First published in the Sunday Star Times, November 17, 1996.
Pauly: I’ll Only Smile For My Bank Boss
Wherever Pauly Fuemana goes, the one-time loser shoots straight to the top of the pops. Pauly – aka OMC – holds court with GARY STEEL on the eve of his first album release.
YOU KNOW YOU’RE hot property when the record company organises a day of interviews at the trendiest – and most expensive – restaurants.
It’s lunchtime at Blitz, the latest Ponsonby eaterie in central Auckland to happily take $3.50 for a long black – and even the journalists are allowed to dip into the overpriced nosh.
While the pointlessly nervous journalist gets even more jittery about an espresso, Pauly Fuemana looks on like an old pro and calmly orders a spirulina drink.
In a way, he IS an old pro, already. Just back from a hectic promotional tour through Europe, he has had a crash course in the media circus and phoniness of the pop lifestyle: In one day in Germany, Pauly was grilled by 19 journalists.
But it’s more than that. There’s a sense the battle has already been won. That years of growing up on the mean streets of South Auckland have left him battle-weary but ready to handle whatever success or failure the pop world has in store for him.
“The richest man in America said before you become successful you must always learn to fail first,” says Pauly. “Failure’s nothing… if it’s a flop, so be it.”
He’s talking about his first album, titled How Bizarre after last summer’s huge hit, due for release in New Zealand on November 26.
But failure is out of contention: Regardless of its domestic sales, in its first couple of weeks of release in England, it has already sold 100,000 copies. With those kinds of figures, New Zealand hardly matters.
On his recent European tour of duty, Pauly achieved more media coverage than any Kiwi pop star before him: Among them, THREE appearances on the coveted Top Of The Pops, as well as MTV Europe, Bravo and dozens of teen pop magazines.
“Top Of The Pops is filmed on the same stage as EastEnders,” says Pauly, incredulous. “There are five rehearsals… it’s really well organised. They’ve got 45 million viewers worldwide!
“I was hanging out with the Spice Girls – they’re vibrant girls but really short! – and I met Bryan Adams, who thought I was Hispanic. I went on MTV Europe and met Pip from Shazam! and got the royal treatment.
“The thing I hated most was the photo shoots for the teen magazines. They’d go ‘give us a smile’ and I’d say ‘I’ll only smile for my bank manager’. It’s like nine in the morning and I’ve already been up since 5.45.
“They’d say: ‘It’s really important, we have 40 million readers.’ I’d say: ‘I don’t give a fuck who reads your magazine, just take the photos and get out of my hotel room!’”
If that sounds arrogant, it’s important to understand the context: “There’s no set hours, it’s constant and you’ve gotta do it over and over again. I was there for three weeks and when I looked back at my faxes and stuff, I realised I did, like, 16 interviews a day, six video programmes, with two shows to do each day for three days in Germany.
“I didn’t actually think about it until I was flying out… everybody’s fighting for that interview, you really need tons of stamina.”
Highlights? He loved Belgium, where he says jokes about the paedophile killers were thought to be incredibly funny… by everybody, except him; Amsterdam, driving through the red light district was an eye-opener; and cruising the streets of London in summer. With ‘How Bizarre’ making it to the top of the charts in places such as Ireland, Johannesburg and Germany, it’s up to the album to establish a more permanent career presence for the former gang boy from Otara.
Even as he sits in a plush restaurant eating kumara chips and chewing on fleshy fish chunks, his past isn’t far behind: His wrist is wrapped in bandages. Why? Some old handmade gang tattoos are being removed.
From unemployable youth with a rough history to international jetsetting pop star with beautiful apartment. It’s a dream come true – and Pauly’s not sleepwalking through it.
He hopes the album will show there’s more to him than many of his contemporaries: Instead of just sampling and stealing, he writes his songs with producer/co-writer Alan Jansson, with real-time performances and a synthesiser.
Jansson, who owns Uptown Studios in Auckland, is a former member of early 1980s Wellington electro band Body Electric – remembered for its single, ‘Pulsing’ – and that synth sound permeates OMC’s album: New Order meets Latino swing and hundreds of other small flourishes.
The diversity of sound comes in part, says Pauly, from his highly eclectic influences: He has more than 15,000 albums, ranging from ‘70s punk such as The Ramones and Wire to the Latino lounge sounds of Sergio Mendez and Carlos Jobin, to the latest drum’n’bass rhythms.
“The reason I don’t listen to a lot of artists these days is they’re stealing off each other… on my album, everything is live instruments and synth, this old wood-grained keyboard called a Prophet Five, which is old enough to be my granddad!”
One of the highlights – and a Kiwi single – is ‘Land Of Plenty’, an unashamed tribute to the length and breadth of the country he loves, which names his favourite spots, including Vulcan Lane in Auckland and Wellington’s Cuba Mall: “Wellington’s my refuge,” says Pauly. “They treat me different down there. In Auckland, it’s ‘that was good but what’s the next one?’; Wellington’s ‘come in man, you’re welcome’.”
The same song also mentions “Nelson Gorge, where we lost a mate”. He’s referring to the tragic accident during the Proud tour, which first brought OMC to national attention, where one of Pauly’s friends drowned. “We were diving off this cliff. There were about 19 of us and it was like 25 feet up and he went to the highest peak, dived off and didn’t tell anyone that he could not swim and there were heavy currents. They found his body three days later lodged 74ft under the waterfall. That broke us all. That was heavy. I hate water now. I don’t swim, I don’t know how to swim,” he says with a sad look clouding his enthusiasm. “I dived off, too, and I don’t know how to swim,” he repeats, as though he still doesn’t understand why they did it.
Back to happy days. Pauly is off overseas again soon and is looking forward to a major label release for his album early next year in the United States. But he’s determined to say based in New Zealand: “You can’t get away with the bullshit over here, even my girlfriend’s cynical. This is home. I’ve been asked by management companies to be based in the UK. It doesn’t appeal. And everybody says we’re behind the rest of the world. It’s not true. You walk around Auckland and you’ve got the best of everything.” And what about the girlfriend, who also gets her share of lyrical odes on the album? “She’s hardcase. You’ll never see us together in a camera shot, I promised her that. She’s my best girl because she knows me in and out. We have a solid friendship rather than a relationship because relationships come and go but friendships stay. Even during the hard times. And I went through all that. Had no money, no car, no nothing.”
And in walks grizzled TV3 born-again punk rocker Dylan Taite, setting up his gear for the Pauly Fuemana interview. How bizarre. GARY STEEL
Note from the author: What can I say? I didn’t know Pauly well but I feel sad reading this again. So much promise unrealised. RIP Pauly.
* Don’t forget to check out www.audioculture.co.nz after May 31, where you’ll find a vast repository of NZ music history.