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Anthonie Tonnon at Motat. Photograph: Edith Amituanai
Anthonie Tonnon at Motat. Photograph: Edith Amituanai

InterviewsJune 19, 2021

Anthonie Tonnon and the railway to Mars

Anthonie Tonnon at Motat. Photograph: Edith Amituanai
Anthonie Tonnon at Motat. Photograph: Edith Amituanai

Musician, romantic, civic activist – Anthonie Tonnon talks to Michelle Langstone about growing up in small town New Zealand, his uncommon inspirations and new album Leave Love Out of This.

Portraits by Edith Amituanai

I meet Anthonie Tonnon at Motat, which is admittedly not the most original of places to meet a train enthusiast. He’s recently performed his one man show Rail Land there, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival, and I wanted to see what would happen if I brought him near trains again.

Sharp in plaid trousers and a wool jacket, his hair slicked back in his trademark style that reminds me of a 1950s pop idol, Tonnon seems to exist both in this time and space, and from an era way back when. He says he’d rather not have his portrait taken next to trains – it’s a bit nostalgic, a bit twee, and I agree. We head to the Motat cafe to talk, but on the way he gives me a quick, speculative glance, eyes sparkling: “We should at least do a tour on the way to the cafe … just to have a look at some of the trains? While we’re here …”

For 20 minutes I get a guided tour of the trains at Motat, Tonnon narrating their history in detail, his knowledge remarkable, his enthusiasm infectious. We reach the site where his show Rail Land was performed each night, on the edge of a platform, and he recreates it for me from the air, describing the lush fall of the velvet curtain he performed in front of, the lights he controlled alongside his music. “A bit David Lynch,” he concludes, his smile wide.

A bit David Lynch is an excellent way to describe Tonnon as an artist; he’s got a mercurial, dreamy and melancholy spirit in his music. His lyrics are often deep narratives and considerations on life in small towns, half activism, half exquisitely written Reader’s Digest pieces. His song ‘Water Underground’ was a finalist for the Silver Scroll Award in 2015 and it details the ongoing concerns over water management in Canterbury. It’s an affecting, energised piece of music you’d never mistake for anyone else’s. Its answering call is ‘Mataura Paper Mill’, which appears on his forthcoming album Leave Love Out of This. Like its predecessor, it’s a study on loss and change, this time anchored as a hauntingly beautiful ballad.

Tonnon is familiar with small towns – though born in Tauranga, he grew up in Dunedin’s smaller suburbs – Corstorphine, Mornington, Fairfield, and eventually Chain Hills, which he loathed as a wee boy. “To me I always felt like my spiritual home was Mornington. I had such a great time; I started school there. It’s a central neighbourhood, it’s really old, it used to have trams. It’s got that kind of working class feel … it’s like Newtown or Grey Lynn.”

Tonnon’s dad is a glazier, and back then he was fixing up windows on student flats on Dunedin’s notorious Castle Street, as well as being a “general handy guy”. Tonnon clearly admires his dad’s handiness, listing all the places he’s worked, and the things he can fix, but admits he never managed to pick it up himself. He gives me a self-deprecating smile and says: “It’s always been a slight hang-up of mine, my lack of handiness. My dad kind of told me that I wasn’t handy, and I think that reinforced it a bit. He always encouraged me to be bookish, and I was.” Bookish is exactly how I imagine Tonnon as a child: he’s ferociously articulate, and has deep knowledge not only about New Zealand’s public transport, but of history. “I was very good at memorising facts [as a child]. Super nerdy.” 

He’s also got that vibe of the kid who might have gazed out the classroom window and got lost in daydreams, a quality infused in all of his music to date. He confirms this with an earnest expression on his face: “I was a dreamer as a kid. I was at my second school, and I was six, and I still genuinely believed that with the tin cans I was putting together at home, I was going to make a rocket and go to Mars. It took me a while to get a firmer grip on reality than some kids, maybe.”

That little dreamer followed an identity trajectory that Tonnon can trace easily in his family, where a wide-open spirit eventually shuttered itself as he grew: “What happens to most people in my family is that we’re very outward until about seven, and then when you start to realise that other people are humans and have feelings and maybe opinions about you, you close up. I totally closed up.” When he started to go inward at seven, it was because of a new school he attended in a wealthier suburb, with families who had boats and more money than his own. He got bullied a bit, he tells me, without a trace of self pity.

Michelle, Anthonie, and train. Photograph: Edith Amituanai

At home Tonnon played piano from a very young age, making up soundtracks to imaginary movies in his living room: “They were terrible. Like …” Tonnon demonstrates a weird, whomping atmospheric noise, miming playing the chords and looking both anguished and amused. In a funny way, it’s not so far removed from the atmospheric score and songs he composed for Rail Land 30-odd years later, though his experimentation is finely-honed now.

I’d go so far as to call Tonnon an auteur, though music doesn’t have an equivalent description for the title – his sound is unique and immediately identifiable, infused with swooning synthesizers, finely drawn poetic lyrics, and the sense he’s composing a whole universe in his imagination – living his dreams out loud through sonic exploration. But his arrival at this place, with his latest album Leave Love Out of This arriving in July, has been forged through trial and error; it’s taken time to find his performance style and to hone his onstage persona.

In Rail Land he intersperses dynamic narratives about our rail history with song, and it’s so theatrical it’s basically a play with musical interludes. It makes me wonder if Tonnon ever considered being an actor. He quickly confirms this: “Yeah I did. So I did this school play in form one, it was [called] Germs. I think anyone who was the same year as me at school, Germs was the play going round.” He smiles at the unintended pun, while I must look mystified, because he carries on, growing in enthusiasm. “Every character was a different disease! I was ‘Ulf’. They were all diseases backwards, so I was Flu, the comedic relief. The one that walked in at the wrong times, said the funny jokes and did dance moves.” Tonnon found release in being someone other than his awkward self: “I discovered that I could put on the mask, the theatrical mask, and just suddenly have confidence.” 

It’s easy to see how that concept of a mask seeded in a teenage Tonnon and grew roots there, eventually resolving into the artist he is today – his performance style is just a step sideways from himself, but it’s a tangible shift. The Tonnon I sit across from in the Motat cafe has a sweet goofiness, an enthusiasm that shifts in performance to something cooler, almost unreachable; elegant and assured. The persona is an effective one, but he says it’s only in the last few years he has really perfected it, in part because of Rail Land.

He also has a very honest mate to thank for it, back when he was starting out in his first band: “I did this first gig as a front person [for Tono and the Finance Company] and I was wearing a shitty Swanndri-y type shirt and jeans and I was also just completely unconscious about the way that I moved. And a friend from Dunedin was there, and he said, ‘Look – you need to get a mirror, and you need to practise what you’re doing, because you have no idea what you look like on stage and it’s not good’.” Tonnon watched David Bowie for tips, noting his economy with movement on stage. He also thinks David Bowie influenced his personal style, evolving from the clothes he’d lived in as a student. “In Dunedin what happens is everyone shops in the op shops, and you just need to be warm – nothing fits. In the first six months in Auckland I really admired the way people wore things that fit! Auckland gave me a lot of aesthetic sense.” 

Those aesthetics have become a signature now, Tonnon citing musician Steve Abel, known for his sharp suits, as an influence. There’s a mid-century quality to Tonnon’s appearance, and I ask him how conscious that’s been: “It just felt like the thing that worked for me. Give me the spiky hair that everyone else had at that time, I didn’t really stand out and look very interesting. So I suppose I eventually graduated towards doing something different … My dad says that I dress exactly like my Opa! In fact my dad’s sister came down and visited us a few weeks ago in Whanganui; we had a lovely cup of tea. But they think we’re so weird. They texted my dad, ‘Oh yeah, we had a lovely time with Anthonie and Karlya. Gosh he really looks like Val Doonican!’” Val Doonican was an Irish pop singer who hit his stride in the 50s and 60s, and with his slicked back hair, tweed suits and cardigans, the similarities are undeniable. Ironic, given Tonnon’s dad and siblings openly rebelled against the singer, and the way Tonnon’s Opa, their father, dressed in a similar style. Tonnon also has his wife, stylist Karlya Smith, to thank for the honing of his appearance – she got him out of polyester suits and into better quality wool ones, he tells me, beaming. 

Tonnon has got ahead in his storytelling, weaving in and out of his child and adulthood, and he catches himself, then traces his steps back to the beginning of his career in music; piano lessons from a young age, sitting Trinity exams and loathing them, eventually giving up lessons in his mid teens. He tells me about the realisation that changed his experience of music forever in a way you’d describe a religious experience, his thoughts tumbling over themselves, eyes gleaming. “What happened was that some friends of mine started listening to Black Sabbath and got electric guitars, and I had a little bit of fomo. My sister had an acoustic guitar that she’d given up learning on. I went to the Mosgiel library and found a book of chords, but really significantly for the rest of my life, the chords were arranged in keys! [Most books of chords just do them in order.] This was like seven chords in the key of C, seven chords in the key of D, etcetera. At the same time I was listening to the Best of Bowie double CD, so I learnt four songs, mostly from the Ziggy Stardust era. They were all in G, and I suddenly got it! In all the piano learning I’d done, I’d never thought about block chords, I’d thought about individual notes. Learning block chords in sets of keys, I suddenly got what theory was about. Then with learning the Bowie songs it was like, ‘Ah! All you have to do is choose a bunch of chords from the key and then throw some words over them and try to craft it into notes, and you’ve got songs!’ It was so powerful, it became the only thing I wanted to do. I was 16 going on 17. It was a very quick change, I made a little band, did Rockquest … We got to the regional finals.”

That student band was called The Narodniks, after a revolutionary group in late 19th Century Russia; Tonnon and his bandmate were big history buffs. Earnest, he tells me he reckons they sounded a bit like the band Opshop, before Opshop was around.

Tonnon went on to study music under legendary New Zealand musician Graeme Downes, whose songwriting lectures had a profound effect on him. “They were amazing. They gave me some tools to figure out what I wanted to do. In songwriting I love the feeling of when you have created different patches of air and words and things that don’t exist, and that feeling of sculpting them together. That was the feeling that made me want to keep doing it. But at the same time I’d studied history and I was interested in fixing the world, but had no idea how to do it. I was interested in improving things I guess.”

I ask him if the famed “Dunedin Sound” ever affected his musical style, and he laughs, before looking like he’s about to commit sacrilege, leaning in and telling me that by the end of the 80s there were no jobs for the university educated, hip, artsy people in Dunedin, so everyone left. “There was no such thing as a hip parent in Dunedin when I was growing up. My era in Dunedin was all kids that listened to mainstream radio, and for me it was Solid Gold FM. I was a little bit weird with that. I listened to the 50s and 60s. I loved the Beatles.” Tonnon remembers sitting up late with the radio when George Harrison died, recording all the “weirder” Beatles songs the station played.

Before he found the Beatles, Tonnon was unashamedly modern pop focused, he says, telling me with obvious delight that the first CD he owned was from teen sensation Billie, and how he loved Britney Spears. “When I moved to Auckland at 23 I met all these people the same age as me and they were so goddamn hip! They had the Flying Nun box set, they were so into Pavement …” 

Tonnon’s first “proper” band were Tono and the Finance Company, a pop group with songs like ‘Marion Bates Realty’, a catchy narrative-driven tune about getting kicked out of your flat, endearing fans with its dry wit. Their album Up Here For Dancing contained classics like ’23’, a song Tonnon is still fond of, that finds itself subject to new interpretations constantly.

The threads of his current performance and lyrical style can be traced back to that band, but since going out on his own, he’s refined the sound, and taught himself to be expand his implementation of technology. His describes his solo album – 2015’s Successor – as a vehicle with which to “write short stories”. It contained his Silver Scroll-nominated song ‘Water Underground’. It’s from that song Tonnon’s desire to implement change seems to have really found roots – the quiet activism in his music has grown alongside his own burgeoning obsession with public transport, and perhaps most especially, trains. 

‘The first time I felt compelled to do something other than music with my life was when I found out that Dunedin had a whole suburban train system.’ Photograph: Edith Amituanai

Just like his “ah-ha” moment in music, his train moment, and the direction of his career path, came in a lightning bolt moment of recognition: “The first time I felt compelled to do something other than music with my life was when I found out that Dunedin had a whole suburban train system, and it finished in 1982, not in the 50s when the trams went, but 1982!” Tonnon was blown away by this, describing the realisation: “It was like the 1960s movies when you fall into a psychedelic pool! It was huge!”

He says something just clicked, and from then on when he toured the country he started paying attention to the disused transport systems in towns, uncovering “the massive lie” fed to the public in the 80s and early 90s about the inefficiency of public transport across the country. “This lie that NZ’s too small to have public transport,” Tonnon says, looking exasperated.

Most towns he visited had formerly had high-functioning transport systems. “I realised that we had this incredible public transport system and that it didn’t just die 50 years ago, or 30 years ago. Even in 2010 when I moved to Auckland, there was still a daily train each way from Wellington to Auckland. And it was public transport price. Some of the stuff has been killed on our own watch. So it was realising this, and it just started spinning and spinning. I thought to myself, ‘what am I going to do?’” That discovery sounds like it embedded something civic in his spirit, and it inspired Rail Land, which Tonnon has toured in different parts of the country, inviting audiences to travel on revived train and bus services to attend the gig, creating a full immersion experience while his show extolled the virtues and losses of the rail networks of yore. 

It’s not just fascination for art’s sake, either. Tonnon and his wife moved to Whanganui a few years ago, lured by “a city of potters and artists and painters and musicians”. “It had the cultural underground that is rare,” and Tonnon found a new opportunity to capitalise on his enthusiasm for transport. He performed Rail Land there, resurrecting a late night bus service that hadn’t run in 30 years to carry attendees to the gig. Hamish McDouall, the mayor of Whanganui, came to see it,  and after Tonnon “had him up” about the town’s transport woes, he was invited to sit on the committee that governs public transport for Horizons, the Palmerston North regional council who are in charge of Whanganui’s transport system.

For Tonnon, who would make a brilliant politician with his enthusiasm and drive, but who grew up in a Christodelphian family where that kind of career went against the faith, it was the opportunity to step into a new place. He’s alight with a very guileless fervour when he says: “I’ve found this space you can get into where you use artistic methods to change things which have previously been reserved for the realm of politics and governance, civic infrastructure. There’s always been this divide: you either have a real job – you’re a lawyer or a humanitarian or you’re in politics or infrastructure, you have a real job and you affect society – or you’re an artist and you critique society. What if there’s another realm where artists secretly get into the plumbing and pull stuff out and change where things go?” He tells me the process is one of constant experimentation: “I didn’t think I could do something in the bureaucratic realm to change things – I thought it would be more things like Rail Land – but I’m trying it, to see what works. I’m enjoying it. It’s tough, but I’m excited about it. I’ll just do whatever works.” 

Doing whatever works feels like something of a silent motto for Tonnon, who has approached his life from many angles, fossicking around to find what resonates the most. He does it in his song writing, too, a process he says is painful and takes him a long time. “Songs come from struggle. Just banging my head against the wall. They take years to write. Songwriting is similar to the political thing – just try anything that works. Try anything. Try writing every day, try leaving it. Try staying up late, try sleeping better. That’s the approach I’m taking with changing public transport in Whanganui and New Zealand – ‘maybe this will work’. Maybe it’s art, maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s the private sector. Let’s just try everything and do stuff, not just complain about it.” When he says this to me I can see him as a kid dreaming big in small Dunedin suburbs, believing tin cans can get him to space: only now it’s his music that’s transporting him, affecting change in a tangible way. 

It’s a contemplative Tonnon in front of me now, as he talks about the new album, and some of the tracks on it. “I always think the most important thing is the album, and it is a hang-up of mine – it takes me a long time to do an album. The album is the novel for a musician.” The title track ‘Leave Love Out of This’, a contemporary ballad that builds to a blazing conclusion, took him two years to write, and the entire album has evolved out of the new phase of exploration he’s found himself in, that predates Rail Land, but carries its imprint in those performances, as well as his touring of Successor, where he began to experiment more with making sound beds, and huge walls of synthesized sound.

“I used to be a technophobe and just play a guitar through an amp and no pedals. Sometimes touring Successor, I wanted to make the show a bit fuller and better, and I started experimenting with technology and that led to the Deluge [synthesizer]. And now I’m doing things like controlling my lighting through the Deluge and things. I’m the complete opposite of a technophobe. People never believe me when I tell them I’m a pop musician. It’s my take on what pop music is. I’ve started using 808s and synthesizers and things, and these are songs that have grown through a lot of touring, and experimenting with technology.”

Tonnon has chatted non-stop for 90 minutes and the time has flown by, much of it dominated by his civic musings, and his elaborate and thoughtful explanations of his life, which are both amusing and touching, because he’s so unique, his dreams and ambitions so entirely his own. He’s off before we’ve really had a chance to unpack the new album – his first on good friend Nadia Reid’s brand new record label Slow Time Records – but he promises to send it to me, before saying goodbye and strolling off across the tram lines. In the sunlight I realise I’m not sure I’ve properly grasped who he is, there’s just so much going on in one person.

I go out to walk a week later, listening to the album which Tonnon has sent through. I walk through the streets of Mt Eden, and because I’ve been talking to him I find myself noticing the buses that go by, the new industry rattling alongside the old age of the suburb where I live. I wait at the train crossing with a bunch of other pedestrians, watching the lines of carriages roll through, Tonnon’s song ‘Old Images’ soaring in my ears with its themes of love and age. The album feels like the culmination of every iteration Tonnon has been to date: philosopher, enthusiast, wry commentator, civic activist, romantic heart. It swells with aspirations, haunted by both an old soul, and a hunger for the modern age. It’s all of his myriad parts gathered in one place, and that’s when I realise that while the shape of him is amorphous, what brings it all together is his voice. That remarkable, imploring voice which always reminds me to look at the world going by with a new set of eyes. I drift home through the streets in a daze, escorted by a wonderfully uncommon dreamer.

Anthonie Tonnon is touring New Zealand from September

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