NOT SO LONG ago, New Zealand was still debating as to whether rock music was ‘culture’. In fact, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon sparked a debate by denying the obvious, and resulting in one of our greatest/worst novelty hit songs, ‘Culture’ by The Knobz.
Just 20 years ago, the remnants of what they used to call ‘the cultural cringe’ still existed, and in general, we weren’t exactly proud of our pop and rock achievements… but the landscape was changing.
While we’ve rapidly come to appreciate local music, there’s still a huge gap that needs to be plugged. With so little written or documented about crucial NZ pop and rock scenes and many great singles, EPs and albums never having been made available on CD or digitally, there’s a huge gap in knowledge about our own history.
That’s where AudioCulture comes in. The brainchild of record industry entrepreneur Simon Grigg, whose own history is simply extraordinary (punk rock instigator, indie record label pioneer, former club owner, and label owner behind NZ’s most successful single song, OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’, and on and on), AudioCulture is an NZ On Air-funded website that’s a full-on celebration of NZ pop and rock history, and the first time such a kaleidoscope of fascinating material has been collected and shown all in one place.
The site, edited by former Rip It Up editor/owner Murray Cammick, has also gathered many of NZ’s foremost rock writers and historians to tell the stories we’ve been denied for so long.
Now that AudioCulture’s been ‘live’ for a month, Witchdoctor’s Gary Steel thought it good timing to catch up with Simon Grigg, and to ask the hard, and not so hard questions:
When we met up to discuss the idea early to mid-2010, did you envisage AudioCulture would end up manifesting itself in quite the way it has as of June 2013?
More or less. Of course it developed a long way as time passed but the core concept of AudioCulture – the content and the broad layout and the structure were there at the beginning. I look at my very first notes and I’m surprised just how close we came to realising the place where this started. Part of the credit for that goes to the amazing designers we had working on it from day one. There was an attention to detail and flexibility in the creation process that made this all that much easier.
Originally the talk was around a New Zealand music archive, but I gather that your research ended up finding that a lot of material was available, but just scattered and/or unavailable to the casual prying eye?
It’s mixed. Some things were and are very well documented. For example Andrew Schmidt’s Mysterex site has always been very detailed and available. Other things weren’t – so I think our Phil Fuemana story is the very first time this very important figure has been documented online. There are many, many people like that. And there was a huge gap from 1990 to the mid 2000s – the early internet days. Most NZ rock from that period just doesn’t exist online. Early Flying Nun is really well covered but the mid to late–era bands were not, and, for example, The Headless Chickens had only a quick wiki and yet they were one of our most important and inventive acts of the ’80s and ’90s. Many NZ acts had no presence. We want to change that.
At the moment, AudioCulture is a riot of fun – a kind of kaleidoscope of memories, history, pictures, music and video clips. And of course, expert writers doing what they do. What do you envisage for the project in the long run? Will there ever be a physical version with an office and a collection of dog-eared vinyls for people to peruse, all perfectly catalogued?
We’ve already had conversations about displays with several institutions and hopefully something will come of that, but in the short term there is just so much to do, and so much of it is very labour intensive. Some pages take several days to edit, collate and present. We added an extra burden by making the site so visual but we needed to do that to give AudioCulture the impact it has. The future holds new ways to explore our data, extensive interviews, more in the way of scenes and personal reflections on the musical culture of NZ. AudioCulture cannot be allowed to be dry as it documents passion. In a way AudioCulture is organic and it will drive itself.
Can you give us a brief rundown on what brought you to this idea? Is it something that had been in your think tank for a long time? Or is it that you’re old enough now to give yourself permission to do something reflective?
I guess my own website (which desperately needs TLC as I’ve ignored it for a couple of years) was the nearest thing to a close relative to AudioCulture. It was Gemma Gracewood who said that the Screaming Blammatic story on my site should be made into a website concept. I said to her “funny you should mention that – this is where I’m going and this is my idea” and I explained AudioCulture to her.
My site in turn grew out of my blog and radio shows. If anyone can remember my Extended Play show on George FM on Wednesday mornings, the core of it was playing records and then trying to tell the story of that record and record maker. I’m not sure if age has anything to do with it aside from the fact I now have a lot more of an understanding of how things fit together and I’m a lot more open about things that the younger me would have been a bit snobbish about. I’m not sure a 25-year-old me would’ve loved the concept of John Hore but the mid-50s version gets it.
Also spending a large part of the few years offshore looking back at New Zealand has given me the necessary perspective and objectivity to do this. I doubt AudioCulture would have happened (at least not with me) if I wasn’t able to do that and still do that. You find yourself drawn into your own culture when you can take a step back and look at it from afar. Hard to overstate how important that’s been.
What’s the most meaningful thing that you’ve experienced so far in putting all this together?
Hard question. The volume of thank you notes and messages I guess. They are really moving. People love this music and they love the culture of the music too. I was lucky to be in a time and place where I could make this happen and to be able to talk to and work with people who were able to do that not just for me, but for the mass of New Zealanders who are passionate about the noises we make as a nation.
What’s the most frustrating thing that you’ve experienced so far in putting all this together?
Having to explain this to people who are not music people. It’s been tough and remains so. That said, NZ On Air have been extraordinary and without a huge amount of trust – which is an awful lot to ask given that this is public money – AudioCulture simply would not have happened. I’m beyond grateful to them for this trust.
Obviously your entrepreneurial zeal, project management experience and tremendous focus brought AudioCulture into being. How would you describe your ongoing role?
That’s very flattering but this is perhaps the first project out of all of mine over the years where I’ve relinquished some of the project management. The technical side and the fiscal side have been expertly managed by the NZ On Screen people which has taken a burden off me and allowed me to concentrate on the content, which was where my interest was. And I was able to bring the likes of Murray Cammick, with his vast knowledge and archives, too. Ongoing, I’m still very hands on and probably will be in the short term. Long term, this being so labour and time intensive, it would make sense to hand part of what I’m doing to someone else. That said, at the moment I’m loving the whole creation and documentation process, buzzing off the words and images we are being given by writers, photographers, videographers daily and just the public response to AudioCulture. However, it’s important to say that this is not my site, this is just a site that I played a part in creating. It had to be done and I was just in the right place to do it.
Are there any particular NZ artists you’re most proud of being able to bring to people’s attention with AudioCulture?
I like the little acts. The ones who are not the Nature’s Best acts. There are hundreds of them and they are the ones that make me buzz.
You’ve obviously had an incredible career in the NZ music industry, and seen it grow in leaps and bounds – and suffer incredible growing pains with it! What are the two projects apart from AudioCulture you’re most proud of having been involved in?
Can’t answer. I’m pretty proud of most of it. If I had to name two songs I love without condition they’d be The Features’ ‘Victim’ and OMC’s ‘Land of Plenty’ (the single version with Taisha).
Do you think our music culture is at a good point right now?
You know, it always has been. At least to those who were immersed in it. We have more of an industry now and that’s a great thing, but we’ve also seen a marginalising of the edgier stuff in recent years. It’s been years since a gnarly provocative single has made the NZ singles charts. There were some really ‘yes!’ moments in the 2000s when strong, staunchly worded hip-hop records powered into the Top 40, even topping it, but that seems past. While I get Lorde and thoroughly approve of the profile and success, there was almost a sense of ‘finally a great New Zealand record back in the charts’. Been a while. That said I thought Homebrew’s No1 album entry was so cool.
One of the things that made me despair this year was visiting major record stores the day after SJD won the Taite. There was no profile, no albums fronted, no stock. What the fuck is all that about? Nothing on iTunes. You wanna do business in our country JB HiFi, then support our heroes.
What’s your response to all those people who will invariably say “why isn’t MY favourite band on AudioCulture?”
We care about your favourite band, that’s why we haven’t rushed it on there. Does that sound trite? Maybe. But the fact is AudioCulture was never supposed to be instant and it was never supposed to be finished on launch. We are telling stories about New Zealand music and we are not wikipedia. The stories will come.
If you had to put AudioCulture’s mission statement into one sentence, what would it be?
To tell the stories of New Zealand music.
* Admission of involvement: Gary Steel is one of many contributors to the AudioCulture site.