The dawning of the new millennium was a bad time to be an indie pop musician in New Zealand.
Ten years earlier, Flying Nun Records was arguably hitting its stride. However aided by its demise in the late 90s - dance music in its cheesiest forms had taken hold of what possibly could have been a live gig-going music scene.
Perhaps in backlash to this, a healthy uprising of primitive guitar based rock bands had surfaced in New Zealand (a scene which would eventually produce bands like the D4 and the Datsuns). However if you were a musician whose stylings were neither techno or rock, the chances of you finding a healthy audience were slim at best, and the chances of you finding a local label were Kate Moss.
This left Jonathan Bree and Scott Mannion (both sitting on what would be the first Brunettes and Tokey Tones albums respectively) feeling a bit disenfranchised.
After a chance meeting at Marbecks Record Store in downtown Auckland where Jonathan was working as a slave, Jonathan and Scott found they had much more in common than an appreciation for the new Lee Hazlewood reissues.
A mutual bitching session about their predicaments as bedroom recording artists (a far greater feat back when Windows 98 was the standard operating system, and Pro Tools was largely unobtainable) led to a brave and somewhat stupid idea.
They would form their own record label.
It was agreed between Scott and Jonathan that the only label worth being a part of would be one with a strong sense of identity. At that time New Zealand was being treated to far too many eclectic labels that lacked a focus which might allow it to transcend our shores.
They both agreed that historically the best independent record labels were the ones that had a specific aesthetic (Factory Records, Flying Nun, Creation Records). This is what they wanted to achieve but for pop music.
They would name it Lil' Chief Records.
Lil' Chief Records would not just be a means to releasing music, but would be the beginnings of a pop collective in Auckland and to a certain extent, New Zealand.
Though the umbrella of pop music was broad, the constant would be well crafted pop songs, with an emphasis on original and unusual production - often involving a self sufficient mastermind acting as an all in one songwriter, engineer and producer.
Lawrence Mikkelsen, a devoted pop music enthusiast and friend of Scott Mannion's was an important supporter of the label early on, and soon volunteered to become Lil' Chief's post master general.
Gareth Shute, a local writer, musician and friend of Scott Mannion's was also an early supporter of the label who lived in the most decrepit flat in Auckland nestled in the suburb of Kingsland. 'The Ghetto' as it was fondly called by those who were associated with it would become the headquarters of Lil' Chief Records.
An old funeral parlor resembling some kind of dungeon, it became host to a long lineage of local bedroom recording artists, tucked away in its caverns e.q'ing glockenspiel tracks to the point of insanity. Its graffiti lined garage would become a much loved and much used rehearsal space. (Some of the albums that would go on to be made at the ghetto are "The Brunettes - Mars Loves Venus", " Ruby Suns - Sea Lion", "The Tokey Tones - Caterpillar & Butterfly", "Princess Chelsea - Little Golden Book".)
The Brunettes first album 'Holding Hands Feeding Ducks', was the first release on the label in 2002. This was followed shortly after by Scott's recording project The Tokey Tones - with the two mini albums Caterpillar and Butterfly. These early releases were important in developing the label's identity and aesthetic and would prove to be of influence to future artists on the label.
The next release on the label was 'Songbook' - a debut album by The Nudie Suits. Frontman Mark Lyons was Jonathan Bree's cousin and undeniably a mentor in Bree's formative years. Far too interesting to be branded alt-country, The Nudie Suits brand of pop had a number of unique facets notably Dionne Taylor's Hawaiian lap steel and her sister Tamasin Taylor's violin. Probably the biggest point of difference was Mark Lyons songwriting - compelling narratives about life growing up in the suburbs in Auckland, delivered in the style of a countrified Jonathan Richman. The Nudie Suits are still, arguably, the most unique sounding band on the label.
Edmund Cake, a member of Flying Nun band Bressa Creeting Cake, had his unreleased solo album proclaimed in national music magazine Real Groove (RIP) as one of the "great lost albums" in modern New Zealand music history. After hearing these murmurs, Jonathan Bree asked fellow bandmate James Milne (Reduction Agents, Lawrence Arabia) to 'acquire' a copy of it whilst visiting friend Liam Finn (Ed had mixed the album in Neil Finn's home studio). The hype was deserved. When Lil' Chief approached Ed about releasing it, Edmund had a healthy distrust of the industry in general after being booted out of his own band Goldenhorse (which he named after his favourite takeaway store in West Auckland) only to watch them go on to become one of the country's more successful commercial acts. Fortunately he agreed to the signing and 'Downtown Puff' was added to the Lil' Chief catalogue.
Bob Cardy, a member of Flying Nun band The Axemen, had formed arguably the hottest live rock n roll band one could see in the late nineties - Shaft. Not only a lovable and wild frontman, Bob Cardy was an enviable lyricist and gifted songwriter, well studied in classic pop. By the time of its release on Lil Chief Shaft's debut album Open Sesame had been eight years in the making.
A few years into its formation, Lil' Chief's dream of a pop collective seemed to be taking shape. Musicians that had joined the Brunettes and Tokey Tones were now finishing albums of their own. The formation of a rather self indulgent Lil' Chief based solo Paul Mcartney and Wings covers band 'Disciples of Macca' seemed to well and truly cement this idea of a collective.
By 2006, Lil' Chief's roster had expanded to include The Ruby Suns, The Reduction Agents, Voom, Alec Bathgate and Shugo Tokumaru and the label had begun to make small waves overseas.
London's Sunday Times ran a two page article largely devoted to the boutique New Zealand label and certain trendy websites began following suit with Crawdaddy running an ongoing feature on the label whilst following Gareth Shute on a Brunettes tour.
Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman had been impressed with the Brunettes performance supporting the Postal Service in the UK and the meeting forged a friendship between him and the label. He spent a few summers in New Zealand, making appearances at the Ghetto for the Lil' Chief Christmas parties, and saw something in this Auckland pop scene. An inspiring pep from the record label mogul declaring Lil Chief "The next Flying Nun" poised to take the world by storm (with the right marketing) left the room of small time pop musicians rather speechless until Bob Cardy (Axemen, Shaft) spoke up - "We'll all have to go out and buy new clothes". Poneman's excited predictions may not have panned out (yet) but nonetheless led to the eventual signing of The Brunettes and The Ruby Suns to Sub Pop records.
What is now the third generation of Lil' Chief artists began with the release of electronic duo Little Pictures debut album and continued with Lil Chief's first all-girl project The Gladeyes debut album Psychosis of Love.
In this modern age (The WWW (the wild wild west)) of torrenting and diminishing album sales, Lil' Chief has taken a new approach with the initiation of the Lil Chief Singles Club, a seven inch collectable line. Our newest artists, Cool Rainbows, Pikachunes and Princess Chelsea will all be releasing seven inches on Lil' Chief Records very soon, in conjunction with their albums which will be largely digital.