Fire on the radio in your hotel.

5 Apr

We’re a country that likes a good victory lap. When we win at yachts, we parade. When we win at rugby, we riot. We really are quite attached to the idea that our little island cluster punches above its weight.

But do we always?

It feels as if the design we love to emulate originates everywhere but here. Many of the world’s most celebrated novelists inhabit moody, isolated parts of the world that aren’t New Zealand. The valiant souls that comprise our film industry remain largely unemployed between door-knocks from Hollywood. Listen to Top 40 radio and you’ll hear plenty of local content that could easily be mistaken for North American club anthems circa 6 months prior. Even our advertising industry (casually considered one of the world’s great creative forces) very rarely claims the coveted international prizes anymore.

Amidst all this talk, and absence of walk, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask the obvious question: are New Zealanders actually good at anything but sports?

Relax. Of course we are. But if we’re going to celebrate the things at which we truly excel, it seems only fair that we must first make peace with the things we don’t do so well.

There are a few things we will never have in New Zealand: world-class internet, 100% purity of any description, a class war, proper cocaine. We will never experience any of these things because we don’t have the population to support them.

This also has a tremendous influence on our media options. In a world where the most popular media is free media, advertising assumes new relevance. Setting aside (for this post, at least) arguments about how the taint of advertising-generated revenue will impact on the integrity of our cultural product, the main issue of gearing our media industry this way is that we don’t have the population to provide a world-class level of revenue. And what revenue we are able to generate will need to be spent appeasing the most general of audiences.

All of a sudden, our media products look more cheap and nasty than ever before, and it can only get worse. So that’s the bad news.

The good news is that our artistic output is safe. To art’s credit, it tends not to rely on advertising for funding, which allows it to stand distinct from our waning media industries. One similarity we can draw between art and any other creative business is that it is inherently derivative. Everything is the result of everything that has come before it. Some might say that, in a global world, our artistic product is also at risk of commodification. But here’s where ‘the thing that we’re good at’ comes in:

We’re good at doing it wrong.

The best thing about New Zealand art is its willingness to attempt overseas trends and fail. Even hackneyed attempts at popular movements tend to result in a strange hybrid genre, affected by our native flavours of innocence vs. darkness, isolation vs. small town syndrome, modesty vs. aspiration, our rich traditions vs. our relative youth.

Just as this is true in the world of fine art, dance and theatre, it is true for our music. So this week I’m keen to feature a few Auckland-based bands that have successfully assimilated international genres into the local context, and in the process created some of the most iconic sounds of this city. Sometimes it’s as simple as a few lazy vowel sounds.

Great North is the single-most-anticipated-future-success-story Auckland has to offer. As a genre, Americana seems to fit New Zealand quite well. There’s something about the emotive quality of it all that complements our lonely city streets and quietly contemplative landscapes. I still remember the first time one of Hayden’s songs made my heart sink into my stomach on the Wine Cellar couch. As a live band Great North has assumed many different forms, but the flawless songcraft, earnest storytelling and self-effacing mid-set banter always takes frontstage. With a new album in its final stages (and an excess of excellent material beyond that) Great North deserve the publishing industry’s full attention this year.

At times Mali Mali‘s EP, Brotherly, has kept me sane. Ben’s songs are strong and beautiful in a way that evokes Bill Callahan or the quieter moments of Radiohead, with a modern haunt we might associate more closely with bands like Midlake or Bon Iver. There is a reverence to Mali Mali’s performance that is rare to experience in a bar that hasn’t fixed its broken urinal in a decade. Unlike most, Ben is happy to scatter plenty of local imagery amongst his lyrics, which only adds a richness to their absorption.

When it comes to Bear Cat, I’m not sure even Dan and Josie can say where the joke stops and the serious starts. This is another band that can expand and contract at will, but however the songs are arranged, Bear Cat remains the single most charming ensemble in Auckland. A few years back, the twee revolution (oxymoron, perhaps) was awash with bands trying to be just as cute. But with their local take on the genre, Bear Cat may be the only Auckland band of that era that can still draw a great crowd.

God Bows To Math is a little noisier than the others. But hopefully the kind of noisy you’ll give a chance. It might seem strange comparison to draw, but this band reminds me of everything I like about The Pixies. There’s a discordant, distinctly grunge quality that encompasses the full scope of the dynamic spectrum. This is brought home in a stunningly lo-fi way that sets them in appropriate company on Muzai Records.

This is post 2/3 on the subject of New Zealand’s local musical product.
Read post 1/3: If There Was A Movie About The Two-Thousands This Would Be A Scene
Read post 3/3: Here I Was Thinking I Was Cliche


3 Responses to “Fire on the radio in your hotel.”

  1. john egenes April 6, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    nice piece of writing. some interesting takes on kiwi culture and attitudes. thanks.

  2. Emily April 10, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Lovely article with some interesting points. Also thank you for recognising some of Auckland’s talented musicians; Great North and Mali Mali happen to be some of my favourites. In fact those live videos of Mali Mali were actually filmed by me!


  1. Here I was thinking I was cliché. « The Shortest Word. - April 11, 2012

    […] Read post 1/3: If There Was A Movie About The Two-Thousands This Would Be A Scene Read post 2/3: Fire On The Radio In Your Hotel Sharing is caring:TwitterFacebookMoreStumbleUponDiggRedditEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

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