From a distant shore

Quand on arrive en Nouvelle-Zélande, on se sent forcément loin de chez soi.
“Arriving in New Zealand, you inevitably feel a long way from home.”

Charles Juliet – Auckland, août 2003

On the recommendation of a Twitter buddy, I’ve been reading Charles Juliet‘s Au pays du long nuage blanc: his journal of six months in New Zealand in 2003 while on a writer’s fellowship in Wellington.

Like all New Zealanders who are by nature slightly insecure about their nation’s reputation abroad, I was initially interested to see what an eminent French author thought of our country. Indeed, Juliet picks up on many of the usual kiwi tropes: the friendliness and informality of people, the centrality of rugby to the national narrative and the lack of insulation and heating in our houses.

The journal oscillates between observations of some of the remarkable aspects of life in New Zealand and reflections on Juliet’s own craft as a writer and poet. Descriptions of the weather constantly intervene, as one might expect given that Juliet spent a winter in Wellington!

Wellington, NZ – May 2008

Juliet spends much of his time exchanging with some of New Zealand’s notable intellectuals: Vincent O’Sullivan, Dame Fiona Kidman and Gordon Stewart among others. In particular he describes long lunchtime conversations with Chris Laidlaw, (broadcaster, diplomat, politician, academic and former All Black). Juliet also devotes many pages reflecting on his long-time admiration for Katherine Mansfield.

Juliet’s journal provided a personal connection too: when Juliet visits Auckland, it is at the invitation Professor Raylene Ramsay at Auckland University, who supervised my Honours dissertation! It was a curious experience to have the name of a personal acquaintance dropped into the middle of a book bought at FNAC Montparnasse.

Charles Juliet (Image: Léa Crespi, Télérama)

Despite the obvious pleasure Charles Juliet derives from his time in New Zealand, the journal is haunted by his awareness of the great distance that separates him from his homeland, France. And when Juliet finally leaves New Zealand in January 2004, he acknowledges that he will never return to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Au pays du long nuage blanc is an easy read (I finished it in just 2 days), and would be of interest to anyone who wants to explore strands of the relationship between France and New Zealand. It’s published by Gallimard in Folio for EUR5.60.

Finies ces longues errances
sous des ciels éteints
Finis ces combats truqués
Où j’étais toujours vaincu
Fini ce temps installé
Dans la misère du non
J’ai déposé le poids mort
qui obscurcissait ma vie
Long a été le chemin
qui m’a permis
de quitter mon enfance

Charles Juliet – Wellington, décembre 2003

Wyuna Bay, Coromandel Peninsula, NZ – June 2008

Fat Freddy’s Drop

Back in the 1980s, Tip Top Ice Cream advertised its Popsicle iceblocks with a group of animated pop stars, called the “Popsicle band” (a strawberry iceblock played drums, a negroid cola-block played bass etc etc). The Popsicle Band still exist as a marketing campaign, but their title as the “coolest band in the land” has well and truly been usurped by seven musicians from Wellington.

Fat Freddy’s Drop‘s first studio album Based on a True Story went seven times platinum in their home country in 2005. The band has made ripples elsewhere too, with props from DJs like Gilles Peterson and several sell-out tours to Europe under their belt (where tellingly it’s not just expat kiwis in Grey Lynn t-shirts turning up to gigs).

This week,  their second studio album Dr Boondigga and the Big BW got dropped into the pond, complete with right-on vintage Maori ghetto cover artwork by Otis Frizzell. The release is probably a small event in the global scheme of things, but pretty big news in New Zealand.

Fat Freddy’s Drop live at Zenith, Paris in 2008

Is the new album any good? The answer, at least to this pair of ears is: indubitably YES. The sound and approach is more mature, the tunes gel as an album. This is still the downbeat-electro-souljazz-dub-reggae of their previous efforts, but somehow all these dimensions have been pushed further out.

The horns are more in the pocket than ever, Mu‘s beats are deeper and fatter, the soul tunes sound like The Commodores remixed by Sly and Robbie at Parihaka. And perhaps as a recognition that the band now has a 9-year heritage, the horns make a sly reference on Wild Wind to the hook from their 2001 Live at the Matterhorn EP.

Points off? The opening hornline on The Nod which sounds so scarily tripletised when played live, loses some its impact in the studio. And lyrically, I’ve never been satisfied with the bands  “I want to wake up with the sunshine on my face/Yes let’s all live in peace and unity at the beach” themes. But Freddy’s is a dance band, so quibbles about Dallas‘ words are probably missing the point.

Mu at the Roundhouse, 2008 (Photo: Eric Wang)

Early reports indicate that the disc is flying off the shelves in New Zealand faster than the first album. It deserves to, because this is a better album than their studio debut. Pop industry forces will likely militate to ensure that this music doesn’t get as broad an international audience as it deserves, but most kiwis will be content with Fat Freddy’s Drop simply being the coolest band in the land.

You can hear the new album on their site, on theirspace and the album is available as mp3s or as a CD via amplifier.

Dallas Tamaira (Image: Eric Wang)

An Update from Home: Iva Lamkum

Ever get the feeling that the torch has well and truly passed to the next generation? When we were starting one million dollars back in 2001, Iva Lamkum was still at high school.

But today, Iva is fully-fledged solo artist from who seems to be following in the lineage of New Zealand contemporaries Ladi6 and Hollie Smith. Certainly her deep-throated soul-jazz style recalls somewhat both Hollie and Ladi.

Her 2008 single Kung Fu Grip plays on Iva’s Asian heritage (born in NZ, Iva is half-Chinese, half-Samoan), and is the centrepiece of a début EP that mines consistently popular characteristics of the New Zealand scene – live old-school beats, jazz, and an organic r+b/soul aesthetic.

Auckland producer/musician Andrew Spraggon featured Iva on Turn Around, a grack from the new Sola Rosa album Get it Together. If you want to know what the insides of an Auckland DJ’s record bag sound like, take a listen over on Bandcamp:

(A sidebar note: the trombone lick on Turn Around is played by Haydn Godfrey, an erstwhile one million dollars conspirator and one of a very few young professional trombonists in the NZ. He’s currently in Chicago studying with players from the Chicago Symphony.)



Of the all cities in New Zealand, I think Wellington is the one that has “got it together”. I’ve never been fortunate enough to live there, but every visit is enjoyable. It’s home to some great bands (not least among them OdESSA and Fat Freddy’s Drop), has public transport that actually works, and the downtown area is compact and walkable.

Lyall Bay

Indeed, the city is small enough that even visitors like me randomly bump into people that they know on the street. This time, it was outside Te Papa that I ran into Paddy, the first keyboard player in one million dollars. He seems to be doing well for himself these days.


You can eat very well in Wellington. There’s some great restaurants and cafes, all within walking distance. This time I only had 24 hours in town, but I managed dinner at Chow and a big cooked breakfast with Ben at Maranui Surf Club in Lyall Bay.

Luckily, the Wellingtonians don’t seem to suffer from this surfeit of super food. The city is full of hills, so everyone can keep fit. Like San Francisco or Hong Kong, some streets are so steep that they have been turned into flights of steps. Even the cats have to stop halfway up to catch their breath and admire the view.


Head Like A Hole

“Dude they played ****ing naked!”

It must have been about 1994. A mate of mine was telling me about an all-ages gig he’d been to at the Powerstation in Mount Eden in Auckland. The headline act was Head Like a Hole (HLAH). The gig was awesome, apparently, and the HLAH turned up onstage wearing nothing except their instruments. This seemed pretty hardcore to us.

Formed in Wellington in 1990, HLAH were an unvoidable feature of NZ music in the 1990s. It seemed they played every darn venue and festival, and drew larger and larger crowds each time. They started out as a straightforward Sabbath-style metal band, but by the mid-90s were scoring local hits with catchy anthems like Hootenanny and Spanish Goat Dancer:

Their fourth and last album HLAH IV demonstrated what an interesting band they could have become had they stayed together – exemplified by tracks like Maharajah and Comfortably Shagged.

They even out-Springsteened the Boss with their cover of I’m On Fire and shot a rooftop music video in central Wellington: probably the biggest event to happen in that town until Lord of the Rings started filming:

HLAH disbanded in 2000, but they left behind some happy and sweaty fans, and memories of riotously fun live shows that some think were the best ever by a NZ-based band.


Leila Adu

London-born and New Zealand-raised of Ghanaian heritage, Leila Adu is one of the most unique musical voices to emerge in the New Zealand scene in the past few years.

Leila’s 2003 debut album Dig a Hole is worth checking out, even though it sneaked in below the radar of most listeners even in this country. The university-trained songwriter and composer is now an established player around Wellington, and it is with colleagues from the windy city that she recorded her second album Cherry Pie: saxophonist Jeff Henderson, drummer Riki Gooch (ex Trinity Roots), bassist Tom Callwood and guitarist David Long.

Cherry Pie
is certainly one of the most underrated and undersung releases out of NZ this year, and it’s unlikely that you’ve heard anything quite like this. If there is ever a CD that could be described as a “grower” this is it!

Leila Adu – Bokoo
Leila Adu – Train
From Cherry Pie: Independent HEN 712 [Buy]

In radio news, our public broadcaster Radio New Zealand has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century with streaming and on-demand audio in .wma and .mp3 – unfortunate that none of RNZ’s kiwi music programmes are available online yet !

And Abdel Bari Atwan sounds a cautionary note about the BBC’s plans for an Arabic language TV channel. Lets hope that the Beeb doesn’t become yet another conduit for propaganda….

Funny Kiwis

Sometimes you just have to show a bit of pride in your fellow countrymen. Flight of the Conchords is a musical comedy duo from Wellington. They rightly claim the title of New Zealand’s 4th most popular folk parody act, and here they are blowing up all over the world. An HBO special, sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and now, they’ve even been on Conan O’Brien.

They are not only very funny, they are also very fine musicians. Their David Bowie “song” is one of the best things I’ve ever heard live on stage. And Brett McKenzie played/plays in The Black Seeds, who are world famous in New Zealand.

I seriously recommend you download/watch their Conan appearance [.avi file, 22MB]

And make these guys superstars, please. We need more entertainment heroes in this country beyond Peter Jackson and Chris Knox.

Kiwi kids are Weet-Bix kids.

Jeff Henderson: Darn Bureaucrats

New Zealand may seem like a couple of tiny, inauspicious islands to find interesting and inspiring improvised music, but there are lively enclaves of madness, bloody-mindedness and sheer tenacity in Wellington and Auckland. And if you play the “Six Degrees of Separation” game with the players in both cities, just about everything leads back to Wellington saxophonist Jeff Henderson.

Although Jeff’s main WMD is an atomic-powered baritone sax, he is also heard on alto sax, bells, whistles and, increasingly, hilarious polylingual vocalisations. Jeff has been a member of comet-busting groups such as the Ortiz Funeral Directors, Syzygy and Birchville Cat Motel, and is the creative force behind progressive “freak magnet” performance venues in Wellington. Jeff has made an enormous contribution in the past decade to expanding free improv in NZ to the point where it is arguably a far more vital, populous and interesting scene than anything happening with our straightahead jazz community.

Jeff’s solo performances are shock-and-awe projections of force into hostile territory. Fans of Peter Brötzmann will find a lot to like in these selections. All three mp3s are available for download under a Creative Commons license from Postmoderncore.

Jeff Henderson – fuck you you bureauratic fucks (parts 1 and 2)
Jeff Henderson – A

Don’t mess with Mr Henderson

TrinityRoots: Kia Kaha My Friend

TrinityRoots – Touches Me
From Home Land and Sea: Independent/TR03 [Buy]

TrinityRoots – Just Like You
From True: Independent/TR02 [Buy]

Warren Maxwell (g, keys, vox), Rio Hemopo (b) and Riki Gooch (d) were TrinityRoots. Together, they formed the single most important popular musical group to emerge from New Zealand in the past 15 years. From their formation in Wellington in 1999 through to their final gig in February 2005, they were the standard bearers in our country for great songs, even better live shows and unselfconscious virtuosity . Their sound is soul embedded in humility.

But enough superlatives. TrinityRoots released just two albums in their career, and I’ve selected one song from each.

Just Like You has a particular story behind it – it was recorded around a campfire (that’s the crackling you can hear) on a farm in the middle of the North Island – late in the evening of 11th September, 2001 New Zealand time. Just a few hours before the terrible events that unfolded on the East Coast of the United States.

Fat Freddy’s Drop: Marauders

Fat Freddy’s Drop – Midnight Marauders
Fat Freddy’s Drop – Roady
From Live at WOMAD 2003 [Bootleg!]

Aotearoa. New Zealand. There’s 4 million of us at the bottom of the world, and some of us even play music.

So I’ll share a few examples of what we kiwis get up to when we get down. Wellington band Fat Freddy’s Drop has been around for almost five years. Reggae. Hip-Hop. Jazz. Dub. Dancehall. It’s all in their mix somewhere. Although they’ve just released their first full-length album this month, I’ve chosen a genuine (so-rare-I-know-everyone-who-has-a-copy) bootleg of their March 2003 gig at WOMAD in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

A perfect time-capsule of a great day out in the sun. If you want to hear more, listen to Gilles Peterson’s BBC show online, or buy their album Based on a True Story online.

Never let your love run cold.