non-fiction rock from Aotearoa New Zealand

Interview in Southland Times, Invercargill newspaper.

Chris Chilton, journalist for the Southland Times, a daily newspaper in the most southern New Zealand city of Invercargill recently interviewed mr sterile. 17/04/2011

Original link HERE

Text in full:

Chrissie Butler with inedible sign, photo by B.T Ardell

Photo by B.T Ardell

From the netherworld of New Zealand art, ex-Invercargill punk Kieran Monaghan is staring you down. CHRIS CHILTON engages.

Call Kieran Monaghan a talentless wanker and he’ll have done his job. Confrontation is central to his art.

Positive reaction or hostile, the Wellington punk musician-poet-performance artist is out to engage you and provoke a response. An apathetic audience represents failure to engage. He won’t allow that.

Back in the late 1980s-early 90s Kieran Monaghan was the skinny mohawked kid behind the drumkit of Invercargill hardcore punk band Moral Fibre, and its offshoot Loosehead. His frantically fast stickwork propelled a band that railed against consumerism and state control.

Fast forward 20-odd years. Kieran Monaghan is in Wellington, sitting behind the drumkit, propelling his own punk band-performance art group mr sterile Assembly, railing against consumerism and state control.

So you think nothing’s changed, then? Wrong.

You can hear a little bit of the young Kieran in his drumming, that very specific splash cymbal accent he always used, but Monaghan’s artistry has evolved beyond recognition. The angry roar of the young punk has been replaced by the savage wit of an intelligent poet operating on the periphery of the New Zealand underground. Clever enough to engage, even from the outside.

During the day Monaghan also engages people, working as a nurse at Newtown Union Health Service, a health clinic for people on the community card. It’s a logical progression for him. He’s helping people who might otherwise fall through the cracks, championing the underdog.

By night, Monaghan and his wife, musical collaborator Chrissie Butler, are the intellectual core of mr sterile Assembly, an accomplished and well-travelled performance art-punk band with a revolving-door lineup.

They have children. The couple rehearse at home and fit in touring and travel between work and school holidays.

Kiwi blogger Nick Fulton, of Einstein Music Journal, describes mr sterile Assembly as “a band of weirdoes that has never been a part of any scene or movement.

“So many bands claim to be DIY, bragging about it like it is a cool thing, but mr sterile Assembly is far and beyond the most DIY band around – DIY to the point where the majority of young Wellington music fans have never heard of them,” Fulton writes.

mr sterile aboveThe Assembly’s music is anarchic and free, a challenging mix of punk rock, chant vocals and jazz. It may appear chaotic, but it takes a lot of technical discipline to appear this chaotic.

The two bass guitars of Butler and Aaron Lloydd are the dominant melodic devices on their recent album, Transit. Running aggressively in counterpoint they evoke a sense of displacement and uncertainty, punctuated by Monaghan’s staccato drumming, while the semi-spoken lyrics of Monaghan and Butler condemn militarism and shallow consumerism.

During performances Assembly members dress up in outlandish costumes and wear garish facepaint. Their appearance can be unnerving. Kieran Monaghan will no doubt be pleased by this.

In the 10 years since he started mr sterile Assembly there has always been a theatrical component to the music. The stage personas were a reaction, Monaghan says, to the fact that music then was “all pretty boring”.

“There was no live music in theatre in Wellington at the time. There was also no live theatre in music … There was no effort made to engage with the audience. It was really a them-and-us kind of thing.

“After a decade of DJs, audiences had forgotten how to be an audience, how to respond.”

Monaghan says his objective is to provoke a reaction, good or bad, because mediocre music induces apathy in audiences. “I would much prefer you walked out, calling me a f…ing terrible-sounding wanker, if I turned your head from the bar and managed to break some of that indifference for a while.”

Despite being virtually unknown in their homeland, mr sterile Assembly have an impressive international touring record. They’ve performed in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Eastern Europe.

They’re back in Australia now for six dates, then return to South-East Asia in July.

The Assembly are a popular attraction in the villages of Malaysia and Indonesia, where they toured in 2006. They’ve been invited back by Malaysian punk band Carburettor Dung to tour with them in Sarawak, the largest Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.

Monaghan says they like to get “completely off the beaten track”, among the villages and real people.

He admits the locals haven’t seen anything like the Assembly’s theatrical hardcore act before, but then “nobody ever travels there anyway … so getting a bunch of people like us coming from New Zealand to play a punk rock show, in eastern Java, in a dusty paddock on a bamboo stage was a rare event”.

About 1200 villagers turned out to watch. “There’s a huge kind of punk rock movement there. It’s phenomenal.”

mr sterile Assembly will mark 10 years’ existence in May.

Monaghan with his mohawk, tartan pants and safety pins was never going to be contained in Invercargill. He and Moral Fibre/Loosehead bass player Grant Sutherland moved to Wellington in the early 90s, continuing the band name for another decade.

Both were involved in Alan Brunton’s cutting-edge Red Mole fringe theatre-music troupe, Monaghan for about eight years, while he also organised a vegetarian takeoff of the Sweetwaters festival, entitled Meatwaters.

Before Loosehead called it a day in 2001, Monaghan was already working on a solo music project under the stage name mr sterile.

“At the time I thought it was kind of a one-off performance, but Sterile just grew.”

The assembly was based on the Red Mole model, “an open, collective workshop” where anyone who wanted to take part was welcome.

The beauty of the arrangement, Monaghan says, was that if somebody couldn’t make it to a show, the show still went on, albeit slightly different than it would have been.

“If you’re in a band and somebody says `I can’t do it, I have to stay home’, then everybody has to stay home. But we’re like, `well, actually we still want to do it, it’ll just be different’.”

In its biggest incarnation the Assembly included seven people, with cellos, clarinets and trombones. It was like “community development”, he says.

“We would just bring people in. It didn’t really matter whether they were very technically proficient, but what mattered was that they were willing and motivated to learn and develop from there.”

mr sterile Assembly have continued in that vein, ringing the changes through a fluid, fluctuating lineup.

On Transit, fittingly but quite coincidentally recorded at Inca Studios, in the building that formerly housed the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Monaghan formed an ensemble of about 20 musicians, poets and artists to combine music with 11 original artworks. You could scarcely describe it as a breakout commercial album, but its production values are higher than before and no expense has been spared on the design and packaging.

“Certainly now an amount of proficiency is required with some of the complexity of the stuff but back then it didn’t matter,” Monaghan says.

When they perform the songs off the album live, though, on a planned visit to his hometown Invercargill later this year, it will be just the two of them: Monaghan on drums and vocals and Chrissie Butler on bass and vocals.

It takes a lot of rehearsal to render such complex music in a two-piece format, but Monaghan reiterates that’s the whole point of the Assembly.

“I had no intention of reproducing the CD live. It is purely a version of the band in its own right. We do the songs, and they certainly don’t lack any energy or assertiveness … it’s just me and Chrissie and it’s fine. It becomes what it is.

“If anybody knows anything about us they know that they can always depend on us never being the same.”Transit, by mr sterile Assembly, is available online at:

– The Southland Times

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