Cult guitarist Roy Montgomery on Flying Nun, grief and embracing mistakes: ‘It’s an existential thing’

Beloved by the likes of Dry Cleaning and Grouper, Montgomery’s life has been hit by more than one tragedy, stories he traces in meditative instrumentals

While travelling through the US in 1994-5, Roy Montgomery recorded two albums, Scenes from the South Island and Temple IV, which would set the tone for three decades of maverick work by the quietly avuncular New Zealand guitarist. “My partner Jo had died in 1992, and I felt I owed it to her to travel and deal with what had happened,” he says, via Zoom from his home in Christchurch. “I sub-let an apartment in New York from a friend with a four-track recorder and lots of effects. It was lonely, like solitary confinement, but it was good that I just sat there and processed what had happened, and turned it into something.”

The mesmeric guitar instrumentals he recorded in that apartment marked a turning point in Montgomery’s fitful musical career. Thirteen years earlier, his band Pin Group had released the first single on now-legendary independent label Flying Nun, later home to key Kiwi underground artists the Clean, the Chills and the Verlaines. Pin Group’s post-punk primitivism – which earned him the nickname “Roy Division” – was shaped by Montgomery’s realisation that he “wasn’t wired to be a virtuoso, so I should concentrate on ideas and experimentation”.

Roy Montgomery: In Mutual Flux – video

Cobwebby with gauzy effects and lo-fi ambience, these meditative recordings have earned Montgomery a cult following among cult artists. Bruce Russell, of influential drone group the Dead C, says Montgomery’s “aural images of isolation and quiet redemption resonate like distant bells”. For Liz Harris, AKA Grouper, a kindred spirit who has released Montgomery’s records on her own label, his music is “a familiar landscape … It describes a place I have already somehow been.” He’s collaborated with underground luminaries such as Bardo Pond and Flying Saucer Attack, and pursued a recording career in occasional fits and bountiful starts, alongside raising two children and working as an academic. “I consider the music moonlighting,” he says.

Indeed, he considers live performance “the exception rather than the rule”, though he will soon be playing support to Dry Cleaning – whose guitarist Tom Dowse is a vocal fan – on their New Zealand tour, and is tentatively planning a European jaunt next summer with the Dead C.

While their Christchurch-based scene grew in stature as the decade wore on, Pin Group split in 1982. Other bands and projects followed – experimental quartet Dadamah, signed to Kranky; the drone-psych duo Dissolve – but it was those albums recorded in 1994 that set Montgomery’s future course. Scenes from the South Island was “about being away from your home country. I’ve never tired of the imagery that generated the album, and those landscapes are still places I go to, physically or in my mind. Those visions of space and atmosphere – the absence of busy, human life – populate a lot of what I do. It’s regenerative, an existential thing.”

By contrast, Temple IV was a more interior project. “Temple IV was about Jo – an attempt to reconnect with a person who’s gone, of reinhabiting the relationship, without being too maudlin or sentimental.” The music was shaped by Montgomery’s embrace of open and alternative tunings – and his limitations as an avowed non-virtuoso. “Playing full chords and melodic variations was beyond me. I can’t read music, I had no awareness of world music or raga. I could play barre chords and, sometimes, leaving a string open by mistake created a droning aspect I liked. I fumbled my way to that sound.”

Montgomery’s beautiful new album, Camera Melancholia, shares a similar sound and imperative to Temple IV. It was inspired by and dedicated to Kerry McCarthy, his partner of 20 years and mother of their two children, who died of cancer in 2021. “I tried to find a balance between dealing with my grief and preserving the character of someone,” he says.

Roy Montgomery: Jaguar Meets Snake – video

He clarifies that the album is “not about my mourning, I’m trying to convey the essence of the person”. The Antarctic imagery on Camera Melancholia’s outer sleeve references McCarthy’s PhD on Antarctic photography. The inner sleeve features 10 poems by Montgomery; one, the elegiac Your Albescence, is sung by his regular collaborator Emma Johnston. The only vocal on the album, it evokes Montgomery’s loss (“I hear you in the hills softly calling”), but more so the quiet strength of his partner. “Kerry had a quietness, but also a self-contained confidence,” he says. “I was paying my respects to that.”

Camera Melancholia’s first half channels the contemplative, introspective instrumentals he’s been exploring for the last quarter-century; the second half offers six organ elegies, each titled Aura of the Afterlife. A rich melancholy pervades, possessed of dark magic. The music came spontaneously. “I had to trust my intuition,” he says. “I wanted to record these ideas, and then call time on it. Not so I could say: ‘I’ve shut the door on that now, my grieving is done.’ It doesn’t work like that, not at all, especially not when you’ve got children. But I knew if I waited too long, it would have changed into something else.”

The song titles – Playing With the Children, Some Footage of Dancing That No-One Else Saw – speak to the intimacy of this remarkable, subtly powerful work, and to Montgomery’s efforts to preserve something intangible but profoundly meaningful. “Kerry was a shy person. But that didn’t mean she didn’t feel things and couldn’t have frivolous moments,” he says. “I saw her in those moments that no one else saw. I saw her dance. It’s me saying, ‘I’ve seen that side of you, and you at least were comfortable with showing it to me.’”

• Camera Melancholia is out now on Grapefruit Records

Contributor

Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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