Hard News by Russell Brown


The GCSB and the consequences of mass surveillance

Fewer whistleblowers, more corruption, less stability.

That's the assessment of longtime Pacific journalist Jason Brown of the impact of the revelation that the GCSB has been conducting "full take" collection of communications in Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and other Pacific nations since 2009.

"It creates fear. We live in small communities," he said on Media Take last night. "The advent of email was actually, we thought, a bit of a boon in that we could communicate within our communities without actually having to meet anyone ... that small-town thing of everyone knowing what you're doing and people being very sensitive to being critical of the government. So we thought email was great.

"Now that the knowledge is out there, the number of whistleblowers, people who leak us information, is probably going to drop a bit, if it hasn't already, because they know that they're being watched ...

"More corruption is an inevitable result. It's difficult enough getting stories in the Pacfiic when you're working in these small communities. And everyone's rightfully concerned for their jobs. If there's more corruption there's less stability. And that's even going to have a long-term effect on New Zealand."

He also pointed out that there's limited scope for journalists working in the Pacific to protect their communications – it's not a technically sophisticated environment. The New Zealand Herald's David Fisher confirmed in the same discussion that he generally operates on the assumption that he is under surveillance and takes "reasonably straightforward" precautions as a result.

So why should we care?

"There's a very fundamental issue for me that sits behind this," said Fisher. "And it's about being told about it, and about having the opportunity to be involved with the debate about it. If you go on the GCSB website and look at what they say their work is, it's about protecting New Zealand from foreign threats, and about the danger that's posed from this increasingly complex world.

"If you hear the Prime Minister talk about it, he talks about the threat from orgaisations like IS or other forms of Islamic terror. The examples we've seen so far aren't anything of that nature. We had a big debate as a country through 2013 about the new spy laws that were being put in place ... how do you as a society have a debate about these things if we're not being informed about them?"

You can see an extended version of last night's Media Take discussion with Jason Brown and the New Zealand Herald's David Fisher here on the Maori Television website.

And you can also see the show as broadcast, which features a fiery debate between Dr Leonie Pihama and Northland artist Lester Hall on the topic of cultural appropriation.


Friday Music: An unforced craft

Last Friday night, my friend texted to say her friend wanted to know what album she should buy "right now" – and my first thought was two albums that weren't quite out.

The first was Saint John Divine, the new album from SJD, which is, happily, released today. I've been enjoying this record for a while now and I can happily say that it's a rich, complex  and organic work.

It's also completely different to Sean Donnelly's last album, the Taite Prize-winning Elastic Wasteland. That record, with its shades of krautrock, was really a solo album and was played live as such, with varying degrees of success. It was dark, electric and, above all, tense.

That anxiety seems wholly absent from Saint John Divine. The theme is maybe captured in 'Little Pieces', the duet with Julia Deans, which contrives to sound happy about, or at least accepting of, the sea of human troubles in which we all swim.

Musically, I wonder if this album began in the little midweek show Sean played at the Portland Public House after Elastic Wasteland had done its dash. He fronted with just an acoustic guitar, sang his songs and seemed happy as anything to be doing so.

The next time I saw Sean play was at the 2014 Taite Prize ceremony as  the immediate past winner – so just under a year ago – and he turned up with a full live band. He also played a new song. I think I may have tweeted something to the effect that the new SJD song sounded like 'Sweet Jane'.

That was, of course, the first song to emerge from the album, 'I Wanna Be Foolish', another song about making the best of it, which is all about its organic sounds: the opening strum of a guitar, the splash of a cymbal, the thick pop vocal harmony, a chorus that sounds like a party with friends. It's hard to think of anyone else who would craft a song like this.

Much of the record's character stems from this kind of easy sonic richness, and the foregrounding of different instruments in service of the songs. The first sound on it is the first line of Sean's dreamy vocal on the opening 'I Saw the Future', which unfolds with a string section, background keyboards, a guitar delay. The key sound on the lovely 'Unplugged' is the soft, subtly insistent drumming. The warmth that Neil Finn's Roundhead studio can bring to a record is very well harnessed here.

There are a couple of lesser tracks – 'Catseyes' and 'Change the Channel' don't feel as realised as some of the others, although it's kind of cool that the latter sounds like Al Stewart.

It may be that Sean's work will always be a little too strange to reach the Mumford and Sons-loving masses, and it doesn't sound to me like this album will spawn any big advertising sync deas like Songs from a Dictaphone did, but this is a lovely record, made with a craft that seems both careful and unforced. 

You can buy Saint John Divine for $15 on BandcampI think you'll like it.

Note: I hear (from Angus McNaughton, who mastered it) that the vinyl version of Saint John Divine sounds brilliant, which makes sense, given its nature. If you like your wax, you might want that.


Anyway, it turned out that the Courtney Barnett album, Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit, was already in the shops a few days before its official release, so I went and got that. I'm still working through it, but the same thing as is obvious from her live shows occurs here – she's in the best traditions of Aussie rock. I hear echoes of The Triffids, the Hoodoo Gurus, lots of things. What makes her different, of course, is her words. As she once sang, "I much prefer the mundane", and her way of conjuring with the everyday is something remarkable. Apart from the two singles, 'Depreston' and the blazing 'Pedestrian at Best', it's not exactly a collection of hits – the last track, 'Boxing Day Blues', is 15 minutes of lonely, shimmering melancholy – but I think I'll be playing this quite a lot.

It's seems quite the week for unusual songwriters, because Anthonie Tonnon's Successor is also out. I thought the 'Water Underground' single was a real step up for Tonnon's narrative-and-character-rich songwriting, and the album confirms that. Throughout, he fits unexpected ideas – I'm counting at least two songs about local government – into classic guitar pop settings (I take I'm not the only one getting a bit of Morrissey flavour from 'Sugar in the Petrol Tank'). You can buy the album for a more-than-reasonable $12.50 for the digital download on Bandcamp, and pre-order the vinyl for only $30.

You could also read Hadyn Donnell's excellent Pantograph Punch story on what makes Tonnon tick. Among other things, it offers a background to the Ecan theme of 'Water Underground'.

The five-and-a-half minute epic might be Successor’s most moving song, and it’s technically about irrigation.

The song has its origins in 2009, when Tonnon was writing for the Otago student paper Critic. He was assigned to interview Environment Minister Nick Smith about upcoming climate change talks at Copenhagen. Tonnon claims he saw through Smith, but his producer Pearce sees it differently. “He was probably trampled by Nick Smith. Because of Nick Smith being a bit of a PR genius in his own sick, weirdo way,” he says. “I think Tono learned a hell of a lot from that exchange. I think that’s a story that’s never really left Tono and I think he’s been observing Nick Smith ever since. And by the time it comes time to write this song he’s just got this massive picture of this man.”

The following year, Smith pulled the most dazzling stunt of his long political career, and that’s where the song begins.

Anthonie Tonnon plays an album launch show at the King's Arms tomorrow night.

Another new album I haven't been able to get my head around yet – there's work and there's cricket lately – is Death and the Maiden's self-titled debut on Dunedin's Fishrider Records. But I like what I hear so far of their atmospheric pop music and note that they have their album release show at Wammy Bar tonight.


NZ On Air has made a really savvy move in hiring recruiting former Kiwi FM host Charlotte Ryan to curate an Alt & Indie playlist on Spotify. Good curation and being where the listeners are are both important to NZ On Air's mandate in the digital music environment, and this works.


Unknown Mortal Orchestra's 'Multi-Love' is a beguiling pop song that bodes well for the album of the same name due to land on May 26. In the meantime, there's a new video:

UMO also note that:

Multi-Love is a not only a video, but a playable interactive environment. You can explore manipulate the world from the video on your computer by downloading these files:
Mac: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLmac
PC: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLpc
Unity Pro Source File: http://smarturl.it/UMOMLunity

I had a go. It's quite fun, although I did have to visit my Security preferences to get it to run as a file from an unregistered developer.


Of note on Audioculture this week:

Gary Steel does a nice job of setting The Spines in context

And Roger Watkins writes about his groundbreaking books When Rock Got Rolling, about Wellington's rock 'n roll history, and Hostage To The Beat, which covers "the Auckland scene" from 1955 to 1970.

Also, some local music that had seriously disappeared down the memory hole: New Zealand electronic music from the early 1980s. Matthew Talbot's Christchurch-based Lingering Sound art-music label has remastered the two releases from Mary Briefcase (whose name I do vaguely recall) on the unfortunately-named New Age label. Some of it sounds like this:

You can buy the remastered release here, either as digital download or as a cassette-and-digital bundle.


Yowza. Another great John Morales edit for free download – in the case of the first new Chic song in decades. If you dance in your kitchen tonight, dance to this ...

Another wistful Drake cover from Lontalius:

And finally, over on TheAudience, there are a few tracks by the strange-in-a-good-way Wellington folk band Fuyoko's Fables, including this one:

I might be a bit late to this, but rather like it. You can find out more about them on their Tumblr.


The Phoenix Foundation have got together and recorded a song for the Black Caps! Today!


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Friday Music: After Kiwi

It is no slight on those who have worked there to say that Kiwi FM – which, it was announced today, will close at the end of the month – was born and lived in somewhat odd circumstances.

Its birth was principally the consequence of an accomodation between a commercial radio industry that was prepared to swallow a few dead rats if it meant fending off the dreaded prospect of a youth radio network, and a Labour government that wanted to show it had achieved something.

Thus, with a symbolic flourish, Helen Clark herself announced the launch of Kiwi FM on Waitangi Day 2005. The new station replaced Mediaworks' much-loved Channel Z, which had withered since the company shunted it onto a less powerful frequency to make room for The Edge. It is not to deny the goodwill of many of those behind the launch to observe that its key selling point was always its critical flaw: it would play 100% New Zealand music, as if that was in itself a genre around which listeners would converge.

The station did not flourish, and it would have been closed after about a year, had not Karyn Hay successfully presented a proposal for Kiwi to move on to three reserved public FM frequencies, which would cost Mediaworks nothing to use. The new Kiwi was subsequently established as a partnership between Mediaworks and the ministries of Broadcasting and Economic Development.

In a letter published on this site, Hay explained the undertaking:

In order to fulfil the criteria to broadcast on these frequencies (and I have to add here that it was Brent Impey – ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ in one particular quarter – who gave me the opportunity and the platform to find a solution) we agreed that we would work towards becoming a not-for-profit organisation and extend the Kiwi format to be more inclusive of a wider range of artists, including more specialist programming, and in doing so would provide a vibrant and diverse outlet for a burgeoning New Zealand music industry.

We applied for New Zealand On Air funding to make these specialist shows just as any radio station in the country has the right to.

The letter also contained a really ill-judged swipe at "holier-than-thou" student radio, and it attracted some tart responses.

A loosening of Kiwi's charter requirement to play only New Zealand music – in favour of a 60-40 split with tunes from elsewhere – came in 2012 but it was probably too late.

But here's the thing: the people Kiwi FM made some really good radio throughout its existence, they provided great exposure for a range of local artistsm and the station fostered some key talent – notably in Breakfast hosts Glenn "Wammo" Williams, Wallace Chapman and Charlotte Ryan. For all three of them, it provided a place to go after student radio. A place where they could continue to make intelligent, adventurous radio.

The news of Kiwi's closure is sad, but it does create space – in more than one way – for a future venture with similar goals; one not stuck inside a commercial media company with its own goals and priorities (in that sense, you could see Kiwi as a little like TVNZ 7). After we've farewelled Kiwi FM on March 31, we should start thinking about how to keep making this kind of radio and, just importantly, how to get it to its audience.


If you haven't seen our post of the music photography of Ian "Blink" Jorgensen, and the personal stories behind the images, do go and have a look. It's brilliant.

There's a good and largely untold story in Andrew Schmidt's Audioculture feature on the mid-80s West Auckland punk scene, and such bands as Vicious Circle and Dead Image – who eventually became The Warners:

They were already The Warners when Dead Image’s first major interview appeared in June 1985 – ‘The Men, the Myth and the Flab’, by Celia Patel (later of King Loser) in Book of Bifim. In it, the band are optimistic, talking about the addition of new guitarist, Jon Baker (Deep Throat/ Call Me Sir), cheekily dissing local TV stars and DJs, and reminiscing about good shows gone bad. Like the time they got the plug pulled on them at Beachhaven, when the noise control officer clocked them at 130 decibels (a jet is 120 dB), and the cool dance at Piha, where the Armed Offenders Squad turned up.

Chandler: “They tried to arrest Billy because they reckoned Billy was running around with a gun. These wasted surfies thought it would be a laugh to ring up Henderson police and say that the drummer pulled a gun on the crowd.

“We were sitting outside when they arrived. We’d already played. The cops made a beeline for me and said, ‘You look like the only sober one here (I drove out there). What’s going on?’ His mate had a rifle over his shoulder and the Inspector had a gun on his hip. They said, ‘Well, we’re gonna find out who it was. We’ve driven all the way from Henderson and were gonna find who it was.’

“We went outside and someone grassed up this surfie and his girlfriend. They owned up to it straight away and got pummelled by the cops. The cop smashed the surfer’s head into the roof as they put him into the car.”


You got that sort of thing back then ...

Elsewhere an interesting list of the hottest tech topics in music from SXSW – including whether algorithims are better at mixing live bands than a human soundperson.

This guy seems to have a point when he explains why Spotify pays so little – because of the way subscription revenue is pooled. 


Jan Hellriegel has been approaching music with joy and purpose over the past year and her theme for 2015 is a a series of co-writing projects, including her new song, 'For the Love of Glory' was composed with Martin Brown. It's a great song, realised in lavish style:

Now, this is very relevant to my interests. "Boy genius" Race Banyon has done a lovely house remix of Chelsea Jade's 'Night Swimmer', all tones and ticks:

Mystery New Zealander Space Above. Sort of an astro-Beatles vibe. I like it!

And yet more from RocknRolla Soundsystem: this time, their second mix CD. Track listing(from The Beatles to Beck and Etta James) and $7 Bandcamp purchase here:

Over at TheAudience, a smooth, fluid (and all-too-short) groove from Ashes Holland. Click through for a free download:

Classic indie guitar soundscapes from Kane Strang:

And sophisticated hip-hop soul from Fortunes:

22 year-old bFM fave Boy Wulf, whose TheAudience track I featured a couple of weeks ago, has cleared his hard drive and packaged up 15 tracks as an extended EP on Bandcamp. This is the title track (and his bFM hit) and it's a free download.

And, finally, some fine funky Friday fare to download from A Skillz and Krafty Kuts ...


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



An unacceptable failure of care

The Independent Police Conduct Authority Report on Police’s handling of the alleged offending by ‘Roastbusters’ has been published, and it is damning.

It finds that police handled the seven serial complaints carelessly, and that they communicated poorly with each other and with the complainants and their families and schools. They failed to connnect complaints about the same group. In some cases, they simply did not seem to care enough, and as a result, failed to protect children they should have had cause to fear were being systematically sexually assaulted.

Moreover, it's not clear that individual officers have properly been held responsible.

I feel angry about this case, the more so because I know a young woman caught up on the periphery of this scene; the daughter of a friend. I have a sense of the dread that ran through it. 

Jacinda Ardern's speech in the urgent debate today gives voice to some of the anger I feel.