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. 

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.

 

Wake up


The personality and confidence that emanate from Aaradhna’s soulful singing had me thinking she’d be one sassy homegirl, but her speaking voice is far more restrained than I expected. By phone, waiting for a flight from Nelson to Wellington, she sounds a bit like a nervous teenager, not the pushing-30 diva on display in her snappy videos. Could be media-shyness, could be she’s a bit off her game – it’s her first time touring since 2006 and, yeah, she had a big night, she admits with a chuckle. 

Girl has plenty to celebrate: her new album Treble & Reverb has been climbing up and down the NZ Top 40 Albums chart since its release last November. Her song, Wake Up, recently hit platinum sales with another, Lorena Bobbitt, creeping up behind it. She’s performing with 40 other artists at this weekend’s Homegrown Festival, and just got support billing for The Jacksons (the remnants of the iconic Jackson 5) when they tour here in March. Originally released by New Zealand label, Dawn Raid, she’s been hooked by US-based Republic Records (cue Amy Winehouse, Florence + The Machine) for a multi-album deal and heads stateside for a tour later this year.

“I’m still trying to get used to it,” she says of the success of her new album, which is also logging consistently rave reviews.
Unlike her 2006 R&B-heavy first release, I Love You, and her entirely competent 2008 album of covers, Sweet Soul Music, Treble & Reverb is a beautiful bird of a different feather, born of a long dark period and too much boredom living in Romania where her boyfriend, Leon Henry, was playing basketball. (He’s now a forward for the Breakers.)

“I’m always writing whatever I’m going through,” she says. Depression, anger, jealousy, fear, and love simmer beneath the bop of the music, produced by P-Money and Concord Dawn’s Evan Short. Though a couple of R&B flavoured tunes appear among the 17 tracks, doo-wop, Motown, and soul dominate, giving the listener the timeless sense of having danced to them before. But, lyrics riddled with contemporary slang and playful titles like Bob’s Your Uncle and Lorena Bobbitt signal that this is fresh stuff.

“This time around I didn’t want to put any limits to what I wrote about,” she says. “I wanted to write something I don’t usually write about. I’m interested in the Lorena Bobbitt story and I thought it would be interesting to add her personal story of cheating into the mix. I’ve been cheated on before.”

“I always have to write otherwise I’m going crazy. I’m writing heaps of new music and already working on the next album. It will have a similar sound to this,” she adds. Though old standards like Sam Cooke, Ruth Brown, and The Capris bubble out of her mouth when asked what she listened to for inspiration, nobody beats Amy Winehouse.

“She inspired me to embrace the old school sound a whole lot more. I loved it before, but when I heard Back to Black I was so inspired to take it on. I love how she puts her words together. She’s a big inspiration for Treble & Reverb. I’m just so gutted I never got to watch her live or meet her. To be on the same label as her, it’s unreal.”

As surreal as it sounds, she’s still rooted in New Zealand for the time being. The Auckland-based singer of Indian and Samoan descent says she’s looking forward to performing in Wellington for the first time in ages, as well as catching up with family. (Her parents live in the Hutt and her four siblings all live in and around Wellington.) On the bill besides Homegrown: celebrating her sister’s birthday and taking her dog for a walk. “I love being home. When I have a couple of days off I fly back down. I always need a good dose of family.”

 

Originally published February 27, 2013 in Capital Times. 

From barre to bar

Ethan Stiefel schools dancers for his first original work, a ballet about a beerhall.

Royal New Zealand Ballet and local brewery Garage Project don’t seem like drinking buddies, but they’re putting together a special pilsner-powered performance to celebrate the world premiere of Bier Halle – quite possibly the first ballet about beer.

THE connection with Garage Project came through one of the RNZB dancers, Antonia Hewitt, who goes out with a brother of one of the brewers. Hops En Pointe will be a pilsner made with champagne yeast to lend it an air of the upper crust, but it still begs the question: do professional ballet dancers ever get to drink beer or cut loose at a club?

“We don’t get into anything ugly, not the 2am or 3am phase of an evening,” laughs Ethan Stiefel, seated behind the desk in his office at St James Theatre where he’s now full-time artistic director. A dancer since the age of 16, Stiefel sports the breezy blond shag of a ‘70s-era heart throb with an acoustic guitar, but his handshake is a bone-crusher and muscles pop from the confines of his t-shirt. He’s still totally ripped even though he danced his final role last July with American Ballet Theatre, where he’d been principal dancer since 1997.

“I’ve since retired so I probably have a few more evenings out,” he admits, adding that he and fiancée Gillian Murphy are getting to know Wellington’s bars and restaurants after moving here from the United States two years ago. Though he’s feeling less weight on his shoulders to keep up the conditioning required to dance, he says there are still pressures – just different ones. “It’s about being a leader, an example, and being responsible for the success of other people.”

Those pressures include choreographing his first original piece, Bier Hall, which has its origins in his Wisconsin childhood, where polka is not entirely a thing of the past and beer-drinking is just as popular as it is in New Zealand.

“I thought it would be fun to do a ballet with polka music,” Stiefel says, adding that the idea of a ballet in a Bavarian-style beer hall has been bubbling in his mind for over two years. Unfortunately, polka didn’t quite settle the score and he ultimately found solid footing in Johann Strauss waltzes and marches.

Stiefel has been working with RNZB since 2011, most recently on the well-reviewed reinterpretation of Giselle, however Bier Halle is his first original work. It premieres with two other short pieces Of Days by Andrew Simmons and The Anatomy of a Passing Cloud by Javier De Frutos. The three, packaged as Made To Move, will tour New Zealand after a premier run at the St James Theatre opening February 27.

The two other original works in the programme draw on New Zealand and Pacific landscapes, but for Bier Hall Stiefel looked back toward old Europe to create a ballet set in a fictional Bavarian beer hall – an idea he’s been contemplating for two years.
“I’m relatively new to choreography and music is a good place to start,” he says, adding that it enabled him to picture the characters and build a story.

“The ballet is about what we’d experience as people going to a pub or bar,” he says. “It speaks to the flirtations, competitiveness, and boisterousness of a pub, with the quieter couple tucked away amidst all the revelry.”

The story uses elements of fantasy inside the actual buzz of a barroom, while a romance blossoms between a Hunter, danced by Qi Huan and the lead Bier Maiden, danced by Murphy, whose “love of dancing” and “fun” approach inspired him.

“It’s wonderful to have a muse who you share your life with,” he says of Murphy, who will tour with this show before returning to ABT in April, where she’s still employed as a principal dancer.

Alongside the two leads, the rest of the RNZB company dancers fill another 20 roles.

“I wanted it to have that kind of fullness and refer to some choreographers that influenced me as a dancer,” he says, listing Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton, among others. He was also conscious of the small casts in the pieces by De Frutos and Simmons. “It’s a good thing for the company if everyone’s active and engaged. I’m a choreographer looking out for ambitiousness of the work and I’m an artistic director looking out for the good of the company.”

As for the overall direction of RNZB, Stiefel says he’d like to keep growing the size of the company by a dancer per year and would like to see more international touring, including China this year and potentially the US in 2014, for the first time in decades.  Building a unique repertoire for New Zealand is also important to him.

To that end, why does he think Bier Halle will appeal to local audiences? He says, “I think beer is pretty well celebrated in New Zealand. My ballet refers to Germanic and Austrian culture, but it could be in an English pub. I think these are things across humanity.”

 

Originally published February 20, 2013 in Capital Times. 

The New Zealand that never was

Sixty puppets tell the tale of The Road That Wasn’t There.

What does it take to go from the apex of Fringe Festivals – Edinburgh – to Wellington’s own three week bonanza of performance? Sixty puppets, 56,000 roads that only exist on paper, and a very large suitcase. Amanda Witherell walks down The Road That Wasn’t There with Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith. 

Once upon a time, in the small north Canterbury town of Waikari, there was a plan to put a road over the mountains to the west coast. The planners envisioned a rail system, bustling settlements, and a web of roads connecting them. The idea was committed to paper, but in the end two different roads – Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass – were constructed over the Southern Alps.

“I remember being a kid and seeing all these maps of towns that didn’t exist and being really fascinated by that,” says Howell, who grew up in Waikari. “What if they did exist and took you to another world?”

“The world that might have been,” pipes up Smith, his thespian partner. The two make plays as Trick of the Light Theatre. They were living in Bristol, England, and bound for the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival when they conceived their new work, The Road That Wasn’t There.

“When they were settling New Zealand they granted these roads legal status even though they didn’t exist or are just thin strips of land,” continues Smith. “It’s not unique to New Zealand but it happened a lot here because of the time that the country was settled.”

The country’s 56,000 roads that only exist on paper is a concept “so strange and fantastic it was calling for a play,” says Howell.

The story takes the familiar arch of a quest, to and from a magical world, with the kind of crossover appeal of fantasy writers Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, and Margaret Mahy. The main character, a working stiff in the city, must return home and move his ill and aged mother to a retirement facility, and in the course of packing her things she tells him the story of how she met his father and what happened when she walked down a road that, technically, didn’t exist.

“Subliminally, we were living away from home and we wanted to create something that we connected with and which was familiar and we decided not to pander to an audience that was uninformed about New Zealand,” says Howell.

It was also a point of difference for them to exploit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as they competed with more than 2,500 other shows to build an audience. Turns out a family-friendly New Zealand narrative full of puppets is a winning combination, packing the house most nights for the month they performed on a tiny side stage with a pillar down its centre.

“We had a really great run. Full houses the whole month, nice reviews, and we made money which was a miracle,” says Smith.

Both South Islanders by birth, they came to Wellington to study theatre at Victoria University and are veterans of the Wellington Fringe Festival scene –Best of the Fringe in 2008 with March of the Meeklings, Pick of the Fringe in 2009 with A Most Outrageous Humbug, and Best again in 2010 with Who’s Neat? You! As Trick of The Light they made their first flash in 2011with The Engine Room, netting five Chapman Tripp nominations (Howell took home the award for Outstanding New Playwright.) A humorous, critical look at how the 1981 Springbok tour affected New Zealand’s political landscape, played by four actors, it’s a very different production from four puppeteers wielding 60 different handmade puppets in The Road That Wasn’t There.

“It still holds to the same values,” says Howell. “We want to make theatre that’s intelligent and engaging. That doesn’t shift when you’re working with kids.”

“This is not exclusive to children,” Smith adds. “An issue like what do I do with my doolally Mum – that’s real to our generation.”

Post-Fringe, The Road That Wasn’t There will return Howell to his hometown as they plan to perform in other cities, small towns, and the off-the-map places like Waikari and St Bathans that inspired the play – a prospect that excites them both.

The Edinburgh constraints of a tiny stage and the need to be portable meant the play was created on a shoestring, in spite of 60 puppets – all of which fit into one suitcase for the flight home to New Zealand.

“They didn’t like it that much,” says Smith.

“They needed a little TLC after the long flight from the UK,” agrees Howell.

I hope they won’t mind at least one more trip to spread some good theatre.

 

Originally published February 7, 2013 in Capital Times. 

A short ride with Band of Horses

When a band gets big – selling out shows, touring the world, opening for Pearl Jam, and getting Grammy nominations – the handlers really limit their contact with journalists. Yet, the musicians in Band of Horses have always seemed like they’re just out there having a good time, blissfully unaware of their ever accelerating fame. “Wow, 15 minutes,” gasps Ryan Monroe, keyboardist and guitarist for Band of Horses. “That’s it?”

“I know,” I say. How far can two strangers get in a quarter of an hour? I’ve prepared for two conversational tracks: serious “future of rock” questions and totally irreverent queries from my friends (What’s their herd mentality? Do they really have a ghost in the house?). I figured I’d wing it based on the salutations. “Where are you?”

Boston, he tells me.

“No way! I’m from New Hampshire.”

He was just up there, a short trip across state lines for tax-free booze and smokes – which makes him sound like one seriously penny-pinching rock star – but he sounds proud to be learning the local tricks. “I’m a Masshole now.” He moved there about a year ago, to be with his girlfriend, Lydia See, while she attends art school. He loves the city, kicking back there between tours, but winter’s coming and he’s looking forward to skipping town for the Southern Hemisphere.

“New Zealand is a sight for sore eyes after being in some places around the world,” he replies.

We better get to the tunes, so I tell him when I got my copy of Mirage Rock, their newest album and fourth in their nine-year discography, the bonus EP Sonic Ranch Sessions was mistakenly on top and I ended up listening to that first – and again and again. Monroe enthuses about the five-song disc as much as I do.

“We liked that just as much as the record. We went into Sonic Ranch with the idea of doing demos and in the back of our heads thinking this could be the record if we knock it out of the park. After we recorded Mirage Rock we listened back to all of those songs from Sonic Ranch and loved them. We were stoked to get them out.”

Monroe says many more songs were recorded and may end up on album number five, which would be his third since joining the lineup in 2007 when lead singer and guitarist Ben Bridwell relocated the band from Seattle to South Carolina, where he and Monroe grew up.

Monroe’s was a musical family – Dad on guitar, brother on keys, both of which he absconded with. “I’m the classic kid beating on the Tupperware,” he says, telling me he recently watched some old home movies his mother converted to DVDs, in which he stars as an eight year old, strumming his first guitar “playing a horrible song.” It, too, may end up on the next record, he says, laughing.

“On the EP, Relly’s Dream was my little baby,” he mentions the track that caught my ear for sounding a little different from the rest. “I wrote the music and Ben put lyrics to it.” Monroe also put out a solo album last year and admits he’s always crafting new tunes, even when he’s relaxing in Boston. “My phone is filled up with me mumbling in the middle of the night. I love writing music.”

As for cutting Mirage Rock with Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc. and so on through the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame), Monroe sounds like any fan boy: “He was so cool, for lack of a better way to describe him. When he’s in the control room and he’s in his element he’s like a kid.”

Was he frozen with awe?

“It would come in waves, him telling stories about his friends Pete and Eric and you’d have to decode that he’s talking about Pete Seeger and Eric Clapton. It didn’t really seem real.”

The 70 year old producer pushed them to skip the technological tinkering and just play – Monroe says about 95 percent of the album was recorded live in the studio, without fixing the flubs and without effects – “What’s that crap on your guitar?” Monroe growls, imitating Johns scolding him for a little bit of reverb. The results are fresh, without seeming underdone or rough around the edges.

They sound like a kickass garage band having a blast.

“My favourite song on the record would have to be Slow Cruel Hands of Time. It’s gotta be the best song Ben’s ever written. That’s one we’ll enjoy for years to come,” says Monroe.

The handler cuts in and says there’s time for one more question. We’ve barely scratched the surface, but keeping in mind that their song titles and lyrics are often revealed as mockery, not metaphors, I tack, heading for a happy ending: was there really a ghost in Ben’s house?

Monroe laughs. “It was an ice maker!”

Originally published January 9, 2012 in Capital Times

The Datsuns – Behind the wheel

Dolf de Borst

Once upon a turn-of-the-century time, The Datsuns churned out cutting edge rock from the sleepy Waikato town of Cambridge. A decade later the four are scattered like sparks – living in Stockholm, London, Auckland, and Wellington. Has distance diminished the fire of this well-known and revered Kiwi band? It’s the middle of the night in Sweden, but lead singer and bassist Dolf de Borst has hours to go before he’ll sleep. He tells Amanda Witherell how the band’s flame is far from out and New Zealand is where they get things done – with Wellington the place for hometown love.
Even with all the digital wizardry and telepathic methods of communication available, it took de Borst, Christian Livingstone, Phil Somervell, and Ben Cole a long time to put together their fifth album, Death Rattle Boogie. De Borst describes a chaotic back and forth, with songs sketched out during a 2011 tour, a meet up at his newly constructed Gutterview Recorders, the Stockholm studio he runs with Nicke Andersson, and another recording rendezvous at Auckland’s Roundhead. The bottom line: when the four are together, they gotta work on songs.

“We can get so much more done with four of us in a room for an hour than a week trading ideas back and forth over Skype and email. There’s so much more spontaneity,” says de Borst, who lived with his band mates in London and Germany, before moving to Stockholm four years ago to be with his girlfriend, now wife. Getting together means playing together and those experiences give de Borst the confidence to say that fans should expect more to come.

“We’ve managed to keep it going for this record and I think we can keep on doing it. We’ve got into a rhythm,” says de Borst. “Everyone has their own thing and home life and it’s not like we need the band, but I still can’t imagine not doing it. There’s something special that happens when we all get together in a room. We don’t take each other for granted so much. They’re my best friends.” And this, he thinks, may be their best album yet. By and large, the critics here and overseas, who’ve been following these rock wunderkinds since their naissance, agree.

“I think it’s one of the best things we’ve done,” says de Borst. “If other people are saying that too it’s a good sign.”
De Borst doesn’t hit pause between dates with The Datsuns: in addition to recording other bands at Gutterview, he plays bass with Andersson (of Hellacopters fame) in a Swedish power pop band called Imperial State Electric. Off nights, he DJs at local Stockholm bars. Similarly, Datsuns drummer Ben Cole plays with Craig Terris here in Wellington, while guitarist Phil Somervell has a day job teaching squash to Aucklanders and Christian Livingstone is building guitar pedals out of his London-based shop Magnetic Effects.

“He did a signature Datsuns fuzz box for the release of Death Rattle Boogie and sold out of them in a few hours,” says de Borst, who thinks that merch is becoming the best way to bank a band.

“I’m into the gimmicky niche stuff like the fuzz pedals Christian’s making and screen print posters for the tour. We want to make things special and a little bit like what we expect from a band we see. We’re trying to inject a little more meaning,” he says, adding that digital downloads have changed the game in more ways than one.

“The way people interact with the records is really different. I sound like an old man from a different era, but as a teenager I could only afford to buy a handful of records every year. If I bought something and didn’t like it, I still had to listen to it and absorb it. Most kids now have a bigger record collection than I probably do and they probably don’t listen to most of it.”

Digital isn’t all bad – de Borst keeps up with the Kiwi music scene via Facebook and Twitter, citing Opossum and The Eversons as a couple new faves. Returning to New Zealand, he says, “Everything’s the same and everything’s different. I think, ‘Oh yeah, I haven’t been away,’ but there are so many cultural references that are lost on me.”

While they’re all in one place, however, “we’ll make hay while the sun shines,” hopefully at Auckland’s Roundhead Studio again, followed by another rendezvous in Sweden, where they’ve got a solid following.

“Living in Stockholm has been really good for us, but it’s not like playing a hometown show. The Datsuns never really had a hometown show. Cambridge is so small we never really played there. I think Wellington was the first place that ever really made us feel at home.”

Originally published December 19, 2012 in Capital Times.