Every Record I Own: Coolies – Master
The other day I was walking through town and suddenly had ‘searching the night/searching the night/running from you/running from you’ stuck in my head out of nowhere. I found the release on bandcamp and listened to it on the way home.
This LP had been relegated to my difficult listening crate which doesn’t come out often. I think I last put it on a few years ago telling my flatmates it was a pop punk band and being asked to put it away after a few songs.
Coolies are a pop punk band. But maybe only for 5 minutes total out of this 35 minute record. And even when they are it’s in a ‘punk songs that are hooky’ way and not in the ‘2002 music on a discman at intermediate’ way.
Coolies were kind of a legendary band in my later teen years. In a music scene that was very male and even more white, a punk band of Māori women from South Auckland was something completely different. They did world tours and were loved by iconic musicians. They were described in the way that young women making punk music often are, bratty etc which is not true but appealed to me. And the fact that I only ever had one song of theirs to go by, Holiday/Vacation, on an A Low Hum compilation made them mysterious but within reach. Rumours of more songs on self released CDs that friends of friends had kept me interested.
But their live shows were few and far between and definitely not in Christchurch. There were rumours that Pumice aka Stefan Neville was now drumming for them, which apparently was very cool for those who knew who he was (not me at the time)
In 2010 seemingly out of nowhere a new album popped up. The artwork was black and white and had the aesthetics of a zine. It didn’t have their name on the front or anything. Still very cool and kinda mysterious.
I helped them put on an all ages show in Christchurch. They were real nice and very good live! They offered me a free record, but as I didn’t really listen to records at the time, and I wanted to listen to this I chose a CD instead, which I regretted for years until a friend sold me his copy.
I have now come back around on the idea that CDs are cool and if I knew where my copy of Master was on CD I would probably listen to that sometimes.
The first three tracks on Master could lead into a more conventional DIY punk record.
Tracks 1 and 3 Lets Pretend and Salute are both under 1 minute 30. Very hooky vocals lead by Tina but frequently Sjionel in tandem, clean guitar, bass and drums gel together. The only hint of anything especially weird is some of the production seems to red line and distort a bit easily, and occasionally the guitar leads become something non musical.
Wedged between them is Ghostbaby. Ghostbaby could be a pop song. It is structured verse/chorus/instrumental break/verse/chorus/fake fade out/verse/chorus. Except it has no regular guitar (just feedback and noise). drums and bass and a pulsating synth and the instrumental break completely breaks the song before the synth pulsates and picks the song back up. But even this doesn’t feel like it’s out of place and anything that would feel out of place on another record could be explained as being unintentional or as a result of struggles with DIY production.
After the third track there is no plausible deniability that this is anything but what the Coolies want it to be.
I’ve played guitar for a long time and never been very good at it, because whenever I play for any length of time I realise it’s much more fun making weird noises, creating rhythms and melodies out of the most non musical sounds you can make out of the guitar. The rest of the A side is made up of moments like this but on a full band level and far more interesting than anything I can do.
Sometimes the appeal of bands is the feeling that everything could fall apart at any moment. It creates a feeling of tension and a propulsion. With Coolies, it’s the potential that at any stage this chaos could come together into something amazing. And they do. In Throwaway the song explodes into the band playing around a guitar solo for a few seconds.
On the b side there are moments of convention. In Theory and Holiday are two of the most songy songs. They’re longer than 2 minutes (but less than 3) built on the traditional guitar/bass/drums vocals and hooky vocals but the noise, or the possibility of noise, never disappears completely.
Searching opens the B side and is the song that popped into my head the other day. It starts with call and response vocals over a drum beat and blooping electronics. Stefan Neville’s response vocals are distorted in a very pumice way. But that vanishes into a breakdown of shouting ‘you don’t understand, you’ll never understand‘ which gets yelled faster and faster until it’s almost percussive. The drums repeat this carrying the message forward wordlessly. Other instruments join in. On the last track on the album this beat comes back briefly and you can feel ‘you don’t understand, you’ll never understand‘ in the music.
I don’t love every part of this album Some of the lo fi noise jams go on a bit long for my current tastes. One of the downsides of records is you can’t easily skip these things, If it was an EP with just Lets Pretend/Ghostbaby/Salute/Message/Holiday it would likely be in my regular listening more often. But then I wouldn’t have Searching pop up in my head every now and then and have the need to listen to it. Or the moment in Throwaway with the out of nowhere 5 second guitar solo, or the moment in throwaway 30 seconds later with the 10 second guitar solo.
If you’re into the noisier side of things, their next album Kaka from 2015 leans into that further.
If you’re more into the songs but find the noise a bit difficult, Tina’s other band Piece War does a more stripped back focussed songs with just guitar/voice/drums
Uncollected singles and songs were rereleased as ‘South Auckland Girls in the Garage’ on by Thurston Moore in 2019, but has sold out and not available digitally. Some of the songs are floating around on Bandcamp including more straight up versions of Holiday/Vacation and Throwaway (which sounds like a completely different song) on a 2 track EP Bless the Babies and the Mothers and their 1999 7″ release. Their 2003 album is not anywhere online as far as I can tell.
Master has a bit of everything from the different eras of the band. It has some of their poppiest moments and some of their whatever the opposite of pop is moments. It has come out of my difficult listening crate for now.
I really hope that there are some teenagers somewhere who have heard the rumours of this amazing punk band, having listened to what they can find online, but knowing there’s something else out there waiting for them to tour again.
fave tracks: Searching (but only sometimes), Ghostbaby, Salute, Let’s Pretend, Holiday