Better Than Before: My life with Sneaky Feelings

Once in a lifetime a band comes along that you love so much, they become part of your world.

For me, it’s Sneaky Feelings.

This is the story of how I discovered my favourite New Zealand band. It’s quite possible that you haven’t heard of them, even if you live in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

I can’t write authoritatively about Sneaky Feelings in their heyday in the 1980s, because I wasn’t there. I didn’t know they existed.

They’re not part of my misspent youth, or my university days.

Sneaky Feelings burst, fully formed, into my life in my late 20s. Just as they were calling it a day after a decade of touring and making records.

A band lost and found

Sneaky Feelings are sometimes described as a great “lost” New Zealand band.

Their most famous song is “Husband House”, which has to be the most improbable name for a Top 20 pop song. It’s there at number 86 in the Nature’s Best Top New Zealand Songs Of All Time.

They were among the best-known, and much-loved, Flying Nun bands of the 1980s.

You’d think that in a country as small as New Zealand, a band like Sneaky Feelings, with this kind of track record and profile, would be reasonably well known.

However, such is the nature of New Zealand music subcultures that even if you’re interested in local music, you may not have heard Sneaky Feelings. I hadn’t. 

Flying Nun is an independent record company, founded in Christchurch in 1981 by record store owner and music lover Roger Shepherd. He tells the story in his entertaining 2016 book, In Love With These Times.

Sneaky Feelings formed in Dunedin in 1980. They were there at the beginning of Flying Nun. They’re on the 1982 Dunedin Double EP, along with the Chills, The Verlaines and The Stones.

During the 1980s they made three LPs and several EPs and singles and played many gigs, including touring the UK and Europe twice. Their records were well received by critics (including the UK music press) and beloved by fans.

The Sneaky Feelings story has been told by Matthew Bannister, in Positively George St, a personal history of Sneaky Feelings and the Dunedin Sound (Reed, 1999).

Positively George St
That’s Matthew in the middle: he wrote Positively George St about his experiences as a musician in Dunedin in the early 1980s.

Off the shelf

In early 1989 I started work at Auckland University library’s circulation department. I’d been invalided out of my job on a daily newspaper. I thought the library would be a less stressful workplace. I wasn’t expecting much.

I reported for work on my first day and was sent to shelve books in the basement with two other library staffers, both skinny young men. We had plenty of time to talk while we shelved. It turned out that both of them played in bands.

One was dressed like a rock star, with tight black stovepipe jeans and winklepickers. He had dyed-black big 80s hair and eyeliner.

The other was wearing baggy old blue jeans, jandals and a grubby white shirt that might once have belonged to his school uniform. His shaggy brown hair looked like he had cut it himself.

He was the lead guitarist of a semi-famous New Zealand rock band. Matthew Bannister. I vaguely recognized the band name, Sneaky Feelings, from my time as a subeditor. But I had no idea what they sounded like, or even what kind of music they played.

I asked around at morning tea, while sipping the awful library coffee (it tasted like roasted library books). While everyone in the circulation department knew who Sneaky Feelings were (or they weren’t admitting to as much cultural ignorance as me) nobody actually owned any of their records.

Digging up the records

There was no Youtube in those Jurassic times. Fortuitously, my brother Kenneth had given me Stranded In Paradise, John Dix’s 1988 New Zealand music bible, for my birthday the previous weekend. (Thankyou, Kenneth!)

I found a substantial section on Sneaky Feelings, featuring a dorky looking black and white photograph.

I was intrigued. How on earth could a bunch of musicians who looked so uncool play on stage, let alone make records and get (apparently) semi-famous? I wanted to know more.

After work I headed down the hill to Marbeck’s, which was Auckland’s main downtown record shop in the 1980s.

I discovered a whole shelf of Sneaky Feelings vinyl in the New Zealand music section. I invested a good chunk of my first paycheck on a stack of Sneaky Feelings records. Husband House, Hard Love Stories, Better Than Before and Sentimental Education.

As soon as I got home I put the EP Better Than Before on my turntable and set the needle to the groove. I can’t remember why I chose that one.

“I woke up from a dream I’d wanted to ignore…”

And I had a musical epiphany. I can clearly remember thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” This was everything I’d been looking for in a band. And up till this minute I didn’t even know they existed.

Sneaky Feelings were the first New Zealand band I encountered who made me think, “I could do that!” And, “Yes, I’d love to do that!”

It was a musical turning point for me.

If they hadn’t just broken up, I’d have been rushing the stage, wanting to join the band.

They’d even had a female member, their first bass player, Kat Tyrie. In one of those “two degrees of separation” New Zealand things, she had some connection to my brother Kenneth. Some boxes belonging to Kat were sitting on a shelf in the garage at my brothers’ place in Balmoral, left behind when she went overseas.

Hiding in the shrubbery: Sneaky Feelings’s second studio album, Sentimental Education. Cover by Virginia Were.

The start of the Darts

Far from being a boring backwater, I discovered that the library was full of interesting people, including several musicians and artists. Soon I was jamming with various people, and also playing fiddle in a bluegrass band.

I was surprised and flattered when Matthew asked me to come and play with him. Fairly soon we were making music semi-regularly, in the front room of the scruffy Mt Eden house where he lived with Graeme Humphreys of the Able Tasmans (another Flying Nun outfit, and he’s better known as Graham Hill) and a mathematician called Steven Binns.

The flat had no bathroom. There was a shower cubicle and a toilet just off the main hallway. The three guys saw no problem with this.

One Sunday afternoon I turned up with my fiddle and found Matthew playing with a dark-haired musician called Alan Gregg. Alan had a huge Rickenbacker bass guitar.

We sounded great together, playing Matthew’s beautiful songs in a semi-acoustic format. We formed a band.

Matthew was the senior musician of the group, and his choice prevailed when it came to choosing a name. We were the Dribbling Darts of Love. Yeah, yeah, I know….

It’s a Shakespeare quote. I think he’d been storing up that name for years while he was doing his abandoned PhD on King Lear.

Alan was a few years younger than Matthew and me. He was from Palmerston North, and was a big Sneaky Feelings fan.

I could see immediately that Alan was a superb musician. His main instrument had been keyboards before he acquired the Rickenbacker. He’d tried out for the Chills, but allegedly screwed up his audition when Martin Phillipps got him so stoned that he couldn’t play.

After playing with the Dribbling Darts of Love for a few years, Alan joined Don McGlashan in The Muttonbirds.

The Dribbling Darts of Love deserve a post of their own, not just a digressive paragraph in a post about Sneaky Feelings. One day…

Dribbling Darts of Love
Dribbling Darts of Love at the Wellington Fringe Festival 1990. From left: Alice Bulmer, Matthew Bannister, Alan Gregg.

Reader, I married him

Soon after this, Matthew and I were dating, as well as playing in a band together.

I fell in love with Matthew unexpectedly, inconveniently and quite apart from his former band.

I know what it looks like, but I’m pretty clear in my affections. I love both the Sneakies and Matthew, differently and separately.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony of marrying the man who wrote “Husband House”.

But this story is mainly about Sneaky Feelings, not me and Matthew.

The Flying Nun heyday

I’m still annoyed that I missed Sneaky Feelings in their heyday. I was overseas in the mid-1980s, when they were at the peak of their local semi-fame.

I did follow New Zealand music. I knew about a lot of New Zealand bands and went to live gigs.

I’d heard quite a few Flying Nun acts. But I never saw a band that wowed me. I mostly didn’t love what I heard.

Sometimes it was because of the sheer volume. I remember being pinned to the back wall of a hall in Timaru while the legendarily loud Gordons were playing.

Also, late-night gigs didn’t feel like safe places for a young woman, with boot boys and skinheads standing around looking hostile. (There probably weren’t many of those at Sneaky Feelings gigs.)

Beatles and Byrds

What I loved about Sneaky Feelings was their poppy, Byrds/Beatles/ soul vibe, with a big dash of alt-country, and some of the most emotionally direct lyrics that anyone’s ever dared to write in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Their lyrics are emotional in a way that’s highly unusual for New Zealand male musicians. There’s very little ironic distance.

There was also something endearing about their dodgy vocals. They weren’t any better at singing than me. I loved that they could do that and get away with it. (I’ve since found that Flying Nun is full of people like that. I was just hanging out in the wrong places.)

Also, they didn’t have one lead singer. They all wrote songs and they all sang.

Outsiders in New Zealand

Sneaky Feelings aren’t typical of the Flying Nun post-punk sound. They didn’t have a loud angry post-punky vibe like many Flying Nun outfits, and they weren’t cool and arty like The Clean or The Verlaines.

They were out on the edge, in the local music scene. Although in retrospect it’s possible to see international parallels, including REM in Athens, Georgia; Orange Juice and other Scottish indie soul bands; and in Australia, The Go-Betweens. The Sneakies played some of their European gigs with The Go-Betweens. (And less probably, Lydia Lunch and Dinosaur Jr.)

The Jayhawks, Wilco and Teenage Fanclub are some other musical cousins of Sneaky Feelings. The band themselves were big fans of The Bangles.

They wanted to be pop stars, but were too arty, too awkward on stage. However, “real” pop stars respected them, including Jordan Luck of the Dance Exponents.

Because Sneaky Feelings were outliers, they tended to be a bit paranoid. The small subcultural NZ music scenes can be divisive and competitive.

In 1991 Sneaky Feelings were left off the Flying Nun retrospective compilation album, Getting Older. It was a shock omission for one of Flying Nun’s top three bands. Matthew’s response was to write Positively George Street, so Sneaky Feelings couldn’t be erased from Flying Nun history.

Roger Shepherd says in In Love With These Times that it was an inebriated mistake on his part. But I think it meant that the Sneakies just weren’t on the radar of Flying Nun insiders at the time. The decision shouldn’t have come down to one person.

Send You

Send You was Sneaky Feelings’s first studio album. It’s still their most popular album locally. They recorded at Mascot Studios with Phil Yule producing, just a couple of weeks after the Patea Maori Club’s paradigm-shifting recording of “Poi E” with the same production team.

They followed Send You with the single/EP “Husband House”, a deliciously melancholy ballad. “Husband House” made it into the New Zealand Top 20 in 1985, which was unusual for a Flying Nun record.

Here’s a link to the video of “Husband House”.

However, the timing coincided with a strike by TVNZ cameramen. The music chart TV show Ready to Roll was cancelled and the Sneakies missed their chance to get national exposure.

Matthew has said that he thinks Sneaky Feelings are better represented by their recordings than their live performances. Their complex, subtle music doesn’t always translate well to live performance.

But I’ve been told by Sneaky fans that in their heyday they were a tight outfit and could rock out.

Also, they’re men of ideas rather than action. (Apart from John, who built his own house.) So they could be let down by on-stage tech stuff.

Enduring affection

Not everyone “gets” Sneaky Feelings. But if you love them, you love them. In 2017 people were fond enough of Sneaky Feelings to travel to Hamilton to hear the band play a reunion gig. Their music inspires enduring affection, even after 40 years.

New Zealand Herald journalist Greg Dixon wrote a “last night a record changed my life” article about “Husband House”, a few years ago.

This article probably belongs in that genre too.

Indie soul to alt-country

Each of the Sneakies has his own style.

David Pine pioneered alt-country, before the genre had a name. His charming, enchantingly nasty post-Dylan ballads include “Throwing Stones”, “Wouldn’t Cry”, and “I’m Listening To Merle Haggard Singing She Thinks I Still Care”, which Sneaky Feelings have never recorded but should.

In later years David’s songwriting has evolved towards Steely Dan-type chord progressions, for example “Don’t Blame You”, on Sneaky Feelings‘s 2017 Flying Nun album Progress Junction.

Martin Durrant is a master of the show-stopping soul ballad.  His songs include “Strangers Again” (which has been beautifully covered by Bic Runga), “You Never Know”, and “Coming True”. He writes some of the Sneakies’ most “heart on sleeve” songs, which for this band is saying something.

As a drummer he’s unfussy and just behind the beat, as befits his soul/R ‘n’ B influences. At band practices Martin sits calmly on his drum stool, reading The Guardian Weekly, while the guitarists squabble about volume on their amplifiers.

John Kelcher, the bass player of Sneaky Feelings, is a skilled multi-instrumentalist. His songwriting style tends towards the indie jangle of “Walk To The Square”, which in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes becomes a requiem. John’s lyrics are always worth a close look – check out his title song on the Sneakies’ 2017 Progress Junction album.

He is the most practical member of this band of intellectuals. He built a recording studio in his Christchurch garden, where the band has made its recent recordings.

Matthew Bannister’s style is constantly evolving. His glorious, melancholy ballads “Not To Take Sides” and “Husband House” are some of Sneaky Feelings’s best-loved songs.

I’d describe his signature style as indie soul, pop-symphonic. He’s always reaching for something that he can’t quite grasp. More recently he’s been trying to rein himself down to simpler chord progressions.

He’s also one of New Zealand’s great lead guitarists – there are a couple of his sizzling guitar solos on Progress Junction.

Still hiding in the shrubbery: Sneaky Feelings in 2017. They were recording Progress Junction in John Kelcher’s Christchurch studio. From left: Matthew Banister, Martin Durrant, David Pine, John Kelcher.

After the Sneakies called it a day in 1989, they went their separate ways for years.

David Pine went to law school, became a diplomat and served as New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur.

Matthew Bannister completed a PhD on New Zealand indie music and masculinities, which became a book, White Boys, White Noise (Ashgate, 2006). He works as a postgraduate supervisor at Wintec, supervising art students and musicians to write master’s theses.

He’s also continued to make records and release them – mainly his own songs. His latest release is a Beatles tribute album, Rubber Solo.

John Kelcher has had a career as a sound archivist, and has also stood for Parliament for the Green Party. The lyrics of his songs on Progress Junction often reflect his environmental interests.

Martin Durrant works for the Ministry of Culture in Wellington.

All four have continued to make music and write songs.

My Sneaky in-laws

Sneaky Feelings are like my husband’s previous family. I’ve never felt jealous of Matthew’s connection to the band. I love the whole band too much for that.

I have always felt welcomed by Matthew’s bandmates. When I first turned up to watch a Sneaky recording session I joked about being Yoko, but it wasn’t like that at all. I’ve never had a sense that there was “secret Sneaky stuff” going on, that I wasn’t party to.

I’ve loved making music with the Sneakies, together and separately, over the years. I feel musically and personally very simpatico with them.

After I played bass on his first Bleeding Allstars album release David Pine went as far as to ask me to join Sneaky Feelings. I took it as a huge compliment, but I didn’t take him seriously.

Progress Junction

I started writing this post in 2017, while the Sneakies were releasing their first record in three decades, Progress Junction. Sneaky fans came out of the woodwork and booked flights to Hamilton for the first show of the tour.

At their appearance at The Others Way festival in Auckland they were joined on stage by Sneaky friends Don McGlashan and Bic Runga (and me, playing viola).

Alice Bulmer with Sneaky Feelings and Don McGlashan
“Not To Take Sides”, The Others Way festival, Auckland, 2017. Sneaky Feelings, Don McGlashan and me.

Progress Junction was (like all Sneaky recordings) a critical success. Some reviews called it the best record of their career.

They’re currently working on another recording project, which is likely to be released in early 2020.

My favourite Sneaky Feelings song will always be “Better Than Before”, because that’s where I first discovered them.

“Better Than Before” may be getting a new lease of life. Last weekend Matthew had a conversation about the possibility of using the song in a film soundtrack.

I’m also very fond of Sentimental Education, which has never (yet) been re-released. It’s a musical treasure that was under-rated in New Zealand, because it didn’t fit into the local Flying Nun music scene, but loved by UK music critics.

I’m enduringly grateful to Sneaky Feelings for making such beautiful, inspiring music. For sheer chutzpah and determination to write songs and record them and perform them, in Aotearoa-New Zealand.

I’m so glad to have this band in my life.