He’s made songs that are etched into the memories of generations of New Zealanders, but still fears the possibility of failure every time he sits down with a guitar or at his piano to write. Henry Oliver sits down for a few beers with New Zealand music icon, the ubiquitous yet mysterious Dave Dobbyn. Photography by Joel Thomas.
For someone of my generation – born in the ‘80s, grew up in the ‘90s – Dave Dobbyn was everywhere. His cassettes were in the car, his early videos always on TV, and his song about fidelity and monogamy became a de facto national anthem, rolled out for various quadrennial sports events. More recently, he’s made a pro-immigration/anti-racist anthem (‘Welcome Home’), which was recently released in Te Reo Māori for Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, Māori Language Week. And earlier this year, he released a 40th anniversary collection of songs and travelled the length of the country playing some of New Zealand’s favourite songs from Th’Dudes, DD Smash, and, of course, his solo career.
What better time to catch-up with Dave Dobbyn? Dobbo. Writer of songs. Ubiquitous yet mysterious. So, with a bag of Garage Project beers and a bag of chips (which remained unopened), I visited Dave at his studio in Grey Lynn. I found him plucking away at a piano, getting ready to travel to Passchendaele, where he is performing ‘Welcome Home’ as part of the 100 year anniversary of the end of the World War I battle where 2,735 New Zealanders lost their lives. It was the Monday after the election which, as yet, remains un-won. I opened a bottle of Tie Guan Yin, a lager brewed with rice, green tea and jasmine flowers (I thought it would be a calming start). We were there to talk music, but just started talking about what everyone was talking about: politics.
How are you feeling after the election?
Gutted. Really gutted. How to talk about it? Where to start? I’m thoroughly disappointed for the Māori Party. That’s tragic. And it proved that neoliberalism is alive and well and eating people alive. It’s just this monster. And people are falling for it and have made a huge mistake.
Most people have a sense of what their New Zealand is and how that’s reflected in their community, but it’s not often you get these opportunities to get a sense of the country as a whole in the cold light of day. This is one of them.
It is! It’s like when you’re watching your favourite team lose and you just know it’s going to be torture. It’s that times many… many times. I just felt so gutted. It really knocked me the next day. I just felt punched by it. Whichever way they end up going with the coalition, it will stink.
But that’s not what being a citizen is about, just saying how shit it is and staying depressed about it. That’s not our job. But people have become so insensitive to the reality of people’s lives, to people who are suffering. We’re doing it like back in the ’30s. We’re marginalising all kinds of people through no fault of their own, making them the enemy. And they’re the last people we should be doing that to – people living in cars and kids with Dickensian diseases, a health system that’s a joke, an education system that’s completely a joke. It just seems insane in a small democracy that those ails exist.
You only need to look at a couple of examples where it’s entirely different – y’know, everyone always talks about Scandinavia – and there are other problems I suppose but at least the system is somehow egalitarian and I don’t see anything egalitarian in this manifestation of government. There’s just legacies of tragedy. I feel so bad for the Pike River people because the political will that they created, is that going to come to anything or are they further trodden on in their grief? Just blood after blood after blood. And everyone becomes immune from having any empathy about anyone else’s lot.
How did you become involved with the Pike River issue?
They called up. My name popped up and I was asked to write a memorial with the sanction of the families. The first thing I had to do was go and meet the family. So I immersed myself in that and the families were so warm and welcoming. I talked to all the families and promised them that I’d do something that was worthy of the loss of 29 lives. As I’m saying it, I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, what sort of a task have you set yourself?’
For months and months, I wouldn’t let anything get in the way, I just dove into it. And put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with something that had the dignity after the warmth that they shared with me, combined with the loss and going through the whole thing. It was liberating in a lot of ways and extremely sad but delivered me into a beautiful place and I’ve got a permanent connection with those families now. It’s a weird thing to memorialise people. Suddenly I understood these memorials. It’s deep. it’s really deep. I freaked out for a long time. I tried to concentrate on the work, rather than being daunted by it because I knew that would shut me down.
So how do you just do it? I imagine usually you just work…
Just work! Exactly. but being able to spend time there and stay there. Colin Smith the lawyer for the families welcomed me in. I met a whole lot of people and it was a beautiful experience. I’ve never been so moved. There’s lots of things that can move you, but that was a whopper. Being moved like that makes you better at what you do. And it was a good opportunity to examine the whole idea of citizenship and responsibility and the bigger political picture and the humanity of it. It’s impossible not to embrace the humanity of the families of the 29 guys who died. The same thing could be said to Passchendaele, where I’m heading. They wanted me to write an original piece of music, but I just knew that it would have been a herculean task, so I’m just singing ‘Welcome Home’ in Te Reo and English.
To really touch those places you really need to know what you’re doing because it’s sacred. Really sacred. That’s kind of familiar territory to me now. I don’t know how I got that job, but I love the work because it’s truly meaningful and you’re accountable. In terms of the craft and your understanding of people and community. Because, in many respects, we of Pākehā New Zealand have all been detached from community is so many ways. There’s an artifact of it now but it’s not as community orientated as it used to be. We don’t live like that.
You recorded a te reo version of ‘Welcome Home’ for Māori language week. Why that song?
Maimoa, the singing group, got in touch. They’re incredible and they’ve got a show on Māori TV called Voices of the Future and they want to do versions of popular songs in Te Reo. They asked if that interested us and we said yes and then Loraine, my manager, suggested ‘Welcome Home’ and they leaped at it.
Amazingly, we got in touch with Te Haumihiata Mason from Rotorua and she is amazing. She translated a whole lot of stuff like Shakespeare, she’s compiled a Māori dictionary. Her and I clicked straight away. So between Maimoa and her, she translated the thing and between her coaching and theirs I got the pronunciation down after a while, but shit it was hard. But I loved it. What sold me was she translated in te reo and it read beautifully – just the sounds of it. Then she re-translated it back into English, so a double translation and I was fascinated by that because it came back as this fully-formed poem and took on a whole new depth. I felt the song was out of my hands now and I could give it away. It’s going to stand by itself which is what any songwriter wants to have their song do. So it was a beautiful shared experience – a few tears and lots of laughing.
What did you learn about yourself as a songwriter?
The spirit of it got me – the spirit of her translation and the generosity of that just blew me away and I kind of expected it to be that way so I just immersed myself in it. It was like being in a warm pool of lovely humanity and a loving exchange. And I learnt a lot about te reo being essential for New Zealand, absolutely essential if we’re going to understand each other and ourselves.
It broadens your worldview in a really lovely way. So I can’t wait to somehow get conversant in te reo, that’s the goal. But I’m quite realistic. I’m 60 now and I reckon if I’m having a good conversation by the time I’m 70, that’ll be a good effort.
I’m always thinking of the next song. It’s always the next song. Looking back is a bit of a waste of time. I don’t want to do any reunions – I’m not interested in that anymore. It doesn’t have anything to do with reality.
But this year you did a 40th-anniversary album and tour, what was that like?
That was fantastic. We did it all independently, I don’t have a record company or anything like that. It’s all very cottage industry in my world. But that’s really good because it makes you work hard and get a handle on it.
What’s it like to look back on such a big body of work?
Frustrating. (laughs) You get picky and you listen to stuff you’ve done and you go ‘I should have done that better’ or ‘I should have stuck that bit on that song’. It’s quite painful actually. But for the songs that have survived and have been in the set anyway, that we still enjoy playing, and I’m enjoying playing a lot of them more than I ever have, but pulling out the catalogue, and actually finding out what half of it is is very interesting. I end up hearing songs occasionally. and going ‘Oh, that’s me’. Or listening to old voice messages and finding these fully-formed songs on them. That’s how I got the songs for the last record. It was all just stuff from the iPhone, sitting at the piano with a loop playing and I’d just play along, just, as they said in the old days, vamp along. Which is a word that say to people who can’t play.
Was is it easier looking back having just made a new record?
Yeah, it was. That took all the sting out of it. Otherwise, there would have been a part of me, my miserablist part would have overtaken the chirpy chap and I would have just keeled over or found it really difficult and painful.
There might be, say, 30 or so songs that are ubiquitous in this country and you’ve written five of them. That’s a lot!
That’s kind of scary. I want to make it six or seven or eight. It depends how long I go I suppose. But that’s what drives you, wanting to better yourself. Thinking of the next song, that’s what drives me. Ever since I was a young kid there was a complete hunger to do something that people will be happy with, something well-made. So it’s the fear of failure that makes me want to do something better than the last thing, or better than the best thing I’ve got. Every time. It’s that feeling.
You don’t sound like you think of yourself as a master of your craft…
No, not at all.
You speak as if you’re one step away from disaster.
Always! Any honest songwriters will admit to that. Any honest artists will admit to that. If you’re not one step away from disaster, you’re not doing your job right. Martin Scorsese said that, and he’s right. It’s a brutal New York way to look at things, but at the same time you have to have that impetus in your life when you have to keep raising the bar somehow. For yourself. You don’t want to just pump out a whole lot of stuff that gets chewed out like snack food. I don’t want to do that. You’re bombarded with that shit. It makes it difficult to go to the mall.
What would disaster look like for you?
I don’t know. I guess it’s a myth. If you really value life, then disaster is a myth, it’s just an irrational fear you have. I think we’re put on earth to lift people up and that kind of fear can limit everything that you do. And it can spread amongst your community as well. A bit like suicide has with young people, it’s kind of spread as this quiet evil. But it’s getting louder by day. That’s how it works. It pervades and becomes normalised and the people who suffer are forever detached and disenfranchised from society, regardless of what society pretends that it does about it.
Then you’ve got people who are absolutely committed and passionate about it. Mike King, I’ve got a lot of respect for him and his work with suicide. I think he knows how many people have moved him and therefore he knows to be a true citizen he has to move everyone else accordingly, because he’s been so moved. I love that dynamic in society.
Is that how you feel about your music?
I feel grateful that I’ve been able to touch hearts. By god, I was scared shitless one day. This man came up to me, I was playing at 7:30 on Lambton Quay. It was a few albums ago, but ‘Welcome Home’ was out and there I was, it was a winter morning and I was playing this little corner, getting commuters in the morning interested in maybe coming into the record store and buying the record.
I’m singing away and this guy comes up to me, this huge white guy who looks like a big-time wrestler, and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, he’s going to nail me’. And he grabs my hand and gives me one of those insane handshakes that crushes you and ruins your musical life. He gives me this huge hug and he’s crying and he says ‘Thank you for writing ‘Welcome Home’. We got here and we knew we were in the right place.’ So shit man, I love that that happens.
Your career started when most bands played covers, they didn’t write songs of their own.
We were determined to and we knew we could do it better. We were well prepared. Ian Morris and I were complete music nuts and so was Peter Urlich. We had one of the most eclectic record collections you could imagine. We used to vinyl out at Pete’s place with the stereo in the backyard and Pete’s mum, a lovely woman called Ruby, would cook us food and we’d be out there drinking beers and playing vinyl. Everything from the Doors to Cabaret Voltaire to Human League to Velvet Underground to Hello Sailor, David Bowie, lots of wonderful soul music – everything Motown ever did, everything the Wrecking Crew ever did. We were just absolute devourers of music. We never stuck in one genre but we knew that pop music would probably be a good way to go, especially since we could actually play the guitar. It was great. You can’t beat two guitars, bass and drums for a young band.
And we loved the whole processes of recording so we kind of knew how we wanted the songs to sound. One of the best things while we were recording – this is ’78, ’79 – we won the battle of the bands competition and that sort of did it for me, I knew after that that everything else could be on hold and just go for music and stick with it. We won the prize and made ‘Be Mine Tonight’ and ‘That Look in Your Eyes’, two singles in a row at Stebbing Studios. And Aldridge Stebbing had a technically illegal AM transmitter in his office and we could receive it downstairs in the control room so we could hear what a song would sound like on the radio. So we made sure the mixes sounded really good on that one little Auratone speaker. If it could sound good on that, and on an AM radio, we’re going to be alright.
So we had that part right and that allowed us to be able to tour and spend a week in Palmy doing a pub and just play play play. It was really good for us. The rest of it was just coming up with the songs and we didn’t seem to have a problem with that. It was great fun. So it came out kind of fully-formed. I don’t know after that. You get lost a little bit. That was a good place to start, guitar, bass and drums pop stuff.
I imagine you were the first band playing their own songs to play a lot of these towns.
Yeah, and we had different coloured hair, high heels, crazy clothes and makeup and shit. We felt like the New York Dolls in Salem or something.
What did they think of that?
It was kind of scary but it energised what we did. The crowds were fantastic. Some of them we’d get like 600 people and that was just an ordinary night. And our lighting man was also an electrician so he could disable the sound meters and – this is a service to New Zealand – he rewired a lot of the pubs to three-phase power. So we could actually run sound and lights. We were kind of trailblazers in that regard. On reflection that was a great thing because people would come along and not only think the songs were great, they were just blown away by the sound because it was better than anything they’d ever heard. A lot of the PAs then sounded like a packet of crisps. But it was a great way to travel and see good things happen.
How was the anniversary tour?
It was outrageous. Really good. We played three nights in Wairoa at the Gaiety Theatre which runs along the river and the last time I’d been there it was with the Exponents when Jordan lept out of the van completely nude and jumped into the river for a swim and nobody batted an eyelid – it’s that kind of a town.
When they knew we were coming, we sold out two nights quick. When we were coming to town they had this little food stall festival. They were raising money for the local pony club which needed a new shed. So part of our ticket price went towards that shed. It was that kind of community gig.
It was a terrific way to travel around the country and because we were doing it ourselves a lot of it was social media driven. We probably put up a hundred posters all up. The rest of it was Facebook. We put a poster on Facebook and then suddenly the thing goes off. I’d do it again tomorrow. I never want to stop doing it.
When you tour, how do you balance playing the hits people want to hear and developing as a musician and songwriter?
People want to pigeonhole you so you have to ride the balance when you’re playing live. If you go to a Beach Boys gig you want to hear ‘Good Vibrations’. If they didn’t do it, you’d throw things, right? Well, it’s like that for me too to a certain extent, but that doesn’t preclude anything else happening. If you’ve got new material you can divide the show into two halves, do a first set that’s kind of a bit more songwriter, and then the second set peppered with hits.
There’s ways to do it, and there’s ways to keep it moving forward, and that’s what I love about playing live. It’s never the same twice. It’s so exciting, you can kind of arrive in this place that feels like rolling thunder, like Bob Dylan, his band is just phenomenal. I go to every gig. And following that tradition, you find yourself accidentally there in that tradition of being able to somehow, even minutely, reinvent the songs each time you play them. That’s cool. But also do something that’s satisfying the musicians you’re playing with first, because if they’re loving playing it, it’s going to go to the audience and people will go ‘what the hell was that song?! I wanna hear that again!’ so you’re always trying to create that thing.
One of things that is particularly interesting about Bob Dylan is the way he has found a way to grow his music with his life, turn rock music of his youth into something that reflects his life and age now. I’ve seen Brian Wilson, and he does to the best of his ability the songs to make them sound like 1967. Bob Dylan is: ‘this is where I am now, live with it’.
I remember going to the time before last he toured. My wife and saw him at Claudelands Arena in Hamilton of all places.
I went to that show!
It was a fantastic show. We were in the front row, we were this far away from Dylan. I just loved every second of it. The time before that he was playing at the Vector Arena, at halftime I go out for a drink and a bite, and I am loving it. And there’s this guy in his sixties and he says, ‘you’re not going back in there are you? It’s absolutely terrible! His voice is shocking!’ And this guy was just dumping on the whole thing. And I after he finished his tirade, I just said [in his best Jeff Spicoli accent] ‘You weren’t there maaaaan!’ So I went into this tirade saying: ‘When Bob turned up at his first Newport festival with just his acoustic guitar, that harmonica is supposed to tear the top of your head off, and his voice is supposed to tear the top of your head off. It’s supposed to do that.’
His music started on the back of a truck at a county fair. This guy has to be heard. The same thing happened when he had electric guitars at the same Newport folk festival and all the purists just freaked out. And this guy was one of those. I just took great delight in saying “You weren’t there man.” I’ve always loved Dylan because he has this way of dividing everybody, merely by speaking through his music. He was playing the Civic, and somebody said: ‘Say something!’ And he had played about eight songs and he went: ‘I am.’ That’s the only thing he said all night. I dug it so much. That guy is so cool. [Laughs].
What does that teach you about how to keep making music?
A lot. It makes you trust the first seed of it. The glow of it. You can always go back to it. You really do have to step outside. And sometimes inside, in the internal world, the Narnia worlds of your own mind, you try and find some treasure. It’s like some of the people I met at Pike River, one of these guys gave me a rock that was at the mouth of the mine. And he gave me this rock that was in the water coming out of the mine. That water had been over the bodies, and had come out of the mine, and he picks up this stone and hands it to me like a taonga, which it is. And he did the same with some greenstone, and a few other things, a piece of coal.
And I remembered somebody telling me about a carver waiting at a river on the West Coast somewhere looking for some greenstone, and seeing what the river delivers. They won’t carve unless the river delivers some greenstone that day. For me it is a really great way of looking at songwriting. You can have all the weapons you like and all the toys you like and all the theory and all your influences and all that stuff, and then something can come out that is a complete surprise, completely brand new. And your job is not to sully that, and to craft it into something that is beautiful on its own.
I am aware of that now and I am aware of the anonymity of it. The greatest need is for the work to be greater than the worker. That is so important. I think that I had forgotten that for a long time. I never really learnt that properly. There were hints of that in the early days. Submitting to it is going to drag the best stuff out of you. And the only way to do that is with connections with people.
You can’t do that on your own, you can’t do that on your laptop in your bedroom. You can’t really. You can do transient stuff, ephemeral stuff. Anything that lasts you have to be as dedicated as you can do being there at the right time. Like a Cartier-Bresson photo. Just be there at the right time. [Laughs].
You’ve mentioned a couple of times that you don’t have a label anymore, it’s just you and your manager.
And my wife.
You just don’t need anything more. More industry support?
No, we don’t need it. And I think the best thing about being able to release the last record Harmony House, that was a real independent affair, working with Sam [Scott] and Luke [Buda] was extraordinary. Really liberating. Not that record companies ever really had much of a say in what I’d do artistically (laughs). I guess it’s all about the relationship of it. In theory, it’s limitless what we could do. I’m always at the mercy of the songs. Whatever they dictate really, as to what team to have next time around.
So you don’t need intermediaries to get to people anymore. You can find an audience yourself.
Yeah, it’s cool. Also, I can collaborate with musicians and writers at will. And the hunger for it just gets stronger. Perfectionism has two effects: one, it can stifle what you’re doing and slow you down because everything has to be just right before you deliver anything. Or there’s one that’s fairly bold and brave and isn’t afraid to talk to people and collaborate. It’s all music driven but not knowing is really cool. I was talking to SJD the other day and he wants to get together for something and I know that would be really fruitful because I have a lot of respect for him. If I could work with everyone I respected I’d be set for life. And I wouldn’t have to leave town.
So you’re always trying to fight the former and embrace the latter?
Exactly! That’s where the music lies! Neil used to call it worshiping at the temple of song. If you can even sense the hint of a song, you have to come subservient and serve it until it’s finished. Then a lot of stuff just happens in ten minutes one day so you’ve just got to be fairly vigilant I suppose.
Tell me about that vigilance. So when I turned up today, you were tinkering at the piano, is that what you’re doing? Hoping something sparks?
Yeah, usually noodling, playing guitar and piano and finding little sparks and keeping them as little notes and then the ones that keep coming back at you and drive you crazy are generally the ones that stick around. Because you’ve got to get rid of them. You’ve got to stop them ringing around in your head. And the only way to do that is to finish them. But the best way to burst through that is to travel or just play with somebody else. It’ll find its way to come out. The older you get, the more you’re prepared to surrender your process to surprise. I never put anything on tape unless I’ve got a structure of a song. So I play with grooves a lot until I’ve got something. Otherwise, you’re recording too early and it’s too easy to do that these days as there’s too many toys. As you can see [points to racks of synths and other instruments].
Ultimately, you still come down to a guitar and a pencil. Or a piano and a pencil. But I get a buzz out of playing along with grooves, simple grooves. That bubbles away and then you’ve got all your song ideas sitting around in the room of your head in various states of unfinished. But I feel more relaxed about it than I used to. I would sacrifice chunks of real life in order to be in the thrall of that state of being an artist. Which is a state which takes you away from your family and other people in a way. So you gotta find a balance and that’s really hard to find. But my family’s gotten used to the idea. ‘Oh, where’s he gone? He’s in the studio. I’m hearing sounds so it must be okay.’
For a lot of writers, there’s a hell of a lot to think about and a lot to consume in terms of information. There’s a lot of politics to dig through regardless of whether you know or are conscious of it as politics. It is. Stuff that moves your heart. You have to witness it and hopefully have a response. And that’s a daily challenge.
We were talking earlier about the election. There has been a conspicuous lack of political music in this election cycle. Did you notice that?
I did, I got approached a few times but I had this idea that… you have a job to do as an artisan and it has to be apolitical by nature. Not that I am, I’m extremely political, but I can’t suddenly jump on a Green party or a Labour bandwagon or any kind of bandwagon because it ends up being a bandwagon, whatever it is. There’s something incredibly transient about the movements in politics, but I’m fairly aware. I follow all these journalists and most of them are from the left, but you’ve still got to listen to what the other guys are saying and that’s the hard part I think.
What gives me hope is that enough people won’t stand for this status quo. There’s a change coming along societally. And that’s beyond politics in a way. It kind of encapsulates it, but it’s more than that. It’s about being a citizen, and having a culture, so I have to see that as separate even though every part of me wants to strangle any politician. I have a responsibility as a Christian to love the lot, even Paula Bennett.
How then, in light of all that, does it feel to have one of your songs, ‘Loyal’, having turned into such an icon of patriotism?
It’s kind of weird. That was an accident that happened via the America’s Cup and the stick broke – the mast snapped – and I was there. I remember the moment, all these mavens of industry, all these corporate biggies, were inside wolfing down shrimp and crayfish and whatnot, they had these big huge screens watching the play-by-play and I went out the back for a fag, on the back deck, having a fag and I’m looking straight over at the boat and it’s only 50 yards away – snap. So I go back in and these guys are still watching the screens and I’m going ‘Hey guys it’s all over, the mast snapped’, and they ignored me and watched the replay. I was the witness and sure enough it snapped, the whole thing looked like it was going to sink, and it was pretty bad. But thankfully the song survived.
But you wrote a song about a relationship and it’s turned into a song about your loyalty to a country.
It’s insane. But you know, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ – what the hell has that got to do with football? That’s the English anthem. Anthems pick people, you can’t write them for a thing. The anthem picks the occasion in many ways. I think that’s the reality. You can’t manufacture that, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t. I see it so often in the advertising world and in the film world, where if you try and manufacture something it just won’t fly. If it hasn’t got wings it ain’t gonna fly. If people aren’t moved by it in their thousands at once, then it’s not going to work. You can’t force it.
But I was really grateful that the song survived. I was also really grateful that I went to that experience with Team NZ and the whole thing. It was really interesting. I learned a lot about commerce, patriotism and what was real and what was crap. On the one hand we’re coming in after losing, after the stick snapped, and these people on the wharf are waving their flags and stuff, and I’m going ‘If they weren’t doing that they’d be watching tele and eating KFC’, so it’s gotta be good for the country in a way. There was some part of me that felt… it’s like all sports, people get mad about sport and I can personally take it or leave it but I can understand how people invest their identity in their sport teams. That’s a global phenomenon really. It stops us ripping each other’s throats out, although in rugby anything goes.
I’m sure I’ve heard more than a couple of politicians say that ‘Loyal’ is their favourite song.
Yeah, well that’s scary. Key said that.
Obviously, there’s an advantage that everyone knows it but it’s also kind of unassailable. People just read that as a love of country.
Sure but there’s another side to that too. Should we get into one of these? What’s your poison?
[we open a Garage Project BEER]
I actually asked Sam what I should ask you, and he said I should ask you about Brian Eno.
You talked a little bit about how people will have misconceptions about the music you’re interested in. Brian Eno would probably fall into that category in a lot of ways.
Yeah he would! For me, he’s kind of normal. He’s always pushing the edge and I’ve been used to it. I’ve been very moved by and motivated by his craft and artistic reinvention and everything. His whole approach sonically is brilliant and lovely and I’ve just had such affection for it. With every record he’s always surprised and I kind of like that oblique strategies idea that he has and the way it works and the way it motivates musicians.
If you look at the musicians he’s had on every record, especially some of my favourites like Here Come The Warm Jets, that was my introduction to him. I had that record playing over and over, and at the same time, that same year, I had Randy Newman. Randy Newman’s ‘Sail Away’ was going for a while, and then back to back with Brian Eno. Some of those early Roxy records too. Not the later ones. Not the tame Avalon‘s, but the really confronting stuff.
The first time I turned up to work with Sam and Luke from The Phoenix Foundation, I was wearing a Brian Eno t-shirt so they knew they could trust me. And within five minutes I told Sam I hated cricket! He bolted to the door and he said, ‘get out!’
Then we got into musical tastes and stuff. There’d be these clashes occasionally like when I said, ‘What about Steely Dan?’ And they’d say ‘No!’ ‘What about ELO?’ and they’d say ‘yes!’ They’re huge ELO nuts. I hated ELO at the time but I understand it now. But we definitely had Brian Eno in common, and we still do. If you want to learn, he’s the master.
A lot of what people do when they’re making records is finding a way to distort it so it sounds musically interesting. It’s all about distortion. Wow, Eno’s the boss there. The people around him like Robert Fripp are all masters of that craft, masters of distortion and how to use it musically. That’s the part that people relate to emotionally.
What do you mean by that?
Well in some regards it’s mathematical because it’s dirt. But it comes down to quite a scientific thing where the third octave of harmonics is accentuated or not. Second octave, first octave, second octave. A certain group of harmonics that ring in the human ear and the human heart have a direct analog connection that’s really moving. Now, a lot of people understand that and I think Eno very much understood. And a lot of those avant-garde artists did too, regardless of how infused in the mainstream Eno’s legacy has become, it came from an avant-garde place and scientifically figuring out the structure of what was going on and kind of bringing it down to some kind of minimalism and then going from there.
He went through ambient music to explore that very thing and use diodes and triodes and these valve technologies. Rudimentary speakers on bits of 4×2 all around the listener. Just whacky ways of getting distortion basically. Then those are the things that puts the really attractive fur on that tickles the ears and the human heart. It just gets in deeper. Something like ‘Becalmed’ on Another Green World, that’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. It just hits all the buttons. It hurt! It’s kind of like a psycho-acoustic thing. It’s a relationship, a mathematical relationship. So you kind of understand that instinctually. You can analyse it till the cows come home but that’s the reality. He knows scientifically how that works but he also knows intuitively. He always says he’s not a musician but that’s bullshit. He’s a musician.
I used to own a bar and was very into those Eno pop records, but we used to play the ambient records to get people out and let them know we were closed.
I guess it would’ve been alright for people on ecstasy at the end of a night’s dancing!
I feel like I enjoyed that aspect of them, but I feel like I also never understood them until I had a baby and I listened to a lot of ambient music because I needed that calm in my life. But it’s amazing that it works!
It works in a very precise way. It’s all-encompassing and it alters the mood of the room.
Like Music for Airports in actual airports.
That’s just kind of a loving place for it really, because airports are the cruelest places in the world. Apart from the frontline in a war, I think airports are the most harrowing experience anyone has to go through!
There’s that kind of thing, like, music with a purpose. But do you think about what your music’s doing to people?
I’ve always had that battle between what moves me and satisfies me, there’s a point at where you can be trapped by the responsibility of coming up with something. It’s got to move on another level where it’s beyond… you can have all the goals in the world as to what you want your music to do, you can have all the aspirations, but the very question of it is kind of selfish. So you just have to do it, you just have to work, and then discover or rediscover what moves you in order to be vulnerable enough to come up with something that surprises you and then makes you excited about it.
Putting something together as beautiful as you can make it. Or as angry as you can make it! So if it moves you, you have to put that movement into something that you know is going to move other people. And if you don’t know that, you’re kind of just pissing in the wind really. In order to know what you’re doing and to know what the craft’s about and stuff, you have to continually listen. Really listen. I guess that’s why I distract myself with all this other stuff. This stuff about politics and how people are living and all that sort of stuff.
I used to travel through the country and I guess it was a party as it is in your youth. Your worldview and your vision is pretty narrow. The older you get the more you actually savour the accidents and what’s happening along the way. I’m always attracted to how people are living and how people cope and how they can still have hope when this is happening or this is happening.
Those things fascinate me. So a big part of it is, how do you comfort a heart like that? How do you keep that heart broken? I’ve always had this thing where unless a heart’s been broken, it’s not fully a heart. It’s not grown up. So you kind of have to nestle in this area that’s not smarmy but is moving. It moves. So that’s where you put the hours in, I think. That’s what I said about somebody coming out with something and it drives you crazy. It won’t go away. Those tend to be the songs that will move people. You kind of get lost in the process sometimes. Then by the time you’ve done it, you go, ‘Whoa, I’m really proud of that. But I don’t know what’s going to happen!’
You’ve talked about going from ‘Be Mine’ and getting this little speaker and transmitting over the radio, you could obviously hear this was going to sound good on the radio. Is it always like that when you’ve got a hit?
No. Sort of an accident but I knew ‘Slice of Heaven’ would be a hit. There’s just something about it that’s so unusual for the time.
Because of the hook?
That’s it. You just ride that hook and you can’t lose. And it was the same year that Graceland‘s been out, so I knew that incorporating singing and working with the Herbs would be a good idea. Because I wanted those voices like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That’s what I wanted. That’s what inspired me. And I had the hook and the, so I just piled as many hooks as I could onto those three chords. Then it became about nine chords. It’s really quite complicated the way that song is put together.
But it’s like Graceland too, right? It’s very complicated but it sounds quite simple.
Yeah it sounds real easy and sing along-y, but it’s actually really complicated the way it’s put together and challenging for every musician. I mean I was writing it on a sampling keyboard so there were instruments where things were out of range for people to actually play it. They couldn’t play the bass because it was too deep, so we had to do it all synthetically. Plus I was working on the soundtrack so I’d just discovered all this technology and been well coached in it and was using samplers a lot. So the core of that song was written on a sampler, the Emulator. Great instrument. Five-inch floppy disc, ‘this will take a while’ it says on this little tiny screen, and it did!
But it was worth it. I fell asleep one night at the controls and it was on a Christmas Eve. I was working on movie stuff, trying to get a certain sting working and I’d already been working for hours and hours so I basically just blacked out, fell over and hit my ear on the mixing desk. I had this sort of knob-sized hole in my ear, and I was bleeding like a stuck pig! I woke up and there was blood everywhere. I go to see my girl and I say ‘I bonked me bonce’ and she looks at me and it’s like a horror film. There’s blood all over me. But I listened back to what I’d done the next day and it was really good! I shed blood over it, you know!
So what’s the opposite? What’s a hit that surprised you?
‘Welcome Home’. And ‘Loyal’.
I just thought it [‘Welcome Home’] would be something that would slip into the vernacular and would fulfil a purpose. There was Ahmed Zaoui at the time, there’s sort of all this accidental stuff that happened around it that propelled it into what it was doing, and what it was going to do, and once I realised that I thought, ‘Shit! It’s bigger than I thought it would be!’ I got a lot of flack for getting Ahmed Zaoui on stage singing.
It was all about immigration and ‘Welcome Home’ was inspired by an anti-racist march in Christchurch where all these neo-Nazis were taunting the anti-racists, who were fresh citizens, saying ‘we’re citizens, we belong here’, and that really moved me. The police were kind of protecting the neo-Nazis while the marchers went on and I thought ‘oh, the world’s upside down!’
I know that in Māoritanga and Pacific life, things are memorialised and they’re singing goodbye and welcome all the time. So I knew we needed a welcome song. I was motivated to write something and I thought I needed a benchmark. My benchmark was a song that always moved me as a kid, I would cry for no reason if I heard ‘Now Is The Hour’, either in English or te reo.
I would milk it in my head. I would have all these harmonies and sad chords happening within me as a listener when I heard that melody. Then having these frozen black and white images of people saying goodbye to their sons as they head off to war, stuff like that. Stuff that’s completely out of my generation but really affected me as a kid. Because it was so reinforced on all the newsreels before the movies and stuff, I’d just eat that kind of history up.
There was one song I wrote called ‘Palace’ and it was about the Civic, which I love, a temple of my youth in a way. We used to go there and then before they’d show Looney Tunes or anything like that, they’d show Hitler at the Bunker, you know, in Berlin, smoking a cigar and standing by the ruins. It was stuff that was totally anachronistic but they played it. These weird little mini docos that the British made or the French made. So you’d watch all this stuff and it just really affected me. It was a weird place to be and so all that stuff like ‘Now Is The Hour’, that fed into the writing of ‘Welcome Home’.
You said you needed a benchmark. Is that part of your process?
Well it’s good to have references. It’s so refreshing for me when I look at the life of certain artists like Francis Bacon or [David] Hockney or [Constantin] Brancusi, they would have these things. Maya Angelou, the American poet, she would play Patience as part of her writing process. Francis Bacon had photographs and spread all the photographs around so that they fed what he had to do because he always thought he was not a very good draftsman of the human form so he needed all these things to help him with his craft. I love that, and I was reassured by that. You have a process, something that’s almost a distraction, just to help motivate what comes next. Angelou would play Patience and then she’d go to the typewriter, and then she’d play Patience and go back to the typewriter. So it’s just part of her working day and I’m very much like that. I do New York Times crosswords. I’m really good at them [laughs]. I’ve learned to speak American.
To get the vocabulary?
Yeah I’m even misspelling things in American spelling. ‘Programme’ – what do you need the m-e for? But you also learn all this other stuff on the side. Cultural stuff, basketball players, who the senators for so and so are. But I love the accidental complexity of it all. It’s a bit like listening to Thelonius Monk or B-Bop jazz. Nobody’s singing at you with stuff so it’s a cerebral stimulant for what’s coming next. If you’re doing your email or something, that’s a good place to go. Beats commercial radio anyway.
[Dave coming back from the bathroom, inaudible:] I wish I could I could go [to the Silver Scrolls], I’d love to go to Dunedin for that. That’ll be choice. I hope ‘Horizon’ wins.
I think it’s an amazing song.
It’s incredible! But it’s so good to see all those songs, they’re all really great. But yeah, I really love that one. I’ve been a huge Nadia [Reid] advocate because she’s astonishing. But that ‘Horizon’ song just blows you out of the water.
It’s one of those songs that once you hear it you stop. Like ‘what’s this?’
Yeah. It’s all the proof you need, really. It’s perfect in its simplicity. And I would say that about Nadia’s stuff as well. And Bic’s stuff. It’s all cool. I wish I was there. It’s so joyously good to see people coming through who are fully formed. Aldous, Marlon, Delaney, man I could go on. They’re fully-formed artists and they’re free. They’re the art and they’re doing beautiful work. The rest of it’s just down to taste, really, for the public at least. To me, it speaks to the thriving thing. It’s unrecognisable from what it was years ago. And I’m so glad it’s in Dunedin where it should be because so much great music came out of there that the rest of the world actually noticed. In a big way, they noticed it. I can’t wait for the Chills doco. I just think it’s perfect, it’s really good. I hope they don’t fuck it up [laughs].
By the time The Clean etc was happening, you were well established.
We were those pain in the arse rockers with the high Italian boots and the makeup and the white hair.
The pop music establishment. What did all that stuff seem like to you at the time?
Oh wonderful. Really enjoyed it. We were really supportive. For some reason we were often on the bill. It was really weird; Th’Dudes and Toy Love, we were just on the bill all the time so we kind of got to know those guys. There was one time we were playing Orewa of all places, in a paddock, and Chris [Knox], the wonderfully obtuse character that he is, we got on well because I loved his pop songs and he loved my pop songs so there was this mutual respect. But because we were on the bill so much together, we’d always look at each other and go ‘Why are we on the same bill?’ ‘I don’t know but we are.’
He came to get me one time – in these days I was only about seven and a half stone, addicted to meth and pretty much a rock’n’roll animal. He came up and got me, picked me up from the grass. I’d been watching his set and right at the end of his set he comes out and grabs me and sort of cradles me like a baby. Then drags me up to the stage and sort of delivers me onto the stage and then kept singing his song. I’m lying on the stage and Toy Love are playing and it’s just fantastic.
I really enjoyed it, it was such a lovely thing. He just made me laugh and he had this great sense of showmanship even though it would be masquerading as something else, it was definitely show biz. I was part of it for that day and I’ll never forget it. Even when they were The Enemy we played with them at the Windsor so we always had this close association and that was kinda the Dunedin connection. The other guys we’d just run into on the road, in house bars in various places we were travelling. There was always this salute of camaraderie and I think a mutual respect for pop songwriting. There was no sense of us and them. They were gracious about things and we were gracious about things. There was never any malevolence there, I love that.
They’re veterans of a great age of change and we were all in that same age together. Don’t forget it was Muldoon era and Springbok tour and a very divided country. There were a lot of bands on the road and we were all playing those big pubs and little pubs and whatnot. It was a thriving circuit so you mix with all kinds of people. It didn’t matter that your music was different, it just mattered that we were doing it.
This year The Clean are getting into the hall of fame at the Silver Scroll awards. For a different project I was talking to Martin Phillips and I asked him at the time about The Clean. They were the first band of that group to sell records and get on the charts. He said one of the things that’s lost that you don’t see in the rearview mirror is that The Clean had toured so much so when they had a record out, they hadn’t just played Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. They’d played everywhere in the country.
For weeks on end.
So if a few people in each place bought a record, that’s a lot of records.
It is, and it’s a lot of people through the door as well. A couple bucks on the door, two bucks for a jug – a glass one at that, proper – and the venues were going off and the local promoters were creaming it. But more than that, the pubs were cleaning it up, they were selling a lot of booze. The police were happy because people would all turn up for the live music gig and they’d all be in one place and all the fights happened in the carpark and they would calm down in no time. The police would let it fizzle out and then people would go home and stop.
It’s not like these days when it’s sort of a crime to go out and see a live band. I just can’t wait until those cars are completely automatic because that’ll usher in a whole new era of live music I think. But I agree, those guys and us at the time, we were playing so much that we were getting really good at playing. So by the time we got to make records and stuff, we were pretty good at it. You could hear that on The Chills’ stuff. I just heard ‘Pink Frost’ before and it’s a great production, you know, it’s a four track tape. It’s like The Doors, they used to record four track.
We were playing so much that we were getting really good at playing, so by the time we got to make records, we were pretty good at it. You can hear that on ‘Pink Frost’, I just heard that, and it’s a great production. It’s a four-track tape, it’s like The Doors, they used to record four-track. Some of the best recordings ever made were Doors records and they made them a four-track just like Chris Knox’s four-track, and they did the craft really well. They crafted it really well, and there is nothing in the process that blocked the vibe of that music. It’ll never die as a result. It’s the spirit of it, it’s just so cool. That’s what I love about it. I always think that it’s like you can play with the feel of a track.
There’s a David Kilgour song and the chorus goes ‘You need a rubber soul’, and I just love that. It’s so good. It’s such a good record because it’s not over thought, it’s just pure song, and you take it to the guys, record it, and that’s it. It’s very powerful, very much like Velvet Underground or Lou Reed and that aesthetic of just delivering it. It’s an event in itself. I love that aesthetic, it works great, and you can see how completely anti-industry it is. The more I see that word industry the smaller I see the rewards and the more I see the quotes as very large.
There’s obviously a kinship of musicians of your generation with maybe people like SJD and then people like Sam and Luke, those guys were both on the Neil Finn record, that’s somewhat intergenerational.
It is, and it’s really good. I like it. You never really know what’s going to happen next. But that experience with Sam and Luke was fantastic. To be able to witness their experience and their process and be a part of it through all those Phoenix records which I love. And there’s also so much we had in common, you know? That’ll never go away. We’re still friends really.
But the pisser is that I lost a few people along the way, they died, you know? And I loved working with them, they were great people to work with, but they carked it. So you’ve gotta find other people, but there’s a certain intimacy you get when you’re making a record with anybody that puts you on a trajectory that is very intimate. So you’re serving the process and feeding it and you develop these relationships and then you’ve got to sort of click back into your life and that’s the hard part for me. Going between making the art and having a family life and a good balance. By nature it just isn’t that way.
Thankfully, my kids grew up knowing that I wasn’t always away. That’s really cool. Now we travel a lot, my wife and I, we’re just about to go up to Passchendaele and Amsterdam and London and Hong Kong on the way back. And that all feeds songs too, I’m always open for that, you might have a weekend in London or something and you devour some art and some culture and some really great journalism and reviews and shows.
How self-conscious of your position as a sort of –
I try not to be…
– as part of the establishment of New Zealand pop music… is that something you have to force yourself not to think about?
In a way yeah. When I’m doing the work I just forget about all of that and it just doesn’t matter. I take a very practical approach to that, in that it just doesn’t fucking matter. It’s the work that matters. But I’m grateful that somebody is moved by the song. It means the songs have done their work and I’ve done my job properly. That’s the only success that matters really. It really does. It’s that and then everything else beyond that is a kind of a nice surprise, you know?
But the main thing is to concentrate on the work and the movement of hearts. It really is. Any kind of art has to move you. If you look at something or experience something artistic and it makes you angry – great! You’ve been moved. Or maybe it makes you cry your eyes out – great! So it’s in that specialist area. My heroes were people like the Rolling Stones, Bowie, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, but also Talking Heads.
One of my favourite albums is Marquee Moon by Television, it’s just so good. It’s fully, beautifully formed, and everything about it, the guitar playing, the craft, is all fully there. There’s an elegance about that and an eloquence about that. I was talking about benchmarks, and you’ve gotta sort of go there, you’ve gotta be that good. So there’s always that. There’s always that which is far more interesting than looking at your own place in the pantheon in New Zealand of singers and songwriters. I don’t think about that. If it comes to being competitive, I’m only competing against really great songs and they’re few and far between.
When you’re amongst it, you want to do your best because it takes you out of yourself and puts you in the heart of it, witnessing other people. It’s like if you’re a photographer, and you’ve got all this gear, big zoom lenses and stuff, but what kind of photographer are you? Are you a sniper? Or are you someone who wants to witness and document human life? There’s a huge variety of photographers that you could be, it just comes down to your politics and your sense of art and craft and what not. So in the songwriting world, I would aspire to be a Magnum photographer of songwriting, but I’m not sure that I make the grade.
That is the closest analogy that I could use to explain it. You need to always be in the school of something in everything you do. You have to be, if you abandon that then you’re just making tribute albums to yourself. We don’t want that. And we don’t want any reunions. For me anyway, anybody else can do it, that’s great, but for me I don’t want that to be my living. I’m too busy doing other things.
From a consumer perspective, it seems like there’s more of that happening than usual. There’s something about the time that we’re in that’s very nostalgic.
The time that we’re in is pretty special though. The thrill for me is seeing people like Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams and a few other people, who go and do the hard slog, but there’s a presence online which sort of spreads the message kind of more rapidly than it used to. There’s still a lot of hard slog to do what you’ve gotta do, there always will be, it wouldn’t matter if you never leave town – you’ve still got to do a lot of work in some way. It just so happens for me that spreading the word generally involves touring New Zealand a lot. And then playing the expats overseas. I never broke into that other thing, whatever it might be, but there’s more chance of it these days because everyone can zero in on an artist.
So you mention there’s this group of youngish songwriters and from our perspective now they’ve made in the last year or two years a great record. But we don’t know who in 40 years time will have had a career. So you’re part of this handful of people that have had from the ’70s this lifetime career.
I still can’t believe that.
You’ve had commercial success which funds your ability to carry on, but then other people have had commercially successful records and dropped out. What’s the difference between the people who turn it into a life, and the people who did it when they were young?
I guess that’s both determination and a capacity to reinvent your approach each time I guess, and to embrace the quirkiness of what you do without thinking about it too much. Just trying to evolve what you do, and make it better each time. It’s also being able to read the signs. I knew at 18, I remember it consciously, I made the decision to do music and nothing else. That’s it. Rule one. And it worked. It worked. That part was providence because of what I said before – you’re mixing records to sell on AM radio and so we knew the craft really well, and that translated into jumping a few hoops in terms of getting a national audience. We once did 62 high schools at lunchtime, sponsored by the ANZ. We had our own three tonne Bedford truck and we’d turn up whenever and we’d play at schools. Sixty-two of them. I still get people coming up to me saying ‘I was there at Nelson College, lunchtime, here are my kids, my grandkids,’ and they’re right into it.
to our journalism!Find Out More
And that’s it. That’s your audience. So much of what you do is serving that audience and so many ways that are kind of invisible. It’s an invisible process because for me satisfying myself and satisfying that audience are one and the same. And challenging people with new songs and stuff, but still doing old songs and reinventing them each time, to give people a damn good night.
That’s the one that keeps you going. Luckily for me, and I’m very blessed by it, it’s an intergenerational thing, so there’s a momentum to that that you’ve just gotta carry on. Rather than lose your individuality in that process of serving an audience, you actually hone it and expose yourself to people with the language of song, and they keep coming back. They’re moved by it, and I get such a kick out of that. That validates what you do and it encourages you to write more that has the same outcome.
And incremental or otherwise, it’s there. You can measure that forward movement so it’s about feeding it with songs, it always comes down to feeding it with songs. It really does. You’ve just got to figure out the nature of the songs. Are they good songs for families to sing, for communities to sing, for two people to sing? Is this a protest song? Is it a singalong song? What kind of beast is it? The song will ultimately dictate what that is, not you, but that’s it. Therein lies the longevity of what you do. Otherwise I’d be sculpting or painting or… maybe I’d just be a bum.
This content is sponsored by Garage Project. Garage Project firmly believes that BEER can change the world, and brilliant journalism, like The Spinoff, needs to be championed and cherished. Writing is thirsty work, so we’re doing our bit to help, one beer at a time.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.