The Checks

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The Checks Biography

'A couple of weeks ago I watched local band The Checks erupt like a volcano at Resonate, an industry showcase gig in Auckland. I was transfixed. Adrenalin flooded my system so fast my hands started shaking. Other bands shambled; the Checks scorched. Other performers rode oh-so-fashionable bandwagons; The Checks poured petrol over predictable hipster cliches and tossed a match. Other bands scowled and stomped like crabby nippers; The Checks fuelled their performance on pure joy. It was an ardent, fiercely committed show. And for that, I give thanks for Ed Knowles, Karrel Chabera, Jacob Moore, Sven Pettersen and Callum Martin, the five future stars who make up the hollering, juddering, comet-hot, cucumber-cool, supernaturally stylish outfit that is The Checks.

Watching these guys burn up the stage it's hard to believe they met singing in uber-nerdy barbershop competitions at Takapuna Grammar, and that they had their first band practice just two years ago. They seem so tight, so empathetic as a band, you imagine they have been playing together since kindergarten. And they've achieved much in such a short time. Remember, this is a band with no commercial releases, no marketing campaign and no record contract, yet REM personally requested them as support band for last week's gigs after a magazine giveaway CD featuring a Checks' demo became a favourite on the REM tour bus. This is a band that impressed the hell out of the man who signed Nirvana - Sub Pop records boss Jonathan Poneman - at a chaotic Auckland Christmas party in 2003; the band that had visiting NME editor Conor McNicholas drooling into his beer just two weeks ago.

In a cultural climate where so many bands are entirely throwaway and virtually interchangeable, each member little more than a life support system for a sneer, some cheekbones and the latest haircut, this band somehow seems to mean something.

How did these guys get so good? Personally, I blame the parents. The band is co-managed by two musical dads - Phil Moore, who used to play guitar in Flying Nun band Goblin Mix, and Alan Pettersen, who played in a variety of bands back in Zimbabwe. The two men took on the job after a succession of 'dodgy' managers began to offer their services, figuring they already knew more than most about the possible pitfalls of the music industry.

'Our parents have helped us avoid being exploited,' says singer Ed Knowles, New Zealand's own miniature Mick Jagger and undisputed master of the drunken roll dance. 'They've pointed out that if we're committing our lives to this, there's no point signing the first contract we're offered, and they've helped us focus on the music, rather than money.'

When Knowles, 18, talks about singers he loves, his voice drops to a reverent whisper. 'When I was 15 I heard The Kinks' 'All Day and All of the Night'. I thought nothing else I'd ever hear could be so exciting. Then I heard Little Richard. I just don't know why every other singer didn't just give up after he came out. Imagine being a musician who had to go and play in a city after he'd just played there. And Big Bill Broonzy, Bob Dylan, early James Brown - that shit that just slaps you, gives you that special shiver, you know?'.

Indeed I do. I felt it myself at The Checks' Resonate gig. And not only did the band sound great, they looked fantastic as well, busting gloriously unco-ordinated dance moves while poured into stovepipe suit pants straight from 1964, the creases so sharp they could draw blood. Their clothes are custom-tailored by Auckland designers Little Brother.

As for the spazzy dancing, Knowles says, 'I think that's a result of each of us having been born with our own personal disco in our heads. I just hope we can capture that live energy when we make our first LP. We don't want to rush out a record that's half full of crappy tracks; we want every song to be incredible, and every guitar solo to be hot as hell.'

They even have the next six months mapped in their heads. 'Our dream ever since the fifth form has been to play in London, and some of the Resonate people have already started talking to us about doing an NME tour over there. Who knows? I think it will be a very exciting year.'

Besides Knowles, the other main Check to catch your eye - and ear - during live shows is lead guitarist Sven Pettersen, also 18. For most of each song he stands ramrod stiff, his hands peeling forth miraculously molten solos, the notes alive with distortion and feedback. Every now and then excitement overwhelms him and he explodes in dancing that can only be described as an upright seizure.

'I was born already loving this music' he says from his Devonport home. 'My old man used to stretch his headphones across the bump in mum's belly and play me The Who, Johnny Winter, The Beatles, The Small Faces, Motown, The Kinks and Phil Spector records. I don't remember it, but that music feels the most natural to me now.'

Which is a strange phenomenon, when you think about it. Here we have a bunch of multi-cultural New Zealand teenagers obsessed with white '60s British bands, who were in turn obsessed with black '50s American soul, blues and R'n'B. While other kids their age are cramming their iPods with hip-hop, emo, drum'n'bass, techno and other supposedly cutting-edge modern music, these guys are lying on their beds in sharp suits in the Auckland suburbs, listening to their parents' crackly vinyl records of The Yardbirds, The Who, Muddy Waters and Little Richard. And while other bands whitter on endlessly about 'cracking the States', these guys have their sights firmly set on grimy old London town.

'We definitely want to succeed in the UK, which is where most of our favourite bands come from. And I don't see any reason why we shouldn't end up on the cover of the NME if we try hard enough. Anything is possible,' Pettersen says.

So what's so special about The Checks? 'I think we're a really honest band and we're exciting,' he continues. 'We're all very excitable people, and that comes through in our sound. We're still really young too, not old war-horses who have played their songs so often they're bored to death.'

Young he may be, but Pettersen started playing the guitar seriously when he was 10. He already has eight years' experience, and it shows. 'Great guitar playing is all about trying to lessen the gap between your heart and your hands. You have to learn to bypass your head, so that whatever you feel comes straight out through your fingers into those six strings.'

All of The Checks have day jobs, mostly in retail, but Pettersen's is perhaps the crappiest. He washes dishes three nights a week, dreaming up dynamite guitar solos while up to his elbows in floating food scraps and soapy water.

'I talked to the guitar player from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion when they toured here. He was this cynical New York heroin-addict guy, and I asked him about playing blues guitar. He said 'I don't play the blues, son. You gotta pick cotton for 10 years to play the blues'. And I said 'but I play the blues, and I wash dishes for a living'. He laughed and said 'well, son, that's OK. Washing dishes is white man's cotton.'

On the night after The Checks' triumphant Resonate showcase gig I spot Ed and Sven outside a bar on Auckland's Karangahape Road. They've been kicked out of a bar around the corner for being too drunk, too rowdy and, I suspect, too cool. Ed is talking excitedly to a couple of mates, his smile wide as the night sky. Sven is off to one side, alone, swaying in the breeze, quietly yet comprehensively plastered. He cradles a glowing Lucky Strike for comfort and, rather than bring it to his mouth, pitches forward occasionally so that his lips make contact.

He looks like a '60s mod from London's Carnaby St, somehow snatched up and teleported to K' Rd in 2005. All around him young kids stream past in generic baggy streetwear, their shirts and caps mobile billboards for companies with plush head offices in New York or LA and grim sweatshops in Asia. Sven stands out like the proverbial canine's castanets. His hand-tailored suit trousers are tight as a sausage skin. To the south, pointy boots; further north, a crisp black polo neck. His hair curtains his pale face in the kind of androgynous bob that first appalled grannies 25 years before he was born.

A gaggle of wide-eyed teenagers passes by and one asks: 'Are you guys The Checks?' Sven sways slightly in their direction, takes another deep drag on his Lucky Strike. 'We might be,' he says with a slur. Then: 'Yes. Yes, we are. We are The Checks.'

A week later I buy a copy of the latest New Musical Express. There, under the 'What's on the NME Stereo?' heading, alongside gushing one-liners about the latest singles from Coldplay and rising UK stars The Rakes and The Coral, is this short rant about The Checks' demo track 'Mercedes Children': 'The Antipodean revolution blows up again as these five Auckland kids show Aussie cousins Jet a thing or 10 about retro R&B'.

Which means that all over the UK, right now, distressed indie kids will be trying to track down a song that hasn't even been released yet. Global conquest just got one step closer. '

Grant Smithies

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