Kiwis win first real Cup race

 

Kiwis win first real America’s Cup race as Oracle adapts to rejected rule change

After a week of one-boat “races,” an argument over rules, and an angry sponsor making waves in international media, it would be easy to write off the America’s Cup as the lamest party in town (so lame, in fact, that the organizers have ceased broadcasting the one-boat shows on YouTube).

But, it was a week of wins for Emirates Team New Zealand, most obviously the solid drubbing they delivered to Luna Rossa on Saturday (7/13) during the first race at which two boats actually showed.

A smart “hook” by ETNZ blocked Luna Rossa from the start line and gave the Kiwis a five second advantage that stretched to over five minutes during the seven legs of the race. Unfortunately, that was the peak of the action as the gap between the boats grew so great and Luna Rossa officially earned a “did not finish” result for exceeding the five minutes allowed to cross the finish line after ETNZ. Overall, the match was almost as boring to watch as the single-boat snoozefests of earlier in the week, however it did show off the capabilities of the Kiwi crew, who are clearly mastering foiling while jibing, a key move for maintaining high speeds downwind.

Which brings us to the other big win for the New Zealanders this week. On Thursday, the international jury [1]ruled in favor of ETNZ and Luna Rossa, who protested a new rule requiring larger, symmetrical rudder elevators as a matter of safety. The jury decided that allowing the larger rudder elevators – which Oracle have been using on their boat since they relaunched in April after a pitch-pole in October destroyed their wing sail – would violate the AC72 Class Rule that governs the design specifications of the boats.

They said regatta director Iain Murray couldn’t change this rule without buy-in from all the competitors and that voluntary compliance of the other safety rules would appease the Coast Guard, which permitted the event based on the additional safety measures made after Andrew Simpson died.

The rudder elevators help stabilize the lightweight boats while foiling, or lifting off the surface of the water to hit speeds of over 40 knots – ETNZ saw 42.3 on the speedometer on Saturday while Luna Rossa maxed out at 39.9 knots. The crew that masters this move and can maintain it over the course of a race will likely come out ahead. ETNZ is doing it now and will likely get better and better at it over the coming weeks as they continue to race the course through the multiple round robins of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Meanwhile, Oracle will have to return to the drawing board and Ellison’s crew will need to get out on the water and re-learn how to handle their boat with a new rudder that complies with the Class Rule.

Oracle has been tight-lipped on the subject, with just a brief statement from general manager Grant Simmer on the jury’s decision. “We continue to support the Regatta Director and we believe all teams have benefited from his review. We don’t have an issue complying with the Class Rule, and we will be ready to race under the rules affirmed by the Jury.”
However, they may have an issue playing catch-up to the Kiwis, who have a lot on the line. If they aren’t able to wrest the Auld Mug from Larry Ellison’s hands, it’s likely the New Zealand government won’t chip in for a future campaign – especially if high-tech, billion-dollar boats remain the name of the game.

The Kiwis have already chalked up four points and will need to win just one more of the next three bouts with Italy to advance to the Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals, during which the Swedish team, Artemis, should be back on the water. Spectators won’t see Oracle on the course until September 7, when the America’s Cup final matches commence, however there should be plenty of opportunities to observe their practice sessions with a newly rule-compliant boat.

To that end, it’s worth noting that situating the race close to land for the first time in the Cup’s history, and with a short course completed in multiple laps, was supposed to draw crowds to the shoreline and the television screen. Now that I’ve seen the boats live and on television, I have to admit that so far it’s still a pretty boring sport to watch. Standing near the start line at Marina Green or the finish line at Piers 27/29 may get you flashes of action and watching it on television is like watching a video game.

The best of both worlds is to park as near as possible to the water and get your hands on a portable marine VHF radio tuned to channel 20, which transmits the official America’s Cup broadcast. Then you can hear details on speed and tactics while actually seeing the most unforgettable part of this race – the boats jibing downwind, hitting freeway speeds while foiling with spray flying and crewmembers bouncing from one hull to the other.

That’s still drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd.

Originally published July 15, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

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New Zealand’s Cup

America’s Cup, seen by many here as a billionaire’s boat race, looks very different Down Under, with its culture of sailing and maritime innovation.

PHOTO: GETTY/EZRA SHAW

A few weeks ago I was walking down the dock in the marina where I live, in Wellington, New Zealand, when I passed a woman and a young boy. I’d never seen them before, which is uncommon here in this municipal marina — about 100 boats — in a small suburb of the country’s capital.

The boy was walking from berth to berth pointing out certain rig and hull features and expounding on them as only a future aficionado can. “Lots of different boats, huh?” I asked as I passed.

“Different than America,” he confirmed in an accent the same as mine.

The kid is sharp, I thought, or maybe it’s just obvious, even to an eight-year-old from Chicago. The New Zealand sailing scene is vastly different than its American counterpart, which is not to say there’s no comparing — they’re not exactly navigating carved logs with gunnysack sails down here.

But the boats in my marina are, in fact, mostly homebuilt from steel, cement, aluminum, and wood. They appear a motley crew compared to the cookie-cutter production fiberglass Beneteaus, Catalinas, and Hunters, with their identical pacific blue sail covers lined up in San Francisco’s South Beach Marina.

In New Zealand, a boat is rarely a status symbol — it’s part of the middle-class way of life, the home base for holidays and weekend fishing trips and lots and lots of competitive racing. If I’ve noticed one thing since I arrived in this country (aboard a sailboat, after leaving San Francisco and my job as a Bay Guardian staff writer), it’s that every little harbor town has a yacht club and an awful lot of Kiwis own boats — and they sail the shit out of them.

Which is part of the reason why the New Zealand government is willing to invest NZ$36 million (US$27 million) to compete in the 34th America’s Cup against some of the richest men in the world in a race that has become so elite there’s barely any competition.

Small as the field is, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) is quickly shaping up to be the team to beat if you’re on a high-speed, air-catching AC72 catamaran. If they succeed, it will show that developing an America’s Cup team doesn’t have to come from having deep pockets in your Nantucket Red pants — it comes from having the sport ingrained in your culture, filtered through affordable local boat clubs, city-run facilities, volunteer programs, publicly accessible shorefronts, and an innovative marine industry.

In fact, without New Zealand’s maritime way of life, Larry Ellison wouldn’t have much of a team: of the 27 sailors and management crew aboard Oracle, a third are Kiwis. Another third are Australians. If you count Ellison, there are only three Americans aboard. Just one of them — tactician and grinder John Kostecki — grew up sailing on San Francisco Bay.

Ellison’s boat is mostly a Kiwi production, too — the fixed-wing sails and structural components for Oracle’s two AC72s were made in New Zealand, as were the boats, sails, and rigs for ETNZ and Luna Rossa. The only other syndicate competing, Sweden’s Artemis, in the wind since the death of crewmember Andrew Simpson, is the outlier, but they still have eight New Zealanders on board.

America’s Cup is looking more and more like it owes a lot to New Zealand. Is the Cup doing as much for San Francisco as it is for this little island nation, with a population just a tenth of California’s?

“If it wasn’t called Team New Zealand, we wouldn’t get a lot out of it,” says Sven Pannell, a competitive dinghy racer and employee of the economic development agency Grow Wellington. “The numbers of boat builders, carbon fabricators, sail makers, yacht designers coming out of New Zealand are the reason we’re still at the top of the global game. If we can bring the Cup home that means a lot for our country.”

It may also save America’s Cup from becoming even more out of touch with reality.

IT’S THE CULTURE, STUPID

It’s June 8, summer in San Francisco but winter in Wellington. The first race of the 2013 Winter Series at Evans Bay Boat Club hits hypothermic seas beneath steely overcast skies and 20-30 knots of wind — “perfect conditions,” one sailor enthuses. Tame, actually, for Wellington. A week ago, wind blew out the fifth story windows of a building downtown.

Sven Pannell has just finished racing a 12-foot skiff, a super lightweight, often homebuilt boat that probably originated in Australia and is almost exclusively raced in the Southern Hemisphere, though an 18-foot version will be showcased in San Francisco this September alongside the America’s Cup finals. Weighing about 100 pounds, with no class restrictions on sail area, they rooster-tail around Wellington harbor, bow high, barely in the water. They seem to require a similar caliber of nerve as the AC72s.

Which Pannell, who won today, evidently has. He grew up sailing as a kid, as did his crew, Craig Anderson. Neither of them can think of anyone who didn’t get into sailing as a child.

“A lot of people around the world think yachting is a well-heeled sport, but not in New Zealand,” he says. “There’s a reason that half those [America’s Cup] boats are full of Kiwis and Aussies. Go out and see the number of eight-year-olds in Optis in all kinds of weather here. A high number of people sailing at that age creates a deep pool of sailors in demand.”

“America’s Cup is about stretching the limits, but it starts here, when you’re eight years old,” he adds.

Eager to get out of the icy Antarctic wind, I enter the boat club where about 35 people are gathered at the bar, buzzing from adrenalin, barefoot and wet from spray or capsizes, gripping ginger beers and green bottles of Steinlager, the Budweiser of New Zealand. It’s a humble looking crowd — no flash gear or cashmere.

I’m introduced to Mike Rhodes, 26, wearing a blue sweatshirt and camo pants. He’d love to race an America’s Cup boat, but he also satisfies himself with a 12-foot skiff, which he stripped and rebuilt, fashioning the stainless steel fittings himself — he’s a sheet metal worker.

“New Zealand sailing is all about learning and moving forward,” he says. “The boats we’re sailing are always changing. We have set rules for weight, width, and length. After that it’s wide open. You can put up as much rig as you can handle. We went out in 50 knots last weekend. It was insane. We probably had boat speeds of 30 knots.”

The speed and innovations are what appeal to Rhodes and also connect to the America’s Cup, which has been an historic proving ground for leaps forward in boat design. “Who thought New Zealand could make the boat fly first?” he says of ETNZ’s proficiency at foiling the AC72 — going so fast the hull actually lifts off the water.

We’re soon joined by Laura Hutton, a 30-year-old from Cape Cod. She’s raced dinghies, coached and taught sailing for years. Now a speech therapist, she moved to New Zealand three months ago and immediately hooked into the local yachting scene. It’s palpably different than what she’s used to in the States. Here, she says, “It’s a lot more laid back. It’s more inclusive than exclusive. I used to go to events at New York Yacht Club in Newport and I felt so uncomfortable there. It’s the most elite, snobby place.”

“You can’t get coaching in the US unless you’re part of a yacht club or go to a school with a racing team,” she adds, and there’s often a huge cost to enter the sport. “Here, I can join the local yacht club for $35 a month,” she deadpans.

I spend more money riding the bus, I tell her, but I wouldn’t in San Francisco, where it’s cheap to catch a bus but where most people rarely board boats.

The American yacht club tradition has a certain “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it” attitude. Ellison is one of 300 members of Golden Gate Yacht Club, official host for the Cup. Its neighbor, St. Francis Yacht Club, 2,300 strong, also has a role in the festivities. Both are exclusive, members-only clubs and neither would tell me what their members pay for the club’s privileges.

However, they’re officially nonprofit organizations and filings with the IRS show St. Francis made nearly $13 million in 2011. Golden Gate Yacht Club took home $660,000 the same year. Ironically, both clubs are on public lands, leased from San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department for $231,125 and $64,000 annually respectively.

Both clubs run learn-to-sail programs for kids — $350 for St. Francis and $200 for GGYC — which seem affordable, but what’s the next step? Joining the club, but apparently it’s too rude to query the price.

By contrast, Wellington’s Evans Bay Boat Club charges NZ$281 (US$210) to join and Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club, which is a sister club to St. Francis, costs NZ$160 (US $120). The Bay Area is lucky — Berkeley and Treasure Island both have affordable clubs, however one could argue that if St. Francis and GGYC are on public lands, they should be paying more in dues to the city.

If there’s a posh club in Auckland, it’s ETNZ’s home — the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. “But it’s a Kiwi version of posh, nothing like some of the yacht clubs I have been to in places like England, where women aren’t allowed to order drinks at the bar,” says Ben Gladwell, a journalist for Boating New Zealand who will be racing an 18 foot skiff in San Francisco in a regatta concurrent with the Cup finals. “At the Squaddy, there are obviously rules, like no cell phones, and dress codes and such like, but the fees are still only a few hundred dollars per year and it is much more inclusive than other yacht clubs around the world.”

Gladwell explored the health of New Zealand’s sailing culture in a story called “State of the Racing Nation” for Boating New Zealand. He found that although there is a drop-off in interest during university years, many yacht clubs have created partnerships to keep kids in the sport, there are mobile learn-to-sail units roaming the country, and lots of accessible city-run programs for kids. Couple that with low lifetime fees to stay in the sport and you see healthy clubs like Evans Bay, where people of all ages are out racing every weekend, all year round.

“Having so many people involved in sailing is a major reason we are successful,” he says. “Children are introduced to it at such a young age…by the time they come to competing at youth international regattas, they are hugely experienced and winning becomes a habit.”

“AMERICA’S CUP IS NOW NEW ZEALAND’S CUP”

In 1995, when Black Magic smoked Dennis Connor’s Stars and Stripes in a five-race shut-out, commentator Peter Montgomery famously quipped “America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup,” a line that’s gone down in Kiwi history like the “I have a dream” speech.

For the first time, the Auld Mug would be defended in New Zealand. Back then, Auckland’s Viaduct Harbor probably looked a lot like parts of San Francisco’s waterfront does today — dilapidated piers and old industrial buildings crumbling on their pilings. It would cost of NZ$58 million (US$29 million at the time) to dredge the harbor and spruce up the waterfront for the Cup.

The city made its money back. Hosting for two years, in 2000 and 2003, brought NZ$1 billion (US$500 million, at the time) in economic benefits to the country, about 85 percent of that going to Auckland’s local businesses, mostly from visiting megayachts and the services required for the nine syndicates that competed — twice as many as are in San Francisco today.

And Auckland made a lot less than the US$900 million predicted for San Francisco, already trimmed from the US$1.4 billion initially estimated. What the city actually gains from the $22.5 million investment they’ve been forced to make remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Auckland continues to benefit from the race.

It’s been estimated that the four Cup contenders have collectively spent half a billion on their campaigns and a decent chunk of that has been in Auckland, particularly during the AC72 design, build, and testing phases. Already, taxes paid by ETNZ employees amount to NZ$22.4 million (US$16.5 million). That doesn’t include the employee payroll taxes of all the businesses doing Cup-related activity, like the boat builders, riggers, and sailmakers.

ETNZ CEO Grant Dalton has netted sponsorships from more than 100 companies and argues that the Cup efforts have kept many marine businesses afloat that would have otherwise shuttered. Kiwis have not been immune to the world financial situation: the high New Zealand dollar hurting exports and the NZ$30 billion (US$22.5 billion) price tag for the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake have stressed the country’s coffers.

Because of that, funding ETNZ has been as contentious here as hosting Ellison’s party has been to San Franciscans. The agreement was signed in 2007 by a Labour Party-led government and when National Party’s John Key won the Prime Minister’s seat in 2008, he looked into breaking the contract, a move supported by other parties. “Funding the America’s Cup is surely a ‘nice to have’, rather than essential spending, in the current economic climate,” said Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei at the time.

The government was advised they’d still be legally on the hook for the money if they broke the contract, so ETNZ proceeded, but proof of economic return was a contingency and Dalton has taken pains to keep the public good in the conversation, a sharp contrast to Ellison’s attitude toward San Francisco. Dalton has said if New Zealand wins, the world should expect a sharp scaling back of costs. “We stand for nationality rule and we stand for real budget numbers that real people can raise,” he has said.

There’s definitely a sense that this could be New Zealand’s last chance to bring the Auld Mug home. If they don’t, the America’s Cup also loses. Who else will save it from American-style exclusiveness?

Originally published July 3, 2013 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Fell in love with the bassist


We listened to Being There that winter it snowed so much we could jump off the balcony. One summer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was the soundtrack at every barbeque. Sky Blue Sky took me to California and all the Mermaid Avenue volumes across the sea to New Zealand. I was camping with my oldest friends when The Whole Love was released. We listened to it piped through someone’s fancy phone while sipping gin on a sunny beach.

There’s been a Wilco album for every era of my life. When I tell their bassist, John Stirratt, he seems taken aback and, honestly, thankful.

“I’m still getting used to the idea of being together 20 years. It doesn’t seem like it,” says Stirratt, who doesn’t exactly have a native New Orleans drawl, but speaks with a slow, almost metered cadence, by phone from his wintry Chicago home. “It’s such a tough business. Early on the idea that it wasn’t going to be around forever may have helped us out.”

Stirratt has been hammering the bass for Wilco since he and Jeff Tweedy rose from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo’s 1994 demise. Over the years, the lineup has stretched and contracted (that’s another story that’s already been written, filmed, and scrutinized) but the six musicians on their way to Wellington solidified not long after the 2002 success of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Stirratt was raised in a musical household and even played as a country duo with his twin sister, Laurie, but he studied English and business at university and never anticipated a career on the stage. “I knew I was going to play music, but doing it for a living was sort of laughable. Early in college I was always in bands and always was playing, in The Hilltops with my sister, in bands that were contemporaries of Uncle Tupelo, which was how I met Jeff. It was in my mind and I sure didn’t expect it to flower.”

Wilco’s lead vocalist and guitarist Tweedy has almost all the songwriting credits for Wilco, but Stirratt isn’t a silent guy. He saves his songs for The Autumn Defense, a band with Pat Sansone, Wilco’s melodic multi-instrumentalist and a fellow Louisiana boy. He says the side project “started early on in Wilco….Jeff just wanted to have control and write the tunes so I started making records on the side.” He and Sansone were living in New Orleans at the time and it felt like there was no particular band playing their kind of music – classic pop – dominating the scene.

They began playing in pubs, arranging songs, and have released five albums since 2000. Their newest one, due this year, was partially inspired by a visit to New Zealand to record the Seven Worlds Collide charity album with Neil Finn. Working with other musicians got them writing more songs for The Autumn Defense.

Stirratt says the side project is a way for him to “see a tune completely written by me, from front to back. I’m not going to get any lyrics on a Wilco album. The way we work, the songs have different degrees of completion. There are six of us working on Jeff’s songs and it’s always been sort of competitive for me to get the songwriting thing happening.”

That doesn’t, however, detract from his affection for Wilco and playing with The Autumn Defense he’s “keeping a foot in each world.”
“It can be so fun to play to a little room and I haven’t really forgotten that. Playing with Autumn Defense, it’s another aspect of it. I’ve always kept one foot in the clubs.”

As for memories of his early days before Wilco could fill a sold-out stadium, he says, “Ironically it’s some of the best times and some of the best learning I had. I always fronted on guitar and singing, and I cut my teeth playing bass in country rock over bands and I had the best time doing that.”

Asked what he’d tell an up and coming musician, grinding through the pub scene, and he says, “Follow your heart and learn your instrument. Instinct is such a big part of music. In terms of songwriting, it’s so much better to sing and listen to your instinct. There really does have to be a sort of environment to play with people you like being around. Years ago, I asked Paul Westerberg for advice when we opened for them, and he said get in a band with people you can stand.”

But, he chuckles, “That obviously didn’t work out for The Replacements.”

It’s working out for John Stirratt and Wilco.

 

Originally published April 3, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Take it from the heart

The way Albert Dadon sees it, being a successful musician means being a good businessman. Fortunately, he’s both.

“I’m a business musician. Music is part of everything I do,” says the man who plays jazz under the banner Albare, but signs important property development documents with the name Albert Dadon, executive chairman of Ubertas Group. He founded the Melbourne residential property development company in 2003, the same year he also founded the Australian Jazz Bell Awards and while he was chairman of the Melbourne Jazz Festival (which, yes, he also founded, in 1998.)

“It’s all very well to be a musician but if you don’t have the professionalism that comes with it, so what? You can stay home and play, but if you want to be on tour and organise yourself you become a businessman. Music was first. Later, business came along.”

The reality, he says, is that both sectors see him as an anomaly. “The business world calls me a musician and the music world calls me a businessman.”

The music world also calls him a very good musician. “Albare’s sextet of jazz musicians from all around the world complemented his unique playing perfectly, and left the capacity crowd utterly frothing,” wrote Vulture Magazine about his Melbourne Jazz performance.

He’s recorded several albums over the years, but 2012’s Long Way, which featured a powerful lineup of jazz greats, including George Garzone and Antonio Sanchez, really put him on the international map, as well as on the US Top 50 Jazz albums for 20 consecutive weeks. With it, he toured Europe, Asia, the United States, and Australia. This week, he performs for the first time in New Zealand.

Asked how it’s possible he’s never played for Wellington, which has such a rich jazz culture and scene, he says, “I never had the opportunity. Really, New Zealand is close to Australia, but it’s far. It’s easier to jump on a plane to the United States. I’m quite aware of the cultural life in New Zealand, but the opportunities were never offered to me. The release of Long Way and all of the international touring, one has to stop and ask the question, ‘What about New Zealand?’”

Dadon was born in Morocco, but raised in Israel, where he grew up listening to American accents from the nearby military base and lots of jazz – always jazz, he says. There were no Middle Eastern influences at the time in his house. When his mother gave him a guitar at the age of eight, he began lessons in the classical form of playing.

“I was totally bored,” he recalls. “When I was 12, I discovered guitar meant freedom, rock, long hair. It was totally cool and my mom suddenly wanted to take my guitar away.” He got into rock and roll, blues and jazz, playing in European cafes, until he emigrated to Australia at the age of 27.

“Love brought me here,” he says of the move. “I met my wife in Paris and got married and we came to Australia.” With Debbie Dadon, (née Besen, of the Sussan clothing chain) he has three children, now grown, which has also freed him to perform more overseas.

Dabon is often credited with starting the acid jazz movement in Australia, but he says he just began jamming with DJs and things took off. “It was weird at the time,” he says. “I had some rappers, too. Those guys would take a mike and any word that came out of their mouth was amazing. The rappers were improvising and that was part of the jazz thing.”

Writing music comes easily to him, like a gate he opens and closes, he says, as he moves between business, music, and teaching at Monash University. “For me, there are not two or 10 personalities. It’s one. I’m the same guy who talks to a business journalist. Everything is present at all times. I cannot be one thing at one moment and then something else.”

That continuity is at the heart of how he performs. “All serious musicians understand there are stages. First is that you like it and it touches your heart. To reproduce it you have to get it up to your brain, then for the rest of your life you’re trying to bring it back down to your heart because you can only play it with your heart. When I play if I’m not playing from the heart I’m wasting everyone’s time.”

“You have to really, truly, be in that moment in that place and that’s where you’re able to communicate. And from then it’s a service. You can change people’s lives.”

 

Originally published March 27, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Swan song for the sea


When Mara Simpson and her guitar landed back in New Zealand she made a goal to go swimming every day. Well, almost every day, she confesses to Amanda Witherell at a café on a morning before the sun’s high enough to hit the beach. When Mara and The Bushkas weren’t swimming, they were singing about it as they toured New Zealand with their new album To The Sea Sessions.

Wellingtonians have one last chance to hear them before Simpson returns to her new home in Berlin, where landlocked living is changing her tune. 

Last time Simpson spoke to Capital Times, the Kenyan-born, UK-raised singer-songwriter lauded the Wellington music scene. “I just feel like I belong here,” she said, back in 2011. Living in a strange city outside her comfort zone gave her the courage to perform and she developed a healthy gig repertoire and following.

Now, two years later, she’s shacked up with Berlin. What happened to the love?

“My visa was up and it was either stay in New Zealand and spend an awful lot of money on residency or go have some adventures,” she says. So, it was a practical matter, but the results have uncovered new potential for her songs.

“When I first got there I started looking for the music scene like Wellington’s and it just doesn’t exist. Here you can just go down Cuba Street. In Berlin, it’s very underground. A lot of venues don’t have signs. There are no gig listings. You just have to tap into it somehow.”

Simpson started tapping Kiwi connections in the German capital and eventually found herself in the sights of Crazy Planet Records, a touring and promotions outfit with a fondness for New Zealand music (Sola Rosa, Six60, and Bella Kalolo are also in their stable.) She spent last year using Berlin as a base for a solo tour of Europe, fortuitously landing a couple larger gigs at Sazava Fest in Prague and Berlin’s Fashion Week.

She also had the opportunity to contribute session vocals for Ray Wilson (best known as the singer who replaced Phil Collins in Genesis). “Just being in the studio it was amazing to watch how really produced albums are approached. I’d sing a line and they’d take that line apart,” she says. “I haven’t really spent a lot of time on perfecting. Always, time and money restraints meant being in the moment.”

For example, To The Sea wasn’t a planned album – when Simpson was departing New Zealand she got together with Bushkas Jean Pompey and Ed Zuccollo “to document these songs before I left.” They were recorded live during one quick day at Warren Maxwell’s Stone Feather Studio, but afterwards they seemed too good to just gather dust. An album was conceived and, later in Berlin, two songs – Follow Me and Whiskey – were added. Simpson says after cutting live albums, (their first was a live session at Bats Theatre) she’s ready to experiment with a more produced sound.

“That’s the next step, for sure. I’ve been on a massive learning curve, doing everything live and touring,” she says. “Jean and Ed had a lot of input on the sound of this album. They added a lot of creativity to the songs and put a real ‘Wellington sound’ to them. I’m keen to craft songs in a new way, to add a few more elements and space.”

The new direction includes a new band for Berlin, which also has Kiwi roots. Through well-connected guitarist Gerry Paul (“Who doesn’t know Gerry?” we both ask with a laugh), Simpson found a Berlin-based drummer, Rene Corbett. But, she says, “We couldn’t find a bass player for love or money. In Wellington you have all these musicians at your fingertips because of the Jazz School.” (Also, part of the source of that ‘Wellington sound’). Eventually, double-bassist Alex Bayer completed the trio and plans are for a studio recording, as well as gigging Europe.

“I’ll keep the Bushkas as a Kiwi project if and when I come back here,” says Simpson. It sounds fatal, but her partner Ali Tocher, is a New Zealander so there will always be a reason to come home.

As for the significance of the sea, she says, “I don’t want to get too airy fairy, but I grew up on the coast of Kenya and we would go to landlocked UK. It’s like I was always having the sea taken away from me.”

She’ll lose it again when she returns to Berlin in April, but if the depth and emotion in her sea songs are as honest as they are beautiful, chances are she won’t be gone for long.

 

Originally published March 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Not playing it cool

 

Eamonn Marra hates being labelled, and it is impossible to say he’s one thing. Writer, musician, student, radio show DJ, zine-maker, prolific reader, relentless multimedia chronicler of life at http://www.yourjokesarealwaysbad.tumblr.com – all of the above applies. Since he moved to Wellington about a year ago, he’s added stand-up comedian to the list.

He hates competitions as much as he hates labels, but he’ll join 40 other performers to duel for the last laugh in the annual Raw Comedy Quest, beginning March 14.

The annual comedy show-down can led to as near to greatness as a comic can get in New Zealand, but Marra isn’t rubbing his hands in anticipation. Remember: he hates this, but that’s part of his shtick. He’s an accidental comedian who arrived onstage via the unlikely route of poetry slams, which he began performing a couple years ago while still living in his native Christchurch.
“The poems that would go off the best were the funny ones,” he says, explaining that he made concerted efforts to dig deeper with un-funny poetry, but the laughter seemed to indicate something else was at play. “So I dropped the poetry and started doing comedy about one year ago.”

As Marra talks, his forehead slicks with sweat and his hand visibly quakes and fidgets with a glass of Six Barrel Soda. We’ve met on a warm-for-Wellington afternoon, but his discomfort seems of a higher order. It’s also the tool of his comic trade, he says.

“I can be really nervous on stage because my material works with that. It’s just me being scared on stage and not talking to the crowd directly and looking down and it’s not an act I’m putting on. It’s just who I am.”

Marra leans on the art of how things are said as much as the content itself. Discussing his depression and anxiety, mocking the meds he’s been on since he was 19 or moments in counselling, all is made farcical by his delivery – awkward, shaky, sweaty. He’s the un-cool guy not playing it cool.

“Comedy hasn’t actually been a big interest of mine,” says the 23-year-old when asked which comedians he watches or loves. A student of English and philosophy at Victoria University, he spends more time reading (a book a week is his goal) than studying clips or comedy routines. If he takes in comedy, it’s usually live and local.

“When I started I didn’t like many comedians at all here and the more I watch them the more I appreciate what they do and laugh at what they’re doing,” he says. “My favourite comedians don’t have jokes and punch lines, but are building up situations that don’t necessarily have places in them to laugh. There’s not always a joke in there.”

Along a similar vein, Marra hopes to do something a bit different with his comedy, citing a recent Christchurch gig at which he distributed a zine he’d also created. “The ideas I talked about in the show had a different form in the zine,” he says. “If I go any further with comedy I’d go down that route, with it as a combination of things. It gets you out of being stuck or labelled.”

Labels don’t stick to what he’s up to on his blog, which is stocked with poems, short stories, daily ephemera and observations, lists of songs on his show, books on his shelf, goals achieved and otherwise, augmented with a self-affirming loop of people laughing at his jokes and self-portraits, most recently with a box of expired and, sadly, unused condoms. Tell him he’s creative and he deadpans: “I don’t feel like I’m especially creative because I spend a lot of time doing nothing.”

To which I laugh.

 

Originally published March 13, 2013 in Capital Times. 

Hi-tech in the tidal zone


On a recent Friday afternoon I donned the filthiest life jacket I’ve ever seen, stepped aboard a flat steel punt dusty with concrete, and went to a place few ever go – the cool, dark underworld beneath Queens Wharf.

Here, the water glows an eerie nuclear green and the sounds of constant foot traffic, swooping helicopters, and the Shed 5 lunch crowd seem a million miles away. It’s high tide and Derek Kleinjan and I duck our heads around ancient copper sewer pipes and enormous 100-year-old beams to see what he and his five-man crew have been up to for the past 18 months.

Kleinjan is foreman for GK Shaw, a Lower Hutt firm that builds marine infrastructure around the world, and they’re systematically reinforcing the rotted beams and piles of the aging wharf. About 270 new greenheart beams, each weighing half a ton, were floated one at a time and lifted overhead into place with jacks specially designed by Shaw (and hidden in storage from the eyes of competitors.)

More than 280 new concrete piles have been poured, with the assistance of two divers, and wrapped with sheets of Kevlar, which add strength and stability to the structure. They resemble the hi-tech carbon fibre sails seen on racing boats, and are a new method for this kind of large scale renovation.  Already, barnacles, muscles, and starfish are clinging to the Kevlar and the internal carbon fibres lend an ethereal light.

Kleinjan’s been down here off and on over the years – as have his two sons, who work for him occasionally. Twenty years ago he was part of the crew that replaced piles under Shed 5, which he shows me while diners stare down at us from the restaurant’s deck.

These piles are thicker and were poured around an internal metal frame, which isn’t required with the new Kevlar method.
“The trickier the better sometimes because it really makes you think,” says the foreman, who describes areas where the wooden beams, weighing half a ton apiece, had to be lifted overhead, delicately threaded between pipes and electrical cords.

Kleinjan and crew will be finished by June, when they’ll move on to repair the fendering on Taranaki Wharf. He tells me he loves the complexity and challenges of the work, even though it’s something he can’t really show off. “If you sucked all the water out of the sea nobody’d want to walk on a wharf,” he says as we glide back out into the light of day.

 

Originally published March 6, 2013 in Capital Times. 

 

Steam is up for sci-fi


It’s New Zealand Book Month and Amanda Witherell talks to one of Wellington’s newest and smallest publishers about how to print quality books and still be able to feed the cat.

You don’t, according to Stephen Minchin.

“I’ve lost chunks of money. It’s kind of depressing,” says the founder of Steam Press, which launched just two years ago and has a mere five titles to its name. Still, Minchin is smiling across a black coffee at Lamason café off Bond Street: perhaps because he’s specialising in something other publishers are tossing in the slush pile – science fiction by New Zealand authors.

“I think it’s what you need to do now, have that niche that you understand and that people recognise,” he says.

In some ways, he’s not alone. Amongst Wellington-based generalists like Victoria University Press and Steele Roberts, are some very specific, and successful, niche-holders: Huia publishes Māori authors, Gecko prints children’s books from overseas, Awa and Te Papa handle nonfiction, Bridget Williams’ focus is scholarly tomes. Now Steam Press prints science fiction, an evergreen genre for adventurous readers, but not of interest to publishers, though Minchin says he’s been flooded with quality submissions.

“I came at this as a reader and an author,” says the Wellington native who studied ecology at Massey University, but decided, as he puts it, “Science is one of those things that takes something you’re interested in and destroys it.”

Science fiction, however, is another story. Or novel – he wrote two while living in Japan, with his wife Ang, teaching English. “I sent them back to New Zealand and no one would publish them. No one wanted science fiction,” he says. His suspicion was confirmed while studying publishing at Whitireia. “We had a lot of publishers come and visit us at the course and it dawned on me that none of the New Zealand publishers were interested in stuff that I was writing and reading.”

Last year, Steam Press released three books, all of which have been favorably reviewed. The first The Prince of Soul and The Lighthouse by Fredrik Brounéus, was picked up by German and Czech Republic markets. The second, Mansfield with Monsters, landed on The Listener’s 100 Best Books of 2012, elbowing amongst other short story collections by Alice Munro, Junot Diaz, and Witi Ihimaera. In it, authors Matt and Debbie Cowens rework Katherine Mansfield stories to terrifying ends. (They’ll read from the book at a New Zealand Book Month event, Words on the Wind, later this month.)

“I didn’t expect them to even look at it,” says Minchin of The Listener’s meaningful recognition. Though the book is in its third reprint, the endorsement hasn’t translated into a spike in sales.

That may be unfortunate reputation of New Zealand authorship. Kiwis like local literature in theory, but they aren’t burning through the pages, according to a 2012 Victoria University study by Pia White. Of 500 surveyed readers, only 23 percent reported often reading New Zealand fiction. The study also cited Nielsen BookScan numbers showing New Zealand books account for only four percent of the total fiction market.
Though Minchin is committed to publishing local authors, he agrees with the masses. His taste test is simple: “After I read it, do I want to buy it for someone else? It’s been a while since I did that with a New Zealand author. It’s all a matter of taste, but if a certain taste isn’t being catered to, that’s where I can come in.”

The same study found nearly 40 percent of readers are science fiction fans. Why not give them what they want? A story of Māori gods roaming Wellington streets probably wouldn’t be published if it weren’t for Minchin. Steam Press will release Summer Wigmore’s The Wind City later this year, after the launch of Joseph Ryan’s The Factory World, by another Wellington writer.

At the moment, it’s a nights-and-weekends labour of love, wedged between Minchin’s digital strategy work for Huia and Awa. He’s also a newly-appointed tutor for Whitireia’s publishing course.

“I occasionally get really down about it and then I remember that I actually enjoy it. I’m producing really cool books that otherwise wouldn’t have been produced. It’s a matter of not stressing about the money. I’m enjoying it during the day and then I’m awake all night, wondering how to feed the cat.”

Asked where he sees his business five years from now, Minchin says, “I’d like to keep putting out a couple books a year, selling rights overseas, and working for other publishers at least part time.”

Pretty much what he’s doing now…plus, feeding the cat.

 

Originally published March 6, 2013 in Capital Times. 

 

Kids’ TV could be better


How much, when, and what to watch on the tele have been in parent-child negotiations since before Spot On hit the airwaves. The experts still say less is more, but the sheer ubiquity of televisions, computers, smart phones, tablets, game players, etc. and so on in the lounge, office, bedroom, classroom, back of the ute, and palm of one’s hand means, like it or not, your kid is getting more than you may be able to control.

Should Junior be snacking on a bag of crisps or a crispy native Braeburn? That’s the basic question posed by a group of New Zealanders who want to change what’s on the channel and are inviting the public to debate on children’s television.

The New Zealand Children’s Screen Trust officially launched this week and, in conjunction with Goethe Institut, celebrates Children’s Day with a seminar and forum entitled What Do Kids Want From TV? Dr Maya Götz, head of the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, has been flown in from Germany to lecture and debate with New Zealand media luminaries, producer Yvonne Mackay of Production Shed and writer Martin Baynton of Pukeko Pictures.

“Content is really central,” Götz says, when asked if there’s such a thing as healthy television for children. She recommends no more than 30 minutes to an hour per day. “For all ages it should be a variety of fiction and nonfiction, of things that tell stories about the social and factual world, but also something that is based in their own culture, helping them to understand the concrete world around them.”

That’s precisely what’s lacking in New Zealand television, says Mackay, one of the founding members of the Children’s Screen Trust, which includes other producers, former children’s commissioners, and media researchers.  “About 15 to 20 years ago New Zealand TV was really famous for high quality family dramas. We made a lot of them and they were programmes that had an eight year old and an 80 year old together viewing them and discussing them. We’ve stopped making those programs.”

Mackay points to the success of Production Shed’s Kaitangata Twitch, a 13-episode family drama based on a Margaret Mahy book. It won several awards, rated higher than the news on Māori Television, and currently airs at a prime Saturday night spot.

“Once we made that programme we started to look around to make more like it,” recounts Mackay. “The main funder, NZ On Air, was not able to offer any more than $1million for any more high quality children’s dramas. You can’t make Kaitangata Twitch for $1million. It cost $6.2million.”

Götz says the lack of public broadcasting is a big issue. “For most countries this is the only way to ensure that someone seriously takes care of children’s media concerns,” she says. “Now you have to find other ways to make sure that New Zealand children can see themselves on television. You need programmes made in your country.” She lauds the founding of the Trust, but says more money should be devoted to creating programmes. In other countries launching a children’s channel not devoted to advertising was a “turning point for high quality children’s TV.”

As for specific recommendations to parents, she says kids start paying attention to screens at six months of age and clear rules need to be made early. Diverse programming and communicating about what kids are seeing are key. Furthermore, media studies should be part of the curriculum at an early stage, beginning with diaries of daily media use and “reflection on what is healthy and feels good and what does not.”

 

Originally published February 27, 2013 in Capital Times.

 

A beer embrace


AT the edge of Glover Park, a sunny green just off Cuba Street, where gamblers once played the pokies in a dim, black-painted TAB, a transformation is underway. 

Soon people will be sipping ParrotDog, Garage Project, and Funk Estate brews, snacking on homemade pizza, looking at art on the walls and listening to a local band while their dogs caper at their feet. Rogue & Vagabond opens this week, but does Wellington really need another craft beer bar?

Gwilym Waldren and Becks Gray, partners in life and business, think so.

“The more craft beer bars there are the more people start drinking it,” asserts Waldren, who’s tended bars in China, Ireland, and most recently Australia, before returning to Wellington to be with Gray and open their first joint endeavour.

“Craft beer is the future for brewing. DB, Lion, the big brewers are dinosaurs.”

As for what sets them apart, it could be their focus on community, beginning with a plan to display local artists, on a monthly rotation, without taking a commission from any sales.

“This is about things we like,” says Waldren, and lists: live music, local art, craft beer, pizza, dogs – their bulldog Bruce inspired the logo and networks with the regular pups that get walked in the park that fronts the bar.

“It’s Cuba Street, so we want to make it a Cuba Street kind of place,” says Gray.

So far, they’ve been embraced – literally – by the neighbourhood. “When we took out the pokies I was hugged by one of the RadioActive DJs next door,” says Waldren. “The support has been unbelievable. People are looking in the door, checking out what we’re doing every day.”

Neighbouring café August 13 will brew their coffee, the lawyer around the corner does their paperwork and the signwriter across the street is handling the visuals. Gray’s parents own the hotel behind them and the French Art Shop will be a great place to scout for artists.

The decision to serve only craft beer comes with financial challenges – for the owners and the customers.

“We have no contracts with any breweries. We’re doing it all ourselves. So we didn’t get that massive cash injection that bars get when they sign with a big brewery,” says Waldren. “The whole point is that pubs can do it on their own.”

They’re well aware that means lower prices for customers. “Price is always going to be a factor. We’ll have a range of prices and a few cheaper beers,” says Waldren. “We’re taxed by the percentage of alcohol, so higher alcohol content beers will always cost more. I prefer to have one less beer and have a good beer.”

As for the name of the bar, that’s another story. “It’s what the judge called my great-grandmother when he sentenced her to 12 months in a Dunedin prison,” says Waldren. To hear the rest of the story, swing by for a pint.

 

Originally published February 27, 2013 in Capital Times.