Tuesday, September 04, 2012

David D'Ath remembered



Obituary - David D'Ath (The Skeptics), from Rip It Up, 1990. BY CHRIS MATTHEWS

"I was dreaming about drugs and strange urges, about the primeval past and the digital overload of the future, about the ride of the Valkyries and the chatter of helicopters as I opened my eyes and realised that it was 1984. I was bedded down on the floor of the Skeptics’ club “Snailclamps”. It was 9 o’clock in the morning and Wagner and the helicopters hadn’t stopped. In a darkened club, on a small stage covered with spiderwebs made of heated, stretched polystyrene, a semi-naked figure, lit by a single red spotlight, was performing the praying mantis movements of Tai Chi to the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now. It was David D’Ath...

The Skeptics: David (vocals), Nick Roughan (bass), Don White (drums) and Robin Gould (guitar), were four high school friends from Palmerston North who started playing together in 1980 (initially as X-It) doing a mixture of covers and originals. The first time I saw them was in Auckland, at the Reverb Room in 1982, after the band I was playing with had to cancel at the last minute.

The Skeptics, who were up for the weekend, agreed to step in using borrowed gear and, fuelled by the pathetic crowd, produced a set of such ferocious intensity that I became an immediate fan. The music was aggressive and unsettling but the focal point was David with his slight stature, his hooked nose and his deep-set eyes. He looked like some strange, punch drunk bird and the veins in his neck bulged as he forced mysterious words and noises from his throat.

They were still playing a handful of covers (Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ and Killing Joke’s ‘Wardance’ among them) but the song that really stood out was their own, ‘Last orders’, about a man who has wrongly predicted the end of the world. With it’s unusual riff of picked harmonics and the narrator’s frustrated chorus of “Lies! The end was yesterday!” it was a good choice for a record and later in the year became one of the songs chosen for the compilation EP Furtive Four - Three Piece Pack.

I saw them a few months later at the Rhumba bar in Auckland and the Skeptics, and David, were not only scary but funny as well. David had placed a table on the dance floor in front of the stage with a cornet on it and when it was his turn to play the others egged him on to run out, retrieve it and climb back on stage in time to produce an ear piercing blast. This ritual was repeated throughout the night and it was like watching the idiot son of Nosferatu who’d been hanging out in a David Lynch film: disturbing but blackly humorous.

The Skeptics made various trips to Auckland over the next few years in their beat-up old ambulance and from 1983-1984 ran their own club in Palmerston North. Stories had drifted north about the weird goings-on in “Snailclamps” (including one about a particularly deluded soul attempting to copulate with the PA during a Skeptics gig) so, of course, when Children’s Hour decided to tour NZ it seemed right and natural (since our bands had become friends) that we should play there (and sleep on the floor).

The club closed down at the end of ‘84 and in 1985 the Skeptics decided to move to Wellington. They’d released two records independently (‘83s Chowder Over Wisconsin and Ponds in ‘85) but neither had managed to capture the magnificence of their live performance (watching David, dangerously close to a seizure, bawling the lyrics to ‘Divine Muscles Flex’ was exhilarating) so they set about building their own recording studio, Writhe. Robin had decided to stay in Palmerston North so John Halvorsen and Brent McLaughlin, previously of the Gordons, were recruited as guitarist and mixer (although Brent later became second drummer for a while).

At this stage the Skeptics became fascinated by the possibilities of sampling keyboards and David became involved in writing music for the first time. Their sound, which had previously been guitar oriented, became more dominated by ominous loops and samples of everything from squeaking doors to Al Pacino’s dialogue from the film Cruising.

It was a very different band that appeared in Auckland in 1987 and they were stunning - songs like ‘Turn Over’ and ‘La Motta’ were thrown from the PA in a sonic storm that was beyond comparison. The sound was being created mostly by machinery but it was raw and organic and David’s voice, as always, was an instrument in itself. How anybody could wring emotion from words like “June, June, June, June, June, July, August” (from the darkly beautiful ‘Agitator’) was inexplicable but it was great to watch. And listen to.'

In 1988 they finally released the great album they’d always been capable of. Titled simply Skeptics III it was recorded at their own studio and stands out as one of the best local records of the last ten years.

At the end of 1989, as they were working on their fourth album Amalgam (to be released shortly) David learned that he had leukaemia. He spent most of this year undergoing various treatments and a bone marrow transplant. Even though his health was fairly precarious, the Skeptics still managed to play two great gigs at the Gluepot with the new songs (particularly ‘Sheen of Gold’) sounding more inventive and better than ever.

On Tuesday, 4th September, 1990, David died.

In a darkened club, on a small stage covered with spiderwebs made of heated, stretched polystyrene, a semi-naked figure, lit by a single red spotlight, was performing the praying mantis movements of Tai Chi to the soundtrack from Apocalypse Now. It was David D’Ath...
He will be remembered."

[I think I sourced this via the Skeptics FB page, thanks to whoever posted it there]

2 comments:

Andrew Schmidt said...

Nice piece of writing, Chris. Remember it well from the time and always wondered why you didn't do more. Thanks for exhuming this, Peter.

Snipfeeds said...

Thanks for the blog, I quoted your piece about David's semi-naked dancing to Apocalpyse Now on the facebook page Palmerston North Hall of Fame and David is No. 4.