Sam Valentine

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Kane Strang’s Past, Present and Future

One of the defining independent Aotearoa artists of the 2010s, Kane Strang is now enjoying making music again in Office Dog

In my last year of university, an album began to circulate through word of mouth around campus. It had a name, Blue Cheese, that was ripe for satisfied sniggers from early 20-somethings, but the songs on the record – compelling lo-fi guitar pop – instantly drew you in.

Blue Cheese was the debut album of Kane Strang, an unassuming musician from Dunedin who suddenly found himself being reviewed in Pitchfork and interviewed by RNZ.

But the music merited the attention because, to a small set of millennial Kiwis, Strang was one of the defining independent artists of Aotearoa in the 2010s.

Emerging two generations later from the South Island city that spawned The Clean and The Verlaines and so many wonderful indie bands of the ’80s and ’90s, Strang shared those band’s proud DIY spirit, but his strangely alluring songs bore more in common with the experimental rock of Deerhunter.

Two more albums followed Blue CheeseTwo Hearts and No Brain (2017) and Happy to Perform (2021) – and Strang signed with notable indie labels during this period. It was a time that brought creative rewards for Strang, including his first overseas tour, but behind the scenes he was feeling burned out.

“I found it so full on,” he told The Spinoff in 2021. “And so impersonal, I guess. I like to be the one that presses the button and delivers it to the people. It felt weird waking up one morning and the album was just out, because some guy in America had decided that was when the most people were going to hear it.” (Dealing with dopey American record executives has waylaid the career plans of much bigger artists than Strang.)

Credit: Ruby Harris

If there was ever a lurking danger that Strang would give up releasing music, certainly in a commercial capacity, the decision to forego being a solo artist in order to make music with friends changed everything for him.

Strang started collaborating with two close friends – Rass Tolovaa and Mitch Innes – and he felt the difference immediately, his creativity renewed.

Calling themselves Office Dog, they made an album together, Spiel, which they initially planned to self-release quietly last year but Flying Nun and North West Records had other ideas, recognising the level of thoughtfully crafted indie rock the trio had produced.

Spiel earned Strang another Pitchfork review (up 0.9 from his Blue Cheese review; hurrah for obscure metrics!), and the album featured in our Best New Zealand Albums of 2023 list.

Spiel, we wrote, offered Strang “a more collaborative platform to explore intricate sounds and existential lyricism… The tracks on Spiel are introspective indie backed by rugged rhythms and precise layers that demand frequent listens, Strang and his collaborators showing themselves to be a formidable proposition as a trio.”

Now, Strang, Tolovaa, and Innes are about to embark on a US tour in support of Nada Surf, Strang likely feeling much more secure about his second time touring there knowing it won’t all be focused on him this time.

This weekend will see Office Dog – backed by some excellent support acts in Violet Hirst, Vera Ellen, and Hōhā – play two fundraiser shows in the North Island to help them afford their US trip. For the first time in years, Strang will perform his solo songs with a full band, ready to reminisce about a foundational time in his life in front of an audience.

To celebrate the fundraiser shows, I asked Strang some questions about his solo music, what Dunedin means to him, what makes the Office Dog trio work so well together, and much more.

Office Dog will perform at Whammy Bar in Auckland on Saturday, June 29th, and Meow in Wellington on Sunday, June 30th. Tickets to the Auckland show can be found via Under The Radar, and tickets to the Wellington show can be found via Moshtix

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: I wanted to ask about Dunedin. What was it like growing up there as a budding musician? It’s a town with a great reputation for music.

Kane Strang: I feel very lucky to have grown up in Dunedin and especially to have started playing gigs there when I did. At the time there was such a strong music scene with endless great bands and a lot of venues for a small town. Chick’s Hotel in particular became a real haunt of mine in the early days and some of my favourite musical memories are of getting the bus down to Port Chalmers to watch people play there.

I really wonder sometimes where I’d be without places like that and without the fact that it was just so easy to put shows on back then; like it wasn’t unusual for my first band to play three shows in a week without leaving the city.

Were you influenced by any New Zealand indie/rock bands in particular growing up? Any of the Flying Nun artists?

To be honest, I wasn’t really properly aware of a lot of the early Flying Nun stuff until I had been writing my own songs for a while, but definitely bands like The Mint Chicks had a huge influence on me as a kid. I used to listen to [The Mint Chicks’ 2006 album] Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! most mornings when I was walking to my job at a Thai restaurant in 2011/2012.

I then was lucky enough to open for The Clean when they played two nights at Chick’s Hotel, and around that time started diving into that whole world of older Dunedin/NZ alternative music. 

Were you aware (of the impact your solo albums had outside of your home country? On a personal note, Blue Cheese was really embraced by people at my university in Glasgow when it was released.

For a long time I was always thinking about the next album or tour, so I never really sat back and appreciated what was going on with what I’d already put out. These days it does make me proud to know that people all over the place were actually listening to my solo stuff, especially my really early releases like Blue Cheese… that’s cool to hear it was getting some love over that way back then.

What would you say the biggest difference is sonically between Office Dog and your solo output?

I think it’s just a lot more organic and raw sounding. A lot of my solo music was pretty over-thought at points and I was incredibly obsessed with everything being tight and lining up neatly, maybe because I was young and thought I needed to sound “professional” once I started working with bigger indie labels and things like that. Being a three piece, I would also say that the songwriting for OD is a lot more refined since there’s not a lot to hide behind. 

Credit: Harry Lilley

When you’re transitioning from being a solo artist to a more collective endeavour, are you overly conscious of trying to make the projects sound different?

I think I was conscious of that in the beginning when I was starting to write alone for what I knew would be a new project, but as soon as I started properly playing with Rass and Mitch I realised that it was just going to be naturally different to anything I’d done since they were putting their own spin on everything. From then on I really didn’t need to try at all, and we just started slowly forming a new sound together over a year or so.

Tell me about your Office Dog bandmates. What makes you such a strong trio musically?

I have known both Rass and Mitch for such a long time now, which means we have a great understanding of each other’s playing styles and can work quickly. In fact, it still surprises me how fast they can wrap their head around a new song I’m bringing to the table, and I think this really helps keep all of us excited about the band. 

Were you happy with the overall reception to Spiel?

Definitely. It’s been amazing to hear from people all over the world who have discovered it, especially since we were originally going to chuck it out ourselves without much fuss in early 2023. Now it’s really snowballed into this larger thing, which is a little overwhelming sometimes, but we are feeling really good in general and just wanting to get working on the next one. 

It must have been cool to see Spiel reviewed somewhere like Pitchfork. Are such reviews something that you and the band pay much attention to?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nice to be acknowledged by big blogs like that, and I thought the review was really well thought out. Still, I try to let a lot of that sort of thing go over my head as much as possible since it can also start to re-shape your own views of the music you’ve made in not so healthy ways. 

Are you looking forward to the fundraiser shows?

I’m incredibly excited. We’re playing a very different set with a lot of new songs from an upcoming release of ours as well as some newer-than-new tracks we’ve worked on just this week. We’ve also got some amazing support acts lined up so they’re sure to be some special shows. 

Is this your first time playing your solo music with a full band in years, is that right? Excited? Nervous?!

Yeah, it is. I am a bit nervous but I’ve got a great band behind me (which includes most of my original solo band’s members), and I’m just going to try and have a good time with these older tracks. 

Credit: Joseph Grigg

So how did the US tour initially come about?

Office Dog signed to the Nashville based label New West Records right before Spiel came out in Aotearoa/Australia last year and they have been really keen to get us over. Luckily Nada Surf, who also recently signed to NW, were happy to have us along while they promote their new record so it’s all lined up pretty nicely. 

Any cities you’re particularly keen to play in? 

I toured the States once in 2017, just my band and I in a van. It’s something I never really thought would happen again and I’m really just excited for the whole thing. Still, legendary venues like the Troubadour in LA and Webster Hall in New York do stick out to me, though. I can tell you now that we definitely weren’t playing those sorts of places the first time I went…

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