‘How Bizarre’ was a life-changing success from which Pauly Fuemana could never escape. Duncan Greive speaks to Simon Grigg, author of an excellent new book about the song.
Simon Grigg is wandering around Europe, following his wife Brigid to Poland and Paris, where she has work to do. He has nothing of the sort on at present, and is thus free to spend a Friday morning in Amsterdam on a video call to New Zealand.
We speak just hours after Graham Brazier has died, and 10 days after Grigg last saw him. He’s busy assembling a gallery of Brazier images for the website Audioculture, “the noisy library of New Zealand music”, which he runs. The site is deep and democratic and entirely lacking in the lazy canonical structure common to much New Zealand music history. It’s the best thing yet to come from New Zealand on Air’s digital music fund. Possibly the only good thing.
It’s strengths are directly tied to Grigg’s own: it is varied, deep and not a little obtuse. It pays attention to scenes, venues, stores and labels, rather than simply artists. Some of this is no doubt a reflection of Grigg’s own interest in the industry: his career has been principally composed of work in scenes (post-punk and electronic music), venues (The Box and Cause Celebre), stores (BPM) and labels (Propeller and Huh!).
Self-serving, sure – but also entirely correct: those constituent parts are very present, to varying degrees, in the story of most songs of any consequence. Their role is certainly deeply and evocatively captured his just-published debut as an author, How Bizarre, which tells the story of the worldwide hit single of the same name by OMC. Grigg’s label put the song out, and he helped take it to the world, territory by territory, market by market.
It might be the best book about pop music ever written by a New Zealander. It’s certainly the best story associated with any of our major commercial acts: compared to that of the Finns, Lorde or Flight of the Conchords it’s far more gritty and volatile. And sad: the duo who created the song fell apart within months of it taking flight, and its achingly handsome and quite talented frontman Pauly Fuemana died aged just 40 in 2010.
He and Grigg, once friends, weren’t speaking at the time. The relaxed, charismatic Fuemana we know from the ‘How Bizarre’ video presents very differently in How Bizarre, the book. He appears paranoid, moody, violent and often plain dumb. Grigg seems exhausted by dealing with his artist, unable to give affection more than grudgingly even at this distance, and at pains to emphasise the contribution of both himself, as label owner, and Alan Jansson as producer. It can seem mean, but also rings true.
Any lingering resentment which can make it slightly uncomfortable reading – given the different paths their lives took – is overwhelmed by the many outstanding qualities the book possesses. It is filled with scurrilous detail, extraordinary characters, feats of will and extraordinary scenes. It is also one of the most honest and unsentimental books I’ve ever read about music. “There was no point in doing it,” said Simon, “unless I told the truth.”
DG: I never imagined reading a book about pop music and the music industry from New Zealand with the level of detail and honesty that it contained.
SG: Probably too honest for some people.
Did you agonise about that?
I think the version which went out was the sixth version. I sliced out an awful lot of stuff. Which, either I knew it had happened but couldn’t necessarily prove, or felt like a step too far for the family.
But agonising? Yeah, right up until the day it was released I thought ‘shit, maybe I should’ve kept some of that stuff out’. But if I don’t tell the story, no one else is going to tell the story.
Has anything filtered back to you?
Nothing major. I was supposed to be DJing at Real Groovy one day, and I heard that someone wasn’t too happy and were going to come and have a chat with me. So I pulled out of the DJing that day. But apart from that – nothing at all.
You say in the foreword that you started writing it down without being sure it was going to be a book. Describe its gestation.
Over the past 20 years, I’ve kept everything. I’m a terrible hoarder of documents. So when Pauly died I thought ‘it’s got to be put into some shape or form’. Clearing out the cobwebs, exorcising the demons, for want of a better phrase. I sat down and started writing this stuff. And as I did that I thought – this could be a book. But do I want it to be a book? I thought I could just put excerpts on my blog, or send it out to people who were there. It was quite long, and very rambling.
What happened next?
I got a message from Nick [Bollinger, who had read the manuscript as research for his own excellent Audioculture biography of OMC] saying that Mary at Awa was interested in the book. Then I got this gushing email from Mary, saying that they really wanted to publish it. And at that stage I had to think about whether I wanted a book out there. I went to various industry people I know. And they all said to go for it.
It functions as a portrait of part of the New Zealand music industry, scene and culture during a specific period of time. Particularly through the counter-narrative of Nathan Haines and The Box. Was that always in the manuscript?
It’s all interrelated. There was no way you could tell the story without it. What I wanted to do was tell the story of ‘How Bizarre’: how I got to ‘How Bizarre’, how Alan Jansson got to ‘How Bizarre’, how Pauly got there.
I saw it as almost like a road trip. Pauly was the vehicle for the song, and a very important one. But the story of that whole High St and inner-city scene was incredibly important – the story of how all these people from South Auckland came to town, and transformed Auckland.
It’s the ultimate New Zealand record: put out by a Greek-Scandinavian guy and a Niuean-Maori guy. So as much as we think of it as a Polynesian record, it really isn’t – though it has Polynesia in it. What I was trying to do is sketch out the atmosphere which created the record.
Part of the book deals with the nature of conception of a song. And because one person is its public face and sings on it, there’s an assumption of authorship associated with that. But you suggest Alan had a far greater bearing on it in many ways. Do you think that some of the rancour which has come to you, and coursed through Pauly, has come from a naivety around their roles in its creation?
There was definitely a naivety. But I think there was a also a frustration on Pauly’s part that he wasn’t the self-contained unit he wanted to be. He always needed an Alan Jansson-type figure to take the germs of ideas he had into something tangible. And as soon as they made that record, he was then kicking against it. Saying ‘I can do it myself’. It was a degree of him having to prove himself to his family. He was the younger brother – I had a whole lot more of this in the book, but I pulled it out – but he was the odd younger brother in the family. He really wanted to be his own man.
Pauly seemed to have been very poorly advised, both by management and record companies, over the years. That must have been very frustrating to watch.
It was quite upsetting at the time. You’ve got a number one record around the world, and you’re watching it disintegrate before your eyes. But you can blame those other people all you want – the primary reason it disintegrated was Pauly. Pauly didn’t have to take the advice, and he didn’t have to encourage people to do the sort of things which didn’t help his career. He was almost delusional sometimes about what had happened. I mention in the book that after the court case he said to Alan “you know we’re all here because of ‘I love LA’ [a Randy Newman cover and disastrous later single], bro”. But he believed it.
It sounds like what he believed changed all the time.
It changed constantly. I’ve got some emails he sent me in the mid-2000s – which aren’t in the book – that are really lovely. And say how he was so upset about what had happened, and that he really wanted to get back to where he started from. He never quite worked out that it was too late, by that stage.
Reading the book, it feels like every time you praise him, there’s an anvil hanging in the background. There’s a battle between not wanting to speak ill of the dead, and trying to provide a balanced portrait.
That was always it with Pauly. You’d go and do a TV show, and it’s incredibly successful. You watch him and he’s bouncing, the crowd loves it. Then as he’s coming off stage he makes some statement about how he’s going to beat the shit out of [Australian TV presenter] Molly Meldrum. Which completely pulls the whole thing to pieces. With Pauly, you never quite knew what was coming next.
But it’s important to remember that yes, that was Pauly. But it’s also a lot of creative people as well. A lot of musicians I’ve dealt with are like that. They do tend to have that tipping point. And unfortunately with Pauly, the tipping point was often violent. I was never on the end of the violence. But I know a lot of other people were.
There is a sentiment out there that this is a privileged white person’s version of events. When writing the book, were you conscious that because of your position and the relative outcomes of your life, that it might be perceived a particular way?
Absolutely. That was a battle, as we moved toward the book coming out. Because obviously it was going to impact on me and other people. But as to it being a ‘white man’s version of events’ – it was events as they happened. I was there. What version of events am I supposed to put out there? It’s not supposed to be the Pauly Fuemana biography, I’m very clear about that in the book. Somebody had to be on the cover, and it was going to be Pauly, as no one wanted to put me on the cover of the book. But I wrote the story of the record as I saw it, from my perspective.
You’ve got to remember that a lot of people have got a lot of capital involved in this. Because they’ve attached themselves to this mythology. Not so much [Fuemana’s wife] Kirstine, but the Fuemana family. I’ve heard that some have said I shouldn’t be writing about this song “because it belongs to the Maori people”. Well I’m sorry, but it was created by a white punk rocker from Wellington. And a Polynesian guy. But it was a trio of us basically – I was as much involved in ‘How Bizarre’ as those guys were. I released the record. So I’m not going to have people tell me I shouldn’t talk about these things. It’s bullshit really. And its racism. For people to say I can’t tell a brown guy’s story – it’s my story. It’s just absolutely racist. I never buy into that.
The path to global markets now is very different. One thing you get a real sense of is how much work was required to get the song heard around the world.
Yes. getting a record released in Australia even was a big, big thing. Nowadays everyone releases their records in Australia via Bandcamp or whatever. Back then it was epic. You had to physically got to Australia and stand there and say ‘we matter’.
It was a deeply weird record in many respects. It was the first and biggest of a wave of global singles, like ‘Brimful of Asha’, which took non-mainstream musics and became unconventional hits, and often one hit wonders. Do you feel like it helped open up the industry’s ears, to say that if they listened more broadly, good things could happen?
We’ve had a lot of feedback from people over the years about that effect. Do you remember The Mavericks? They had one really big single, a Mexicano-rock’n’roll kind of thing [‘Dance the Night Away’]. They contacted us and said ‘without you guys we wouldn’t have been able to make this record’.
The most bizarre message we got was from Kid Rock, who got in touch with Alan to say that it was one of the most influential records – that it inspired him to go and do stuff. I can’t really hear it.
So I think it did. There are always records which do that. The music industry being what the music industry is, it tries to homogenise everything. You’ve got ‘Royals’, and 20 records that sound like ‘Royals’. New Zealand was waiting for the A&R agents to come down and sign everything else in New Zealand. But the agents didn’t want to do that – they wanted to sign artists which sounded like ‘Royals’. When ‘How Bizarre’ came out it sounded completely different to everything else on the radio. And that’s why it worked. And [it works] to this day. Our radio income is still substantial – it’s become one of those solid gold global records.
The book it calls to mind for me is Simon Napier-Bell’s ‘I’m Coming to Take You to Lunch’, his story of taking Wham! to China. The ‘rock’n’roll memoir’ is very established, and quite hackneyed, to my mind – but the pop industrial one is far less commodified. And reads better, or at least is more to my taste. Were there books you had in mind in writing it?
All of Simon Napier-Bell’s books have always been fantastic reads. They’re a little bit light, and there are errors in some of them. But they tell the story of how someone achieved something.
I’m probably more interested in the music industry as it affected The Beatles than I am with the Beatles story as such. How Brian Epstein did what Brian Epstein did. There’s a fantastic Andrew Loog-Oldham book about how he did the Rolling Stones as well. Which I think is far more interesting than any biography of the Rolling Stones. So industry books are fascinating.
And the whole concept of the song is fascinating, too. ‘How Bizarre’ was very much the classic constructed record. Even though we’re pretty sure the vocal on it is the original demo, it still took Alan close to six months to record and mix and re-edit. In the same way it took Brian Wilson months to do ‘Good Vibrations’. Same with Phil Spector – even though he’s a complete fuckup – the Phil Spector story fascinates me.
The way those people are such artisans with these three minute pieces of pop. So if the roots of the book are in anything it’s in those sorts of book, which I’ve always loved, as you have. Pop music. A wonderful thing.
The best thing. Now, there’s a subtext to the book, that while Pauly Fuemana’s on the cover, and it’s ostensibly his story, it also can be read as a plea for Alan Jansson’s authorship to be acknowledged in the song, and his genius to be understood.
It’s something I’ve been anxious to push for a long time. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for OMC now it specifically says that they were a duo. When it first went up it said OMC was Pauly Fuemana. But the decision those guys made, right at the start, was that OMC would be a partnership. The word genius is tossed around, and Alan can be extremely frustrating at times, as well. But he certainly has a unique way of approaching almost anything. Whether it’s constructing the song, how you deal with people that you’re dealing with. He was intimately involved in everything from day one, and right through.
He is the key figure. Pauly is the fantastic frontman, and had his own talents due to his style and charisma and delivery. But the key figure in the story is definitely Alan Jansson.
I read in less than 48 hours, and was absolutely riveted. To me it’s an instant classic of pop industrial non-fiction. And so much more impressive and enjoyable because it’s from New Zealand – it’s so much better than you’d expect from our entry into the genre, somehow. With our creative industries there is a tendency to self-censor which is very tedious. So thank you for writing it and putting it out.
I think there was probably an obligation on my part to tell this story at some stage. Because it was the first time it had happened. We had been told over and over that you couldn’t do it. And you could.
How Bizarre is out now on Awa Press, and available from Unity Books for $38