40 years ago – The Kiwi Animal

May 19, 2023
7 mins read
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It’s New Zealand Music Month, so GARY STEEL digs up a 40-year-old story he wrote about NZ musical duo The Kiwi Animal.

Julie is an ex-cadet journalist with a passion for acting. Roles were played in Bats, Repertory, Stagecraft and alternative theatre.

Brent is an ex-frontman of Shoes This High, his previous role but one. He then graduated to one-man-band Smelly Feet.

Together, and based in Auckland, the twosome are The Kiwi Animal. Their act is an alternative to the alternative, song and drama with an indefinable twist.

Brent plays his acoustic guitar and sings words of his own devising on a by-now recognisable, distinctive nasal tone. Julie sings lyrics of her own devising, and bangs the occasional percussion instrument. Sometimes they sing together.

Pic: Charles Jameson

These songs – their songs – have something to say, they say. Not conventional protests about unemployment, authoritarianism and the like, however. “The funniest songs,” says Julie, “are about little incidents. You can get really screwed up about human relationships, and it’s quite good to be able to see it for what it is, which is usually pretty pathetic.”

Brent looks an oddball in suit and tie. Julie drags a pseudo-bridal gown around the stage.

Many of their songs are fragile, some are comic, and The Kiwi Animal perform a mini-play toward the end. Brent adds a winning touch, home slides.

In a pub, where “punters” expect familiar rock sounds and decibel madness, this actively different presentation tests the tolerance levels of those watching. It encourages audience participation, once the walls start breaking down between performers and audience; yes, folks, a long way from the maddening predictability of most bands.

The Kiwi Animal are currently on the road. They plan, in fact, to perform throughout New Zealand during the rest of the year, and stress a real interest in playing the small centres.

Confronting the average Kiwi with their decidedly off-kay approach is an aim in life. A recent 21st birthday party where they performed in Napier is a case in point. “It was really formal, really traditional,” says Julie. “New Zealand-style wooden key, jokes about heart attacks, plenty of food, and aunty walking around constantly with a plate shoving it in your face saying ‘eat some more, eat some more’,” says Brent.

In the larger centres, they are confronted with a more trend-conscious audience. Brent’s past affiliations attract a type which could loosely be termed anti-trend trendy, and it’s something he seeks to shake off.

The Kiwi Animal attitude is “We don’t care about clothes, but what’s wrong with dressing up if we feel like it?”

 

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Brent: “We aren’t hip, because we aren’t singing or saying what other people are saying or singing. We’re doing something different, taking risks. We haven’t got any followers; people don’t know what we are because we’re doing something different. It might be acoustic, quiet, something people have to listen to…”

The legend of Shoes This High inevitably follows Brent around. Not surprisingly in retrospect as they were among the most startling, original bands yet to spawn in local climes.

Shoes This High presented a very different Brent. Shaven head, and stage persona of threatening manner that would put early Johnny Rotten to shame.

Brent went through a period of opposites after that group folded. He called himself Smelly Feet and became something of a punk-folkie renegade. Smelly Feet left us three excellent 45s with funny, perceptive songs about the little, important things in living.

Though he has gone through a number of changes, Brent is proud of his past. “I like what I did in the past. For a while I didn’t, I just turned my back on it. I’m not really the same person. I was a bit more reckless than what I am now.

“I’m probably more frustrated now than I was three or four years ago,” he says. “I’m putting a lot more into what I’m doing now, and there just isn’t an audience for it yet.”

The Kiwi Animal can be sampled on their five-song EP Wartime,  which was “done in January on a four-track in this guy’s bedroom, more or less”, said Julie.

The next record will be a mini-LP. After all, “everybody else is doing them, why not us too?”

 

+ This story originally appeared in The Times on the 26th of June, 1983. Brent and Julie came to my Marjoribanks St flat for the interview, and I remember finding it quite hard to get anything much out of the pair in terms of printable quotes. I consider Brent one of the true underground icons of New Zealand music culture but he’s like a living embodiment of his art, and therefore quite a difficult interview. Patrick Waller made it a threesome sometime a couple of years later, but they had split by 1985. I don’t know what happened to Julie – anybody? – but Brent went on to establish himself as a maverick experimental filmmaker, someone who challenged norms in so many ways, and for a time performed as The Reverend Stinkfinger before naming his next project Fats White, a moniker that stuck.

+ The next story came out of the same interview, and was published in TOM magazine around the same time.

 

 Aotearoa Animalisms

Photo by Charles Jameson

The Kiwi Animal/Brent and Julie arrive with a gaggle of friends in tow. I tell the assemblage to please shut up, as a tape recorder cannot reasonably be expected to decipher more than three sets of voices clearly.

Earlier, Brent had expressed interest in doing the interview because “we’ve got something to say.” The two were interested in clearing up misconceptions and generally stating their case. But most of all, they wanted people to know who they are.

Veterans of the Wellington punk/alternative scene of ‘79/’80, Brent was the vocalist/lyricist in Shoes This High, which for want of a more lucid description, were a remarkable group. He was intimidating and violent, and his stage presence made Johnny Rotten seem as menacing as Benny Hill.

Brent: “I like what I did in the past. For a while I didn’t, I just turned my back on it. I’m not really the same person. I was more reckless then than I am now. I didn’t care.”

Julie: “You used to be a real bastard sometimes. I don’t think there was any intention of being really aggressive – that time was a really changing time.”

Julie, meanwhile, acted in local theatre productions, veering increasingly towards the ‘alternative’ spectrum.

Julie: “I used to play round Wellington with Bats and Repertory and Stagecraft and all those places. That was okay, what I enjoyed doing at the time. I started doing other things that are now called ‘alternative theatre’. In some ways, it was an excuse for really bad plays.”

Then came the move to Auckland. Shoes This High came to an acrimonious end, which was a catalyst in Brent’s case for a rejection of the ‘angry young man’ stance and heralded the birth of Smelly Feet, the eccentric one-man-band modern folk troubadour. Julie involved herself in a number of theatre projects, and writing, with varying degrees of success.

The Kiwi Animal is basically Smelly Feet with Julie. Brent still plays acoustic guitar, but he sings none of the old songs. The new material has varying levels of input and participation. Some have two sets of words, Julie being responsible for those that she sings, Brent for his. The songs are, in a sense, less personal observational, more little stories. The Kiwi Animal set even includes a short play and slide show at the end.

The duo have found that, because of the name change, that it’s like starting all over again. The Kiwi indie boom was in full force during the reign of Smelly Feet, but the rug has been pulled from underneath its feet of late as the professionals take over once again, and a few have been left out in the cold.

In fact, when The Kiwi Animal arrived in Wellington recently, they found that copies of their new record ‘Wartime’ were under the counters, instead of on the shelves of shops. Disconcerting.

“We aren’t very hip because we aren’t singing or saying what other people are saying or singing,” says Brent. “We just want to get an individual thing.”

We discuss the existence of new bands which could be said to be following in Shoes This High’s footsteps. Brent: “When I hear that sort of thing now I just laugh. I heard Unrestful Movements – ‘I hate you, I hate you’ – and I just laughed. I just go out and enjoy myself… try to. I didn’t think ‘I should be like this again because they’re like this again.’”

“I don’t wanna talk about them, because we’re the ones that are doing something different, and we’re in the shit because of it. We’re the ones that are taking a risk. They’ve got it made. They’ve got an audience. We haven’t got any followers.”

The Kiwi Animal left me with the feeling that they’re their own worst enemies. At the moment they’re looking for someone to market their work, and this could be the solution. There is a bitterness to The Kiwi Animal that comes from the schizophrenic situation of being an artist one moment and having to justify and promote and market and sell that art the next.

At the moment, the couple act a bit as though they have a grudge to bear. The attitude is: ‘We’re the only ones doing anything positive’. This attitude may work against them, and that’s a pity, for The Kiwi Animal have much to offer.

 

 

 

 

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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