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. 

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. 

 

Diplomatic Ladies

Woods dons a traditional chador to pass muster under Khomeini, in Tehran in 1984.

An affair with H.G. Wells, hidden homosexuality, undercover spies, and coups before teatime, Diplomatic Ladies: New Zealand’s Unsung Envoys is a page-turning account of what really goes on behind embassy doors. Not just a chronicle of juicy anecdotes, the book details the inherent sacrifices wives and partners make, such as the inability to pursue careers and the demand that they wine and dine as an unpaid part of the job. 
Only a true insider could have known the right questions to ask and author Joanna Woods spares few details in her own chapter “Supping with the Ayatollah.” In addition to accompanying her husband, Richard, to posts in Bahrain, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, the US, and Russia, she’s also a Katherine Mansfield scholar, the author of three other books, and says her love of reading made her enjoy every moment of research. Though she recently resided in Wellington, Woods answered questions from her native U.K.

When did you realise you needed to write this book?
What originally motivated me was a burning desire to write about my own experiences in Iran, where my husband and I spent seven years. It was one of the most extraordinary periods of my life and I have wanted to write about it for over a decade. As I struggled to find the right format, including a crack at a fictionalised version, it occurred to me that many other diplomatic wives must have equally interesting stories to tell and their inclusion would broaden the scope of my book enormously. Once I decided on this, the format fell into place quite naturally and I realised at once that I was on the right track.

I was struck by the amount of drama in these stories – did you have to cull a lot of information to get at these gems?
My eureka moment probably came in late 2008, when I was browsing in the legendary London Library, which I have belonged to for many years, and I came across Katy Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia. Her book is about British diplomatic wives, including some pretty exotic early figures, but I could see at once how some of New Zealand’s early posts in the Pacific could be as “exotic” as 19th century Kashgar, if only I could track down the stories.

What followed was about a year of intensive research. By this time I had decided to take a chronological approach, so that my book would not just be a random collection of stories, but rather a historical account of New Zealand diplomacy told from the wives ‘ perspective. I was also acutely aware that many of these stories would be lost unless someone wrote them down.

Were the women you interviewed eager to talk?
Virtually nobody I approached turned me down. People were equally generous with their letters and photographs and after many of the interviews I felt as if I had made a new friend. One of the things that helped enormously was that, after an interview, I always sent a copy of the transcript and undertook to remove anything that they wished they hadn’t said! This made people feel ‘safe’ and as a result they were far more open and relaxed with me. And virtually no-one changed a word of the transcripts.

I’m impressed by how many of these women were feminists, from the first diplomat’s wife Maud Pember Reeves to Marguerite Scott during the 1970s. In spite of all the spousal duties and decorum, is this a role where a woman can make her beliefs known? 
On the whole, diplomatic wives do not become directly involved in political issues in the countries to which their husbands are posted. Maud Pember Reeves was quite exceptional, but this was largely because she did not regard herself as a foreigner in England. She behaved as if she was a private individual at home. But diplomatic wives can help promote social justice and reforms indirectly, through supporting local charities, for example. They also have unique opportunities to mix socially with powerful figures in the host country and to influence their thinking, but the key to diplomacy is persuasion rather than confrontation. A woman who pushes her own views too hard at the dinner table might not be invited back.

Many of the issues raised in these stories are still issues, as revealed last March when MFAT proposed cuts to diplomats’ positions, pay and allowances, prompting envoys and partners to air grievances about the difficulties of their appointments, including the single salary situation. Did that conflict affect what you wrote? 
The whole sorry situation at MFAT began when I was already well advanced with the book and had no influence on my writing, but it’s made the subject matter far more topical than I had ever imagined and it has also served as a timely reminder of the major contribution that the wives and partners have always made to diplomatic life.

You are quite right that many of the issues that wives faced in the past continue to be problems today. That many of the partners are now male has changed things, however, and wives and partners are now far less engaged in the business of diplomacy. This does not alter the fact that many of them still sacrifice career prospects and financial advantages to accompany their partners overseas. It is also still tough on the children, despite the apparent glamour. Nevertheless a lot of progress has been made since the bad old days when wives were forbidden to work and in most places partners are now able to find some sort of employment, including within the Embassy.

Did you put a career on hold to be a diplomat’s wife? What would you have done if you’d been allowed?
If I had not married a diplomat, I would probably have started writing books 20 years earlier!

Originally published on January 23, 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. 

Insider’s Guide to Sea Shepherd

Peter Hammarstedt sent an application to Sea Shepherd as soon as he was old enough to join the crew. Nine years later and with seven Antarctica anti-whaling campaigns under his lifejacket, he’s now captain of the Bob Barker and its 35-member crew, bound once again for the Southern Ocean. Bob Barker is one of four vessels patrolling for Operation Zero Tolerance, which the group says is their biggest effort yet to physically stop the annual Japanese whale hunt and its quota of 935 minke, 50 fin and 50 humpback whales. Bob Barker is tied up to the Taranaki Street Wharf this week, provisioning for the trip and visitors are welcome aboard for a tour. 

Why did you want to be a captain for Sea Shepherd?
Aged 14 I saw a picture of a whale being killed in Antarctica. I could not believe my eyes. Like most people, I thought that whaling was a thing of the past. Countries like Norway, Iceland and Japan have killed over 40,000 whales since the Global Moratorium on Commercial Whaling took effect in 1986. I wanted to become a Sea Shepherd captain because when somebody is breaking the law, and the government fails in its responsibility to uphold the law, then it falls on individuals to either get government in line, or do their job for them.

How many whaling ships do you expect to encounter?
Fifty years ago there used to be 45 factory whaling ships there at any one time. There is now only one – the Japanese floating abattoir Nisshin Maru. If we shut that vessel down, then the whalers must suspend all of their operations – they have nowhere to process the whale meat. The Nisshin Maru is accompanied by three harpoon vessels, one security ship and a tanker for refuelling.

How many whales have you saved?
Last year we prevented the Japanese from taking 729 whales and in eight campaigns to the Antarctic, we’ve saved over 3,600 whales. We know how many we save by admission from the Japanese – every year they give us the credit when their quota is not met. Once we find the factory whaling ship we follow them and block them everywhere they go – through ice, through weather and through tense confrontation. On a good day, the whalers average 20-30 whales, so every day that we keep them on the run is a major victory that costs them millions.

Is there any such thing as sustainable whaling or culturally appropriate whaling?
Culture has been used to defend some of the greatest abominations in human history, from the subhuman treatment of women to chattel slavery. Japan’s pelagic whaling program only dates back to post-World War II. As far as sustainability is concerned, the whales targeted by the Japanese whaling fleet are either threatened or endangered and all are protected by law.

Have you had any scary moments?
Witnessing the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru No. 2 deliberately ram the New Zealand-flagged Ady Gil. The Ady Gil was literally cut in two and sunk several days later. The whalers showed clearly that they are simply thugs who have as little respect for human life as they do cetacean life.

Has your work ever got you in trouble?
I’ve been arrested twice in Canada for the “offence” of documenting a seal being skinned alive. Prior to the European ban on all seal products, Sea Shepherd routinely sent ships to the ice floes of Eastern Canada to photograph the barbaric butchering of 4-6 week old pups. In order to prevent these images, the Canadian government made it unlawful for any journalist to come within 926m of the seal hunt. I was arrested, deported and fined for what in every other country would fall under freedom of the press.

Have you had any really gratifying moments at sea?
I chased the factory whaling ship from the Ross Sea all the way to Chile for 15 days. When they finally reached the 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone of Chile, the Chilean Navy threatened to arrest them if they entered. It was at that point that the whalers decided to call their season short one month ahead of what they planned. They got less than 17% of their quota that year and blamed the shortfall entirely on Sea Shepherd.

What’s your best remedy for a long passage aboard a small ship with the same crew, day after day?
The best remedy is keeping focused on the mission at hand – finding the whaling fleet as early as possible and shutting them down. At sea, we are constantly ready for battle, scanning the horizon for the whalers. However, after we sent the whalers back home two years ago, we watched several seasons of Outrageous Fortune on the homeward bound voyage to Hobart.

Originally published December 12, 2012 in Capital Times. 

Jordie Lane – On the road again

Jordie Lane is a singer songwriter who gathers no moss. He’s been rolling over half the world during the past year, touring the North American folk festival scene, having a well-received acting debut as Gram Parsons in the theatric musical Grievous Angel: The Legend of Gram Parsons, accompanying British troubadour Billy Bragg on an Australian tour. Now he’s on a solo run of Australia and New Zealand with his new single, Fool For Love, ahead of the new album – his fourth – which he’ll jet back to LA to record.

Like many veteran travellers, he gets a buzz from the road and doesn’t mince words when asked what it’s like to return to his native Melbourne after the touring, songwriting, festivals and adventures, picking up hitchhikers, dodging fatal car accidents, and cruising through the scenery.

“It always sucks. I really love being in America and every time I come home I feel like I’m coming back to reality and responsibility, but I know it’s more like a state of mind. When you come back home and you have a few days or months of not doing anything, that’s rough.”

He’s also fallen for LA, the coda to his journey to the Joshua Tree hotel room where influential American singer-songwriter Gram Parsons overdosed, back in 1977 at age 26. Lane went on a pilgrimage to the room, intending to burn a guitar in the desert to honour Parsons. Instead, he began playing not long after entering the fateful room and was soon out scouting for a cheap four track player to lay down songs. Three months later he was finishing up Blood Thinner with the help of LA-based Tom Biller, the Grammy Award-winning producer behind big names like Beck, Fiona Apple, and Kanye West. The album was nominated for ‘Best Blues & Roots Album’ at the 2011 Australian Independent Music Awards and Lane played sold out gigs on his New Zealand tour.

“It was kind of a shock in a way to come to New Zealand for the first time and my album had been only out for a month. I didn’t expect anyone to come to my shows,” he says.

The new single, Fool For Love, is already getting positive attention, making iTunes Single of the Week last month, though it’s more of a rock song than anything on his last album.

“It’s quite different in its instrumentation and production, but I still feel like it’s what I do, just put in different wrapping gift. We just kind of let the song dictate where it wanted to go,” says Lane, who worked with Biller again, as well as several musicians to fill in around his excellent guitar. “This album might not be as produced as that song but I’m going into the studio to record, not like the DIY taping I did for Blood Thinner.”

The heady inspiration of that album changed songwriting for Lane, who’s been at the game for over 10 years.

“Going out to Joshua Tree for the first time was a pretty big experience for me. I went there to explore Gram Parson’s life, staying in the motel room where he died, having a lot of time and space for myself and think about where I fit into the world,” he says.

“Blood Thinner was pushing itself. This album I’ve had to push myself. I’ve never been able to show up every day and try and write. I’ll get frustrated and move onto something else like taking photos. I’ve been a slave to the song, waiting for it to come, and often I’ll sabotage it. I’ll get a phone call or something and leave the song halfway through. I’ve learned that when that big burst of creativity comes to stick it out and finish that song in that one session, and then come back and work on it more.”

He’s also riding a wave of inspiration from travelling through the American landscape, calling it as much a home as the road.

“I’m from Melbourne and I’ve always had this idea of wanting to be someone living on the land, singing country songs, and that’s what I kind of did but I didn’t make a false identity of working on a farm, riding horses, and going down the river. I sung about being a suburban kid, but used the sound of folk music to get a story across. There’s heaps of great folk music that comes from every culture, but there’s something about the American stuff that I’ve been so in love with from when I was young and I wanted to have those experiences. Now, walking down those same streets and seeing the same things from the songs it does help you understand the music a bit more.”

“Places like New Zealand and Australia do have that musical history, but it’s probably a bit younger. We’re in a grey area coming to terms with how we got here and what we did to people,” he says. “I’ve always felt a tiny bit lost in my home town and when I’m on the road a bit everyday it feels like that’s home.”

Originally published December 5, 2012 in Capital Times.

A new case of The Chills

Does I Love My Leather Jacket send you digging through the closet, searching for some long lost version of yourself? Come on out: The Chills are back in town for the first time in nearly 10 years, rebounding from failing equipment, lack of money, and headman Martin Phillips’ ongoing Hepatitis C. They aren’t touring a new release…yet. We caught up with Phillips, the only mainstay of the Dunedin band’s 30 tumultuous years, to hear what’s on deck for this special one-off performance. 

What’s the occasion for this Wellington show?
It just seemed long overdue and, of course, it has nibbled at my conscience that the last time we were booked to play in Wellington a few years ago it became the only gig I’ve ever had to cancel due to ill health.You’ve had so any successes over the years: why has it been so difficult for people to stay in this band?
The drummer, Todd Knudson, and the bassist, James Dickson, have both been with me since 1999. The keyboardist/guitarist/violinist, Erica Stichbury, has been with us for over five years and the other keyboardist, Oli Wilson, for three or four years, too, so I think that question has become a bit redundant. There were a lot of changes in the earlier years and it was usually about career moves as opposed to any serious personality clashes.

What does it feel like to be on the road again? Are fans laden with expectations when you play live?
I always try to perform a set which would work for someone who may be seeing the band for the first and last time. I don’t ever want us to become a predictable circus act grinding out material which is no longer exciting for us.

Any new sounds and music trends affecting you? What are you listening to these days?
I thought we went through a period in the 90s when people were rehashing ideas and coming up with little that seemed truly inspired, but now I think there’s an enormous amount of exciting material and a lot of wonderful cross-pollination between different genres and cultures. Right now I’m re-discovering Yoko Ono, which can be challenging and annoying, frustrating and rewarding.

The music industry has changed immensely since you began playing in the 80s. If The Chills were starting out today, do you think the band would have gone done a much different path?
Things would be entirely different today for us. For a start, we might not even exist because with illegal downloading there’s less of a chance of surviving. What parents have always said about getting a real job and keeping music as a hobby has become more or less true, and one really needs to focus on it fulltime. There must be many younger artists now who will never be heard from, but, of course, this is balanced out a little by the direct access artists have now with their fan base. The Chills are lucky in that we had established ourselves internationally on a low level before this all changed.

Looking toward 2013 and beyond — what’s in the stars?
Things have taken a radical turn for the better over the last year with the involvement of David Teplitzsky and his new label, Far South Records. We are very likely to be touring overseas for a little while next year along with the first of the new Chills albums. Two band members have families so it means touring is very expensive and must be kept fairly short, but we will see how much we can do. Next year, I turn 50 and just don’t have the energy I had in my twenties so we’ll pick and choose our gigs for the greatest impact. There have been many tours that nearly happened over the last decade or so and now it really looks like it will be happening!

Originally published November 28, 2012 in Capital Times.