"It was a joke really. I probably knew the most musically - three chords maybe - and we learnt together...I can imagine those early times would have been fairly punishing for anybody listening...We started writing music together and then David started writing lyrics. Fairly early on it turned into a collaborative thing. (Nick Roughan, Skeptics bassist 1979-1990)"
The Skeptics live. Image courtesy Stuart Page, Copyright 2013
Their music has been described as post punk, electronic/avantgarde, experimental, metal/punk/pre-emo/art-rock – but the Skeptics’ pioneering sounds defied pigeonholing from the word go.
In 1979, at Freyberg High School, mates Robin Gauld and David D’Ath immersed themselves in the contemporary urban music coming out of London, and jammed together at lunchtimes. They talked Don White into drumming and won Nick Roughan for keyboards and bass, and within six months their first songs were recorded at the nearby Ross internediate school library.
Trailer for Sheen of Gold, the 2013 film by Simon Ogston
The Skeptics have been called “one of the most inventive bands to come out of New Zealand”, more specifically, out of Palmerston North. However, Robin Gauld recalls the city’s arctic climate when it came to innovative musicians straying from the norm: “Palmerston North was a sort of square, flat place, and there wasn’t much going on. Certainly the music scene was dominated by hard rock, long hair and moustaches, and it wasn’t the kind of town where you would do anything other than that without fear of some kind of consequence. So it was a fairly hostile environment for us as young musicians.”
In spite of their grating sounds and self-confessed musical ignorance, the Skeptics gained a following and performed at the infamous El Clubbo. In 1983, the band re-purposed a defunct warehouse as a club for which a lone blackboard advising of available hardware gave the venue its name: Snail Clamps. The Skeptics worked out of Palmerston North until 1985, and moved to Wellington when Robin Gauld left and was replaced by John Halvorsen.
The band is best known for their controversial music video, AFFCO, which was shot by Stuart Page of The Axemen’s fame. In 1987, they visited two Auckland meat processing plants where Page’s camera left nothing to imagination. The final video juxtaposes the New Zealand reality of cute lambs, bouncing in the paddock with them getting their throats cut and becoming neatly shrink-wrapped chops. Images of a naked David D’Ath, covered in fake blood, writhing in plastic wrap, and pounding out the lyric “we pack meat” served as a parallel. Page thought the setting and music were well matched: “The music is very industrial, kind of brutal, nasty sounds.” When Nick Roughan first saw the video, he “felt quite ill”, but since some of New Zealand’s wealth is built on growing meat and butchering, he felt people should be more comfortable with it. The video was originally banned by TVNZ and until recently screened publicly only a few times, which considerably added to its fame.
Shortly after the band’s last performance in Auckland’s Gluepot in 1990, David D’Ath died of leukemia, aged only 26. Today, more than two decades after the Skeptics disbanded, their influence lingers. With the recent release of Simon Ogston’s music documentary Sheen of Gold (screened at the 2013 New Zealand International Film Festival) the interest in the iconic Palmerston North band and their music has had a huge revival. Since then two of the Skeptic’s albums, Skeptics III and Amalgam, released under the Flying Nun Records label, have been re-issued and are available online.
Skeptics band members
Robin Gauld (guitar; left 1985, was replaced by Halvorsen)
David D’Ath (vocals, keyboards; died Sept 1990/ de-aath)
Nick Roughan (bass, keyboards)
John Halvorsen (guitar)
Don White (drums, percussion)
"Well, you know, [Palmerston North] was home, and we were teenagers, so a place is what you make of it."