Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month, Gary Steel presents something local from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. Today’s surprise item?
The Front Lawn
First published in the RTR Countdown, June 1988.
I Want To Be A Lawn!
Gary Steel chops the grass with the help of Don McGlashan and Harry Sinclair.
LET’S FACE IT: from the front lawn, through to the familiar household and out the back, our patches look pretty much the same. Kiwi kids are suburban kids, by and large, if not by definition. We get to grow up in this seemingly safe but frustrating germ-free environment, and like it or not, we’re as much as its produce as the smelly compost bin in the vege patch. Years of central city flatting almost rubbed this reality out of my conscious mind. Then… FATE INTERVENED!
The old folks asked me to give all my tender loving care to their suburban Auckland property while they headed down South for the annual Soil Association conference in Christchurch.
This weekend it was my mission to accomplish a load of tasks that, however you look at it, belong exclusively to these bizarre suburban spots. You know… like watering hundreds of wilting pot plants, rescuing dead leaves and wetas out of the Para pool, picking any un-bagged fruit or vegetable matter and, the strangest ritual of all, MOWING THE FRONT LAWN.
To cap it all off, after mowing the lawn I had to write a story about The Front Lawn. And this is it.
The Front Lawn are a couple of choice Kiwi lads who are exploiting the idiosyncrasies, idiocies and ideologies of suburban living, all in the name of Art. These uncommon grass blades have forged a somewhat unique blend of song and skit and cutting quip through three New Zealand tours, soon to grow to four.
Their first shows in 1985 made a life-long fan of me; their skits were incredibly funny and observant insights into the suburban Kiwi psyche, and the sometimes lovely songs gave it all a credible perspective. At last: something new that was OF New Zealand, ABOUT New Zealand, that was FUNNY and REAL and wasn’t quite a pop band and wasn’t quite theatre or comedy either. Who needs categories?
Sadly, the answer to that seems to be ‘most people’, but, going by the consistent success and critical adulation received by The Front Lawn duo, barriers ARE being broken.
So who are these dudes? Well, they’re both around the age of 29 and their names are Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan. Harry’s background is mostly theatrical, having acted at Auckland’s Theatre Corporate and studied drama in Paris. Don’s enigmatic past includes membership status with one of our best-ever arty pop bands Blam Blam Blam, and he was also a member of the strange and wonderful music and performance group From Scratch, whose specialty was highly academic pieces played on giant PVC pipes.
Although both members are capable of diverse endeavours, they have sacrificed all other projects to concentrate on The Front Lawn.
The interview is conducted in the rubble that is the RTR COUNTDOWN editorial office, newly arrived in Auckland. Harry ducks his head in the door first, then Don makes his appearance.
Don: Can I have a Snifter?
[By the end of the session, all but one of the Snifters will be consumed.]
Gary: So, what’s the scheme?
Harry: [Chewing loudly on Snifters] We spent all of March at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. We were called ‘the Hit’ of the Spiletto Fringe Festival last year, and got invited back to a bigger theatre to do a return season, which was extremely well received.
Gary: Doesn’t appearing in a comedy festival put you in more of a bag than you want to be put in?
Harry: This is right. We never call it comedy, it just happens to be funny some of the time, but we don’t go for consistently funny material. Our songs usually aren’t funny at all. Our first LP probably isn’t going to have a single laugh on it. Humour just sort of comes along in patches.
Gary: Did you change any of the New Zealand references for the Australians?
Harry: No, we decided to keep everything exactly the same. We were talking about Oamaru and particularly New Zealand things. We’re going to do that in New York and Edinburgh as well [they’re off to the Edinburgh Arts Festival and New York after their June/July tour of NZ]. We regard New Zealand as having a particularly interesting identity and that’s something that is integral to our show.
Don: Australians don’t know much about New Zealand, and when you’re interviewed and once you’ve got past the obligatory sex with sheep references they really don’t know much about what makes us tick. And the show is our way of showing that.
The feedback we got seemed to suggest that people were really interested in an approach which played with the medium of storytelling, and didn’t rely on gags, worked on lots of levels and involved quite serious ideas at times. It’s seldom you get such a small package trying to present all those different facets at one time.
Gary: So how does it all start, a Front Lawn piece?
Harry: It usually starts with a subject we talk around. We usually just have heaps of ideas around a particular subject, and things that manage to say in our heads for a couple of weeks we keep.
Gary: The album.
Harry: We’ve been keen on the idea of making an album for some time, but… we’ve made a number of unsatisfactory demos, where we’ve been unable to get the energy of our live show on tape. We’re just really starting to find out how our songs can work away from the show.
Don: It’s been a long process, because most bands just sit around playing their songs all day We spend maybe a quarter of the time on the music, even though music’s a really important part of the show… we’re involved in writing the stories, rehearsing, getting the thing to flow, trying to work on this composite form that we’re developing, so therefore it’s quite natural it would take three or four times as long.
Both Don and Harry have their humorous asides during the interview, but it is Harry’s choir-boyish tone and propensity for rabbiting on that reminds me most of the Front Lawn in action. In real life, Don is quite serious, thoughtful, although, like any good Kiwi bloke, he likes a good laugh.
I ask them what songs they have chosen for the upcoming LP, but they haven’t made a final selection yet. Don mentions one song from last year’s Washing Machine skit, “where the only accompaniment was the sound of a Fisher & Paykel Whiteway 4000. I don’t know how that would go on 1ZM.”
Gary: So you wouldn’t say no to pop success?
Don: It’s not as though New Zealand record companies are beating a path to our door.
Harry: That’s true.
Don: We’re not in any danger of anybody asking us to do anything. We have mates in Australia who have been told that all the videos from now on have to feature them in black jeans, because the American market won’t take them seriously as a rock and roll band unless they’re in black jeans. There are horrorshows like that everywhere you turn in the rock and roll field. [Don’t you mean lawn? Ed]
Gary: What about films?
Harry: Ah. We’ve just made a 12-minute epic. It’s a very dramatic story about lust and violence. It’s very exciting. Very musical.
Gary: And how do people get to see it?
Harry: Oh no no, that’s out of the question. Hopefully it will be on the big screen as a short around about July. We did a thing called Walk Short last year (which screened on Kaleidoscope).
Don: And the video of ‘I’m Right’ has been on Radio With Pictures. It was a cheeky thing to do. We didn’t and still don’t have a record to market it with. And in fact we wrote and made the video without having finished the song. And then we went backwards. We had the video, we had the beat, we looked at the video and wrote the music to it. So it’s a typically arse-about-face approach. Because Radio With Pictures has a positive attitude to local clips, you can pull that sort of stunt.
Gary: I’ve run out of questions.
Don: I’ve run out of answers.
Motor along to The Front Lawn shows this month and the next. The only sort of clippings catcher required sits on the top of your neck. GARY STEEL
Note from the author: The Front Lawn were so good. I remember their shows with great fondness.
* Don’t forget to check out www.audioculture.co.nz after May 31, where you’ll find a vast repository of NZ music history.