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Interview: Kane Strang (Office Dog)

25 January 2024

Photo by Violet Hirst

Despite releasing three critically-lauded solo albums between 2016 and 2021 on recognizable indie labels, Kane Strang was feeling burned out and found himself at a crossroads in his musical career. In an effort to ease some of the stress and take the weight off his own shoulders, Strang began collaborating with his long-time friends – and musicians who backed him as a solo artist – Rass Tolovaa (bass) and Mitch Innes (drums) using ‘90s alt-rock bands like Pavement, Dinosaur Jr and Built to Spill as a blueprint for the indie guitar rock they were hammering out.

As Strang describes it, this new band was just the shot of energy he needed to get creative again and reignite the passion to write songs and play in front of people. And while Office Dog originally planned to self-release Spiel, both a local New Zealand label and an American label had other plans to help get this music out to the world.

On a recent Zoom call, Strang acknowledges how the luck he had early in his solo career has carried over to Office Dog and can be attributed to the approach he takes with his songwriting.

Before Office Dog, you had a successful solo career and your albums were put out by great labels like Ba Da Bing and Dead Oceans. How did that happen?

KANE: It all started for me in 2015. I was on a compilation that Ba Da Bing Records put out of mostly Dunedin bands. Through them, Secretly Group and Dead Oceans discovered me and it’s all snowballed from there.

I’ve never really chased any of that, that’s the strange thing. A lot of people over here in New Zealand look at me and they’re like, “How the hell are you doing this?” In some ways, I have been lucky. I had this belief that if you work hard at it and you write good songs, people will find you. I take the approach of trying to look like I don’t need them. I’m never someone who has sat on albums for years trying to ship them around and get a record deal. I just want to keep putting music out and I think showing that you believe in yourself like that maybe makes labels more interested in you. But you’ve still got to get a bit lucky and be in the right place at the right time for them to even know you exist because there’s just so much music getting pumped up.

With New West, it’s another funny coincidence. I played South by Southwest in 2017 and Brady Brock [VP of Publicity] just happened to see me playing there. He didn’t work for New West at the time. We kept in touch over the years. When we announced Spiel here last year, he messaged me and was like, “Can I can I get a copy?” I thought it was just for him. I was like, “Sure, I’ll send you one.” And he’s like, “No, I mean I work at a label now and I want to show them your stuff.” It’s all come from funny little moments like that.

It’s always super hectic and last minute with Office Dog. We were going to self-release the album in February of last year and the week before it was scheduled to come out, I sent it to Flying Nun and I was like, “Just in case you’re interested in releasing this,” because I’ve worked with them before. They were interested and we held back on releasing it until September 2023. Then, a month before it’s meant to come out here in New Zealand on Flying Nun, I talked to Brady and New West was interested all of a sudden. I feel lucky to work with all these people. It’s obviously super nice to have this support.

As you mentioned, you performed at South by Southwest in 2017. Was the first time you played there or have you performed multiple times?

KANE: Just that one time. We toured America in March of 2017, just me and three of my friends doing pretty much the whole country. We did 27 shows in 30 days. I was 24, completely out of my mind, but it was really cool to come over.

That’s something that drove me to start Office Dog. I wanted to get to a point where I was doing that sort of thing again which is why I got so excited when New West became involved. I know that was a bridge to the world of touring and playing overseas again.

Was that the first time you had been to the U.S.?

KANE: Yeah. We hadn’t even played out of New Zealand at that point. I lived in Germany for a bit when I was just out of high school with Rass, our bass player, but I’d never been to the States before, that was like a whole new thing for me. It’s like the movies.

Was it a lot different than you expected?

KANE: The night we landed in New York was one of the most surreal nights of my life. We landed at an airport that was a little bit outside of New York and drove into the city. It’s one of those things I’ll never forget – getting a hot dog, getting a bagel and a coffee, just doing all the most cliche things you can do in New York. It was that feeling of “I’m here, but I’m here because of my music.” That’s what made it so special to me. It sounds cheesy, really cheesy, but it was like, “Oh, I’ve made it.” You think everything’s going to be amazing from that point on and I realized after that that a lot of things get a lot harder. And then I quickly realized that touring like that is incredibly exhausting, too.

To start Office Dog, you moved from Dunedin to Auckland. When I looked it up on Google Maps, I learned that’s a 20-hour drive!

KANE: I was at the top of the country, in Auckland for a while. I’ve just moved back to my hometown of Dunedin. It’s a bit of a drive. I’ve done it a lot recently, I don’t know why other than just for one reason, for Office Dog. It’s pretty much a 20-hour drive with a ferry in the middle, if the ferry’s not broken down.

In the States, the cultures in New York and Los Angeles are different. Is it the same way in New Zealand?

KANE: I think so. Not in any major way, but when it comes to music scenes here, each major center here has quite a distinct feeling to it. I wouldn’t really know how to put a finger on each one. Christchurch and Dunedin, which, of the two main cities in the south island, they’re a bit notorious for being the dark child of the bunch. They are the sadder scenes because it’s cold. It gets colder as you go down the country and I feel like that breeds that stuff. Maybe it’s as simple as that. But, there’s an amazing musical community here. I think New Zealand punches well above its weight in terms of bands and musical output.

How do you as a solo artist, or as a member of Office Dog, fit into the scene?

KANE: Well, that’s been a funny one for me over the years. That’s one thing I struggled with a little bit when I did start to travel outside of New Zealand to play shows and things like that. I almost felt like I was isolating myself a little bit from my original community. That was quite a strange thing to navigate. Suddenly I’m this guy who’s going to New York and shit but I’ve always tried to be open to playing with anyone and not caring so much about genre and things like that.

We used to put on shows back in the day at Chick’s Hotel which is a really famous old venue that’s shut down here now. We’d always have some friend do an electronic set after or something like that after our set. At the moment, there’s an amazing group of bands especially up in Auckland and it’s all very interwoven. Our producer, De Stevens, plays in bands that we play with often. It feels really good up there at the moment. Dunedin is a shame because there’s no venues, they’re all closing down. It’s kind of a bit depressing.

Do you consider yourself a local band? Do you have a big fanbase there or do you need to leave New Zealand to find your biggest fanbase?

KANE: At the moment, especially because the record has been out here a lot longer, this is definitely where we draw the crowds, especially in Auckland, which is still funny for me, because that was always the mecca. It sounds silly, but being in Dunedin, even booking a gig in Auckland was the craziest thing when I was younger. For now, I feel like this is where the majority of our fan base is.

It’s been really exciting seeing people connect with this new project and have people coming to the shows and already singing lyrics. I was a bit checked out from the solo project. I think I was also taking things like that for granted, like having people sing along to songs and really connect with them. I’m trying to appreciate all that stuff now with this new project.

When you’re performing, do you look out and see people singing along or do you get into a zone and not make eye contact with anyone in the crowd?

KANE: I notoriously look straight over the crowd. My girlfriend always says I just look up to the sky pretty much. I don’t know why. I didn’t even realize I was doing it and I don’t think I used to do that back in the day, I think that’s a new thing with Office Dog.

Did you play shows immediately in the aftermath of COVID lockdown?

KANE: Timing wise, I was very lucky. I got to tour overseas with the solo project a couple years before COVID was even a thing. Right when COVID hit, I was finishing my last solo record which I really just chucked out with not much of a hurrah. Pretty much for all of COVID, I was really starting to think about Office Dog and write songs.

Was Office Dog a name you had been kicking around or did the name come to you once you realized that you had something new that you wanted to put out?

KANE: It is a name I’ve had in my head for a while. I think originally I wanted to do some kind of secret project where my name wasn’t attached to it at all. It was even just going to be me and a guitar, super lo-fi. I think that was an idea that came about during the time where I was realizing that I was checked out from the solo thing and I needed to do something to jump start my brain again.

When I started jamming with Ress and Mitch, it was just a placeholder name. I was like “We’ll be Office Dog but we’ll think of something better.” And then we got to a point where anything else felt really weird and I remember making our Bandcamp page and being like, “Office Dog’s available. It’s just there.” I was like, “Is that a good thing? There’s been a lot of Bandcamp pages made, why is Office Dog available?” I liked how it looked as a name, just two words that look good together. It’s easy to say and now I’m happy we stuck with our guns there.

What can you tell me about the album cover?

KANE: I always loved that photo, it’s a photo my grandma took of my uncle parachuting, or paraponting, down here somewhere, I think it might be Central Otago. I was up in Auckland and the photo was down here in Dunedin. I called my dad and was like, “I need you to go pick this photo up and drop it at our designer Daniel’s house.” He goes and finds the photo at my uncle’s house, and he dropped it off to Dan in this Ziploc bag. Dan must have gone out to his letterbox, grabbed the bag, and scanned it while it was still in the bag. That’s actually what all the patterns are in the photo on the album cover. That’s the plastic from the Ziploc bag but I kind of like that. You could get deep about it and say it has to do with holding onto a memory like a photo in a Ziploc bag. Dan sent me that image and was like, “It looks cool like this.” And I was like, “Yeah. Don’t touch it. That is the cover. Put our name on it and give it to me.” I was nervous about the album cover. I really care about that sort of thing. It had to feel right and just getting that email that day with that image, it was like, “Thank God, it’s going to be okay.”

Everything you recorded had been written and rehearsed when you went into the studio, right? It was all ready to go? I read that you recorded the whole album in two days which seems a bit unheard of.

KANE: The funny part of the whole thing is that there was so much build up to it and De, our producer, and I talked so much about how we were going to do this record. We talked about renting a house, all the classic things, like, “Let’s go to a house for a couple weeks.” I don’t even really remember how it wound up happening. It was most likely because of the shortage of money. We’re like, “Let’s go on around here and smash it out.”

We booked two days and it was a blur. Ress had strep throat. It was an absolute whirlwind. We did all the live-tracking in two days, just us three in a room playing the songs. We had this deal with Roundhead Studios where if we came in after 11pm, we didn’t have to pay. When it came to doing vocals, for the next two or three nights after that, De and I would wait around at our flat, because we were living together, until 11pm and then I would go and do all the vocals. I’d be doing vocals until 4am, just completely out of my mind.

If you’re recording vocals from 11pm to 4am, and you’ve been up all day, your voice must have been a little bit worn out.

KANE: Definitely. I was a little paranoid about it. I was also still finishing the lyrics at the time so that didn’t help my stress levels. But, to be honest, that was perfect because my main struggle with all my solo records was vocals. I hated doing them. I just made it hard for myself. I’d get so obsessive about doing these perfect takes and I would do 80 takes of the same song even though, if anything, it was making it worse.

For the record I made in 2017, I went crazy. I did the vocals at home and my flat mate’s girlfriend told me she went to work in the morning and I was singing a song. Then, when she came home eight hours later, I was still in my room singing the same song! That’s how I’ve always been with recording vocals which meant that going in at 11pm to record was really good for me because I was a bit out of it and I was a bit tired. That helped me to not overthink it.

Also, I was really excited about the songs, I really wanted to do them justice. I loved recording vocals at night. I think I always want to do that now and De was really good with me. He believed in me. He was really good at working out the best order that the songs should be recorded in. One example is the song “Gleam” which is quite energetic and it’s by far the hardest one to sing. It’s got all these really long held notes that I’m pretty much yelling. That was going to be the last song we recorded that day. I thought, “I’m going to ruin my voice but then we’ll be done and I can have a cigarette and finally go to bed.” I finished that and I was like, “Sweet, we’re done. Let’s go home, it’s 3am.” And he’s like, “You know what? I want you to do one more song.” He wanted me to sing “Warmer,” which is probably one of the most gentle songs on the record. I think he could tell my voice was a bit shattered, but that maybe that was going to help the performance. Lots of cool little things like that happened during those few nights where we did that. I enjoyed doing vocals. I never thought I’d say that.

One of my favorite songs is “The Crater” and it’s got a great video to go along with it.

KANE: The video was filmed in the middle of the south island at this place called the Clay Cliffs, which are really strange. I hadn’t been there before. “The Crater ‘’ is a funny one. To be straight up, that was probably my least favorite on the album. I don’t really know why. It’s been cool because making the video and seeing it with its own artwork helped me like the song a lot more. It was a really crazy video to film because we were trekking all the gear up these cliffs. It was so hot and, for some reason, we all chose to wear sweaters so we couldn’t take them off once we shot the first scene without having to reshoot everything.

If “The Cater” is your least favorite, what songs are you proud of?

KANE: I’m particularly attached to two songs in the middle of the album, “In the Red” and “Tightropes.” They’re the ones that are the most rich lyrically. Maybe I’m nostalgic or sentimental about them because they were the first two things we released as a double single. I think that might play into it. But, definitely, I’m really proud of “In the Red” and when we play it live, I really feel it.

I also like “Spiel.” I’m proud of that because I like the way it wraps up the whole album with the “sorry for the spiel” line. Spiel is a name I’ve had in my head for a long time. I was even thinking about calling my last solo album Spiel but it just didn’t feel right so it was nice to finally get to use it.

The album has already been out overseas for 6 months. Have you already started thinking about another record?

KANE: We’ve already recorded a bunch more and we want to keep writing and recording and go while the going’s good. We’re feeling really inspired at the moment and the songs seem to keep coming. I want to put out another record this year but I don’t know if that’s going to be possible. I want to keep moving and keep playing with these guys because we’re having a really good time at the moment. I’m scared to stop at this point.