Hard News by Russell Brown


(Good) Friday Music: On a rooftop in in the city

The Barkers Sundae Session with Connan Mockasin, recorded on a central Auckland rooftop back in January, has arrived without fanfare on the New Zealand Herald website. It was a beautiful evening in more ways than one and I think the video of the event captures that.

I'm particularly pleased that they've included the finale – Connan's dad Abe stepping up to take the lead vocal on a version of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'. 

The page on the Herald website has background on Connan and individual clips.


The above will be the last of the Sundae Sessions in that form, because their eponymous creator Hugh Sundae has left the Herald to become the new general manager at 95bFM. They've been sad to see him go at the Herald. I happened to have a chat with the paper's editor Shayne Currie recently and he observed to me that Hugh "took us in a direction we never expected to go."

I think the key thing about Hugh is that he has never really been trained in anything – he's simply very adept at finding ways to do things. The Sundae Sessions were all about that, and that part of his nature will be crucial in his new role, which offers a world of opportunity on a shoestring budget.

I popped up to the station yesterday for the farewell drinks for Suzanne McNicol, who has been serving as interim manager. It was good: there were new faces and old, and people who hadn't been up to the bFM office in years. When I found myself working with Mark Easterbrook to engineer the cork out of a dodgy bottle of wine from the giveaways cupboard, I thought, yeah, this feels like the b.

In her brief spell at the helm, Suze has laid the ground for what I think will be a significant revival in the station's spirit. There is every reason to be optimistic about the little station we love.


This week's relaunch of the music streaming service Tidal by its new owners – Jay Z and a cluster of very wealthy pop stars – rightly occasioned a good deal of scorn. But once the dust had died down, I think this column addressed the problem that Tidal doesn't fix. It's all very well wanting a better deal for artists, but targeting the low-margin retail part of the whole thing isn't going to level the playing field the music companies have made.

Another good read: this week's Lee Perry webchat for The Guardian.

Audioculture has Gary Steel's profile of the great New Zealand music obsessive Ron Kane. (Trivia: Ron is the great nephew, I think, of Batman creator Bob Kane.)

Gareth Shute on the Top 10 New Zealand Novelty Songs.

And Gareth again, with the intriguing story of The Brunettes.


One of the best things I've ever done happened at Easter 26 years ago. After a year in the midst of the acid house revolution in London in 1988, I came back to New Zealand for the summer and ran New Zealand's first acid house parties, two of them, under the Housequake! banner, at the Powerstation.

As you tend to, I was operating at London speed and that certainly helped get shit done. But didn't do it on my own, and could not have. What made it possible was connecting with my friend Grant Fell, who marshalled a team to make the party happen. Most notably, that team included the furiously creative Stuart Page, who designed and printed the best poster ever. I did the type (and, as Mark Cubey pointed out to me last night, could not spell "colossal") but the really connected, hands-on part was screen-printing each giant A0 poster in his studio.

As he has done for me more than once in my life – and for many others throughout his life – it was Grant who made things happen. It's time to pay that back. Grant was diagnosed recently with an aggressive brain tumour and his many friends are getting together to raise money for Grant and his longtime partner Rachael as they fight hard for his life.

There's a Facebook page that anyone can like to join the support network and a Givealittle to get the fundraising underway. On April 15 at Golden Dawn there will be a benefit gig where, aong other things, Stu and I will be giving some of those Housequake records a spin. And I expect the forthcoming Trade Me auction will be pretty special.

If you've ever loved any of the things Grant has helped make possible – Children's Hour, Headless Chickens and Planet and Black magazines among them  – now would be the time to say thanks in a practical way.


Now that Lorde and Kanye are besties, surely there's there'll be a collab coming along. Well, you don't have to wait. San Francisco's Charlie Kubal, aka Wait What, has made an album mash-up of Pure Heroine and Yeezus. Yes, really. And it's not bad!

I'll write more about this next week, but there's all kinds of noise happening around this album that has suddenly appeared from Dunedin's Kane Strang. You can read more about him in Martyn Pepperell's interview for TheAudience.

There's been a bit of a buzz recently about the true identity of a mystery house producer called Claptone. Was Claptone really Aphex Twin, or Fat Boy Slim? Turns out, Claptone is the alter-ego of the impossibly cool Idris Elba. I knew he was a DJ, but this mix he posted on Soundcloud is bloody great – and a free download to boot.

Spotted via the excellent NZ On Air Soundcloud account ...

This noisy, bustling bit of goodness.. I am assuming Modern Chair are named after the factory in Mt Roskill, whose signage has endured longer than its furniture.

Found in the same place, nice-guy Auckland DJ crew Sweet Mix Kids have this nimble little bit of house-pop:

A rap-enhanced version of She's So Rad's disco special 'Breakout':

A little of the new folk sound of Auckland from Paper Cranes:

And this huge slab of soul from Team Dynamite and Laughton Kora:

And finally, it's wacky but but kinda nice: a downpitched rework of Fleetwood Mac's 'Dreams'. Heh ...


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The other kind of phone tapping

When I was a lad, we didn't have your fancy smartphones. We didn't have mobile phones at all, which meant there was much greater need for public payphones and they were consequently more numerous. The funny thing was, there was a way to use payphones without actually paying.

My friends and I called it "tapping" the phone. This didn't mean eavesdropping on someone else's conversation, but literally tapping on the phone.

It worked like this: rather than dialling the number conventionally using the rotary dial, you lifted the receiver, subtracted the number you wanted to dial from 10 and tapped on the cradle that number of times. So to dial a three you tapped seven times. And to dial the number 584 273, you tapped 5-2-6-8-3-7. Zeroes could be dialled. No coins required.

It nearly always worked, and I've never found out how. I recall using it as late as 1981, when, in my first year as a newspaper reporter, I had to file a report from a rugby match and found myself without change for the phone box.

That was about six years after the introduction of STD, so maybe we could have directly dialled the Vatican, like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did with their famous Blue Box (it was watching an old interview with Jobs last night on Netflix that got me thinking about this). But it never occured to us to make anything but a local call.

So, does ayone know how and why this worked? Decades later, it still intrigues me.


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: