the way. "Kane [Strang] came to me with demos for most of the record, apart from a few songs they worked on as a band, and to be honest I didn't change them very much," Marr recalls. "I didn't really have to convince him of anything. The way we worked was more of an open discussion, and ultimately it's his record… My goal was to get his ideas across and present him with some options to keep the ball rolling if he wasn't sure about something." "I needed someone to bounce off," Strang adds. "It had been getting to the point where I was ruining my music because I didn't know when to stop."
Conversational and captivating, the songs on Two Hearts and No Brain are dressed up in an updated, higher fidelity versions of the 60s meets 90s aesthetic Strang's been honing. While they tackle traditional songwriting staples like heartbreak and loneliness, this time Strang decided to try step beyond the heteronormative perimeters of the traditional pop song. "I really tried not to use words like 'he' and 'she' this time," he explains. I'm trying to use 'they' instead. An interviewer in the Netherlands asked me who 'they' was, and the answer to that question is whoever the listener wants it to be. I still used those words on some songs, but ideally, I don't want people to have to listen to a song that says 'he' or 'she' and have to ignore the fact that that's what I'm saying to be able to relate to it."
This year, Strang and his band started touring overseas. In March, they played twenty-seven shows across North America in twenty-five days. A month later, they headed over the Atlantic to play a series of shows throughout Europe and the UK, before returning home in June. Along the way, they discovered the warmth of the international independent music scene. They also experienced a few harsh wake-up calls, including having their touring van broken into in Vancouver just before opening up for Scottish alt-rockers Teenage Fanclub. "We played fucking well because we were so fucked off, and we had hundreds of people watching us," Strang remembers.
"My bandmates have kept me in line," he continues. There is no way I could have done what I've done this year without them. They've sacrificed a lot for me. I struggle not to feel guilty about making these people leave their homes and girlfriends, and pissing off their bosses, just to go and play music and promote Kane Strang. It's strange; I pretty much went into business with three of my best friends, you know?"
With an international record deal and overseas touring opportunities in play, the stakes quickly become high, especially while operating from somewhere as distant as New Zealand. Strang has had to learn to deal with the pressure fast. Although he's confident, that doesn't make it any less scary for him, but at least he's honest. "Our motto from day one has been, 'we'll make it work,'" Strang says. "I've had to move back to my parents because I can't afford to keep paying rent while I'm on tour, and I can't keep a regular job. It's been a lot of begging and borrowing… Nothing is certain; you can't look someone in the eyes and be like, 'Don't worry guys, this will all pay off next year.' You can't promise that. This is the hardest part: you have to believe in yourself enough to let other people that you love and care for take a risk for the sake of your music." He pauses for a moment before continuing. "At one point I was just sitting in my room making music, in a situation that was the polar opposite of that. It was just that simple."
'Two Hearts and No Brain' is out now through Dead Oceans.
Images: LouLou Callister Baker