Things often times don’t work out as expected; it is one of those facts of life. This idea is a common theme in many a family-orientated sitcom as well as edgy coming-of-age dramas aired on the WB. Similarly, Alec Bathgate and Chris Knox didn’t expect a long lasting and successful partnership as the Tall Dwarfs.
? “It was just a silly name, really,” explains Bathgate of the band name, “we had only planned to make one record, so we didn’t worry too much about what we would call ourselves, thinking we’d only have to live with it for a short time -that was 1981!”
? Since then, the duo has released over ten albums and are viewed as musical visionaries. The Tall Dwarfs started after the duo’s previous band, Toy Love, deteriorated around 1979. The two started working together that same year, which resulted in their first EP called “Three Songs” in 1981. Since then, the Dwarfs have been seen as pioneers of the lo-fi (short for low-fidelity) movement. The movement strays from the pristine, over-professional production of mainstream music, and songs are instead recorded in bedrooms and basements with cassette tapes. Imperfections are not seen as undesirable, but as adding to the character of the songs.
“We just felt liberated by the [do it yourself] approach of total control home recording,” explains Knox, “the opposite of our Toy Love experience.” Bathgate adds that it was “frustrating to be in the hands of people that didn’t really understand what we wanted to achieve.” They used only a second hand four track but “fortunately,” Bathgate tells, “the 4-track seemed to like us and made us sound all right.”
Developing this DIY style was important and near-revolutionary for their time. The Tall Dwarfs did it, literally, all
themselves. They recorded, produced, and promoted all their own material. This movement of homemade music opened the doors to anyone who wanted to express themselves musically. Artists such as Pavement, Bright Eyes, Yo La Tengo, Deathcab, and countless others have followed in the Dwarfs’ footsteps.
The lo-fi Dwarf style has become the characterizing feature of indie bands everywhere. It acts as a definitive feature, polarizing them from a more seamless, mainstream sound.
The duo, however, didn’t sit around in some dark cafÇ plotting their revolution. Like many great discoveries and developments in history, it was unplanned and maybe even a little serendipitous. Their minimalistic approach came out of necessity. “The only thing we had to record on was a four track. Maximalism therefore was improbable.” The whole project was very spontaneous. Bathgate explains they were “just enjoying playing and recording together without analyzing too deeply.” The played when “seldom knowing what a song would be like until it was recorded,” tells Knox.
Musically as well, the Tall Dwarfs have inspired a whole
generation of underground music. They are known as the fathers of New Zealand’s alternative scene. Everyone from Elephant Six acts to Seattle’s first indie bands imitated their style and continue to do so. Their albums have a wide variety of sound including folk, pop, and punk. One of their albums is like a collection of a dozen modern bands. This may have to do with their many influences. They grew up with the Beatles as well as Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” and “Ziggy Stardust” and became fans of the Stooges, T. Rex, and “any other weirdo shit we could get our hands on.” Nonmusical inspirations include movies and “Overheard conversations, little fictions spontaneously generated from casually observed behavior of strangers.”
Tall Dwarfs material has always been far between; both members have other side projects. Their last release, The Sky Above The Mud Below, came out in 2002 and no new albums are slated yet, but Knox reports, “Alec plans to move… much closer to my home… so releases should come more frequently.” In the meantime, Bathgate released a solo album The Indifferent Velvet Void in ’04 and his counterpart released Chris Knox and the Nothing recently as well. There are no plans for a Dwarfs tour at the moment either, but it would “love to be had.” Fingers can always be crossed, because these dwarfs have left ironically large shoes to fill.