40 years after getting started, the New Zealand indie-rockers return with their latest LP, Foothills.
The Bats have achieved something highly unusual in the music business: they’ve retained their same lineup from the day they formed nearly 40 years ago through today. Together, they’ve released ten full-length albums and eight EPs, all critically acclaimed. With Foothills, their latest studio album, the band delivers more of the catchy, intelligent indie jangle rock for which they’ve become beloved.
Calling from his home in Roseneath, New Zealand, frontman Robert Scott admits that, even with that body of work, The Bats still can’t really claim to be prolific. “We don’t work maybe as much as other bands,” he says. “New Zealand is such a small population of five million [people] that we can only tour around the country maybe twice a year. We’ve had long periods where we haven’t played maybe for a whole year.” He adds that the band members’ commitments to their families and other jobs (Scott also works as a teacher’s aide) also adds to the delay.
There is an upside to this situation, though: “We definitely don’t get burned out, so it stays fresh for us,” Scott says, “and we only take on projects that we want to do.” And, he adds, “long gaps enable us to coexist easily and not get on each other’s nerves.”
It’s not like there’s ever been the threat of internal band conflict with The Bats, though. “There’s no big egos in the band, so we’ve got a good working process,” Scott says. “We can work through any issues. Some bands might have really volatile members, people with big egos really hell-bent on getting their way. We don’t seem to have that issue.”
It probably also helps that Scott, as the lead songwriter, never seems to have any trouble finding inspiration. “I’ve always found it easy to come up with an idea, and I don’t question it too much,” he says. “Some people come up with something and they’ll be quite self-critical, and then they decide they don’t like it or don’t want to put it out. Whereas I’m more, ‘Yep, that sounds okay, we’ll go with that.’”
As for how Scott actually goes about writing Bats songs, he says, “Basically, I sit down with a guitar and start bashing out some chords. If I get a set of chords that I like the sound of and the progression, that usually sparks a melody. I wouldn’t work on the words at that stage, it’s more about the melody, and basically singing whatever comes into my head.”
When he does settle in to write the lyrics, Scott says he favors “small personal observations rather than big ideas in terms of politics or things that I see wrong in the world. I hear a lot of songs, ‘I’m trying to change the world,’ and they come across as kind of corny and silly. So mine are probably more on a smaller and personal level, in terms of observations of how people interact and how people do things. Other times, it will be more a narrative about something: someone going on a walk and observing nature or an interaction with someone else. That can be a little story that just unfolds through the song.”
From there, Scott says he’ll bring it to the other members – lead guitarist Kaye Woodward, bassist Paul Kean, and drummer Malcolm Grant – for their input. “That works out pretty easily in terms of, they come up with their own guitar ideas and a bassline. We’ll basically work out what everyone is doing,” Scott says. Their approach, Scott says, has “pretty much always been like that. It works and people enjoy the music still, so I figure, no point in changing it, really.”
Scott’s easygoing approach to his music probably also comes from the fact that he’s had so much experience with it, thanks to being raised in a musical family. “Both my parents are musical,” he says. “My dad played saxophone in a dance band in Scotland in the ‘50s and Mum played the piano and the organ at church. They both sing. So I grew up surrounded by music from early on. I knew that I was going to be doing music.”
Scott first became the bassist for the alternative rock band The Clean, which was formed in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1978. In 1982, he founded The Bats and took on the traditional front person role. “I had a lot of songwriting ideas, and I switched over to guitar and found it was much easier to sing and play guitar then singing while playing bass,” he says.
The band released a debut EP, By Night, in 1984; their first full-length studio album, Daddy’s Highway, followed in 1987. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, they toured extensively around the world, hitting the alternative charts in several countries and building up a fervent fan base – including members of Radiohead, who invited The Bats to open for them on their 1993 U.S. tour.
Looking back over his career, Scott says, “I consider myself very lucky that [music] I come up with has enabled me to record whenever I want, to put it out, and to do some touring and see the world.”
That same gratitude now extends to releasing Foothills: “I feel pretty lucky and happy to be able to present a bunch of new songs to the world, and hopefully it imparts some listening pleasure for people,” Scott says. “Things like art and music are lifesavers for some people, for their sanity and well-being.”