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Photo: Gemma Gracewood
Photo: Gemma Gracewood

Pop CultureDecember 7, 2022

Hamish was a million sparks in the dark – goodbye to an unforgettable friend

Photo: Gemma Gracewood
Photo: Gemma Gracewood

Hamish Kilgour wasn’t just a creative genius and musical legend. He was a generous, sensitive friend to a great many, writes Gemma Gracewood.

People don’t just drop round for tea in New York. Arrangements are made weeks in advance, mostly to meet somewhere outside our small apartments, to escape the cramp and have someone else do the dishes. So whenever the doorbell rang unexpectedly in Windsor Terrace, we knew it was either the postman, or Hamish. 

“He was there from the start,” writes Grant Robertson in his tribute to our friend Hamish Robert Kilgour. I met Hamish somewhere in the middle, while working with his friend Chris Knox. Like so many fans of Flying Nun bands, I’d seen him play in the Clean plenty, and bought an HRK original artwork at an Arc Cafe exhibition in Dunedin, and watched someone, maybe Robert Scott, wrestle him off stage one night at San Fran in Wellington when he would. Not. Stop. Drumming. 

When I pitched up in New York in 2010, Hamish came with the furniture. Literally: he’d often be on the bench seat outside The Pie Shop, my husband Gareth’s café in our Brooklyn ’hood, with or without guitar, holding court with a collection of neighbours—musicians and art workers, New Zealanders and not—who all became fast friends. He painted the walls of the café. He painted the walls of apartments and houses all over New York. He painted the whole damn town. 

Hamish with Bailter Space’s Brent McLachlan and pies in Brent’s Manhattan studio (Photo: Gemma Gracewood)

New York life could be relentless, a monster land with all the ups and all the downs, but he always found slices of joy and someone to have a cuppa with. We partied in the park with our kids and his small family witnessed our shotgun wedding on Hallowe’en. Among many magical, spontaneous moments, Hamish took me to see Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West at the Met during an icy Christmas-New Year. He knew exactly what he was doing for a homesick, grieving friend who needed to see a strange colonial opera about lonely goldminers. We stood in the cheap seats. There were real horses on stage. 

The snow started falling as we emerged onto Lincoln Square. “New York does this, just when you need it most,” he said. 

Almost every person Hamish met will have a story or ten just like this. They are as much a part of the portrait as his fêted public achievements, because Hamish had a way of meeting people right where they were, “his heart on his sleeve worn draped across him like one of his scarves,” writes musician Edward Gains. 

Ed Gains and Hamish on tour together in 2019 (Photo: Stuart Page)

“He was a joy to watch play,” says his American record label Merge. He was a joy to play with, too, always up for a gig and so generous with his talents. I’d tell him about some nutty cabaret night I was on the bill for and he’d invite himself along to play. At one rockabilly Christmas show, Hamish jumped on stage after our set to join fellow New Zealanders Labretta Suede & the Motel 6, sparking a deep, immediate bond. “He had such a special magic when it came to collaborating,” Labretta says. “He would pop up at many of our shows all over the globe.” 

Cortina’s Bek Coogan, who once played drums for Hamish when he traveled across Melbourne to support her other band Full Fucking Moon, remembers: “I was beyond honoured. Couldn’t believe this rock legend was gonna come and play at our gig… It was all mysterious and real at the same time.”

Mysterious and real. So many stories over so many years from so many who were quietly empowered by his free-handed nature, which undoubtedly took him far, and often, from home. Five decades’ worth of musicians who felt emboldened by Hamish to take up an instrument, who birthed important songs from a casual Kilgour jam, who had his laughter-filled percussion on their recordings (please listen to Tiny Ruins’ spine-tingling Hurtling Through EP). 

Hamish and Hollie Fullbrook / Tiny Ruins (Photo: Supplied)

Joe Blossom reminded me of the time Hamish lent his metronomic swagger to the Wellingtonian’s solo shows in Williamsburg. It went both ways: Leila Adu laughs about him “calling me up a couple hours before to come play a show as if it was planned. Hamish worked that way even if New York usually doesn’t.” Of course she played the show. “I played every time he asked me. Hamish embodied infinite creative energy.” 

Edward Gains writes of Hamish volunteering for the drummer’s seat on a New Zealand tour, when Gains’ band had broken up and he had to carry on alone as Hamish’s support act. Hamish told Ed to play with him in the main set, too. “I’m not very good and I don’t know the songs,” said Ed. “It doesn’t matter,” said Hamish. 

It never mattered, how well or what you played. Hamish was the very opposite of a music snob; he just wanted people to do their thing. It’s how a whole scene got started. To perform with him was to feel held and uplifted by his fluid, idiosyncratic beat. He nudged us all a little closer to the footlights, a kind man in a mad scene that often threw up barriers to its newcomers, and that still doesn’t know how to care for its elders. 

Hamish and Gemma, supporting Don McGlashan at a private show in the East Village (Photo: Supplied)

“Sometimes it’s hard being awesome,” says Bek, adding: “Ideals have stressful economic realities.” Labretta agrees: “It’s a complicated playground, the music world, especially for those of us with tender and sensitive artist temperaments.” 

Hamish has been a constant beat, a million sparks in the dark. It’s not right to be writing this. Love to all the broken hearts, to all he loved and all who have loved him. 

Do your thing, and answer that doorbell when it rings.

Keep going!