INTERVIEW: Centre Negative

Michael McClelland has been a active and productive fixture of the NZ indie music scene for the past few years, playing in bands (Team Ugly, Centre Negative), writing for the Corner (rip), booking tours for local and international acts as Michael McClelland Taxi Services (also the name of his one-person taxi/comedy operation) and facilitating the growth of Christchurch based record label Melted Ice Cream. His solo project turned 6-12 member lo-fi orchestra Centre Negative are to tour Australia next week.  

Warning: the following album contains lo-fidelity, profanity, serious riffs but also important social critiques.

So, the album is called 'Emotion is Cringey', please explain? Is there a overall concept behind the album?

I thought of the name first and then came up with a song that accurately summarised the feeling. Fittingly, I found the result too cringey to release so it relegated it back to the nether regions of my unconscious. Basically the buzz is that NZ is a very hard place to feel confident in expressing your own emotions. I think everyone can relate to that. 

How did you get involved with Melted Ice Cream? Can you pick a favourite track from the label to link to?

I'd always been a fan of their early cassette releases, but around the time I was thinking of starting my own label I noticed a bit of overlap between their tastes and mine. Plus the website I designed for my label had the exact same colour scheme, font and style as theirs, as a matter of complete coincidence. So I thought failure would be a lot less intimidating if shared between me and two others. So far that's been a thankfully rare experience: I still dig everything we've done as a label collective, and I've avoided running my own label (and myself into the ground). Talk about dodging a bullet there!

My fav MIC track is hard to pick, but 'Dream Date' by Salad Boys has long been one I've kept coming back to.

You're touring Australia next week, what are you excited for? how many members do you have now?

I like to tell people there are 11 or 12, but actually only 6 NZers are coming along. Who knows though, the goal is to cash in on as many local celebs as possible to guest in the band. I gotta say the bands will be the highlight, my pals there booked so many great people to play on this tour. Having known Kitchen's Floor and Terry from the tours I ran for them in NZ this winter has been great too cos they're all playing at certain points on the tour and their music is incredible and their friends' music is incredible and they're hilarious people. 

You've been vocal in your critique of Flying Nun, can you summarise that for us?

I mostly just do it to fill a void. I grew up in my adulthood listening to those bands and I still do uncover a new FN-related obsession every so often, but I'm not about a culture that thrives off the past. To canonise everything like that would be to make an institution out of something fun, which unfortunately what had happened to that label. I criticise stuff like their lack of paying bands (going mostly off the word of more recent bands who I know personally more than the older crowd, though I have heard similar reports surrounding the woes of that generation of signees) and their self-congratulatory attitude a bit because I just think it's important to have a critical mind and avoid complacency when it comes to culture and, of course, your life. On the surface maybe it appears flippant and self-gratifying (or, I fear, contrarian) to deride a popular beacon of underground culture, but that isn't my point. Newer bands should look back at the past, not up to it.

As someone who has toured the US multiple times, what do you think NZ DIY music could learn from then, and what do we do better?

The reason it's so cheap to tour the states (beyond reasons we can't control like food/gas prices) is that common practice there is to give all the money from the show, after costs, to the touring band. It makes sense! Just do that! New Zealand is actually a really fun breezy country to tour, especially at the moment with so many cool engaged local bookers in the small towns, that this is all we need to keep people outside our bubble coming in and thereby making our lives less suffocating and more fun and buzzy. Yeehaw!

You have been critical of corporate involvement in NZ indie music (this op-ed caused quite a hubbub a few years back), and the business-slanted public arts funding environment in the past. The 90s trope of 'corporate sellouts' is outdated, and those who still subscribe to that view are often berated. However, do you think there is something to be said for navigating the music world with a value-system that takes a critical view of capitalist/consumer culture? or are you a more 'everything is exploitation in hypercapitalism' type?

The only reason the 'sellouts vs true punks' model is outdated is because the sellouts seem to have won. However, winning and losing is not the point. 'They' will always win because they have the dominant ideology. And the dominant ideology is the normative ideology. And normative ideologies are a system, and systems kill. Instead, the point is to thrive as an exophilic microscopic life form thrives in thermal pools and deep ocean steam vents: making good out of an environment that wants you burnt. In this way, we can't punish a survivor for surviving... But at the same time, those who have the resources to promote dissent and disorder absolutely should. (partly cos it's fun). It isn't a matter of maintaining a critical outlook as a musician in the music world, it's instead about being critical as a human being who takes part in every minute action that comprises the real world. If music suddenly becomes purposefully streamlined as a tool only for normative culture to advertise their domination, either use détournement or take to a new form of idea circulation. Music is the instrument and not the player. Or if that interpretation of culture seems a little too convoluted to buy, think of the places in the world where the wrong type of creative expression can get you imprisoned or executed (this actually does include us and all other subjects of the American empire). Having to remember this confronts me with the truth that culture can never exist in a vacuum. I don't believe all culture is consumerist, or capitalist, or free or unfree. But it always falls under advertisement or propaganda. Which means that someone somewhere is on the receiving end of the ideas you advertise or propagate.

Michael is a tireless advocate for exciting indie/punk music around New Zealand, and has brought a lot of good music our way with no promise of reward, thank you Michael! Centre Negative’s most recent album is available free on bandcamp, and was recently reissued by New York label ever/never on vinyl.

- James

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