Graeme Downes studied composition at the University of Otago under Jack Speirs and completed a PhD on the music of Mahler. Although classically trained as a musician and composer, his primary field of composition has been in alternative rock music. His Dunedin-based band The Verlaines, synonymous with the Flying Nun record label in the 1980s, is still active today.
Despite choosing a career as a rock composer, commentators regularly note classical influences in Downes’ work, which can operate within diatonic, chromatic and 20th century modal realms. The influence of composers as diverse as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Shostakovich can be heard in Downes’ work, though due to the use of rock instruments, these influences are not immediately obvious. Many of Downes’ songs feature classical instruments alongside rock instruments. Internationally renowned for his musical and poetic abilities, Downes’ attraction to rock composition was due in part to the expectation to compose text.